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SMOKE AND BULLSHIT

It’s been several decades since the late Brandon Tartikoff first identified comic books as the next big thing in dramatic narrative.

He was right, of course, but unfortunately too ahead of the curve for three important reasons.

One, the technical facility to recreate the fantastical nature of mainstream superhero comics on film or video–and let’s not kid ourselves, that’s the sort of comics he was talking about–simply didn’t yet exist, and two, most of his fellow executives, his senior by ten to twenty five years on average, had little interest at best, and genuine contempt for the material at worst, and were unable to see its potential value.

And three, of course, is the tragedy of a very young Tartikoff dropping dead–well before the world in which the comic book would be the driving force behind a billion dollar industry he knew it would come to be.

Naturally, none of those billions trickle down to those of us who actually do comics.

Rather, it’s the descendants of those executives who didn’t share Tartikoff’s vision that reap the benefits. There are actually a number of people wielding power in Hollywood with an actual lifelong familiarity with comics–but there are far more men–and a few women, but not many–who used to beat up guys like me in High School for reading comics, now making bank off the same shit they ridiculed.

Who said irony was dead, right?

And then there’s that slew of all too good looking men and staggeringly beautiful women, who put on horn-rimmed glasses and similar paraphernalia so as to convey their “nerdishness” or “geekdom” in order to patronize a readily flattered and easily manipulated swarm of enthusiasts.

Spare me, and trust me–I speak from personal experience.

As an archetypal fat fanboy in my adolescence, I would have killed to have these people on my side.

They simply weren’t there–and only showed up to climb on this bandwagon when there appeared to be profit in the offing.

And before you get all whingy, this isn’t cynicism, it’s skepticism. Those of us with lifelong obsessions with comics–mine is 62 years old and counting–know the tug of war in our heads between wanting the popular to see the value of what we loved, in combat with a desperate need for our secret stuff to avoid being co-opted by the masses.

So, what does all this have to do with auteurship in comics, you ask? It boils down, as so many creative issues do, to perception.

For the sake of clarity, let’s separate the world of “graphic novels” from “comics.”

Graphic novels, such as PERSEPOLIS, MAUS, FUN HOME, and the work of ideologically driven talent such as Joe Sacco are, for the most part, deeply personal, frequently autobiographical material in which the artist and writer are one–or, as we in the field refer to this discipline, cartoonists.

In contemporary mainstream comics, talent that both writes and draws a project are very rare. The reasons for this boil down to skillsets–the majority of writers are unable to produce presentable visual material, and the majority of artists are unable to conceive of and execute dramatic narrative on their own–

–And, of course, the serial nature of the medium, in which a monthly deadline schedule creates a tight window for production, thus making the division of labor nearly mandatory.

The two giants of the earliest days of the medium were both writer/artists. Will Eisner, creator of THE SPIRIT, wrote and drew his earliest material, then brought in art talent to take over his creation, his writing maintaining the quality of the work through the various artists tasked with these seven page comics stories.

Harvey Kurtzman, a more unconventional writer/artist, wrote both his own stuff, as well as providing script for his artists–along with tracing paper overlays on already lettered and panel bordered pages, thus enacting enormous control over the material, aside from clearly being the engine of narrative, both visually and textually.

In today’s comics, with the notable exception of Alan Moore, whose scripts are endlessly, some might say obsessively descriptive and specific in every possible way, the writer delivers what is rarely more than a descriptive template–with a generalized description of action, as well as dialogue.

Many of these scripts barely concern themselves with panel size, panel shape, or depth of field, all vitally important elements to the narrative value of the page–not to mention a frequent lack of description in the more mundane realm of costume, physical appearance, body language and expressed feelings of the characters portrayed–leaving much or all of this up to the interpretive skills of the artist.
It should be noted that in comics, as in most creative forms, ideas are a dime a dozen.

Just ask the zeitgeist.

It’s the execution of those ideas that grant them value. No matter how much the writer may provide the artist, it’s up to the artist to bring the writer’s ideas to fruition–which means, explicitly, that comic book artists are not illustrators in a traditionally understood sense. Certainly, they use illustrative techniques, but the goal of their work is far more than decoration, or even the elaboration of a writer’s goal an illustrator frequently provides the reader.

The job they’ve signed on to do is at least half, if not more, of the collaborative relationship that exists between script, direction and performance in a film or television show–and remember, the finished product, by which the material fails or succeeds, is in the hands of the artist, performing the roughly equivalent functions of direction and performance, by way of his interpretation of the writer’s concept via page and panel design, characterization and sense of place through the craft of drawing.

Thus, to put a name to it, comic book artists are graphic designers in the service of narrative, and at best, they provide imagery with narrative value. This is my mission on a daily basis in every job I deliver.

Therefore, all those people reacting to the writing in comics are actually responding to the artists’ execution of that frequently vague script–and in those cases where the script is specific to an obsessive degree, it’s only talent on the level of Alan Moore who can impact on an artist. A good artist can save a bad writer–a good writer can never save a bad artist.

Thus, it’s a collaboration, usually an even split in effort, despite the protestations of the management representative class, who have been sold a bill of goods by a number of writers, and who have a vested interest in the maintenance of the delusion that comic book artists are tools, unfortunately necessary parasites present to illuminate the writer’s concept.

And that’s the state of affairs to which the legacy of Brandon Tartikoff has brought us. Because the management and representation class can use a keyboard, they can at least identify the skillset required to write something resembling narrative. So they buy into the ridiculous notion of the writer as primary talent in the equation.

Thus, writers, being utterly incapable of actually drawing anything, are identified as the creator–a word best reserved for the god in which I have no belief–of the comics to which they attach their names.

Many of these latter day versions of what Jack Warner once referred to as “Shmucks with Underwoods” seem to regard themselves as management, frequently referring to their artistic collaborators as “my artist–” much as I refer to my dog as “my dog,” supporting the specious notion that comics artists are labor–doing, as one writer has referred to the work, as “Art chores.”

“Chores.” Really. I’m guessing he picked this preciously quaint choice of words from Stan Lee, the archetype of the above explained writer’s perspective.

All this nonsense notwithstanding, those of us with long term careers, particularly those of us like me, who write and draw our own stuff, draw from other people’s scripts, and write scripts for other people to draw, know and respect this collaborative balancing act as the genuine reality of our field.

Anything else is smoke and bullshit.

As ever, I remain,

Howard Victor Chaykin — a prince.

 

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