The Eye In Team: What Do We Lose When A Comic Doesn’t Have Its Own Artist?
Recently, the subject of rotating art teams in superhero comics reached a tipping point, and people have started to wonder if the concept does more harm than good in the long run. With double-shipping in superhero comics becoming more prevalent, and artists’ contributions being seen as interchangeable, it’s important to stop and ask: Are rotating artistic creative teams good for comics in the long-run, or does it start us down a path of recognizing the writer’s contributions as inherently more important to the finished product?
This week, Marvel Comics announced the artists for its upcoming relaunch of Astonishing X-Men, penned by Charles Soule. Or rather, the publisher revealed that there is no artist; the series will be drawn by a succession of some of the industry’s best talents, including Jim Cheung, Phil Noto and ACO. However, the announcement drew some criticism for not valuing the contributions of the artist as much as the contributions of the writer, and raised a larger point about the positive and negative effects of rotating art teams in general.
Almost exactly a year ago, give or take a week, DC Comics announced its Rebirth initiative, and one of the biggest surprises was the reveal that Scott Snyder --- following the end of his historic Batman run with Greg Capullo --- would head-up a new incarnation of All-Star Batman. This new volume was touted as featuring art from John Romita Jr, Danny Miki and Dean White in its first arc, with back-ups by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, and Snyder announced that later issues would be drawn by artists such as Jock, Tula Lotay and Afua Richardson.
The main difference between Astonishing X-Men and All-Star Batman is how the artists are framed as part of the collaboration. DC Comics and Scott Snyder presented the art teams up-front with a distinct degree of enthusiasm, while Marvel Comics announced Astonishing X-Men by revealing the characters first, the writer second, and finally the artists three weeks later.
It’s something I wrote about last year when Marvel announced Vote Loki without either a writer or artist; when a publisher leads brand-first, creators-second, it sends a message about what it values the most. The problem is further intensified when a publisher doesn’t present writers and artists as equal collaborators, especially at a time when major runs like Snyder and Capullo’s Batman are in short supply.
It’s something DC Comics isn’t immune to either, especially with the double-shipping of the majority of its output. There’s a huge turnover in artists on DC Rebirth titles, and while some have handled it exceedingly well, others are starting to show the strain. Titles like Suicide Squad and Harley Quinn have incorporated back-up stories, partly to cut down on the main artist’s workload. But Justice League of America was announced as coming from Steve Orlando and Ivan Reis, and only featured Reis for its first two issues, with Felipe Watanabe and Diogenes Neves respectively on the following issues.
Another problem created by rotating art teams comes in terms of credit attribution. You can say “Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman” or “Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Black Widow,” but the average fan isn’t going to say “Joshua Williamson, Carmine Di Giandomenico, Neil Googe, Felipe Watanabe, Jorge Corona, Davide Gianfelice and Jesús Merino’s The Flash.” They’re going to say “Joshua Williamson’s The Flash.”
It’s hardly a new problem, of course. A similar observation could be made about Mark Waid's seminal run on The Flash, with artists such as Mike Wieringo, Greg LaRocque and Oscar Jimenez. It’s also a reality of the publishing model that’s hard to ignore, and it might be creating more opportunities for more artists to work on major titles, which is nothing to sniff at. As nice as it would be to get a big, hefty, auteurial run like Batman, the industry is looking pretty strong right now and what DC is doing with Rebirth does seem to be paying off.
However, a problem with rotating art teams, especially when they change every issue, is that it can be disorientating and confusing for new readers. Using Astonishing X-Men as an example, imagine being a completely new reader who picks up a first issue by Jim Cheung, and a second issue is by Greg Land. You’re going to notice the difference in styles and approach, and what appealed to you about Jim Cheung’s art might not be there in Land’s.
It’s something that can be seen in event books too, on both sides of the superhero aisle. Justice League vs Suicide Squad had a different artist every issue, and the upcoming Secret Empire seems to have multiple artists per issue, though that can work well if the workload is split between distinct time periods, locations or character focuses.
When an event has so many creators, it often seems as if it has no creators, and is just an extension of the brand itself, doing whatever it needs to do to get characters from point A to point B.
A lot of the effectiveness of rotating art teams depends on the approach of the writer. Something like Warren Ellis’ Global Frequency or even his later work on Secret Avengers, which adopted a similar model, was built on telling specific stories with artists in mind, and thus with the artist as the showcased star. A Shang-Chi story by David Aja is going to feel different from a Moon Knight story by Michael Lark, and purposefully so.
Hopefully the new Astonishing X-Men will follow a similar pattern, and in the announcement of the artists, Marvel’s editor-in-chief Axel Alonso stated, “Each issue — illustrated by a superstar artist — will dig deep into one of your favorite pieces of X-Men lore,” which sounds to me like each issue might be a done-in-one caper building to a larger story. My ultimate problem with the way Marvel have handled it --- and it’s a criticism you could levy at Ellis’s Secret Avengers run too --- is that the entire affair is focused on the writer’s great vision, with the artists as the tools to get us there.
It’s a tricky subject; I should acknowledge that this entire conversation has omitted inkers, colorists and letterers, who should be getting a lot more credit than they currently do, and might also benefit from consistent art teams, and the elevation of the vision of the team rather than just the artist.
The concept of rotating art teams isn’t inherently a bad thing, so long as the artists’ contributions aren’t diminished in favor of the writers’. That’s all anyone asks when they’re asking for the credit they deserve; to be seen as an equal contributor and collaborator. It’s past time for the industry to listen.