Artists Joe Orlando and Wally Wood

Artists Joe Orlando and Wally Wood

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This year’s International Comic Arts Forum will include a roundtable discussion on collaboration in comics that considers the way academics and industry professionals approach the dialogic qualities of creation in the industry (look for a panel of original papers addressing this topic at MLA 2014 as well). The discussion grows out of a concern that comics scholars too often privilege the authorship of a lone gifted writer, potentially “ignoring the historical importance and artistic potential of multi-authored comics.”

So I thought I would bring the question to PPP readers as well.  Why don’t we give the collaborative aspects of comics more serious attention? What are the risks and/or advantages that come from talking about these texts as a medley of complementary, diverging, or competing interests rather than a single creative vision?

The issue has become especially important to my own research over the last few years. When I initially ventured into comics studies as a literary critic, I often found myself attributing primary “ownership” of the narrative to the writer with the penciller, inker, colorist, letterer and editorial staff receiving only a mention. Much of the academic comics scholarship that I encountered reinforced this view, as do the prestigious awards and “best of” lists that often champion the single artist/writer. (No wonder Eddie Campbell is under the misconception that “the literaries” ignore the narrative drawings in comics and consider only the plot.) In my work on the 1980s Swamp Thing run, however, I found that this approach did not suit me well and I tried to do my best to be more attentive to the role of collaboration between Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben in the finished product.

Now in my current research, I am particularly fascinated by the way EC’s comics were developed during the 1950s. It was a frantic, nearly assembly-line construction that nevertheless strived to maintain the individuality of the creative professionals. Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein often described how they worked with a team of freelancers to produce four stories a week, churning out springboards and lettered pages for illustration.  In an interview for The Monster Times in 1972, Gaines and Feldstein commented upon the process:

Al: Now this was something that hadn’t been done too much in the comics either. There was imitation of styles. And books were sterile and really had no character. We encouraged each artist to develop his own style, actually wrote and tailored the stories based on the artist’s ability and style. Graham always did the Old Witch and the kind of gothicy stuff. And a finished neat artist like Jack Kamen did the modern, triangle stories with a husband and wife living in the suburbs behind a picket fence, because his style lent himself to that.

Bill: I thought it was more than that. When we sat down to write a story, we were writing the story for a particular artist. So one day we sat down to write a story I would say to Al: “Today we have a seven page story for Graham Ingels to write.” We would think in that direction…

Regardless of how we might feel about EC taking credit for starting this particular editorial trend, their comics certainly demonstrate a dynamic range of collaborative efforts. A quick glance at the title page and signature of any EC story would give regular readers stylistic clues about what the narrative had in store.

(Indeed, when it comes to EC, it’s the writers – not the artists – who often play second fiddle. Readers forget that the stories were almost all completely written or adapted by Gaines, Feldstein or Kurtzman. Even recent reprints from IDW and Fantagraphics reinforce a view that continues to privilege the single artist as creator.)

So how do you approach collaboration in comics? What other questions about collaboration should I bring to the panel?

And if you live in or near Portland, I hope you’ll join us at this year’s ICAF from May 23-25 in the White Stag Building at 70 NW Couch Street!

About Qiana Whitted

Associate Professor of English and African American Studies

6 responses »

  1. charleshatfield says:

    Food for thought, Qiana, and a nice “teaser” for the ICAF! Looking forward to working with you there.

    An interesting sidelight in the study of EC is the way Kurtzman’s editorial methods contrasted with those of Feldstein. Both, as I understand it, gave laid-out and lettered pages to their artists to work on, though Kurtzman was much more adamant about the rhythmic relationships among panels (e.g., using more panel triptychs than Feldstein, i.e. more smaller panels, and also using less text on those panels). It seems to me that Feldstein was more likely to let the rhythms of the prose dictate the panel breakdowns, whereas Kurtzman was more likely to trim back the prose until there were just, say, three or four lines of caption at the most, and to insist on more repetitive compositions and cinematic breakdowns between images. Kurtzman, I gather, used to dictate the compositions–he would thumbnail the action himself–whereas Feldstein would describe the action in words but leave the actual compositions/poses to the artists. No?

    There is a tendency–it may be legitimate, or not, so I’d like to hear your take–to see all the stories that Kurtzman wrote/laid out/edited as “Kurtzman” stories, even where another artist did the finished art, but to see the Feldstein-written/edited stories as, say, Wood’s, or Davis’s, etc. In other words, the Kurtzman titles have been more amenable to auteurist treatment (despite the obvious and powerful differences between, say, a Kurtzman story drawn by Severin and one drawn by Toth).

    I share this prejudice (if that’s the right word) myself, because I generally prefer the breakdowns, rhythms, and prose in the Kurtzman stories to those in the Feldstein stories. But I wonder if this tendency toward deifying Kurtzman as auteur doesn’t elide the facts of collaboration and flatten out the issue, a bit. Your take?

  2. Isaac says:

    One thing I’ve written about collaboration is that we really ought to think of Moore/Gibbons, for example, as a different author from Moore/Campbell or Moore/Gebbie. Of course there are thematic continuities and even points of storytelling consistency, but Moore collaborates in such a rich way that some of his collaborators feel free to change things like layout, rhythm, etc., as long as they’re improving them.

    It’s funny: we tend to talk about plays as if the “author” is the playwright; in films it’s not the screenwriter but the director who is the “author” of the piece. And in comics? My hunch is that we need a broader, more malleable, and more fluid sense of what constitutes an “author.”

    I’m going to be arguing something like that at the MLA in January!

  3. Hey Isaac, thanks for stopping by the blog and taking the time to leave a comment! If I don’t end up making it to MLA next year, I hope you’ll write more about “a broader, more malleable, and more fluid sense of what constitutes an ‘author’.” That is definitely a concept that could use close scrutiny when it comes to this form.

    Thanks, too, Charles for the comments about Kurtzman. You are exactly right, of course that Kurtzman is credited as more of an auteur than Feldstein. I shouldn’t have lumped them together. (In fact, Kurtzman is the only EC writer I think to get his own volume in the Fantagraphics series: http://www.amazon.com/Corpse-Imjin-Stories-Comics-Library/dp/1606995456) And I’m intrigued by the way you’ve described their differences, since it is also my understanding that Feldstein took a more hands-off approach to the design and structure of the stories he wrote. It’s interesting, though, how in the quote from the post, he really prides himself on maintaining that distance – could it be because he was also an artist himself? (Or maybe he was just simply too busy writing four stories a week!) I have heard the Feldstein stories described by some as text-heavy, while others characterize his stories as “over-drawn” – each seem to suggest that the narratives succeeded in spite of, rather than because of, his editorial influence. Hmm. So this gives me a lot to think about… looking forward to talking more in Portland!

    • charleshatfield says:

      Feldstein probably gets underrated in order to build up Kurtzman by contrast. I think there is some truth in the contrasts we tend to draw between the two of them (of course I do, because I prefer the Kurtzman stories!), but I also think that Feldstein has been seriously underrated as writer and editor.

  4. Barbara Postema says:

    Thanks for an interesting question, Qianna.
    It made me think of the older traditions in Franco-Belgian comics as well, like Asterix and Lucky Luke. These were both written by Goscinny, and drawn by Uderzo and Morris respectively. And yet each series very much has its own identity, style and voice, even though they both have the same writer. For the longest time, I thought Christin Bilal was the name of one person, rather than the last names of two individuals making comics together… In many comics, it just is really hard to separate out who contributed what, when the visuals, the dialogue, the narrative work together so seamlessly.

  5. I appreciate your thoughts on this, Barbara. Thanks for stopping by. I’m also very much looking forward to your book on Narrative Structure in Comics, yay! And I’m posting a link to it here because I’m about to pre-order my copy: http://ritpress.rit.edu/publications/books/narrative-structure-comics-making-sense-fragments.html

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