Comics criticism often suffers from an over-reliance on the single authored work for ‘greatness’; it’s time to get over it.
In comics “the author” is, of course, an important figure in how creativity is imagined, often grounding how a work is framed and analyzed, determining who gets credit for its success or failure, and playing an important role in shaping audience reception. Whether dealing in the traditional fine arts or the artifacts of pop culture, authorship is also a powerful marketing tool. Despite the many ways and contexts in which an author’s identity is assumed and deployed, every form of art or creative expression poses complications for assigning authorship.
This determination can be particularly challenging. Not only does making comics require multiple sets of skills, but people read and enjoy comics for different reasons.
At its most basic, comics require two jobs: writing and drawing. The quality of the work and artistry in either can pull in or motivate a reader. However, the fact that there are two jobs does not mean that there are always two authors.
Long form works, ‘graphic novels’, tend to be single author works, that is, one person does the writing and the drawing. By contrast, your typical monthly pamphlet, whether from DC or Marvel or a smaller publisher like BOOM! Studios or IDW, is normally produced by a group of contributors. Most notably, the art in comics of this kind is often divided into a series of tasks performed by different people: penciling, inking, coloring, and lettering.
Not surprisingly, it is the longer form, single-authored works that receive the most attention and recognition from literary critics and scholars, and are most likely to be recommended to ‘non-comics’ people. As the phrase ‘graphic novel’ implies, such works are easy to fit into the frameworks established for reading and understanding, particularly, prose fiction, not least because they are produced by a single author.
Modern, mainstream ideas about literary and artistic genius are centered on the lone creator, held apart and above the average person. This is an easy image to sustain when a book has been written and drawn (and lettered and sometimes colored) by the same person. It’s an image that allows people who would otherwise reject comics as worthy of serious attention to indulge in works such as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006) or Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon, 2003).
It is, however, harder to apply to works that, in appearance or actuality, have been created by committee. Such comics are readily dismissed as more commodity than art or literature, having been produced in assembly line fashion by paid staff or contract workers, and not by a single creative genius.
Where the big two publishers, DC and Marvel, are concerned a fair argument can be made that the publisher, or corporate rights holder, is the ultimate author of the comics they produce. There are always limitations to what any given writer or artist will be allowed to do with a character or ‘property’ held by one of these companies. Such work is always framed by the structure and direction of each publisher’s larger storyworld, and marketing needs, both real and perceived. Here editors, who represent the interests of the business as well as their own sensibilities within the corporate structure, have a strong claim to authorship in comics.
Still, the emphasis on the singular creative genius has been embraced by DC and Marvel. Individual titles and major ‘cross-over events’, that is, storylines that cut across the breadth of one of the publisher’s universes, are marketed heavily not only on the basis of what they will mean for metanarratives, but also on the basis of who is doing the writing. Creators like Brian Michael Bendis, Warren Ellis, and Gail Simone are almost brands in their own right. Works authored by such ‘name’ writers are valorized within the current market for comics, by both big and small publishers alike.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
(Pantheon; US: Sep 2000)
At the same time, the basic division of labor within comics means that some titles are also sold as being authored by a writer-artist team, who collectively constitute the genius behind a work. Bendis and Alex Maleev would be one example. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale would be another.
In these cases, the often shared nature of comics authorship is recognized, but in a circumscribed way. Significantly, ‘artist’ most often means penciler. Maybe that person does their own inking, but they are far less likely to also do coloring and lettering.
A decision to assign authorship to the writer and penciler does have a defensible logic. Insofar as comics is a narrative medium, the writer obviously plays a pivotal role in the making of a book, and when considering comics as a visual medium, penciling is certainly a primary activity. Right or wrong, it is simple enough to treat inking, coloring, and lettering as secondary activities or as forms of augmentation, not as acts of creation.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight
(Dark Horse Comics; US: Mar 2007)
Yet the practical reality is that any of the elements that go into making a comic can make a difference to the experience of reading. In its original and broadest sense, “author” refers to someone who creates or causes something. To the extent that the work of an inker or colorist can enhance or detract from a reader’s experience, the individuals who perform those jobs can make some claim on authorship.
Marketing departments clearly recognize that there are colorists, inkers, and letterers who have some name recognition among readers of comics. For example, the artistic team that has worked most extensively on Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight for Dark Horse Comics, which includes Georges Jeanty, Andy Owens, Michelle Madsen and Richard Starkings, are all given ‘above the title’ and front cover billing.
The complexities of attribution in comics are reflected in the ways that different contributors are credited on different titles and by different publishers. While “Written by” is one form of attribution for writers, variations on ‘Script by’, ‘Story by’, or even just ‘Words by’ are often used, each implying a different level of authorship.
‘Script’ implies a level of planning and direction as well provision of dialogue and narrative. On the other hand, it can also be read as placing the writer on the assembly line, ‘scripting’ while others down the line pencil, ink, etc. At its most basic, ‘story’ implies outlining a scenario or plot, but more broadly, is suggestive of a job that is primarily about narrative and less about the particulars of how the comic looks. ‘Words’ seems mostly about dialogue. ‘Written’ is most easily understood in general and authorial terms, but like the similar, ‘Scripted by’ suggests one part of a division of labor that is less than a true ‘author’ would posses, which leads to the fusing of ‘writer’ and ‘artist’ into ‘author’.
‘Art by’ has fewer variations, but, as already noted, carries it own complexities, attributing the ‘art’ to the penciler, who may or may not also do the inking, but most often not the coloring or lettering.
The penciler typically designs and draws figures and backgrounds, and contributes to the storytelling by translating the writer’s words into images. Maybe that grants the penciler a higher claim on authorship than the inker or colorist or letterer and maybe it doesn’t. The most interesting credit given to the artist in this regard is ‘Illustrated by’.
‘Illustrated’ implies a subordinate role to the writer, one where the artist provides a rather literal series of pictures for the words in a script or other text. If nothing else the relationship between ‘writer’ and ‘illustrator’ suggests less one of equal collaboration and more of one where the person who draws has a primary duty to follow or be faithful to the one who writes.
Attempts to find a language for comics authorship, whether for academic, critical, or economic reasons, are largely about readers as much as creators. Who and what is responsible for why someone picks up a book and who influences their response most?
In traditional prose, where the single author and their words rule, those seem to be easy questions to answer (although much more complicated than appearances or book reviews would suggest). Even within genre fiction, where story structures are already given, there are clear distinctions to be made between ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ writers, both in a financial and a literary sense.
At the moment, in comics, the current emphasis seems to be on replicating this world of the single authorial voice, even where such a replication is impossible. Separating out works that have been written and drawn by one person as some form of ‘literature’ while consigning all others to some other category not worthy of critical attention merely elides the question of authorship by emphasizing the familiar over the difficult.
What is unavoidable in comics is that not everyone can write and not everyone can draw (or ink or color or letter), especially not with the same skill. This means that there will always be ‘great’ works whose greatness is not reducible to one, or two, people’s contributions.
This is, of course, where the question of authorship becomes far more complicated than is useful for the marketing of comics. The idea of the singular creative genius or authorial voice, whether actually singular or only framed as such, appeals to widely held senses of how art and literature are made, and is therefore useful in the selling of books. However, it also smooths out the real rough edges of the creative work in comics.
In this way, film studies offers better models of authorship than does literary criticism, where the text, the author, and the reader are the primary coordinates. While the director as author still shapes college film courses, books, and reviews, within the wider field are perspectives that emphasize the contributions of others, for example, producers, stars, and the role of forces like budgets and processes like commodification in the making of movies and the history of cinema. Understanding comics, how they are made and how they are read, requires a similarly open, fluid, and multi-centered approach to authorship.
While the temptation to retreat into the refuge of the single author inorder to locate ‘greatness’ or even ‘art’ is strong and comforting, in comics such qualities are often shared and the nature of a work is to be more than the sum of its ‘biggest’ parts. While the idea of ‘genius’ is problematic in its own way, assuming that it must be singular is the first and more critical barrier to the appreciation of comics as art and literature.