Sunday, September 23, 2012

Artistry, Guaranteed

If you've ever wondered how artists stack up against writers in the minds of those who run the comics business, this cover of an old issue of Daredevil should give you a good idea. At first glance, it looks like a typical comic book issue:

But wait--what's that conspicuous blurb near the bottom?

Which prompted a little placating on page 1 of the issue:

My guess is that this odd "splash marketing" was done to spur sales on Daredevil--which, now four issues old, may not have been selling as well as hoped. But it came off as extremely odd--almost knee-jerk. For one thing, I wonder if Everett, Orlando, and Colletta thought the "personal note" something of a backhanded compliment? Let's say for the sake of argument that they indeed were only doing fill-in work until a permanent artist could be set up; let's even overlook how unlikely that sounds, given that you're ideally going to have a title's regular artist already in place before you decide to launch the first issue of a new comic book. "Three of comicdom's all-time greats" were apparently still not of "sufficient stature"?

In any event, Wally Wood's stiff style would hardly set Daredevil's world on fire, nor was his name likely to light a fire under readers and have them excitedly tell their friends about his coming aboard Daredevil. As it turned out, his tenure on the book lasted just seven issues. But Wood's arrival did set something of a precedent: an unheard-of cover announcement of a title's new artist (followed by an announcement as inker on an Avengers story)--and a rather gushing one, at that. I don't think even Jack Kirby received such heralding on a book's cover.

And then there's John Byrne--who, just seven issues into his run on Fantastic Four as both its writer and artist, begins taking steps to establishing his legacy with this self-promotion on issue #238's cover:

The unobtrusive shirt button which this very obtrusive image of himself is wearing reads "Artist Writer," perhaps for the benefit of those who were wondering who this guy was on the cover and, more importantly, wondering why he's on the cover. Well, apparently because he's the artist/writer, that's why. And it looks like the artist/writer not only has bragging rights, but also gets to give credit on the cover to anyone else on staff that they feel readers should take note of--as opposed to, you know, the actual characters of the comic book. At the bottom of this FF comic, the usual signature of the cover artist now has wording added: "...and Austin--guest inker of a story in this crazy book!"

Comic books are arguably a visual medium, given that their artwork is unquestionably what first draws your attention to them. The artwork is also what generally sets the pace and tone of the story, even when the artist's work has been done in close association with the writer's ideas and direction. These two very odd examples with Wood and Byrne make clear what's generally unspoken in the industry, if for no other reason than tact--that it's the artist who is perceived to drive both sales of and interest in a comic book. That's a perception that, in my opinion, can do a disservice to the writer--who not only can be responsible for one hell of a story but also, at times, finds they must bring order to the chaos of artwork that is confusing or not up to the demands of the story.

It's a sword that can sometimes cut both ways. Any comic book reader can tell you of instances where they're seen lousy art accompanied by excellent writing, or vice versa. I've seen entire runs of a person's stay on a book where it's been true--where, let's say for 20 or so issues, the writing has been top-notch but an artist has been totally unsuitable. (An example that comes to mind for me is artist Frank Robbins' arrival on Captain America after Sal Buscema left the book. Cringe-worthy.) So no cover blurb or clever promo is going to establish that person's reputation in a reader's eyes--nor was it apparently enough to endear fans to Wood's "brilliant artistic craftsmanship." There's no substitute for word-of-mouth where publicity is concerned.

When I hear the name of John Buscema, or John Romita, or Jack Kirby, a virtual tidal wave of memorable artwork comes to my mind. The quality of that work is what sold me on those artists--and it's what has people still talking about them to this day. You were impressed by what you saw of their amazing talent--not by something trying to coax your impression of their talent before it was even formed. Perhaps an artist's most effective stamp on a comic book cover--and on their run on a book--is in work that speaks for itself.

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