Of late, it seems that the industry is taking what I consider to be a step backwards on the path towards widespread acceptance and acknowledgement of the literary and artistic potential of comics. Recently more and more comic fans seem to be putting a greater emphasis on the art in a story than on its writing. By placing art above writing, we do the medium of comics a disservice and set the cause of advocacy back a great deal.
Let me explain so you do not think I am simply speaking out against the artistic aspect of the medium. I believe that comics is a collaborative art form, that it is the combination of words and pictures to tell a story that defines what a comic is. No one side should ever bear more weight than the other; the balance between the two should be delicately maintained to assure that the stories we tell belong in comics form. If the book is simply one you buy for the art, is it even a comic anymore or just a collection of pretty pictures?
One of the top-selling comics today is Batman, which I think chiefly illustrates my point. Most of the people that are causing the book to sell out every month buy it for the stellar art Jim Lee is producing on the book and not for the story itself. At the convention in Chicago this year, the big name writers like Mark Millar or Brian Michael Bendis could never dream of drawing the kind of lines there were for Lee or Alex Ross.
My point is that the look of a comic is not everything; a great costume design is not the end-all, be-all of what makes for a memorable comic character. Great cover art may make the book sell well initially, but readers will walk away if thatís all there is to it, if thereís nothing there to actually read. Alex Ross at least can tell a story, one with actual substance, as seen in his involvement in Marvels and Kingdom Come. But if other lesser artists come along who are only capable of doing good-looking pin-ups, comics will denigrate into no more than a collection of still life paintings.
I was a little bit disheartened then by some early events in the Comic Book Idol competition over at Comic Book Resources. First, let me comment on what a shame it is that a competition such as this allows artists an opportunity to break into the industry but not writers. But setting that basic premise aside, the focus of the competition in its beginnings was all wrong. The first three assignments the finalists had to complete were a character design, a pin-up, and a cover. Only after these assignments had been covered did they start to think about whatís most important, I think: could these artists put drawings in sequence to tell a story? Since it is this concept, a series of pictures coming together not individual images, that is central to comics, why was this not where the judging started off?
To be honest, I fear that this example is just further proof that we are letting history repeat itself. Artists have always been superstars, while writers have toiled in near obscurity. Ask your average fan who created Batman and theyíll tell you Bob Kane, the artist on the first Batman story, completely ignoring the contribution of writer Bill Finger. Look at the speculation boom of the Ď90s and the creation of Image. Larsen, Liefeld, Lee and the rest of Imageís founders were almost all artists, and many people followed them because they liked the ART they had drawn for Marvel. In a few yearsí time, the market was flooded with pretty picture books, the speculators fled in droves, and comic sales almost dried up altogether. I remember not too long ago when Wizard was listing a few issues of Moon Knight with high prices in their guide, simply because Steven Platt had drawn them. Iím talking about Moon Knight, for Godís sake!
Now some might argue that Kaneís situation is just one scenario of many, that Siegel and Schuster together are equally credited with creating Superman. Others might defend Kane, saying the idea and the look was his, he deserves full credit. Some people might also point to Stan Lee, the writer who is widely credited with creating many of Marvelís characters, while less attention is given to his artists Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko for their hand in the creation of the characters that company is built on.
But think about this: for many years after Bob Kane was not working on Batman anymore, the book was still credited to him as if he had drawn it. The artists who worked on the book did not get a byline of their own; the art was ascribed to Kane still. Siegel, Schuster and Lee might be given credit on books still today but just as creators, not for having a hand in work they were never involved in. You check out one of those Batman books Lee is working on even today, and it still gives sole credit for his creation to Kane.
Now Iím not saying that writers are the ones who actually deserve all the credit or that they deserve attention more than the artists do. Comics has more than its fair share of writers who can be prima donnas, divas that let their reputations go to their heads as much as any of the hot artists do (Warren Ellis, for example). There are plenty of writers out there too who focus too much on how clever they can be in their dialogue or in action scenes when they donít really have anything substantive to say (like, say, Kevin Smith). And writing alone is not enough of a reason to buy a book; all too often a well-written book can be dragged down drastically by poor art (as large portions of Grant Morrisonís New X-Men run unfortunately have been).
Comics then shouldnít rely on words to tell the story any more than they should the pictures, because in the end they must both gel into one cohesive unit. Comics are a storytelling medium created through a group effort; if the writer and the artist do not work together for the purpose of the story, then what good is it in the end? I sometimes fear that for all our advocacy of comics, the publishers themselves, in pursuit of higher sales, are doing anything they can for a short-term boost, including putting style over content. If all comics are is flash and no substance, after a while people will get tired of it, the bubble will burst, and comics may well be doomed.