Must read: David Harper on the diminishing role of the comics artist at the Big Two

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A page from Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, a rare contemporary example of a writing/art team that sticks together.

It’s hard to believe in the era of Tumblr and Imgur and gifs and all that, but in comics artists seem to be getting the short end of the stick, at least in some places. David Harper takes a look at Comics and the Diminishing Role of Artists in a Visual Medium for Multiversity in a thoughtful piece that covers many bases. For those who grew up in the comics world of the superstar artist—Kirby yes but starting from Neal Adams to John Byrne to George Perez to the Image boys to Bryan Hitch and Frank Quitely, probably the last two “Superstar” artists—the very proposition that artists are not front and center in the comics world seems counter intuitive, but, it really has happened, thanks to the need to ship on time, house styles, the rise of writers and “editorial summit” culture, and many other factors that Harper discusses:

I’m not sure when everything changed, but at some point, comics became a writer driven industry, and this time more than ever before.

You had your aforementioned major runs being emphasized by writer and not artist (see: Bendis on “Avengers” and Johns on “Green Lantern”), you had Marvel’s unveiling of the (short lived) Architects* moniker (comprised of five writers in Bendis, Aaron, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction and Jonathan Hickman), and you had books no longer having an emphasis on a consistent artistic presence, all pushing the marketing weight and reader interest onto the writers and their plots rather than the overall storytelling that writers and artists combine to create.

Much of this ties into the “Coloring Book Culture” of the Big Two that I talked about a while ago. But there’s also the very real decline in income for artists and writers as discussed in this twitter thread. I’ve been asking around a bit, and comics rates aren’t much more than they were when I was an editor and that was 12 years ago. Needless to say, most thing cost a bit more than they did 12 years ago, including food, clothing and shelter, but there are more people clamoring to make comics than ever before, more of them breaking in at higher levels and it’s a buyers market.

Note well that Harper’s discussion of the suppression of artists seems to be mostly about Marvel and DC culture—although he does tag Image as being quite writer-centric, a result of current Big Two superstars—who are all writers—heading west to find a better life. (Yet it would be hard to find a bigger superstar at Image than artist Fiona Staples.) Oddly enough, in other comics realms— manga, webcomics, literary comics and bookstore comics—cartoonists, those who write AND draw, remain triumphant, and artists seem to have more cachet.

Is this phenomenon overall a good thing or a bad thing? Well, take a look at last month’s sales figures, and let’s circle back.

Comments

  1. annie social says:

    I don’t remember the last time I bought twelve consecutive issues that shipped on time and had the same artist for all twelve.

  2. This is surprising. Especially when corporate comics come across with more style than substance and most read like long-winded franchise ads…

  3. jacob lyon goddard says:

    You might want to credit whoever made the image you’re using, especially in an article like this.

  4. Double shipping can’t help a book maintain an artistic identity, but that specifically applies to Marvel, I guess. Even DC needs fill-ins every once in while to keep its book shipping monthly.

    I really enjoy how Wacker is/was balancing Hawkeye, though. Even with work from Annie Wu, Steve Lieber, Javier Pulido and Chris Eliopoulos, it still feels like a Fraction/Aja production.

  5. bgorton says:

    I was thiking this the other day. Big two have less quality art than other publishers.

  6. Gary Armstrong says:

    a few weeks ago i was thinking about how much longer marvel would even keep crediting writers and artists–always a taboo at disney. as their finances become more and more about the tentpole properties the individual contribution seems diminished on the financial ledgers…

    and yet i also agree that if there were superstar artists that could create content on a monthly basis we’d be seeing more of them. off hand, i can’t think of many that meet today’s superstar quality production on a monthly schedule. doesn’t diminish their impact, but when the standard is releasing books on a monthly schedule the big two companies need to realign and then focus on a house style

  7. I don’t want to diminish artists. But I do kind of think it always should have been this way. I will say there have been books that, to me, felt much, much better with a consistent artist. See: PREACHER.
    But… I do think the writer always should have been the most important things. The days of the ascendant artist in the Image era, back in the 90s, were bad, empty times.
    Comics are, at the end of the day, narrative. That should be central. Some artists are storytellers themselves, but then they should take the lead on writing, too (as some artists have done).
    It is a bummer that such enormous talent is getting crappy remuneration, too, but that seems be a natural symptom of an industry that’s falling to pieces.

  8. This is a process that’s been going on for some time. and *arguably* the artists have to share the blame. The more photo referenced, the more Sketchup backgrounded, the more mechanised the art becomes; the more demands are placed on the inkers and colourists ( for less and less money ) the more the process becomes dry, soulless and grinding. The more easily replaceable each artists becomes.

  9. Sam Thielman says:

    Jacob, pretty sure that’s Steve Dillon.

  10. Johnny Memeonic says:

    One of the problems is that newer top artists don’t have those long runs that big artists used to. At this point seasoned fans know when they see certain artists billed as “regular artist” for a title that it really means they’ll be on for an arc before someone faster replaces them.

    I don’t blame the artists for this. They’re being paid nowhere near the same thing in rates and royalties today as back when comics were much bigger.

  11. Comics are, at the end of the day, a VISUAL narrative. Do you know what you’re reading without the art? A script. This complete misunderstanding of how story is told in comics (the art IS the story) is one of the biggest problems comic artists face in being able to secure a more prominent/lucrative role in comic creation. ALL artists are story tellers. The story in a comic DOES NOT EXIST UNTIL IT IS DRAWN.

  12. The diminished artist on the piece above is Jamie McKelvie. Marvel.com doesn’t list an inker, colorist or letterer, so I guess those people don’t exist.

  13. I thought McKelvie inked his own work, but I could be wrong on Young Avengers. Speaking of doing one’s own work…. as for my books (at Image), I’m often called a “creator” because I write & draw and my books cross a range of genres and styles — thus I don’t get either moniker. There are times when I have considered just doing one or the other, because it might *ground* me in the eyes of the industry. Right now I feel kind of awkward in the era of the writer.

  14. Thanks for sharing my piece Heidi! I appreciate it. I do want to mention that in the last section I talked about Fiona’s ascent and how creator-owned helped her get a job that she could do that in (after all, she was amazing on North 40 too but she just got an Eisner nom and no readers for that).

    Also, I encourage the comment thread to read the piece. A lot of the things you are talking about here are analyzed in it.

    Thanks again!

  15. I think its more efficient to build a cult around one writer than multiple artists. Mainstream “writer” can easily write something like 3-4 comics a month while you are going to be lucky if artist does 12 issues a year. So even if writer gets smaller following than artist you are still likely to generate more profit from writer due to amount of “writing” he can do.

  16. Silly But True says:

    How far away are we from return to commission basis as standard practice?

    Marvel notifies its preapproved artist shortlist of script. The artists toil and toil, then all submit their hard work for competitive bid. Marvel tells everyone thanks, and buys pages on the open market. Bonuses go to visual gags like inclusion of signature “It’s Clobber in’ Time,” “Avengers Assemble,” “My Spidey Sense is tingling,” “Fastball special!” etc.

    To those who didn’t get purchased, Company reminds of 5-year NDA, and advises of a new script they can submit on.

    Silly but True

  17. George Orwell says:

    There seem to be a number of reasons why there appears to be a diminishing role of the artist at the Big Two:

    1) Writing has improved. Let’s face it, much of early comic book writing was horrendous – and by early we’re talking about Silver Age, Bronze Age stuff. Not saying stories are better, but certainly the writing is.

    2) The Big Two have become corporate machines used to churn out content for other media – video games, movies, theme parks – more than they are businesses in and of themselves,

    3) The Big Two which pay about the same as they did years ago have become a place where someone goes to hone their skills and then moves on. They’ve become something of an apprenticeship for artists. Btw, the pay issue is one shared everywhere. Only the top earners have seen their wages go up.

    4) There’s also the question of how many really great artists are there. I know I’ll still pick up a book if I find the art intriguing, but let’s face it, there’s a great deal of dreck printed simply to meet deadline. That hasn’t changed, but we all look back with our nostalgia glasses and bemoan the fact that there aren’t as many superstar artists when there probably weren’t as many superstar artists as we believe there were.

    Just my two cents.

  18. There aren’t that many true artists working in comics today. A lot of great professional illustrators, but very few artists. By that i mean, you see a lot of style that’s being homogenized down and becoming generic and expected. The sketches and commissions posted on blogs are far more interesting and experimental than anything that shows up in their published work. Maybe this is an editorial thing, to make it easier to change creators out and not be too jarring. Maybe the perfection of technology is watering down creativity. Maybe there is a sense that style needs to be shoe horned into an expected “professional look” to be employable. To me, looking at comic art often feels like a great live band feeling flat and forgettable in the studio.
    Even the books you see at Image often have a very Big 2 feel to some of the art. If you don’t want to go nuts and experiment on that stage than where will you?

    Seems to me that if an artist wants to be known you have to do work that is unmistakably yours. If people have to look at the credits to figure out who drew the book, then your work is generic. We know a Lemire, Kindt, Staples, Aja, Rossimo, Young, Guillory, Williams III, Francavilla page the second we see it. Those guys are pushing unique ideas and points of view, creating a brand for themselves.

    We’re not seeing the experimentation in artistic style and page design that we used to. Lots more racing to the middle of the pack than trying to take risks and create something new. Sometimes the problem is with the work more than a conspiracy to keep people down.

  19. Mikael says:

    I don’t know why the Big Two have to be the bastions of artistic merit. Isn’t that what more indie/boutique publishers are for? The Big Two create IPs and serial narratives just like soap operas. It’s like asking soap operas to have the best artists. I really don’t understand why, especially on this site, there’s so much demand for the Big Two to be “better” when, supposedly, this crowd isn’t a Big Two supporter. Why not just talk about where the art IS good? Expecting it consistently from the Big Two is silly. Cherish it when it happens, shrug when it doesn’t. Plenty of other great art out there in Previews and elsewhere.

  20. Mikael says:

    “It’s like asking soap operas to have the best actors” – grrrr. Fixed.

  21. It’s not a conspiracy, or a new age of digitally homogenized talent, etc etc (the current generation of artists are quite the opposite).

    The age of the superstar artist dimmed out over a decade ago, when comics became insular and driven by the big two at capturing and maintaining the existing aging market at the loss of the feeder system that was the newsstand. Aging fanboys don’t clamor for new art styles, they feed into the corporate machine designed to swallow the tail of the stagnant/existing market base.

    With the growth of digital, once the paradigm shifts, and moves the US industry, or comic market as we know it, away from the direct market big two dominated arena (or era that we’re in), young fans will again demand the exciting contemporary artists, and they will once again drive the market. Because as Ben points out, comics are first and foremost visual, and when the emphasis is not on that, they fail. Regardless the quality of writing.

    This is not to say they’re failures, but just that they’re not achieving their full potential.
    There is no Watchmen without Gibbons.
    Dark Knight without Miller (the artist).
    Or in contemporary terms, Saga would not keep arcing higher without the artistry of Staples to take it to those higher levels.
    And Snyder’s Batman would not impress as much, without a virtuoso like Capullo.

    IMHO :)

  22. Johnny Memeonic says:

    On a related note: this comment section is another perfect example of why you can’t trust tumblr hype.

    The art in the article is from Young Avengers, drawn by Jamie McKelvie with inking and art assists by Mike Norton so that McKelvie could get the work out faster. I know this because I bought and read the books (and listened to Mike Norton talk about the book’s art on a podcast).

    Yet look at how many people here don’t recognize the art or the series despite how recent it is. If tumblr were to be believed everyone should recognize this work from a single panel because it’s so popular.

    Food for thought.

  23. Bob Fingerman says:

    I’ve noticed, often, when reading reviews of collaborative graphic novels (writer/artist) that the writer gets most, if not all, of the press, sometimes the artist barely getting a mention. I think that’s because non-artists (the majority of the readership, especially in the case of critics) focus more on the story. I think artists that consume comics are wired the other way. I buy a few books almost solely on the basis of the art, often finding the story (at best) incidental. I know for sure I’ll buy a book with great art but a mediocre story but almost never a book with a great story and mediocre art. It’s all how we’re wired. Since I do both, lucky me, I get marks for both.

  24. We all understand stories. Even awful writers and amateur critics typically have a fundamental understanding of how stories work. We’ve been watching movies and reading books since childhood. Hell, when we tell people stories – about our day, about a funny thing that happened at work, about anything – we just kind of automatically form what may have been haphazard events into a narrative, because that’s what we do. Many fans may not have a sophisticated understanding of storytelling, but they have at least the basic tools to understand and discuss storytelling, and critics (who often come from a writing background) typically have an even stronger vocabulary to discuss and dissect writing.

    But do we have those same tools for art? I know a lot of people who may not understand just what an inker does. I only learned what a color flatter does two years ago. While I can and often do discuss character, tone, pacing, theme on a technical level in my reviews, I tend to slip into more emotional, less critical language when discussing art. And that’s a problem a lot of comic critics seem to have.

    That said, I’ve seen a lot of conversation swing the opposite direction, saying that we don’t need writers because the artists are the true storytellers – and I don’t think that’s true either. SOME artists are; some artists give us some possibly the worst comics ever made from the 90s ‘superstar artist’ days. Just because you can put words on a page doesn’t mean you are good at writing, and writing is EVERY BIT the specialized skill that art is.

    I think a balance needs to be achieved. It is no mistake that many of the best runs in the medium’s history were achieved by small teams working together over a long period of time. DC’s ‘house style’ is abysmal, but Marvel’s rotating art teams are frustrating as well. Stronger collaboration is the key, not swinging back over to the Dark Days of the 1990s.

  25. grouchypete says:

    This, I couldn’t care less about. I agree that all artists, along with writers should earn more money than they do (ok, so I care a little) and I agree the industries seem to be getting away with not having to keep up with modern costs of living, but as far as whether I want good writing or good art, I have one very short answer for you. Artists are everywhere. Give me good writing. It comes across as entitled and arrogantly out of touch to be crybabying that artists are getting the short end of the stick. Yes, this is a visual medium, but spending decades stagnantly not paying attention to good writing, especially from the big 2, is what caused the Dark Horses and IDWs and smaller indie companies to come about in the first place. Not to mention that if you scout any comic-con, you will find dozens of artists whose work has a strong sense of identity and originality. Good artists are out there, but the celebrity artist concept pushes good artists into a pay-your-dues waiting list they shouldn’t have to be on, and in the meantime, Liefeld still gets books to draw. I hate the Big-name artist concept. Good riddance.

  26. chris says:

    Do artists make themselves available for interviews? Dumb question but it seems to me that writers are the part of the team charged with doing all the press, because the artists are busy working on the next thing. How many artists are actively seeing out interviews (written and podcast) as aggressively as their writer collaborators?

    Are they being denied the press coverage, or are they not seeking it out? I think there is a difference.

  27. It tends to vary. Interview suggestions/offers come mainly from publishers rather than individuals – but on a site like The Beat, I do 90% of the approaches for interviews, anyway.

  28. jacob lyon goddard says:

    I think Bob Fingerman brought up a good point that I hadn’t considered.
    Most critics and commentators fancy themselves writers, not artists. That can skew things in a certain direction.

    As a side note, this site’s continuous lack of artist credits for the images they use, despite its pro-creator stance, is making me question if I still want to frequent here.

  29. Jacob, can you point to a site that does it correctly in your view?

    The way I post to the site doing captions isn’t possible, so I usually ID the artist in the text.

    Johnny M: Did you know tumblr and “blogs” are two different audiences?

  30. “Storytelling and art can’t be separated in comics. There’s no other way to know what’s going on. If you’ve read a great story that’s not just down to the writer, the artist is equally responsible for telling that story through the visuals. It’s that simple. Art in comics doesn’t equal pretty pictures, it equals storytelling.”

    – Gabriel Hardman

    People still aren’t getting this.

  31. jacob lyon goddard says:

    Heidi, The Comics Reporter lists all credits at the end of its articles.

    CR is the only other site I check regularly, so I don’t know how many other sites do or do not credit the artists they post.

  32. jacob lyon goddard says:

    I would like to see it as a standard practice everywhere, comic news blogs or otherwise.
    Do you disagree?

  33. Funny you mention TCR because it totally DOESN’T list the artists on the front page of the site.

    http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/go_look_writejessewrite/

    When you click through you can find it, and it’s often available from the context, but the art is not “credited” the way magazines always did it in teeny type on the gutter of the mag. And very very few sites are better than this, sadly. But things are changing. I know everyone got on Buzzfeed for instance, and they are pretty religious about it.

    All that said, I do agree it should be more of a standard everywhere, and I’ll make better use of captions where the provence of the art isn’t immediately apparent.

  34. MBunge says:

    “1) Writing has improved. Let’s face it, much of early comic book writing was horrendous – and by early we’re talking about Silver Age, Bronze Age stuff.”

    No, it hasn’t. Today’s writers emphasize aspects of storytelling that writers of the past never even bothered with because they were writing, largely, juvenile adventure, comedy or scary stories for audiences that were much, much more numerous than now. Different does not automatically mean better.

    As for the declining fate of the artist, it’s all about the use of full-script storytelling where the writer dictates every single freakin’ panel. The result is what we saw at the start of this post. A very well drawn page that was about as unexciting and unimaginative as possible.

    Mike

  35. @Ben Rankel, thank you for your comments, it’s exactly how I see it and well said.
    @Brady Dale, what you describe is one way to make comics, and is much more similar to how you make movies. But with this, the artist becomes simply a hired hand to execute a script, within tight style parameters. Understandably, many great and innovative artists are not interested in this and rather work in the indie / graphic novel world. There, they can practice a different way of making comics: where art and story are inseparable, where art can *become* the story.

  36. Tom Williams says:

    This freelancer pay isn’t limited to just comics. Rates for illustration, in general, have been in the crapper since Rockwell was swinging a brush. At least that was the ‘cheery’ advice I got from my illustration teacher. Pay for an editorial spot hasn’t changed since the time of Mad Men. Think about that.
    The other ‘fun’ aspect is not all folks pay on time. In fact it could be months before you get paid. Contract or no contract. On average, you could make an okay middle income. Out of all the freelancers I know, maybe a handful do this full-time.

  37. Dan Ahn says:

    Aside from Stuart Immonen on All-New X-Men and Greg Capullo on Batman, I don’t know of any big-time artist at the Big Two right now who really carries any reliable weight. Marvel in particular has a whole murderers row of A+ artists . . . but they’re all scattershot all over the place, doing three-issue runs here and there. I don’t know if that’s diminished, say, Adam Kubert’s payrate, but when artists are playing musical chairs all the time it sort of lowers their impact in the public consciousness. It used to be that readers, well, KNEW where to find their favorite artists. They KNEW what their favorite artists were working on. Now it’s a guessing game. People used to follow artists from project to project, but the changes are happening too often now. DC isn’t as “ADHD” about their artistic line-ups as Marvel is, but that advantage is off-set by DC’s a) inability to keep A-list artists onboard, and b) their seeming “house style” that homogenizes everything.

    As others have said, I think a large part of the deal here is that comics art has developed to the point where most big name artists cannot produce 20 pages a month anymore. On average the art is probably better than it’s ever been, but it’s very rare for big names to draw 10 or more issues a year. Again, Immonen and Capullo are notable exceptions, and the reliability on their titles are a big part of why All-New X-Men and Batman have had quite high, steady sales. And not to diss someone Chris Samnee, because I like his work, but if you just look at what he does… it doesn’t scream “fan-fav artist!”, and yet because of his reliability he’s risen through the ranks. Daredevil isn’t a best-seller, but many people enjoy it because it has the same artist almost every month. It’s a refreshing anomaly.

  38. I’d also toss in the fact that the vast majority of big name writers are American or British (English speaking), while an ever increasing amount of artists are South American and Italian (some of whom speak English, some of whom do not), meaning that doing interviews with a mostly English speaking comics press is going to be a lot easier for writers than for artists.

  39. Serhend Sirkecioglu says:

    Artists are a just little more well known than VFX artists, but they’re as interchangeable as them in they eye of an editor. there’s a niche of folk who appreciate the art direction those guys do for films but anything beyond a concept art monograph is the exception to the rule. directors…i mean editors only see artists as a variable at their disposal for their illustrated movie pitches. working at Marvel/DC is a dying dream, most kids i speak to in my classes talk about working for scholastic, making web-comics, making a hit image comic, and going to japan and be a manga artist. i think people need to adjust their perspective and see what the current and next gen of artists want out of being a cartoonist and address those audiences instead of these rich old men.

  40. george says:

    DC had a house style in the ’50s and early ’60s (Gil Kane described it as “watered-down Dan Barry”) as did Marvel in the ’70s (think Sal Buscema). Now there seems to be one superhero art style that both companies use.

    I really can’t tell most of the artists apart anymore, whereas I used to be able to tell at a glance whether the artist was Kirby, Colan, Adams, Byrne, Perez, Infantino, Kubert, etc. Now I have to read the credits, because they all draw in the same basic style.

  41. george says:

    Douglas Wolk mentioned in his book, “Reading Comics,” that artists used to stay on a book for several years, putting their stamp on it: Kirby’s FF and Thor, Kubert’s Sgt. Rock, Infantino’s Flash, John Buscema’s Conan, Colan’s Dracula, etc.

    That doesn’t happen as much anymore. Editors seem to have instituted a house style for the sake of a consistent look, as artists come and go. The increasing power of editors probably has something to do with it.

  42. James says:

    Good.

Trackbacks

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  2. […] There were some solid observations in the comments to my comments on Harpers previous piece, on the devaluation of the comics book artist, and I had a few brief Twitter discussions about it as well. I know this has been going on for a […]

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