Channel the entity "Jeff Parker" from beyond the Ether

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Jeff Parker Presents... 

But, the Marvel-style approach, this started with Smilin' Stan Lee, Stan ‘The man' Lee, and I've gotta say, and this is only my opinion having seen Jack Kirby's pencils, I think that the process went something like this:

Stan Lee comes up with an idea: “Right, next issue of The Fantastic Four , like, what if there's some really big powerful threat from space, sort of – or according to some people, what if in the next issue, the FF – the Fantastic Four – fight God”. And Jack Kirby goes away, and he thinks: “Galactus…Galactus eats planets…and he's got this herald…and it's this silver guy on a surfboard and he goes before him…and this guy's so frightening that solar systems will switch off their suns so that he doesn't notice them, they'll black out their entire galaxies so that he'll pass them by, and yeah, The Watcher, he intervenes and fills the Earth's sky with illusions to keep this creature away, but it doesn't work…”. And you've got Kirby, he'd pencil five pages a day…he just wasn't human. He'd just sit there pencilling five pages a day, six pages a day, nine pages a day, and in every panel – so he'd be breaking it down into stories, he'd be breaking it down into a continuity of images, he'd be inventing the characters, he'd be writing the dialogue suggestions – very crude, very quick, but sometimes quite detailed. Then this would go to Stan Lee, who would look at the story that Jack Kirby had written , would dialogue it in his own unique way – he would put in a lot of ‘thees', ‘thous', ‘face front true believers', footnotes, and then it would go out as ‘ Fantastic Four created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby', but it was only one of them who had a share of the action on the characters, and that was…the smiling one. And that's probably why he was smiling, come to think about it.

–Alan Moore

What Moore says there in a recent interview on process sounds about right to me.
I was storming around the room the other night as the 60 Minutes II piece on Stan Lee aired. Most of it was footage from the first broadcast, and then at the end they dropped on the news about Stan's contract being enforced. The first time I saw it I kept crying "pull back and show his Malibu home! Mention that Stan's publisher who he claims to have battled was a relative! Somebody bother to watch the credits on Spider-Man and wonder what a Ditko is!" This time they did at least show a couple of Stan's cars and mention his million-dollar stipend, but they were still locked into the story they wanted to tell of the li'l guy getting his desserts so it went no further. This was all discussed more thoroughly last week by the Holy Trinity of Comics Gatekeepers: Tom Spurgeon, Heidi MacDonald and Mark Evanier

I don't begrudge Lee his millions, I just wish Kirby and Ditko had also gotten millions. Really I don't have much animosity towards the Master Interlocuter, getting mad at Stan for self-promotion is like being angry at a bird for crapping up a statue--it's just what he does. What does bug me is the climate that makes it so easy for due to be distributed unevenly and so easily. Stan didn't start it though, this crazy aunt has lived in our attic for a while.

Illustration was once a bigger deal than it is today. It sold publications and made the difference which magazines and books thrived or vanished. Readers recognized the work of Rockwell or Gibson like their modern counterparts would know about actors on the WB and Fox. But television and movies usurped the attention paid to illustration (and reading for that matter) and that great artform diminished. Photos do most of the work of enhancing periodical writing, or quickie spot-illustration. The place that those traditions of life study and time-intensive drawing live on today is in the medium of comics.

Yet. It's not the same relationship of story and art. N.C. Wyeth's covers and plates sold a lot of copies of Treasure Island. People enjoyed those prints yet no one thought of the story as by anyone but Robert Louis Stevenson. The illustration served to enhance the story, it wasn't an integral part of it.

The way graphic storytelling works though, it is. Comics stories don't advance without the drawing. You can have some narration in there that does move it forward, but if it's doing all the work then you're not reading a comic book anymore. To quote my studio mate Steve Lieber (co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel), "in illustration the pictures decorate the text, in comics they are the text." Yet we're still treating the artist like a mere illustrator who doesn't figure in much towards whether a story succeeds. Look at the articles in our own comics press...

The majority of coverage goes to writers in comics. Readers constantly speculate about what Writer X will do with certain characters, which direction he'll take the book. As if it's all about what happens in a story rather than how it happens. I understand that it's much easier to write about plots and ideas than about the process of designing and drawing. But the overwhelming bent towards the former truly belittles the importance of the latter. And there are magazines that talk about nothing but imagery and art, it can be done. But really, you don't even have to do that. Did the story strike an emotional chord? Then some artist probably made the characters "act" very convincingly. Did it have authenticity and feel convincing? Then someone with a pencil likely did some real research and has some opinions about subtley and detail that go into pulling off such a thing. Don't worry, I'm not drudging up that pointless argument about artists vs. writers from the letter column of Comics Buyer's Guide ten years ago. I know the importance of a good writer.

And I'm not going to name how many articles I see where the writer talks about the process like he's the only one in the pipeline. Start looking through these things and see how many times the artist gets mentioned beyond a tossed-off complement. By the nature of the time it takes though, writers have more time to go around talking about their books. In the end, it's all about The Marquee.

Namely, the name, and whose gets prominent billing. Consider another medium and it's successor-- theatre. In stage productions, the writer was always top dog. This is a Shakespeare or a Wilde play. But when movies muscled in, the director became the first name after the title. Except for a few standouts like Charlie Kaufman, screenwriters are a mystery to the viewing public while they can identify if Ridley Scott or Spielberg was the director. You would think comics credit would have skewed more towards the way film did, but we're still saddled with legacy of illustration as decoration. For about 30 years, Marvel Comics began with "Stan Lee Presents!", and there's a reason only one man was featured on 60 Minutes II.

I don't know if this perception can ever be changed, and obviously not all collaborations are of equal weight. But we can at least draw a line in the sand when it comes to the creation of a character. Unless an originator drew the first work as well as wrote it, that person is a co-creator, not a sole creator.


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