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For the sake of clarity, let’s separate the world of “graphic novels” from “comics.” Graphic novels, such as Persepolis, Maus, Fun Home, and the work of ideologically-driven talent such as Joe Santos are, for the most part, deeply personal, frequently-autobiographical material in which the artist and writer are one–or, as we in the field refer to this discipline, cartoonists.

In contemporary mainstream comics, talent that both writes and draws a project is very rare.

The reasons for this boil down to skillsets–the majority of writers are unable to produce presentable visual material, and the majority of artists are unable to conceive of and execute dramatic narrative on their own–

–And to the serial nature of the medium, in which a monthly deadline creates a tight window for production, thus making the division of labor nearly mandatory.

The two giants of the earliest days of the medium were both writer/artists: Will Eisner, creator of THE SPIRIT, wrote and drew his earliest material, then brought in art talent to take over his creation, his writing maintaining the quality of the work through the various artists tasked with these seven page comics stories. 

Harvey Kurtzman, a more unconventional writer/artist, wrote both his own stuff, as well as provided scripts for his artists–along with tissue paper overlays on already lettered and panel bordered pages, thus enacting enormous control over the material, aside from clearly being the engine of narrative, both visually and textually.

In today’s comics, with the notable exception of Alan Moore, whose scripts are endlessly, some might say obsessively descriptive and specific in every possible way, the writer delivers what is rarely more than a descriptive template–with a generalized description of action, as well as dialogue.

Many of these scripts barely concern themselves with panel size, panel shape, depth of field, all vitally important to the narrative value of the page–not to mention a frequent lack of description in the more mundane realm of costume, physical appearance, body language and expressed feelings of the characters portrayed–leaving much or all of this up the interpretive skills of the artist.

It should be noted that in comics, as in most creative forms, ideas are a dime a dozen. Just ask the zeitgeist. It’s the execution of those ideas that grant them value. No matter how much the writer may provide the artist, it’s up to the artist to bring the writer’s ideas to fruition–which means, explicitly, that comic book artists are not illustrators.

The job they’ve signed on to do is at least, if not more, of the collaborative relationship that exists between script, direction and performance in a film or television show–and remember, the finished product, by which the material fails or succeeds, is in the hands of the artist, performing the roughly equivalent functions of direction and performance, via his interpretation of the writer’s concept via page and panel design, characterization and sense of place through the craft of drawing.
They are graphic designers in the service of narrative, and at best, they provide imagery with narrative value. This is my mission on a daily basis in every job I deliver.

Therefore, all those people reacting to the writing in comics are actually responding to the artists’ execution of that frequently-vague script–and in those cases where the script is specific to an obsessive degree, it’s only talent on the level of Alan Moore who can impact on an artist. A good artist can save a bad script–a good writer can never save a bad artist.

Thus, it’s a collaboration, usually an even split in effort, despite the protestations of the management representative class, who have been sold a bill of goods by a number of writers, and who have a vested interest in the maintenance of the delusion that comic book artists are tools, unfortunately necessary parasites present to illuminate the writer’s concept.

Those of us with long-term careers, particularly those of us like me, who write their own stuff, draw other people’s stuff, and write stuff for other people to draw, know and respect this collaborative balancing act as the genuine reality of our field.

Anything else is smoke and bullshit.