Friday, July 24, 2009

21 Influential Mainstream Comics Writers (For Better or Worse)

As promised, here's a list of 21 influential mainstream comics writers I've concocted in a similar vein, if not a similar tone, exactly, to this Onion AV Club article.

Things to keep in mind:
1.) These are not ranked in any order, although the top four are set apart as being, I think, almost impossible to argue.
2.) These are going to be superhero-heavy because the original article says "mainstream," and I tried to keep to that.
3.) This is not what I would cite a definitive list because I'm only one guy, I'm not a proper hsitorian, and I did this in a couple of hours.
4.) Like the original list, this is a "for better or for worse" situation. There's writers on here I don't care for and writers I do, writers whose work I like but influenced a lot of lesser writers, etc.
5.) There's going to be editorializing, but it's a list I picked of people I think are influential. There's going to be editorializing whether I mean for it or not.

Let's begin.

1. Stan Lee
To no one’s surprise, I’m sure. Again, these aren’t really ranked, but I don’t really think there’s a bigger game-changer than Lee. His once wild innovations and experiments have become the very basic building blocks of mainstream superhero comics. He’s the Beatles of comics writers; you’re influenced by him even if you do not intend to be, and there will probably never be another quite of his like.

2. Alan Moore
Introducing new levels of literary sophistication to mainstream comics, Moore’s almost inarguably number two behind Lee. Obviously influential, though I think (and Moore seems to agree in interviews) that his influence has been mostly destructive. To me, Watchmen demands that you either reject superhero comics for their disconnect from real life and their inability to tackle complex situations, or you accept the trade-off of simplicity for symbolism and power. The third option, however, has been the most prevalent, and that is to simply graft “mature” themes onto “immature” superhero comics and hope that the resultant birth favors the mature side. It usually does not.

3. Chris Claremont
Things Claremont was one of the early pioneers of on X-Men: 1.) “Voice” in comics, no matter how hideously purple his prose and dialogue can seem today. 2.) Plugging his own interests (Japan, etc.) into the work, often veering into self-indulgence. 3.) Bringing themes to the forefront. 4.) Moral ambiguity, resulting in villains who are sympathetic (Magneto) and heroes who cross lines traditional superheroes after the '40s never would (Wolverine, Gambit). 5.) Probably most importantly, the long run of comics, with character arcs taking years to pay off.

4. Neil Gaiman
Like Alan Moore, mostly influential for literary sophistication, but with some distinct differences. For one, Gaiman wore the literary business on his sleeve a bit more, to the point of threatening to become overly showy. For another, Watchmen, for all its achievements, is still a superhero story (or at least a story about superheroes), while Sandman is a fantasy comic. His mature-readers work showed that comics could once again reach a different audience (including that elusive, nigh-mythical female reader, depending on who you talk to) that might not be as into superheroes.

Those are some of the more obvious ones. Here’s some that I’d think could invite a little more debate.

5. Jerry Siegel
For inventing, along with Joe Shuster, the most basic building blocks of the superhero myth – the costume, the secret identity, the powers, the very name "Superman," which begat the word “superhero.”

6. Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson
Because everything that we associate with Batman comes pretty much from them (and I’d say it’s probably the most powerful mythos in all of comics), but I suppose primarily for the advent of the hero with motivation in tragedy.

7. Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
For essentially inventing the horror comic with EC’s New Trend, creating a craze that really only lasted a couple years but is still immensely influential. For being one of the reasons why there was/is a Comics Code. For the “We’re all pals here” approach they took to fan interaction, which would pave the way for Stan Lee’s jocular narration and editorial style.

8. Harvey Pekar
If American Splendor wasn’t the first autobiographical comic, it’s the first one anybody seems to remember. Alt comics are almost nothing but autobio comics these days. I even kind of do one on this blog, however unserious it may be.

9. Warren Ellis
I don’t actually think Ellis gets enough credit for being influential. When superhero comics seemed mostly to be trying to do some sort of Silver Age revival in the late '90s, Ellis gave the middle finger to nostalgia and invented “widescreen comics” with The Authority. I enjoy Ellis comics, but Ellis’ Authority begat Mark Millar’s Authority, which begat Millar’s Ultimates, which begat Millar’s Civil War, which begat all the massive crossover business they’re doing now, so basically half of the most awful stuff at Marvel these days is traceable back to Ellis, unfortunately. Not that he’d care, I suppose.

10. Gardner Fox
Stan Lee created the first comics “universe,” but might Fox’s Earth-1/Earth-2 stuff have been the first comics cosmology? For good or ill, the idea of complex continuity you can actually catalogue stems from him.

11. Mort Weisinger
Not technically a writer, but all that wacky '50s stuff we associate with Superman reportedly came from him (and, if rumors are to be believed, as some sort of odd therapy), and '50s Superman is arguably the most infamous of all Supermen. Writers keep trying to shy away from the Fortress of Solitude and Super Pets and multicolored Kryptonite, but Weisinger’s mythology inevitably creeps back in.

12. Len Wein
Perhaps less for his work itself and more for what it led to. He created, after all, Wolverine, the X-Men, Swamp Thing and others, and as an editor helped bring Watchmen into being. Grant Morrison credits him as a big influence, and hey, speaking of him…

13. Grant Morrison
For being superhero comics’ foremost re-imaginer, freshening up stagnant properties by reintegrating elements that might have been dismissed as outdated seamlessly into a modern aesthetic, while at the same time taking the franchise in uncharted directions. His ultracompetent Batman is still the standard characterization for Bruce Wayne, and he made people believe that you could do an A-list Justice League roster again. Even on books like X-Men where his work is largely undone after he leaves, the abrupt break from years of wheel-spinning gave creators a new starting point, if only to reject everything Morrison’s done.

14. Brian Michael Bendis
The other half (along with Mark Millar, who’s not on the list largely because his work is an extension of Warren Ellis’) of the shape of Marvel today. His superhero work seems to de-emphasize plot; villains and fights are really only MacGuffins to facilitate characterization and interaction, and then shuffling around the status quo. However you feel about this approach, and the rise of “showrunners” at Marvel and DC, it’s here to stay for a while longer, at least. Bendis works long-term on a scale Claremont couldn’t even have conceived of.

15. J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen
People still use “Bwa-ha-ha” to describe superhero comics like their Justice League that lampoon conceits of the genre while still playing by their rules. At best, DeMatteis and Giffen let the air out of the tires and keep us from taking our beloved superhero narratives too deadly seriously. At worst, it makes us complacent, believing that laughing at the occasional goofy third-string character is all it takes to make a comic book “mature.”

16. Roy Thomas
Plok lays it out, but in short, Thomas set a precedent for how a writer follows up on the Stan Lee stories that make up the foundation of the Marvel Universe (and thus defined how DC writers would eventually make use of their newfound continuity).

17. Steve Gerber
For bringing personal politics and satire into it, and showing that superhero comics could be a vessel to explore greater themes (while still being good superhero comics in their own right).

18. Denny O’Neil
O’Neil introduced “relevance” to superheroes (which we usually mean “superheroes dealing with real-world issues”) to modern comics with Green Lantern/Green Arrow, however hamfisted. Also, I guess, for his '70s refocusing of Batman as a grimmer sort of chap.

19. Frank Miller
His development of the “grim ‘n’ gritty” approach alone would make him on the list, as would Dark Knight Returns, but both of them together?

20. Carl Barks
He’s on the Onion’s list for the art, but he wrote all those stories, too! Aside from his contributions to Disney’s catalogue of trademarks, he showed that sheer quality could rise a comic creator from anonymity … that the people working on the comic were just as important, if not moreso, than the characters themselves.

21. Geoff Johns
I’m not totally confident on this one; I suppose it’s still too soon to know. His singular approach to comics is becoming very influential, but he seems so backward-looking that I can’t say what new he really brings to the table, you know? Part of my hesitancy is that I don’t really feel that I understand Johns. Like, I don’t like Bendis’ comics, but I feel that I can see where he’s coming from. Even the much-reviled-of-late Jeph Loeb … I believe I understand what he’s trying to do, or what he wants to do, and it’s just not to my taste. But Johns is a mystery to me. What is he thinking when he has Red Lanterns vomiting up blood and Black Hand licking Bruce Wayne’s skull and Black Adam gouging out Psycho-Pirate’s eyes and tearing people in two? I think I'd know what Bendis or Loeb or Morrison or Mark Waid were doing (or trying to do), but I have no idea why Johns thinks this is a good idea. I suspect his drives and goals are more complex than he’s usually given credit for, but then again perhaps not. I’d absolutely love to read a really in-depth interview with him, not just talking surface stuff and “what’s your favorite character/book/creator/universe?”, but process and intent. I want someone to ask, not in a hostile bitter-fan way but in a journalistic way, why he does these things, what he hopes to accomplish, how do you respond to critiques of your work, what his intended audience is, etc. But he holds a lot of clout (he may or may not be influential, remember!), so I could see a comics journalist not wanting to offend him and close himself off. I’d still like to read it.

Well, that was an unexpected sidetrack. I’d have saved that Johns stuff for a later post, but this pretty much sums it all up.

Back on topic … how does this list stack up, internet visitors? Any egregious oversights?

Monday, July 20, 2009

21 Most Influential Mainstream Comics Artists?

Here's an interesting article at The Onion's AV Club website:

Reinventing the pencil: 21 artists who changed mainstream comics (for better or worse)

I imagine in the hours and maybe days to come, this'll spread around the comics blogosphere, with everyone debating who should or should not be included, so I figure I'd get in on the ground floor of this and add my two cents (I did miss the initial wave of Wednesday Comics chatter, after all) (P.S.--Wednesday Comics is awesome).

I think it's a pretty solid list overall. The "(for better or worse)" is welcomed; anybody can just slap Kirby and Eisner on a list and go "Yeah, everybody agrees these guys are the bomb-diggity," but it takes a little more discipline to say "God, I really hate Greg Land, but I can't deny the influence he's having in the comics landscape." Note that I don't think these are meant to be rankings -- or at least if they are, they're so arbitrary as to be meaningless -- merely a list of names that have numbers attached just so's you can keep track of 'em.

I do have some quibbles, though:


Todd McFarlane: Do we really need three Image founders? Yeah, Spawn was King of the 90s, but it's essentially a dead property today. I don't see a lot of McFarlane influence in the industry in 2009 -- not in art, certainly, and nobody else has quite managed to duplicate the media empire he was able to build -- and this list is all about influence.

George Tuska: I feel like there ought to be a better example of a competent journeyman out there, though I'll admit none springs to mind.

Steve Rude: Awesome without a doubt (and: Madison, Wisconsin represent!), but influential? The article itself calls his kind of art "has rarely been seen since, save from the Dude himself."

Chris Ware: I don't have a strong objection to this, but it does require some debate as to what we're defining as "mainstream" -- or at least, "mainstream" as it applies to the comics industry.


Joe Madureira:
The first artist to really make a thing out of fusing manga with traditional superheroics. He was the guy who made it okay to be cartoony in '90s superhero comics, and you still see that influence (though a couple times removed) to the point where I'd say he definitely ought to be on this list, whether you like or dislike him

Frank Miller: I feel like one of the Marvel superstar writer-artists of the '80s should be on the list; Simonson is covered by Kirby, and Byrne is covered by Neal Adams ... so does that leave Miller as the most innovative?

Alex Toth: If you're a comics artist and you don't list Alex Toth as an influence, don't they kick you out of the building or something? I think you're supposed to namecheck him whether you know his work or not...

Jim Steranko: Everybody wants to be Steranko, but nobody seems to want to commit.

Barry Windsor-Smith: Seems like he should be on the list, but maybe not influential enough?

Anyone else out there got any thoughts on this list? Or at least can point me in the right direction of some good discussion going on?

Also, I might like to try at divising a similar list of 21 influential (for better or for worse) mainstream comics writers, although I worry my '70s knowledge isn't strong enough to really come up with anything definitive. Still, I'll have a whack at it; come back Friday to see what comes of it.

Sideburns #29: "Seriously, Guys, A Dog Bakery?"

Nimrod is her parents' dog, named after the Biblical ruler and hunter, not the slang term for idiot or the X-Men villain
Also, what IS the deal with airline peanuts?
I put a little 'Lord Flasheart' on the shirt because I couldn't fit a tiny drawing of Rik Mayall on it
I think the proprietor of the store heard me say that, actually
Lo-fi webcomics by Justin Zyduck. Mondays ... though maybe not every Monday.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Superhero Theory/Sideburns #28: “Logan Gump”

Well, my Batman project has taken up all my blogging time these last few weeks, but now that that’s over, we’ll be returning to our regular features. And since it’s been awhile, I figured I’d do a Sideburns comic that doubles as a Superhero Theory post, while also tying in, slightly belatedly, the American Independence Day holiday. (As Stan Lee might say, “Who says this isn’t the Mighty Marvel Age of multi-functionality?”)

I’ve already documented my apprehension about giving Wolverine a set-in-stone origin, but here’s another reason why I don’t likes it: You know how -- since Wolverine is really old and scarcely ages -- writers like to have him show up willy-nilly throughout history, Forrest Gump-style? Like, he fought alongside Captain America in WWII and he was at Hiroshima when the atomic bomb went off and he met Peter Parker’s parents all those years ago and he fought in the Spanish-American War, and so on and so forth. Well, establishing that he was born in the 19th century limits how far back ago you can stick Wolverine into significant bits of history. With how convoluted his backstory is, you might as well go totally overboard and have him fight in the Battle of Hastings, or be there for the signing of the Magna Carta, or sail with Christopher Columbus.


My attempts at drawing historical likenesses, from left to right: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams (whose hair and chops actually recall Wolverine with male-pattern baldness), and Thomas Jefferson
Looks rather more like Baron Blood than Wolverine; there is a reason I think I would be good at writing superhero comics but not drawing them
The second amendment *is* my adamantium claw permit
He cannot tell a lie, but he can cover for a friend well enough

Lo-fi webcomics by Justin Zyduck. Returning to Mondays by popular request (or at least more popular than I would have suspected).