#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!

Advertisements

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?