Comics and the Diminishing Role of Artists in a Visual Medium

Comic artists are less valued than ever. Why is that?

This article first appeared on Multiversity Comics on February 11, 2014, but was written by me. It has been published here as well with their very kind permission.

Brian Michael Bendis’ “Avengers”.

Geoff Johns’ “Green Lantern”.

Jason Aaron’s “Wolverine and the X-Men”.

When you see people talk about some of today’s greatest and most celebrated runs in comics, it’s quite often only the writer who gets mentioned, even though each of those books wouldn’t have been the same without people like David Finch, Ivan Reis and Nick Bradshaw. We’re living in the Era of The Writer in comics, a time when the quality of comics – in my opinion – is at an all-time high, with art that astounds and thrills — yet there may never have been a time in comics where being an artist is more thankless or minimized.

It’s not just in the marketing for collections at the Big Two, but in reviews and in page rates and in length of runs and many more things. Comic artists have been devalued to the point where you could argue public perception is of them as almost secondary creators, and certainly fungible ones in the comic creation mix.

But why is that? How did we get to a place where these storytellers who make comics comics are the sidekicks, and what can we do to make things better?

Comic Art Throughout History

Once upon a time, you’d see artists take on legendary runs, with people like Jack Kirby becoming synonymous with books like “Fantastic Four” when they carved out uninterrupted runs of pure creativity like he did for 103 issues. Lengthy, banner runs on books for artists used to be more the norm, not the exception like when you see Mark Bagley and Salvador Larocca stay on “Ultimate Spider-Man” and “Invincible Iron Man” respectively for years.

Length of work isn’t everything though, and it often wasn’t about that so much as it was about an artist redefining a character or team. Looking back, it wouldn’t be outlandish to say you read “Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man” or “Jim Lee’s X-Men”, because in that period, artists occupied the place writers do now. Even though they both had prominent writers working with them in David Michelinie and Chris Claremont respectively (for a time, at least), few will look back on those times and think of anyone different.

And nothing can be shown as a better example of how powerful artists used to be in comics than one singular event: the creation of Image Comics in 1992.

WildCATs #1Featuring the aforementioned McFarlane and Lee, as well as Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio, Jim Valentino and Marc Silvestri, arguably the seven biggest artists at the time (and one writer in Claremont) broke off from Marvel and started their own creator-owned driven publisher to towering sales and roaring success. Books like “WildCATS” and “Spawn” were such enormous successes thanks to the artistic giants that fronted them that, at least for a time, Image had greater sales than DC Comics did.

As a massive X-Men fan, I went from thinking the X-Men were the coolest to WildCATs were. Not because they were (they weren’t), but because Jim Lee was the awesomeness equivalent of Transformers, Ken Griffey, Jr. and The Goonies to me at the time, and that is saying something. I would have followed him to the edges of the Earth to read his comics, and it wasn’t just me, but legions of readers who couldn’t get enough of the Image founders work.

Things were going so well that artist rates were going through the roof as well, as Liefeld recently noted that he was paying Stephen Platt $40,000 an issue for “Prophet”. While that was most definitely an outlier in terms of rates, it means that the valuation of artists then was much different than it is today.

And Then Everything Changed

I’m not going to pretend that comic artists have forever been considered the preeminent part of the comic equation but in the past decade or so, it really seems to have taken a turn for the worse.

I’m not sure when everything changed, but at some point, comics became a writer driven industry, and this time more than ever before.

You had your aforementioned major runs being emphasized by writer and not artist (see: Bendis on “Avengers” and Johns on “Green Lantern”), you had Marvel’s unveiling of the (short lived) Architects* moniker (comprised of five writers in Bendis, Aaron, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction and Jonathan Hickman), and you had books no longer having an emphasis on a consistent artistic presence, all pushing the marketing weight and reader interest onto the writers and their plots rather than the overall storytelling that writers and artists combine to create.

Artists are, for better or worse, faced with a public perception of being the lesser of the two most prominent creators, especially on Marvel and DC books.

There are a lot of reasons why this happened, and for the purposes of naming those, let’s break out a numbered list, shall we?

Uncanny Avengers #11. Marvel’s Double Shipping

Marvel, likely in response to DC’s New 52 (but perhaps inspired by the success of “Amazing Spider-Man’s” ‘Brand New Day’ initiative), started double shipping books every month like it was the way it always was. Because two issues were coming out every month and because creating the art for comic is such a grueling, time consuming activity, rotating art teams have become the standard at Marvel.
Let’s look back at some of the big Marvel NOW! launches for evidence of this:

• “Uncanny Avengers” with John Cassaday!: 4 (delayed) issues
• “Guardians of the Galaxy” with Steve McNiven!: 3.1 issues
• “X-Men” with Olivier Coipel!: 3 issues

Since then, all of those books have swapped artists on a fairly regular basis, and while that may have been the plan all along (and their switch may have been necessitated because all three artists are considered slow), it still feels disingenuous that these books are marketed as new titles drawn by these top name artists. It’s like a movie being marketed as shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, but part way through he’s replaced by someone else entirely (not to diminish the contributions of Daniel Acuna, Sara Pichelli and David Lopez on those books).

With Marvel double shipping, their titles are rarely given the ability to have a consistent artistic presence, and they are certainly unable to develop a visual identity as Marvel rarely matches styles when the books continue past their original artist.

2. DC’s House Style

I’m not sure if there is a nastier, more derisive term in comic art that you can use than “house style.” To say an artist is following a house style is to say that what they are doing is following what everyone else at a publisher is doing; crafting a homogenous, “unified” look that has the connotations of meaning “boring” and “uninspired”.

Yet you could make a really great argument that DC’s New 52 is one of a definitive house style fitting into a specific artistic niche, with exceptions like Cliff Chiang’s “Wonder Woman” work and Greg Capullo on “Batman” standing out. Matt Wilson at Comics Alliance goes into this at length (well worth a read), but the rather Wildstorm-inspired look to their books creates an environment that is lacking in artistic expression, preferring their creators to fit into a box rather than dynamically explode out of it.

Not only that, but when they do have great artists working on a book, because of DC’s adamant “no late books” policy readers are often given guest artists or fill-ins that bring down the overall quality of the issue, as this reader found out when he was excited to read “Action Comics” #27. Aaron Kuder, the regular artist on that book, is the reason I buy that title. That issue had Kuder and two other artists (who were, in their own way, trying to emulate his style) working on it. It made my reading experience significantly worse, and led to me dropping the book.

When a publisher who consistently takes 30% of the marketplace in terms of sales isn’t looking for anything besides art of one specific style, this severely limits the ability for great art to be created for the masses.

This would be a good point to mention that while Marvel does rotate artists regularly, they do bring in very interesting and diverse artists to their books, and it makes them all the better for it.

3. Static Sales Means It’s A-Okay!

So Marvel is swapping artists like we all hopefully swap clothes (regularly and with at least a little thought) and DC is pushing art of a rather homogenized nature on us in the New 52. That has to mean sales are directly affected, right?
That’s where you’d be wrong.

Even with a down month coming in January, comic revenues are more than 50% higher in this January versus the one that hit before the New 52 came to pass. The industry, sales wise, is as healthy as it has been in forever, even with the perpetual turmoil of artistic teams on books.

For a more micro example, let’s look at two Marvel books. Let’s start with the sales of “Captain America”, a book that featured an artistic legend in John Romita, Jr. for two issues (note: all sales numbers from Comichron):

Captain America Sales Chart

Even though issue #9 and #10 had Romita art and the ones that followed had either Carlos Pacheco or Nic Klein on them, sales for this book stayed relatively static, especially when factoring in the standard drop that comes with being a monthly comic. The masses don’t realize this, but there is a pretty steady depreciation that hits monthly titles, and that’s all we really see in the sales here.

Wolverine and the X-Men Sales Chart

Up next, you have sales for “Wolverine and the X-Men”. This has been a consistently great book, with rotating artists who fit well together tonally and stylistically and who happen to be fantastic visual storytellers. Yet, even though these issues have three different artists on them, the only thing that bumped orders whatsoever is the two issue jump for “Battle of the Atom” tie-ins.

Meanwhile, if you take a look at one of the most high profile writer changes in comics from 2013 – Robert Venditti taking over for Geoff Johns on “Green Lantern” – would you believe that Venditti’s first issue actually sold thousands more than Johns’ final issue? Sure, Johns’ one was $7.99, but a jump in sales when switching from a superstar synonymous with the character to a much less known creator is astounding no less.

So what’s my takeaway from this?

When it comes to retailers ordering and customers pull lists, it seemingly scarcely matters who is drawing the book. Granted, orders have to be in from retailers three months ahead of time (and artists sometimes switch between order time and release) and most customers pull based off title rather than writer OR artist, it’s still very interesting that sales do not fluctuate depending on artist.

While this doesn’t concretely say that who artist is doesn’t impact sales, it certainly gives publishers ammunition when it comes to negotiating page rates (more on this later) and support in the idea that rotating art teams work just fine.

4. Because The Internet

The funny thing about the internet is giving everyone a voice didn’t necessarily make everyone writer-centric comic readers, it might have just revealed the way we always were. Whether you’re talking about reviews on sites like ours or comic talk on social media or forums, the emphasis is almost always on the writing.

A new book is announced? Here’s twenty interviews with the writer and none with the artist!

People’s minds are blown by “Ms. Marvel” #1? G. Willow Wilson’s @ mentions are blowing up, but hey, you guys, Adrian Alphona is on the Twitters too.

Panel from Ms. Marvel by Alphona

Hell, even controversy ignores artists, as the infamous Image Expo photo that was used to show the lack of women and people of color on stage could also have been used to show the predominance of writers as guests.

Clearly, artists don’t get the rep writers do online, and since the internet might as well be the pulse of the comic industry (even when factoring in that internet hype rarely matches sales), it’s indicative of how they are perceived overall.

As such, it’s a weird Ouroboros sort of causal relationship as comic sites want to create content that readers desire, and what they desire is content about plot and writers.

I’ll take you behind the curtain for a second at Multiversity. Not to toot our own horn, but we do a pretty good job when it comes to artist interviews compared to other sites I’d say, as we have our yearly Artist August feature where we talk to an artist every day for the entire month, and we also have our regular Artist Alley feature. We love featuring our favorite artists, and we keep our focus on them consistently.

But of our top twenty five most read interviews of 2013, only two were primarily with artists.

In fact, a three year old interview with the actress who played Catwoman in porn parody “BATFXXX” managed to generate more traffic than any artist interviews.

So what’s a site to do? When it comes to content generation for sites like ours, the name of the game is data driven content, so most sites can say with that backing of site metrics that they shouldn’t interview artists.

It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about interviews or tweets (where tagging a writer in a limited character message could prove more valuable, as writers often have a larger following than artists) or reviews which bury artistic comments to the bottom of the piece. In our society where traffic and mentions are more desirable than quality, balanced content, it is easy to see why things like this happen, even if it wildly unfair for artists.

What This Means for Artists

We’ve established that artists, for a number of reasons that are certainly greater than four, don’t have nearly the profile or the esteem in comics as they used to, but in a more personal sense for each and every one of them, you have to wonder what this means.

Obviously there is what we’ve mentioned previously, in that artists get less respect than writers in the press and that their perceived fungible nature leads to shorter and less iconic runs, but there is a much bigger negative for artists that isn’t often mentioned.

The big point, and the really concerning aspect of all of this, is that the depressed valuation of artists could negatively impact their ability to make a living in comics.

Much of this article was actually triggered by a discussion led by artist (and occasional writer) Sean Gordon Murphy on Twitter. Murphy said:

Many artists jumped into the conversation, as people like Ryan Ottley, Bryan Hitch, John McCrea and more commented, and it led to some really fascinating insight about how and why this is happening.

Murphy posited that 50% of creators live around the poverty line, and while we can’t say whether or not that’s true, factually you can say that sales have boomed, and anecdotally rates for artists have not matched that increase by any means.

There are many reasons for this (for example, Portuguese artist Jorge Coelho wondered whether or not globalization in comic art has driven down rates), assuredly, not all of which are associated with the diminished role of artists in the industry.

But it’s hard to imagine that isn’t a major factor.

All of this could lead many new, talented artists away from the field of comics to other, more potentially lucrative directions, because if page rates are staying stagnant or decreasing and the recognition isn’t there, then why would they want to enter the field?

What This Means for Readers

I’m going to let you in on a secret about comics.

Both the writer and the artist are the storytellers.

It’s not like artists are trained monkeys who create art purely by instruction from writers. They’re dynamic creators in their own right, and I imagine if one writer gave the same page to ten different artists, you’d get pages drawn in ten different ways.

What makes a good comic such an incredible thing isn’t a writer and an artist doing their jobs separately with no real connection; it’s two storytellers working in lockstep to bring a story to life.

As artist Dennis Culver said very well in laying out his work on “Edison Rex” last year, “I have an excellent collaboration with Chris Roberson on Edison Rex and if you could see our process, I think you’d be hard pressed to say where the writing ends and the art begins. Ask Chris, I am OPINIONATED about the story but Chris is the same about page layout and design. And I think that makes for a better comic.”

That type of collaborative work isn’t something many readers even realize is happening.

When I think of my favorite comics at the Big Two, it’s impossible to separate them from the writers and artists who worked on them. Mark Waid and Alex Ross on “Kingdom Come”. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale on “Batman: The Long Halloween”. Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos on “Impulse”. These are books that work because of how the artist and the writer brought the story that they were telling to life, and they just wouldn’t be the same without either piece of the puzzle.

Page from Astonishing X-Men #1Even though comics are admittedly in better shape today than they were when those books were released, I have to wonder if they couldn’t be even better. Because of the way artists are devalued and perceived as fungible in many instances, we may be getting completed stories, but ones that favor punctuality over being the right person for the job.

I mean, when I look at “Astonishing X-Men” from the mid 00’s, it is hard to imagine that book even existing in today’s industry. I love that comic, and it’s because of Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s abilities as master storytellers. That 25 issue run took the better part of 5 years to complete, and it was worth every second of wait in my opinion.

Who would have drawn it today in this double-shipping world? Cassaday surely would have only lasted an arc, and we’d likely have seen a number of artists complete the rest of it, making the series less than it could have been.

Because of the way artists are valued today, I personally believe that comics are just that: less than they could be.

Don’t we as readers want comics to be the best versions of themselves?

I certainly do.

For a Better Future

2,600 words and a lot of sad faces later, I do think the future is brighter for artists than it has been recently. As they say, awareness is the first step to change, and awareness on this subject is certainly at an all-time high. With people like David Brothers writing fantastic pieces on the subject and artists themselves being more vocal than ever, the public eye is ever watchful, and people are doing what they can to change the tune of this story.

Saga art from Fiona StaplesCreator-owned comics and crowd-funded ventures like Kickstarter continue to give artists the ability to become a more integral part of the comic equation, with creators like Fiona Staples and Nick Pitarra becoming artistic luminaries in recent years thanks to their work on books outside the Big Two. With the onus being on the creator in this realm, we can see long, quality runs on books like “The Walking Dead” from Charlie Adlard and “Invincible” from Ryan Ottley without constant fill-ins or rotating teams.

It refocuses the power of the artist, putting them back into a place where they aren’t just an assembly line worker, but a primary storyteller with every bit as much emphasis and impact as the writer.

But all of that doesn’t mean things can’t get better.

A lot of that falls on Marvel and DC embracing comics as both an artistic publishing houses and as businesses. While I’d say that one is doing better than the other when it comes to this, they’re both complicit in the minimized role of artists.

As for us, the readers, critics and reviewers? I challenge all of us – Multiversity included – to do more to emphasize the importance of artists in comics. Some say that it’s simply harder to write and talk about what an artist brings to the table, but just because something is hard doesn’t mean that makes it okay to not do it.

There are so many examples of great artistic criticism and features in comics that you can look at to get a better idea of how to do things, and there are even graphic novels like Scott McCloud’s seminal “Understanding Comics” that help arm you with the information and vocabulary you need to properly talk about art in comics.

Comics are an amazing art form, and there is so much to love and share about them in today’s visual, meme driven world. We can’t forget the people who make some of our favorite moments – like Yorick’s last, great escape, or Herr Starr’s cavalcade of hats, or earning the power of love – our favorite moments with their art.

It’s on us, as much as it is on anyone.

Let’s help bring artists back to the forefront, one article, tweet or review at a time.

*Editor’s Note: Chris Arrant noted in the comments that Marvel did have Artist Architects. Header art by Sean Murphy and Neeraj Menon.