The Column: Issue #20

Fri, January 24th, 2003 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Mark Millar, Columnist

SMILIN STAN OR JOLLY JACK?

I've often wondered who has the most difficult job in comics. Is it the writer who sits down before a blank screen and has to turn twenty-six letters on a keyboard into something people all over the world would actually want to pay money to read or is it the guy who gets that script and has to realize every stupid idea the writer gave him to draw? As a writer, every instinct in my body tells me to go with the former, but I'm really not sure. Generally, I tend to pick up books based on who's actually written these little gems, but is that because writing comics is something I actually do for a living? Do people out there in the real world just pick them up for art?

The truth is that a good writer can be completely fucked up the Hershey Highway by an artist who doesn't know what he's doing. I've had pages come back to me where even I don't know what's going on, characters speaking at length from off-panel and sometimes main figures drawn so badly that I've honestly been unsure not only WHO the fuck they are in my story, but also what SEX they are. However, a good artist can elevate even the most mediocre script into something quite wonderful. In fact, as I gaze along my long bookshelves here at Millar Manor, I see graphic novel after graphic novel from some of the most brilliant artists of our age teamed with some of the dullest writers the medium has ever known. But I hang onto them because they're so pretty and, when I'm looking for a little inspiration, I'll sometimes flick through them and feel jazzed about the comic-book page again.

Unfortunately, this isn't always the case with even our best writers. Sometimes the art is so ugly in books that I've genuinely got to force myself through to the end because it's written by someone I genuinely admire. Think about it in movie terms; imagine the most perfect script handed over to the director of your worst TV show, starring actors from some backwater repertory theatre, a blind cameraman, music by the deaf and lightning from a 40 watt bulb. The script is completely and utterly at the mercy of the artist because, whether writers like to admit it or not, I'd estimate that artists are really about seventy five per cent of what makes a comic book both good and marketable. Again, in movie terms, they're really everything from our casting director to our continuity people and, when you're in good hands, they're going to make you look better than you've ever looked before. Let's not forget that comics are a visual medium and the first thing even the most casual reader is going to notice (once they get past those cum-shot Milk ads with the Hulk, etc) is just how pretty or how ugly your little page one has been rendered by your fearless co-collaborator.

Of course, that's not to say that writers can't carry a book by themselves. Guys like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore and James Robinson are all wonderful masters of their craft who have been teamed with some of the best people in the industry, but I'm more dazzled by people like Grant Morrison and Pete Milligan who have produced some of the greatest work the field has ever aspired to in tandem with only a handful of fellow superstars. Comics is a collaborative medium, but there's a pretty sizable chunk of both Grant and Pete's work where I really feel they were carrying their pencilers and the fact that they dragged their books into the short-lists and the sales charts is a genuine testament to them. For the most part, however, I'd say this is unusual and bad art usually stops good writing from even being noticed. All aspiring writers pray for that breakthrough project because, like actors hoping to catch the eye of a top director, we're well aware that the exclusive club of A-list creators willing to work with you can mean the difference between the project of your dreams succeeding or dying.

I was at Frank Quitely's birthday party at the weekend and it genuinely never occurred to me until then just how unfair our salary structure is until one of his friends pointed it out. Broadly speaking, pencilers usually earn around twice what a script-writer earns per page, but most good artists take five or six weeks with an issue whereas even the slowest writers can turn them around in under two. Add to this the fact that the royalty rate is split fifty-fifty between artist and writer despite the fact that it usually takes an artist six times as long to complete a project. Authority creators Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch are fond of citing the most perfect difference between the two jobs when, as Warren told me, all he needed to write for the description of a double spread where alien ships were locked in combat with F1-11 jets over Los Angeles was "The ships engage" and poor Bryan Hitch had to spend two or three days DRAWING the bloody thing.

Of course, as generous as I sound like I'm being here to those cock-smoking faggots who never actually manage to get what we really want down on that page and take much to long to do it, I have my complaints too. I mean, as much as I'm complaining about the pay structure on their behalf, I wouldn't give up one pico-cent of my royalties to these fuckers for an instant so let's get that cleared up right away. It's also true for the most part that artists who get a little too big for their boots and try typing generally send their sales, standing and careers into freefall. Writing looks easy because, like I've said, a masterpiece has just as many black letters on white pages as a masterful piece of shit, but it's a really, really difficult job that requires a considerable amount of training and talent. Sure, there are a few superhuman creatures out there like Eisner and Miller who have reached the pinnacles of both skills, but for the most part artists who swap the pencil for a keyboard generally end up doing what they're second-best at and, most times, just fade away over time. I mean, give me a pencil and I'll draw you a really good Batman. However, just because I can crib something of a cross between Quesada and Dave Mazz and fudge the anatomy a little with that cape doesn't mean that I should be writing and drawing a prestige format Batman mini-series, you know what I'm saying?

Also, writers are cursed with the blank page problem. A professional artist is never really stuck for anything to draw when they're under contract because that wheezy FedEx man delivers a script to them every four weeks for them. Writers, on the other hand, sit down every day and have to make the whole thing up from scratch and this is if you're lucky enough to actually be under a contract. Artists, as you know, tend to put together a portfolio when they're starting out and then they're usually hired on the strength of their most recent work. Writers, in many ways, must do precisely the opposite. Let's take Alan Moore as an example. Sure, he hit the big time with Swamp Thing and it established him as a player in American comics, but what if he'd followed this up with Man-Thing or The Heap or The Sludge or even carved a career for himself in horror comics instead of cleverly diversifying over a number of different genres? Two projects in a row which smell the same will re-christen a writer as a one-trick pony whereas consistency of art is something fans tend to appreciate because they enjoy a particular look or style and often berate the guys when they do something different. Artists also never need to waste time with pitch meetings or issue-by-issue proposals (very time-consuming and therefore cash-devouring when you're just starting out). Artists also never need to worry about editors redrawing the occasional face or tweaking a background in the same way that writers live in fear of power-mad editors adding their own little finish to an already-finished script.

But despite all this I still honestly think that artists are more valuable to the medium than writers and, for anyone who disagrees, let me end by infecting you with this chilling thought which occurred to me recently. Like I said, I really, really want to believe that writers are the most important factor in the comic-book experience for reasons of pure, personal ego and my love of the great writers we're currently enjoying, but let's take a look at the boom of the early nineties and tremble for a second. How many writers were in the original Image line-up and how many copies did those books sell? Got a number in your head? Now, flash-forward a year or two and some of the biggest and most respected writers in the industry are being paid anywhere from fifty thousand to five hundred thousand dollars an issue to bring a little sense and prestige to these critically-derided creations of America's biggest comic-book artists. And what happened? The books collapsed in sales within a matter of months. Our common sense tells us that good writer plus good artist equals top book, but the fact of the matter is that Image Comics was created by artists and almost destroyed by writers, whether we liked to admit it or not. Perversely, it's when the books became much, much better, but the numbers speak for themselves. What can I say?

So was it Stan or was it Jack? You decide.

Visit Mark Millar on the Web at www.millarworld.biz and discuss this column on the MillarWorld forums.

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