First published in Comixpedia, January 2006
I’ve often heard comics creators lament that so many comics readers will completely ignore incompetent writing for the sake of pretty art. It seems that all too often, smooth lines, slick colors, and dynamic design end up overshadowing the facile dialogue, tired jokes, and predictable or even incoherent storylines that accompany them. Of course, I’ve heard the opposite complaint as well – that too many readers will ignore incompetent art, so long as the story is compelling. Not surprisingly, I’ve mostly heard the first lament from creators who consider themselves writers first, while the second comes from those who count themselves as artists.
And, of course, there is truth in both complaints. Comics are a dual medium, simultaneously a visual art and a literary art, but rarely does a comic exhibit art and writing of exactly equal quality. As readers, each of us has our own preferences for the standard of art we’re willing to tolerate for the sake of good writing, or for the standard of writing we’re willing to tolerate for the sake of good visuals. Naturally, the best works are those where the art and writing are of equally excellent quality, but where that doesn’t happen, we all weigh one over the other, even if only slightly.
Me: I’m a writer. As such, I’m wholly sympathetic to The Writer’s Lament. I came to comics from a background in small press literary publishing. I spent the early part of my life writing, reading, and publishing fiction and poetry. More recently, I spent three years studying playwriting. When I’m reading comics or writing them, that’s the background I bring with me. What I don’t bring is a background in fine art, or illustration, or even much by way of design. (I’ve done a little bit of magazine and web design, but nothing anyone would call professional quality.) As a result, I approach comics as a literary art first and a graphic art second.
Now, I’m not saying that’s how anyone else should view it, and I’m not trying to convince anyone. And I know full well that you can’t master either without having an understanding of the other. But I wanted to make clear where I stand, because when I talk about making better comics – whether in the context of improving the state of the industry, or just my own work – I’m almost always talking about raising the level of the writing. More sophisticated humor, more interesting plotting, more elegant dialogue, greater depth of subtext: these are the things I want from print comics and webcomics alike.
All of which is to say, I want better stories. Comedies that delight rather than just amuse. Adventures that thrill rather than just distract. Tragedies that hurt rather than just sadden. Now I’m certainly not implying that the art plays no role in this – of course it does. But it begins in the writing, because it begins with having a story to tell.
I should clarify here, that I’m not just talking about pure scriptwriters like myself – whether you’re strictly a wordsmith or you’re a solo creator, or even just an artist who occasionally dabbles in the plotting, it’s a rare comics creator indeed who doesn’t have a hand in the writing somewhere along the way. Whether you think of yourself as a writer or not, odds are you’re still writing, and we can all bring something more to the process.