Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On comics critics talking more about art

The other day on Robot 6, my fellow contributor Michael May published an interesting quote from artist Declan Shalvey about how reviewers should probably focus on the art—or at least the art as storytelling—when discussing comics, and then May used it as a sort of springboard to talk about how that very important component of comics-making often gets short shrift in comics criticism.

At the time, my thoughts were along the lines of "Hmm, maybe Shalvey just isn't reading the right critics," and "Yes, of course, most comics criticism you find on the Internet is horrible, horrible writing more interested in plot synopsis than actual criticism" and "But then, on the other hand, are there any real professional comics critics who make their entire living off of criticizing comics without having to hold down a day job, too? And, if so, do I need more than one hand to count them on?"

It's a big nebulous topic that's really hard to get into, as there are all sorts of different kinds of criticism, and different people read reviews for different reasons and, ultimately, I don't really care all that much about the state of comics criticism as a whole, beyond wanting mine to be as good as it can be and to keep getting better (I will say this, though; I would be a much, much, much worse reviewer-of-comics if I didn't draw, and nothing has helped me better appreciate comics art—both positively and negatively—as trying to draw my own little comics).

But if I'm to add anything to the conversation, I think it would simply be a deflection. The devaluing of the artist portion of the alchemy of comics—at least among the Big Five, direct market, genre stuff—doesn't stop and start with critics. I'm not sure when we went from superstar artists of the '90s ("Who cares who's writing it? Jim Lee or Rob Liefeld or Todd MacFarlane or Erik Larsen are drawing it!") to the superstar writers of today—I imagine it had a lot to do with folks like Geoff Johns and Brian Michael Bendis, writers who weren't only very good at what they do, very popular with their audience and productive enough to write 3-8 books a month or so. If Bendis is writing a half-dozen books every month, while even the most productive Marvel artist is drawing one a month, well, it's easy to see how, just mathematically, Bendis becomes a bigger, more influential force at Marvel than Frank Cho or Mark Bagley or Stuart Immonen or whoever's he working with on those books.

I was just leafing through a trade paperback collection I have sitting here though, and looked at the credits.
There are only six comic books worth of material in it (that's 120 pages of DC Comics), but nevertheless there are two writers and—get this—seven artists. This being a trade, there isn't a title page with credits in each and every issue, they're just grouped together at the beginning, and, in this case, they aren't even separated into inkers and pencilers, they're all just "artists".

I know what Eddy Barrows pencil art looks like, but goddamn, how exactly am I going to talk in any great depth about the art when given a ball of yarn like that to try and make sense out of? I mean, I can and will discuss the art when I get to reviewing this book somewhere, but one can't give credit (or blame) where credit (or blame) is due when there's no way of telling who did what (I had a similar problem with Batman and Robin Vol. 2: Pearl which I just reviewed here this weekend; it had four pencil artist and five inkers all listed only on the credits page at the beginning of the book, and it was up to me to recognize/figure out who did what).

I hate to pick on DC, but unfortunately all the trades I have lying around the house with similar credits pages at the moment are from DC (I have The Punisher By Greg Rucka Vol. 1 here, but it is all by a single artist, save a back-up, which is clearly labeled with the appropriate art credit. And I have a bible-sized Avengers Vs. X-Men collection, with extremely meticulous crediting on a two-page table of contents/credits page).

Here's the credits for Earth 2 Vol. 1: The Gathering:
Only two pencillers and two inkers, and while I'm quite familiar with work of Nicola Scott (and Trevor Scott and Sean Parsons, now that I think about it), I don't know Eduardo Pansica), and wouldn't know what he did unless it was extremely different than what Nicola Scott drew (and maybe/hopefully, he's trying to draw in a similar style, if he's doing fill-in work, and the inkers will further mask the change in artists).

Or hey, here are the credits for the very first issue of Pandora, a very big new series DC just launched, one that leads directly into their much-hyped "Trinity War" (which kicks off today!) and ties in to the foundation of their whole "New 52" line and reboot:

Here the problem isn't who did what, but simply that a whole bunch of artists were needed to get this sucker out on time.

Again, I can and will talk artwork, but—and I realize this is an entirely different conversation—the publishers don't exactly go out of their way to emphasize (or, in some cases, even acknowledge) the importance of the art part of the comics-making or comics storytelling equation.

5 comments:

KentL said...

I'm not sure when we went from superstar artists of the '90s ("Who cares who's writing it? Jim Lee or Rob Liefeld or Todd MacFarlane or Erik Larsen are drawing it!") to the superstar writers of today—I imagine it had a lot to do with folks like Geoff Johns and Brian Michael Bendis, writers who weren't only very good at what they do, very popular with their audience and productive enough to write 3-8 books a month or so.

I would argue that it started even before then, maybe around '96-'98? When fatigue started to set in with the hype surrounding artists and guys like Mark Waid and Kurt Busiek really started establishing themselves as superstar writers. They even started an imprint at Image (Gorilla Comics) and the selling point was the writers rather than the artists. Guys like James Robinson and Warren Ellis also came up around the time and started getting the cult followings. I also think it helped that the superstar artists stopped drawing. Lee, McFarlane, and Liefeld all started hiring underlings to draw for them. This was at least the origin of the shift. You're right that writers didn't really become superstars until Bendis and Johns, though.

SallyP said...

I'm beginning to suspect that DC is having problems with all of their creators...not just the writers.

Rev'd '76 said...

Wait, when did Zander Cannon start doing filler work for DC?

Man, I miss 'Replacement God'. That was a great damn book. And one where it would be -impossible- to discuss the book without dissecting the amazing art. Yeah, he had a rough learning curve those first two issues, but past that point his development was PHENOMENAL.

KentL said...

Cannon has been working for them for years now, mostly on Top Ten. I wonder if they have a contract for him and this is fulfilling that contract. Disappointing use of his talent, though.

KentL said...

I'm beginning to suspect that DC is having problems with all of their creators...not just the writers.

This has been pretty standard from the beginning of the New 52. They have treated their artists more like cogs (unless your name is Jim Lee, David Finch, or Ivan Reiss). They just plop available artists anywhere.

Mind you, there are some titles that I think they are more discerning with, like Animal Man, but a number of the titles have had issues with artists being rotated in and out very quickly (sometimes even between solicits and actual publication).