Monday, August 10, 2009

A Response to That Response to That Response

One of my favourite blogs is Christopher Bird's MightyGodKing, which happens to be a terrific overlap with my interests: he's a politically left-wing law student and comics enthusiast from Toronto. And he reviews movies sometimes. That's not to say I agree with him all the time (or even a lot of the time), but it's almost creepy how perfectly he suits my blogging needs.

Anyway, Chris has recently invited a bunch of co-bloggers on board his site, and one of them, Justin Zyduck, just posted this list of top 21 most influential mainstream comics writers, in response to a list of artists posted at the Onion AV Club a while back. This is great because a) it gives me an excuse to link to MGK, b) it gives me a chance to whip up some content for this blog, and c) it gives me a chance to argue.

Not that Justin's picks are particularly far off (though as he admits in comments, Will Eisner should be on there, and probably Dave Sim as well...some people are arguing Kurt Busiek, but much as I love the guy I don't think he's "influential" per se. But then, I'd say the same about some of his other picks as well.) Mostly I wanted to discuss his editorial comments. So onward!

1. Stan Lee

That the man was a huge influence on comics is undeniable. But--and bear with me here--I don't think it was as a writer for the most part. OK, the idea of superheroes who the audience could actually relate to was a major development. But everything else Lee did was more along the lines of editorial suggestion; as we all know, their working style was extremely loose and didn't involve scripts, and Kirby apparently felt free to ignore a lot of what Stan was saying when doing the breakdowns. Lee's input on the Galactus trilogy, for instance, seems to boil down to "What if the Fantastic Four fought God?" Even Lee admits that he didn't have anything to do with the creation of the Silver Surfer, and if a plot point that large can slip by him, you have to wonder just how involved he was in the "writing" in the first place.

Don't get me wrong: editors can be at least as important to stories as writers, so this isn't to disparage Lee per se. But I think his real contribution was in the comics culture he created--the rabid fanbase, the chummy, scrappy, underdog mentality, the due credit he gave to his artists (something most comic companies, let's remember, didn't bother with at the time) and of course, the hype.

2. Alan Moore
I disagree with Zyduck's contention that Alan Moore’s influence has been mostly destructive. I think most of the things you can point to as being directly influenced by Moore aren’t very good (though Astro City owes him a big debt, I think) but in a sense Watchmen represented a refinement of the Marvel Comics style of the 60s, bringing personalities and humanity to superheroes. Anytime a superhero is written naturalistically, for good or for ill, you have Moore to thank. And for all his grim ‘n’ grittiness in the 80s, Moore also played a big role in the opposite “Neo-Silver Age” trend in the 90s–his Supreme is, with Astro City, the defining comic for that era.

3. Chris Claremont
I'm not a big 70s guy, and haven't read much of Claremont. His influence seems pretty inarguable to me, though.

4. Neil Gaiman
I absolutely love Sandman--it played a major role in turning me into a comics fan--but Zyduck has him as someone of equal influence as the previous three. I really can't agree with that, even if you're willing to grant him the credit for helping to build Vertigo. After all, most Vertigo books aren't very Sandman-like; even the superficially similar Fables has a much more standard narrative structure. In the comments there's some mention of Ennis, Preacher in particular, and I'd argue that had a much stronger influence on the Vertigo style, inasmuch as there is one.

5. Jerry Siegel
Hard to argue with this. It is interesting, though, just how many aspects of superhero-dom were lying around pre-Superman, waiting to be fused together by Siegel.

6. Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson
It warms my heart to see these guys get their due over Bob "douchebag" Kane. Hopefully in another few decades they'll be getting the credit on DC comics and movies, not Kane.

7. Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Zyduck's bang on that these guys laid the groundwork for Marvel. I would kill to see what EC would have evolved into had they survived into the 60s; I can't help but think they would have been very similar to The House of Ideas, though they probably wouldn't have been superhero-centric. But then, I'm positing a world without the Comics Code, which is impossible to speculate about. May as well argue what comics would look like if Hitler won WWII. (Actually, probably not that different.)

8. Harvey Pekar
Like a lot of people, I find Pekar a little self-absorbed and boring, but his influence is certainly significant (Zyduck correctly identifies him as an ancestor of certain styles of webcomics). Semi-related observation: in the extras to the "American Splendour" movie, Pekar snarks about how much better-looking all the actors playing him and his friends are. Pekar is played by Paul Giamatti. Just saying.

9. Warren Ellis
Zyduck gives Ellis credit for "widescreen comics" and the general style of modern mainstream superhero event comics, which I'd generally agree with. I think he also deserves a nod, though, for Transmetropolitan, which is THE defining cyberpunk comic.

10. Gardner Fox
Zyduck mentions Earth-1 and Earth-2 as Fox's major lasting contribution to comics. I guess that's true, although he's also pretty much the author of the Silver Age, along with...

11. Mort Weisinger
The thing I love about comics by Weisinger and Fox and the rest is that, as stupid as they might frequently be, they're like an undiluted fount of imagination, a bedrock of pure dreamstuff for the superhero medium. Later, more sophisticated writers can play around with these stories and ideas, deconstructing them, getting at the psychological subtext, but first they had to be introduced in their pure, innocent form. You can't get this kind of golden raw material anymore--everyone's too self-aware. Maybe if you took a lot of drugs and sat down at the keyboard you might come close, or got six-year-olds to write comics...

12. Len Wein
Another 70s guy whose work I haven't actually read a lot of, but the guy who created Wolverine obviously had a major impact.

13. Grant Morrison
I agree with some of the commentators that Morrison isn't hugely influential just YET, but I guarantee he will be in another decade or so. Already, some new young turks like Jeff Parker, Matt Fraction and Tom Casey are all clearly influenced by Morrison, along with Gerard Way’s “Umbrella Academy”.

14. Brian Michael Bendis
Don't know much about this guy's superhero work, honestly, but he seems way too recent to be on a list of major influences.

15. J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen
A breath of fresh air at a time when comics were getting tiresomely "edgy" and self-important. I wish they were MORE influential, honestly.

16. Roy Thomas
I feel like Thomas started the rather annoying trend of tying characters together in unnecessary ways, not to mention molesting the corpses of Golden Age characters who were better left alone (Oh, Patsy Walker...) This is the kind of stuff that makes Bronze Age comics so hard for me to read.

17. Steve Gerber
...And this guy is the big exception to that rule. The "satire" was sometimes more bizarre than pointed, but hey, what's wrong with being bizarre? Married the underground and the mainstream, and they're still together today, though I guess it hasn't always been the happiest of unions...

18. Denny O’Neil
Those laughable "issue" comics were clearly influential, but I prefer his take on Batman, which I think was the last time the Dark Knight managed to be gritty and realistic and dark without being tiresome. O'Neil kept enough comic-bookiness about the character that he, perversely, managed to remain grounded. If only the balance hadn't been upset by...

19. Frank Miller
Monumentally influential, but he's one of those guys who frankly had good ideas in the context of bad stories. Of course, that's true of a lot of people on this list, but a little of Miller's brand of juvenile pulpiness goes a long way, and he's been milking it for 20 years.

20. Carl Barks
Absolutely. The guy was writing hilarious, affecting, and human adventure stories (which were, ironically, about ducks) at least a decade before most of the people on this list had done anything of note. If he wasn't a "funny animal" cartoonist he'd be considered in much higher esteem than pretty much anyone except Kirby, Eisner and Moore.

21. Geoff Johns
I've been unimpressed with his work, and he's too recent to be on this list. Boot him for Eisner. And boot Bendis for Howard Chaykin.

Another pointless list resolved! Whoot!


  1. I'm just catching up with this debate, so I'm going to post this on your blog rather than Mightygodking. In rough reverse order of importance:

    1) Who's "Tom Casey"? I've heard of Joe Casey, of course....

    2) Have you read Steve Englehart & Marshall Rogers's short but significant run on Detective? I think they did a "gritty and realistic" (whatever that latter term might mean) but not "tiresome" Batman as well as anybody. And if you find their work a little too self-serious, Alan Grant (mostly with Norm Breyfogle), Gerry Conway (mostly with Don Newton and Gene Colan), and Chuck Dixon (mostly with Graham Nolan) all did lengthy, entertaining runs on Batman that I'd think would meet your criteria.

    3) As the son of a Jewish refugee from Hitler, I find your glib remark about how comics wouldn't have been much different if Hitler had won WWII offensive. If Hitler had won, then most likely Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Stan Lee, Will Eisner, Neil Gaiman, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, Bob Kane, Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Harvey Pekar, Mort Weisinger, Julie Schwartz, Gene Colan, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Steve Gerber, Brian Michael Bendis, Howard Chaykin, Joe Kubert and his sons, Art Spiegelman (or the parents of the younger ones) and many, many others important to the history of comics would have been put to death. (I think Frank Miller also is Jewish or of Jewish descent, though the Internet is failing me on this point.) That's not to mention the obviously immense effects Hitler's victory would have had on the greater world. I'm not averse to humor about the Nazis - I think "The Producers" is hilarious - but any humor in your remark isn't enough to justify its casualness.

    4) I find your continuing blind spot about Stan Lee kind of silly. First of all, if nothing else, Lee's dialogue has been hugely influential on almost all subsequent superhero writing, especially at Marvel. Just think of how _everyone_ writes the words that come out of Spider-Man's mouth. Also, compare the dialogue that Jack Kirby wrote on his own with that on his collaborations with Lee. And if dialogue isn't writing in comics (you seem to be overly focused on plotting), I don't know what is. Moreover, dialogue conveys characterization, which is clearly another important part of Lee's contributions. Second, Lee's collaborative contributions shouldn't be underestimated. Kirby - whom I respect enormously - did much of his innovating in comics with other writers, especially Joe Simon. If you look at what Steve Ditko did without Lee, it's clear just how much the latter brought to Spider-Man (perhaps less so to Dr. Strange). Finally, to say, as you do at Mightygodking, that the "Kirby-Lee ... relationship was not the usual writer-artist relationship" is to ignore the fact that the style in which writers supply artists with more or less detailed plots and then dialogue and caption them afterward became known as the "Marvel style" precisely because for a long time it was the way things were done there, following Lee's model - another huge influence. (I don't "know" that their working style didn't involve scripts, though I know it didn't involve _full_ scripts, which is a different matter.)

    Ultimately, the best comics either are produced by creators who are both writers and artists or by successful collaborations, not by writers who dictate every detail to the artist. Even Alan Moore has said, IIRC, that he gives artists leeway to depart from his extremely specific scripts. A rough analogy might be to the Beatles: Many people, myself included, feel like saying that Lennon or McCartney was the "more important" Beatle or the "real artist" in the Beatles is ridiculous: When you look at what they produced on their own, it's pretty clear that they balanced and complemented each other's strengths and weaknesses.

  2. I'm possibly posting this too late to get any reply--I've been sort of taking it for granted that I get no replies around here--but nonetheless!

    1. D'oh, good call, well-spotted, here's your no-prize. I had inadvertantly mutated Joe Casey and Tom Scioli into a monstrous two-headed beast. Y'know, like Stan Kirby.

    2. Haven't read that Batman run, no. Like I say, not really a 70s comic guy. I guess my crucial point was that Batman did a good job of balancing grit and imagination until Frank Miller came along. I assume Englehart was part of that tradition.

    3. Sorry if I caused offense; that was intended purely as a swipe at some of the uncomfortable, underlying ideas in the superhero genre. And while I was being flip, I did quite sincerely mean what I said. It's true that a huge number of the contributors to the form were Jewish, and we're obviously better off for it, but at the same time I'm talking more about the fundamental aspects of the genre, which haven't changed in some ways since the 30s. There was a rather creepy strain of "ubermensch idealism" in pulp storytelling of the early 20th century, which seemed like a Victorian hangover in some ways; it wasn't even limited to the Nazis, actually, but they were clearly the more rotten fruit from that shitty tree. And that's not even getting into the fascist undertones of the superhero genre. So in that sense, no, I honestly don't think it's hard to imagine the Nazis embracing the superhero model, which was my point.

    4. You say I'm focusing too much on plotting; I say you're focusing too much on dialogue. Both are aspects of writing, and frankly, the former makes up the bulk of the heavy lifting. But OK, yes: Lee's hamfisted and corny prose has had a major impact on superhero comics since.

    Likewise, you talk about looking at Ditko and Kirby without Lee--but what about Lee without those other guys? What did Lee do that was worthwhile before Fantastic Four? The guy had, what, two decades of credits to his name before that? What is there that we remember from that era, aside from possibly having written the wordiest comic cover of all time? This is the same period in which Kirby created Captain America, romance comics, and the Challengers of the Unknown, to name three.

    As for scripts and contributions, we may never know who exactly did what; both Lee and Kirby seem to have awful memories of that era and a tendency towards self-aggrandizement. But as I've pointed out, Lee himself admits openly that he had no idea about this "Silver Surfer" character before he popped up in the pages Kirby gave back to him. How "detailed" could Stan's plotting or scripting have been if something like that could slip through? This is why I say his input seemed to be more that of an editor: he was definitely steering the big ideas, but it seems he was leaving it to others to sort out the details.