“What We Have Here is a Failure to Collaborate”
The Internet being what it is, anytime a disagreement between creators becomes public, the spat becomes something of a spectator sport. The recent “he said, he said” situation between “Static Shock” writer John Rozum and co-writer/artist Scott McDaniel is just the latest example. If you don’t know the details, they’re easily found via a quick Internet search — along with a bunch of comments from people putting forth opinions and taking sides.
It’s not my place to sort who’s right and who’s wrong. That’s actually editorial’s job. When necessary, one of an editor’s duties is to keep the talent pointed in the same direction, and hopefully keep the relationships amicable. If that becomes impossible, it’s the editor’s job to make the hard call and institute a creative divorce.
I think there are a couple lessons here. The first, obviously, is that it’s almost always better to keep your mouth shut. Airing dirty laundry in public isn’t usually very flattering for anybody involved. Yes, there’s an impetus to get “your side” of the story out there, especially if you feel you’ve been done wrong. But I’ve learned that being professional and moving on, even if you’re entirely in the right, serves you better in the long run. A lot of fans want a peek behind the curtain, some insight into the inner workings between creators and editorial. Trust me, though, just like snooping in a sausage factory, there are some things you don’t want to see if you intend to keep enjoying the product.
I’ve wanted to tell stories out of school any number of times in my career: make apparent someone’s unprofessional behavior or poor decisions; make sure blame was laid at the proper feet for some screw-up; or broadcast that a particularly ham-fisted piece of dialogue or narration was inserted by editorial. For the most part, I’ve resisted sharing those stories publicly (though let me tell you, freelancers share those tales with each other all the time). Better to take the high road.
The second lesson is that a creative venture falls apart when creators are struggling for dominance, rather than working toward the same goal. Sometimes a writer-artist pairing is just a bad idea, an unworkable partnership. I actually think this scenario is more common now than in the past, as editorial does the creative casting for projects without taking the input of creators into account. Sometimes the best recipe for success is to ask a creator, “Who do you want to work with?” Instead, it’s become more of an assembly-line process, plugging available people into the creative chain. And yes, sometimes that’s an unavoidable reality in the grind of producing monthly comics. But I don’t think it’s a great recipe for producing the best monthly comics.
I remember reading an installment of Jason Aaron’s excellent column here on CBR, and being rather surprised at his admission that he often doesn’t know who will draw a script he’s writing. Part of that is due to the dominance of full-script style writing, which makes it easier to just hand the script to the next available guy. But it also makes it impossible to tailor a script to the strengths and preferences of the artist. It’s fair to say that as the industry has migrated (not for the better) toward a more writer-dominant model, more and more artists are treated like easily-shuffled, replaceable parts.
If at all possible, I won’t write a script until I know who’s going to draw it. I want to have some communication with the artist, find out what he or she wants to draw (and just as importantly, what he or she doesn’t want to draw). It takes me a week or so to write a script. It takes the artist at least a month, and often more, to draw it. It’s part of my job to make sure the artist is excited to go to the drawing board every day. That task becomes harder when you’re creating a generic script for a generic artist.
The writer-artist collaboration is the fundamental building block of a comic. I firmly believe the closer that collaboration is, the better the finished product. One of the creative pleasures during my time at the CrossGen studio was the chance to work closely with the art teams on my books. There was a creative spark thanks to the ability to kick around ideas over lunch or a beer (yes, the lunch-room fridge was always stocked with beer), or discuss a page as it’s being drawn or colored.
And yet, in the past I’ve had an editor or two who even refused to give me an artist’s contact information. The editor didn’t want us communicating, except through the editor. That’s a pretty sure sign of an inadequate editor, afraid his freelancers might be somehow plotting against him. Thankfully, I’ve had far more editors who encouraged writer-artist communication, understanding that it results in a better book.
But there has to be a give-and-take to the relationship. The writer can’t hand down holy tablets and say, “Just draw what I tell you to draw,” expecting an obedient art monkey. By the same token, the artist can’t ignore the story and draw a bunch of pin-up pages because they sell better in the original-art market.
Years ago, I had an artist who decided he didn’t like a particular character, so he did everything he could to avoid drawing that character — despite the majority of the issue being about that character. The result was a visual mess of silhouettes and close-ups that didn’t tell the story. I had to re-script the entire issue overnight, to make some semblance of sense out of it.
I’ve heard tales of a Big-Shot Writer who would not deign to speak with the artist drawing his book. I’ve heard tales of the same Big-Shot Writer telling an artist to ignore directions from editorial and just do whatever the Big-Shot Writer said.
Both are cases of someone’s ego out of control, betraying the collaboration and damaging the final product. If you’re going about this the right way, your artist will save your ass, and make you look like a genius, far more often than you’ll have to patch a storytelling hole. Comics are the marriage of words and pictures. When one is given precedence over the other, something integral is lost.
I’ve developed friendships with far more artists than writers over the years, all the way back to first artist who ever drew one of my stories, Ron Lim on “Silver Surfer” (who sent me a toaster as a wedding gift). As a writer, when you find a creative partner who clicks, you hang on for the long term. I worked with Darryl Banks on “Green Lantern” for seven years; I agreed to last year’s Retroactive issue primarily because Darryl would be drawing it.
I’ve worked with Luke Ross on everything from “Green Lantern” to “Witchblade” to “Samurai: Heaven and Earth,” our creator-owned book. On “Samurai,” our storytelling sensibilities were so in sync that I wrote portions of it in something like shorthand. I let Luke run with the storytelling because I trusted him. Same thing with Lee Moder on “Shinku” and “Dragon Prince.”
Stjepan Sejic and I have produced a whole pile of comics together, “Witchblade” and “Angelus” among them. We moved over to the ongoing “Artifacts” title so we could keep working together. And we’re putting our heads together on a fantasy OGN called “Ravine” — Stjepan’s visuals and story, my dialogue and kibitzing. It’s easily the best art he’s ever produced.
You get good comics when all the creators are pulling in the same direction, supported by an editorial structure that lets them do their jobs. The magic is in the collaboration.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts” and “Magdalena” for Top Cow, and his creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com