One of the major phenomena occurring in American comic books in the last two decades has been the cult of the writer, often in competition with the cult of the artist or illustrator. Various years have seen gradual and sudden shifts of power between these two cults. It is no coincidence that the cult of the writer corresponds with the rise of more complex narratives and the growing trend towards more literary and “high art” values in American comics. This essay considers the history of the cult of the writer, examines its alternatives, and then addresses its implications for the study of comic books.
In the early days of original American comic books, after comics were exclusively reprints of newspaper comic strips, both writers’ and artists’ names were omitted from publication. This period, beginning in the late 1930s and at its height during World War II when American comics sold millions to U.S. troops, was generally one of great corporate control of comic book production, though those corporations were often confined to small New York offices, or rooms passing as such. Indeed, it may be argued that the omission of writers’ and artists’ names was not a grave injustice, since comics were frequently produced by committee, or more accurately by hurried collaborations. The stories of comic book artists in the early forties being given up to 64 pages (then the typical length of a comic book) to illustrate over a weekend, then calling their comic book artist friends and frantically producing the comic through an assembly-line process in which one person penciled most of the figures, the next most of the backgrounds, the next finishing and correcting the pencils, the next doing foreground inks, the next background inks, and the next completing the inks, or some variation on this system, the various artists often tiring and switching roles, all while eating jury-rigged meals and ironically talking on comic book theory (though they didn’t call it as such) while producing product — since that’s what it was — with not only no incentive towards individual style but actual incentive against it, abound. The don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy proliferated with the company: as long as the pages appeared on the often ridiculous timetable set, no one cared who had done the actual work, and so long as the art was passable, which simply meant that someone might buy it after leafing through it.
Even Will Eisner, drafted for war while his The Spirit was appearing as a comic pamphlet inserted into newspapers, used writers and artists without acknowledging them at his studio, set up in competition with bigger, more typical companies. Though the likes of Wally Wood anonymously graced the pages of The Spirit and its quality was decidedly superior to the comics of the other companies, Eisner did those companies’ policy of creative anonymity one better by not only omitting the names of writers and artists but actually using those writers and artists as ghosts. This occurred despite that those writers and artists, unlike those working for bigger companies late into the night in emergency sessions in someone’s New York apartment, were actually known to Eisner’s studio.
Incidentally, lest we be too harsh, the same practice continues today in newspaper strips, for which the credited creator almost always has assistants, uncredited, to deal with the demands of a literally daily schedule. Indeed, the same practice may also be seen in American comic books to this day, in as much as pencilers and inkers often have uncredited assistants who, say, do a few pages to help meet the demands of monthly publication. Both are public secrets, rarely acknowledged but in private, or in interviews after the fact, but known to all involved. Indeed, one reason certain American comic books are late is not only because the artists are more meticulous than most but because they refuse to use assistants. The same phenomenon also applies to writers, albeit more rarely. It was, apparently (though perhaps not surprisingly), Grant Morrison’s bragging to friends that led to the revelation that he had acted as ghostwriter for his friend Mark Millar on The Authority #28.
In the 1960s, there was the rise of Stan Lee as writer and Jack Kirby as artist at Marvel Comics, both transforming, respectively, the writing and the art of the industry. By this time, writers and artists were being credited, famously at Marvel Comics with superlatives attached in typical Stan Lee rhetorical fashion: “Sensational” Stan Lee and “Battlin’” Jack Kirby, etc. That Stan Lee went on to receive attribution as presenter (as in “Stan Lee presents… “) of all Marvel comics should be taken at best as a precursor of the cult of the writer: after all, Stan Lee was (and remains, as his sporadic writing jobs in recent years has shown) not much of a writer in the sense of the writer as artist, as sophisticated shaper of ideas and narrative. At the risk of making a strained comparison, he was the Alfred Hitchcock of comics: he knew how to melodramatically enhance suspense, crafting tales with a realistic tone but ultimately flawed in terms of narrative realism (more pronounced in Lee’s case, though less apparent in Hitchcock’s given his use of genres without flying and metahumanly strong men in tights with campy codenames). Both Lee and Hitchcock transformed a medium, but they did so based on their own admittedly good instincts, constructing melodramatic and entertaining tales but rarely more than gesturing at philosophical depth. These were not craftsmen but men of gut, men with a feel, rather than an understanding, of what would make their audiences react. Lee’s acclaim at Marvel may be seen as an elevation of the position of the writer but not of the writeras writer, at least not in the modern sense as conscious craftsman.
In the 1970s, certain writers achieved prominence, especially at DC Comics. One was Jack Kirby, newly writing tales as well as illustrating; though his comics were a failure commercially, his writing, though more uneven than Lee’s, achieved poetic heights far greater than Lee, a demonstration that says more about Lee as a writer than it does about Kirby as a writer, for all of Kirby’s boldness as a writer (just as he was bold with his dynamic figures of radically foreshortened limbs). Marvel wasn’t entirely immune: there, Steve Gerber came into prominence as the innovative writer of titles like Howard the Duck.
The 1970s also saw “social relevancy” in comics, particularly in two stories dealing with drugs, however simplistically, one at Marvel Comics with Spider-Man and the other at DC Comics in Green Lantern, written by Dennis (or Denny) O’Neil and illustrated by Neal Adams. O’Neil also wrote, often with Adams illustrating, Batman stories that returned the character to more realistic tales of detection and death, as well as Superman stories that eradicated Kryptonite (which had only existed as a convenient plot device to give a nearly all-powerful character a weakness and thus make him more write-able), removed much of Superman’s powers, and made him a TV reporter instead of a newspaper reporter (thus updating him for the times as well as making his frequent on-the-job transitions into Superman more difficult). The phenomenon of social relevancy in 1970s American comic books, often studied, has typically not been tied to the cult of the writer, but social relevancy as a phenomenon was nothing but an attempt, never embraced but by a few titles, to drag comic book narrative, bound since Lee to camp, into the real world, complete with problems, and to address them more seriously than the infrequent instances in which hippies had derisively appeared in 1960s comics (as when Jimmy Olsen was temporarily transformed into a hippy and denounced Superman).
The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the first burgeoning of the cult of the artist, which had its roots in Kirby just as the cult of the writer had its roots, however primitive, in Lee. Not only had Kirby’s coming to DC been proclaimed in advertising — blurbs read “KIRBY IS HERE!” — but Neil Adams and other artists began taking on higher profiles as well. Adams in particular has been ignored in the history of this period, largely due to his opposition to the two large American comic book publishing houses, particularly Marvel Comics — an opposition which has seen his work occasionally reprinted, though rarely promoted in industry lore and letters columns, largely the source of comic book information until relatively recently. Adams, whose art had innovatively featured panels of bizarre shape and layouts that began to mirror their contents, left the mainstream publishers and campaigned for Marvel Comics to return the original art of Jack Kirby, which was his due under law despite that Marvel owned the copyright on it. Marvel resisted, finally doing so only in part and only after certain waivers had been signed. This, perhaps more than Adams’s innovations, fame, or voluntary departure, may be seen as an important step in the cult of the artist, in as much as Adams and others directly campaigned for the rights of their prime of the comic book artist.
The real dawning of the cult of the writer came in the mid-1980s with the rise to prominence of Alan Moore. Moore, who had been working in England on stories serialized in small installments, came to American attention on Swamp Thing, where his sophisticated writing not only saved a title on the verge of cancellation but lifted it into critical and commercial prominence, leading to DC Comics’ decision to remove the seal of the Comics Code Authority, the censoring body for comic books established in the 1950s, and to add the disclaimer / advertisement “Sophisticated Suspense” to the book’s cover — a watershed moment in the history of American comic book writing. Moore went on not only to occasional stories featuring DC super-heroes, most prominently Superman (including the so-called “Last Superman Story” and a story in an annual that featured a dystopian Krypton as well as the implication that Robin lusted after Wonder Woman) and Batman (in Batman: The Killing Joke), but also to Watchmen, a 12-issue “maxi-series” (or long mini-series, or simply a finite series) in which every issue featured 32 pages of artistic content, a subtle and unique design for the covers, and a story of astounding depth, both structurally and in terms of meaning. Illustrated by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen achieved international critical attention and success, suddenly elevating the comic book writer, in particular, to a new level of sophistication and celebrity.
Approximately during the same time, Frank Miller rose from penciler to writer as well as penciler on Daredevil at Marvel Comics. Miller’s artistic design, inked by Klaus Janson, featured Eisneresque cityscapes and attempts to illustrate Daredevil’s super-hearing on the page. More importantly, however, was Miller’s writing, which mixed humor and elements of the absurd with realistic violence, weaponry, ninjas, and phenomenally powerful gangsters. His character Elektra, a ninja and love interest for Daredevil, had an apt name and origin, as Miller’s storyline featuring her attained a quality of Greek tragedy, ending with her death, despite her popularity, and later her apparent resurrection, though Miller subtly had her never speak with Daredevil after being resurrected, instead laying emphasis on her conquest of her own past weakness and longing. Miller then moved to DC Comics, where his 300-page Ronin, which he both wrote and illustrated, served as an artistic testing ground for his 200-page Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which achieved international critical attention and success with its depiction of an elderly Batman’s return to vigilantism in a tale filled with violence. These works were breakthroughs in terms of their panel composition and pacing on the page as well as in terms of their writing, and both would be profoundly influential on American comics, but the writing would receive more attention. That Miller represented the cult of the writer can also be seen in those works during this period in which he wrote but did not illustrate, including the “Born Again” storyline in Daredevil, which featured Daredevil’s life destroyed and his contemplation of murder when his secret identity is discovered by a foe, and the realistic “Year One” storyline in Batman, which told of Batman’s first year as a vigilante and featured a Catwoman who was a whore, both of which were illustrated by David Mazzucchelli — as well as Elektra: Assassin andDaredevil: Love and War, both illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz and featuring fractured, if not postmodern, narratives.
The mid-1980s, particularly with the success of Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, saw the sudden birth of the cult of the writer. Narrative maturity, as well as complexity, and works of long lengths became hallmarks of the sophisticated comic book writer, the cult of which certainly had antecedents and ancestors in terms of the graphic literature involved, but none that catapulted the writer as writer to national and international attention. In the wake of this phenomenon, both Moore and Miller stopped working for DC Comics after disputes with a company unaccustomed to the cult of the writer, these writers’ celebrity status and willingness to make demands upon the previously nearly all-powerful company. Besides the completion through DC Comics of his V for Vendetta, actually begun in England in the early 1980s, Moore went on to mostly independent work, all of which was published slowly when at all, including the gradual completion through Eclipse of his three books of Miracleman, also begun in England in the early 1980s, as well as four new projects outside of the super-hero genre: the socio-historic retelling of the Jack the Ripper phenomenon in From Hell with artist Eddie Campbell (completed after many years and subsequently adapted into film), a moving tale of repressed childhood with artist Oscar Zarate entitled A Small Killing (published as a 100-page original graphic novel), a tale of lesbians in Lost Girls with artist Melinda Gebbie (now stalled for about a decade), and a complex modern realistic tale with artist Bill Sienkiewicz entitled Big Numbers (abandoned by the artist, then the replacement artist, and never completed. Besides the aforementioned works, Miller went on to write for Hollywood and to produce comic books at Dark Horse Comics, including most prominently his black-and-white series of detective graphic novels entitled Sin City.
But if Moore and Miller had somewhat marginalized themselves from mainstream comic books, others took their place, particularly at DC Comics’ small line of titles labeled “mature readers,” including Swamp Thing, of which the line was the spiritual inheritor. This line included Grant Morrison on Doom Patrol, Jamie Delano on Hellblazer, Peter Milligan on Shade, the Changing Man, and Rick Veitch on Swamp Thing — prior to his departure over a dispute with DC Comics, following Alan Moore’s lead just as he had followed Moore on the title. But no writer of the end of the 1980s and early 1990s would be more important for the cult of the writer than Neil Gaiman, who wrote The Sandman for the same line of “mature readers” books at DC. Gaiman had also written Black Orchid, a 150-page graphic novel illustrated by Dave McKean and published by DC, and would later take over Miracleman after Moore’s departure, but it was The Sandman that, as it gradually increased in readership, became a sensation. Never selling as well as the top super-hero titles, The Sandman was nonetheless a commercial success.
Perhaps more importantly, The Sandman received awards and attention outside of the comics industry and not only brought national and international attention to Gaiman but to comic books, all of it focused through the lens of the cult of the writer. Indeed, The Sandman may be seen as a fine illustration of this cult, since the artists on the title changed quite frequently, with only one storyline being completed entirely by the same artistic team. Given the inconsistencies in illustration within storylines, not all of this turnover could be attributed to the philosophy that different stories worked best with different writers, a philosophy, however accurate, that developed as the series continued in part to justify the frequent turnover. Indeed, Gaiman became a celebrity while his artists were frequently unmentioned in media reviews and were treated as of secondary importance. In turn, DC not only granted him partial control over his characters and allowed the series to run late without assigning other writers to script fill-ins, but allowed him to end the series (after 75 issues, a special, and two mini-series) when his epic reached completion, despite that it sold well and American comics custom demanded that the title simply be passed to another writer.
Here was the cult of the writer in its full implications. The artist was, by contrast, disposable. It was the continuing narrative of the series, its literary values and scope, which were of primary importance. For his part, Gaiman customarily praised the artists, fully aware that without them his scripts would never have been transformed, complete with the idiosyncrasies of the illustrators, into the comics so many loved and for which so many praised him. But The Sandman (typically referred to as “Gaiman’s Sandman“) was a literary endeavor, increasingly written and marketed that way, and its relative successes and failures illustrate the relative strengths and weaknesses of the cult of the writer as a practice in American comic books. Certainly, the constantly shifting artists decreased the power of the series, particularly in the first half of its run, during which an artist frequently changed for no discernible narrative reason. In this, the elevation of the writer and attention to literary or narrative concerns over those of the illustrator may be seen as having a discernible downside. But the final years of the series — during which the shifts in illustrators became attuned to the narrative and actually began to inform the reading of the text, marking changes in narrator, for example — may be seen as arguing that the downside of shifting artists, when properly controlled, may be transformed into an advantage. This was especially true in a series in which the main character is literally seen by different characters and having a different appearance, depending on the viewers’ cultures. Moreover, in as much as comic books tell stories, The Sandman was a stunning narrative success — a sustained narrative of high literary quality, voraciously taking in not only DC Comics’ history but also Shakespeare, Milton, Marco Polo, Augustus, and “high” literature and history in general, typically with little or no explanation offered for those who did not catch the references, although Gaiman’s tales were written so that such readers could enjoy the stories anyway. The all-but-universally acknowledge masterpiece that is The Sandman owes its success in tremendous part precisely to the cult of the writer.
It is no coincidence that DC’s Vertigo line, launched in 1993 with The Sandman as its flagship title, focused rather heavily on its writers over its artists. The works of Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, and Peter Milligan were prominent among its first few years. 1994 saw Mark Millar begin an extended run on Swamp Thing. 1995 saw Paul Jenkins begin an extended run on Hellblazer, and 2000 saw Brian Azzarello begin a two-year run on the same title.
Following The Sandman‘s example, Vertigo has published and is publishing several extended finite series; all are creator-owned, doing Sandman one better. Grant Morrison began The Invisibles, his extended finite series featuring the work of multiple artists in the model of The Sandman, in 1994; it would conclude (after 59 issues and a few short stories) in 2001. Subsequent extended series would attempt to address the problems with illustrators on The Sandman and the commercial failure of that scheme on The Invisibles by retaining as much as possible a single artist; although ownership was shared between creators in such instances, not only did the same writer write all issues while each series featured supplemental artists at some point, but it would be the writers who would be remembered most as defining the series and whose careers would receive the most benefit. Writer Garth Ennis would begin his less brilliant but funnier and much more commercially successful Preacher, another such finite series, in 1995; it would conclude in 2000. Running 66 issues, a mini-series, and several specials, artist Steve Dillon illustrated all of the issues and one of the specials. Vertigo inherited Transmetropolitan, writer Warren Ellis’s extended finite series, in 1998, after the Helix imprint under which it had been previously published (since 1997) for twelve issues was eliminated; it would conclude in 2002. Running 60 issues, two specials, and a few short stories, artist Darick Robertson penciled all but one issue and the two specials. Writer Brian Azzarello began his extended finite series, the still-continuing 100 Bullets, with Eduardo Risso as illustrator in 1999. Presently consisting of 37 issues and a short story at the time of writing, all but one issue has been illustrated by Risso. Admittedly, other extended finite series have failed to reach the designed completion, but these extended works stand among the most important works of American graphic literature, not only for their length but for their quality, and it is distinctly the writer who has received the best treatment and the most fame for these accomplishments.
Virtually all of these writers have gone on to receive high-profile writing assignments, and the cult of the writer that was a mainstay at Vertigo has infected the industry’s most mainstream titles. Grant Morrison was catapulted to super-stardom on JLA, a mainstream super-hero book at DC, the radical success of which led to his landing the high-profile writing assignment on Marvel’s New X-Men. Following Preacher‘s success, Garth Ennis has received a number of assignments at Marvel, most prominently on Punisher. Though Mark Millar’s work on Swamp Thing failed to propel his career, his breakthrough work on The Authority for DC’s Wildstorm imprint has led to work for Marvel, most prominently on Ultimate X-Men. Even Paul Jenkins, whose hit-and-miss run on Hellblazer disappointed many fans, has received high profile work at Marvel. 1999, the year after DC inherited his Transmetropolitan, saw Warren Ellis rocket to super-stardom with The Authority and Planetary at Wildstorm, as well as an abortive run on Vertigo’s Hellblazer, leading to high-profile contracts with both Image and DC that essentially let him write whatever he wants. Brian Azzarello, a relative newbie, received mini-series work from Marvel and an exclusive contract from DC. Indeed, Marvel Comics has aggressively recruited writers from Vertigo, known for nurturing many of the best writers of the last decade, so much so that Brian K. Vaughan, who wrote a revivedSwamp Thing series — launched in 2000 by Vertigo and that was a decided critical and financial failure — has been recruited by and received work from Marvel.
If the cult of the writer may be juxtaposed to the cult of the artist, we have ample evidence of the artistic superiority of the cult of the writer. The clearest example of this is Image Comics, founded in 1992 by the top artists at Marvel Comics at the time, including Todd McFarlane (Spawn), Jim Lee (WildC.A.T.s), Jim Valentino (Shadowhawk), Rob Liefeld (Youngblood), and Eric Larsen (Savage Dragon) — quickly followed by Sam Kieth and Marc Silvestri. The early Image Comics, in 1992 and 1993, were largely unreadable: artists drew splash pages just because they liked a particular pose, and the pacing, even the story itself, became muddled in image after image of ill-proportioned, exaggerated figures. Often even well-schooled super-hero comic book readers could not deduce the plot, and when they did they were often embarrassed for the creators, after, say, a character walked into the story without explanation in the middle of a fight and a new fight began. This occurred despite the use of writers, some credited and some as ghosts; these early Image writers were hardly the top in the business. Nonetheless, the early Image Comics sold like tulips, largely to people too unsophisticated to realize the comics’ poor quality as narratives, but also to many who were simply stunned and ecstatic to have a third publisher that could suddenly compete with the duopoly of Marvel and DC. Moreover, the success of the early Image Comics led to the creation of an Image style — full of the exaggerated musculature and cleavage, bodily proportional distortion, and panel after panel of dramatic poses that were commonly found at Image — in many non-Image books, including at Marvel and DC.
To be sure, time improved things at Image as the company’s chronic lateness and farming out of their books, and their many spin-offs, to inferior artists and writers gave way to higher-profile writers, including James Robinson and Alan Moore, newly re-interested in super-heroes and their imaginative possibilities, denouncing Vertigo as a line of comics “based on a bad mood I had a decade ago.” Over time, Rob Liefeld was kicked out; Jim Lee sold his line to DC Comics; Todd McFarlane, rich from his toy company and movie contracts, stopped all but the most cursory of involvement with his line of titles, the policies of which led to numerous disputes with creators (including Neil Gaiman); and Jim Valentino shifted to an administrative post within the Image company, illustrating only sporadically. The departures of founders and their respective universes played havoc with the backstory to many books at Image Comics, which had optimistically featured characters from the entire company’s lines, though owned by different creators, in the early years of Image. Image’s checkered history, however, has been somewhat redeemed by its increasing emphasis on creator-owned books not belonging to the founders but published under the Image umbrella with its distribution power for a flat fee. Jim Lee’s Wildstorm Studios, both before and after being purchased by DC Comics, featured numerous creator-owned books, most prominently Kurt Busiek’s Astro City. Image Comics has proven itself a valuable addition to American comic books, but the record of illustrators gaining control over the means of production has left something to be desired.
If the cult of the writer has proven more sustainable and artistically profitable, it has done so with the help of the cult, or at least the power, of the editor and publisher. Certainly, stories abound of brilliant writers’ ideas being squashed by corporate policies, sometimes due to other plans (typically less interesting and less memorable) from the same characters, sometimes due to the radical nature of those ideas themselves (which corporations, typically conservative in their thinking, tend to feel would damage the marketability of the characters involved or tarnish the company’s relative family-friendly image), and sometimes simply due to squabbles between writers, illustrators, editors, and corporate higher-ups. But it should also be noted that writers, given great control over their own production, have sometimes faced problems not so dissimilar to those experienced by Image Comics, including chronic lateness and occasional inability to complete projects. Contrast, for example, Neil Gaiman’s sometimes late but prolific and consistent work on The Sandman at DC Comics with his work on Miracleman at Eclipse Comics, plagued by delays in paying their creators before going bankrupt before Gaiman’s run could be completed. Contrast, for an additional example, Alan Moore’s late but nonetheless quickly completed work on Watchmen — or, for that matter, Swamp Thing — with his work for independent publishers, including Miracleman before he passed it to Gaiman; From Hell, which by its first publication as a complete collected edition had been through four publishers (Aarvark-Vanaheim, where the prologue appeared in Cerebus; Tundra, where chapters appeared in the occasional anthology Taboo; Kitchen Sink, where the series appeared as its own title; and finally Eddie Campbell Comics, the creator-owned publisher of the series’s artist). It should be clear that the deadlines imposed (and perhaps even input offered) by an editor or publisher, if not the editorial intervention that often frustrates writers’ designs, certainly have benefited American comic books.
In the last few years, another factor has developed as a major influence on American comic books that may ultimately affect, or even upset, the cult of the writer: computer technology. Long gone are the days when comic books were printed on newsprint in Ben Day dots that combined four colors, frequently inexactly applied, over artwork that had been thickly inked so that it would print by such a cheap process. The 1980s saw the first computer-generated comic books, drawn entirely on the computer, though they look painfully crude today, when entirely computer-generated comics, still a relative rarity, use fairly finely-detailed 3D-modeling of figures and backgrounds. Though the transition has been gradual, contemporary American comic books from the mainstream publishers are predominantly slick, computerized works printed on glossy paper stock, that not only shows off the art better but also preserves better; almost all coloring is done on computer and all art, however produced, is scanned and sent to the printers electronically. This still presents certain problems, as when the pixel density (or DPI, dots per inch) of the pages’ images is not great enough, leading to visible pixelation on the page, which I frequently observe in many comic books today, sometimes only on a few pages or in a few areas, particularly in word balloons or captions, where the effect of pixelation is most discernable. There has even been open debate about whether inkers should be used or will often be used in a few years, since penciled art can be scanned and have color applied to it digitally, as all color at the major publishers and most color at the minor publishers is produced. Color, in fact, has been the area in which American comic books have most excelled with the advances of computer technology: many of the books from major publishers feature glorious color and computer-generated fading effects that surpass any coloring job of even a few years ago. In a sense, this is only an extension of those who have previously used photographs, such as of the Earth from space, as did Jack Kirby in his 1970s comic books for DC; indeed, computer-generated images of planets and clouds of differentiated color are frequently among the computer-generated effects in comic books today that still stand out from drawn artwork, looking out of place in books that do not elsewhere employ such montages. There has been some concern that such computer-generated coloring, including shading and beautiful glowing light emanating from flashbulbs and reflective metal surfaces, is being used to disguise a lack of artistic quality in certain books; the eye wows at the computerized effects laid over the illustrations, but the illustrations are in some cases not as good as the effect the eye perceives. In any case, increasing attention is paid to colorists, including Laura DePuy, whose impressive work on the hit series The Authority was not only noticed and praised but warranted her name being included on the cover; more and more colorists, who work entirely on the computer, are, in fact, receiving the same treatment. It remains to be seen whether we shall see something of a cult of the colorist, or a cult of the entirely digital illustrator, or simply a cult of technology that has readers purchasing books more based upon the technology utilized than the writing or penciled illustrations.
It should be noted, however, that whatever the technological developments affecting comic books, those developments are likely, as with the occasional cult of the colorist, within the larger cult of the artist. That is to say, technological advancements are, at least in their present orientation, more likely to affect the art and overall appearance of comic books than their writing. (I can certainly imagine computer programs that write, or use algorithms based upon other writers to generate new stories or revise writers’ scripts, but such applications of computer technology have lain, perhaps fortunately, unpursued compared to flashy new graphics-processing applications.) It is no coincidence that the majority of colorful “computer-illustrated” comics, or comics for which the illustrations have been produced entirely on the computer, have been lacking in narrative substance; like Hollywood big-budget special effects, focus too often goes into the visual effect of the computer illustration — which is, after all, the selling point of the book — and not enough into the scripting.
Throughout the history of original American comic books, then, a tension has existed between reading, and creating, comic books as a literary art and as a visual art. Indeed, this tension may be traced back to the comic strips that preceded original comic books, particularly in the adventure serials of the 1930s, which balanced the demands of continuing narration with those of enough visual action to attract readers to each particular strip. Mainstream comics have traditionally catered more toward the visual, providing interesting ideas at times, though often with a visual component or organizational strategy (as with Kandor, the shrunken Kryptonian city), typically filling themselves with colorful costumes, dramatic fights and explosions, and super-powers such as flames or strength that make for good illustration — over, say, super-thinking or guilt-inducing vision. Indeed, there is a whole field of existential stories of super-powered individuals just waiting to be told, and we may well hypothesize that the implicit cult of the artist that has dominated, however slightly, mainstream American comic books has helped keep those comic books predominantly trapped within the super-hero genre. While the most literary comic books have typically been the most successful as art, there remains room for new sorts of comic books that reinvigorate the visual while remaining in a narrative format.
Frank Miller’s Sin City may here be considered an inspirational example. Filled with splash pages and minimalistic yet dramatic (and sometimes stunning) entirely black-and-white imagery with no greys, Sin City nonetheless offers narratives, however more casually paced and varying in appeal. In my own comics writing, I began with dense tales designed to tell complex stories in as economical a way as possible, filling each page with as much narrative importance, though not necessarily words, since too many bog down the page. Over time, I have sought more expanded forms that lay renewed emphasis on the visuals while retaining sophisticated narrative structure. The danger of the cult of the artist is that narrative finds itself sacrificed and the question is begged: why not just publish collection of art, whether in book format or as comic books, with no narrative whatsoever? That is to say, if an artists’ followers are buying his books for the art, why bother with a third-rate narrative?
The solution for artists actually might be exactly a move in this fairly indulgent direction, however tempered. For example, an experimental narrative might consist entirely of a character walking into a garden. The character’s dress is shown in detail, complete with large close-ups. There might be twelve pages of various shots of him walking into the garden. At this point, the garden, or rather the experience of the garden, takes over. A series of various shots of the garden, lavishly illustrated, follow. Double-page spreads of portions of the garden might abound. Some might feature the character subsumed within the landscape, evocative of the Japanese tradition of landscape illustration. A few might feature the man more centrally. Perhaps one shot could be of his looking up at two apples, or figs, in the foreground, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden and suggesting limits to this lush experience, perhaps even that it may not last forever. A frontispiece, or final panel, could explain in a single sentence or two that the character is an emperor enjoying his garden for the last time before an invasion, a deposition, or his death, expected or not — but no such frontispiece, or final panel, is necessary; the work is an experimental narrative unto itself. I have personally tried to get at this new sort of visual narrative in my comics scripts of the past two years or so (particularly in the Esprit Noir series), and I believe that I have found considerable success, creating a new synthesis of writing and art that celebrates, on sophisticated terms, both the cult of the writer and the cult of the artist.
In the end, however, the cult of the writer must find dominance. This is solely because the medium itself is more literary than visual — and I maintain that this is true even when there are no words, or all we remember are the visuals. Comics are approached like books: we read them alone, generally. They are a solitary pursuit. We can come together to talk about them, but they are not the group experience that movies in the theatre are or television can be. Painting and photography, as experienced by most, is a group experience as well, given that most people encounter such images in public places such as museums or on billboards while driving. Such visual media have, because of their present usage, social dynamics that comics and literature lack. To be sure, this is all generalization: visuals are sometimes experienced alone, and the world wide web has totally thrown off our definitions of those media, what constitutes moving or static, visual or literary. But you know what I mean, and it’s true: we read comics by ourselves. They move, like literature, at the pace we, as readers, want them to move — the opposite of film, for example. They are supremely a literary experience, however necessary — and wonderfully so — visuals are to the equation.
I wish to note, in conclusion, that the cult of the writer is inherently acknowledged within the very structure of The Continuity Pages. The informational files on comic book series that is the mainstay of this site are organized in their listings by their most basic component. In the case of most popular series, this most basic unit is a shared corporate world. In cases of independent works, however, of tales existing primarily in their own world, a choice must be made. The inclination to list by most prominent creator dominates. In some cases, there are multiple writers and artists, and a decision must be made within either category. In any case, a decision must always be made in terms of the relative prominence of the writing and the art. Even if one wanted to list both writers and artists, as in a library catalog or a citation, moreover, one creator must still be chosen as primary, his name listed first. In almost all cases, The Continuity Pages lists the work according to its most prominent writer.
This is more than an explanation of The Continuity Pages and how its philosophical underpinnings are put into practice. It is a demonstration of how these issues, and our takes on them, are subtly put into practice all the time — and necessarily so. Institutions such as libraries, people citing comic books, and even those soliciting comic books for release must all navigate the cult of the writer and the cult of the artist, sometimes mediating between the two. Writers typically win, though they have not always done so and occasionally do not always do so today. However we answer these questions, the cult of the writer affects not only the history and reception of comic books, but even how we reference them and consequently think about them, in myriad subtle ways.