How artists' contributions to the creation of comics are overlooked

Since the dawn of the medium, comic books largely have been the creation of writers and artists working hand-in-hand to produce the characters, stories, titles and universes you follow each week. Recently, however, lawsuits by comic creators against publishers -- and sometimes other creators -- have raised the question of where, when and how a comic is truly created. Are they the product of the writer, with the artist simply tasked to illustrate the story based on instructions laid out in a script or outline? Or is it a communal effort, with writer and artist both providing unique contributions to the creation of the character and setting, each serving as a storyteller in the planning, coordination and draftsmanship of the actual comic pages? In recent years, comics have become a writer-centric medium, for better or worse, but artists continue to play a crucial, if sometimes overlooked, role in the design of characters and transformation of the writer’s scripts into, you know, comics.

In an interview with ICv2.com, Howard Chaykin relayed a story about how an unnamed writer views an artist's contribution as "absolutely nothing to do with the creative process in comics." "I am of the belief that the artist does 50 percent of the 'writing' in comic books," said Chaykin, who's worked as a writer and artist for decades. "I think the guy is plum crazy. It staggered me in its limited understanding of what comic books are about."

Some might see this as referencing the ongoing dispute between Jack Kirby's heirs and Marvel over the ownership of characters he created or co-created, but what Chaykin is getting at isn’t ownership. He's speaking solely in terms of crediting the writer and artist equally in the creation of the book. He uses another comic currently in the headlines to make his point.

"[Watchmen is] always being referred to as Alan Moore’s Watchmen, as if Dave Gibbons had nothing to do with it," he said. "But the sensibility of that book would have been an entirely different experience if someone besides Dave had drawn it, and I don’t think that Dave gets near the credit and props he deserves. I think that it is important to acknowledge the fact that comics is a visual narrative medium in which much of the 'writing' is provided by the artist who visualizes the material."

The “who” that Chaykin mentions in calling Watchmen “Alan Moore’s” isn’t aimed solely at publishers, but at the world at large: creators, press and fans. Think about this: Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. Is it accurate to attribute the series solely to Morrison and discount artist Frank Quitely? Sure, it might be shorthand to refer only to the writer, but it’s an idea that can, and does, get perpetuated to increase the perceived stature of the writer in the work and diminish that of the artist.

I’ll admit that sometimes it’s not easy to give proper credit to a work. Writers have generally have longer tenures than artists on continuing series, making it difficult to correctly attribute the larger work to a single artist. How would you credit Uncanny X-Men in the 1980s? It’s easy to call it "Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men" given the number of artists who worked on the book. But honestly, were those artists superfluous, or did they each make contributions that made the work as a whole better?

In most cases, the attribution of a comic solely to the writer isn’t made intentionally to overlook the artist. Publishers, fans and the press are each guilty of falling into this trap. Take, for example, this interview with writer Rick Remender about Uncanny X-Force published last week at Comic Book Resources. In the original version of the article,  no artist is mentioned nor credited in the captions below the images. In the course of writing this piece I made the CBR editors aware, and they've since corrected it, attributing covers to Jerome Opena and interiors to Mike McKone.

When I asked CBR Executive Producer Jonah Weiland about this situation, he was upfront. "It was simply an oversight," he said. "A mention of the artist absolutely should have been made, and once you brought it to my attention, it was fixed." He went on to say that it's a common problem in the comics press, and CBR has editorial guidelines in place to prevent oversights like this from happening regularly.

"Too often when a comic writer on a comic is interviewed, the focus becomes squarely on him or her. Sometimes, we -- CBR and the comics press in general -- get so wrapped up in what's being said about the story that we forget there's an artist that brings that story to life," he explained. "When we're focusing on a specific storyline, our policy is to always include the name of the artist. This is especially true when we have interior pages for the comic being discussed -- if the artist isn't mentioned in the body of the article, he or she should be mentioned in the captions beneath the artwork. It's part of our editorial guidelines and style guide. Likewise, if an artist is being interviewed, the writer of the book should be mentioned."

Weiland is the first to admit that CBR "sometimes drops the ball on this," and he doesn't want to give excuses. "Giving full and proper credit in our comics coverage is something we constantly strive to be on top of and if we miss it, we appreciate it when our readers point out our oversight," he said. "The contributions artists make with comics is equal to that of writers and we must, as an industry, ensure they're not overlooked or taken for granted.

As I said earlier, it’s an easy trap to fall into. Take this press release from Robert Kirkman's Skybound announcing a new Guarding the Globe series. In it, Kirkman is credited as the sole creator of Invincible, Guarding the Globe and other properties when in fact they were co-creations with artists like Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley, among others.

Is it merely an innocent oversight? Surely. Walker is listed as co-creator and co-owner in every Invincible publication since day one, and several previous press releases Skybound and Image have listed Walker as co-creator. I reached out to Skybound, Image Comics and Walker to speak about the press release and the perceived trend, but each gave no comment. I did, however, speak with Image Comics' co-founder Erik Larsen, a vocal proponent of creators' rights, who offered a possible explanation.

"I think it's just a matter of expediency and simplification," he said. "The writers control the properties in most cases. The ideas start with them. It's easier and less cumbersome to say 'Robert Kirkman's Invincible shows up in Buggy Justice #3' than 'Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley's Invincible ...'"

He does admit that in the instance of the press release, and as a general rule, it's not "necessarily the right thing to do."

"The artists are full creators, and I know I do take offense when I see 'Stan Lee's Spider-Man or Stan Lee's Fantastic Four,'" Larsen said. "But I must admit -- I'm as guilty of saying it as anybody, especially given that the writer is frequently my point of contact."

Why are artists most commonly the victim? What if the oversight went in the opposite direction, giving deference to artists in the shorthand attribution: Jack Kirby’s Avengers. Cory Walker’s Invincible. Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man. Remember, this isn’t attributing ownership but merely creation.

Regardless of who’s credited, the question becomes whether this tendency is even an issue. Some of the people I interviewed argued that it’s not, and this is merely an attempt to sensationalize innocent mistakes and lump them together with contested legal issues. But I’d argue that even if these are mole hills rather than mountains, it’s still a trend with ramifications. When oversights are published, they can perpetuate the inaccurate crediting of creations that could lead to subsequent readers-turned-writers to carry it forward into their own works. Historians call it "book wheel authority" or the "knowledge cycle," where information is iteratively repeated and passed as fact whether it is incorrect or not. It’s the same reason some persistent rumor have been accepted as fact until an actual accurate account of the information is brought forward.

Pulling back from those nebulous questions, artist Cully Hamner posted his own grounded vantage point on the contributions of the artist. Remember, Hamner is the co-creator of the Red miniseries that spawned a hit movie, and he wrote and drew the comic-book sequel. He also redesigned DC Comics' Blue Beetle, for which the publisher has repeatedly given him credit in the character’s subsequent appearances.

"Young artists take note: You are doing more than filling a shopping list," Hamner stated, in reference to the Chaykin interview. "It is as much your job to create the story your reader ends up reading as it is the writer's. You are partners."

Hamner directed his quote at the artists, but the tendency to credit writers over artists in the creation of comics is a trend that is carried out, mostly subconsciously, by creators, publishers, press and fans. I’ll be the first to admit I’m guilty of it as well: in an interview about Star Wars: Blood Ties – Boba Fett Is Dead for Newsarama, I failed to even bring up artist Chris Scalf. I only realized my mistake while writing this article today; it’s a lesson learned and hopefully a lesson I’ll remember next time I talk about comics.

To borrow from the principles of the Twelve-Step Program, at the end of the day if we can come together and admit the problem of recognition of artists' contributions to comics, it's the first step to solving the problem.

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