Don't Get Me Started: The Writer Age of Comics

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Do actions speak louder than words? Some believe so. The two elements of pictures and language are the driving forces behind comic book storytelling and in their mutual quest to tell an entertaining funnybook yarn, they, like any symbiosis, undoubtedly occasionally clash. But what about in the captured collaborative moments in a comic book where in their own struggle for panel domination, more often than not a subtle artist’s touch may be surrendered to the necessity of what may be seen as an intrusive word balloon? A simple metaphor for the undeniable necessity of words to compliment the pictures in the comics medium, or a mere accommodation by art, which if handled well, can nicely tell a story “silently” on its own, thank you.

Comic books have always been considered to be primarily a visual storytelling medium. This line of thinking may be a result of comic books published in the last half-century being largely of the superhero genre. Superhero comics, with their bright-costumed, branded, larger-than-life characters lend themselves more easily to the pantheon of Pop Culture iconography than other comics genres when considered on their own terms. Roy Lichtenstein may have elevated enlarged obscure panels of war and romance comics on canvas to the notice of mainstream world Pop Art culture by hanging them in New York galleries, but there they were judged alongside the Pop Art movement as a whole. Within the confines of its own genre however, it is superheroes that come to the average person’s mind when they think of comic books. The observation that the majority of comics published up to and during the 60’s were not exactly what one would refer to as…well…deep has not helped comic book in its pursuit of acceptance in mainstream culture. The comics of yore were entertaining and even captivating, but until the very early 1960’s or so, they weren’t exactly comprised of characters steeped in psychological or intellectual discourse within their four-walled, two-dimensional mise en scene.

Then something happened.

Stan Lee had grown weary of superhero team books reading (as the Justice League of America did at the time) roughly, as Lee himself put it, “like a lodge meeting”. So Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Co. decided to approach them another way. They made the Fantastic Four a dysfunctional family and Spider-man a nerd when not in costume. The X-Men were outcasts and the Hulk a tortured monster. Often what has become to be known as the “Marvel Style” process of comic book production was employed, wherein a plot was given to an artist to draw and after (or during) delivery of the finished pages, the writer would write the final narrative and script. This was a necessity of maniacally busy Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee, who pulled the double-duty of scripting as many as a dozen or more tales a month and keeping the entire editorial continuity of the burgeoning Marvel Universe in his head –in his 40’s!

Lee felt that this way of doing things offered the artist more storytelling freedom. Next thing you know, Kirby’s drawing of an unscripted herald for Galactus in the classic issues 48 through 50 of vol. 1 of The Fantastic Four expressed an introspective and philosophical side Kirby hadn’t originally envisioned from the silver-skinned fellow riding a like-surfaced, star-cruising surfboard he had rendered on a whim. Kirby created the Silver Surfer’s striking image and the idea of his role as herald to Galactus, but Stan Lee gave him an introspective, tortured, philosophical soul. Ditko’s panels of a trapped, exhausted, repentant and haunted Spider-Man, seemingly down for the count in Amazing Spider-Man # 33 were imbued with pathos, guilt, revelation and deliverance by way of our sharing in Spidey’s thought process as he finds it within himself to break free of the metaphorical machinery he’s trapped under and embrace the burden of living up to his responsibilities. These are characterization archetypes still in use today as buttress to The Web-slinger’s central motivations and dynamic archetype.

Some time went by and the once fresh and new “Marvel way” of characterization eventually succumbed to the burden of being a house style. While distinctly different from DC’s characters, after a couple decades, Marvel creations as a whole became stuck in bit of a creatively formulaic rut. Meanwhile DC allowed their writers to begin making their characters more up-to-date with Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams’ collaborations on Green Lantern/Green Arrow and their successful efforts to make Batman a detective again -an aspect of his character largely neglected in DC’s unfortunate current “event”-oriented Bat-continuity. DC characters also began to share their universe and adventures more frequently with the launching of The Brave and The Bold. Superman however, pretty much stayed the same Boy Scout whose only personal problem seemed to be deciding which blue suit (which was chemically-treated so he could super-fold it and store it in a pouch in his cape) to wear to work. DC did manage to tighten up his mythos a bit when they revealed that the reason no one ever noticed his physical resemblance to Clark Kent was because he had been subconsciously hypnotizing everyone within spitting distance (quite a ways for the Man of Steel) into thinking he was of different physical stature -a stretch, even for Superman.

Artists of the 70’s began to make great leaps in their use of abstract layout techniques, broken panels and hyperrealism. Neal Adams led the way with his illustration background and in terms of comics’ storytelling ability and rendering technique he had all the chops to be had. Jim Steranko was not the most technically gifted illustrator, but he proved to be one of the most genre-transforming visionaries ever to work in four colors. Barry Windsor-Smith discovered to his dismay that he was to be paid the same no matter the detail he put into his panels, but that didn’t stop him from displaying his deft penciling touch (at least not for long) on Conan.

More artists trained for careers in the graphic arts began to strut their stuff in the early 80’s and overall visual technique was at a previously unseen level with artists like Michael Golden and Dave Stevens working their magic within the panels. Frank Miller began writing Daredevil as well as drawing it (demonstrating his scripting skills more than equaled his considerable rendering ability), and took Daredevil not only back to his roots in Hell’s Kitchen, but deeper into his psyche and accompanying past and present obsessions as well, delivering them the fatal blow in the form of Elektra’s Death. Miller’s efforts were an early example of taking the feet-of-clay aspect of a superhero and fleshing them out in contemporary psychological terms, building upon the classically melodramatic past of the character without losing its essence.

And then in 1983 DC Comics hired some bloke from across the pond named Alan Moore to write Saga of the Swamp Thing…and comics have never been the same. Re-titled a few issues later, Alan Moore’s tenure as scribe on Swamp Thing was one of the first moments in American comics history, when the writer was clearly the star of the show. Not the artist.

Not the character.

The writer.

Moore gutted Swamp Thing’s long-held status quo making Swampy an Elemental and during his ground-breaking run he and his art teams dabbled in suspenseful tales of sci-fi, horror and thrills, maintaining his status as the seminal force in the title’s creation before 1986 when he set about telling what is widely thought to be the greatest superhero story in the history of comics.

Watchmen was Moore’s masterwork. Along with artist Dave Gibbons he set about a literary architect’s act of once again dismantling and rebuilding that which had come before. It was a seemingly inevitable case of a writer of original vision and breathtaking talent redefining the very notion of the superhero in grand, earth-shattering, yet human scale.

In March of 1986, Frank Miller was permitted to delve into the Detective’s future and brought him out of the comforts of retirement and alcohol for one last battle as a 50 year-old Dark Knight and redefined the characters’ (and the notion of superheroes in general) mythos in Batman: Year One with artist Dave Mazzucchelli. Time marched on with the Big Two (particularly Marvel) instructing their writers to up the angst ante of their characters after these three seminal works changed forever the way superheroes are approached in comic book storytelling. Their influence on superhero character motivation can still be felt in comic publications to this day.

Art Spiegelman debuted in September of 1986 with a sweeping account of historical events of World War II writing and drawing a somber tale featuring cats as Nazis and mice as Jews in the Holocaust-inspired Maus. These publications caught the eye of the mainstream press, who were fascinated to find that Miller’s Batman and comic book fans’ Batman was not the silly Pow, Wham, Zap caricature seen on the campy Batman television series of the 1960’s (debatably the most damaging media image to comic books’ aspirations of being recognized as an art form to date) and shocked to discover that something as simple as a comic book could comment on historical events with global and societal implications from an original point of view, as Maus did. Maus was subsequently awarded a Pulitzer Prize and Batman received big screen movie treatment.

Then Neil Gaiman, who had followed Moore’s path across the Atlantic to DC, created Sandman –a fantasy series that may very well be the finest monthly comic book publication of all time. Tactfully conceiving it as a story with a definite ending and nary a superhero in sight, Gaiman and his artistic collaborators drew upon a classic mythological cast of characters drawn from many belief systems including the likes of Loki, Bas, Lucifer and Calliope. He proceeded to weave a dream world fantasy unequaled in comics, raising the bar for comic book writers once again, this time without super-powered beings in capes. Issue 19 won a World Fantasy Award and moved the World Fantasy council to go so far as to re-write it’s nomination bylaws so that comic works could never again walk away with such an honor –a slap in the face to the art form and to Gaiman, who has gone on to become one of the premier fantasists of the day in any literary format.

And then something happened again.

The seven hottest artists in Marvels superstar stable left the House of Ideas to form an upstart comic book company of their own, with some flatly stating they didn’t need writers and that it is actually the artists who are the real creator stars of comics, as Rob Liefeld contends to this day –wherever he is. Then Image comics went about proving themselves wrong with erratically published nonsensical poster-books and only Eric Larsen and Jim Valentino among them capable of stringing two words together coherently. Most in need of a writer was Todd McFarlane, who was kind enough along the way to hire Tom Orzechowski as editor (probably out of necessity) to go ahead and try to make things coherent as long he was lettering the book anyway. Other Image founders hired friends and non-established writers to work on their publications. A bit of a dustup ensued between the Image founders and author Peter David regarding what he felt to be their swaggering disregard and lack of respect for comic writers in particular and the necessity of a good wordsmith to tell a good comic book story in general, culminating in a “debate” between he and McFarlane at the 1993 ComicFest. As David intoned in his Comics Buyers Guide column on the eve of the debate “you use words like clubs, I use them like knives”.

It was not pretty.

So McFarlane, tired of the constant, much-deserved shelling directed towards his typewriter, yet somehow savvy enough to listen to his fan base, decided to buy himself some literary comic respect in the form of hiring none other than the likes of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller and Dave Sim to script four consecutive issues of Spawn - It certainly didn’t hurt having his character exposed to fans of these writers either. While none of the Big Gun-written issues of Spawn rendered anything groundbreaking, the fact that they were hired in the first place was a tacit admission by McFarlane that he (and by extension Image Comics and comic book artists in general) did in fact need writers. Although evidently he feels he needn’t treat them with any respect (as Brian Michael Bendis and Neil Gaiman can attest). Not that his respect is particularly of any value.

Image Comics as a corporation has long since learned the value of a top writer. They currently house J. Michael Straczynski’s “Joe’s Comics” line of comic books and it’s founding members’ respective studios regularly draft from the same pool of top talent as the Marvel and DC to write their comics as well as initiate fresh publications.

Things seem to have come full circle in that the techniques of comics writing in general has reached the same level of craft that comic art has enjoyed for the last decade via computer coloring, graphic arts expatriates and production quality. Writers seem to be garnering as much press as was once reserved primarily for artists. Artists still garner the most exposure through convention and gallery exhibits, high-end auction house dealings and the rampant free trading of trademarked character images on the net (with corporate approval).

But think about it. The names Grant Morrison, Kevin Smith, Alan Moore and Brian Michael Bendis are all as well known within the industry as Alex Ross, George Perez and those of the surname Kubert. With the newfound freedom of working out from under the comics code, writers have as much (if not more) editorial and storytelling input than artists due to the increased responsibility attendant to the handling of heavily-trademarked characters. More and more new comic publications begin as the notion of a writer and often it is an artist that must be found to accommodate the writer –not vice versa. All four of the above-mentioned gentleman write full scripts dictating words and action. As the inner-workings of comic book characters grow to resemble their traditional literary genre counterparts in complexity and motivation, an intimate understanding of the human (and super-human) condition is all the more necessary to the breaking of new literary ground, the advancement of the art form that is comics storytelling and obtaining the cultural respect it deserves. As long as an image accompanies the words, comics will be suspect in the mainstream due to the ignorant assumption on the part of the comics uneducated that the picture is there to convey with colors and line what the writer cannot with prose. The words’ continued concession to the picture as primary storytelling element in the eyes of the uninitiated is holding back the literary merit of comic books in the eyes of cultural intelligentsia.

Actions may very well speak louder than words, but in the narrated captured moments of paper heroes, it’s the moments and actions reliant upon that which can only be expressed by the words of a fine writer, that are often the most moving.

It’s time for the Writer Age of comics.

Copyright 2001 Mark A. Bittmann

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