Collaboration is a word that once upon a time used to get people shot. Vidkun Quisling was a Norwegian politico so reviled for collaborating with the Nazis that his name became synonymous with treachery. It’s funny how these things play through in life. When I was growing up there was a medical office at the corner of Gorham St. and Wisconsin Ave. called The Quisling Clinic, and though no one else seemed to think there was anything odd about the name, Elvis Costello was taken enough with it, passing the building while hitting the town on tour, that he wrote it into the song “Green Shirt”:
’cause somewhere in the Quisling Clinic
There’s a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes.
She’s listening into the Venus line
She’s picking out names.
I hope none of them are mine…
That sort of cemented it all in my head. (Even though we’ve never met and I’m sure he doesn’t know who the hell I am, there’s enough weirdness between me and Elvis Costello that his writing about a structure in my home town borders on what Jungians like to call synchronicity.) The Quisling Clinic was an odd building for Madison, prominently located, looking like nothing else, made of cinderblock and those thick glass squares that are clear but you can’t see through them anyway, and all the time I lived in Madison, despite the thousands of times I passed the place, I never once saw or heard of anyone going in, and certainly not coming out. The fact is, between the name and the look, it never once struck me as anything other than it struck Costello: a place where hideous things could happen.
It’s commonly said that comics is a “collaborative art form.” “Art form” itself is an inane phrase, something only psychobabblers could’ve come up with. Having no actual meaning, it’s used to suggest something that could be art, if only people would agree to look at it that way. Which covers pretty much anything made by human hands, like those places where you can go fire your own hand decorated prefab clay pot and feel good about your “creativity.” It’s gibberish designed to invoke importance, and it’s pathetic. And we’ve got a lot more in common with those clay pots than you think, so don’t read what I said about them and get all smug. Clay pots is all most of this business is. So Joe Straczynski writes AMAZING SPIDER-MAN or Kevin Smith writes GREEN ARROW. So Grant Morrison writes X-MEN. So Ed Brubaker writes BATMAN or Joe Casey writes THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. So dozens of other people work on dozens of other books. I’m not saying any of these are bad works. They’re not. They’re mostly enjoyable, some very enjoyable. But they’re all just painting someone else’s clay pot. In many cases, people just paint over other people’s clay pots, or color between the lines or fill in a patch that wasn’t originally painted (I’m not counting myself out here or claiming moral superiority; most of what I laughingly refer to as my career has bent spent painting prefab clay pots) and sure, it can be fun to paint a clay pot and you can look at it when it’s done with a warm and fuzzy feeling and tell yourself you’ve accomplished something, but it’s still somebody else’s clay pot. And, as it stands, this is a business basically built to sell prefab clay pots and entice the buyer to spill their own paint on it.
The ones who actually get their pots to the kiln we call professionals.
For some reason, these last couple weeks would-be comics writers have been crawling out of the woodwork, asking for advice. The term “collaborate” has come up a lot. “How do I find an artist to collaborate with?” “How should we develop something to collaborate on?”
A: You don’t collaborate with an artist. You collaborate with the enemy.
And some artists are the enemy, if you’re a writer. You have to be very careful. My stock answer when asked if the writer or the artist is more important to a comic book is to ask back if the husband or the wife is the most important member of a marriage. Because if you remove either, you don’t have a marriage, and if you take out either the writer or the artist you don’t have a comic book. But you don’t want to be stuck in a bad marriage either, and you don’t want to be the one who loses everything in a messy divorce. There are artists who don’t give a rat’s ass for anything comics are about, except physiques. They don’t care about story, they don’t care about storytelling. They’re not really interested in craft. I’ve heard some artists actively scorn it as grunt work. Not all artists by a long shot. But some. They’re lazy, and they’re lazy because they can get away with it and in many cases even be praised by fans for it. There are lazy writers, inkers, colorists, letterers, production staff, marketing staff and editors who are also lazy because they can get away with it.
It’s true that it’s easier for your writing to get read and recognized if the story has already been drawn, but art’s also a trap for would-be comics writers. To wit: bad art will kill your chances.
Way too many writers are willing to convince themselves an artist’s work is good simply because that’s the artist they have access to. I’ve done it myself. It’s a bad move and a really bad habit to get into. It’s worse when you’re trying to break into the business.
Several times in the last couple weeks, I’ve gotten messages from three different would-be writers who intend to find an artist. They don’t have a specific, or if they have ideas, they’re holding them back for the next project so they don’t scare off an artist. Their real idea is to get together with an artist, concoct a story between the two of them, make a comic off it, and make their careers off the comic.
But this isn’t the way of someone who has ideas they want to get into circulation. This is the way of someone who just wants to be known as a comic book writer.
Do you really want to try to make your rep on something that’s not really your idea? Or a watered down version? Trust me, there’s plenty of time to water down your ideas if a comics company decides it wants you to work for them. Finding an artist and producing a comic on your own suggests one of two things: you going to publish your own work, or you’re using it as a showcase for your talent. Either way, you’re not doing yourself any favors by not going all out. You might never have more than one shot. So take your best idea, write it up – hell, write it full script because your artist will most likely be new and know no more about storytelling than you do, or your artist will be a professional and know how to handle a full script, and in the event you never find an artist you’ll still have a full script to show editors to prove you can write a full script, which means you understand plot, character, storytelling and the function of dialogue, which means you have the facility (no one really expects mastery off the bat, though it doesn’t hurt) to work Marvel style or any other style.
If you’re lucky, you’ll find a good artist who exhibits as much facility in his craft as you do in yours, who’ll have an affinity for your ideas. Who’ll want to express them through the art as best as possible. You shouldn’t have to “surrender” anything, and if you feel you should, that’s just saying you don’t have confidence in your own ideas. There’s a George Bernard Shaw saying that goes, “If you begin by giving yourself to those you love, you end by hating those you’ve given yourself to.” If you start by walking away from your own convictions about the comic book you want to produce in favor of your artist’s convictions, you’re just pandering. Or you didn’t have any convictions in the first place.
If that’s the case, come back when you have some convictions.
Mike Baron had tried getting into comics for years when he created the character Nexus. A space vigilante in the original conception, Mike honed the concept as he went along. He was lucky enough to find Steve Rude, then a young, unknown artist who connected with the character as a sort of updating of Space Ghost. Did Steve influence the development of Nexus? Without a doubt. But the idea generated from Mike, it was something he really wanted to do, and on the strength of NEXUS he turned himself into one of the most prolific and well-thought of writers of the ’80s.
I’m not saying you can’t work with artists, or listen to them. This is comics: if you’re not willing to work with artists, you’d better learn to draw. (And it’s far from unusual to hear writer-artists talk about how the writer in them wars with the artist in them.) A good artist is also a good sounding board, someone who’ll look at the work and say “Do you really want to do that here?” It’s a reason I like working with Mike Zeck, who also functions as first reader of the material. There’s nothing wrong with artists generating ideas: Matt Haley recently had an idea that literally came to him in a dream, and he asked me to write it for him. I like Matt’s work enough that I’ll work with him anytime, anywhere, on anything – but Matt also knew I have an affinity for that kind of material. It helped that he knew me, but he didn’t just pick a name off a list. Because you can’t do that anymore. The business has grown too inflexible for it. No project can afford to be saddled with an inappropriate artist, no matter what the artist’s Q rating. It can spell disaster. It can even get you kicked off your own project. When I was writing WHISPER, a popular artist decided he wanted to draw it. Curiously, he sent a drawing of Whisper battling a giant tiger. I mean really giant. Great drawing. Had me convinced he’d be good for the book. Then we spoke on the phone. Very nice guy. Who had a great idea for a story involving Whisper fighting a really giant tiger. I nicely explained Whisper isn’t that kind of book. No matter, he said, it’s comics, so we can have a giant tiger. Putting me in the unenviable position of calling First and saying this popular artist, whose art would almost certainly have significantly raised sales on the book, wasn’t right for the book. A couple years later, Neil “Spyder” Hansen, who’d been on WHISPER 12 issues, left because he felt more comfortable drawing sci-fi comics than urban crime/action comics. Neil was very gentlemanly about it. He gave notice. He fulfilled his promised commitment. He didn’t start trying to wheedle me into sticking Whisper into pseudo-Flash Gordon stories or taking the initiative to change the story so she was fighting androids with the presumption that if it came down to him vs. me the editor would choose him because he’s the artist. We parted company and no hard feelings. And he knew Whisper was my character and, for better or worse, my vision was running the show.
Because on every successful comic, there’s going to be one vision – hopefully a strong vision – running the show. That’s what writers are for. That’s what you’re trying to get into the business for: to get your vision across. Like I said, if you become a professional comics writer, particularly if you operate under the work-for-hire system, you’ll have plenty of time then to dilute, mask and lose your vision. It’s one aspect of the comics business nobody needs to practice. This goes for artists, too; artists choose writers to work with just as much as writers choose artists. Don’t make easy choices out of impatience. Seizing on the first writer or artist you come across, even if they’re inappropriate to what you want to do, is laziness and desperation. Don’t automatically accept your first idea as a good idea. If it’s derivative – even though you’ve never done it before – people will recognize it as derivative, making it that much less likely to impress them with your genius. You don’t have to worry about only having one good idea. Getting ideas is like working any other muscle: the more you work it, the stronger it gets. The more ideas you generate, the easier it gets to generate ideas, and the easier it is to filter out good from bad, and those you really want to pursue from whims and fancies.
This is the enemy: bad, boring, derivative, uninspired comic books. That territory’s easy enough to reach without actively trying to get there. Don’t rationalize the long term. There is no long term. There’s the project in front of you, and that’s all there is. You won’t get the chance to “do it right next time” because next time will be just like this time. There’s no longer an excuse for compromise. Don’t collaborate with the enemy.
And if you pull it off, if enough people can pull it off, maybe nobody’ll even have to paint clay pots for a living in this business anymore.
Vrooom, off to San Diego. See you there. In the meantime, check in at my Graphic Violence forum. Con report next week.
The Question Of The Week this week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: What regularly published comic books were you buying in January are you not buying now? What made you decide to quit? (This doesn’t include mini-series that finished or series such as X-MAN that were cancelled.)
Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.