Judging Comic Books: Who to Praise/Who to Blame

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I find it interesting to see which comic book professionals get mentioned by website reviewers and message board posters in their praise or condemnation of an issue. Some reviewers make it a point to acknowledge just about everyone involved in the production of the comic book (writer, penciller, inker, colorist). More often though, we single out one creator and hold him/her responsible for the quality of the comic book. One person receives the inordinate amount of praise. One person receives the inordinate amount of blame. Ultimately, we are too hasty when we do this because we’re not truly aware of the creative process involved in the production of each comic book.

For instance, so many reviews and comments position the comic book writer as film director auteur who seemingly has dictatorial control over every single aspect of the issue, from the story concept to the dialogue to the panel layout. Recently, many Legion of Super-Heroes fans complained that Teen Titans #16 inaccurately depicted Legion flight rings as activators of “transuits” (a transparent outfit that protect its wearer from the vacuum of space). Some fans vehemently argued that the rings have never demonstrated this utility, and who did they blame for this supposed gaffe? The issue’s writer, Geoff Johns, not stopping to consider that Johns, who has never before written an issue involving the Legion, would have first asked his editor, Eddie Berganza, and/or The Legion’s editor, Steven Wacker, about Legion flight rings and what they can and can’t do. If Teen Titans #16 does display an error in device usage (and we’re truly in “mountain out of molehill” territory), why does the blame fall on Johns’ shoulders and not on the editor(s) he consulted as he wrote the script and/or approved the final version of the script?

Consider this: it is NEIL GAIMAN’S Sandman, and the various artists who contributed to that much lauded series receive our admiration, but we treat them as Gaiman’s puppets, robotically channeling his imagination to the page and adding nothing of themselves to it. (Before my point is misconstrued, I am NOT asserting that Gaiman views the artist in this way, only that our praise of Sandman emphasizes Gaiman to the near-inconsequentiality of the artists.)

We have to acknowledge though that writers are not the overlords of the comic book because for one, artists can and do ignore the script and lay out the story in a completely different way than the writer directed, for better or for worse. For example, in a script I wrote for a comic book company ten years ago I directed the artist to draw a bird’s eye view splash page of the protagonist on a crowded street, surrounded by dozens of passers-by. However, when I received the issue after it hit the stands, I saw the artist not only hadn’t provided a bird’s eye view, he had only placed half a dozen civilians around the protagonist. Instead of trying to make his way through a bustling street teeming with people, the protagonist strolls through an empty avenue. I felt the artist was lazy, and I’m sure the artist (who I never met or spoke to) would defend himself by asserting the scene didn’t need a crowd. My point though is the reader has no way of knowing that the artist took matters into his own hands and produced a completely different image than what the script called for. I might have gotten the blame for the barren urban environment that was the opposite of my intention.

One person hardly ever gets mentioned in reviews and message board comments because his or her influence on the comic book is invisible, although it is hardly insignificant---the Editor. Some editors will take a back seat and let the writers and artists drive the title wherever they want it to go. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the editors who are so controlling that it’s more accurate to describe the comic book as theirs rather than the writers and/or artists. Of course, it’s impossible to determine how “interfering” each editor is just by reading the issue. One can only learn about an editor’s reputation through the direct statements and innuendo conveyed by the professionals in their scattered interview and website comments. That’s a tricky game, and an unfair one to the professionals. Regardless, we do need to consider if the story we read in each comic book emerges from the writer’s imagination or from the editor’s or from both. Do writers choose to create six issue story arcs or do editors compel writers to craft them so those issues can be collected into a trade paperback and sold for a better profit at the large book retailers like Borders and Barnes and Noble? When Chuck Austen helmed The Avengers recently, did he ask to revive the Invaders or was he told by Tom Brevoort, The Avengers editor, to write an Invaders story? (In an SBC interview, Austen credits Brevoort for story ideas during his brief Avengers run.) Inter-office company politics can also affect a title’s creative team and the direction they wanted to take the title. In 1989 Keith Giffen, Tom and Mary Bierbaum, and Al Gordon (A.K.A. “TMK”), then co-plotters of Legion of Super-Heroes, were informed by their editor, Mark Waid, that Mike Carlin, then editor of all the Superman titles, had forbidden them from referring in any way to any part of the Superman mythos, even the “pocket universe Superboy” that had been created by Paul Levitz as a way to get around the John Byrne 1986 re-boot that had wiped out Superboy from Superman continuity. A 30th century super-hero group whose foundation was the 20th century exploits of Superboy suddenly had its raison d’etre ripped out from its soul. TMK created a solution to this continuity sabotage, which many long time fans found confusing and/or heretical. To this day, most Legion fans who deplored what happened to the Legion in the early 1990s blame TMK completely and not Mike Carlin in the slightest.

The most visible part of the comic book is the art, so it should be a simple matter to know who to applaud or criticize for any issue’s artwork, yes? Even how different inkers handle a penciller’s work is easily comparable…, if inking only involved tracing over a penciller’s lines. But the task of inking varies according to the roughness, tightness and involvedness of the pencils. At the most recent San Diego Comic-Con I met an artist whose work I effusively praised in an SBC review. In fact, I not only showered hosannas on him but also on his inker for the way he finished the pencils. The artist remembered my review, thanked me for my praise, but then told me, “I’m not trying to bash my inker here, but you should realize that my pencils are so tight, he’s not really ‘finishing’ them. I don’t leave him much to clean up, to be honest.” Inkers, though, can radically change a penciller’s work. Ronin Ro’s recent biography of Jack Kirby, Tales to Astonish, relates the story of how Vince Coletta would erase elements (background characters, crowd scenes, details) from Kirby’s pencils before he inked them in order to save time. Kirby was oblivious, and only when his close friends saw his un-inked pages and compared them to the printed comic book did anyone realize what was happening. If Kirby’s close associates needed his original penciled pages as a basis for comparison in order to recognize Coletta’s deletions, how can the unaware reader detect them?

Who to praise? Who to blame?

In the end, I propose that instead of wasting our energy trying to figure out which professional deserves to be singled out, trying to figure out…

- …if Jack Kirby deserves more praise than Stan Lee for the 1960s Marvel Universe
- …or if John Byrne deserves more praise than Chris Claremont for the late 1970s Uncanny X-Men run
- …or if Tom Brevoort deserves more blame than Chuck Austen for the execrable Avengers: Lionheart of Avalon story arc,

It’s better to acknowledge the collaborative aspect of comic book production and just praise or condemn the comic. Instead of focusing on the flesh and blood comic book creators and guessing who is responsible for what, focus on the printed comic book. Praise the comic book. Condemn the comic book. This suggestion may upset those readers and reviewers who are determined to let certain creators know of their admiration or contempt for their abilities. I would argue, however, that creators take such pride in the comic books they produce, the adulation or condemnation of the book without reference to its creators will affect them nonetheless…, and at least the criticism will have hit the appropriate target.

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