Last week, the news dropped that Taika Waititi had signed on to co-write and direct an adaptation of The Incal, the acclaimed French sci-fi comic book series created by writer/artist team Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius. The overall response to the news was positive, and with good reason – not only does Waititi have form when it comes to translating comics to the screen (thanks to his terrific 2017 effort, Thor: Ragnarok), it’s hard to imagine a filmmaker better suited to bringing The Incal’s rich, imaginative world to life.
But while almost everyone was happy about the Incal movie news, some people were less than thrilled with how the media reported it. See, a number of media outlets credited Jodorowsky as The Incal’s sole creator and treated Moebius like a lesser collaborator – even Waititi’s official statement only referenced Jodorowksy’s contribution to the series. Because of this, it felt like a sizeable chunk of Incal-related coverage was effectively saying that Moebius wasn’t really the comic’s co-creator; he was simply someone hired to draw pictures for an otherwise fully formed story, like an illustrator supplying artwork for the deluxe edition of a prose novel.
Now, I’m not saying that anybody involved with The Incal movie set out to snub Moebius – in fact, I’m sure they’re all huge fans of his work. Even so, failing to recognise Moebius’ contribution to The Incal’s creation as being equal to Jodorowsky’s is flat-out galling, especially since a considerable amount of the comic’s appeal is the artwork. Heck, even readers who find Jodorowsky’s idiosyncratic storytelling style hard to connect with rave about The Incal, for the simple reason that it’s gorgeous to look at. What’s more, Moebius established the style that the artists who succeeded him on the series, Zoran Janjetov and José Ladrönn, later followed – further underscoring that without his initial involvement, the Incal straight-up would not exist in its present form.
This kind of oversight isn’t rare, either. On the contrary, the media and even comic book publishers and film studios have a bad track record when it comes to giving artists the credit they deserve – and it’s something that needs to change.
Why do comic book writers get all the credit?
So, why do comic book writers typically receive greater recognition than artists. How is this possible, especially considering comics are a visual medium? There are three main reasons.
The first reason is that when most people – fans and journalists alike – see a comic book, they tend to treat it like a prose novel, where the author really is the primary creative force. It’s harder for them to wrap their heads around the more collaborative nature of comics; they (wrongly) assume that the writer comes up with the idea for a story, writes it down in a script, and hands it over to the artist, who then follows that script to the letter. It’s easy to see, then, why most people think comic book writers deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the finished product. But as we’ll get into later, this isn’t how comics work, and no matter how substantial a writer’s contribution is, there’s never any reason for their name to be the only one that appears on the cover.
The second reason why comic book artists often get short shrift compared to writers is that most people are more comfortable talking about writing than art – and that goes double for people who write for a living. Thanks to years of academic training and professional experience, the average journalist or blogger has a strong handle on how to analyse a comic book’s plot, dialogue, characterisation, and themes. But unpacking art theory and comic book composition? Not so much. The upshot of this is that most journalists and bloggers focus more on how a gifted comic book scribe crafts a story, without properly considering how an artist’s choices help do the same. I should know: my two recent articles about Grant Morrison’s Batman and New X-Men runs barely mention the artists’ contributions – which just goes to show that anyone can fall into the trap of short-changing artists.
The third and final reason why comic book writers tend to enjoy greater attention boils down to what I like to call “The Stan Lee Effect”. Ol’ Stan has a complicated legacy (to say the least), but there’s no denying he was a phenomenal ambassador for comics – and his affable, hyperbolic schtick didn’t just drive Marvel Comics’ success, it helped keep the medium in the public eye long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe took over the box office. There’s a downside to this, though: intentionally or not, Stan spent decades reinforcing the idea that one man – more to the point, one writer – created the entire Marvel Universe, to the extent that someone who’s never read a Spider-Man comic has heard of Stan Lee but not Spidey’s co-creator, Steve Ditko.
Why do comic book artists deserve more credit?
Regardless of the reasons involved, this kind of disparity when it comes to how people appreciate comic book writers versus artists is, to put it bluntly, inexcusable.
As I hinted at earlier, a good comic book artist doesn’t just draw exactly what’s in the script they receive; they’ll review the script and suggest a variety of key creative changes, whether it’s altering the number of a panels on a given page or re-thinking the type of shots and angles used in each scene – effectively finetuning everything from the pacing to the emotional heft of the story. The script might even follow the “Marvel Method”, an approach where the writer leaves it to the artist to make these creative decisions from the get-go!
Beyond this, it’s also up to the artist to design all the characters (including their outfits), vehicles, props, and environments (including how those environments are lit); and to bring the characters’ performances to life. If we liken a comic book to a movie, this means that the artist is the director, editor, cinematographer, costume and production designer, and the entire cast – so clearly, their contribution can’t be overstated.
Does this apply to all artists? Do they all deserve this much credit? Yes, because even an artist who hews as closely as possible to a script makes a myriad of conscious and unconscious choices when visualising the story. No two artists have exactly the same style, and no two artists will ever interpret the same comic book script the same way – and because of this, they should always be treated as the story’s co-author.
What has to change to ensure artists receive equal treatment?
Ultimately, the only way that comic book artists will receive the equal treatment they deserve is through education.
Publishers and studios need to make a bigger effort to educate themselves and the filmmakers who work for them about how vital artists are to comics’ creative process, and encourage them to namecheck artists as well as writers when promoting their adaptations.
Equally, journalists and bloggers need to learn more about the artistic aspects of comic book creation. There’s a growing body of high-quality academic literature on this subject – Will Eisner’s seminal Comics and Sequential Art and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics are both great starting points – so there’s really no excuse for anybody who gets paid to write about comics not being prepared to properly unpack and celebrate the medium’s non-prose elements.
If both these things happen, it’ll lead to the comics fandom itself receiving a better education of how comics are made, and more importantly, who the people are who make them. And from here, with a bit of luck, the next time a big comic book adaptation like The Incal is announced, it won’t just be the writer who receives all the attention.