Master Of The Obvious: Issue #25

Wed, January 19th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Another Master Of The Obvious experiment for you. Go to any convention, or any other gathering of fans or professionals, and loudly utter the following ten words:

In comic books, the art exists in service to the story.

Now see how long it takes for screaming matches to break out.

This used to be a given in comics. When comics were mostly locked into the six panels per page rigid grid, it was an oppressively enforced given. (In most cases just as oppressive was an editorial insistence on medium shots as the main vehicle of expression, but as most people remember it now the grid takes the rap for it.) So it's not surprising that many artists bristle when someone suggests… well, the ten words above.

Distilled to its most elementary form, the usually huffy reply from the artist runs like this: art sells comics, not stories.

Which has become traditionally true over the past three decades or so. Let's face it, we've promoted a culture of crap. It comes from the perception - imposed on us until we've bought into it, either wallowing in it or rebelling against it - that comics are "for kids." "For kids" in our society means "gutless braindead pablum" in whatever industry or medium the term rears its head; nobody wants to be accused of "corrupting" children. Better to squash that natural curiosity and keep 'em malleable. In comics, that's meant systematically dumbing down the material wherever possible, and it's no wonder artists (and much of the rest of the world) think the stories in most comics are dumb.

They are.

That's no excuse to dumb down the art down too.

Not surprisingly, prior to the rise of a quasi-organized fandom there were no fan favorite artists. If you read interviews with older artists in THE COMICS JOURNAL, which likes to discuss such things, you'll notice artists working in the 40s through the 60s cite a strong editorial emphasis on storytelling in their work in most instances, rather than flash art styles. (DC, at least in the Julie Schwartz offices in the 50s and 60s, preferred a clean, controlled, pseudo-realistic Dan Barry approach, taming into rough similarity such naturally dissonant styles as those of Gil Kane and Carmine Infantino.) Fans tended to be drawn to the flash. (As opposed to THE FLASH, though he did all right early on too.) Jack Kirby was pretty much alone in using things like forced perspective (though rarely every actually breaking out of the grid) and, again unsurprisingly, he was the first true fan favorite artist. (Not to mention a favorite among professional artists eager to break out of the grid themselves, though the real cult hero among pros was Alex Toth, whose brilliant work most fans couldn't stand.)

[Neal Adams]
Neal Adams

Neal Adams and Jim Steranko were the first real breakout fan favorite artists (Barry Smith arguably cruised in at #3 on the basis of his CONAN work, but that was a little later) and the first artists since EC Comics to introduce a modernism appropriate to their times. Steranko's emphasis was pure storytelling, his big influences people like Kirby, the then all-but-forgotten Will Eisner, and Harvey Kurtzman. He didn't break the grid so much as shredded it, splitting actions down into smaller and smaller fragments, building a modern concept of the panel as a unit of time. Steranko's art was all about time. Adams shattered the grid and grabbed the fan imagination with a photo-realistic style incorporating Kirby's innovations with a layout style cribbed from modern advertising. Never a particularly strong storyteller (though better than most of his later imitators) he muscled past that deficiency with sheer power and bravado, and set the tone for everything that followed.

To the chagrin of fans, comics companies have always distinguished between fans and readers. Comics companies have never really made any serious studies of what elements sell comic books, what little "evidence" there is of such things is almost always anecdotal, but through most of the 70s, they were astute enough to notice an interesting phenomenon: fan favorite artists rarely sold as well as non-fan favorite artists. Maybe they were just on projects that couldn't grab the popular imagination. You could sell Neal Adams on Batman, but you couldn't sell him on Deadman (though, for my money, the latter was the superior product). As a result, few books were ever pushed on the basis of who drew them. (Or who wrote them, for that matter, particularly as playing musical writers became the norm in editorial offices.)

"Comics companies have never really made any serious studies of what elements sell comic books, what little "evidence" there is of such things is almost always anecdotal..."

This pissed fans off. This wasn't right. As more and more fans moved into the business professionally, some wanted to do something about it. The direct sales market and the comics shop gave them the chance. It gave them secret grottos where the same cabalistic language could be spoken. Again not unsurprisingly, art was pushed and pushed and pushed uber alles until the concept became currency that all you need to sell a book is a fan favorite artist. And the only kind of story they have any idea of how to push anymore is the "big event" that can be summed up in a 50 pt. headline.

A self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.

Meanwhile, something interesting happened with the stories. Almost everyone tried to copy '60s Marvel Comics, the style that was still dominant. Even Marvel tried to copy '60s Marvel Comics. And they ended up copying '60s Mighty Comics.

You may not have ever read Mighty Comics. Published by Archie Comics in response to the hot BATMAN TV show, written by Superman's Jerry Siegel (in what I don't consider his finest hour, but your mileage may vary) and drawn by Paul Rienman, and featuring revived '40s characters like The Shield and The Web (Simon and Kirby's '50s Fly, renamed Fly-Man, was their one sop to modernism) they were far and away the goofiest comics ever published. Originally fairly straitlaced, they quickly dumped all semblance of story and character logic and pushed the action and coincidence hard. Real hard. Villains spoke in a endless string of Snidley Whiplash threats, heroes jabbered in a forced patter that could only be described as a 60 year old shut-in's idea of hip. Heroes existed to pull deus ex machina endings out of their hats. Their most memorable image was a villain - I forget the name - who sneezed lightning out his nose. Their great achievement was to boldly pronounce that, yes, comics are even more stupid that anyone ever thought they could be: braindead and proud of it!

"[Mighty Comics'] great achievement was to boldly pronounce that, yes, comics are even more stupid that anyone ever thought they could be: braindead and proud of it!"[Mighty Comics #45]

It had its charms. Briefly. Mighty Comics weren't thought of highly enough to be influential, but they epitomized a style of comics that has increasingly become the dominant style in the business, where you don't really have to concern yourself with story because it's just a comic book so story doesn't matter anyway. For years, I've watched creative teams claiming to be doing "Stan and Jack" when they're really doing "Jerry and Paul." And they don't know it. I've seen people talking about "making comics fun again" and they don't realize the ground they're reclaiming is Mighty Comics territory. And they wonder why their projects fail, when their comics contain "everything a comic book should be."

When we talk about story, we think of writers, one of the reasons The Ten Words invoke such a Pavlovian response in artists and fans. But writing isn't story. They're closely related but not synonymous. I'm not suggesting artists should necessarily be subordinate to writers. In some cases this may be true, in others not so. People in this business like to imagine there's a system that will produce good comics, but we don't know what produces good comics. I don't know. I know what produces bad comics, but doing the opposite doesn't necessarily result in anything better. We don't live in a binary world, convenient as that would be if true. The only way to know if a comic book is any good is to read the end product.

In comic books, the art exists in service to the story. But the writing exists in service to the story too. The first job of both is to tell the story.

A story isn't the plot I write, or the script I write. Those are guides to a story. A story is a character or characters finding their way through a sequence of events until they reach a pointed resolution. In comics, I can write whatever I like, but the story doesn't exist until an artist draws it. To that extent, the artist is the true storyteller in comics. There are some terrific storytellers in comics, but there are many more who don't seem to have a clue that that's what they're supposed to be doing. The art should carry the burden of storytelling, it should contain the cues - unobtrusively - to move the reader's eye from panel to panel, page to page, until a coherent story has coalesced in the reader's head. Every time an artist decides "I'll leave that for the writer to explain," anytime art forces the inclusion of redundant and theoretically unnecessary expositon, it makes bad comics.

I've had this discussion with artists who get passed over for assignments because they're not the flashiest artists in the world. Stylistically staid, wedded to the grid, they look on the pyrotechs with scorn and usually envy. When one of them heard this argument from me a couple years back, he immediately seized it as a vindication. It isn't. That's binary thinking again, either/or. I don't fault artists for exploiting dynamics. Part of the job of drawing is to make the comic as eyecatching as possible. Dynamics are a part of storytelling: a choice of emphasis. It's not an either/or situation, it's a both. Any artist not providing both storytelling and dynamics isn't doing their job.

I'm not calling on the artist to do all the work while the writer sips martinis by the pool. But when writing has to carry all the exposition, the result is usually a shallow, boring comic book. When we can finally get past that, when the "visible" writing of comic books can be given over to the exploration of character through dialogue, we'll end up with comics that are a hell of a lot better. (All other things being equal. We should be looking to movies, where the only "visible" writing is the dialogue, and most exposition is given conversationally; it's very rare to see a movie come to a halt while a narrator announces "the bullet streaks from Murdock's gun, striking Kline in the small of the back." But artists force that kind of thing in comics all the time. Good comics writing is like an iceberg, 90% where you can't see it, but it's that 90% that packs the greatest impact. Comics art is like the ocean; it should cover the writing, not vice versa.

"...when writing has to carry all the exposition, the result is usually a shallow, boring comic book."

It doesn't strike me as coincidental that the great hemorrhaging of readers occurred simultaneously with the general loss of interest in the "pure pyrotechnics" art style that overran comics in the '90s. It was the apotheosis of the Mighty Comics mentality. Like Fly-Man, it had its charms. Briefly. They stripped storytelling clean out of comics, and, for a moment, it was a shock to the system. It was invigorating. But it dumped the reader out of the equation, and we can't afford to do that, ever.

I don't want to reel artists in, or force them to work in ill-fitting styles. Every artist should be free to develop his own style. But this is still a business, comics is still a commercial art, and whatever style they choose, it has to exist in service to the end product. It has to serve the purpose of comics.

Comics tell stories. Period. There are all kinds of ways, visual and verbal, to tell stories, but storytelling is our raison d'ętre. It's why we're here.

Check here next week for announcements of new projects. Some very interesting things coming up. Also, STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN #4, rounding out the first Steve Austin miniseries, should be available from Chaos Comics any day now.

And congratulations to Steve Austin for the successful surgery on his neck problem. Rest up and come back healthy, Steve.

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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