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September 7, 2009


CR Holiday Feature: Ng Suat Tong On Writing, Collaboration and Superheroes

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By Ng Suat Tong

During a recent e-mail exchange with Joe McCulloch of Jog the Blog I asked him who he thought were the best superhero artists of the current generation. He wrote back indicating that he had been thinking about this for a while and that "superhero comics really are in a writer-driven era, enough so that it's getting hard to identify 'star' artists like there used to be in the late 80s or early 90s."

His thoughts seemed to echo my own. The seeming domination of the writer in mainstream publications (at least as far as publicity and reverence are concerned) is made more curious by the fact that I find the current crop of star writers (with the exception of Grant Morrison who really came to prominence much earlier) pretty flat and uninteresting.

While we were having this e-mail discussion, the artist James Romberger was denouncing the dearth of respect for the cartoonist (and drawing) both among reviewers and industry players on The Comics Journal Message Board stating that:
"The critical malfunction regarding comic art is apparent in the recent New York Times review of Asterios Polyp, The Hunter and a Gaiman/Kubert Batman thing [Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?]. The Batman review is obviously about Gaiman, except that Kubert is the 'geek icing on the cake.' While the writer makes a stab at describing Darwyn Cooke's visual style he falls short with Mazzucchelli, focusing on the events of the story; to describe David's mastery of comics syntax, complex diagrammatical approach and emotional nuance communicated by spare lines he gives us: 'diverse visual conceits and effects'... Critics and audience take their cue from the publisher's promotion and packaging. If the writer is the main creator by virtue of font size and cover ranking then I can absolutely guarantee that the artist is going to get short critical shrift in the long run."
A simple survey of on-line reviews and articles would suggest that Romberger does have a point -- at least with respect to mainstream comics. It's a situation which seems even more inequitable if one considers what passes for a full script in this day and age.

While a number of comic writers claim to revere and admire Alan Moore, few if any have shown any interest in studying or emulating his works. Moore's influence on comics writing virtually stops short at grimy, gritty realism. To be sure, I'm not asking writers today to develop an imagination on par with Moore's but there are some skills which can be learned. For instance, his understanding of the formal properties and history of comics, a more complex interplay between text and drawing and the methods by which he layers structures and scripts. It is clear that Rick Veitch in his Swamp Thing run, which followed Moore's, managed to pick up a number of these lessons and more.

Any review of the quality of present day comic scripts (which are now more frequently than ever reproduced at the back of comic collections) would exclude a writer's thumbnails, photo reference material, late night phone calls, faxes or plain face to face conversations (if there were any; I'm giving the writers the benefit of the doubt here). On the other hand, the scripts which are presented at the back of these collections represent a vital skeletal structure. To suggest that these scripts are more often that not utterly decalcified would not be an exaggeration.


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When a writer fails to take into account the limitations and talents of his collaborator, what we are left with may be compared with one of those scenes in science fiction movies where dinner guests are presented with food capsules containing the essence of filet mignon (or bull rectum whichever may be the case).

Pia Guerra's response to Brian K. Vaughan's sparse and determinedly straightforward scripts (as presented at the back of the Y: The Last Man collections) are illustrations conveying as little mood or sense of place as is present in Vaughan's instructions. The comic is left to succeed purely on the basis of Vaughan's ideas and lively dialogue. That these ideas are at various times boring, nonsensical or just plain irritating is beside the point -- I'm focusing purely on Vaughan's mastery of the formal tools at his disposal. Vaughan's stories in the early issues of Y are nearly bereft of devices unique to comics filled as they are with unsophisticated story structures, flat panel to panel transitions and the rote use of splash pages at the end of each issue. If anything, Y reads like an easy to understand sales pitch for comics-illiterate movie executives. Little wonder then that the words HBO and Y are so often uttered in the same breath. Reproduced below are the most formally inventive pages from issue 18 of Y I could find (the script of which was published at the back of the collected edition) -- the better to see the efficacy of Vaughan and Guerra's collaboration:

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Whatever your opinion about Frank Miller's skills as a prose writer or crafter of plots, he was, at the very least, in tune with the mechanics of a comics page (far more so than Vaughan I should add).

In Born Again, his use of splash pages were judicious and often unpredictable. The final page in each issue was never an excuse for a half-baked, badly telegraphed, cliffhanger splash page. It was Miller's use of tension from issue to issue and from panel to panel in the final pages of Daredevil #232...

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... (note the rather the sly use of dialogue in the final panel here to foreshadow the next page) mingled with Mazzucchelli's exceptional compositional and expressionistic skills that contributed to the effectiveness of this famous splash page:

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[Note: By this juncture, Matt Murdock had not been seen in costume since Daredevil #227, nearly half a year ago -- itself a case of careful planning on the part of Miller. ]

I'm not suggesting that the problems with Y would have been completely solved by the application of more skill, time and energy to the script. Vaughan would still have been at the mercy of his artist-collaborator (and vice-versa). On the other hand, the scrawny and simplistic nature of most modern day scripts (which may well be an improvement over anything during the Silver Age or early Bronze Age) has also led to great variation in the efficacy of the accompanying art. Something terrible and quite telling occurs, for example, when Manuel Gutierrez takes over from Alex Maleev in issues #38-39 of Brian Michael Bendis' Daredevil run. In essence, Bendis' simplistic script was laid bare for what it was.

It was my rather lackluster (though not completely disappointing) experience reading Bendis' initial run on Daredevil as collected in his Daredevil Omnibus that made me go back and re-read Miller and Mazzucchelli's Born Again to see if nostalgia had been up to its old tricks. (I should note here that the Bendis Daredevil Omnibus, as opposed to all the prior, shorter, hardcover reprintings, is clearly touted as Bendis' achievement by Marvel since you would be hard pressed to find out who actually drew the issues without peeping inside)

A recent hardback reprint of Born Again reprints Miller's script for Daredevil #233 -- one which bears reading if only to ascertain to whom to ascribe the most praise. It is a sad fact that few of the current generation of mainstream writers understand comics as well as Frank Miller -- hardly one of the greatest writers comics has ever produced, but a decided force in mainstream comics art. Miller, writing in 1987, is of course, full of praise about his collaboration with Mazzucchelli:
"It's almost criminal how easy David makes it to write a script. He makes a three dimensional stage of the individual panel, complete in authentic detail, nonetheless uncluttered and utterly readable. He creates actors whose dramatic range is startling, whose best and most compelling moments are wordless."
While it may not have been perceived as such when it was first released, this was clearly a collaboration of equals (artistically speaking) and is still billed as such to this day despite Miller's considerable name-draw. Here are two pages of Miller's script and the corresponding page from the actual comic just to see what Miller requested and Mazzucchelli added to each page:

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With respect to Miller's writing skills, a telling sequence occurs in Daredevil #232, which is preceded by a medium-sized establishing shot of the Bugle newsroom:

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On the first page of the sequence, Miller's insertion of a woman calling for a copy boy in the first and third panels seems almost like a distraction or an effort to depict the frantic atmosphere of a newsroom. That is, until the fifth panel where she asks in exasperation, "Copy Boy die or what?"

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By the time the second page in the sequence comes round, the words "dead", "cold" and "buried" begin to pop up on ever other panel -- the calm of the hospital murder scene contrasting with the madness of the newsroom:

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It's the kind of sequence you would expect from someone like Alan Moore but not Frank Miller (there's even a small nod to Klaus Janson and a Kurtzman-inspired face provided by Mazzucchelli in the third panel of the third page in this passage).

The sequence, simple as it is, is filled with details which you would never pick up in a movie on a single viewing. It's a good example of some basic yet unique properties of comics. Consider the utter calm created by the fourth panel (virtually empty of dialogue and bedroom details) on the following page where the nurse sarcastically thanks Ben Urich:

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Contrast this with the the writing displayed in Bendis and Maleev's Daredevil -- a series built on the foundation of Miller's Daredevil and using a template established during the Miller and Mazzucchelli collaboration (in short, a thinly disguised regurgitation). Bendis' comics appear to have the greatest visual and formal sophistication among the new generation of "name" mainstream writers which include Brian K. Vaughan and Ed Brubaker (if I don't bring up Brubaker's Captain America run here it is only because it is easily the worst of the bunch and doesn't bear mentioning). An example of this can be seen in some of the double page spreads found in Daredevil:

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It is hard to ascertain where Bendis begins and Maleev ends without the presence of a script, but some of these double page spreads bear comparison with those found in the Bendis-written Powers (drawn by Michael Avon Oeming):

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Bendis' use of such double-page spreads in Daredevil (some containing lengthy expositional dialogue) is probably as effective as the densely written captioned narratives used by Miller in Born Again. The highly visual nature of these spreads in Daredevil suggest a significant contribution on the part of Maleev.

One of the most dramatic moments Bendis was able to come up with over his lengthy run is Bullseye's attempt to kill Murdock's girlfriend, Milla Donovan:

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It's a sequence which hinges on the reader's familiarity with Daredevil continuity and the ghosts of Elektra and Karen Page. The gradual emergence from darkness of Bullseye and the close-ups of Milla's face testify to Bendis and Maleev's reliance on the language of film and television. This is comics as a functional storyboard which moves effectively from A to B and then back to A with a minimum of fuss -- a virtue of the highest order in mainstream comics which aspire to the status of suspenseful melodrama perhaps but the complete opposite of what we find in the works of Alan Moore not to mention a host of superior alternative writer-artists. The meeting between Kingpin and Bullseye in an earlier issue owes an even greater debt to film.

Maleev's realistic art work further heightens this effect throughout the series and the team rarely build on decades of innovation in cartooning and comics writing -- the rather insignificant "homage" to past Daredevil artists later in their run being no exception. A more interesting use of the comics page occurs when Murdock encounters Typhoid Mary where we see, once again, the gradual close-ups but this times placed askew on a full page bleed:

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If Bendis and Maleev's take on Daredevil falters at times in its disregard for the formal properties of comics, it is also guilty of rolling out age old tropes for the "revival" of superhero titles. One is left with the impression that mainstream comics writing has not only stagnated but in all likelihood regressed in the last decade becoming competent yet mediocre.

The comparison here is made more pitiful by the fact that Miller's script for Born Again is hardly perfect. Miller's script is frequently over-verbose and overwrought. His constant repetition of facts at the beginning of each issue betray the serialized nature of the comic at a time when the collection of runs of comics into books were not givens. Yet he clearly understood the visual and structural aspects of a comics page as well as the creation of tension and suspense.

I have intentionally avoided mentioning any Alan Moore-related comics up to this point as this would be perceived to be unfair, much like comparing Maleev's art to that of Jack Kirby as far as drawing is concerned. I will avoid any examples from Watchmen for the same reason. I can personally attest to being rather surprised the first time I saw one of Moore's scripts during the '80s but I have come to expect no less from writers nowadays. There is as much learnable craft in Moore's script as there is irreproducible imagination, as much hardwork as there is inspiration.

Moore's techniques if noted and described in detail would easily fill a book several times the length of this article but it is equally telling what Moore was willing to do in order to get Eddie Campbell on the same page as he was for the "simplest" of scenes in From Hell (only the first of three pages of script shown).

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A similar though more varied picture arises with Grant Morrison whose scripts (together with a few samples) are discussed in some detail here. As with Moore, the quality of Morrison's ideas make any comparison with the likes of Bendis or Brubaker very difficult -- the magnitude of his creative energies are simply of a different order. Even a relatively minor title like Seaguy becomes an opportunity for a plethora of references, symbols and incidental details which enliven the world. As with his other titles like The Filth, Seaguy is so choked with visual absurdities and wacky ideas that you could not imagine them portrayed in superior fashion anywhere but in a comic book.

The density of Morrison's creations owe as much to his text as to the visual images he has his collaborators bring to life. With All Star Superman, his aim was clearly to allow Quitely the space to produce iconic and arresting images of the most famous of all superheroes (as Miller did with Batman in The Dark Knight Returns). Yet his real passion (as revealed, for instance, in the information packed splash pages of his more personal works) is to allow readers to grasp his plots and inhabit his imagined worlds through visual revelations.

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This is in stark contrast to Vaughan's thinly imagined visuals in Y. Granted that the abilities of Richard Case on Doom Patrol or Cameron Stewart on Seaguy far surpass those of Pia Guerra, yet Vaughan clearly makes no effort to create a rich or believable world through imagery in his most famous work. It should be added that Morrison has had his own encounters with a less than effectual artist in the person of Chas Truog on Animal Man. It was a problem he overcame, in part, through his fertile imagination yet there is little doubt that the reputation of Animal Man has suffered because of this unequal partnership.

Readers will find that the success or failure of many of Morrison's comics rely far more on the details of the plotting and narrative than any sublime formal skills (though he is obviously possessed of above average skills in this area). He has not Miller's great gift for pacing an action sequence or delivering a sense of awe. Nor does he have Moore's genius for narrative structure or visual-textural interplay. The reason why Moore's comics seem so elevated above his peers is because of his mastery and frequent use of all of these skills.

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As I have mentioned at the start of this article, the failure to inspire on the part of the current generation of writers would feel less acute if not for the actions of their editors and publicists. In recent years, these figures have sought to elevate a host of rather indifferent writers above their artist-collaborators many of whom have contributed very significantly to the success of certain comics.

The case of Neil Gaiman and Sandman is less egregious if only for the fact that Gaiman is the most important and consistent voice on Sandman. It is clearly to the commercial benefit of his fellow artists (not to mention DC) for his name to get top billing for it is he who is the highest draw. Gaiman's collaborators may in all likelihood be thankful simply for being invited (or allowed) to play in Gaiman's sandbox and to earn a sizable paycheck. Whether this situation is fair to his collaborators (or adapters) is another question entirely. Such issues may in fact be totally irrelevant to most observers who view these as purely financial transactions no different than those undertaken by Carl Barks when he wrote and drew for years without credit.

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Artistically speaking, it is all too clear that Gaiman's artist collaborators had a significant part in the success (or failure) of a number of Sandman story arcs. Here's an example from one of the most revered issues from his run, Sandman #50 ("Ramadan"), drawn by P. Craig Russell. Readers can decide for themselves how best to divide their compliments:

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A similar situation can be found in the newly minted Vertigo Crime line where Ian Rankin is the headliner for pretty obvious commercial and financial reasons -- division of labor and collaboration be damned:

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On the other hand, I imagine that Alan Moore and his collaborators won't be too pleased by the way DC has chosen to credit them on the latest Swamp Thing collection:

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As for Bendis, he has of course acknowledged the gifts of his collaborator in print. At the back of the Daredevil Omnibus he writes:
"Simply put, Alex [Maleev] draws the way I want to draw. In my head I draw like him. His unique sensibilities and approach make him, probably, the most unique artist working on a mainstream monthly comics, and I don't think that's acknowledged enough."
I've included this quotation here not to suggest any agreement with this statement but to give Bendis his due. There is little to reason to believe that he takes any pleasure in the way he has been headlined at the cost of Maleev on the dust jacket of the Daredevil Omnibus. The extent to which Maleev contributes to the mood of Bendis' scripts can be seen in the following script comparison where he both adds to and subtracts from the working script:

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It is clearly the editors and pencil pushers at Marvel's offices who are most at fault for the pretty disgraceful cover credits on the Daredevil Omnibus:

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That the balance of publicity has tipped so far to the side of the writer in recent years, despite little evidence pointing to the surpassing worthiness of their writing skills, should be cause for consternation if not disgust.

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bigger versions of the above images can be found here.

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posted 5:30 pm PST | Permalink
 

 
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