Hasslein Blog: Comic Books: Writing or Art?


Hasslein Blog

Monday, June 5, 2017

Comic Books: Writing or Art?

By Matthew Stephen Sunrich

Since at least the 1960s, there has been a lot of debate about which aspect of comic books is more important, writing or art. One could reasonably argue that both are indispensable, as the medium represents a marriage of the two, wherein neither is more important than the other, but it appears that many fans fall into one camp or the other.

When comics were a new thing during the 1940s, the quality of art varied wildly. Much of it wasn’t very good because it didn’t have to be. Many publishers would hire anyone who could get the job done in a hurry. Comics were considered kids’ stuff, and kids, after all, are hardly aesthetes. By the 1950s, however, the standards began to change. In the pages of Tales from the Crypt and Crime SuspenStories, for example, readers were treated to the sensational work of such luminaries as Graham Ingels, Jack Kamen, Johnny Craig, and Jack Davis, whose art made fans’ blood run cold with their macabre renderings.

Stan Lee, a writer, felt that art was more important. He never drew a single panel, yet he worked as art director at Marvel during its early years, along with his many other duties. Despite the stories that have circulated about the contentious relationship between Lee and artist Jack Kirby, Lee considered Kirby to be the best artist around. He not only insisted that Kirby draw most of the covers (according to How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, Stan considered the cover to be the most important page of a comic because a good one increased the odds of a sale) but also strongly encouraged other artists to emulate his style. As a result, Marvel’s Silver Age aesthetic is defined by Kirby’s work. It wasn’t until after Kirby left to work for the competition and Lee handed the Editor-in-Chief position over to Roy Thomas that the “house style” began to evolve.

In A Look Back, a career retrospective of master horror illustrator Bernie Wrightson, the artist remarked that he was disinclined to read comics in which he found the artwork inadequate, regardless of how good the writing was. He went on to relate a story of how some of the “old guard” (artists who had been working in the industry for decades) were incensed by the high quality of art that began to emerge from the pens of younger illustrators, most of whom were unmarried and/or childless, during the Bronze Age because they had families to support and were concerned that the editors would make them work harder. (Why anyone would continue to work in a field of notoriously low pay when so many other lucrative options were available is a perhaps the real issue.) Wrightson maintained that this was not his problem and that he was always going to do his best work, an opinion shared by his colleagues. Despite this resistance, some of the best comic art ever produced came out of the 1970s.

Some of the best art of the period came to us from the Philippines. The work of artists such as Alfredo Alcala, Nestor Redondo, Rudy Nebres, Tony DeZuniga, and E. R. Cruz graced the pages of Marvel and DC’s horror, science-fiction, and sword-and-sorcery offerings. Many of the stories in these magazines are forgettable, but the illustration sticks with you long after the story itself has faded from your mind. The art is simply breathtaking, and it’s impossible to consider the Bronze Age without taking the work of these men into account. I was amazed to learn that Alcala and Redondo, both of whom are noted for their amazing pen-and-ink work, were capable of completing nine pages in a day.

The 1980s was, arguably, a less remarkable era for illustration, which is not to say that there weren’t artists doing great work. John Byrne, George Perez, Rich Buckler, Dave Gibbons, and Mike Zeck spring to mind as standouts. But it was during this period that writing began to challenge art for dominance. While readers have always appreciated a good story, there were only a handful of writers, such as Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Len Wein, and Denny O’Neill, who rose above the rest (it is worth noting that Starlin, who was as an artist as well, was one of the first popular writer/illustrators). Readers seemed to be more interested in what happened rather than how it happened. In other words, events were generally considered more important than sophisticated narrative details. The death of Gwen Stacy, for example, is probably the most significant event of the Bronze Age, and some have claimed that the decision to kill her off was primarily motivated by a stagnation in creativity. Many comics were little more than showcases for the “monster/villain of the month,” which is fine but doesn’t really allow the comic to go anywhere.

The publication of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns changed all that. These comics broke new ground and attracted the attention of the mainstream media, which was virtually unheard of. Creators were galvanized to find new ways of working, and there was a real incentive for writers to produce stronger material. Despite this, much of the writing during the next decade or so was terribly uneven. Part of the problem was that some writers tried to reproduce what Moore and Miller had done without understanding what their work was really about.      

During the early 1990s, many artists became “rock stars.” When Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Mark Silvestri, et al. left Marvel to form Image Comics (for better or worse), fans really began to take notice. Though there has been a backlash against some of these creators, at the time they were the vanguard. Wizard, a trade magazine of the period, featured a top ten artists list in each issue, accompanied by photos, and for the first time fans were able to put faces with names. Of course, creators had been attending conventions for a long time, but not everyone had an opportunity to meet their favorites. There was also a similar list of writers, but it was clear that the artists were the headliners. In much the same way as artists at Marvel during the 1960s were encouraged to draw like Jack Kirby, artists in the 1990s were encouraged to draw like the Image guys. The quality of comic art suffered almost irreparable damage as a result, and it took many years for it to find its footing again. Perhaps this is why writers began to take center stage.

These days, it appears that writers are held in higher regard than artists. One rarely hears the name of an artist associated with a comic-book-inspired film or television show, but the writers are virtual celebrities (which is odd because television and film writers rarely get any credit). Almost everyone knows who Stan Lee is, but Jack Kirby, the King of Comics, is still practically unknown outside of comic fandom. There has also been a fundamental change in the way comics are drawn, especially at Marvel, and some older fans have decided that the new stuff just isn’t for them.

According to a recent feature in Bleeding Cool, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso essentially remarked that artists aren’t very important to comic sales in the current market. If the sad state of art at Marvel these days is any indication, I can believe it. I’m sure it’s become clear from this article that I am more interested in art than in story. This is, of course, not to say that writing isn’t important to me, but I look at it this way: If a comic is poorly written but illustrated well, I can at least look at the art. If the writing is really good but the art sucks, it’s no good to me. I guess what I’m getting at is that comics are, above all, a visual medium. If art isn’t important, then why have it at all? Just read a novel.

Does Alonso’s assertion mean that the institution of comic art is nearing the end of its rope? Perhaps in a sense. While there are still many seasoned fans who flock to conventions to acquire commissions and original art, it is likely that the new generation of comic enthusiasts are less interested in such things. The generation gap is widening, and those of us from the old school will have to content ourselves with the books that have already been published.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.      

Matt Sunrich, a great fan of the Bronze Age of comic books, maintains two blogs: The Other Other Castle, about Bronze-Age sword and sorcery, and Forging the Dark Knight, concerning Bronze-Age Batman.

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