II Illustrating Workers
The Case of the Missing Author: Toward an Anatomy of Collaboration in Comics
Brenna Clarke Gray and Peter Wilkins
Introduction: The Anxiety of Responsibility
In a January 2012 interview for BBC4, Matthew Cain questions the painter David Hockney on his use of assistants. Cain is trying to get at whether Hockney’s three assistants produce any of his art. But Hockney doesn’t bite. He says that he made “all the marks” and that an assistant would never pick up a paintbrush. The role of the assistant is purely that of the logistical helper; he or she does physical work, but not the work most associated with the production of capital “A” art: the relationship of the hand, the eye, and the heart. David Hockney is an art star, significant as both commercial brand and artist. His name confers value to his artwork. An anonymous painting that looked like a David Hockney piece, but wasn’t, would be dismissed as either a valueless imitation or a forgery. Even people who cannot afford a David Hockney work have some stake in its authenticity; otherwise interviewers like Matthew Cain would not ask questions about it. It is a relief that Hockney “made all the marks.”
B. C. Gray (H) • P. Wilkins
Douglas College, New Westminster, BC, Canada
© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016 115
C. Brienza, P. Johnston (eds.), Cultures of Comics Work,
Palgrave Studies in Comics and Graphic Novels,
If David Hockney worked in comics, he would lose no status by having his assistants make the marks while he gave direction. The world of comics, in spite of protestations to the contrary, celebrates the genius of the writer over the craft of the penciller, colorist, and letterer, particularly in the history of the big two comics publishers Marvel and DC, where artists have consistently occupied a lesser position. While images may be the sine qua non of comics according to theorists like Thierry Groensteen (Bredehoft 2011, 98), the writer is still king, a figure of authority and power; the audience is comfortable with the authorial genius of the writer and does not really know what to do with the artist but give him or her subaltern status. Nevertheless, as Christy Mag Uidhir notes in “Comics and Collective Authorship,” “we shouldn’t just assume, as many do implicitly if not explicitly, that writers have the greatest claim to comic authorship; rather, we should see if these intuitions could be supported in terms of the nature of the relation (symmetric or asymmetric) between authors in cases of collective authorship” (2012, 16). Exploring this relationship and identifying how different models of authorship work both on the page and in media responses and reception are the work of this chapter.
Anxieties over comics authorship play themselves out in sometimes painfully public ways. In 2008, the Governor General Literary Awards—one of the highest honors available to Canadian writers—nominated Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki in the Children’s Literature category. But only Mariko Tamaki was named in the nomination. Perceiving both a slight against Jillian Tamaki and a misunderstanding of how comics function, Chester Brown and Seth, prominent Canadian comics artists, published an open letter to the awards body on the Drawn & Quarterly website that quickly circulated to other comics sites and newspapers. The letter, whose supporting signatories included comics luminaries Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, and Lynda Barry, argues that Skim had been read by the awards committee not as a graphic novel, but as an illustrated novel:
In illustrated novels, the words carry the burden of telling the story, and the illustrations serve as a form of visual reinforcement. But in graphic novels, the words and pictures BOTH tell the story, and there are often sequences (sometimes whole graphic novels) where the images alone convey the narrative. The text of a graphic novel cannot be separated from its illustrations because the words and the pictures together ARE the text. Try to imagine evaluating SKIM if you couldn’t see the drawings. Jillian’s contribution to the book goes beyond mere illustration: she was as responsible for telling the story as Mariko was. (Brown and Seth 2008)
Brown and Seth articulate what comics scholars work so hard to claim: the writing and art are inseparable in a comic, and this inability to distinguish which aspects of the final product “belong” to the writer and which to the artist is what make comics function. The structure, dialogue, and art work together in producing the comic’s aesthetic effects. When Mariko Tamaki is honored and Jillian Tamaki is not, the implication is that the writer governs these effects and that the penciller is a mere minion. (Incidentally, in 2014, both women were nominated, but in their respective categories of writer and illustrator; seemingly, the committee recognized the contributions of both but not the failure of their own matrix.)
And yet, readers and scholars alike work hard to unbundle the work of comics creators operating in a collaborative mode, and whether they are foregrounding the writer, penciller, or the colorist, they are doing what Brown and Seth assert they must not do. But the comics community is still so under the sway of the Romantic drive to identify the genius of the work, and perhaps it is too much to ask that awards committees recognize the futility of this desire when readers and scholars are unable to. Audiences get nervous about works of art created by a group because they drift toward a model of assembly line production associated with manufacturing are seemingly antithetical to art; because collaboration is such a feature of comics, adequate models are necessary for examining what it means to “make the marks” in a post-Romantic art form.
This chapter examines how collaborative comics artists attempt to destabilize the authorial status of the writer in their discussions of their work. This destabilization celebrates the equality of roles in collaborative comics that put the concepts of “writing” and “authorship” under pressure. When novelists write, they write words, sentences, and paragraphs. The word is the irreducible unit of the writer’s creation. In comics, however, the visible words are a residue of a larger stock, the bulk of which disappears into the images that the penciller produces. The images take over from this disappeared language and generate a visual semantics of expression, juxtaposition, line, and so forth. All the language that remains is dialogue and narrative boxes. In the famous Marvel method, the writer provides a brief sketch, perhaps worked out in concert with the penciller. The penciller then draws the story with a free hand in developing the story’s action and characters. Then the penciller returns the work to the writer who fills in the dialogue. Who is really the “writer” in this instance? The demystification of the writer’s role in the process risks equating it with that of screenwriter for the movies: a necessary but not exactly esteemed position.
Perhaps a better distinction than writer and artist would be conceptual- ist and enactor. Anyone can have a concept for a novel, but the working out of that concept through producing marks on the page makes that concept meaningful beyond being a scrap of an idea. Furthermore, what is a concept if it is not inscribed, marked, or worked through? Such a question shows why the comics conversation so emphasizes the writer. Collaborative comics threaten the disappearance of the “writer” as singular creative genius and distribute the concept across all the people whose contributions affect the way the final product appears. Each contributor to the comic erases and replaces some part of what the prior contributor has produced, so that instead of the work of a singular genius, a palimpsest of contributions takes over, a work built on the ruination and supplanting of the contributors’ roles. And yet, in spite of these clear acts of erasure and collective responsibility, fans and scholars fail to recognize this subtlety and nuance in favor of a comforting Romantic model of creativity that has more in common with eighteenth-century poetry than comics.