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Will Eisner On The Roles Of Artists & Writers

“In order to consider, separately, the role of the writer, it is necessary to arbitrarily limit the ‘writing’ for comics to the function of conceiving the idea and the story, creating the order of telling and fabricating the dialogue or narrative elements … A factor that has always had an impact on comics as an art form is the underlaying reality that we are dealing with a medium of expression which is primarily visual … WORDS/ART: INSEPARABLE … In view of this interdependence there is therefore no choice (in fairness to the form itself) but to recognize the primacy of the writing. In doing so, however, one must then immediately acknowledge that in a perfect (or pure) configuration the writer and artist should be embodied in the same person. The writing (or the writer) must be in control to the very end … I have always been strongly of the opinion that the writer and artist should be in one person.”

Will Eisner, Comics & Sequential Art (Expanded Edition), p. 122-132

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Posted on June 22, 2012, in Quotes and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 37 Comments.

  1. I don’t necessarily agree, but I understand the perspective. Byrne and Ordway will frequently put their writer credit after the artist credit on work they are not drawing. The thought being that the story telling is directed by the artist primarily, not the writer (even one giving full layout description).
    It’s also the perspective of a writer/artist who was a giant in the field. And he’s saying it’s an ideal, not a rule. Just as an ideal for music is generally seen as a band or singer who writes their own songs. Lots of great singers don’t writer their songs, but we see it as an ideal.

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    • To be fair to Mr. Eisner I have condensed an entire chapter of his work into this quote and may very well have distorted his meaning. His primary assertion is that in sequential storytelling the words and pictures are inseparable and that every aspect of creation must be in service to that ideal. I set off our Twitter discussion earlier today by saying that Eisner was of the opinion that it you couldn’t draw, you shouldn’t bother writing comics, but in fairness I might also characterize his position as being, if you can’t write, don’t bother drawing comics either.

      His entire book is worth reading but this chapter on the writer is illuminating as Eisner tries to lay out guidelines for writer/artist collaboration, all the while acknowledging that such partnerships are imperfect but sometimes inevitable. I don’t think he was saying that he was superior or that his method was superior so much as that in his view, given the nature of sequential art, having the writer and artist in one person is superior. I expect he would also allow that a writer/artist in very close collaboration — working up a story from its roots, sketching out story beats and developing dialogue and captions together — would produce results as good or better as a writer/artist embodied in one person.

      I think what he would always consider inferior is a partnership where artist and writer are in separate rooms, where the writer creates a script in a vacuum that is penciled in a vacuum and winds up not so much sequential art (“WORDS/ART: INSEPARABLE”) as much as a kind of illustrated story, a feathered fish that is neither prose nor art. Most comics qualify for this description (including every comic I ever created in my own brief career), but that doesn’t make Eisner wrong.

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  2. I think Eisner is a brilliant craftsmen and his deep understanding of the practical tools available to the comics creator is astounding. But I think McCloud dug a little deeper and demonstrated that words and art are not inseperable, they are identical.

    My opinion is that the scriptwriter who understands this is as much an artist as the penciller who also does. But here we are getting into semantics. What is an artist? What is art? What is comics?

    Being an artist (there’s the A word again) in a few different fields I tend towards the philosophical. It’s an occupational hazard.

    I think Eisner saw comics from a more
    hermeneutical point of view whereas I prefer the ontological take.

    I would describe Esiner as a craftsmen who was a brilliant artist. But a craftsmen first.

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    • Agree, largely.

      The (I think) inescapable message is that comics are primarily a visual medium. If an artist and an writer collaborate on an entirely “silent” issue, the artist is going to have the most influence over the final result. If that same team collaborates on a conventional story, then the artist will likely have no less that half the influence over the final form of the story. If they collaborate on a tale that is all words and no visuals … then it’s not really a sequential art story any more.

      I am not trying to denigrate comic book writers — I worked as a comics writer for several years, and I concluded that if I wanted more influence over my stories I should be writing plays, or novels, and not comics. I don’t regret writing comics, but I do regret that the grind of the business and the reality of remote freelance work made it basically impossible to closely collaborate with artists to the point that I could really take advantage of the medium’s unique strengths. I wish I could write as well as draw because then I could better tell comic stories.

      I have friends who are brilliant artists, who always shoot me down when I say I’d trade my ability to write for their ability to draw. Considering that no less a talent than Wally Wood considered his ability a curse by the end, and is reported to have said that if he had it to do all over again that he’d “cut off his hands,” then maybe they’re on to something. But damn, what I wouldn’t give to be an artist.

      (So mix the pathology of that longing into my interpretation of Eisner, above).

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  3. Another great piece of writing today. I really enjoyed reading it very much. Thanks for sharing. Have a nice day.

    Enjoy writing? Join Us Today!

    Writers Wanted

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  4. Much appreciated, Paul. I consider myself both writer and artist, but not a maker of comics (although I have made the attempt, and would still like to pursue it further). There’s something special in the way these two abilities come together, a synergy beyond either individually, in a superbly well crafted tale conveyed visually. Thanks for this post and the discussion in the comments. Food for thought.

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    • Thanks for checking in, Liz, I know comics aren’t really your thing but I’m gratified to learn you’re keeping an eye on the blog. Please continue to comment when the subject engages you!

      I envy you folks who can both write and draw because it provides so many additional dimensions for your expression, but you are right — it isn’t the writing or drawing skills on their own so much as how they come together that creates the magic of comics. And there is magic in comics — it’s just that there is so much crap on top of the magic that is it easy to lose track of the unique genius of the form.

      Guys like Eisner (to me) point the way toward what makes comics special, but also form a kind of counter-example calling into question why I might also enjoy some godawful Hulk comic. The answer of course is that there is art, and there is entertainment, and they aren’t always the same thing, but trying to find the dividing line in comics (so often a ghetto art form) exhumes all sorts of insecurities for me — insecurities about my own past work, disappointments over failed collaborations, and those stark moments when I wonder just what the hell I are doing with my time writing a blog like Longbox Graveyard.

      I do think it is a worthwhile examination, though, and I will keep at it. Longbox Graveyard is about men in tights but it is also about something else. I’m just not certain what that other thing is yet.

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      • You’re right that I don’t find every post something I can easily relate to, but when looking at questions of creativity and expression in the context of sequential storytelling … I’m all over that. 8D And when something isn’t obviously a hook for me, I often find things of interest anyway.

        Insecurities come with the costume, whether tights or sword-and-board fantasy or being an inkmonkey. I agree that what you’re doing is worthwhile here, and I hope you continue to.

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        • Yeah, I’m not going anywhere … I’ve signed a contract with my self to continue the blog for another six months, so I’ll be here through the end of the year (knock wood).

          And insecurities are a big part of creative work, aren’t they? I think every creator has them — and the difference between success and failure is whether those insecurities drive you or hold you back.

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          • “…the difference between success and failure is whether those insecurities drive you or hold you back.”

            The other option is to look at them, and realize that while they are the gibbering ghoulspawn of your past and your soul, they deserve only to be ignored like dead leaves below a vibrantly alive oak (or other admirably-alive-thing of your choice)!

            Seriously, I’ve had horrible days where the memory-echo of harsh words won’t leave my head. I do understand. But either being driven or held back — you’re holding on. Moving on is better, to whatever extent one is able. (Too bad I suck at following my own advice, eh?)

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            • I’m coming around to the notion that criticism is required during creation, and should stop — entirely, utterly, forever — when the work is done. At that point the job of criticism belongs to the audience. Applying a critical eye to my own completed work rarely gets results. It’s fun sometimes to look at something finished years ago but for the most part I like to do things and move forward, which I think is my version of the advice you offer above.

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  5. Horace Austin

    “… I have always been strongly of the opinion that the writer and artist should be in one person.”

    I disagree.

    I’m comfortable with an arrangement where the writer and penciler are of different minds. Where they offer their own ideas and bounce them off each other. Chris Claremont and John Byrne butted heads often when they were on Uncanny X-Men. The creative friction made the books better.

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    • Collaboration is an interesting issue but I think a separate one. Few would argue that Lennon and McCartney were better individually than they were together, but they were both musicians — they could both sing, play instruments, and write music and lyrics. I don’t doubt that Claremont and Byrne made each other better, but would the work have been even better if they both could draw in addition to write? I think Eisner’s conclusion is that comics are a visual medium and there’s just no getting around the fact that if you can draw, you’ll be more effective working in this medium.

      If we agree that Claremont and Byrne were better together than they were apart … how do we rank them as individual creators? On their own, who was better, John or Chris? I’m going to say Byrne, which I think serves to reinforce Einser’s point.

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      • Horace Austin

        Byrne as writer/artist better than Claremont as writer? That’s debatable.

        Byrne’s body of work when he both writes and pencils is mixed for me.

        The first half of his Fantastic Four run up to the trial of Reed Richards kicks ass, no doubt. But, the second half of that run loses steam. There’s nothing particularly memorable from #263 onwards.

        His 22 issue run on X-Men Hidden Years which he wrote and penciled is OK. Certainly not classic.

        As writer-penciler on West Coast Avengers, he actually did damage. I hate what he did to the Vision. So when it comes to Byrne working on Avengers stuff, I’ll take the Shooter/Byrne or Michelinie/Byrne collaborations over Byrne/Byrne any day of the week.

        Now let me refer to another example, the Korvac Saga, to further make my point.

        Jim Shooter wrote all of these issues. Dave Wenzel penciled most of the issues dealing with the Avengers’ quest to find and vanquish Korvac. That includes the climactic, all-out battle to the death in Avengers #177.

        Over the years, “Korvac” has been celebrated as one of the great Avengers sagas. It’s been reprinted many times in trade paperback. And, yes, comics are a visual medium. But, which creator, Shooter or Wenzel, is most associated with the saga? Excluding Shooter’s role as Editor-in-Chief, which creator has had a bigger impact on comics in general?

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        • Here’s the part where I lose the room …

          Something I’ve been groping towards this last year is a definition (a personal definition) of what really makes a comic book story into a comic book story. So many comics seem to me to be struggling to be something else — they’re aping screenplays, or they’ve basically no action and they’re entirely dialogue-driven like a TV drama. If we factor out the notion that panels, pages, and superheroes automatically make something into a comic book story, what remains? What kind of storytelling can be told ONLY (or only to greatest effect) in comic book form.

          It’s those kinds of stories that I am interested in isolating, and better understanding, which is one of the reasons that Eisner’s quote interests me, because it points to a criteria I can use to circle in on this admittedly rare kind of tale — the story that is “WORDS/ART: INSEPARABLE” by virtue of being created by a single author (although I will concede that a very close and effective collaboration can attain the same result).

          As far as Korvac is concerned … might that story have as easily been told as a prose novel? Didn’t the script really drive the action — might not any of a dozen bullpen hands have effectively rendered the tale? If the visual component of the story is so modular, doesn’t that argue against the tale as a prime example of comic book storytelling? I get that this is the way 99% of comic book stories are composed (and that this particular story was effective and satisfying), but is this story really an example of what makes comics unique, of a story that can best be told in this form and no other?

          Still wrestling with this. Thanks for the thoughtful dialogue, Horace.

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          • Horace Austin

            Paul wrote: “So many comics seem to me to be struggling to be something else — they’re aping screenplays, or they’ve basically no action and they’re entirely dialogue.”

            Paul,

            You mentioned in a previous blog how modern comics eschew the single issue story. They’re written for the trade paperback.

            I think you’re on to something. It does seem that some of today’s creators are writing/drawing comics like they’re storyboards. Maybe they hope their stories get adapted for the big screen? Frank Miller’s 300 seems this way to me.

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            • We’re getting dangerously close to a reductionist definition of comics here I think. Ie: “Comics should be this not that”.

              See the thing is, a story board IS a comic according to both Eisner’s and McCloud’s definition. Wether it’s a good one is an entirely different matter.

              And I like my definition comics to be expansive so it leaves room for innovation. When you start to narrow a thing down, you start killing it. Hitler thought anything other than realism in art was the result of an inability to translate the visual field to canvas. He was refused entry to an art school by a jury of Jewish artists. So instead of getting better at understanding his medium, he… well, he did something else.

              Not that there are any future despots commenting here. Let’s not misconstrue the exaggeration in the previous paragraph.

              My opinion piece senses are tingling.

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              • Thanks for the history lesson.

                Moving forward, I’ll be careful what I post about comic books on the Internet.

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                • lol. I think I just saved the world.

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                  • Ha! Jason mentioned Hitler — invoking Godwin’s Law I claim my five dollars!

                    I’m less interested in what is/is not a comic than I am in isolating things that comics do better than other forms of media. Eisner is a lodestone here not only for his genius, but because he attempted to define his discipline in academic terms and teach it to others.

                    Many of the things Eisner staked out — the grammar of panels and page design, the construction of splash pages, the use of typography to communicate emotion & mood — are storytelling tools that work best (and perhaps only) in comics form. I’m curious to learn why mainstream superhero books under-utilize these tools. Is it a failure of talent, or imagination? Are these tools antiquated or over-rated?

                    My suspicion is that comics storytelling has evolved into its present form because this is what the audience wants (or thinks it wants) — comics that read like movies or television series. But now we live in an era with honest-to-gosh superhero movies that are arguably more entertaining and demonstrably more successful than the comics that inspired them. Instead of trailing and imitating a more successful medium, might comics benefit by embracing the things that make them unique? Could they reinvent themselves by going back to their past, and standing more firmly on their own two feet as an individual storytelling form?

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  6. I have never been comfortable reserving the word “art” for what is ultimately a subjective value judgement. To say that only “high” things are art and “low” ones are entertainment is where ignorance about art begins.

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    • In this case it might be more profitable trying to define the line between “fine” and “pop” art.

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      • Precisely. Art is an objective vehicle for subjective content.

        I think comics are the same. And Eisner in this quote expresses a preference. But it is just that, a preference. Albeit a highly educated and experienced opinion.

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        • I’m susceptible to the sentiment because it’s helping me better understand my own dissatisfaction with the job of comics writing, and it is also helping me construct a framework for why I find some comic stories more effective than others. I’ve been ruminating on these concepts for awhile but they hadn’t quickened to the point where I was ready to tackle them at Longbox Graveyard. Actually I’m smelling a podcast rant here but that won’t be until near the end of the year.

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  7. Very interesting discussion here Paul.

    “What kind of storytelling can be told ONLY (or only to greatest effect) in comic book form.”

    No story? In any communication, the perceived message is rarely the message sent. A story’s effect on its audience varies based on the expectations and prior experiences of that audience. In other words, there will always be an unavoidable subjective component to the judgment of what is good. The definitive comic book story for you may be more affecting or meaningful to me as a musical. God forbid.

    Many truly amazing works of sequential art have been created by some combination of a writer/penciler/inker/colourist/letter/editor team. I like a lot of Alan Moore’s stuff, generally he’s acknowledged as being a pretty good creator of comics, and I’m not sure he can draw.

    I think of Dave Sim writing and drawing Cerebus and note how much I enjoy the later issues compared to the very first: his art skills improved and he got Gerhard drawing backgrounds. I think early Cerebus would have been even better if Gerhard had been contributing to the art from the beginning. I also note that final issues of Cerebus are generally judged to be not as strong as the first due to somewhat indulgent writing. Whatever the “artistic” merits of Dave’s undiluted viewpoint in his great work, it seems likely it would have been better if he had created the last third in conjunction with some guidance from an editor or co-writer with a concern for keeping the story strong and satisfying. Even if that editor couldn’t draw.

    Then again that’s only my subjective perspective. The final 100 issues of Cerebus may be the pinnacle of the whole thing in your eyes.

    Great comics can play mainly to the strengths of the words, or mainly the pictures, or a balance, or the interplay between them. I don’t think the writer has to also be the visual artist or that they will necessarily create better comics if they are.

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    • Yes, Moore draws. It’s what got him started in comics if I have my history straight.

      As for what kind of story can only be told in comics. To me the answer is obvious: Any story that is told in comics. As soon as you transfer the story to another medium, it is affected by it and becomes a different story in one way or another. The medium is inherently unique and McCluhan goes so far as to declare it “the message”. If that’s not a declaration of a mediums independece from others, I don’t know what is.

      That’s the philosophical take at least.

      As for the idea of the pinnacle of comics story telling, I reject that all together. As you point out, it’s an entirely subjective thing. Worth discussing but ultimately unknowable.

      In that sense I’m a comic agnostic.

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      • I can see where my quoting Eisner about the artist and writer being one person has sidetracked the conversation and obscured what I find interesting about the quote.

        It isn’t relevant to me if comics should be a collaboration or strictly the output of a single auteur — what interests me is why Eisner felt this way. Setting aside the possibilities of ego, pride, and insecurity, what I saw in this quote was an admission that comics are visual (duh), but also that the golden mean for this art form is that bit about “WORDS/ART: INSEPARABLE” … and I can tell you from my own brief career that when you are writing freelance scripts for an artist you never meet, the words and art are anything BUT inseparable. Often they are pointed in opposite directions and sometimes they are at war with each other. This might create stronger art through the crucible of collaboration, but given the deadline realities of the business it is more likely to create an illustrated story that does not fully exploit the strengths and opportunities of the form.

        When author and artist are the same person, it ensures that the story we get is the story as the creator intended (to the best of his or her ability) to produce, not some accidental masterpiece or a compromise act that functions, but does not represent the original intention of the artist or writer. The quality of that work is another matter — certainly there are great writers who don’t draw and many great artists with no interest in writing at all. The business is built on these guys. I just wish the environment and the culture placed greater emphasis on genuine collaboration and use of comic book storytelling tools so that we’d have more works unique to this form, rather than the visually interesting but ultimately forgettable and pedestrian stories I see in mainstream superhero tales every month.

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  8. Horace Austin

    Paul wrote:

    “Something I’ve been groping towards this last year is a definition (a personal definition) of what really makes a comic book story into a comic book story. So many comics seem to me to be struggling to be something else — they’re aping screenplays, or they’ve basically no action and they’re entirely dialogue-driven like a TV drama.”

    Paul:

    This may or may not have something to do with this. But, I’ve just read about George Perez’s recent frustrations working at DC. John Byrne, who I do not always agree with, made an interesting comment about it on his forum:

    “There, George has summed up a BIG chunk of what’s wrong with modern comics: writers who lack the ability to think in pictures (which, by the way, is MOST writers) demanding that they work only full script.”

    Sounds like Eisner would appreciate this?

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    • Yes, I saw that story today, and shared it with Chris Ulm, who sits across from me here at work, and knew George a little bit from his days as Malibu Comics Editor-In-Chief. Chris’ opinion of George seems to be the same as many people in the business — that he’s one of the good guys, easy to work with, not remotely an egomaniac, and a pro’s pro. So if George can’t function inside the system, then chances are the problem is with the system, and not with George.

      Thanks for that Byrne quote, too, which I think is on the money. I always worked full script, and I rarely thought in terms of pictures, which made my scripts hard indeed for artists to interpret. Likewise, the detail I did provide in the script didn’t always make it to the page, because many of my artists didn’t think in terms of story (or, like me, they were just starting out and of limited ability — looking back on some of the things I asked my artists to do, it’s a wonder the books came out at all).

      If I ever write comics again, it will be through the lens of thinking about things in pictures as much or more as in story, and it will be in the closet possible collaboration with an artist.

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      • Horace Austin

        “So if George can’t function inside the system, then chances are the problem is with the system, and not with George.”

        Yeah, pretty damning when an industry legend who is also a real nice guy calls out the system like that.

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  9. Somewhat off the subject, but I can sort of apply it to my job circumstance.

    When I am doing my best as a classroom instructor, it is when I have matched the content with the proper delivery method (traditional lecture, online lecture, reading & responding, group work, problem solving, writing and reflection, etc … ). This is in relation to finding the “best” method for telling a particular story — movie, TV serial, comic book, novel, video game, etc … I can teach a topic (tell a story) in a range of methods, and my colleagues may choose a different method than I would, but I try to find the method that best fits the topic at hand.

    As we have seen in various adaptations of comics to other media (and vice versa), some stories are best told as comics, and don’t work in other formats. Or is best told as a play. Or is best told as a novel.

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    • Yes, perhaps to take another approach … while any story CAN be told in comics, not every story SHOULD be told that way. For example, a friend loaned me Red Skull: Incarnate the other day, and it should be something I like — a Red Skull origin graphic novel. Flipping through it, though, I see a lot of guys in brown shirts and talking heads. I will read it and I will keep an open mind but at first glance it doesn’t seem a story especially well-suited to comics (despite its comic book subject) because there is so much exposition and so little action.

      A master like Eisner could pull it off, I am sure, but the rank and file of comics creators will enjoy greater success (generally speaking) by sticking to action-driven stories where comics are more hardwired to succeed.

      I’m going to roll all these thoughts up into a future podcast where I can really get myself into trouble.

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  10. Loving the podacst — looking forward to your further thoughts!

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