Each week, Big Issues focuses on a comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s the ongoing debate regarding the treatment of artists in the industry and the disproportionate amount of attention they receive for their work compared to writers.
One of the longest-running discussions in comics is whether writers or artists are more important to the process, which is ridiculous because artists are the people who take a script and turn it into a comic book. Writers typically begin the process, but the artist is responsible for the huge shift from words to visuals, and that requires considerably more time and labor. Artists are the key element that makes a comic book a comic book, but their efforts are consistently diminished in an industry that gives greater significance to writers. Because of this, equal credit for artists has become a major talking point. The topic blew up this past week after the results of a recent retailer survey by SKTCHD went public.
While the survey is far from comprehensive—only 25 comic-book retailers participated, less than 1 percent of the stores in the U.S.—it does provide some interesting statistics regarding reader demographics and what retailers prioritize. One statistic in particular sparked a lot of concern from artists: When asked the most important thing they considered in terms of ordering a comic, 4.8 percent of retailers said “artist,” a number considerably below the 33.3 percent that said “writer” and “other” and the 23.8 percent that said “star character.” This statistic didn’t go over well with the artist community, but it’s easy to see why that number would be so low.
To start, retailers were asked to list the most important thing, and it would be interesting to see how artists fared if this question asked retailers to rank the different criteria rather than picking one single item. “Other” has such a high percentage because some retailers said it’s impossible to decide on just one specific characteristic; perhaps a better measure would have been to have retailers rank each element when considering them all together. But even then, artists most likely won’t rank higher than writers or star characters. Why? If artists are such an invaluable part of the process, why aren’t they a bigger deciding factor when it comes to selling titles?
Part of it is an unfortunate side effect of the amount of time it takes artists to do their work, almost always limiting them to working on only one title at a time. A writer like Charles Soule can write seven comics in the time it takes his artists to draw a single issue. And if he’s telling an extended story, he’ll be there for the entire duration, while his artists may be replaced at any given time. Sometimes an artist falls behind and the editor needs a fill-in to keep the book running on time. Sometimes an artist is moved to another book. Marvel’s double-shipping schedule forces some books to have rotating creative teams, so artists aren’t associated with the titles’ identities the way writers are.
The cards are stacked against artists, specifically those working for corporate-backed publishers primarily concerned with making sure their books hit the stands on time so readers get their regular fix of Batman, Superman, The Avengers, and so on. These characters are going to sell comics no matter who is drawing them, making the artists expendable. Getting comics out in a timely manner takes precedence over artistic consistency and high-quality visual storytelling. If the publishers don’t prioritize artists, why should readers and retailers?
Everything publishers do contributes to the way artists are viewed in the industry: When publishers announce new titles without any artists attached, they are telling retailers that the artist doesn’t matter. When they put out collections with the writer’s name in big bold letters and the artist’s in smaller type, they’re telling the consumer that the writer has a larger role. When they pitch interviews with writers, but not artists, they are telling the industry that writers have something to say while artists do not. All these various issues come together to create an uphill battle for artist equality, and it all starts with how publishers choose to treat their creators. It was a big deal when DC finally started putting colorists’ names on the covers of their comics, telling readers and retailers that these colorists are part of the core creative team of these titles. Those are the kinds of small changes that lead to bigger change.
Marvel’s recent “All-New, All-Different” announcements disappointed by not including artists for a number of titles. DC has made some steps forward giving artists more spotlight with its current DC You campaign, primarily by putting artists in the writer’s position: Ming Doyle co-writes Constantine: The Hellblazer with James Tynion IV while Lee Bermejo writes We Are Robin (in addition to his Vertigo series, Suiciders, which he writes and draws). Bryan Hitch and Patrick Gleason are the writer-artists on Justice League Of America and Robin: Son Of Batman, respectively. Those last two are the most important because they maintain the artists’ visual perspectives. While the quality of the writing varies, DC is showing readers and retailers that they trust these artists to take on bigger responsibility and tackle some of their most popular characters.
Comic-book journalists and critics also have a responsibility to give artists equal attention. In a perfect world, artists would always receive credit as part of the creative team when discussing specific titles, and their contributions would be analyzed as thoroughly as the writing. That requires learning a specific vocabulary and understanding the elements of comic-book design and composition, but that’s a valuable education for anyone that wants to write about comics. And as comic-book adaptations become more prevalent in movies and television, it’s important for the mainstream media to remember that a lot of these comics are the product of multiple creators. Robert Kirkman isn’t the only person responsible for The Walking Dead, so he shouldn’t be the only person credited if The Walking Dead comic is mentioned in a piece. (The TV series has a credit that says it is based on the series of graphic novels by Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard, but that doesn’t stop people from ignoring Moore and Adlard when talking about the series’ relationship to the comic.)
Artists aren’t asking for much when it comes to giving them credit for the huge amount of work they do, and ideally this would lead to artists gaining a bigger profile and earning more work. Artists make extra income by doing commissions and selling original art. Creators with greater name recognition are going to be more successful in those arenas, so of course they want their contributions to be recognized and mentioned by publishers, journalists, critics, retailers, and readers. There’s considerable financial gain to be had when artists get this extra attention, but it’s also a matter of respect for the labor that goes into making these comics. It’s not a comic book without the art. It’s time to stop pushing these creators onto the sidelines and start recognizing their roles as primary players.