Shelf Life: What's More Important: Story or Art?

Thu, June 16th, 2011 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist

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Dave Gibbons art and layouts are as responsible for the success of "Watchmen" as Alan Moore's script

One of the inevitable questions I get -- usually right after, "Where do you get your ideas?" and, "Can you look at my script?" -- is, "What's more important, the story or the art?"

Obviously, you need both story and art. A comic is not a comic without both. Story and art are inextricably intertwined, or at least they should be, each aspect supporting the other to create a greater whole. That's the magic of comics distilled -- words and pictures together. Take the pictures away, you've got prose. Take the words away, you've got a gallery show. The best comics are a synthesis of both. That said, though, I'll give you the real answer, coming from a guy who has spent two decades writing comic stories: the art is more important.

The traditional wisdom holds that the art gets people in the door, and the story keeps them coming back. I think that's generally true, though in today's calcified market, I think familiar characters probably get more people through the door than anything.

I broke into the industry in a period when artists were absolutely the rulers of the roost. Artists were the driving sales. A fledgling magazine named "Wizard" had a Top 10 Artists list, and it took a number of years before a Top 10 Writers list ever made an appearance. For a time, nobody paid too much attention who was writing the books. Big, splashy art was the raison d'etre for a great many titles. The story? Not so much. That led to a lot of comics that might've been pretty to look at, but were pretty lacking in memorable, or even coherent, stories.

Now, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, with writers driving the books creatively and in sales. I've read way too many interviews and reviews in which the art teams don't even warrant a mention. It's shameful, really, because the artists are the ones who do the heavy lifting. It's easy for a guy like me to write a spread calling for the entire Seventh Cavalry to come charging over a hill. But it's something else entirely for the artist to actually draw dozens of horses and riders pounding down a hillside.

I don't think content that's entirely writer-driven or artist-driven is good. Either upsets the necessary balance a comic needs. But here, in the simplest of terms, is why the art is more important. Exquisite art can elevate a mediocre or even poor script. But even the most brilliant script is ruined by lousy art.

If I write the comic equivalent of "War and Peace," but Joe Hackmeister draws it, nobody cares. Nor should they. But if I write a middling script that's turned into a thing of beauty on the page by Duane Draftsman, the overall story is a thing of beauty.

This is a visual medium. So if I have to pick only one -- story or art -- give me the art every time. I'd rather write a Squirrel Girl story and have Kevin Nowlan draw it, than write a Batman vs. Captain America extravaganza and have it drawn by some guy just putting lines on paper.

J.H. Williams innovative artwork elevated "Promethea"

"Watchmen" isn't "Watchmen" without the lockstep nine-panel grid perfection of Dave Gibbons. "Promethea" isn't the fever-dream trip that it is without the expressive art of J.H. Williams. Sure, other artists could have followed Alan Moore's detailed scripts on those projects. But they wouldn't be what they are without the very specific talents of Gibbons and Williams. The art matters. The art gives a story its personality, its style.

As a writer, you have to come to grips with the fact that your story will be judged to great extent on how well the art is executed, and how well it fits the story. That's one of the reasons I tend to be picky about what artists I work with. The writer receives the blame if the visual storytelling falls apart. The writer also basks in the credit when the visual storytelling is sublime and graceful. It's a sword that cuts both ways; the artist can be your best friend or your worst enemy. And that frenemy equation often depends on how well you the writer have done your job in providing your artists with the tools they need to do their jobs.

A few years ago, I wrote a script for an artist I'd never worked with previously, but who had been working in the business for a few years at that point. I wrote the story after looking at his work, getting a feel for how he approached the page, talking to him about what he did or didn't want to draw.

After he got the script, he called me and said, "I can just draw this." I said something like, "Yeah? And?" He told me that it was, literally, the first time he'd been given a script that he could just draw as written. The first time he didn't have to figure out what the writer actually wanted to have on the page. The first time he didn't have to re-pace entire sequences because the writer didn't understand how much would fit on a page, or in a panel. I was stunned, and more than a little ashamed on behalf of those who'd been calling themselves writers, but handing in scripts that were impossible to draw.

A big part of my job is to give the artist something interesting to draw on every page. I might not be successful every time, but I damn sure try, because I should be giving the artist a reason to go to the drawing board every morning. It's common sense: the success of the story depends greatly on the art, so you should be doing everything you can to make the art successful.

The White Zero punches out the bad guys in "2001: A Space Odyssey" by Jack Kirby. Which is also a proper response if you asked Kirby to draw a bunch of talking heads.

There's not enough visual writing in the medium right now. Maybe it's because there are more writers coming from screenwriting or prose, where the writing is not necessarily visual in nature. That's not to paint all those writers with a broad brush. There are plenty who come from a screenwriting or prose background who absolutely get the visual aspect. And there are veterans of writing comics who still don't get the visual aspect, and probably never will.

In my experience, there are writers who can simply "see" the page in their heads, and writers who can't. Maybe it's a skill that's simply atrophying across the board. Whatever the cause, it makes the artist's job more difficult. Every time a writer finishes a page, he or she should ask, "Would I want to spend an entire day drawing what's on this page?" If the answer is no … rewrite it.

This is not a one-size-fits-all medium. Sometimes a scene of talking heads is the perfect choice. But it's about the necessary balance again. That talking-heads scene needs to be contrasted to something spectacularly visual, something exciting to draw, because the art is more important. And chances are, if you put a smile on the artist's face, you're going to put one on the reader's face as well.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts," "Witchblade" and "Magdalena" for Top Cow, and his upcoming creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image, set to debut in June, 2011. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, ronmarz.com

TAGS:  shelf life, ron marz, alan moore, dave gibbons, jh williams iii, jack kirby

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