Sure, you got your Matt Wagners and Erik Larsens out there* who have often single-handedly created entire comic books, doing all the writing, penciling, inking, coloring, and lettering themselves, but for the most part comics from the big publishers are produced by a team of creators who may never even meet each other face-to-face. A writer turns in his script, which is then passed on to a series of artists who pencil, ink, color, and letter the book, all under the all-knowing guidance of The Editor. (Editors have such important positions that their job title is capitalized, much like Realtors.)
The most crucial, fragile, and often dysfunctional relationship in this whole matrix is the creative bond between the writer and the penciler. These are the cats who are responsible for telling the actual story in the comic book, and if the two are not in simpatico, your comic book can get fucked up real bad.
A brief and likely unnecessary word on the process: These days, comic book writers create a detailed script for artists to illustrate. The script is broken down page by page and panel by panel, with dialogue and scene directions that describe the action. A good example of a standard format can be found here on the Dark Horse Comics website, but there is no real industry standard format.
The artist responsible for the pencils and layouts gets this script and then interprets it visually. If he or she is lucky, the writer doesn't get crazy with "camera directions" in the script and allows enough room for the artist to do what he or she theoretically does best, telling a story with pictures. Sometimes the writer and artist have a great relationship and work really well together, and sometimes they don't. And sometimes the artist just does whatever the hell they want regardless of what the damn script says.
I first noticed this disconnect in Batman: Year Two, a four-part series by writer Mike Barr that chronicles a young Batman's encounter with The Reaper, a spooky masked vigilante with no qualms about using his big-ass scythes on bad guys. The Reaper happens to be the father of a woman that Bruce Wayne has fallen in love with - how's that for shitty luck? Oh, umm, SPOILER! Sorry. Anyway, the first issue was drawn by Alan Davis, a modern legend and master of comic book art. For whatever reason, the rest of the series was drawn by this up-and-coming artist named Todd McFarlane. This pissed Young Dave off.
Despite being disappointed in the lack of Alan Davis Goodness for the rest of the storyline, it was interesting to see two different artists interpret different parts of the same script. Clearly Davis was the more accomplished sequential artist. Few living comic book artists could follow Alan Davis on a book and not suffer by comparison, and that was definitely the case with Year Two.
In the last chapter, drawn by McFarlane, Batman and The Reaper duel in a construction site under the moonlight, as superheroes often do. The climax of the story comes when Batman unmasks his foe and holy shit, it's his future father-in-law! But the big reveal is crammed into a few tiny panels at the bottom of a page. (see scan on left) A throw-away shot of Jim Gordon gets more page space than the climactic panel! Young Dave scratched his head, confused. How weird. Why would they jam this major story component into a few panels, almost as an afterthought.
The answer comes a few pages later, in a big full-page shot of Batman swinging over Gotham (see scan on right). Now here's my theory (and I could be totally wrong): McFarlane really wanted to end with a full-page shot of Batman, but it wasn't in Mike Barr's script. He's only got 22 pages to work with, so in order to make space for his pin-up shot he decides to move some other panels around. Maybe he draws the pages out of order, I don't know. But he gets in trouble and has to cram two pages worth of script into one page - and that one page just happens to be the most important page in the whole book. I could be totally off-base, but I would lay money that Barr's Year Two script didn't call for a pin-up page at the end and it was all McFarlane's doing. And as a result, what could have been a classic Batman comic is... not.
If anybody has insight into the making of Year Two, email me and let me know - if I'm mistaken I'll gladly eat my invisible hat and post a retraction of these slanderous lies.
Sure, there's got to be some give and take, some room for the artist to play around with the script. But it seems like the farther an artist deviates from the script, the more the story suffers.
Captain America and The Falcon is a good example. The kick-off storyline of this ill-fated title was written by Christopher Priest with Bart Sears on art. For whatever reason, Sears decided to get a little experimental and injected these huge pin-ups of Cap and Falcon as framing devices for the story panels. The result is an odd and unsatisfying read.
Take a look at a typical page:
Priest himself was baffled and kind of pissed about the end product, as he explains on his website:
"...Bart chose a page layout design that utterly confused even the most basic storytelling ... Ignoring instructions and warnings abut how important it was to keep the lines straight and clear, Bart chose to insert—for no apparent reason—poster-shot images of Captain America and the Falcon on most every page. Accommodating these required the other panels to be modified, reduced or eliminated altogether, making the pages very hard to follow. I wrote the thing and didn’t have an earthly clue what was going on."
Me either, Christopher.
Sometimes language differences between writer and artist(s) leads to disastrous and hilarious results, as in the case of Thor #499, The Worst Comic Book Ever Made Ever (which I discussed here and here.) The script, by one of my favorite writers Bill Messner-Loebs, is not great - and that's a nice way of saying it sucks. However, matters were made worse because the art chores were handled by an unknown number of Brazilian artists from Deodato Studios who didn't follow the not-great script very closely at all. Aside from the rushed art and hideous coloring, the costumes of certain characters change from panel to panel and a character who is supposed to get kidnapped in the beginning of the comic keeps popping up in the background of panels.
Here's a good example of what happens when a script truly gets lost in translation:
How exactly does Heimdall or whoever he is utter those lines when his mouth is gagged? Magic.
Sometimes even the most faithful interpretation of the writer's script can have unintended consequences, as in the case of New Avengers #35 by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Leinl Yu. This is the moderately infamous issue where superhero Tigra gets ambushed in her apartment and beaten by the demonic Hood while one of his cronies videotapes the attack. Some readers (and non-readers) were upset because they felt the scene had a creepy, sexualized subtext and many accused Bendis of misogyny. In response to some of the criticism, Bendis did an interview with Newsarama and posted a portion of his script so people could read how the scene was described. Check it out, it's interesting reading.
One of the things that made the scene particularly unpalatable for some was the panel above, where one of Tigra's breasts is popping out of her blouse as she's pistol-whipped. The juxtaposition of sex and violence in this panel in particular is a little creepy. But as you can read for yourself, Bendis' script doesn't call for breast-poppage or describe the beating in titillating terms - that's all a decision made by Yu, who interpreted the script.
I think it's fair to find the scene upsetting because Tigra's beating is videotaped and later shown to The Hood's crew as a morale booster - that alone is loaded with enough connotations to make it extra-creepy. Bendis wrote that scene. But you can't really blame Bendis if the art seems disturbingly lascivious - he didn't draw the thing and didn't ask that it be drawn that way.
Augie over at Comic Book Resources is running an excellent feature, a "commentary track" from comic book creators that offers a behind the scenes look at the creation of a particular issue. I particularly enjoyed this commentary track from writer Peter David about the first issue of his new Dark Horse comic The Scream.
In the piece, David details with a sort of bemused resignation the frustrating and inevitable changes to the story as defined in his script. It's pretty funny and very illuminating, because you get the impression from David's commentary that shit like this happens all the time in comics.
The artist who interpreted David's script happens to be Bart Sears, who I swear I'm not trying to pick on. Take a look at this page from The Scream:
Here's Peter David's SPOILERY explanation of how just a little change to one panel can completely derail the entire story:
"Here's the thing--the reader is supposed to believe that Danny has transformed into the Scream. Except he hasn't, because the Scream is actually an illusion that everyone else is seeing but actually isn't there. Unfortunately the effect is undercut by the fact that Danny is visibly lying there in the lower left. He shouldn't be, nor is there anything in the script that indicates he should be. If this series is collected in trade, I'd really like it if Dark Horse could go back in and remove Danny from the art in that page."
Let's face it: Comic books often suck or just make no damn sense. But the reason why a book sucks ass is not always obvious. Sometimes the art is horrible, or the script is hackneyed and unoriginal. But sometimes, through circumstances beyond the control of the writer, the comic that reaches the shelves is not quite what he or she had in mind - something just gets lost in translation.
*I know that a huge number of small press comics are the creations of a single dedicated individual, and I tip my invisible hat to them, but I'm limiting the discussion to mainstream spandex fly/hit/explode comics.