#ArtCred: Tips for Properly Crediting Comics Creators

The past week or two has seen the comics Twittersphere abuzz with discussion about credit – specifically, giving artists the credit they deserve for their work. One of the main instigators of the conversation was this retailer survey, particularly the note that people are almost 7 times more likely to buy a comic because of a writer than an artist. There are a number of reasons that this could be the case; mainstream superhero comics are far more likely to see a long-term writer supported by rotating artists than the other way around. Writers are seen as the masterminds behind the story, while artists are treated more like visual translators than storytellers in their own right. Writing takes much less time, so a writer can be working on multiple books (for multiple companies) at once, while artists tend to be confined to one or two. Listing multiple people on art duties (pencillers, inkers, colour artists….) leads to confusion about what a person at any of these stages actually does. It doesn’t help that publishers give far more credit to writers than artists (and many books still don’t put inkers or colour artists on covers). Covers will almost always display the writer’s name before the artist’s, although there are exceptions – starting with issue 25, Saga co-creators Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan alternate top billing with each issue. It’s a start.

33.3% will order a book for a writer - 4.8% for an artist

33.3% will order a book for a writer – 4.8% for an artist

None of this is new information; the fight for creator rights and credit has been going for for decades, but it’s been a hot topic lately. If you haven’t been following it, I recommend checking out the #ArtCred tag on Twitter, and reading this post by Matt Fraction about collaboration (incidentally, this came a week after Fraction was left off the ballot when co-creator of Sex Criminals Chip Zdarsky was nominated for a Harvey Award for the series and refused the nomination unless his partner was included too). I don’t have anything to add to this conversation that hasn’t already been said, but I think this is an important topic, particularly as I meet more artists and see how hard they work.

It’s one thing if individual fans get more excited about writers than artists, but it’s a different matter for comics journalists. Publishers, retailers, and journalists help curate conversation around comics, and it’s important that we give credit where it’s due. I know that’s easier said than done – I’ve been writing about comics steadily for about 2 years now, and I don’t always properly credit everyone involved.

Artist Fiona Stapes is credited before writer Brian K Vaughan.

Artist Fiona Stapes is credited before writer Brian K Vaughan.

I grew up reading voraciously – but not reading comics – and graphic literature was barely present in my university English studies. So it’s easy to talk about the story, characters, and plot, but I’ve had to teach myself how to discuss art. Once I started reading comics, I immediately latched onto the work of particular artists since I quickly found that their distinct styles (as well as their interests) tend to lend themselves to certain kinds of stories, and I follow their books the same way you might follow the work of a particular actor or director. Still, I know a lot of readers who find that the writing impacts their enjoyment of a book far more than the art – and that’s okay! We all have preferences! But in a setting that requires a balanced and informed opinion (such as a review), it’s important to balance personal feelings with educated critique that recognizes all of comics’ components. If you like or dislike something, you should be able to articulate why, and you’re hardly supporting your argument if you ignore or discount such a huge component of the visual storytelling (and one that frankly takes a lot longer).

Learning on such a broad topic can be daunting, but I’ve tried to put together a list of tips for improving conversation about art in comics reviews and journalism. As a newbie, these are all things I’m still learning too, but I hope this helps anyone else who struggles to talk about comics art in a meaningful way:

1. Do research! If you’re going to be reviewing comics, you want to have at least a basic understanding of what you’re discussing, and there are tons of people out there who are willing to help you! This post by Matt Romeo at Multiversity gives a great overview of how to talk about art in comics reviews. Here’s a brief how-to on colouring by Amy Reeder, and the basics of lettering from Todd Klein. The internet is full of resources put together by professionals for amateur artists, and they’re just as useful for new journalists. There’s also Scott McCloud, whose Understanding Comics should be required reading. You’d be surprised how much you can learn from a few Google searches!

2. Learn your vocab. This is easy enough to do by reading other reviews and conversations on social media, but it takes some getting used to (here’s a list of basics on Wikipedia). I’m surprised how often I see folks generally use incorrect terms, so if you’re unsure, look it up! Learning proper terminology will also help you credit people correctly, another issue I see frequently, especially on books with bigger teams. It’s easy enough when you’re looking at a comic by one cartoonist, or by a single writer and artist (such as the team on Saga), but things can get complicated, particularly in cape comics – what does “finishes” mean? How about “layout assistance”? And don’t forget the trusty letterer, they’re doing important work, and you should at least know how to consider how the letterer’s job affects the whole.

Bedlam

Ryan Browne’s erratic lines, Jean-Paul Csuka’s intense colours, Riley Rossmo’s character design, and Kelly Tindall’s fractured captions collaborate to create this panel’s sense of paranoid terror. From Bedlam.

3. Know the difference between art that’s bad and a style that you don’t like. I won’t name any names, but there are artists whose work I’d argue is bad; artists who steal from other artists, or don’t seem to grasp basic human anatomy. But there are also artists who encompass the facets of good art, but whose style doesn’t work for me. It’s important to consider the difference if you’re going to be critiquing.

4. Read a wide variety of comics. If you’re only reading Marvel and DC superhero books, you’re only being exposed to a tiny sliver of what comics can look like and can be. Read comics from the other major publishers, like Image and Dark Horse and Boom! Read indie and self-published comics. Read experimental comics. Read web comics, and manga, and European comics – these will all expose you to different art styles, and while you’ll have preferences, the more you’re exposed to, the wider your idea of what “comics” means will be.

Frazer Irving is responsible for the storytelling and emotion for silent Black Bolt.

Frazer Irving deftly handles the storytelling and emotion for silent – and masked! – Black Bolt. From Silent War.

5. Understand how the art impacts the storytelling. Now this one’s tougher, and could come as a sub-point of my first one. It’s also something I’m still learning myself! What I’m trying to do is look at artists whose work I really like (or really dislike), and try to determine what differentiates their work. I try to look at how panels are arranged, how characters are placed in relation to each other (and to the reader), and how the colour and font choices contribute to mood or character. Also look out for striking or unique choices – creative page layouts, odd angles, or more detailed panel borders, for example. More than the other points, I’ve found this one comes with time, and will also benefit from research. It’s vital that journalists treat the art as an integral part of the storytelling, not as window dressing for the story. If other people have recommendations for this, I’d love to hear them!

This is just a start – there’s a lot more you can do, and that I have to do to improve. This is a visual medium, so the visuals are important. Storytelling relies heavily on the artist, and it’s important that they start being recognized for their work. Unfortunately, there’s no guidebook or lesson plan for being a comics journalist, so we’ve got to figure it out as we go along, but the more we do to learn, the better our writing will be!

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Knocking Down the Geeky Gatekeepers

Hey guess what this is – yep, another post about being a geek girl and all of the frustration that comes with it! I might sound like a broken record, harping on this topic, but gosh, it never ceases to be relevant…

I read this article about the “Tumblr fans” who ostensibly go to conventions out of love for things they’ve only seen in pictures on the internet. That article and recent conversations have got me thinking about gatekeepers in geek culture. In this context, the term refers to people with certain credentials who attempt to control access to certain media and decide how everyone should consume and appreciate that media. Within geek culture, gatekeepers have traditionally been dudes, but that’s not always the case.

Image via this fantastic article at Comics Alliance

Image via this fantastic article at Comics Alliance

I’ve written before on my experiences being quizzed on my knowledge of something before being allowed to be a “fan.” I was talking to a cosplayer recently who told me that she went into a comics shop and was asked if she needed help finding a gift for her boyfriend. This woman was the picture of the kind of cosplayer who gets derided for making sexy “attention-seeking” costumes, but I never once wondered whether or not she was a “real fan” or any crap like that. We just wanted to talk comics. In contrast, a guy in my office has superhero toys on his desk and we argued about superheroes, but he admits he’s never read a comic. Yet he still calls himself a fan; a guy can do that, but a girl can’t be a “fan” of something unless she’s read and researched extensively, even in the eyes of other girls.

The cosplay community can be terrible with this, and that includes people of all genders. I constantly see people talking shit about cosplayers like the one I was talking to, who make costumes that show off their bodies and seem to get the most attention from photographers – I guess the work they put into their costumes is less valid because the end result shows more skin? And if your end goal in making a costume is to get lots of attention for it, I don’t know why you wouldn’t do whatever you could to increase its appeal to a large audience. This attitude seems fueled by the idea that some ill-defined prerequisite reading comes along with cosplaying – since intimate knowledge of a character is necessary to sew and build and create a costume. And that attitude extends into all areas of geekdom.

I get that it’s weird sometimes, when you assume a person shares your love for something based on what they’re wearing or saying, but they turn out to be a more casual fan. If that makes you uncomfortable, you can just walk away. Ultimately their fan “level” doesn’t have to have any affect at all on your life. Still, I feel that impulse too, that desire to maintain some concept of what being a fan does or doesn’t mean, although I don’t know that I can explain why. I guess we feel like it’s a part of our identities, so we want to see the label only go to people who have somehow “earned it.” But when I see fans’ love or knowledge being questioned, the targets are almost exclusively women.

This kind of fandom policing is so common that even though I know my shit, I find myself embarrassed when I think I might come across as a “fake geek girl.” I found some Daredevil comics at a used bookstore the other day, and I hesitated to pick them up because I knew how it would look, a girl getting into the comics because because of a popular TV show. I could imagine the guys at the counter (who, I’m not even making this up, were talking about all the porn they’d just gotten in) laughing at me after I left, “she probably just thinks Daredevil is hot.” And they would be RIGHT, Charlie Cox is a beautiful dude with perfect lips and a physique right out of a comic book. But more importantly, enjoying the show seemed like a good prompt to finally start reading about the street-level heroes, a huge part of the Marvel Universe I don’t know much about – but I couldn’t even take the books off the shelf. (Ultimately I didn’t buy anything because they didn’t have any trades labelled “Vol 1” and I’m not about to start in the middle okay). Now I’ve had plenty of great experiences in comic stores too, where I was treated as an equal and wasn’t shamed for things I didn’t know. I’ve even debated which Marvel hero would have the best butt with male pro artists (since everyone knows that it’s Nightwing at DC). But I’ve also argued with guys behind the counter about the name of a comic I was looking to buy, and I once watched a male artist at a con try to convince three women that women don’t buy or care about comics.

I should pause to acknowledge that this experience is even tougher for people with less-privileged identities than mine; they often have to deal with being completely excluded from the stories in question, and are silenced or bullied when they try to express frustration. As a privileged white cis-lady I don’t have as much to complain about. Thankfully, online spaces like Tumblr give us the opportunity to create safe spaces where we can have frank conversations about media that might not be possible elsewhere. My first experience going into a store to buy comics was fantastic (thanks, The Beguiling!), but it’s been Tumblr that’s ultimately helped me become the comics fan I am today. I’m now editing comics (even writing a bit!) and I would never have gotten here without connecting with other fans on Tumblr.

While I’d rather discuss social issues on Tumblr than Facebook or Twitter, the site has its own set of problems, especially where emotional, immediate responses tend to be louder than more thoughtful, nuanced commentary. And while it may be portrayed that way sometimes, Tumblr isn’t a hivemind – it’s made up of thousands of people with different opinions stemming from different life experiences, and because this is the internet, people loudly and violently disagree. There are tensions and contradictions even within “Tumblr fandom,” which itself isn’t free of gatekeepers, and this time they’re largely not men. I’ve witnessed the harassment of the so-called “Tumblr Fan” firsthand, posts where people were told to (and I quote) “fuck off and die” if they call themselves fans without doing some arbitrary amount of reading first. No matter where you go, unless it’s your own living room with some close friends, you’re likely to encounter these attitudes.

So let’s get some discussion going. Are there benefits to gatekeeping when it comes to creating and maintaining a safe space? Why do we get so angry with people in geek spaces who haven’t “earned” a space there? What separates a “real” fan from a “fake” one? What does being a fan or a geek even mean these days – how do we decide?

Fake Geek Girls: The Only Kind, Apparently

So you’ve probably heard by now about recent misogyny at a Television Critics Association event, when Todd Macfarlane and other significant creators claimed that comics are a man’s world, and that creators shouldn’t have to write about non-straight-white-dudes, because who else is reading comics? Apparently he also doesn’t understand the difference between idealization and sexualization, between a power fantasy and a sexual one, since he believes that men are objectified to the same degree that women are (and he uses the term “stereotype,” which shows a blatant misunderstanding of the issue). 

I know I write about this topic A LOT but given this crap (and after Tony Harris’ ridiculous sexist comments about female cosplayers last year), it seems like time I posted this piece, originally written for the Queen’s Feminist Review.

Some content was taken from another post I wrote last year, but overall I think this piece is stronger and more concise.

In addition to identifying as a woman and a feminist, I identify as a geek – a difficult mix. I am surrounded by hyper-sexualized representations of women in all streams of media, women characters dying to torment and motivate the men who love them, conflicting messages about how I should look and dress and act, and men decrying my audacity at complaining about any of this.

I first learned that girl geeks are treated differently than the boys when I received the Lord of the Rings books for my tenth birthday, about six months before the first film was released. I adored the books and movies to the point that my grade school nickname was “Mr. Frodo.” Yet boys in and outside of school could never accept that I was a “real fan” like they were. They assumed that as a girl, I was only watching the movies for the cute boys, so I’d be asked if I’d ever played the video games, exactly how many of the appendices I’d read, and minute trivia about the books and movies to prove my legitimacy as a fan. I’d always win these contests, of course; I’d read the series twice by the time I was twelve, I knew a thing or two about it. I would prove myself to be a worthy fan in their eyes, unlike the “fangirls” only in it for Orlando Bloom’s face.

Hostility in geek culture can be neatly summed up in the fact that fangirl is held as a derisive term. According the geek community, fanboys are a little too interested in their geek interests, but fangirls are only interested in attractive men and romantic plots. Not only do these concepts ignore the potential for women to have different interests, they delegitimize the sorts of media that are associated with femininity; there is nothing in romance to make it inherently inferior to other genres aside from its association with women. Society has very strict ideas of what women are allowed to like and engage in, so exploring media outside this bubble is treated as suspect. As a result, women are shamed for enjoying traditionally feminine interests, but are told we only seek male attention if we enjoy the more masculine. Women gamers are constantly assumed to be less skilled than the men, and women who cosplay (creating realistic, detailed costumes for conventions) are criticized for wearing the revealing costumes assigned to women characters by their often-male creators. According to masculine-heavy sections of the internet – fans and men in the industry – women cosplayers select the skimpiest costumes they can find in the hope that they will be showered with praise from male nerds. Yet again, the idea that women could be genuine geeks is not within their realm of possibility.

Basic belief in the difference between legitimate and false nerds is present in less obviously hostile ways however, such as the prevalent concept of the Fake Geek Girl. Pictures, articles, tweets, and every other form of Internet expression have been written at length criticizing the women who conform to all of the stereotypes I’ve discussed; women who know nothing about their chosen geeky interest, or express their love for it in the wrong way, or don’t love the right aspects of it. Even other women will lament losing nerd cred by proximity to these Fake Geek Girls – but I’ve never witnessed any women who fit this mould. If women don’t know as much about something as other geeks, they are shamed for having newly discovered it, or for having less investment in it than others do. In the end, women are discouraged from liking anything, and can be scared to admit their interests, because no matter what they do, someone will question their validity.

I understand some of the motivation between distancing yourself from a ‘fake’ geek. Being a nerd is cool now, so we want to have some kind of exclusivity to our title. But there’s no number of hours one has to log in order to be a geek. No one was expelled from the womb with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Batman. A geek is just a person with a lot of enthusiasm for something that has been deemed geeky. Yet this extends further than nerd culture; girls who like sports or hardcore music can face similar problems with perceived legitimacy. In any of these areas, decrying fake fans – especially when we only attack women – results only in women being afraid to express their love for things, not in some kind of exclusive identity. We should be working to make this a supportive community, rather than policing arbitrary concepts of geek purity.

Girls, we don’t need to be afraid to express our love for the things we like. Being a geek is cool, and there are safe spaces to share the love and learn about new things. Be a geek, be proud, and don’t listen to the guys who say that your love is less legitimate than theirs or that you love it for their attention. I never would have made it through elementary school if I’d let their attitude get to me; I survived on my one Lord of the Rings zinger question, since none of the boys could remember what Éomer’s sword is called.

(By the way, it’s called Gúthwinë).

This was originally published in Vol 21 of the Queen’s Feminist Review (2013).

A Lesson in Satire

You may have heard by now about Matt Forney’s “humour” piece entitled “How to Rape Women and Get Away With It.” Trigger warning: this piece ‘jokingly’ condones rape and describes it in vivid terms. EDIT: A mere 2 hours after I wrote this piece, the original article is down, but I think you can get an idea of its content based on the title alone. He did however post this hilariously insincere apology, which is almost as good. In response to backlash this caused, Forney has informed we “pansies” who were offended that his piece is satire.

But is it?

I am increasingly seeing satire being held up as a shield for comedians to hide behind when offensive aspects their work are challenged. They claim that readers are taking their works too seriously, as they are meant to be light-hearted. Many writers seem to believe that satire is an excuse to say whatever one wants, no matter how offensive or crude, but that isn’t quite right. Let’s look at some technical definitions of satire:

A poem, or in modern use sometimes a prose composition, in which prevailing vices or follies are held up to ridicule. Sometimes, less correctly, applied to a composition in verse or prose intended to ridicule a particular person or class of persons, a lampoon.  – The Oxford English Dictionary

That’s good, but a little general. Let’s get a bit more specific:

A literary genre or mode that uses irony, wit, and sometimes sarcasm to expose humanity’s vices and foibles. Through clever criticism, satirists debunk and deflate their targets, whether persons, groups, ideas, or institutions.  Unlike comedy, which is primarily geared toward amusement and entertainment, satire generally has a moral purpose: to provoke a response to correctable human failings, ideally some kind of reform. – The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms

I especially like the second definition, which notes that satire often isn’t funny at all, but is intended to bring about a new way of thinking in its readers, if not actual social change. Satire originated in ancient Greece and Rome, but one of the most famous pieces of Western satire (and one of my favourites) is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, wherein he explains that the solution to 18th century Ireland’s struggles with the British would be solved if the poor Irish sold their babies to be eaten by the rich. As he says, “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.” Swift goes on to describe the various ways babies can be prepared and served, and what can be done with various parts of the body. It’s kind of funny; a reader might laugh from shock or at his creativity concerning some of the baby-dishes (the only aspect of satire that some modern comedians seem to understand). However, it is clear from the beginning that his piece is intended to be a condemnation of the aristocracy’s exploitation of the working classes. Swift’s horrible comments have a clear purpose: to bring about a new way of looking at the rampant poverty in Ireland, hopefully leading to real social change.

Stephen Colbert is an excellent modern satirist. He can push the envelope himself, but it is always clear that he is meaning to display how dangerous the ideals his character holds can be, and is not advocating them. The Daily Show often does similar things with its correspondent sequences. The reporters will take on a stance of agreeing with the people they interview, but with the eventual intention of revealing their views as being ridiculous and even harmful.

Although it doesn’t have to be, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report demonstrate, as did many from Horace to Alexander Pope to The Simpsons before them, that satire can be very funny. Humour can be an accessible and entertaining way to deflate a subject, whether individuals, institutions, or society in general. But this is the most important point – the aim of satire is always to reveal hypocrisy, vice, and other wrongdoing or wrong thinking. Tackling taboo subjects is not foreign to satire, as Swift’s piece demonstrates, but simply saying something offensive is not, in itself, satire. One must have the intention of changing the way that the reader sees the subject at hand, or forcing them to recognize the ridiculousness of the target subject.

Technical definitions aside, I’m not even sure I understand the joke of pieces like Forney’s. He is just saying horrible things for the sake of controversy, hoping to shock readers into laughing. That isn’t comedy – that’s laziness. Anyone can imagine horrible things to do to dead babies, but it takes a creative mind to turn that into biting social commentary. Satire is meant to change the target’s (and often the audience’s) way of thinking, and humour should make the reader laugh because of some kind of unexpected or appreciated connection or punch line. You don’t necessarily need humour to make satire, nor do you absolutely need to make controversial comments along the way. It is possible to use humour and take a satirically-straight tactic on controversial issues if you successfully open a door to conversation about the issue and if you make clear that you don’t condone the views you are pretending to hold, but that is difficult and is rarely accomplished well.

A good general tip: if you can’t identify a target or way of thinking that you’re trying to change or bring down, your piece isn’t satire. If your focus is on a group or person who is already hurt by society the way it is – such as, say, rape victims – rather than the person or group who is doing the attacking, you’re doing satire wrong. If you’re not trying to change anything and are trying to offend people for a cheap laugh, you’re probably just an asshole.

Tim Burton

I just saw the Tim Burton exhibit at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and it was kind of amazing. I’ve loved his work since I saw The Nightmare Before Christmas at the tender age of three. I have many fond memories watching that movie throughout my life: before going trick-or-treating as a kid, singing the songs at recess with my friend Natasha in grade 7, watching it in French class in grade 9, and convincing the teacher that we had to watch Oogie Boogie’s song in English, because it just wasn’t the same in French… and many more. It’s always been one of my favourite movies, and I’ve always worn my Nightmare sweaters and accessories boldly in the face of emo/goth kids who tried to claim the movie for their own. It’s a damn musical – it’s not that dark, guys. Get over yourselves.
In short, it has always been a big part of my life, but I didn’t realize quite how important until I saw this image:

…and nearly burst into tears. They had a very thorough set of Nightmare related stuff, including these design sketches, some storyboards, the original poem, and some of the actual puppets used – including those heading this post. Seeing the puppets especially (and these really neat photos he’d taken with them) brought it to life in a whole new way for me. The detail was amazing to see up close, and it was very obvious how much TLC had gone into creating them. Seeing everything up close like that made it so much more real, maybe just because it was tangible, but it was a very nostalgic and weirdly emotional moment for me. So thanks, Timmy, for creating something that affected me deeply so subtly.

The rest of the exhibit was really neat too. It was awesome for me, since much more space was devoted to his earlier projects than his later – of which I’m much fonder. The Edward Scissorhands bit was especially detailed and interesting. It featured a ton of original sketches and a comment from Johnny Depp, who said that those images made him fall in love with the character – and I’m not surprised. In his character notes (also featured) Burton noted that Edward would be try to dress nicely and be very well mannered, but be cut up, due to harmless things like trying to scratch a fly from his nose. His hobbies (apparently) include playing steel drums, and he hopes to someday vacation in the Caribbean. There, an already adorable movie is about 80000 times cuter now. Also on display were a costume from the movie loaned by Depp, one of the Scissorhand gloves, and part of the cookie making machine – the thing with the cookie cutter feet.

The Beetlejuice section had a sandworm used in stop motion filming, and Beetlejuice’s long sleeves, I assume from when his arms turn into carnival hammers – remember that? There were also special pieces made only for the exhibit, which were interesting.

There were also a bunch of other neat things, such as the cape worn by Christopher Walken in Sleepy Hollow, some severed heads and a Martian anatomy chart from Mars Attacks!, the infamous angora sweater Depp wears in Ed Wood, and (playing on loop) Burton’s first short film, Vincent. The exhibit also featured some of his planned but never realized projects, as well as artwork from when he was a teenager/before he was famous.
In all, I had a really good, albeit unexpectedly emotional time. Some of his concept art, especially for towns and locations were so fabulously Expressionist – which, as those who know me are aware, is very exciting for me. I just wanted them on my wall at home. Oh well.
If you’re in/near Toronto and have any interest in Burton’s work at all, I highly recommend checking this out.