February 16, 2014

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Reviewers, Artists, and Money

Props to anyone who gets the vague musical reference in the title.

When I was putting together Sunday Readings, I realized I had a series of posts relating to the idea of the role of the artist in comics today. So I figured I'd add a few comments of my own.

First here's the links:

David Harper on the perceived diminishing role of the artist in comics.

Harper again, on what to look for when reviewing comics art.

Sean Murphy on ways artists can help themselves.

Looking at how artists are treated in comics is nothing new. You can find it in articles going back into the 1970s. The Image Revolution was founded on the idea. This is a movement that's always existed, but has really only started to gather steam over the past few years. Why? Because all of a sudden, comics were moving into movies and television and the money went from being a pittance to an embarrassment of riches if you were in the right place at the right time. It's not that no one cared that Jack Kirby didn't get as much credit as Stan Lee, but when it became about who got a share of the billions generated by the successful Marvel movie franchises, all of a sudden, giving artists their due became a Thing.

That's not saying it isn't important, because it is. There are any number of reasons why, despite being very important to the medium, artists don't get as much credit as writers. But I think it has a lot more to do with money than some are willing to admit. Not just in terms of "Whose Walking Dead Is It, Anyway?" either. When it comes time to get a contract or put together your creator-owned project, the perception that Writer trumps Artist can have serious implications and be the difference between being a full time creator and having to keep a day job.

And reviewers play a part in this, we most certainly do. Especially since a large number of the folks who are reviewer/creators seem to be writers, including me (though I write prose, not comics). Just thinking about the Newsarama team for a minute, I believe there's only one person in the group who is an artist versus at least five of us who write professionally in some capacity. And I can tell you that David Pepose works tirelessly to find all kinds of perspectives, so if that 5:1 ratio is correct, then it's not because Pep wants more writers on the team--it's because there just aren't as many artists being critics, at least on weekly books.*

It's part of why I've been reaching out to folks who are also creators for Panel Patter like Whit, and was very pleased to have Rob Kirby join in when he's able. No matter how hard I try, artistically I'll always be a layman, barring unforeseen changes to my life that lead me to think practicing art every day is something I want to do.

But let me make something very clear: If you are reviewing comics, while it's your right to just talk about the writer, it's also a sign of developmental immaturity. We are trained to look at story and dialogue from the day we learn to read. So it's natural when you do your first review, whether you're fifteen or fifty, to lean heavily on the writer, maybe even to the complete exclusion of the art. If you're still doing that as you progress, then you are doing it wrong, and you're not going to have your work respected.

Whether you're an artist or a writer or even a computer programmer, your initial work will make you cringe. I have a paper notebook with reviews I wrote in 2006. I'm afraid to look at the thing. I got better. I learned. I read reviews form people I respected, such as Johanna Draper Carlson. I went back to my dog-eared copy of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way to get vocabulary. I read what creators (both writers and artists) were saying to each other on Twitter. I read interviews about the craft and the creative process for comics. (Please, please note it needs to be about comics. Not about books. Certainly not about movies. Comics.)

I didn't always agree at first. (Darryl Ayo can attest to this.) But I listened. And I reflected. And I looked at myself. And I think that since I started to realize some of the traps I was falling into as a reviewer and worked to correct them, that the work of the past year has been some of my best.

How much impact reviewers have is up to debate. I rarely see a person who puts to virtual paper the words, "Wow, Red Hood and the Outlaws is amazing and here's why!" but it's a high-selling book. Sometimes, especially when I see a dearth of site hits for a post on a comic I thought was unbelievably good, I wonder why I review at all. These are things reviewers talk about, trust me.

The bottom line, however, is that we as reviewers are a part of comics culture. So when we ignore the artist, we are complicit when people talk about "Stan Lee's Fantastic Four" or "Jonathan Hickman's Manhattan Projects" or "Ryan North's Adventure Time." I know that Twitter makes this difficult, and the fact that so much of comics discussion goes on via Twitter these days--at least for me, it does--mean we can take up 140 characters just naming the creators involved.**

Some of the links that started this off argue for things that I think step too far. One suggests reviewing the cover. I call bullshit on that. Covers are awesome. I love covers. But you're kidding yourself if you still believe that most covers have much to do with the contents inside. Unless it's something like Adventure Time Eye Candy (a book of covers), the cover isn't germane to the book beyond featuring the characters. Do a separate art appreciation for a particular cover artist instead.

Another thing we hear often is putting the art first in the review. Sometimes this is justified, but are we really so shallow that we only read the first paragraph of a review, so if the art's not there, we don't know about the art? What exactly are you saying about the review itself, if you're implying people don't care to read to the end? The key is balance. It doesn't matter where the discussion is. If the amount of time spent is roughly equal, it's a fair review.

The concept of Story = Writing + Art is a good one. But this is one of those times where I think we need to throw things back to the companies and put some responsibility on them. When the credits don't tell a reviewer whether the story was collaborative or not, then it's unfair to ding the review writer for crediting the plot to the writer. It's not that hard to put "Story and Words by X, Story and Art by Y" in the credits. Why isn't this done on a regular basis? Why aren't people calling for that instead of asking reviews to assume everything is collaborative, which isn't true, either?

I used to love the credit of "Story, Plot, and Pencils by DeFalco and Frenz" on Spider-Girl, because it told me that the two creators were responsible for the idea. A more recent example is Edison Rex, where Chris Roberson and Dennis Culver get a co-credit for the story, and then separate credits for their role. That's something that could be done on every book starting with the next printed editions, and it would help this debate immensely.

I fully agree that the artist changes how a story looks in a comic. But there's a big difference between coming up with ideas (story/plot credit) and an individual take on implementing those ideas (art credit).

My point here is that I feel like in recent conversations, there's been a feeling that it's all the reviewers' and fans' fault that artists don't get their due. To some degree that is true, and we all should spend more time thinking about comics as a team effort, right down to the colorist and maybe even the letterer.***

At the same time, though, there are some things the creative teams and publishers can do to make this happen as well. I've suggested one above. Another might be not replacing artists every few issues or ensuring that when a book is Big Name Writer and Big Name Artist, that said creative team is actually going to finish what they start, or at least come close. I love Valiant, but I can't understand why they change out artists every arc. It makes it hard to feel like the books are collaborative, even if they are. Also, I know things happen, but look at the way Dark Horse pitched  "Wood and Cloonan's Conan" that ended up being what? Six issues out of twenty five? Now it's just "Wood's Conan" and it's hard to blame reviewers and fans for that, because there have been over half a dozen to work on such a short run.

I'm not trying to call anyone out here. I'm just saying that the blame isn't as one-sided as I feel like it's portrayed sometimes.

For artists in particular, trying to have your own style instead of looking like you shit something out of Photoshop would be a big help. Great art gets noticed. Hell, perceived bad art gets noticed (see Liefeld, Robert). But when I see another book with stiff, thin-lined characters who stand around even when they're yelling, I don't really have a reason to discuss your artistic merits, now do I? Instead, I'm going to spend more time on the word balloons over their heads.

This isn't an easy topic. Even finishing this up, I worry I've pissed off my artist friends. But the reason why you're my artist friends in the first place is because you do stand out, you did make me look at what you brought to the comic, and odds are, we started talking because you brought something to the table that I called out in a review or a tweet.

The fact is that this is an ongoing conversation that needs to be had. Everyone shares a part of the blame here for letting it come to this, and digging out of it and giving artists the credit they deserve isn't going to come easily. We are in the Golden Age of creator-owned work, which is helping. Just look at the fact that I always see Fatale billed as belonging to "Brubaker and Phillips." We can move this needle, but it's going to take all hands on deck, taking care of their own piece of the puzzle. Trying to push the blame onto someone else won't do the trick. I hope it hasn't seemed like I was doing that here, because that wasn't my intent.

We're all in this thing called Comics together. We can make it better. But just like putting together a monthly book, it's going to take everyone working together to get the overall product (Comics Appreciation) to be the thing we want, namely respect for all parties involved.


*Critiques from creators seem to be more focused on either alt comix or art comics instead of their weekly counterparts and are most often found in places like The Comics Journal. So yes, they do exist. But that's more in the realm of academic criticism rather than a review, so it's outside the scope of this essay.

**Ironically, I once had the writer of a book mention on Twitter that they wrote the book, when I was discussing how good the artist on the title was. Leave it to me to find the exception to the rule!

***That's not to say letterers are unimportant, just that for the most part, like a good editor, we shouldn't notice the letters as a rule, unless there's a reason for it.