S.M.A.S.H. 3 / Pitches / Art

S.M.A.S.H. happened last Saturday in the Barbican Library. Three panels. Twelve guests. One hundred and twenty four people. Not enough chairs. It was great. (And – hey – don’t just take my word for it – The Hot-Doll Pages wrote cool things, Adam Englebright thought it was great and SILENCE! had a great time too).

Those of you who were there will know that at the start of each panel the guests opened with a short pitch sharing their thoughts and feelings on the subject in question. The written versions were not intended to be shared as such (one of them described their pitch as “a total braindump as opposed to any kind of organized thing” which I’m guessing is the feeling across the board) but having asked them all very nicely – and all of them being kind and gracious enough to say yes (thanks guys!): I thought it would be cool to share the stuff they wrote with the rest of you.  

So here you go. Enjoy! 
How important is artwork to comics? How much does writing matter? Does it matter if someone is a bad artist or is it all about freedom of expression / the power of imagination? How much difference does art make to a comic anyway? Do better artists make better comics?


David Allison

Here are some words about ART and COMICS and STUFF that I have just written and will no doubt want to disavow on Saturday:  
The idea that comic books can be easily broken into ART and WRITING seems to me be to be a holdover from a specific area of comic book culture. The credit boxes in a Marvel or 2000AD comic bulge with the names of art and script droids, providing a context in which you can compare how the strip works when you swap one name for another. How does John Romita’s Spider-Man stand up to Steve Ditko’s? How do they both handle Stan Lee’s dialogue?
We could mock the limitations of this approach, but I’d rather salvage what’s useful in it to build towards an acknowledgement of the fact that collaboration, and by extension the interplay between the visual and verbal components of a comic, cuts both ways.
These fan debates point us towards a more far fetched idea: that fandoms have their own tastes and intelligences, and that we might want to identify and actively cultivate these wherever we find them.

I think now of Jonathan Lethem writing about how he didn’t enjoy Jack Kirby’s return to Marvel in the late ’70s. Lethem’s essay provides a personal insight into of a comics community in the process of revising its collective judgements. Kirby was a king to these people, but his work didn’t embody the values of the moment. To quote Lethem: “Artists since Kirby had set new standards for anatomical and proportional ‘realism’: superhero comics weren’t supposed to look cartoonish anymore.”
This suggests to me communal intelligence, one distinct from but composed of the values of individual readers. Even if you think that the younger Lethem was wrong about those Jack Kirby comics – and I do! – such a system of values has its uses, even just to give us something to push against.  See, for example, Douglas Wolk’s references to the deliberate “ugliness” of alternative cartooning in his book Reading Comics – from this perspective, the harsh compositions of Gary Panter or the weird spaghetti people Peter Bagge draws become a meaningful reaction against the sort of superhero realism and beauty outlined above. 
I can’t pretend to understand the comics conversation these days. I don’t know what the communal values are, where the centre of the conversation is, what’s considered ugly and what’s beautiful. Good. Why should I have it easy? Why should the proliferation of fandoms, genres, delivery methods, and art styles comply with tastes and critical methods learned in the late 90s?

Comics criticism is ridiculous, so I’ll finish on this note: what we want to do here is to build a modern Tower of Babel, one with the existence of different languages built into its premise rather than its downfall — if not an affront to god, then to anyone who thinks they know exactly what comics are and how they work.

Different modes of reading are possible. We’re not all reading comics the same way, we can’t be, and we should embrace this as an excuse to develop not just a new language of comics art but an explosion of new languages, or at least a heteroglossia.
If we want to stop comics artists from wasting their lives, how can we do less?

Hannah K Chapman

Art is subjective. I like art A. You like art B. We do not both have to like A or B. This is okay.
If I do not like the art it is unlikely I’ll sit down and read the story. Heck it’s unlikely I’ll take it off the shelf. When I worked at Gosh! I got pretty good at knowing if I’d like something after a quick flick through – it’s lazy and it’s not always accurate but it certainly helps having a good grasp of what you like and what you don’t.
Because I find it hard to read comics with art I don’t like (a huge failing on my part) it does rather put art at the forefront. I don’t think it’s more important than the writing – a badly written comic is painfully obvious and there are one or two publishers I can think of who are guilty of putting too much energy into art and not into writing – I just think it’s more immediately obvious if you’re not going to like it. It’s easier to mask ‘bad writing’ in ‘good art’ because it takes a little longer to realise if writing is bad. 
Bad art does not equal bad people. I think the UK comics industry is particularly guilty of shying away from being honest about what we like and what we don’t like. It’s too politic. This is probably a different question. IT’S OKAY TO NOT LIKE SOMEONES ART! 


Kat Chapman

I work in a theatre. When a show isn’t going down very well with the audience, the most common comment is that it looks great, the design is great, but the rest is disappointing. Also in comics a common reaction I’ve heard from people is that a book has amazing art but that the story or the writing is disappointing. What that tells me is that telling a good story is really hard! In films and TV too it’s quite a familiar phenomenon that people think visual style or spectacle can make up for a weak story.
I come to this from the point of view of an illustrator who moved into comics. I became aware early on that it was kind of a common pitfall for illustrators to think that it would be easy for them to make a comic even though they had little writing experience and the results would often be disappointing. I realised pretty quickly that there were a lot of skills I didn’t yet have and that I needed to get much better at writing.
From a reader’s point of view one of the big differences between art & writing in comics is the immediacy of the art – you know immediately when you look at it if you like the art or not, and it takes more time to find out if you like the writing. Of course it goes without saying that it’s all very subjective – people value different qualities in art and writing. At the theatre we get to compare our reactions to shows across quite a large group of people and there’s never a consensus, ever. 
The art in comics usually does most of the work when it comes to creating the world, the atmosphere and the emotional impact. But with the writing there’s the dialogue and the narrative structure – what you reveal to the reader and when. For me comics are at their most interesting when both art and writing are working together to their full potential.

Mark Stafford

An asinine debate bubbles up repeatedly on certain message boards of that there internet, like the results of some ghastly gastro-intestinal disorder: which is more important in comics, the writing or the artwork? Why is it asinine?

Consider this; you’re drawing a graphic novel from a script, it’s a rags to riches affair, about an artist who gains the world but loses his soul. Bit clichéd I know, but hell, you need the money. Who doesn’t in this economy?
Somewhere in act one there’s a scene where the artist, as a young student, chats to a friend in a café, in the last act, there’s a scene where, much older he talks to the same friend, in a restaurant. In both scenes they are talking about a third person, maybe the artist’s muse and would be lover. I don’t know. It doesn’t exist. Apart from the dialogue and setting, the script gives you nothing.
But you, as an artist, and knowing the story’s shape, decide to emphasise certain things. You might make the café a real greasy spoon job, all chipped mugs and formica tables. You might surround your two characters with workmen and little old ladies and a couple with a pram on the verge of a nasty argument. You decide that the artist and his mate are nursing two cups of tea, unable to afford the full English.
With the later scene you make the restaurant is as exclusive and sterile as possible, maybe the artist has a regular table, maybe it’s actually separated from other diners by a velvet rope. The food comes in tiny, beautifully laid out portions on huge plates. It is largely ignored, as are the staff, whom the artist never acknowledges.
In short in the first scene you do everything you can to emphasise the artist’s poverty and place amongst the common people, and everything you can to get over his alienation and aloofness in the second. You consider body language and clothing, placement: the first scene has our two characters squeezed in almost nose to nose, the second has them separated by an acre of tablespace. The first scene is all balanced compositions and cheerful colours, the second all dutch angles and desaturation. Maybe the café scene is a breezy six panel Kirby grid, and the restaurant scene takes place in a gazillion cramped little Chris Ware boxes. And so on, and so on…
Here’s the thing: how much of that drawing could actually be considered writing? How much of that ink on paper is doing the same job that a novelist does in a prose novel? How much would the book lose if the cartoonist involved said bollocks to all that detail and just drew the figures and the table? The bare minimum required to get across the scene?
The internet argument is asinine because in comics, the artwork is the writing. If ‘the writing’ is the bit that’s getting the narrative across, it’s all writing  Page design and panel progression and balloon placement and lettering style is all part of the syntax, it’s all  going to affect how the reader perceives the story.
In short, the internet is a fucking idiot.

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