Master Of The Obvious: Issue #11

Wed, October 13th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

The war for the soul of comics has taken an interesting turn.

In general, writers have never been highly prized in comics. In the 60s, it wasn't unusual for editors to rewrite even the best writers so lines of books could have a pasteurized sameness that was considered commercial. (At which point superheroes started toward their ascendancy, perhaps not coincidentally; if not for the costumes, could anyone really have told the difference between Hawkman and the Atom?)

Amazing Spider-Man #3
Amazing
Spider-Man #3
(Steve Ditko Art)

Stan Lee upended that notion by surrendering plotting to his artists to get time to keep up with his editing chores. That he has Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, both brilliant storytellers, as his artists made Marvel what it was. Unleashed, they brought a visual dynamic to comics that fit that volatile time. Stan's dialogue, combining soap opera sentimentality and Sammy Glick patter, also fit the time better than anything else around it, but we all knew the art was the big draw for Marvel Comics. It's no wonder many readers concluded artists (specifically pencillers) were the true auteurs of comics.

With the artists breaking new ground with the Marvel method, a generation of would-be writers hungry for a chance to do the same. Many of DC's old writers, left without much after decades of virtual indentured servitude to the companies they worked for (companies often insisted on exclusivity back then without contractually formalizing the arrangement), tried to organize a trade union and got thrown out for their efforts. Every so often, someone will suggest we ought to have a talent guild in comics, and I agree: we ought to. We never will, and this is why: as longtime writers like Gardner Fox and Arnold Drake were shown the door, a crowd of wannabees were already clustered outside, waiting for

their chance. If there was ever a time to start a guild, that was it. Had everyone who wanted to write for comics simply stayed outside the door, until the older writers received fair treatment, DC eventually (and, given the periodical nature of the business, it wouldn't have taken too long) would have had to give in or close up.

"In general, writers have never been highly prized in comics."

I don't blame any of the young writers who came in. I don't think most of them even knew until years later what had gone on. All they knew was there were opportunities, and they wanted them. But it's an object lesson: as long as there are hordes waiting outside who are willing to climb over whoever it takes to do it, no form of guild is possible, and due to the nature of comics, which has spent 30 years catering to an increasingly shrinking fandom composed in significant part of people who would love to be creating the comics themselves, the chances of a guild now are pretty much zero.

The 70s was the era of the writer-editor, at least at Marvel (past a few interesting experiments early on, it really wasn't an era of any kind at DC) and while it witnessed an explosion of styles and previously unheard of subject matter, it was also the age of botched deadlines and endless reprints and opened up the age of Jim Shooter aka the Mort Weisingerization of Marvel. Facing the onslaught of the creator rights movement that sprouted up new companies like Eclipse, Jim put forth the proposition that Marvel was the true author of the books. It was a legal distinction, and it might not have been his idea (I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one); to establish their claim to copyright after the amendments to the copyright laws went into effect in the late 70s, it had to be said that writers and artists were simply hired hands carrying out Marvel's designs, and it did, in Marvel's revamped work-for-hire statements.

But the concept infected editorial. As shared worlds and the Marvel method became the standards, whatever power writers had was split between editors and artists. It makes sense to have strong editorial control when characters become franchises, maintaining licenses becomes the point of publishing comics, and universes (with the company politics they inspire) underpinning everything. Fan focus on artists gave many artists leverage that most writers (to be fair, many artists also) didn't have. Editors would almost always rather dump writers from books than artists, regardless of who the problem is. It's far quicker and easier to get a rewrite than have work redrawn. An artist dumps half a plot and forgets about story elements that were already introduced? Let the writer jump through hoops to fix it.

Of course, this is the price of work-for-hire. Work-for-hire basically means you are a hired hand. You have the option to leave, but not the option to enforce your opinion. Some editors listen, some don't, but when you agree to work-for-hire, you hand authority over to the company. It's that simple. They may decide it's in their interest to let you have your way, but it's their call straight down the line. I notice the argument has resurfaced that writers who create a character ought to have first crack at anything done with that character. While I sympathize, I have to wonder if anyone actually reads the fine print on work-for-hire deals. You don't create things on a work-for-hire basis, then claim proprietary interest. That's specifically what you give up. I don't favor work-for-hire, but it beats starvation. I believe writers should control the characters they create. But if you sign away that control, you sign it away, and it's a little late after the fact to talk about what you believe you deserve.

"I have to wonder if anyone actually reads the fine print on work-for-hire deals."
  - [ATTRIBUTE]

But the result of that editorial behavior is more sloppily written comics, clumsier stories, and the homogenization of scripts. As editors usurp the function of generating stories, writers become marginalized, and interchangeability among writers becomes prized editorially. Don't believe me? Read 20 years of UNCANNY X-MEN and see how much the style has changed through a parade of writers. By the early 90s, the house style was back with a vengeance, prompting a lot of artists to shift to writer-artists. And why not? Erik Larsen's famous "Name Withheld" letter, postulating that separate writers for comics were no longer necessary, wasn't far wrong, for the type of comics he was talking about. The emergence of writer-artists was just another degradation of the position of the writer in modern comics, for obvious reasons. Virtually any artist can start writing, while very few writers can start drawing.

Even most high-exposure writers are specifically tied to particular artists at particular phases of their careers. Len Wein/Berni Wrightson. Marv Wolfman/George Perez. Roy Thomas/John Buscema. Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers. Chris Claremont/John Byrne. Mike Baron/Steve Rude. Their popularity tends to peak on the projects they do with those artists. (Interestingly, the artist's popularity often peaks at that point too.)

But that was then, this is now.

I've said before that this period in comics is transitional, not apocalyptic. There are signs of hope if you know where to look. I find it very interesting that in the last few years, all the breakaway stars (with the exception of Alex Ross) have been writers.

"Art on its own merits no longer sells comic books."

Artists reached their perihelion in the Image era, but Image was built on the Marvel model, with its merchandising, licensing and comic book factory mentality. With the collapse of Image - and while I wish nothing but success to the "new" Image, let's face it, Image as it was originally conceived is gone - the currency of the artist seems to have collapsed as well. Art on its own merits no longer sells comic books. The writer-artists who've survived the best have been those, like Frank Miller, who became writers primarily and artists secondarily, or those, like Todd McFarlane, who left it all behind to become entrepreneurs. Many, like Jim Lee, have abandoned attempts to write, hiring on talent to do it for them.

James Robinson
James Robinson

So we have this curious new phenomenon: salable comic books - often outselling most other comic books - identified not with an artist or writer-artist team but with the writer. Grant Morrison's JLA. Garth Ennis' PREACHER. Mark Waid's THE FLASH. Alan Moore's LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. Warren Ellis' TRANSMETROPOLITAN. James Robinson's STARMAN. Kurt Busiek's ASTRO CITY. Kevin Smith's DAREDEVIL. And, of course, the granddaddy of them all: Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN.

It's hard to generalize about that group. The two things they have in common is that they each decided what they wanted to do and did it, and, for whatever reasons, editors stepped out of their way. Where they break from the past, their ideas are new and their styles entertaining. Where they make use of the past, they revitalize it with new spins.

I'm not saying artists aren't important to at least some of these books. They obviously are. PREACHER's as much Steve Dillon's as Garth's, LOEG as much Kevin O'Neill's as Alan's. Darick Robertson, Brent Anderson, Phil Bond, John Cassaday, Bryan Hitch, all are terrific artists. Certainly Alex Ross helped propel Mark and Kurt, but there are writers he didn't propel. But there's a general perception, right or wrong, that the writer, not the artist, is the critical element in these books.

This has now been going on long enough that it can be called a trend. Comics with good writing are selling, and the writers are getting the credit. Companies are already responding with mixed signals. Some editors are looking to these writers and others to revivify moribund properties, others seem to be actively driving "star" writers off. (The major comics companies, though they don't like to mention it, usually prefer readers come for the characters rather than the talent, since characters will always stick with you but talent has a habit of looking for greener pastures after you've catapulted them to fame. Though they'll take sales however they can get them.)

And why shouldn't the writers take over? Creating content is supposed to be their job, after all, and certainly editorially-controlled content hasn't been filling the bleachers lately. Archie Goodwin had the editorial philosophy that you hired the best people you could, you let them be themselves and put that into the work, and you got out of their way. He thrived on idiosyncrasy, and on the idea that writers should be allowed to say what they think is important to say. The new breed of star writer has proven that there's money in it, too.

If this is the apocalypse, bring it on.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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