Issue #252

ARTISTS BEHAVING BADLY: how I learned to stop worrying and hate (and sympathize with) comic book artists

: John Byrne, websites of interest, Superman, Sky High, moreBURNING DOWN THE HOUSE

: the military becomes fertile ground for psychopaths while Mexico screams, Cheney invests, and the Hand Puppet's record skips again

Don't get me wrong. This isn't a blanket condemnation of comics artists. There are quite a few really good comics artists out there. There are quite a few artists who are good at their job. What we really need are artists who are really good artists and good at their job.

Which, obviously, applies to everyone in the business, at least in creative. It doesn't apply outside creative because, for instance, what makes an editor good is being good at his job. There's no definition for a good retailer that doesn't mainly involve being good at his job.

An artist (or writer or letterer or colorist), however, can be a very good artist and be no good at their job. It's quite common, actually.

For an artist, see, the work may be a chore, but the work is not the job. The work of a comics artist is to tell a story with pictures. The job is to get it done within the agreed-upon allotted time, according to script.

Because, in most cases, whether it's the artist's or a collaborating writer's, a script, or at least a plot outlining the story, exists in advance of the art. Even Frank Miller scripts his material in advance of drawing it. It's just good sense to do it that way, because under most circumstances writers and artists work within a fairly narrow framework of pages - a finite space, whether it's 8 pages, 22, 48 or more than 300; regardless of length, there's almost always somewhere a cap on space. So a script, in some form, comes first, to ensure that the story gets told within that space. (Which is difficult enough in any case.)

A longstanding (if rarely spoken anymore) tradition in comics is that writers are just wannabe comics artists. It was prevalent when I was breaking in, and there's a certain sideways amount of truth to it: comics writers should be able to visualize a page in their head as they're writing a script, which is half the work of drawing as well, and there's no denying that being an artist is the "glamour job" in comic, at least as far as the reader has traditionally been concerned. Artists used to automatically be credited with the "writing" as well, and there's something to that as well, since they're effectively the "directors" of comics, the ones who ultimately choose the shots and the emphases regardless of the script, even if they're exactly following the script. (That's a choice, too.)

What I'm saying is that there's a considerable overlap of function between writer and artist in comics. Even writer-artists comment on it. The best teams in comics tend to be the ones where writer and artist figure out a way to compensate for each other rather than overlap.

The role of the artist has been complicated by a few things over the past couple decades, though. It wasn't that long ago that (despite Todd McFarlane's proclamation that writers are the best gimmick) artists were considered transcendent in the business, and artists whose books sold got cut an awful lot of slack. Prior to that, there were 10-15 years of more intellectually-inclined fans trying to make comics sound better by comparing them to film, putting forth the "auteur theory" of comics that amplified the role of the artist, and it became common coin that turning out material in a timely manner was anathema to being a great comics artist, an idea that gave a lot of comics artists a good excuse to not work with any great ambition, and cost a lot of them both publishers (who slowly started figuring out the attitude was costing them a lot of money, except where a very tiny handful of artists was concerned) and readers (who went away as projects went uncompleted, and never came back, though many artists were convinced their audiences would always be there for them). But it got to seem, by the mid-'90s, that the tradition was backwards, that in fact what most comics artists really wanted to be was writers. Which shouldn't have been unexpected for anyone, because while art may be what initially attracts many people to comics, story is what keeps the ones who stay, and even people just trying to break into the business as artists have story ideas they want to put across. Sometimes they hold them until they feel in a position to write their own work, sometimes they try to sneak their own ideas into whatever they're working on and figure everyone will go along with it, or that the writer will just love their ideas so much they'll be incorporated into the work.

Which isn't very common, unless those ideas actually fit with the project (I'm not talking about "Why don't we make the new Batwoman a lesbian?" type of ideas - that's the sort of thing a writer might think provides a lot of story possibilities, which is key - I'm taking about the "How about instead of using tanks, the Nazis are fighting the Battle Of The Bulge on the backs of dinosaurs, because I really hate drawing tanks and I really love drawing dinosaurs?" type of ideas.) because, it's a funny thing, but most people think their own ideas are really good ideas, and writers are no different. So there are two types of inputs as far as writers are concerned: the ones that fit in with the proposed story and even excite the writer's imagination, and the ones that give the writer a bad headache.

But it makes perfect sense that artists also want to see their ideas in print, because most of the artists themselves stuck with comics because of the stories. Even when they hate the stories, they love the idea of the story, especially when story is connected to some favorite character, which is often the case because when most of us start reading comics we don't really distinguish between art and writer, character and story. It's only later that a sort of reductionism figures in, that we start subdividing comics into different aspects and disciplines, but in most cases the kid buried deep within us never quite makes that leap.

But even among the best of us, writer or artist (or, I suspect, editor), no matter how much we've acclimated to the actual process of comics or internalized it, we still want comics to work the way we thought they worked because we knew anything about them except that we read and loved them.

The situation of the artist hasn't been much improved by the rise of the writers' coin, though quite often that coin doesn't extend beyond a handful of writers - Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and, to a lesser extent, Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, Brian Bendis and Garth Ennis - with the role of the artist on their work often diminished or secondary in the public view, though most of those writers talk specifically about tailoring material to artists whenever possible. (Something many of the rest of us can't manage, because too often we don't know who the artists will be when we're writing our material.)

So I actually have a great deal of sympathy for the role of the artist in comics today. It's a tough gig: usually underpaid, and it's much harder than ever before to break from the pack and really get the chance to shine. And more than ever before, artists have to shine if they want to get anywhere. The basic unfairness of comics has not been lost on many technically good artists, and Gil Kane outlined it in his long ago ALTER EGO interview with John Benson:

...Good comics drawing has force, power and emotion behind it, and that's what Ditko has, and that's what Eisner has, and that's what Kurtzman has, and that's what Severin has and that's what Kirby has. There's nothing wrong with incorporating good drawing in any of that, but you can't put it first. Good drawing has to grow out of the dramatic quality of the work rather than try to get these dramatic qualities to grow out of good drawing... You know, the most brilliant draftsmen in this field never sold a nickel's worth of books. The great sellers - the guys who created tremendous circulation - were crude artists by comparison. But it's Biro, and it's Eisner, and it's, again, Kirby; and it's never been Louie Fine or Reed Crandall or these guys who are credited with especially refined drawing styles...

I've had a lot of conversations over the years with artists who were technically adept enough (some even technically superior to many others working in comics) but who simply were never valued by editors or fans (nor, usually, by writers) because their work was also lifeless and unconvincing; it had no emotional element. Gil's very right that it's the verve in comics art that sells it, and by citing guys like Eisner and Severin whose work isn't the in your face leap-off-the-page stuff that Kirby had but still has a strong emotional quality combined with a style that brings it to life. This is the reason most Kirby imitators can mimic his techniques but not come anywhere close to anything he did, despite at least some of them actually being better artists than Kirby, technically; Kirby's art was fired by his personality, and they just don't have it. The problem for most artists today is that we've moved into an era where you can either demonstrate both emotional punch and a strong identifiable style, or you can have a strong enough story sense that your sheer storytelling ability masks your other weaknesses and carries them aloft, or you can end up wallowing in mid-range work-for-hire comics (and those are a dying breed), or, at best, your work can be just quirky enough that you can convince a tiny fraction of the indie audience you're a genius. But that last trick only works for awhile.

So, like I said, it's a tough gig. You can't always tell when an artist has "it" (the "it" in John Byrne's work was bursting from his art long before he went pro at Marvel, while David Mazzuchelli's early pro art was about as far from "it" as you could imagine - but then he left for awhile, and when he came back there "it" was!) but you can always tell when they don't. Being a comics artist has always been a precarious existence in general.

I do sympathize with artists, I really do.

But not this week.

I've had three bad experiences with artists in half as many months, so I'm a little sour on artists at the moment, but this may be instructional to other artists who might not yet grasp the difference between the work and the job.

Bear in mind this is paying work, though not all that much, and terms were spelled out from the start, before anyone said yes. All of them were aware of what the material was supposed to be like when they were offered the jobs. Then, in fairly rapid succession:

Artist 1 dropped out as soon as the script was sent. No idea if he read the script or not. I was told he was peeved the script hadn't been sent as soon as he said yes, though it had been stated during discussions that I had yet to write the script, which came in on time. I'm willing to chalk that one up to miscommunication, and this lesson goes to both sides of that one: make absolutely sure that everyone's on the same page regarding deadlines right from the start.

I get wonderful samples from artist 2. Wonderful. The sort of samples that make you want to kill to get an artist on your story. Very reminiscent of a hugely successful artist already in the field, but in some ways better. That kind of good. Negotiated a deal, sent the script. First page comes back from the artist - and it not only looks nothing like the samples, but includes all kinds of elements the script specifically prohibits (like peekaboo shots and women with inflatable PENTHOUSE breasts, which were diametrically opposite the intended flavor of the story) and completely misses the emotional content called for in the script. So the page is returned to the artist, with notes - basically, and there's no other way to put it, it completely misses the mark - and he quits on the spot. I can certainly understand why the artist was angry that we didn't like what he turned in - I don't like being on the receiving end of that myself - but the fact is that comics art has to carry considerable story weight and if it doesn't live up to that it shouldn't be used. Just because someone criticizes your art, it doesn't mean they hate it. If art is inappropriate to the story it's inappropriate. Also, don't show someone samples of one style then come at them with a completely different style and expect them to be happy about it. In Better Business Bureau circles, that sort of thing is called bait-and-switch.

But at least he quit right away.

The third was an artist I'd tried to get a project off the ground with before. I had pitched him alongside a project to a publisher, and the publisher wasn't interested in the project but tossed the artist a short-notice assignment because the publisher had a script that had to be drawn right away. The artist then vanished for awhile, forcing the publisher to get a different artist at the eleventh hour. But there were, reputedly, a number of extenuating circumstances, which I knew about. Cut to a few weeks ago, when I needed an artist for a project. I contact this artist, figuring he might be looking to redeem his reputation (the publisher was very angry with him) and he was more than eager to get in on that deal. I explained the terms to him up front, he said he had no problem with them at all and he could easily get the art finished in the allotted time. So I send him the script. Things are still going swimmingly, I think, as he contacts me a few days later to say all he has to do is scan a bunch of character designs and layouts and he can email them to me. Four days later and still nothing has shown up, and I drop him a couple emails that get no reply. Last week, I run into him on an instant messaging channel (I hate instant messaging), and he assures me, oh yeah, he was having some technical difficulties but things are going right on schedule and all he has to do is finish scanning character designs and layouts and he can email them right over to me.

Two days later, they still haven't shown up. So I start sending him emails, explaining that I have to have something in hand by Monday morning to show my publisher or my publisher will kill the project. No reply. No sign of him on the instant message channel. No answering his phone. I start sending him emails every twelve hours, then six, then four, then one, then start counting down the deadline in fifteen minute intervals. Not the deadline for the whole job, just for the work he has already told me he has already done. Finally the deadline passed and I had to call the publisher. It's been a couple days since then and I still haven't gotten a reply and don't expect to.

And all that last one is my own fault because I opted to trust someone I knew had shown identical unprofessional behavior before. Four reasons: I like the guy personally, he draws like a house on fire and I want my comic to look brilliant, there are a lot of artists who've gotten undeservedly bad reputations from unfortunate circumstances and I figured if he wanted to repair his this was his opportunity to do it, and he has been very vocal about wanting to draw for Marvel and DC (don't they all?) and this project would have made a good ticket in there. But if he gets an assignment from either of them and does this it'll be a very, very short career. The fact is that drawing comics successfully takes an awful lot of discipline just to get the work done at all and far more if it has any sort of panache, but a) don't take on a job if you know you can't finish it, because even if you think you're pleasing your publisher, editor or writer by agreeing, you're really only postponing their disappointment and adding wrath to it, and b) as soon as you know you won't be able to do or finish something you've agreed to do, TELL SOMEBODY! Like: immediately. Sure, they'll be pissed off, but they won't think you're unprofessional.

Anyway, I apologize to all those wonderful comics artists out there who don't behave this way at all, but this week comics artists are not my favorite people in the world.

Speaking of artists, I've been enjoying MODERN MASTERS VOL. 7: JOHN BYRNE, by Jon Cooke & Eric Noeln-Weathington, a lengthy interview with/appreciation of John Byrne's art and career. I know John's considered on the outs by various Internet factions, but he was a pivotal artist of the '80s and at least part of the '90s and his art's still up there today. Check it out.

Suddenly a lot of sites have stuff by or about me up. I didn't prompt them, honest, but here they are:

Don't recall if I mentioned this before, but I recently did a Comic Geek Speak podcast. The podcast is here, and the show notes are here.

Decades ago, before I started writing comics, I wrote comics criticism for Bob Layton's CPL (Contemporary Pictorial Review, which the likes of Roger Stern, John Byrne and, surprise surprise, Bob Layton also did work on). Atlas Archives has added one of the review columns I did for CPL that covered three premier releases from the short lived Atlas Comics line that tried to make a go of it in the mid-70s. Atlas is really a case study in editorial ambiguity and publisher ambivalence that wannabe publishers ought to be force fed until it comes out their eyeballs. Anyway, go read stuff I wrote in prehistory.

Meanwhile over at Pop Thought, Alex Ness has a column about crime comics that I (and several others) donated a few thoughts to. Alex will also have a collection of his interviews with various comics professionals (maybe even including me, but I haven't heard details yet) coming out from Moonstone Books, probably in the fall. Keep an eye out for it.

After getting slaughtered in its second weekend by PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN II, SUPERMAN RETURNS now faces an uncomfortable future, as reportedly foreign box office isn't turning out to be quite the salvation everyone hoped for either. Not that I haven't heard plenty of people rave up the visuals - apparently every penny Bryan Singer has Warners pump into the film shows up on the screen, and it's no real surprise that the IMAX version of the film is packing in crowds - but this week I wouldn't hold out great hopes for a SUPERMAN film franchise, especially not in the $230 million range. That doesn't seem to be the case with BATMAN so far, though, and if Warners does want Superman to return to film sometime soon, I wouldn't be surprised if we start hearing again the BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN idea that was being tossed around at Warners a couple years ago.

I haven't stayed away from superhero films altogether lately. Ran across Disney's SKY HIGH at the library - was it last year or the year before they were hyping it at San Diego? - and it turns out to be a decent enough film if anything on the level of the ABC Family Channel can pass for that. It's a pretty obvious film - anyone who can't spot all the character arcs, major plot points and big moral message by thirty minutes in must be in a coma (I didn't see the baby bit coming, though) - but the special features, which I watched first, won me over, cracking me up with Kurt Russell as a Superman stand-in doing a dead-on imitation of Adam West's classic wooden-but-lilting delivery in the BATMAN TV show. Russell's a good enough actor that I know that's what he was trying to do. It's no INCREDIBLES but in its way it takes the whole superhero concept seriously enough to work. Not bad for a kids' movie.

Scattered throughout the column are the covers for this week's Comics Cover Challenge. Seven comics, one secret theme connecting them. Be the first one to tell me what it is in an email, and you can promote any website of your choice here. (We reserve right of approval, but that hasn't been an issue so far.) I usually include a big clue somewhere in the column, but those haven't been working lately. Why, I don't know. So this week I thought I'd try a really small clue instead. Good luck.

Available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my "Master Of The Obvious" columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.

IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.

HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.

Not sure what the column will be like over the next couple weeks, since San Diego will get in the way, but there will be columns. I'm also still not sure what my San Diego schedule will be like, or even which days I'll be there (it'll depend on whether $1500 comes in by this Friday), so tune in next week for the final word.

What puts the lie to the military's little housecleaning exercise are other exercises like Abu Ghraib, where a number of soldiers participated in torture and sexual humiliation of prisoners, unofficially under command of military intelligence. Of course, they're just "a bad bunch." Or the rape-murder of Abeer Qasim Hamza, 15, in Al-Mahmudiyah, Iraq following her harassment by American soldiers at a checkpoint for refusing to accept their advances. Or the broadcasting on the Internet of a song by US Marine Corp. Joshua Belle, "The Rape Of Hadji Girl," which celebrates not only rape but using little Iraqi girls as shields against bullets and being thrilled by watching the blood spurting from her resultant wounds and by the singer's own ability to mow down other Iraqis. Understandably, the Iraqis found this more than a little tasteless. The military's response was... well, basically nothing. Just another bad apple, or an indicator of something gone seriously out of whack?

The answer may come from The Southern Poverty War Center, which has spent decades tracking Klan and neo-Nazi activity in America. They point out that where the military once refused to accept recruits from such groups, and "officially" that rule still stands, the declining fortunes of the Iraq insertion and the desperate need for new recruits have encouraged many Army recruiters to turn a blind eye to such affiliations. Commanders who have been apprised of white supremacists and gang members in their midst have also turned a blind eye. SPWC, not to mention Defense Department investigators, suggests there are now thousands inside the military. Leading to Aryan Nations graffiti being spray-painted in Baghdad. This may not seem like a very big deal, except for two things. Right now the main thing our prisons here in America have become are not places to punish crimes or rehabilitate criminals, but places for gangs, white supremacy groups, etc., to recruit and train members. Imagine the Army or Navy or Marines also functioning as recruitment and training centers for average, run of the mill American youth. Don't forget the military is a place whether they purposely break down pre-existing personae so they can rebuild you into what they need you to be, which is usually someone who is willing to kill upon command if necessary. I'm not casting aspersions, it just happens to be the case, because that's exactly what a soldier is: someone who's supposed to pull the trigger when he's told to pull the trigger. Unfortunately, when men are rebuilt - developing character, I think it's usually called - there's plenty of room there to build them up however you want, within reason. It's not too big a stretch to imagine white supremacists looking at the military with gluttonous eyes, because they've got a war to fight too. Which is the other thing: the Aryan Nations and the National Alliance, among others, encourage their own recruits to join the military and especially light infantry, because a street thug is just a street thug but a soldier is a soldier, and they're looking toward their own future race war and subsequent ethnic cleansing campaign - it sounds like some sort of '80s paranoid fantasy but that's the world they live in - and they want soldiers trained to handle weapons and kill on command, etc.

Just another way in which the "war on terror" is doing anything but making us safe from terrorism.

Then again, safety isn't really anyone's concern. "Safety" would most likely involve a stable Mexico, for instance, but the recent elections there, in which the ruling party maintained control of the presidency by less than a percentage point (at least until Mexico's election review board gets involved), bear a heady stink of fraud, with, unsurprisingly, many reporting tactics now familiar to many voters in, oh, Ohio and Florida. Except in those cases, half a million citizens didn't take to the streets of the capital city in spontaneous protest. Of course, the Hand Puppet immediately called up ostensible president-elect Calderon to "bless" his election, but the forthcoming recount, which by law must be a far more stringent and time-consuming recount than are generally bothered with here, ought to be pretty interesting, since independent counts place reform candidate Lopez Obrador, whose platform called for such grievous social upheaval as requiring the Mexican rich to pay taxes like everyone else, ahead by some million votes. Obrador is the front man of some major class warfare that's been brewing in Mexico for a long, long time. Mexico has a revolution about every hundred years, so far, and the next one's due, oh, four years from now. A stolen election should help it along just fine. Of course, a revolution in Mexico won't do a lot for the stability of our southern borders or probably a lot of our trade agreements either.

But that's okay. At least we can sleep easily knowing our leaders are the best. There's President Cheney, who has been poopooing any economic fears by reminding us that deficits are irrelevant. But KIPLINGER'S recently analyzed The Dick's own investments, and revealed he's been dumping tens of millions into Euros, which means he's banking on a continually weakening dollar, and getting richer on it. Suddenly puts our $8.4 trillion deficit in perspective, doesn't it? Then there's The Hand Puppet, who proudly went on THE LARRY KING SHOW on the occasion of his 60th birthday to remind us that it's important we went to Iraq because the war has made America more secure and thwarted international terrorism, that Saddam had harbored terrorists and was prepared at a moments notice to threaten the world with weapons of mass destruction, again suggesting the Administration's traditional insinuation that there was some connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. (Just in case anyone still doesn't know, there wasn't.) It's almost comforting to know, in an ever-changing world, that some things never change.

Almost comforting.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me - I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them - at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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