Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet and Angel Catbird are a pair of recently published comics you wouldn’t likely match together, but they share a surprising amount in common. In addition to both being released in the past two weeks, they feature prominent writers from outside of comics making their debuts in the medium. Both are being treated by their publishers, Marvel Comics and Dark Horse Comics, respectively, as prestige publications with increased press and marketing. There is an obvious push for audience crossover with the names of their writers intended to attract non-typical comics readers.
However, what is most interesting about this pair is how they treat (or mistreat) the artists credited for each title.
The front cover of Black Panther features the writer’s name, Ta-Nehisi Coates, directly under the title in a font that is only smaller than the title itself. The artist’s name, Brian Stelfreeze, is directly below this, although it is in a considerably smaller font. What is even more concerning is how these names are presented. Coates’ name is preceded by a title declaring him to be a “New York Times Best-Selling Author”. Stelfreeze on the other hand shares the same line with an attribution stating “Illustrated by”.
The connotations of this arrangement are clear. It is implied that Coates is the author of the comic. He does not require any explanation for his role and is not connected to a specific role with a preposition. Stelfreeze is specified to have served a specific role though. He is the illustrator of Coates’ work in these credits. Illustrator also contains a subservient role that places Stelfreeze in a secondary position to Coates, implying his role is as simple as providing pictures for an already existing work.
Angel Catbird does not make any obvious gaffes like this on its cover. It lists the name of its writer Margaret Atwood, artist Johnnie Christmas, and colorist Tamra Bonvillain in that order and in the same size font on its cover. However, in the actual credits inside that cover a different story unfolds.
Atwood is credited with the words “Story by” while Christmas is credited with “Illustrations by”. The implication again is that the story and storytelling belong to the writer, and the art is merely an illustration of an existing work. It removes credit from the role of the artist in order to promote that of the writer.
For readers familiar with the comics medium, especially those following the #ArtCred hashtag, the problem with all of this is obvious. Comics are a visual medium and could no more exist without artists than films could exist without cameras and all of the people who make utilize them like directors and cinematographers. No matter how intensive or comprehensive a script may be, at the end of the day a script is not a comic and can never be a comic. It is the artist who brings a comic into existence.
To refer to as an artist as an illustrator or credit them in a way that makes their role appear to be secondary is to vastly undervalue their contribution to any work.
It is easy enough to guess at the intent behind these choices and it is based in marketing. Both comics feature prominent, well-respected writers from outside of comics and provide the potential for crossover sales to new readers. More importantly, they have the potential to convert some of those readers into more regular comics readers further increasing sales down the road. Yet the choices made in crediting these two comics are not only damaging to the artists who worked on them, but the very goals publishers are pursuing with these decisions.
This crossover has already been shown to be successful with the publication of single issues of Black Panther. It has been a massive sales success in the direct market with many stores reporting new customers visiting to specifically ask for Coates’ comic book. Notably, the cover of Black Panther #1 and subsequent issues feature both Coates and Stelfreeze’s names along with that of colorist Laura Martin in equally-sized font with no modifiers.
When new readers arrive in comic and book stores alike to find these new offerings by favored prose writers, they have already been sold. The name of someone like Coates or Atwood does create crossover potential, but that potential is fully recognized as soon as they become aware and interested in the comic these writers are collaborating upon. Everything after this point only serves to shape their perception of the comics medium.
The narrative that new readers encounter when looking at these credits reinforces misunderstanding of comics as a form. It presents the writer as being more important and thus the act of writing as more important. These prestigious writers are creating comics as an addition to their work in prose. Thus the quality of any comic is an exception and their quality may be understood as something coming from the realm of literature as opposed to the uniqueness of comics. It is the story of the term “graphic novel” in which comics are made to be a subset of novels in an attempt to garner authority. This story does nothing of the sort though, only reinforcing a belief that comics are something lesser and that rare gems accepted by the gatekeepers of literature ought to be considered.
That narrative is not only reinforced for outsiders though; it is created or further embedded into current readers as well. A quick review of the most positive reviews for Black Panther #1 and Angel Catbird reveals a disturbing trend. In no instance is an artist’s work on either title described until the final paragraphs of a review. It is often dispatched in a single paragraph, sometimes consisting of as little as two sentences. In one instance Johnnie Christmas is described as an “art collaborator”, further minimizing his impact and contributions to the comic.
There is a question of the significance concerning these two examples. Notable as they are, Black Panther and Angel Catbird are only two publications in the vast expanse of American comics. The question of #ArtCred is not about explosive scandals or devoutly bad actors. Lack of proper accreditation and treatment of artists in comics functions like death by a thousand cuts. Lots of minor infractions and dismissals add up to create a greater story in which writers become the perceived authors of comics and artists become their illustrators. Discussing this problem requires a focus on the minutiae because it is the minutiae that is belittling the role of artists in the comics medium.
What both Black Panther and Angel Catbird represented was an opportunity for two of America’s largest comics publishers to discover new readers and reveal the joy of comics to them. Publishers could have presented the artistic merits and artist’s hard at work making comics. This opportunity has been diminished by a failure to present comics as something outside of literature or other media. When they could have sent the message that Stelfreeze and Christmas deserved equal responsibility and respect for what these new readers were discovering, the publishers chose to focus on non-comics credentials.
In this regard, comics publishers are not only failing artists, but the medium itself.