Another Master Of The Obvious experiment for you. Go to any convention, or any other gathering of fans or professionals, and loudly utter the following ten words:
Now see how long it takes for screaming matches to break out.
This used to be a given in comics. When comics were mostly locked into the six panels per page rigid grid, it was an oppressively enforced given. (In most cases just as oppressive was an editorial insistence on medium shots as the main vehicle of expression, but as most people remember it now the grid takes the rap for it.) So it's not surprising that many artists bristle when someone suggests… well, the ten words above.
Distilled to its most elementary form, the usually huffy reply from the artist runs like this: art sells comics, not stories.
Which has become traditionally true over the past three decades or so. Let's face it, we've promoted a culture of crap. It comes from the perception - imposed on us until we've bought into it, either wallowing in it or rebelling against it - that comics are "for kids." "For kids" in our society means "gutless braindead pablum" in whatever industry or medium the term rears its head; nobody wants to be accused of "corrupting" children. Better to squash that natural curiosity and keep 'em malleable. In comics, that's meant systematically dumbing down the material wherever possible, and it's no wonder artists (and much of the rest of the world) think the stories in most comics are dumb.
That's no excuse to dumb down the art down too.
Not surprisingly, prior to the rise of a quasi-organized fandom there were no fan favorite artists. If you read interviews with older artists in THE COMICS JOURNAL, which likes to discuss such things, you'll notice artists working in the 40s through the 60s cite a strong editorial emphasis on storytelling in their work in most instances, rather than flash art styles. (DC, at least in the Julie Schwartz offices in the 50s and 60s, preferred a clean, controlled, pseudo-realistic Dan Barry approach, taming into rough similarity such naturally dissonant styles as those of Gil Kane and Carmine Infantino.) Fans tended to be drawn to the flash. (As opposed to THE FLASH, though he did all right early on too.) Jack Kirby was pretty much alone in using things like forced perspective (though rarely every actually breaking out of the grid) and, again unsurprisingly, he was the first true fan favorite artist. (Not to mention a favorite among professional artists eager to break out of the grid themselves, though the real cult hero among pros was Alex Toth, whose brilliant work most fans couldn't stand.)
Neal Adams and Jim Steranko were the first real breakout fan favorite artists (Barry Smith arguably cruised in at #3 on the basis of his CONAN work, but that was a little later) and the first artists since EC Comics to introduce a modernism appropriate to their times. Steranko's emphasis was pure storytelling, his big influences people like Kirby, the then all-but-forgotten Will Eisner, and Harvey Kurtzman. He didn't break the grid so much as shredded it, splitting actions down into smaller and smaller fragments, building a modern concept of the panel as a unit of time. Steranko's art was all about time. Adams shattered the grid and grabbed the fan imagination with a photo-realistic style incorporating Kirby's innovations with a layout style cribbed from modern advertising. Never a particularly strong storyteller (though better than most of his later imitators) he muscled past that deficiency with sheer power and bravado, and set the tone for everything that followed.
To the chagrin of fans, comics companies have always distinguished between fans and readers. Comics companies have never really made any serious studies of what elements sell comic books, what little "evidence" there is of such things is almost always anecdotal, but through most of the 70s, they were astute enough to notice an interesting phenomenon: fan favorite artists rarely sold as well as non-fan favorite artists. Maybe they were just on projects that couldn't grab the popular imagination. You could sell Neal Adams on Batman, but you couldn't sell him on Deadman (though, for my money, the latter was the superior product). As a result, few books were ever pushed on the basis of who drew them. (Or who wrote them, for that matter, particularly as playing musical writers became the norm in editorial offices.)
This pissed fans off. This wasn't right. As more and more fans moved into the business professionally, some wanted to do something about it. The direct sales market and the comics shop gave them the chance. It gave them secret grottos where the same cabalistic language could be spoken. Again not unsurprisingly, art was pushed and pushed and pushed uber alles until the concept became currency that all you need to sell a book is a fan favorite artist. And the only kind of story they have any idea of how to push anymore is the "big event" that can be summed up in a 50 pt. headline.
A self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.
Meanwhile, something interesting happened with the stories. Almost everyone tried to copy '60s Marvel Comics, the style that was still dominant. Even Marvel tried to copy '60s Marvel Comics. And they ended up copying '60s Mighty Comics.
You may not have ever read Mighty Comics. Published by Archie Comics in response to the hot BATMAN TV show, written by Superman's Jerry Siegel (in what I don't consider his finest hour, but your mileage may vary) and drawn by Paul Rienman, and featuring revived '40s characters like The Shield and The Web (Simon and Kirby's '50s Fly, renamed Fly-Man, was their one sop to modernism) they were far and away the goofiest comics ever published. Originally fairly straitlaced, they quickly dumped all semblance of story and character logic and pushed the action and coincidence hard. Real hard. Villains spoke in a endless string of Snidley Whiplash threats, heroes jabbered in a forced patter that could only be described as a 60 year old shut-in's idea of hip. Heroes existed to pull deus ex machina endings out of their hats. Their most memorable image was a villain - I forget the name - who sneezed lightning out his nose. Their great achievement was to boldly pronounce that, yes, comics are even more stupid that anyone ever thought they could be: braindead and proud of it!