Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Separating Creators From Content

Question: how much are your views about comics colored by the creators themselves? Not by their talent, but by their personality?

Quick example: John Byrne. Byrne's taken flak for a lot of years for his thoughts on this, that or the other. He's gotten into arguements with other creators and editors and fans, and that's dragged out into the public from time to time. It's frequently presented in a light that makes him look bad. So does your opinion of John Byrne, the person, affect your reading of Spider-Man: Chapter One?

Byrne's an easy example because he was one of the first "casualties" of what you might call the Silver Age of Comics Fandom. He became professional (and a popular one, at that) right around the same time that comic fans were really getting together and publishing professional-grade fanzines and organizing conventions and such. Prior to that period, fans' knowledge about comic creators was extremely limited, and they were judged almost solely on the quality of their work. But now fans had the opportunity to share information and rumors, and news of a comic professional's gaffs/quirks/opinions could be shared with nearly the entirety of the fan community. (Can you imagine if someone like Steve Ditko tried starting a career even as late as the 1970s?!)

Of course, reporting of information didn't have a 100% guarantee of accuracy. The old game of telephone was often in full operation, and a stray comment could be mis-construed and mis-interpreted and reach the ears of fans in the form of a full-blown, knock-down-drag-out between a writer and an editor.

Here we are, a few decades later, and the Internet has broadened the scope of the issue considerably. Not only do more people have access to the information, but it's also transmitted much more quickly. So a creator who might casually say at a convention that they don't like rice can find that they've got a flood of e-mails by the time the get back to their hotel room demanding to know why s/he is leading a boycott against the rice industry.

And, for good or ill, that seems to color how a creator's work is perceived by a large number of people.

Now, there's certainly something to be said for context. Without context, you won't understand jokes, social commentary, or subtexts. But if a creator writes a string of stories, none of which involve guns or shooting, his/her thoughts on gun control are pretty much irrelevant. His/her approach to dealing with editors is almost never relevant unless s/he is specifically writing about that. There's only so much context you really need and, for most comic books, you shouldn't need any to follow the basic story.

Personally, I try to separate the two as much as possible. In some cases, it's easy -- I've never actually met John Byrne, for example, so I can't really speak to his personality. In other cases, I have to admit, it's more difficult. On that end, I had a series of very nice, extended conversations with Salvador Larroca and it's harder for me to look at his work objectively. But even so, I have criticized his work on occassion, when I felt there was room for criticism.

So here's a suggestion to try. Select a creator who you don't like on a personal level. Doesn't matter why you don't like them. Then have someone loan you some of their work you haven't previously seen, and make an active effort to judge it on its own merits. I might also suggest mixing that loaner in with other material you haven't seen before, and try to skip over the credits in all the books, so you don't know which book is by the creator you don't like. (Although, artistic styles are sometimes distinctive enough that that might not prevent you from spotting whose work is whose anyway.)

Give it a shot -- you might find some work you might actually like.

3 comments:

plok said...

Strangely, in the case of Byrne...definitely yes, my perception of his work has been coloured, sometimes faintly and sometimes not, by what I've learned about his personality. I think it started with an interview in a magazine, in which Byrne betrayed a bit of a...I don't know, I guess I'd call it a reactionary point of view. Old-fashioned-ness, or something. And this kind of stuck with me: I began to see hints of it in his art style, and sense of design...when he began writing FF it wasn't what you'd call obvious, but it was there too, I believe, and I began to think "this is John Byrne, what he's like...see, it's right there on the page." Not that I cared; all it meant was that his point of view and his work were connected, and of course far from there being anything wrong with that, it enriched the work. In science-fictional touches made half of Stan Lee and half of Larry Niven, for example. Or, in his famous "back-to-basics" new traditionalist approach, that I think even makes itself apparent in the way he constructs plots. Even, in his particular (and particularly successful, much of the time) way of portraying "strong women" -- the Waterloo of many a male comics writer from Byrne's heyday.

But by the time Chapter One came along, it was much more "oh, crap...here come Byrne's bloody little tics, again". By that time, I perceived that the reactionary way of thinking that had been such a strength in some of the earlier back-to-basics endeavours had gone off into a little revisionist corner of the Marvel Universe all its own...I'd already put together Byrne's recurring bad treatment of the Vision with his reactionary point of view, because I saw him not playing along with "everybody else's" Vision from about the time he and Shooter worked on Avengers together...and then by the time he got to Avengers West Coast it was clear his ideas about the character (about most of the characters, in fact) was worlds away from the consensus, and very much coloured by his unique idea of comic-book "fitness". I saw the attitude I'd picked up on in that interview written large, then; subsequently, in his Namor, I was then unsurprised to see him undo a lot of things about the character that probably (in my opinion) should've been left as they were. The closing issues of his FF seemed similarly arbitrary, then, in retrospect. And, after a while, I perceived him as someone who'd lost the thread, when it came to playing with other people's toys.

But, on the other hand, so what? All any of that means is that Byrne's authorial voice grew more distinct over time, and that's not bad...it just means his Marvel work stopped being what I wanted (or want) to read in a Marvel comic. I did enjoy, very much, all his Superman stuff for DC, and I think his growing Byrne-ishness had a lot to do with that. But, it's continued to grow to the point where if I see his name listed as "Writer" on a Big Two property now, I'm very likely to pass...knowing I'm no longer happy being his audience, for that type of work. I just don't get what I need from it. On the other hand, I'm sure there are Byrne projects I'd read very eagerly. Just, only those ones that my sense of his personality tells me I think his voice will be well-suited to. In other words, and not to be too boring: my perception of Byrne's personality has become part of my understanding of his aesthetic, and most of the time I feel like it's a very reliable tool.

Now, just one more thought before I go: I feel almost exactly the same way about Kirby, Ditko, and even Stan Lee -- the only difference being that I like Ditko's work more now that I know what he stands for (and boy, does he ever stand!), I like Kirby's work more now that I have some sense of him as an optimist in real life, and I even like Stan Lee more now that I've got some knowledge of the manic, protean personality that lay behind (and in part composed) the outward persona of Stan The Huckster. I should say, as time goes on I'm getting more and more of an appreciation for the specific nature of Stan's talent, too.

Finally, on a not-that-related note, my estimation of Orson Scott Card has been going downward ever since I found out his politics -- looking back over his work now, I see little assumptions about power politics and "human nature" snuck in there almost propagandistically. I'll still read and enjoy Robert Heinlein even though pretty clearly he wanted me to bury the guns and use the codes...but the difference is, I don't see anything I would call underhanded in what he does. I disagree with Heinlein, as I disagree with Ditko, but of course that doesn't matter too much: their points of view aren't at war with mine, and even if disagreeable, I find them respectable. Card, though...I don't know, I feel like in the last decade or so my eyes have been opened to a certain dishonesty in his writing.

Wow, long comment, huh? Sorry about that. Salvador LaRocca I'll seek out again, though -- I concede I may have let my dislike of his clunky feet unfairly colour my opinion of him as an artist.

Sean Kleefeld said...

As I see it, though, there's a difference between an author's opinions and an author's personality.

Ditko's a good example. His opinions are reasonably well-documented. Knowing those are going to color your view of his Spider-Man and they certainly put The Question in a light that most writers don't show him in. But my point is that I've never actually met Ditko, so I can't judge his personality. Would he be cordial to me? Obnoxious? Dismissive? I don't know, and I can't use that to judge his work. (Which I shouldn't anyway.)

Let's take another set of examples. There are three creators who started in comics around the same time and whose work I almost always enjoy. I'll call them Mr. E, Mr. S and Mr. W for the sake of this discussion. I've met all three of them and have very different impressions of them as people, despite the fact that I hold their work in similar regard.

I met Mr. S first. I was highly interested in what he happened to be working on at that time, and we spoke a bit at length about that. He was jovial and a pleasure to talk with. When I talked to him again later, he was still cordial but since I wasn't interested in his then-current project, he was a little more dismissive. A bit of car salemenship there -- he'll be your best buddy, if it'll help sell his book.

Mr. W, when I met him later, by contrast seemed equally pleased to talk about current or old stuff. For that matter, he seemed to enjoy just talking comics in general, whether or not we were discussing his material.

Mr. E, in contrast to both the others, seemed generally upset. He answered questions politely enough, but he had an air of... I don't know... that he seemed to enjoy the actual writing of comics, but he that he couldn't stand working with any of the editors or publishers and he resented the reality that he needed to.

Of the three, Mr. W was clearly the most affable and Mr. E was the most off-putting. I'm not keen, in fact, to meet Mr. E again -- he just didn't seem like a nice guy. BUT that doesn't, in my mind, diminish the work he did (or will do) and his skills as a writer are still worth seeking out.

Does that make sense?

plok said...

Oh, yes, absolutely...I don't think personality and opinion are totally separable in a simple way, but I do think that connection usually doesn't matter at all, especially to me as a reader. Take Neal Adams: nothing I know about him as a person connects up in my head with what he's like as an artist at all. Vince Coletta: same thing, only more extreme, since I obviously never suspected as a kid that he was erasing pencil lines. But even now, that behind-the-scenes artistic activity of his doesn't really colour my impression of his work on an aesthetic level, and he remains a favourite inker of mine. Personal taste stuff, I guess! But I guess my point is, no, I don't find that I can always treat an artist's personality or opinions as the key to a code that unlocks deeper meaning in their work. Occasionally, there's some colouring, but most of the time there just isn't.

I dunno, it's complicated. Hopefully it doesn't indicate a big level of political/social bias in me, and the way I appreciate people's work! But I'm cautiously optimistic that it doesn't...my dislike of Card is pretty much confined to instances where I feel like he's trying to pitch me, for example. Otherwise, I don't care: it wasn't hard for me to read Ultimate Iron Man, for example.