Thursday, July 27, 2006

THE EVIL THAT MEN DOODLE

The Influence of the Writer/Artist Singularity on Modern Comics
by John Jones, Manhunter from Marathon, IL

URL: http://www.angelfire.com/ny3/docnebula/index.html

Like many things in the strange subgenre of heroic fantasy fiction we call superhero comics, the whole mess seems to start with Jack Kirby.

Oh, there were artists who wrote their own dialogue before Kirby. The Golden Age of Comics featured the talents of many such writer/artist singularities, most likely because the publishers putting out the million-count runs of garishly drawn, crudely lettered, poorly printed comic books on the roughest pulp newsprint they could find were simply too cheap to pay an extra person when they could instead toss a couple of pennies at a guy who could both draw and put reasonably coherent words in the little bubbles coming out of the characters' mouths.

Some of these early writer/artist singularities, like Jack Cole and Will Eisner, are still well remembered as being experts at both aspects of their craft. And this is as good a time as any to note that an artist who can write as well as draw is not a bad thing, and this particular article is not meant to imply that they are. There have always been writers who drew their own scripts in comics, or artists who script their own pencils, and as long as the creator in question is at least competent at both jobs, I say more power to them.

It isn't particularly surprising that there have always been writer/artists in comics, since the adventure comic strip, which arguably gave birth to the whole superhero comics industry, was loaded to the gunwales with gifted writer/artists like Lee Falk, Milt Caniff, Frank Robbins, Alex Raymond and Al Williamson. In fact, back then and to this day, if you want to be a successful comic strip cartoonist, you had to write AND draw, although the only modern cartoonist I can think of who writes and draws anywhere near as well as the great Golden Age adventure strip creators is Bill Watterson.

It's interesting to note that in the field of comic strips, while the graphic presentation of a strip is clearly important, more important still these days is the capacity to do humor in a four panel sequence day in and day out, and a cartoonist who can do that consistently doesn't have to be a particularly gifted artist... as the scrawled, hamfisted etchings that illustrate favorite comic strips like THE FAR SIDE and FOXTROT amply attest.

So, while art is important, words are essential... something the comic book editors at DC in the mid 80s, and Marvel in the early 90s, and Joe Quesada today, would do well to remember. (But he won't.)

The important point here, and one that I think editors and modern fans frequently lose sight of, is that writing a story for comic books, and drawing a story for comic books, are two very different disciplines, requiring very different kinds of talent and skill. The techniques for both are wildly disparate, as disparate as the ability to act and the ability to direct. There are people who can do both, absolutely. But the fact that a person is skilled in one field does not mean they necessarily know anything about the other. And this is a point we're going to be coming back to often, as we move on through the history of the writer/artist singularity in superhero comics, and its impact on the entire industry over the past twenty or thirty years.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Right from the start, the superhero genre was different from the adventure comic strip industry that half heartedly inspired it. After all, the bloody, laboring birth of superhero comics was accomplished by a collaborative writer/artist combination of two obscure guys named Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster.

Jack Kirby himself spent his first fifteen years in the field as the pencilling half of the legendary Simon-Kirby duo. Thus we can see that from the very outset, the distinct job of 'writer' existed in superhero comics, a job that belonged to creative professionals whose task and specialty was supplying the text in the word balloons and the captions, providing the narrative and the dialogue that accompanied the vibrant, garish visuals that illustrated the early superhero adventures, and more often than not, providing the basic ideas, plots, and even full scripts that the artist drew the story from.

By the dawn of the Silver Age decades later, the distinct roles of writer and artist had been so clearly established as to be an invariable tradition. National Comics (DC) had developed their famous 'full script' style in which virtually all control of the story was in the hands of their writers... the pacing, the exposition, the visual direction and flow from one panel to another, the very manner in which the story developed... it was all directed in the visual instructions provided next to each panel's freight of dialogue and caption text.

There are advantages to the full script method, not least of which is that an artist knows how many text balloons are going to have to be inserted into each panel and can draw to accomodate them. However, there is little doubt that the full script method can also stifle the capacity of a master visual storyteller to fully bring a plot to life, especially when the scripter actually knows less about graphic serial storytelling, visual pacing, and page design than the artist.

However, it's extremely doubtful that writer/artists would ever have become an economically powerful and creatively influential force in comics had the 'full script' method continued to be used. There was simply too much power... virtually all of the actual story direction... in the hands of the writer for artists ever to assert themselves, unless they were willing to do the work of sitting down and typing out their scripts first, submitting them to an editor, and then drawing them. This would have been such a tedious and cumbersome procedure that it's doubtful too many artists would ever even have tried to do it.

I mentioned previously that the modern obsession with the writer/artist singularity seems to have begun with Jack Kirby. That may have been overly simplistic. In point of fact, it seems to have actually started with Stan Lee.

The Marvel style, in which the writer basically gave the artist a plot, either vague or detailed, and then let the artist draw it however he liked, after which the writer scripted the dialogue and captions while looking at photostats of the pencils, put a much greater amount of creative responsibility in the hands of the artist.

As with cross-title continuity, this innovative approach basically evolved simply because Stan Lee was writing every title in the nascent Silver Age Marvel Universe. Lee simply didn't have TIME to work full script with anyone... and he was fortunate enough to be working with creators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who were more than competent to plot their own stories. (Lee's contributions to the collaborations were, I think, still significant, since Kirby's dialogue is crude, hammering stuff at its best, and Ditko, left to his own devices, is a raving Ayn Randite whose literary and philosophical excesses in solo works like THE QUESTION and MR. A are embarrassing to say the least.)

By developing the "Marvel Style", Lee could toss a few ideas at imaginative geniuses like Kirby and Ditko and trust them to run with the ball, as both were perfectly capable of taking even relatively vague instructions like "Let's have another masked criminal mastermind show up, and how about bringing the Green Goblin back?" or "Let's have the FF fight God" and transforming them into 24 pages of astonishing graphics packed with more plot than the average modern comic manages to do in a full year's worth of issues.

This was the a major break with the traditions established at DC. Suddenly, the artists weren't just talented workers pencilling whatever the little VISUAL: blurb told them to for that particular panel; instead, they were real creative collaborators, making real creative decisions and contributions on story content and direction.

Stan obviously didn't have TIME to reject ANYTHING, even if it was something completely out of left field (as, apparently, the Silver Surfer was in his first appearance); he barely had time to script whatever his collaborators handed him.

Suddenly, artists like Ditko, Kirby, Heck, and Colan weren't just pencilling by specific instruction; they were making up sub-plots, establishing different characterization directions, making up supporting characters and villains out of whole cloth, even deciding how the stories were going to end.

Given how scanty Lee's plots sometimes were, it was only a matter of time before his various artists started thinking they might as well just write their own scripts and be done with it... although for virtually all his own solo work, Ditko continued to use someone else as to do the dialogue over his plots and pencils, in a way that presaged the method non-writers like Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee would later adopt in their own work at Image.

Thus were the seeds sown that would decades later grow into the "Image attitude"... a manifest belief that the art was the only crucial and truly creative element in any comic book, and that the writing was just words that practically anyone could throw nearly at random into the word balloons and caption boxes.

The "Marvel style" worked well for the infant Bullpen, so much so that Marvel's second generation of writers and artists, people like Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, John and Sal Buscema, Neal Adams, John Romita, and even later, Chris Claremont, Marv Wolfman, John Byrne, Bill Mantlo, Doug Moench, Paul Gulacy, Mike Ploog, and others, adopted it and used it unthinkingly... all of them laying the groundwork for the writer/artist singularity phenomenon that was to very nearly put superhero comics in an almost deserved grave by the mid-90s.

So prevalent was the Marvel style at Marvel and, after the mid 70s, when defecting writers had carried it elsewhere, throughout comics as a whole, that it wasn't until Jim Shooter showed up at the House of Ideas in the late 70s that any of their writers considered working full script... something Shooter, whose writing habits had been set in apparent concrete by his earliest experiences writing the Legion of Superheroes strip for DC, continued to do, even though his lack of grasp on basic storytelling techniques caused Perez, and even mediocrities like Bob Hall, to draw far worse for him than they ever had under other Marvel writers who simply gave them plots to pencil.

In the late 60s, though, Jack Kirby had left the house he and Stan built for DC, and it was ironically there, in the home of the full script method, that the modern tradition of the writer-artist singularity was really born.

Kirby's more or less mainstream work for DC, his "Fourth World" series, drew attention and admiration like a lightning rod, and those various titles and comics are still regarded with awe approaching worship by the vast majority of fans and pros who have ever read them.

(It's probably worth my life in some quarters for me to mention that I think Kirby's later series for DC, KAMANDI, THE LAST BOY ON EARTH, as well as the far too short lived OMAC, makes most of his "Fourth World" work look childish and cumbersome, if only in that both KAMANDI and OMAC had a sense of whimsy to them that poor Orion, Lightray, Darkseid, and even the goofy-but-somehow-never-amusing Forever People couldn't even hope to aspire to.)

For purposes of this article, though, what's important to note is that suddenly, the entire industry, fans and pros alike, was realizing that apparently, a good comic book did not necessarily require two names in the credit boxes. If Kirby could script his own stuff well enough that people not only bought it, but actually raved about it, well, might not there be other artists out there who could work similar wonders? Abruptly, the entire role of the writer in comic books was brought into question for the first time since the Golden Age.

That Jack Kirby is the spiritual father of the whole Modern Age, Image-derived writer-artist singularity phenomenon really can't be doubted. In interviews, most of the Image founders consistently claim Kirby as a seminal influence, and they also tend to list other fan favorite writer-artists like Jim Starlin and John Byrne, as well, both of whom started out scripting their own art as little more than Xeroxes of the King's style.

To this day Jim Starlin has never pencilled or written so much as a panel or a caption that Kirby himself didn't draw or dialogue better ten or twenty years earlier, and Byrne tossed out most of the original individual visual stylings and innovations he developed on titles like IRON FIST to madly embrace Kirby's more cubistic lay outs and renderings with his very first assignment as his own scripter.

And of course, out of the success of Starlin and Byrne come the entire modern generation of writer/artist singularities, most of which, like most of their predecessors, influences, and mentors, couldn't create an original plot, script a mellifluous sentence, or write a snappy caption, if producing such were the only way to save themselves from a firing squad at dawn.

Had any editors or publishers in the mid 70s been able to look ahead a few years to see Kirby's embarrassing, and mercifully brief, attempts to write and draw Marvel titles like CAPTAIN AMERICA and BLACK PANTHER and DEVIL DINOSAUR, the last of which he even created himself, they might not have been so quick to decide that artists writing their own word balloons was always a winning idea. Even Kirby's lauded work on THE ETERNALS was more a breeding ground for interesting ideas than a successful dramatic comic book series.

But by the time all this came about, Kirby had already established to nearly everyone's satisfaction that a distinct writer wasn't ALWAYS necessary for a title to be saleable... and the industry drew the wrong lesson from it. Rather than realizing that Kirby was simply a genius, a throwback to the days of Golden Age greats like Caniff and Raymond and Robbins, editors and publishers apparently began to come to the conclusion that being able to draw was the same thing as being able to write... and it ain't necessarily so, Joe.

The superhero comic book industry was going to pay a huge price for this misconception a decade later, when DC's publisher and editors, perceiving a necessity to update and revise the company's entire pantheon of heroes, decided to turn the creative responsibility for the great majority of these conceptual reboots over to writer/artist singularities... with utterly ruinous results. (There is, after all, only one Jack Kirby. Pity they didn't realize that then.)

Some of the influential writer-artists who played starring roles in the disaster that was post Crisis DC did not take their entire visual repertoire from Kirby, to be sure. Usually, though, they were the worse for it.

Mike Grell, who first scripted his own stiff, mannequin-like art on the obscure DC title WARLORD, and later went on to utterly destroy Green Arrow in two wretched post Crisis reboot mini series, seemed to get most of his inspiration from old hard boiled detective magazines and pulp 50s SF, where the men were always two fisted fighters with swords or guns in either brawny hand, and women existed only to sprawl on the ground at the hero's feet with one arm wrapped clingingly around his calf, staring fearfully out at some unseen menace only The Uberman could possibly save her from.

Howard Chaykin's self scripted stories were similarly misogynistic, if rather more libidinous; in them, the good looking girl didn't simply sprawl at the hero's feet helplessly, but to a purpose, which usually involved spreading her legs or bobbing her head just off panel shortly before or after she was rescued. Fortunately, all Chaykin was allowed to screw up at DC post Crisis were the Blackhawks. (It's interesting to note that while Chaykin and Grell's heroic characters tended to be fine, stalwart examples of broad-shouldered, clear-eyed, mighty thewed warrior-sorts that nearly any Edgar Rice Burroughs fan would have recognized immediately, they were a comparatively pasty and wheezing lot within the context of any superhero universe. Bouncing Boy, or nearly any member of the Legion of Substitute Heroes, could have thrashed an auditorium-ful of them without breaking a sweat.)

Frank Miller almost single handedly initiated a deluge of explicitly illustrated darkness and violence in American superhero comics with his blood and tooth-fragment spattered initial run as writer/artist on DAREDEVIL, and there was nary a shred of Kirby influence to be seen, as Miller drew his own inspirations from the gruesome manga comics of Japan.

(Miller, it must be admitted, CAN write when he wants to, and his work, when he's not obsessing on ninjas or ancient bat-demons, is often inspirational and always intriguing. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that I find his BORN AGAIN story arc, as well as the original MARTHA WASHINGTON limited series, to be exceptionally fine works in the comic book field, although I'm not sure Martha really counts as a superhero... although, most likely, if confronted with any of the Substitute Heroes, she'd be smart enough to shoot them from ambush with a rocket launcher, instead of engaging them in futile fisticuffs or martial arts mookery as Jon Sable or Reuben Flagg probably would.)

Still, Miller only seems to write well for other artists; when he scripts over his own pencils, he tends to produce nonsense laden with ninjas or mutants or cybernetic samurai that is only useful as a cure for insomnia.

I should also note at some point in this article that competent artists who also write well are far from completely unknown in contemporary comics. Creators such as Scott McCloud, Paul Chadwick, and that guy who did CRASH RYAN whose name I can never remember, like Jack Cole and Will Eisner and Alex Toth, have produced wonderfully written AND drawn work. In fact, Scott McCloud's DESTROY! should be on any discerning superhero fan's Top 10 list, and certainly, anyone who hasn't found the time to revel in the quiet, moody, human grandeur of Paul Chadwick's CONCRETE needs to hie themselves off to a comics shop with a good back issues section post frickin' haste.

And while I'm on the subject, Walt Simonson's run as writer-artist on THOR, while flawed in spots, was without a doubt the best sequence of stories that troubled title has seen since Kirby himself stopped plotting it.

But this article isn't about the exceptions, it's about the rule, and as a rule, this astounding notion that, just because someone is a wonderfully gifted penciller (as John Byrne and Todd McFarlane, just for two examples, undeniably are), they must also have even a vague grasp on the basics of story structure, plot, or interesting characterization, is patently ridiculous... and more than ridiculous, it has proven disastrous to those of us who actually enjoy READing our comics, rather than just gazing admiringly at the pretty pictures, or sealing them up in nitrogen-free environments to wait for them to attain a higher Price Guide figure as collectibles than Amos n' Andy Ovaltine mugs with built-in secret decoders.

And this weird delusion wasn't just disastrous to those of us who like to read well written comics, no, it was equally catastrophic to comics' oldest internally consistent fictional universe, as well. It was, in point of undeniable fact, responsible for the apparently irrevocable death of quality comic books at DC.

If there's a watershed moment when quality writing died at DC Comics, it has to be the Crisis... and while that miserable, poorly conceived and terribly executed miniseries itself was helmed by two of comicdom's hoariest and most unimaginative hacks, Len Wein and Marv Wolfman, the seemingly endless wave of single character reboots that rolled out, each one somehow managing to be even worse than the one before, for two years or so after CRISIS, was nearly all in the hands of writer/artist singularities.

This was a dreadful period in superhero comics. Silver Age fans like myself watched in horror as one of the finest imaginary worlds ever treasured by an entire generation of young readers was slashed, shredded, pissed on, and trampled underfoot by a berserk, bungling gang of non-writers that, in a more sane universe, would never have been allowed to come within four feet of a typewriter or word processor.

We watched as a clueless John Byrne transformed the seminal superhero icon into an egoistic grandstander who used his superpowers unfairly to gain adulation as an athlete in his teenage years, but later slunk home and sniveled to his mother about everyone wanting a piece of him after his first public display of super-prowess.

We winced as the psychotic headbanging Dark Knight from Miller's futuristic, out of continuity fable THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was established as the official, canonical interpretation of the post Crisis Batman.

We shuddered as Mike Grell turned Green Arrow into a vicious sadist who would rather punch holes in the hands, arms, and legs of criminals with cruelly barbed hunting shafts than cleanly incapicitate them with boxing glove or knockout gas arrows, and we shuddered again when we saw Black Canary, the last surviving superheroine of Comics Golden Age, tortured and raped for no other reason but to provide her suddenly humorless paramour with a motivation for becoming so gruesomely vindictive.

We groaned as Tim Truman, whose SCOUT had sucked for years at Eclipse, followed in the footsteps of midgets by turning Thanagar into yet another grimngritty cyberpunk dystopia, and Hawkman into a drug addicted fratricide.

We picked up EMERALD DAWN and threw it right back down, aghast at the spectacle of a drunkenly lecherous Hal Jordan sitting in jail, lost in self pity, after a disastrous attempt to drive while under the influence of alcohol.

We, who had seen the awfulness of Jan Strnad's SORT OF THE ATOM, who had recoiled from the degradation of the Justice League enacted during the era best described with the phrase "Aquaman and the Outsiders", thought we had already seen DC at its worst. We were sadly mistaken. And a relentless tide of ghoulish non-writers was making sure we knew it, ably aided and abetted by editors who actually seemed to encourage the ongoing debacle. Make it grimmer. More violent. Bloodier. Have Superman kill a race of evil aliens, let the Joker murder the new Robin, have an obscure villain butcher Katma Tui for the sake of the melodrama, have the entire Legion of Superheroes be stuck in yet another horrible, grimngritty, cyberpunk dystopia that, just to put the icing on the cake, was both written and drawn by extraordinarily untalented Keith Giffen.

This horrible rape of comic book's Original Universe went on, relentlessly and remorselessly, for years and years, until finally, the only thing that anyone who had ever treasured a Cary Bates-Curt Swan Superman story, or a Hamilton-Forte Legion tale, or even a mediocre Wein-Dillin JLA story, could do was wash their hands of the whole thing and turn away with sickened stomachs and hardened hearts.

Our passionate letters of protest were met with mocking or surly sneers from petulant editors, who called us whiners and told us haughtily (if nonsensically) that since we hadn't protested when the Golden Age characters had been revised into Silver Age versions, we had no right to protest now, as the Silver Age characters were revised into unrecognizable creative abortions.

And through all this, the very concept of the writer/artist was like a stake jammed through the heart of the DC Universe, until it got to a point where I very nearly vowed to never, ever, buy another comic by a writer-artist again. The dreadful potential of Marvel style, first come to fruition in Kirby's work as a singularity at DC in the early 70s, had finally brought in a harvest of havoc and horror.

There were occasional shafts of sunlight in the post Crisis DC Universe, like John Ostrander's SUICIDE SQUAD and FIRESTORM, and Alan Brennart's far too rare one shot stories that almost, for one brief, shining moment, made the whole post Crisis thing seem to make sense again... and Gaiman's SANDMAN, of course, was and is as good as or better than anything that had ever been done, before or since, in ANY comics universe... but those singular and even brilliant comic book stories, it shouldn't even have to be noted, were produced by actual WRITERS.

For the vast most part, the phenomenon of the writer/artist singularity had burned the post Crisis DC continuity down to the bedrock before the ink was even dry on THE HISTORY OF THE DC UNIVERSE, a two volume bookshelf format set that was supposed to act as a continuity Bible for the new DC timeline... and then made certain that anything that was put up either wouldn't last long before being once more revised out of existence, or would be so terrible and poorly conceived that we could only hope someone would make it go away with yet another retroactive continuity implant story as soon as possible.

The immediate result of the DC reboots, and its apparent lesson that actual writers were considered mostly unnecessary in the greatest creative undertaking in the history of superhero comics, was that the good writers in comics fled in droves for other fields. Cary Bates, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, Alan Moore, Archie Goodwin, even solid second stringers like Bill Mantlo, all became notable by their absences at both major companies, at least, for the rest of the 80s. The mainstream superhero industry was left to third raters like Howard Mackie and Mark Gruenwald and Scott Lobdell and Doug Moench, who after his glory years in the 70s on MASTER OF KUNG FU now seemed resigned to churning out endless pap and swill on Batman titles simply to get a paycheck every month.

Relatively new writers, up from the alternatives and grateful for a chance to script with the big boys, like Chuck Dixon and Mike Baron, pretty quickly started shoveling out pablum, too. The 80s were a terrible time for DC, and a mediocre time for Marvel... and it was only going to get worse.

While Marvel, more or less wisely, never indulged in a comprehensive cross-title divorce from its past continuity like DC did with CRISIS, it was headed for its own writer/artist singularity problems nevertheless. Perhaps Kirby's less than stellar career as a writer/artist singularity at Marvel had cautioned their editorial staff against relying too much on such 2-in-1 combos, although Starlin, Byrne, Miller, and Simonson had proven popular as writer-artists at various times.

Still, Marvel seemed content to employ writers who didn't draw, as well as artists who didn't write, throughout the 70s and 80s, and while the quality of their comics in the 80s was an order of magnitude less than it had been in the 70s, still, overall, they were generally more entertaining and less offensive reads than the travesties being put out at DC.

It wasn't until the dawn of the 1990s that Marvel, apparently, lost its corporate mind entirely... but when they lost it, they did it in a highly motivated fashion. Their descent into the caldron of the writer/artist singularity was nearly as sweeping and disastrous as DC's had been in the previous decade, and like DC, they're still trying to pick up the scattered pieces that remain after that singular journey into the jungles of utter insanity... and apparently, they're now poised to jump headlong back into the madness again.

I will never, for the life of me, even begin to grasp how any professional editor ever looked at a Todd McFarlane plot, a page of pencils by Erik Larsen, or anything at all, plot or pencils, from Rob Liefeld, and then thought "Hey, I know, let's pay this idiot money for this shit and then actually publish it... with my name in the credits as being responsible for it, much less."

It's simply beyond my capacity to comprehend how so many so called professionals could have so sweepingly lost their minds simultaneously. The first time I saw a page pencilled by Rob Liefeld I honestly thought it was a joke; the first time I saw one by Erik Larsen, I was astounded that a worse artist than Jose Delbo actually existed and managed to get work in comics.

McFarlane's art clearly had potential even crushed into near incoherency under Thomas' ridiculous demands in INFINITY INC., but his plots were nonsensical and his dialogue made Jack Kirby's word balloons sound like Shakespeare. (Todd later assured us that he had never actually read Shakespeare, or, really, much of anything besides the sports page, and he was confident that actually reading Shakespeare wouldn't make him a better writer. I shall not argue with The Great Man, since I myself am of the firm opinion that only a full frontal lobotomy could make him a better writer, anyway.)

How these cluelessly inept self titled wonder kids ever got professional work was and is something I will never understand. But... they did. And... even more baffling (most likely, it's a sign of the coming Apocalypse) their work was popular.

So popular that when Marvel refused to give in to their extortionate demands for increased page rates and piratical royalties, they simply walked out on their contracts and went into business for themselves as the near-iconically shallow and creatively bankrupt Image Comics, where they endlessly extolled the now somewhat familiar sounding idea that good artists didn't need writers... that, in fact, the distinct role of writer was dead as a dinosaur in comics from that point on, because the art was the only important element in comics production.

Throughout this essay, I've talked about the astonishingly foolish presumption that someone gifted at one aspect of comic book creation -- the artwork -- would necessarily be equally, or even adequately, gifted at the other half of collaborative comic book creation, namely, the writing. This was apparently the line of thought that led DC's editors and publisher to place the fates of their characters in the hands of a bunch of artists who had never in the past demonstrated much or any capacity as writers who could possibly do justice to the seminal icons of the superhero genre.

However, with the founding of Image Comics, this concept underwent a bizarre mutation, and became something even more fundamentally strange. At Image, it was no longer assumed that if you were a good artist, you were automatically a good writer. No, their presumption was even more fundmental: that if a comic book had a good artist... no... scratch that... if a comic book had someone who could trace old Frank Miller and John Byrne panels and string them together into something that seemed, on the surface, like an exciting visual narrative, however senseless... it didn't need any other creative input AT ALL.

Ernie Colon, when he was editing THE FLASH shortly before the Crisis, may have unwittingly (and witlessly) stated the Image Comics manifesto best when he declared that you could have a comic story that was simply pictures and no words, but you could never have a comics story that was simply words without pictures. Years later, Image Comics would take this stupid and insulting statement to its next logical step. Good artists weren't necessarily good writers -- and they didn't have to be, because comics didn't need writers. All they needed was artists.

Oh, someone needed to put words in the boxes and balloons, sure. But any idiot could do that. The artist certainly could, but if he was too busy banging teenage groupies to be bothered with such tedious monkey-work, some nearly literate high school pal who got Cs or Bs in English without cheating too much could be paid a couple of bucks to type up the dialogue. After all, it wasn't actually going to be READ by anyone, anyway.

Writers, in the eyes of Image, were no more important to the ultimate product than the letterer or the colorist. It was a job that required certain rudimentary skills but no actual talent, that any interchangeable cog could perform. Need a writer? Go down to McDonald's and throw a lasso around the kid running the deep fryer. Chance were, he could write dialogue good enough for the average TEAM YOUNGBLOOD fan.

If the comics had been well drawn, I could almost have understood how people could actually buy into this nonsense. I like a beautifully drawn comic as much as anyone else does, honestly, I do. But Rob Liefeld's YOUNGBLOOD and Erik Larsen's SAVAGE DRAGON, in addition to apparently being written by seven year old valley dudes doing two fingered typing on laptops while balancing one legged in rush hour traffic atop heavily decaled skateboards, also looked amazingly like... well... doo doo.

Even Jim Lee's art on WILDC.A.T.'s was a half witted compilation of blatant lightbox swipes from other fan favorite comics published ten years previously, with a script that was, if anything, even worse than the drivel previously churned out by his fellow subliterates Larsen, Liefeld, and McFarlane.

Nonetheless, the dreadful things sold in the millions.

So... we had a comics company whose stated manifesto was that all a comic required to be 'good' (read as: successful) was good art, in which 90% of the published titles DIDN'T have good art... and they still sold in numbers not seen since the Golden Age, when paper was cheap and artists were cheaper. Obviously, writers were no longer necessary to producing commercially successful comics. Hell, apparently, competent artists weren't even necessary.

And it didn't matter. The comics... for lack of a better word... sold like large caliber ammo at a white militia rally, and young kids with sketchbooks started to sneer at their fellow comics fans who wanted to someday WRITE the X-Men or Batman, secure in the knowledge that the writer was as obsolete in comics as a kerosene lamp, and in fact, you didn't even have to be able to draw WELL if you had a good lightbox or could ink a different costume over some faint photocopies of ten year old Frank Miller Elektra panels. Even when the Image founders started to surreptitiously bring in actual writers to upgrade their story quality somewhat, it didn't seem to have any impact on their general creed that scripters were now completely unnecessary to comics.

What Image taught comics ultimately was not that writers are unnecessary to comics, but that in fact, quality creative talent is unnecessary to comics.

It's a lesson that was learned more or less across the board by every aspect of the entertainment industry in the 80s and 90s. Pop groups that can't play their instruments and don't actually sing, TV shows about nothing, and endless sequels of hit movies that do nothing except recycle the original plot as repetitively as possible, can be stacked right alongside the creative sterility and bankruptcy of marketing gimmick storylines like DEATH OF SUPERMAN, HEROES REBORN, endless incoherent mutant mini-series set in evil alternate timelines, and a story in SPIDER-MAN where Peter Parker was revealed to merely be a clone, and then, later, to actually be Darth Vader, or the one true King of Britain, or something else equally incomprehensible.

This is the message of the 90s, which both companies seem to have learned quite well. Even if comics are badly written and poorly drawn, someone will buy them. If you need to pump up sales for a while, you don't need to hire a good writer. You can either come up with a gimmicky story arc, like killing off Superman for a couple of issues, or you can hire a bunch of big name non-writers who are too rich to even be bothered to draw badly these days, to come in and loosely plot a horrible alternate universe cross title publishing event for a year. The bottom line seems to be same for comics as it is for Wall Street: Generate buzz and people will buy it. They may not READ it, but once you've got their money, who really cares what they do with the product?

Until recently, I thought there were signs that superhero comics might be recovering from the writer/artist singularity madness. Until recently, I thought that the renewed veneration by fandom of various big name writers who don't and never will draw anything, such as Alan Moore, Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, Kurt Busiek, and Warren Ellis, was a good thing, in that, at the very least, it showed that people were starting to once more understand that writing comic books well was hard work, which required talent and skill, and was worthy of respect in and of itself, and was not simply something that any competent penciller or his housemate could do 'good enough'.

I took it as a positive sign that both companies have once more started courting actual writers, instead of reserving the big page rates and enticing royalties for artists who are also willing to throw random words into the balloons and boxes. It was even somewhat uplifting to me to note that one of that small number of contemporary comics writers who is both popular and talented, Christopher Priest, is actually Jim Owsley, a writer I had once reviled for his dreadful work on EMERALD DAWN.

If someone as appalling as Owsley can improve so vastly, there has to be hope for the industry as a whole, doesn't there?

But then there's the other side of the coin. Writer-artist singularities like John Byrne continue to thrive without a shred of writing talent. A completely untested writer, Carlos Pacheco, is going straight from an admittedly excellent job pencilling AVENGERS FOREVER into the writer/artist box on FANTASTIC FOUR, and while I wish him the best, I dread the worst.

Many of the current crop of fan favorite writers are actually lousy, lazy no-talents who would be better employed pumping gas than screwing over my favorite heroes, and if the fans can adulate such paragons of style over substance as Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, and Warren Ellis, it's a good indication that the paying customers still have no clear idea what good writing actually is.

Most ominous of all, the ascent of Joe Quesada to the highest editorial chair at Marvel is one I have to view with a great deal of uneasiness, since the man clearly can't write a lick, and just as clearly seems to have no grasp on the concept that comics really should be well written.

Again... I've said it before, but after so many paragraphs hammering hard at so many so-called writer/artists, it's worth saying at least one more time... I have absolutely no problem with or objection to artists who script their own pencils, or writers who draw their own scripts, assuming that the creator in question is at least competent at both jobs. What this article is about is what happens when we let people write comics... and not just any comics, either, but important comics, like the entire series of origin stories that redefined the basic continuity of the frickin' DC UNIVERSE, for god's sake... who are not good writers, who have never demonstrated the level of talent and skill that should be expected and required of creators given such assignments, and who, if they did not have professional contacts and were not skilled in a complementary but completely different artform, would never have been considered for the assignment.

And that, at base, is all I'm saying. Giving John Byrne a writing assignment because he can draw is no different than publishing a lousy horror novel by a terrible writer because she's Stephen King's wife. Well, actually, it's a little different. When Random House does it with Tabitha King, it simply wastes some shelf space at Borders that could have been given to something by George R.R. Martin or Barbara Hambly. When DC did it with Byrne and Grell and Giffen and Truman, it destroyed a significant part of the four color heroic mythology that existed in the world at that time. When Marvel did it with McFarlane and Liefeld, it led to the near destruction of superhero comics as a subgenre and comics as an art form in America, and the example set by the modern crop of artists who can't write but are making a fortune doing it anyway has very nearly ruined the quality of superhero comics for an entire generation.

Writing is hard, folks. It requires talent and skill to do well, just like virtually any other area of human achievement. I'm a good writer (he said with no false modesty at all), and I would never presume to believe that just because I am, someone should pay me a thousand bucks a page to draw Batman. The fact that nearly everyone in the comics industry, pros and fans alike, seems to have assumed, for the last ten years at least, that the opposite is true... that simply because someone is a good penciller, they can therefore write well, or even adequately, also... offends me. Which really doesn't matter, of course. What does matter is that in addition to offending me, it's also come kissin' close to destroying the overall quality of the superhero comics genre.

Consider, just for a moment, how any of us would feel if it was announced that Grant Morrison had agreed to go back to writing JLA... on the condition that he be allowed to draw it, too. Now consider how we'd feel if his first issue as writer/artist came out, and not only did the art just plain SUCK... his anatomy was lousy, there was no proportion, he made no attempt to draw backgrounds, you couldn't tell who was doing what in any panel, or what they were holding, or if that was their hand or their foot... but what you could see of it was WRONG, too... he gave Superman a black leather jacket, Batman mirrored sunglasses, Green Lantern blond hair and a beard, and consistently drew Steel carrying a machine gun, for no reason that was ever explained. Wouldn't we be outraged? Wouldn't we think Morrison was unprofessional and childish,for using his influence to demand a job (and payment for a job)he wasn't qualified to do? Wouldn't we think his editor was unprofessional, for subjecting us to such lousy art, instead of standing up to Morrison and saying "Sorry, Grant, your art sucks, we're going to hire a penciller for you?"

So why is it different when John Byrne does it?

If a competent writer can't draw, he shouldn't be paid as an artist, and his wretched attempts at pencilling shouldn't be published by a professional magazine. If a competent artist can't write...

And make no mistake, this isn't a minor thing. This is a big thing, and a bad thing, not just for people like me who want to see our favorite heroes well written, but for comics as a whole. In the 1960s and 1970s, comics fans could go to any spinner rack in any drug store and plunk down their dimes or nickels for nearly any Marvel or DC title they found there and they were almost guaranteed a solidly enjoyable and entertaining reading experience.

I'm not saying this because these were the times when I was a kid and of course, the comics you read as a kid will always be your favorites. I'm saying it because it was true, because the vast majority of superhero comics published at Marvel and DC back in those two decades were good, quality comics that nearly anyone would enjoy reading. They might not have all been great, brilliant, enduring classics (although many were, as posterity would show) but they were all, at least, fun to read, and you didn't finish one feeling like you wanted your twenty cents back.

These comic books were for the most part very well drawn, but even more importantly, they were well WRITTEN. Nowadays, anything as sophisticated and complex as Englehart's Celestial Madonna story in AVENGERS, his Nomad story in CAPTAIN AMERICA, or Steve Gerber's Sons of the Serpent or Bozo/Headmen stories in DEFENDERS, would automatically be slapped with a Mature Readers Only tag, simply because it would be presumed that young readers wouldn't like it, buy it, or understand it... but in the 1970s, those comics were being bought by 12 and 13 year olds, and we loved them.

And those comics can still be re-read now, as an adult, which is something that simply isn't true of the vast majority of comics published by Marvel and DC and Image in the 90s. Like the best fantasies, the best comics of the Silver Age can be read by nearly anyone at any stage of emotional development, on any level. If you're a kid you go 'gosh-wow' when the space ships explode and the Vision stuffs his intangible cape inside the macrobot and then solidifies it and Nighthawk finally gets his brain back, and ignore all the complex political satire and philosophical exposition on the very nature of the existence of reality. If you're an adult, you chuckle at the various intricate subtleties and double entendres and goggle as you try to encompass the notion that the entire Marvel Universe was just destroyed, and then precisely recreated, by Eternity. (If you're an adult like me, you still go 'gosh-wow' when the space ships explode and the macrobots blow up, especially if Dave Cockrum is doing the art).

By contrast, the 80s and 90s have been bad decades for comics. You can't find them on spinner racks any more, for one thing, and when you can find them, in small little direct sales shops in low rent strip malls off the main roads, getting hold of a well written comic for most of those two decades was like searching for a Bible quotation in an issue of HUSTLER. Comics have become better printed, comics have become more violent, comics have become much more expensive... but anyone who points to the vast majority of four color product that overflows the shelves of any direct sales shop these days and tells you that comics have, by and large, gotten BETTER since the 1970s is either drunk, stupid, lying, deranged... or less than 30 years old and simply has no idea what they're talking about.

Comics, for the vast most part, suck these days. They are an embarrassment. I defy anyone who can write a coherent sentence and who has a shred of integrity in their soul to write me an email and tell me different, and then support such a statement with actual examples. For every well written comic being published right now there are ten spectacularly shitty ones, and the reason the proportions are that low is that comics has, for the last three years, been undergoing a Renaissance in the field of writing. In 1996, it was more like 50 rotten comics to every good one.

Worse than this, of course, is the fact that the bad comics generally sell better than the good ones... something else that wasn't true in the 60s and 70s, but is a grim fact of the industry now.

Anyone who doubts the negative effect the writer/artist phenomenon has had on modern comics need look no further than Marvel's latest round of promotions. Despite the fact that the ascendancy of the writer/artist singularity has nearly destroyed superhero comics twice in the last thirty years, the one time House of Ideas has just shoved one into their top spot, and is offering another one their flagship title. Their Marvel Knights and Ultimate lines seem uneasy heralds of a return to hardly gone era when slick art and trendy dialogue were more important than solid stories or interesting characterizations. Will Quesada get on the phone to his buddies from Image and invite them back to rain creative ruin on Marvel the way the writer/artist singularities did on DC back in the 80s?

Probably a better question would be, how quickly can he set up that conference call? Some such move on the part of Marvel's brand new EIC seems inevitable, and what's worse, if he were to manage to pull it off, it would be regarded as a major coup by his corporate bosses, despite the fact that the last time the Image founders were turned loose at Marvel, the results were all but unreadable, and this time, it would most likely be ruinous to all conception of ever doing a quality comic book there again.

There are several good artists who can't write a lick working in comics right now. Some of them are working as writers. One of them is working as the Editor in Chief at Marvel Comics.

Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice.

I, personally, think the Marvel Universe is going to end... at least, for me... in Joe Quesada's office.

* * *

John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. He does not habitually read poetry, by Robert Frost or anyone else, but he did memorize "The Road Not Taken", "Fire and Ice",and "Nothing Gold Can Stay" for a college lit course once, and he finds that occasionally being able to quote from them impresses chicks. Or so he likes to tell himself, since reading aloud from the death of the Swordsman sequence in GIANT SIZE AVENGERS #2 only causes them to give him weird looks, raving Philistines that they are.

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