Master Of The Obvious: Issue #63

Wed, October 11th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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A long time ago I came up with a comedy routine about editors: editors don't know what they want, they only know what they don't want, and what they don't want is this, in ascending order of importance,

3) They don't want bad work.


2) They don't want late work.


1) They don't want to lose their jobs.

And that's what editors don't want.

Last week over at Warren Ellis's Delphi Forum (often the most trafficked forum on Delphi) an aspiring comics artist asked a similar question: what do comics writers want?

Which is easy. In ascending order of importance,

3) They want to get famous.


2) They want to get rich.


1) They want to get laid.

Comics artists exist to make all that possible.

Comics writers are sometimes oversensitive about artists. Since the start of the fandom era, it's been the glory job of the business. (I know I never tire of people asking me "Oh, which ones do you draw?" when told I write comics.) When I first began writing for Marvel, there was an insulting truism in circulation that all comics writers were failed artists. (Or, as Neal Adams once put it, "Writers are crybabies.") Certainly in the plot-art-script style of comics, the writer is at the artist's mercy, often trapped in the dilemma of jettisoning ideas and dialogue or covering up big sections of art with captions and word balloons. It's commonplace for editors to demand writers replot on the fly to cover what artists decided not to draw and make it all better, like kissing a boo-boo - a timesaving measure since most writers work a lot quicker than most artists do. It's simply easier to change scripts and leave the art be. Editors are usually much more eager to keep an artist on a book than a writer (depending on specifics, of course; there are a handful of writers who command more editorial respect than artists), as a good artist can be a huge sales asset.

But not always, and there's the question of what constitutes good.

There are three elements to comics art: proportion, storytelling and dynamics. Aspiring artists should consider them their holy trinity because, like the god circle of Hermes Trismegistus whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere, those three elements are at the center of all comics but their range is infinite.

"There are three elements to comics art: proportion, storytelling and dynamics…those three elements are at the center of all comics but their range is infinite."

1) Proportion summarizes what's considered the nuts and bolts craftwork of drawing: anatomy, coherence, perspective. Specifics vary depending on what the artist is trying to accomplish (Art Spiegleman, for instance, has done work intentionally and inventively mangling anatomy and perspective) but it's perhaps best understood as "consistency of vision." What you're trying to do is create a perception of a consistent physical environment: in art and in life, this is what we mean by "reality." Consistent proportion is how an artist generates the illusion of reality, even under special story circumstances where the inconsistency of those elements is what's consistent about them. (This is the "higher purpose" exemption: whatever tells the story that is supposed to be told is good.) I'm not mandating realistic art. Kevin (MARSHAL LAW; LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN) O'Neill's art isn't "realistic" in any traditional sense, but it's so of a piece it creates its own realism.

Consistent anatomy is important: it's one of the things besides costuming that makes characters identifiable. It doesn't really matter whether you prefer virtual stick figures (Ted McKeever) or ridiculously overmuscled types (Richard Corben) as long as its consistent and serves the purposes of the story. I've written stories where the hero looks anorexic on one page and like the Hulk on the next, and it just looks awful. Artists should also use varying body and facial types to distinguish characters within a story. Howard Chaykin gets badrapped for having Reuben Flagg look like Cody Starbuck look like the Scorpion look like Dominic Fortune look like the hero of Black Kiss look like virtually every other dominant male he has ever created, but when you read AMERICAN FLAGG! nobody else in the book looks like Flagg, or like anybody else in the book, unless there's a good story reason for it.

Perspective means being able to place objects in space in proportionate relation to each other. Easy to say, easy to conceive, hard to do. Space consists of foreground, midground and background; perspective allows the artist to use all three simultaneously to simulate perception of space. You want to give the reader the impression the world he's looking at is as real as the one he lives in. In addition to being a design element, it's an identification element: it allows the reader to quickly and subconsciously identify with the world of the story. There are enough "otherworldly" elements necessary to any story that you don't want readers tripping on askew elements that don't need to be there.

Coherence. Foreground, midground and background all have to look like they belong with each other. Characters have to look like they belong in the world they're in. You don't put John Buscema figures against a Charles Burns backdrop and expect anyone to swallow it. (Unless, of course, something in the story calls for it, like The Punisher visiting Riverdale. Even then, it usually doesn't work unless it's a satire.) Ethical questions aside, this is the big trap of swipes: when you follow a Jack Kirby panel with a Todd McFarlane panel with a Bryan Hitch panel, there's no stylistic continuity. If the world in the story doesn't come off as coherent, the story will come off as incoherent. (Many stories are incoherent enough without compounding it.)

2) Storytelling is the cornerstone of the comics medium, a simple concept to grasp intellectually but, as Lou Reed put it, between thought and expression there lies a lifetime. At the most basic level, writers prefer that artists are trying to tell the same story they are. "Bruce Wayne falls in love with a suicidally depressed woman, but, after all his attempts to pull her from the pit of despair fail, must abandon her to rescue Gotham City from the Joker's latest homicidal reign of terror - but a direct confrontation with the Joker gives the woman a new will to live." In the writer's mind, it's usually better if that didn't come back, "The Joker wreaks havoc on Gotham City, and he and Batman fight until Batman wins with a lucky punch, then Bruce Wayne's latest girlfriend shows up to kiss him and make goo-goo eyes." Very popular writer and artist teams have crashed and burned in the schism.

"Storytelling is the cornerstone of the comics medium, a simple concept to grasp intellectually but, as Lou Reed put it, between thought and expression there lies a lifetime."

Ridiculously apparent (not to mention redundant) as it sounds when spelled out, there is no storytelling without story. But if it were simply a matter of "telling the story," it would be easier to do illustrated fiction ala pulp magazines, where huge blocks of copy were dressed up with the occasional drawing. Comics is a different beast, where artists must have the sensibilities of a writer and writers the sensibilities of an artist. Storytelling is as much in the telling as in the story. Again, it's partly a matter of things as basic as making sure characters are identifiable as themselves from panel to panel, to keep reader confusion at a minimum. (With good storytelling, the reader is only confused where you want them to be confused.) As with a movie, huge chunks of the narrative are being presented visually and must fit coherently with what's written. The artist must create a continuity of elements flowing from panel to panel, pulling the reader's eye and interest where the story wants it to go. It's a mingling of page design (tricking the reader's eye into unconsciously following a pattern leading from one desired point on the page to another) and story design (putting the hooks where they'll pump reader interest and keep the reader going, asking questions, wanting more). Of visually emphasizing specific elements over others to underscore story points. Of calculating where high spots will go for best effect, where to tease and swerve, how to bring the story (visually) to an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

Some critics have likened the artist to the director of a film: the artist gets the script, selects the shots, governs the pace, and invests the material with much of the characterization. The artist translates the script into a concrete, believable visual world. (French film critics refer to this as "mise en scene": "putting in the scene.") I doubt most writers have a problem with the concept of the artist as "director" of the comic - if one means directors in the 40s studio system where they were given scripts and sent out to film what was on the page. An artist, no matter how good at other elements of comics, who doesn't grasp the mechanics of storytelling or who opts at whim to toss discordant and unnecessary elements into stories just because the artist wanted to draw a particular thing (like inserting an alien invasion into a human interest story due to a sudden, uncontrollable urge to draw spaceships), isn't of much use to writers in the long run.

It's safe to say storytelling is the most unappreciated aspect of comics art. Ideally, it's (gallingly) invisible to the casual observer, like the seams on the rides at Disneyland. Like a good seduction. An obvious seduction is embarrassing, unless both parties are agreed in advance. The best seduction is the one the other party thinks was their idea.

Which brings us to…

3) Dynamics. The secret sauce of comics art. A few years back, an aspiring artist complained to me that even though he could draw decently and knew storytelling, companies wouldn't hire him. They were hiring all those Image type guys who drew big panels and wild costume designs and weird angles and figures jumping around and leaping off the page and big explosions and special effects etc. Guys who didn't even have, as he put it, "the basics." And the fact was (and is) that dynamics are often more highly prized than anything else because dynamics are eyecatching, and eyecatching is what sells comics. You can become a very popular artist if all you're really capable of is dynamics. (You might not stay popular for long, but you can scale the heights.) It's very difficult to become a popular artist if you can't do dynamics.

"…the fact was [is] that dynamics are often more highly prized than anything else because dynamics are eyecatching, and eyecatching is what sells comics."

Somehow he walked away from our chat feeling vindicated, as if I'd told him those other guys were just posers and he was the real deal. That wasn't what I meant, but I didn't bother to correct him. I was trying, beating around the bush, to tell him what was obvious to everyone but him: his art was dull. Everything in it was technically correct. The storytelling was clear and precise. And looking at it was like being a cow walking through a slaughterhouse door: a split second later your brains were somewhere else. Zero dynamics.

There are all kinds of dynamics. Steve Dillon doesn't draw spectacular, leaping foreshortened figures much (he's capable of it, he used to do it on the Marvelman strip in WARRIOR) but his characters have an unusual humanity that grabs attention. Though anchored by a great story sense, Walt Simonson's art is almost pure dynamics in the classic sense, a series of little explosions rocking across every job he draws. Alex Ross's art isn't often dynamic in the classic sense - even his loosest scenes have a posed tone to them - but there's such body to it that the art itself becomes a commanding presence.

The tricky thing about dynamics is that perception of what dynamics should be changes rapidly. The basics of proportion will always be the same; master it and you've mastered it for life. Storytelling evolves, but it accretes: new techniques amplify or absorb old, or co-exist; they don't replace them. What constitutes dynamics can change at the drop of a hat, as consumer tastes change. What was fresh and captivating at the height of Image's influence is now overused, outdated and viewed by the audience as staid. That's why the best artists (such as Dillon, Simonson and Ross) don't mimic dynamics, their dynamics rise from their personal tastes and are assimilated into their styles. Even that's no guarantee: Alex Toth may arguably be the greatest technical artist who has ever worked in comic books, developing, on the shoulders of giants like Noel Sickles, incredibly sophisticated dynamics, as worthy of the name as anything else ever done in comics, based on a semi-abstracted contrast of black and white shapes, some of the most stunning work ever produced in the field, in some ways years ahead of its time and still ahead of ours. To many in the field, Toth is as close to a god as anyone who ever set pencil to paper - and many readers just don't get it at all.

You may notice overlap between dynamics, storytelling and proportion; while describing one, I seem to be talking about another. They're really all the same thing, when done properly. Handle them all well and merge them seamlessly - in comics, we call that style.

If the one facet you command is dynamics, you can get away with it for a little while. At some point, most readers will see through it. Two facets, you can probably have a career (if dynamics is one of them). All three facets, that's what writers want in artists, because the art is the customer's first contact with the comic. The job of the art is to hook them; the job of the writing is to reel them in.

And that's what writers want from artists.

But it isn't what writers expect. What writers expect wasn't the question. (In Woody Allen's LOVE AND DEATH, his character, a Russian patriot, has wormed his way into Napoleon's confidence, and they discuss sex. Napoleon says what he really likes is two woman at a time, and Allen replies, "What I really like is three, but it's hard enough to get one.") We're not stupid; most comics writers aren't even all that unreasonable. Do I think artists should roll over for writers? Not at all. Contrary to everything I've suggested, artists who roll over often create listless art, and that often leads to ignored (hence failed) books. Writers want artists with passion, as interested in the stories being told as the reader, and it falls to writers to either truly collaborate on stories with their artist or write stories that inspire that kind of passion. Like it or not, despite proportion, storytelling and dynamics, despite every cheap gimmick any comics company has ever come up with, the single most salable element of any comic book is still a passion that roars off the page and spreads, like a virus, to the reader.

So what do artists want? In ascending order of importance:

3) They want to get famous.


2) They want to get rich.


1) They went to get laid.

And comics writers exist to make that possible, by giving them great, compelling stories to draw that will bring readers back project after project. But that's a different column.

The closet comics sell-off is now in its third week and quite a bit is gone, but much remains. (If you just got here, these are my crates of comps of my own work sent me by the companies that published it. There's just too damn much of it, so I'm selling it.) If you're interested in buying a signed comic written by me, from companies like DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Wildstorm and more others than I care to count right now, CLICK ON THIS LINK AND THIS LINK ONLY and ask me to send a current list. (I'm out of town this week, so no requests or orders will be filled until Monday.)

Looks like we're close to announcing the artist on the forthcoming WHISPER graphic novel, out next year sometime from AIT/PlanetLar Books, and subscribers to the WHISPER BUREAU OF PROPAGANDA COMMUNIQUE, a free e-mail broadside, will get the word first. If you're interested and haven't subscribed yet (don't worry, subscribers, if you've gotten Communique #2, you're up to date and don't need to make another request) CLICK HERE ONLY. Hopefully next week I'll have some other big news, but I'm not promising anything.

Question Of The Week: What one (and, again, only one; make a commitment) comics character, past or present, do you personally identify with the most, and why? How long ago did you start reading comics, and did you identify most with a different character then?

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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