Well that was a huge, unanticipated break. My life underwent some technical difficulties and Near Death took the hit. That’s the thing about personal projects, they’re much easier to de-rail than work-for-hire gigs. So I’ll use this opportunity to have a pissy rant about something that bugs me.
Now and then you’ll hear this question discussed; ‘What’s more important in comics, story or art?”. This is a profoundly stupid question because in comics ‘art’ and ‘story’ are not separate things. What people really mean is ‘What’s more important in comics, writing or art’. And the answer, of course, is neither. The telling of the story is what’s important and the art should be telling you the story just as much as the words are.
But generally they don’t get to. Which is a massive problem because comics are a visual medium, so stories told in comics are most effective when told visually. But when people hear ‘story’ they still tend to think of words, either written or spoken, not visuals (maybe because the artforms that can tell stories visually, film and comics mainly, are reletively new compared to prose) but it’s this kind of thinking that I believe’s at the heart of a lot of what is wrong with how comics are executed.
When a new artform first emerges it tends to lean heavily on earlier forms before it learns how to use it’s own strengths. So in the early days of motion pictures films were basically silent stage plays. The camera would sit in a fixed position and record the events as they unfolded. No edits, cuts, close-ups, pans or zooms. No sequence. Over time filmakers discovered what they could do with the camera and how they could tell a story in an engrossing way that was unique to film, and movies became the most popular artform in the world.
Comics on the other hand never seem to have gotten very far from their early days as a combination of prose and illustration. In many early comics this would lead to a ‘doubling up’ where both the words and pictures were basically doing the same job. You’d have a caption that stated ‘Then Jack landed a blow on the thief’, an illustration showing Jack punching a thief, and a speech bubble that read “Ha! I’ve landed a blow on this thief!”. And although comic creators have gone beyond this kind of clumsy exposition they’ve never really managed to integrate prose and illustration, they still tend to just run parallel.
This problem seems to stem from the way comic scripts are written. If a writer starts by thinking “What are the best words I can use to tell this story?” and then gets an artist to produce pictures to complement those words, all they’ve done is write a heavily illustrated novel where the dialogue and description happen to sit directly on top of the pictures. This is how the vast majority of comics are created.
Not only do writers tell their story with words, they also dictate how it’s told visually. They choose the number of panels per page and all the panel breaks, they decide the panel content and describe shots and angles. And mostly they do this very poorly and arbritrarily. Which is totally understandable because they’re not artists. It’s almost impossible to work out a visual sequence without getting a pencil and paper and drawing it. Imagine if architects didn’t draw blueprints or create models but instead wrote a long piece of descriptive prose and handed that to the builder.
This tradition of dicatating visuals sequences verbally tends to lead to all sorts of problems which are the bane of a comic artist’s life. In fact most of your job as a comic artist comes down to solving visual problems caused by the script. Scripts constantly call for visuals that are not only awkard but often contradictory. The best you can hope for is a writer who doesn’t mind you changing the panel layout so it runs a little better, although you can never fix any of the basic problems this way, you’re just re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The tradition of writers dictating visuals has reduced comic book art to illustration. If an artist isn’t given the opportunity to develop a distinct way of organising a visual sequence to tell a story, the only way their work can shine is as illustration. Their art is taken out of the context of the page (so isn’t comic art anymore) and judged that way. Artist ‘a’ draws great anatomy, artist ‘b’ draws wonderful backgrounds, artist ‘c’ has fantastic line quality etc.
Ideally I think things should run closer to the way a screenwriter and director work. Imagine if you got a film script and you handed one copy to Michael Bay and another to the Coen brothers, how different would those films be? How distinctly would they tell that identical story?
A script should contain all the dialogue, captions and scene description but never dictate how to tell the story visually. No panel breaks, no shot choices, nothing. A writer might be excellent at writing tense dialogue but do they know what kind of panel shapes, angles and even what number of panels will communicate that tension visually? Usually not. They might write an initmate conversation and then ask for a distancing layout. They may write an epic scene and give you two pages to achieve it.
All of these things make for mediocre comics, and the sad part is it’s easily solved by writers doing less work and giving aritsts the room to do their jobs so comics can start to reach their full potential.