20th Century and Contemporary, Excerpts, Graphic Fiction, Graphic Novels, Sneak Previews

Sneak Preview: Comics Art, by Paul Gravett

In February of 2014, Yale University Press will release an exciting new book on the history of comics: Comics Art, by Paul Gravett, the man the Times of London called, “the greatest historian of the comics and graphic novel form in this country.”  The book will explore the varied styles of the genre, old and new media, historical contexts, contemporary perspectives and innovations, speech balloons, and “silent” narration, to name just a small selection of topics covered in this fascinating, accessible, and richly illustrated book.

We’re pleased to share with you today a sneak preview, an excerpt from the book in which Paul Gravett begins his discussion of the early days of syndication.


Paul Gravett—

Comics ArtThe art and business of comics were forever changed by syndication. Hearst’s King Features, founded in 1915, began servicing not only papers in cities across America but around the world. Real money started pouring in for both publishers and cartoonists. The increased demand for a constant supply of strips in Sunday and daily newspapers, and fresh material for their offshoots and rivals, comic books, meant that publishers could not always rely on a single creator. Some cartoonists would employ assistants to take on parts of the workload, filling in areas of black, inking pencil drawings, drawing background, handling lettering. The solitary artistic genius in charge of every aspect was giving way to a more pragmatic, step-by-step assembly line. The sweatshop system was not so different from the tailoring and garment industry—ironically, the very trade which two tailors’ sons Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, a successful young comic book team, were so keen to avoid.

One result of accelerated production was the invention of the previously unknown job of comics scriptwriter. In 1934, King Features secured the bestselling crime writer Dashiell Hammett to devise a new daily serial, ‘Secret agent X-9’, though he seems to have struggled with the medium and left for the more profitable film industry. The gradual increased reliance on writers paved the way for illustrators happy to realize other people’s tales, often adept in polished draughtsmanship, but lacking confidence in stories of their own. Creators of comics no longer had to be jacks of all trades, but could master just one—a penciller, an inker completing those pencils for reproduction, a colourist, a letterer. Successful cartoonists could divide their labour among uncredited ‘ghost artists’. Don Sherwood reportedly managed to keep all his assistants separate and unknown to each other so they would co-produce his ‘Dan Flagg’ strip (1963-7) for him, while he claimed the sole byline, full credit and most of the money for himself.

It was still possible to craft a comic entirely alone, but the expanding industry tended to prioritise printing and distribution deadlines over anything else. Words, as in scripts, became the starting point of many comics, with in-house editors tweaking the texts before supplying them to artists. Entertaining Comics (EC) would insert all the words, often quite florid, into captions and dialogue balloons, leaving the remainder of the panel blank for the illustrator to fill in. This makes some economic sense—why pay artists to draw what will end up being obscured by lettering? Great writers would emerge who understood the visual power of comics, but it was not uncommon in writer-led comics for artists to be unable to adjust the pacing and panels, owing to limited, pre-set page counts and panel layouts for stories. The words did so much of the work that the pictures served more as decorative props and prompts. When presented with Al Feldstein’s script for ‘Master Race’, the tale of a German concentration camp officer being recognised by a Holocaust survivor on the New York subway, Bernard Krigstein had to beg to be given two extra pages, eight rather than six, to expand it and let it ‘sing’. In this rare case, he was allowed to fragment the Nazi’s climactic death from an accidental fall under a subway train into wordless, moment-by-moment slivers, echoed in the refracted passengers in the eleventh panel. The impact is jarringly powerful. For comics to become a more flexible and expressive medium, the pictures also had to be permitted to tell the story.

To cope with deadline driven pressures, the Marvel method, already in practice before the 1960s, came to avoid detailed scripts and therefore empowered the artists to some extent by letting them pace and illustrate the comic from an outline or plot idea. As a result, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others were given increasing rein to produce more than accompanying illustrations and could channel their innate narrative skills. But at Marvel, artists had no final say. That went to chief writer and self-appointed editor, answerable to nobody else, Stan Lee. A rare surviving photocopy of Kirby’s ‘pencils’ shows that by 1968 he was not working from a full script but only the thinnest of plotlines, and yet was transforming this into complete narrative images with his dialogue and directions in the margins. The main creative tasks of writing were done, which Lee has only to follow, more or less. Lee would leave barely any space uncovered by speech and thought bubbles. In an early X-Men, his verbosity so inflated a balloon that the villain Magneto is all but obscured by his own hyperbole. When Kirby choreographed a nine-panel page of a balletic combat between Captain America and Batroc, so dynamic it had no need for words, Lee could not resist adding a jaunty footnote extolling Kirby’s genius. Compared to typically lengthier Japanese comics which freely used wordless panels and sequences since the 1950s, for years the rule in the majority of American comic books and Western output was ‘in the beginning was the word’, and not the picture.

Fortunately, this would change as more writers with their own artistic gifts would write more visually for American comic books, from Archie Goodwin, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison to Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Bill Willingham and Brian Moore, all of whom have written and illustrated their own comics. Knowing how to draw, they can write for an artist, trusting them to tell the story visually as required. Equally vital has been artists gaining the confidence to write their own material. A prime example is the late French master of bande dessinée, Jean Giraud, illustrator only on the ‘Lieutenant Blueberry’ western series written by Jean-Michel Charlier. Giraud adopted his Moebius pen-name originally to author some humorous solo short pieces. He later use this secret identity, his other side of the strip, to work on four silent, fully painted short reveries in Arzach, unlike anything seen in comics before, and on his improvised Airtight Garage. He would grow into a visionary universe-builder. Other self-aware, self-analysing practitioners have become theorists, scrutinizing the deceptively ‘simple’ medium of comics. This process began with a founding father of the form, Rodolphe Töpffer, who published his Essai de Physiognomonie in Geneva in 1845, and has been continued by Will Eisner, starting in his Comics and Sequential Art (1985), and currently by Scott McCloud, Benoît Peeters, Jean-Christophe Menu and Chris Ware, among others.


© Paul Gravett 2013. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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