Monday, January 14, 2013

Telling Your Story's Story

Storytelling is obviously a key component in making a good comic book. I mean, that's generally kind of the whole point, right? So creators (if they're any good at all) spend a lot of time crafting their stories, not only making sure the illustrations work and there are no gaping plot holes, but that the layout and format serve the reader's understanding and the overall experience of the comic is a positive one. These are the types of things good storytellers do.

So it wouldn't be a leap of logic to say that people who make good comics are good storytellers.

Except that's not necessarily true.

Let's take a look at one of my favorite creators and an unabashed master comic craftsman: Jack Kirby. Jack was an absolutely fantastic genius when it came to telling a story in comics. Say what you want about his illustration ability, but the man knew how to tell a story in comic book form so well that there is maybe -- maybe -- two or three other people in the history of comics who you could argueably say were as good as him. Not necessarily better, but as good as. Maybe.

BUT!

Kirby is also known for basically getting financially shafted for very nearly his entire career. He created characters and stories that have garnered untold millions in revenue for multiple companies and, not only did he get bupkis for that, but he had to fight for years just to get his original art back! And even then only got a fraction of it! Siegel and Shuster selling the rights to Superman for $130 is sometimes called the "original sin" of comics, but Kirby got less than that over and over and over and over again throughout his entire career. What'd he get for the Fantastic Four? His page rate. What'd he get for the Hulk? His page rate. What'd he get for the X-Men? His page rate. What'd he get for Darkseid, Orion, Thor, Iron Man, Dr. Doom, Fin Fang Foom, SHIELD, Kamandi, the Eternals, Mister Miracle, OMAC, the Demon, Devil Dinosaur, Black Panther...? Kirby only ever got paid for the physical artifact of his pencil marks on pieces of paper. Siegel and Shuster at least got some compensation (admittedly an insanely insulting pittance) for the character separate from their artwork ; Kirby didn't even get that.

Now there are any number of reasons for that, but one of them is that Kirby wasn't a good storyteller when it came to himself. He could create a phenomenal story about how Galactus came down to eat the earth, and had this silvery herald announcing the planet's impending doom, and how a blind girl was able to get the herald to turn on his master... But as to how or why he did that? Those stories don't come out so well. As to why he deserved more than he got for that? Those stories came out worse.

One of the sometimes-overlooked aspects of Stan Lee's genius was that he has done a phenomenal job of telling you HIS story. You've heard that, right? His anecdotes about his wife convincing him to write the Fantastic Four because he was going to quit anyway, about how his boss wanted to nix Spider-Man before it even started because nobody likes spiders...? Lee has done fantastic job telling those stories over the years. That's partly where the rift between Lee and Kirby came from, in fact! (See my column in the next issue of Jack Kirby Collector for some of the info on that! It should be out next week!) Lee sold himself very well and Kirby, frankly, didn't.

Comic creators really need to be able to tell two types of stories well. They need to be able to tell a story about superheroes or zombies or barbarians or anthropamorphic rabbits or whatever their genre of choice is. And they need to be able to tell a story about themselves and their book. Why should I, as a reader, care about your book? Why should s/he, as a publsiher, care about you? If a comic creator can't tell that story, then it's going to make their job telling their other stories a heck of a lot tougher.

2 comments:

Matt K said...

Comic creators, and...

Well, perhaps it would be faster to make a list of who doesn't need to be able to tell their own story in the way you're talking about, these days. :-)

Imagine Kirby trying to put together a Kickstarter appeal... oi.

Michael P said...

To get shafted once gets my sympathy, twice and you make me think you're a bit simple, but to get shafted as many times as you suggest Kirby was, well I'm beginning to think of alternative explanations frankly.