The Auteur Theory in Comics: A Beyond Half-Assed Series of Ruminations


Thursday, August 19, 2010

First off, if you’re in Montreal, don’t forget your plans for tonight.

Second, intervening events have prevented me from being able to write the review of Alan Moore’s The Courtyard I promised would start up the CCCBC today. But I will get it up soon!

In the meantime, let me resurrect a post I almost wrote last February. (You have been spared about a dozen almost-posts this year alone.) I don’t remember what I had originally planned to say exactly (my surviving notes are sketchy), but mostly I just wanted to link to this really amazing, lengthy interview with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, which offers a stiff dose of Auteur-Theory polemics. (I’m not actually that big of a fan of Dobbs’s actual films—at least those that I have seen—but this is great stuff.) Eventually this will all work around to a discussion of comics, I swear.

Here’s a sample:

The Auteur Theory is clearly the most practical and, as you say, self-evident way of looking at or “reading” movies, and it’s mind-boggling after all these years to still have to listen to screenwriters rail against it without the least notion of what they’re talking about. It’s so funny/sad their undying belief that only an Ingmar Bergman can possibly be an auteur because he “writes and directs his own scripts.” “No one ever made a good movie from a bad script” is their other favorite cliché — now and forever blind to the power and the glory of Sam Fuller, Edgar Ulmer, Douglas Sirk, and countless sows’ ears made into silk purses by distinctive, individualistic directors, including many movies that have no script at all except — in Writers Guild parlance — “as represented on the screen.”

My favorite movie, THE GREAT ESCAPE, good luck finding a physical copy of a screenplay that resembles the finished film, cobbled together as it was with spit and chewing gum — by the director, working with various writers — day by day, moment to moment in the tumultuous making.

The interview is pretty much just a seemingly endless stream of entertaining invective, and a lot of fun to argue with. Somehow I planned to try to tie the auteur theory stuff back into comic books, and I’m sure my six-months-lost idea about how to do it was mind-boggling. But in lieu of the history-changing paradigm shift that would have been initiated, I am instead left with a few ham-handed questions:

1. Is the auteur theory of any use in discussing comics? Among aficionados, of course, it is widely held that comics created by a single artist (Crumb, Schulz, Herriman, etc—obvious auteurs) are superior to almost all comics created via collaboration, aside from a handful of prominent exceptions. Ivan Brunetti memorably made the case for discussed this idea in Gary Groth’s interview with him in The Comics Journal 264. (The section of the interview in which they discussed the issue is not included in the excerpt at that link, unfortunately.) [UPDATE: Actually, upon double-checking the original issue, it turns out that I misremembered Brunetti’s opinion on this issue as much stronger and less nuanced than it actually was. There’s a lot there worth quoting, too much to insert into an editorial update, but see his comment below for more. In fact, re-reading his interview now, I’m actually kind of embarrassed how much of my own thinking on the collaboration issue seems to be an unconscious ripoff of his, though I didn’t really express it very well today.]

But is this idea true? In my reading experience, it in fact is usually true, though some of my very favorite comics (e.g. Kurtzman’s MAD) don’t fit the profile. And that seems like a pretty big exception to make.

2. On the other hand, the auteur theory in film isn’t quite as simple as is commonly understood. In auteurist critic Robin Wood’s monograph on Rio Bravo, he writes:

[We] live in the lingering aftermath of romanticism, the notion of ‘personal’ art produced by some ‘genius’ out of his own private cerebrations. The richest periods of art have always been the communal ones, in whatever culture, whatever period. … [Howard Hawks] used existing forms and genres and idioms, he welcomed and worked with collaborators without feeling any qualms about ‘stealing’, about ‘originality’, about repeating himself (or others), and his name is on a body of work of quite exceptional richness, individuality and integrity. I see no contradiction in these statements, though I would certainly acknowledge important differences between writing King Lear or composing Le nozze de Figaro (in private) and filming Rio Bravo with actors and technicians on a set.

And thumbnailing stick-figure pages for an American Splendor story that an artist will ultimately draw?

There are other complications as well, because as Dobbs proposes in the aforelinked interview, the auteur isn’t always who you think it is, anyway:

I have elsewhere made the case for Charlton Heston — i.e., the Movie Star — as occasional or quasi-auteur. It’s a question of who has the power to shape the movie to his will. And the camera. Because the visual, the image, will always predominate. The writer may indicate or suggest ways of seeing, but he is not the final arbiter, even of his own credits. German Expressionism, Soviet montage — these “theories” may have helped make Alfred Hitchcock, but it’s Alfred Hitchcock who makes his movies.

So the obvious question when we relate this back to comics, and such collaborations as Lee/Kirby’s Fantastic Four, Miller/Mazzuchelli’s Daredevil, and Moore/Gibbon’s Watchmen, is, of course: Who is the auteur?

In the conventional cinematic version of the argument, you’d have to say that the artist (“because the visual, the image, will always predominate”) is the auteur, and in fact, in fannish opinion (if not more mainstream reporting), fairly or not, Kirby and Ditko tend to get the lions’ share of credit for their collaborations with Stan Lee. (There is no room to get into the complicated arguments surrounding those books right now, but they have been well rehearsed by many other writers, online and off.) The decision gets much trickier when considering the Frank Miller and Alan Moore books, though in these particular cases, it somehow feels right to nominate the writers as the “auteurs”. (Anyone disagree? And does it even tell us anything useful either way?)

But who is the auteur in most modern superhero comics? Is it Grant Morrison or Frank Quitely? Brian Michael Bendis or Michael Deodato? (Or are the real auteurs Time Warner and the Disney Corporation?)

In regard to the particularly tricky case of the Harvey Kurtzman EC collaborations, we have somewhat relevant testimony from the great auteur Carl Barks himself, as seen in a letter he wrote to the fanzine Squa Tront. It appeared in issue seven of that publication.

I’ve been reading and re-reading the interview you sent me [Talk with B. Krigstein and A talk with H. Kurtzman]. Also have exhumed several old Playboys and studied “Annie Fanny.” It was a pleasure to read about these men who have been swingers win a wide variety of comics and slicks.

Krigstein’s comments about space problems in comics were right on the nail. I’m sure the stories he wished to expand from five pages to twelve would have been much more readable done his way. Kurtzman’s problems as a writer and editor were well presented. He would have definite ideas about how his situations should be drawn, and would inevitably clash with artists who saw otherwise. However, as one who did both writing and drawing, I am inclined to side with the artists. It is so easy for writers to fill panels with windy dialogue and descriptive boxes that the Krigsteins are left with no room in which to move their characters’ elbows.

Carl Barks
Goleta, Calf.

So Barks sides with the artists, but does that mean that they are auteurs, or simply the underdogs?

Oh, and finally, I can’t put my finger on it, but this has to be related to our topic somehow!

[Dobbs interview via, Barks letter via e-mail from Jeet Heer]

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45 Responses to “The Auteur Theory in Comics: A Beyond Half-Assed Series of Ruminations”
  1. J. Overby says:

    This is a nice metaphor for viewing comics, but do we need it? I don’t think there’s any demand for one person to receive the glory in a collaboration. There are, obviously, writer/artist teams that are heavily weighted w/r/t the contributions of one of the parties, but Dark Knight, for instance, or Taxi Driver, or Exile on Main Street benefit much from the collaborations and thinking of one person as the auteur of those works is beside the point. Also dangerous is thinking that the vision of an auteur justifies a shitty piece of culture. There may be worthwhile components to some works (Silver Surfer, any Russ Meyer movie, most Morrissey albums), but it isn’t necessary to see them as part of the oeuvre of some genius or other and, thereby, look at them unquestioningly.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Thanks, Jason. I don’t think anyone, auteurist or not, believes that it means that we should look at any works unquestioningly. But it’s probably a good idea to say that now and again anyway.

      Further, you may be right to say that the auteur theory doesn’t really offer anything (or at least anything really worthwhile) when applied to comics books. I definitely don’t want to be taken as an advocate of the idea — I just think it’s interesting to think about.

      Especially because, whether or not the auteur theory is explicity invoked, something like it certainly seems to inform most discussion of the works of mainstream artists such as Kirby and Ditko. (See the discussion in comments of Ditko’s Rom here and here, for one recent example.) Auteurism is already implicit in a lot of thinking about comics, so it’s probably worth thinking about more clearly.

      Anyway, thanks again for your comment.

  2. Ivan Brunetti says:

    Hello Tim,

    I enjoy the comicscomics blog immensely.

    I’m flattered that you thought my interview was memorable enough to be worth noting in this post. (I’ve been making a living teaching the last couple of years, and thus I’m used to everything I say being completely ignored 99% of the time). I don’t have the fortitude to re-read my own words, and I was likely rambling during the interview, as is my habit, but I couldn’t possibly have been so dismissive of collaborations. Or at least I hope I didn’t come off that way.

    There are, of course, examples of great collaborations in every artform. Some of my favorite comics are, indeed, collaborations. I do remember saying something about collaborations working best when it seems that “one mind” is at work, meaning that some sort of merging (or maybe a creative “hive mind”) has occurred, everyone and everything working in concert toward some unified goal, even as that goal morphs/develops/evolves throughout the very creation of the artwork in question.

    I think I also said something about a work perhaps being “lesser” if you have to qualify it by dividing it into parts (e.g., “The writing was pretty good, but the penciling was mediocre, although the lettering was kind of nice, and the inking was great.”) I think anyone would agree that it’s best when all the “flavors come together.”

    Sticking with the food metaphor, maybe a simpler way to put it is that, generally, as a rule, too many cooks spoil the pot. But it’s also true that occasionally you end up with a pretty darn good potluck dinner, and that’s not such bad thing. Maybe they’re different animals entirely. At least I think that’s what I was trying to say.

    Nothing too earth-shattering there. I’m not as enamored of my own opinions as it may seem.


    • T. Hodler says:

      Wow, thanks Ivan! I went back to re-read your TCJ interview tonight, and you’re right: Your take on collaboration was a lot more nuanced and less doctrinaire than I remembered. I apologize for misrepresenting your views—thanks for being so understanding in your response.

  3. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    A couple of points:

    I’ve thought about this before and it’s often struck me that comics, due to the smaller number of people involved, even in a “piece-work” comic book, in fact lends itself to the “auteur” concept more readily than films do with their even greater division of labor.

    Lee/Kirby really is tough. Maybe in this case, the “director and all collaborators” view must be invoked: we can say that the author is neither Lee Kirby, but Lee/Kirby or “LeeKirby” if you will.

    The Silver Surfer case is interesting and stands out among Lee/Kirby collaborations in that Stan seemed to be the one who took the character to heart. All that Zenn-La stuff and the endless whining was Stan, right?

  4. Daniel — My understanding is that Kirby originally wanted the Surfer to be an automaton or homonculus of some sort. That is, a being that never was human so that his conversion to humanity would be all the more inspiring and gripping. But Stan nixed that and insisted he have a more human origin story. So yeah, you’re right (assuming that I am right).

    • Eric Reynolds says:

      “My understanding is that Kirby originally wanted the Surfer to be an automaton or homonculus of some sort. That is, a being that never was human so that his conversion to humanity would be all the more inspiring and gripping. But Stan nixed that and insisted he have a more human origin story. So yeah, you’re right (assuming that I am right).”

      That’s what’s kind of weird about Lee / Kirby, insofar as it works — it’s almost less a collaboration than a bizarre rashomon-like approach to storytelling: Lee writes a few paragraphs of plot, Kirby turns it into 24 pages of story, Lee dialogues and ignores whatever he wants, and everything kind of adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts…

  5. Steven H says:

    I think this is interesting, maybe especially because I’ve always been interested in the idea of cinematographer as a film auteur, as in the case of some notable figures but for now I’ll use the figure of John Alton. Alton possessed an ability to light and shoot scenes that never, NEVER, failed to transcend the material. Some of his best work was done with the well known auteur Anthony Mann, but in my opinion Alton’s talent extended beyond Mann’s storytelling ability. Alton’s images had the power to completely alter the story at hand, evoking powerful feelings and emotions. In some cases like The Crooked Way or The Scar, Alton carved out a monumental film working with a director whose career otherwise could easily be dismissed. These directors were probably not very technically proficient and left the filming process largely in Alton’s capable hands where even in the quixotic power structures of 40s Hollywood, this technician behind the camera made his mark in spades.

    In other words, in a visual medium, the key auteur I believe to be the person who has the most control over the translation from concept to medium. In Alton’s case, he was the man between the terribly imperfect aspects of the studio world: producer anxiety, directorial laziness, and screenwriter self-importance/censorship were all rendered relatively nil when he intervened. In the case of comics, it’s the artist all the way (though I’m not that interested in penciling vs. inking discussions, I would define artist as “prime creator of panels” or something.) The writer can be a powerful auteur figure but only by force (a towering BS Stan Lee figure where you know where the money comes from, right) reputation, nepotism, or intimidation, all blights as far as I’m concerned. I’d argue that comic writing is at best weakly auteurist, mostly quasi, and usually important only as a footnote (harsh, I know, and they’re often so well paid.)

    If you’re a writer that does extensive “storyboard” layouts and whatnot, I’d raise the bar to the artist being more akin to part of a team working towards collaborative adaptation. Now you’re all professionals and I’m not, so I’m sure this reads like a load of shit, but… ah well. I had a few glasses of wine and took a shot.

  6. Lastworthy says:

    I think you’re trying way too hard to draw a connection to film that isn’t there.
    While the process of making comics is often a collaborative one, it is wholly different from the sort of collaboration needed to make a film. The directors role as auteur stems from the need to tie together the work of dozens if not hundreds of workers into a creative whole.

      Monthly/ongoing Assembly-line style comics are comparatively solitary, and I mean, if anyone is imposing an overarching creative vision I’d say it’s the editors, particularly given how modular creative teams are these days.

    But in general I’d say you’re talking less about Auteurs and more about Most Valuable Playeurs.  

    • T. Hodler says:

      It’s interesting. You may be right. Maybe because the auteur theory seems to naturally apply to comics more easily (I mean, Charles Schulz is obviously the author of Peanuts in a way that it isn’t obvious that Howard Hawks is the “author” of Rio Bravo — it’s sometimes hard to remember how controversial the director-as-auteur concept originally was!), it has less to offer when applied to comics.

      Editor as auteur is an interesting idea as well, and makes more sense than my Time Warner/Disney clunker. Mort Weisinger could certainly be seen as an auteur in that sense, no?

  7. Matt Seneca says:

    Something I was thinking about: for the first 70 or 80 years of comics, we have to remember that the artists didn’t supervise the final coloring process. Herriman, for example: the hand-colored pages of his I’ve seen look vastly different from the way the process-colored, post-1935 Krazy Kat pages look. I’ve never seen a Herriman color guide, but Roy Crane’s color guides are ridiculously slapped together, they look like five-minute productions — and yet the final pages have plenty of delicacy added in. The nameless engravers on so many comics, from McCay through Kirby were so important to the overall process of making the comics, and not only do we have no idea how they were approaching the work, we don’t even know who they were. There are those apocryphal stories about everyone from Eisner through Steranko through Miller calling up the print shop and ordering them to do better-than-average jobs, but even those are kind of odd; do we credit the artists who made the calls or the colorists who worked harder for those superior-looking comics?

    Yeah, I’ll bite on the question of modern hero comics. Morrison/Quitely collaborations seem pretty Quitely-led to me: Morrison’s work is consistently higher-quality when he’s working with Quitely. It’s almost like one of that guy’s talents is to bring a good script out of the writer he works with every time. (Except on The Authority, I guess.) And I’ve read various places that those particular two guys work Marvel style, which in my opinion casts the artist firmly in the auteur role, certainly so when the writer isn’t ignoring whatever he wants. But as to the wider genre — it seems like whoever wants to step up can fill the auteur’s role in the divided-labor superhero field. Frank Miller is the auteur of the comics he writes for Jim Lee, Brendan McCarthy is the auteur of whatever random Marvel scripts he draws, and I’d even say Bill Sienkiewicz is the auteur of those hero comics he rips to shreds with his inking. JH Williams springs to mind as an auteur as well, one who probably has at least as much a hand in shaping the narratives he draws as the guys who write them.

  8. Dave O. says:

    As stated by other comments, the auteur theory applies to film because it credits one individual (usually the director) as master of a particular vision of a collective art (that is, art executed by a team of people) as executed on screen. This is problematic to apply directly to comics, and I feel ultimately useless in a printed genre where at most there are at most a handful of principal credits for any one project.

    Notable writer-artist teams are given adequate credit and attention, especially in the blogging age, so why favor one over the other in those cases? If their body of work is large enough, then analysis of it would require more than superfluous labeling.

    • T. Hodler says:

      You might be right. I do want to point out, though, that I’m not suggesting that anyone take the auteur theory as applied to comics too seriously. It is only useful insofar as it may generate interesting readings — by which I mean if you can get more out of an old issue of ROM Spaceknight by considering it through a Ditko-as-auteur lens, then it is worth applying for that reason alone. But ultimately it’s really just a game and a tool. The tail shouldn’t wag the dog, as they say.

  9. KenParille says:

    Steven: “the key auteur I believe to be the person who has the most control over the translation from concept to medium.

    I agree, and in some cases that person — the auteur or ‘author’ — is the company. If the writer, say, is the editor and he/she assembles the team who produces the comic, then the controlling force, the ‘director’ (though not in the film sense of the term), is really the writer-editor as surrogate for the company. Given that mainstream comic book publishers and editors have often exercised final say about content, they are often crucial and unacknowledged collaborators; and the team works within the parameters of a well-known corporate vision about what kinds of stories can be written about their characters. So I think you could say that Lee/Marvel is often the auteur, even when he only did the dialogue. You can make this argument, as some have, by looking at post-Lee Kirby work to see the ways that the Lee/Marvel vision seems to define the early comics.

    People sometimes say ‘comics is a visual medium,’ and so the artist in a typical writer/artist collaboration is, almost by definition, the auteur, or that his/her role will dominate. But this overlooks other visual aspects, such as inking (when done by a separate person [Think know different Kirby /Colletta looks from Kirby/Royer]), and more importantly color, which Matt discusses above. You only need to think of how easily a comic can be ruined by a bad coloring job. I’ve been reading a lot of early 70s Marvel and the color — and also the sound effects (which I think were often done by the letterer, though I may be wrong) — are so much a part of their look and power ; yet even in recent reprints of silver age material, for example, Marvel does not credit the colorists.

    Even within the ‘single cartoonist model,’ people like Schulz and Chris Ware are auteurs in different ways. Schulz often didn’t control many aspects of a strip’s appearance after it left his hands, yet Ware and others control size, paper choice, color, book design, etc . . .
    Ditko would make for a good a case study in that he has done so many different kinds of collaboration, from Marvel method, to Joe Gill scripts, to almost wholly self-created products. I’d like to see the script, if any, he was given for Rom.

    I’d also like to see a book on the history of comics production and collaborations, with scripts and interviews on various collaborations with editors, artist, colorists, etc . . .

    I’m curious, what collaborations would people put in a list of their top 20 comics?

  10. Nate says:

    The question of who gets the credit becomes particularly fraught in the context of North American comic books thanks to the industry’s long history of screwing creators out of credit. When the question of who did what (see the Silver Surfer discussion above) has legal as well as aesthetic implications it’s difficult to choose a default position on these things. Now, in my line of work it isn’t uncommon to talk about what “texts” do/mean/imply, and to set aside questions about authorship under the assumption that a work’s creator (or his or her intentions) aren’t recoverable enough, reliable enough, or whatever, to merit extended attention. It’s a useful and empowering (though perhaps self-serving) critical move, as you can simply focus on the features of the text for insights into its significance. What the author meant/did/wanted becomes secondary. This po-mo, death of the author move is fairly low stakes when you’re dealing with a text that has a single credited author who is long dead, or has been reasonably remunerated/recognized for his or her achievements. As noted earlier, comics creators have not (historically) received sufficient remuneration and recognition for their work, and so authorship is a central concern in most discussions about comics. This is why, and I think it was Tim O’Neil who pointed this out in a TCJ article, Lichtenstein is so roundly hated for his appropriations. This is a long way of saying that I think that if we’re drawn to auteur theory it is likely in part because it gets us around this thicket of attribution, and when we’re repelled by it its because it puts back in the thicket of attribution. Lose-lose if you want easy answers, but win-win if you want to keep the conversation going.

  11. J. Overby says:

    Nate – yeah! RE Lichtenstein: It makes people in comics uncomfortable, maybe, to think of their culture as this anonymous cultural product; somehow, turning journeymen craftspeople into auteurs lends their “art” some legitimacy.

    “…if you can get more out of an old issue of ROM Spaceknight by considering it through a Ditko-as-auteur lens, then it is worth applying for that reason alone.”

    I couldn’t disagree with this more, Tim. Why the hell should anyone be reading ROM? I’m happy that Ditko honed his craft, but a Ditko ROM would impress me about as much as the best chef at the Olive Garden.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Ha! You have a point. Well maybe ROM wasn’t the best example, but since I’d already linked to a discussion of it earlier, I thought it made sense. Actually, I still think those two links are worth reading.

      Unfortunately, I have shaky, limited access to the internet this weekend, so I can’t respond more fully right now.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Back online. I don’t actually have that much to add here (and wow, we’ve had some great comments from readers on this—thanks, everyone!), but I want to clarify that when I wrote that enriching a reading of Ditko’s ROM was “reason alone” to justify using an auteurist lens, I didn’t intend that to mean that everyone should go out and read ROM! What I meant was that if you ARE already reading ROM, looking at it from a Ditko-as-auteur label will allow you to see things you might not already see (as Jason and Andrei M. did, or at least argued about), and that can in turn inform your reading of Ditko’s other, more famous works. If you don’t care about Ditko, the same argument can hold for any other artist.

      Again, I also want to stress that I’m not really necessarily endorsing this strategy for comics reading quite yet, but am just wondering publicly about it. I think auteurism probably makes a lot more sense in some comics cases than others.

  12. Jeet Heer says:

    Lots to think about here. What needs to be rembered is that almost all the arts are collaborative to some degree. The pure auteur doesn’t exist even in literary fiction (think about the role of editors like Max Perkins and Gordon Lish in editing writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Raymond Carver or think about Joyce’s use of assistants in writing Finnigans Wake). If we give up the idea of the pure auteur and realize that artistic control is always a relative matter, then we’re in a better position to see to what degree a Kirby or a Kurtzman or Schulz was an auteur. I’ll add that, what I do think there have been great writer/artist collaborations in comics (Pekar/Crumb being the best example) I think that those are rare. But even when a cartoonist is writing and drawing his or her own work (which seems to be the best situation), they still have to collaborate with others (colorists, production people, editors, publishers, etc).

  13. Alan Choate says:

    This is a simplification of the ideas people have been throwing around… and may be something we’ve been hearing for years, for all I know. But I’ve been wondering if our view of these things wasn’t shaped by economic effects. That is, Marvel/DC product may have formed our view of collaborations, and against that we’ve had lone artists dedicating themselves to projects that no collaborator would see reason to join if it were possible. Recently there’s been a wave of collaborative graphic novels in the vogue for the format, but these all look pretty rushed, though I haven’t looked at them carefully.

    I agree with the assessment of the general quality of collaborations vs solo efforts. But I wonder if: there’s room to increase the number of good collaborations (or invent one, if you prefer); the personal visual language an artist brings could be saved in a less writer-blueprinted effort; such a project might be a good step for just about any generally solo cartoonist; and if it might turn out to suit some very well.

    (No, I am not trying to get involved with something like that myself.)

    Frankly, there are cartoonists whose images are exciting to look at but could use the structure and challenge a writer would bring… at least once.

    • “there are cartoonists whose images are exciting to look at but could use the structure and challenge a writer would bring… at least once.”

      I think this is close to the heart of what separates mainstream and art comics – I don’t know many art comics people who collaborate in the traditional comics sense.

  14. Tom Scioli says:

    If Auteur Theory applies to film directors then it applies to comics artists even more. Film is so much more collaborative than even the most boardroom-directed corporate event comic. In the collaborative medium of film, the director is the one person with the greatest ability to shape the end product. But there’s an army in there, actors, costuming, set building. In comics the artist is in charge of all that stuff. The artist or art team is the cast, the costumers, the cinematographer, the director, the stuntman, the editor, the fx crew, the sound man. The writer in comics is the screenwriter. And a great screenwriter can do wonders for a movie, but just can’t compare in terms of impact on the finished piece the way everybody else in the moviemaking process has on it. This applies to Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman as well. Alan Moore is the ultimate challenge to artist as auteur. Because he’s such a strong brand name, we think of him as the sole author of his work, but what’s Watchmen without Gibbons? Moore has said that he wrote the script specifically to get the most out of Gibbons’ particular abilities.

    Typically a comic book script takes a week to write and a month to draw. Don’t you think the person who’s immersed in that world, staring and meditating on every facet of it, for thirty straight days has the greater claim for authorship of that work?

  15. Jeet Heer says:

    Tim (and others) who want to think more on the issue should look at Mike Gartland’s series “A Failure to Communicate” published in The Jack Kirby Collector (issues 21-24, 26, 28-29 and 36). TIn this series, Gartland analyzes the Kirby/Lee collaboration in great detail, showing how there was a tension between Kirby’s intentions as an artist and the dialogue and texts Lee added post facto (and of course between Lee’s initial plot suggestions and Kirby’s many narrative detours and additions).

    I suppose it will always be a matter of taste or opinion as to whether the Lee/Kirby tension was a fruitful synergy or not. For myself, I’m increasingly unhappy with this collaboration, and prefer the comics that Kirby wrote and drew in the 1970s (with the help of many collaborators doing the inking and coloring). To me, the 1970s work is much more forceful, innovative and interesting. But I realize that mine is a minority opinion on this matter.

    Also worth reading on this subject is the long debate on genre and auterism by Gary Groth and R. Fiore which took place in the Comics Journal in 1991. See for example “Fiore on Genre: The Debate Continues” p. 7-9 in The Comics Journal, no. 145 (Oct. 1991). I think the Comics Journal would do well to republish this fascinating debate on their website. It is of lasting value.

    • patrick ford says:

      Jeet Heer says:
      August 21, 2010 at 10:38 am
      “For myself, I’m increasingly unhappy with this collaboration, and prefer the comics that Kirby wrote and drew in the 1970s”

      If you want to accelerate that process go and read a Marvel Silver age comic book right now.
      Stan Lee “collaborates” with Kirby in the same way BP collaborates with the Gulf of Mexico.

  16. Dave O. says:

    Much to think about here re: authorship, attribution, collaborations, death-of-the-author and so on, but I have yet to read anything that draws them back to an auteur theory as the term might be applied to comics.

    It’s important to distinguish the auteur from auteur theory. Some visionary comic artists mentioned here can rightfully be called auteurs, but doing so does not necessarily make a claim for an auteur theory. I think this kind of analysis on its own, runs the risk of placing too much emphasis on the game of this-ness (art/ inking/ writing, etc,) over that-ness (art/ inking/ writing, etc,) making subjective stabs in the dark seem like analysis, however well-meaning they might be.

  17. James says:

    “There are those apocryphal stories about everyone from Eisner through Steranko through Miller calling up the print shop and ordering them to do better-than-average jobs,”

    Steranko and Kurtzman did not just “call up the print shop” to get better coloring, they did the better coloring themselves, Steranko through color guides done and coded in his hand and Kurtzman by working with Marie Severin. You are right though, few artists and actually hardly anyone in the comics business seem to realize the importance of color.

  18. Tom Scioli says:

    That seems to be typical of our generation, a preference to 70’s Kirby over 60’s Kirby. I think older fans are too tied up in the nostalgia of having lived through the sixties to be able to give a real evaluation of Kirby/Lee Marvel. Then there’s the next generation of fans who grew up in the seventies, when Kirby/Lee Marvel was venerated to such a point that solo Kirby was a letdown if you were looking for more Kirby/Lee.

    We who weren’t able to read these comics as they came out just have the body of work itself. When I discovered Kirby, his body of work was a closed book. Out of that vast body of work, his solo work speaks to me. It has teeth. As much as I enjoy Lee/Kirby, and there’s a lot of it to enjoy, when I come back to Kirby’s solo work it just feels so much richer.

  19. KenParille says:

    Part of my preference for 70s Kirby work has much to do with his collobarations with Mike Royer, whose blocky lettering and thick inking seem perfectly suited to the ‘chunky’ aspects of Kirby’s pencils and layouts. The visual force of these comics would be dramatically lessened if they had been produced with a letter and inker who had more of a 70s DC ‘house style.’

  20. patrick ford says:

    It’s odd the passions which are stired by the Marvel Silver Age comics. I read 70’s Kirby along side the Silver Age stuff buying reprints, and back issues along the way. The stories as published after Stan reworked them are a shadow of what Kirby did on his own.
    I’ve noticed many “edgy” comic book writers both mainstream and alternative express a preference for the Kirby “straight-up.”
    I recently noticed these comments by a mainstream favorite who’s own work I’ve never read, but he seems to have Kirby nailed.
    Grant Morrison: I feel it’s about time a writer talked in depth with some enthusiasm about the unsurpassed poetry of Kirby’s often over-looked or derided writing. I consider Kirby’s unique, non-naturalistic dialogue one of the highest expressive developments of the comic book writing style. It reads to me like Mickey Spillane teaming up with Allen Ginsberg to write the Bible for moderns, and deserves much more attention and respect than it gets.”

    “It’s been derided for not being naturalistic, but Stan Lee wasn’t naturalistic either. Kirby was much more poetic.”

    “You look at “Glory Boat” and it seemed like a chapter from the Bible. It was so intense, and operating on such a high level of symbolism, but it was very emotive. All the feelings were coming through. If you read the Bible it’s not naturalistic, but it has a power of evocation. I think Kirby tapped right into that kind of language. It’s why his work as a writer is a lot more artistic than people think it is.”

    “A lot of people who have done Kirby don’t have Kirby’s reading list. They couldn’t understand the stuff about the Kabbalah that Kirby was bringing up. It’s basic classical mythology. Kirby created a perfect Pantheon which fits the tradition seven gods that every culture has. To be unaware of that is to miss the point. Very few people writing comics have the erudition Kirby had.
    People don’t characterize him as an intellectual because he was a kid from the lower East Side, but he was a reader, and readers are intellectuals.”

    “You read OMAC now and it’s startling, because it’s the world we live in today. I read it only a few years ago, and thought it was one of the greatest things I’d ever read. So prescient. The idea gangsters would run entire towns. Brother Eye which is basically making “big brother” benign rather than scary. The faceless policemen. I thought the book was brilliant. Kirby was well aware of what was happening. He was projecting current events into the future.”

    “I think Kirby was a really good writer, and should be placed in the tradition of William Blake, and the Beat Poets. Blake had myths playing out against the backdrop of the London of his day. He’s very, very similar.
    When the current idea of fashion is past in 500 years time, and people look at Kirby and his art, it will read the way William Blake reads to us today. When it stops being a style, and just becomes Kirby’s personal expression, then people will see it properly.”


  21. simon says:

    Eddie Campbell (for my money one of the very best thinkers on comics) has some interesting comments on this subject in a TCJ interview (from 145, the same issue with the Fiore article cited above):

    “I’d go so far as to opine that it’s possible to be a great artist without ever drawing a stroke. That’s a very extreme example, but look. Take some of those old big band leaders, like, say, Glenn Miller, who by all accounts wasn’t a remarkable player, but his skill lay in organizing, in hiring the band, in having arrangements written to his satisfaction, in creating that special blended sound which was his trademark, but it’s other guys who are playing the instruments. He’s a great ‘musician’ in that he ‘heard’ music and knew how to go about making it a reality. Similarly, if I ‘see’ what I want in my head but have to hire a load of people to make that vision a reality for me, then it’s totally irrelevant whether I drew it myself or not. It’s the work that counts–the quality of the finished thing.”

    I think it’s possible to substitute “auteur” for great artist here, in which case Alan Moore looks a lot like Glenn Miller in Campbell’s account. Earlier in the interview, Campbell says, regarding From Hell “I’m a tool for Alan Moore. I feel that. I don’t object to it. I’m happy, you know? It’s the work that counts. I don’t feel any prima donna urge to assert my identity in the thing.” (He also has some interesting comments on Lichtenstein that are not much in line with the general sentiment on this thread.)

  22. Nate says:

    Campbell is coming from the perspective I described earlier. What’s cool about this perspective as articulated by Campbell is that you keep the focus on the work without disregarding the systems of production that created it. Basically, Campbell treats art as the outcome of artistry rather than artists, recognizing various roles in the production process when it throws light on the text, but setting them aside when they do not. It’s the difference between making a discussion of old Thor comics one about what’s actually on the page vs. what Vince Colletta might have erased.
    Again, this is a luxury that people cutting checks and making decisions about ownership can ill-afford. But it is a luxury available to Campbell, or any fan/connoisseur/whatever of the medium.

  23. James says:

    Unfortunately, when you are talking about, in Kirby/Lee’s case the artist ending up with bupkis while the “writer” takes credit, fame and money on the artist’s back, and with the current trend of writers getting the bulk of the credit on the book cover and all of the attention in the review, um, yeah, I don’t know about this “luxury” of thinking “artists are prima donnas” shit.

  24. James says:

    And Campbell can say that because Alan Moore is decent enough to make sure his artists share equal credit, even if his name isn’t on the movie, he made sure the artist is. A lot of other comics writers have no such scruples.

  25. Nate says:

    I didn’t mean to imply that we should think of artists as prima donnas, and I don’t think that Campbell meant to assert as much. He, as you note, had the luxury of being well paid and recognized for his contributions, a luxury that is afforded to many, though certainly not all, comic book artists today. The luxury I’m speaking of is the luxury of acknowledging that while many hands went into the work, the work itself is what we’re left with as readers after the royalty frameworks have been hashed out, the movie rights sold, and the happy meal toys hit the secondary market. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t cry foul when one part of the creative team gets shorted on the credit and coin they deserve. It’s simply to suggest that we sometimes get distracted by who deserves credit for what without asking why it’s important in the first place. That is, why should I care who invented the X-Men beyond making sure the creator (or his heirs) are properly compensated? The answer, I think, is that the work has significant cultural significance, and that as such it is important to acknowledge the creator’s contribution to the culture. The problem is that the question of what makes these works culturally significant is too often set aside in an effort to figure out who did what.
    If I had my druthers we’d designate a team of lawyers to getting people paid and recognized for their work. Once that was all settled, we’d be able to focus on the work.

  26. […] Tim Hodler of Comics Comics returns to the idea of auteur theory and how it fits in the world world of comics comics: In the conventional cinematic version of the […]

  27. david t says:

    one thing that often gets lost in any discussion on “auteur theory” is that it stems from a misunderstanding. the original concept (the french “politique des auteurs”) was not meant as a theory in any sense; it was an editorial stance aiming at valorizing certain filmmakers to the detriment of others. let’s just say it was a clever way to talk about film the same way french critics talk of literature: by focusing on the author. the translation from “politique” to “theory” changes the meaning quite a bit.

    this is not to say the “auteur” (no clue why this isn’t simply translated to its equivalent english term) isn’t a proper viewpoint to a body of work; but it is one viewpoint among many. & so the point of an “auteur theory” is not so much to claim that “the real auteur of this book is this guy, not this other guy”, but, from the point of view of a given creator, to try & make sense of a complete body of work. so that you can make up a stan lee theory AND a concurrent kirby theory, which would sometimes intersect & sometime diverge, & both theories would have their use & pertinence.

    once you’re there, of course, you are free to go on & make up a “character theory” (how a given character makes sense across eras), “publisher theory”, & more globally “genre theory”. & actually both of these things are rather common in criticism, only they are not necessarily viewed as similar to auteur theory. (in film, “actor theory” would also be an interesting point of view.)

    the bottom line, of course, is that not all subjects are interesting to make a theory out of. some creators’ work is just too scattered, just too mercenary to be appreciated from that kind of distance. so i guess the main point is that you’ve got to pick your battles. auteur theory is interesting, a great tool in some cases, but it’s not something to put on a pedestal, i think.

  28. patrick ford says:

    Steranko’s colour guides for his Marvel romance story can be seen right here.
    When asked how much colour work he did in the 50’s Jack Kirby said:
    “I indicated color for special effects. Overall color guides were submitted in many instances.”

  29. J. Overby says:

    David – very illuminating, articulate comments – thanks! So you’re saying that auteur theory is not about attribution at all, but it’s a way to see a collaborative work from a certain point of view?

    • david t says:

      well, let’s see. when you read bazin or truffaut (two main exponents of the original “politique des auteurs”), one critical exercise you will often see is that they will take a given filmmaker (say, hitchcock or renoir), & then go through the whole filmography, trying to tie everything up together, even “minor” films, & see how a single “auteur” could be the unifying factor behind all of it, either through working methods, themes, etc.

      ultimately this means that to a critic, a single film (or in our case, a single comic) never has much significance on its own: it needs to be put into some context. & that context can be the “auteur”, but it can also be the genre (see for example: bazin on western) or whatever else serves to link the art work (film, comic, lit, etc.) to some general category of art works.

      claims of attribution can actually be useful if only to demistify the fascination for the “auteur” that comes all too naturally if you work in auteur theory exclusively. to give a simple example, proper attribution will force you to consider that one kogo noda actually co-wrote many of the films that are typically only attributed to yasuhiro ozu. which doesn’t mean that you won’t find some unifying principles from the ozu oeuvre, when taken as a whole, even taking into account those films not co-written by kogo noda.

      of course, to begin with, you’ve got to remember that “politique des auteurs” was very much a “politique”, meaning a policy. from a young truffaut’s standpoint (his opinions mellowed later), a film without an auteur was in some way flawed. on the other hand, once an “auteur” was identified, it meant that even “minor films” (those vilified by critics & audience alike) could be seen into a new light & usually rehabilitated. supposedly, it was in good part truffaut’s criticism of hitchcock that convinced american critics of hitchcock’s worth as a filmmaker (namely, as something more than a mere “entertainer”). conversely, it has been said that bogdanovitch’s later, more mercenary films (think “mask”) somehow invalidate auteur theory. again, here we see the political implications of auteur theory: it wants to separate the grain from the chaff, if you will.

      hmm, i guess this reply is longer-winded than intended. i think the main thing to remember is that, once you strip the “politique” aspect of so-called auteur theory (which is not, to me, its most interesting aspect), the only truly useful tool that remains is basically some specialized form of poetics (in the aristotletian sense), nothing more, nothing less.

  30. patrick ford says:

    Ken: “I’m curious, what collaborations would people put in a list of their top 20 comics?”

    It would work into the 100’s before I’d include one, and that is counting a cartoonists whole body of work as one of the “comics.”
    The first to show up would be Pekar, after that the only thing which comes to mind is the work of some of the great comic strip creators who used assistants but that work is still auteur driven.
    In comic books there is nothing. You could point to Stanley, and Irving Tripp, but Trip added nothing to the work; which based on Stanley’s full pencils and inks would have been far better without Tripp’s “contribution.” This is no knock on Tripp, he did a fine job, it’s that if Stanley had penciled and inked all his own work it would have been much better.
    The reason for this is all on the writer side. Comics attracts cartoonists, not writers. Why would a writer who wasn’t a cartoonist want to write comics? Possibly because he wants to write Batman? Because he can’t sell his fiction? Aside from a lark I can’t imagine what the attraction would be.
    For a cartoonist the attraction is obvious. It’s a distinct art form combining words and pictures.
    ALL the great comics writers are cartoonists who write and draw.

  31. James says:

    Pat: I disagree with your basic premise. You discount all of the artists who do not write, all who work best with a writer, and that comics can offer a writer infinite possibilities…certainly a lot more than just Batman. Yeesh, what have you been reading?

  32. patrick ford says:

    James, I don’t discount artists at all, I just don’t place any collaboration I’ve ever seen in comics near the top of the heap.
    There are plenty of artists who I enjoy in comics who either don’t write, or write very little, but in those instances I’m really just enjoying the art, and the script is like a coat hanger.
    It isn’t the artists I’m knocking, it’s comic book writers, who only write.
    I like Pekar, I really can’t think of another top flight writer who has worked in comics.
    Plenty of cartoonists are great writers. Justin Brown, Clowes, Kirby, Hal Foster, Gilbert Hernandez, Segar, Herriman, Katchor, Schulz, Crumb, Mayer, King, Stanley, Spain, Barks, Deitch, Kurtzman, Crane, and on, and on.
    Maybe there is a writer who is not a cartoonist that is doing really good work. If there is I’m not aware of it. This isn’t to say all these non-cartooning writers are awful, it’s just they all seem pedestrian. I’ve made occasional effort to at least check out popular mainstream “star” writers, and their work just doesn’t interest me.
    I read a lot of stuff outside what is called mainstream comics, and in that arena I can’t even think of an artist who doesn’t draw his own stories.
    I buy a certain amount of comics just for the art, and don’t even read the stories. For example I just picked up the Joe Kubert Viking Prince book. I read the first story, and that was enough, I’d rather just look at the pictures, study the art. Every moment spent reading the words is one I could have spent looking at the art.
    The best of the mainstream writers who weren’t artists would be Otto Binder, Gaylord DuBois, Paul S. Newman, just good solid writers, not many people seek out their work like they do Barks or Stanley.

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