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Lightning in a Bottle: The Resurgence of the Writer/Artist at DC Comics

Anyone who’s been paying attention to the DC Comics slate for the past year or two has probably noticed an increasing number of titles written and drawn by the same person. While some of these are by seasoned writer/artists — Dan Jurgens and Howard Chaykin have been at this for decades — a lot of them are by longtime artists with very little writing experience flying solo on surprisingly high-profile titles. What the hell DC is thinking, I wondered, taking these unproven scribes and giving them platforms to start writing? How is this going to help anything? What are they expecting? Is this just the Jim Lee/Image Comics model all over again? Why not give them smaller projects to kick off first without as many eyes on them?

Then I realized that this isn’t just about following the Jim Lee and Image Comics model, it’s a tradition that goes back to the very beginning of the modern superhero industry including creators like Walt Simonson, John Byrne, Frank Miller and the inimitable Jack Kirby.Some of the artists we’ve seen getting ready to leap into writing include Tony Daniel, who previously wrote (and also co-wrote) “The Tenth” in the ’90s as the writer/artist of “Batman.” “Wonder Woman” artist Aaron Lopresti will be scripting a story — “Garbage Man”– in the the upcoming “Weird Worlds” anthology, as will “Justice League International” artist Kevin Maguire, who is contributing a story titled “Tonga.” Neal Adams, who does have some writing experience from a number of years ago, dropped the original plan of co-writing with Frank Miller and is writing and drawing 100% of “Batman: Odyssey” solo. And David Finch (“New Avengers”) is writing for the very first time on the upcoming ongoing series “Batman: The Dark Knight,” which will be one of the two DC Universe titles to feature Bruce Wayne.

At first glance — and with a short memory span – it’s the early 1990s all over again. But let’s take a look at the longer pattern.

It’s tempting to say that the early 1990s were The Years The Artists Rose Up, but consider the 1980s and ’70s iterations of this exact same pattern. In the late ’60s/early ’70s, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko got sick of only working with Stan Lee and demanded to do their own stuff, leading to Ditko’s “Question” and “Mr. A,” and Kirby’s “Fourth World Saga” and “Kamandi.” In the early ’80s we saw this again with a new generation, including guys like John Byrne (“Alpha Flight”, “Fantastic Four”), Walt Simonson (“Thor”) and Frank Miller (“Daredevil”, “The Dark Knight Returns”).

If you look at the lists of comics I just put up there, those are almost all seminal works in superhero comics, undying all-time classics. While I’m sure that’s largely due to the fact that we only remember the ones worth remembering, and the failures didn’t have careers afterwards, it’s inarguable that giving an artist a shot at writing comics on a fairly high-visibility title, despite all logic, kind of works sometimes.

What could have initiated this? It’s worth pointing out that the new Co-Publisher of the company, Jim Lee, was himself a participant in the last iteration of this pattern back in 1991 when he, Whilce Portacio and Rob Liefeld took control of the X-franchise — edited by Bob Harras, newly-appointed Editor-in-Chief of DC Comics — leading to one of the most financially successful periods in Marvel’s history. It’s tempting to say that this is all due to Lee trying to catch lightning in a bottle again, but perhaps Lee and Harras are simply more mindful of history.

So I can’t deny that this is a viable strategy, but I’m getting more skeptical considering the results so far. For every Karl Kerschl (“Wednesday Comics: Flash”) or Cameron Stewart (“Sin Titulo”), you’ve got David Finch’s two-page backup from “Superman/Batman #75″ or Neal Adams’s bafflingly insane “Odyssey.” And a lot of the time, the problem isn’t so much the pacing or the concept or basic storytelling, but rather the dialogue itself. The artist-writers of the late ’90s were seemingly mindful of this, and they brought in guys like Scott Lobdell or Fabian Nicieza or John Byrne to take on dialogue duty. When Kirby started writing at DC, he was constantly getting slagged for his unnatural dialogue in comparison to guys like Roy Thomas or Steve Englehart.

The thing is, we absolutely adore Kirby’s output now, so it’s still possible to create a fantastic work with some stilted dialogue. On one hand, you’ve got guys like Frank Miller and Walt Simonson, who seemed to arrive with their voices almost fully-formed. Miller took a bit of time to ramp up, but he was still pretty good out of the gate, while Simonson’s first issue of “Thor,” despite being one of his very first writing credits, is a classic on every level. Guys like J.H. Williams III, Jim Lee and Karl Kerschl, though, always seem to work with a co-writer who handles dialogue duty, and the best recent artist-written comics seem to follow that model.

I’m hard-pressed to think of an artist from the last two generations who really started kicking ass as a writer on that level. Cameron Stewart’s coming close, but he’s still pretty nascent, and while it looks fantastic I haven’t read “Assassin’s Creed” yet. Daniel’s “Batman” has been thoroughly okay, and while I really wanted to love a story about Conner Kent and Damian Wayne as the World’s Finest of the future, Finch’s dialogue in that “S/B” #75 two-pager was visibly amateurish. Honestly, it’s funny that a guy who constantly says he’d rather draw action than talking did his first writing work as a two-pager of two dudes walking and talking, but I digress.

In a medium like superhero comics, deft plotting/pacing and clear, kinetic art can compensate for most dialogue deficiencies and give the writer time to up their game. I don’t know if this current crop at DC is ever going to reach the level of a Simonson, Kirby or Miller, but while my (and many others’) initial response to all of this was that DC was trying to recreate the ’90s, it’s completely possible for this to go in an entirely different direction and lead to some pretty excellent superhero comics. I don’t know if they picked the right people, and I don’t know if they picked the right projects to put them on, but it’s a sound idea and I’m willing to be surprised. So let’s see what these guys can do.

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