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?


plok said...

Oh, man.

Funnily enough, I might be inclined to argue with Moore, Morrison, and Gaiman. Moore's the toughest, of course: he smashed up the room like Welles in Kane, and had a lot of copiers. Okay, Moore stays in the picture. Neil I think was certainly as influential, but maybe not so much on the writing side, as on the industry side. Are there people out there doing dumbass Gaiman pastiches because they're trying to be like him? An excellent, intelligent plotter, dialoguer, and purveyor of the "Neil Gaiman Jazz"...but as a figure in comics publishing, far more than that I think.

Claremont's a funny one: I would say his chief contribution to superhero comics was in the way he imported a lot of the tricks of television into them, although sometimes in disguise. The Cockrum/Byrne X-Men eras didn't just bring romance in, but actual soap operas, like the soap operas of TV, aesthetically very similar to TV production were his comics, and why talking like Yoda all of a sudden I am, I know not. But Claremont's always been deeply in love with TV, he's the proto-Bendis, even in his pinch-hitter days his scripts had a verve quite unlike, say, Kirby's...

Len Wein made Marvel Universe continuity stick, and have a beat. Also invented a lot of the bullshit pseudo-science cliches that are still used.

I'll give you 8. (whew!), but gotta disagree on 14., 15., and 21. Twenty years from now I think Geoff Johns could be evaluated (and probably will be) as you say, but I think it's soon to say he's influential, considering he's still basically IN CHARGE...after he's not in charge, we'll know better. Bendis, as Gaiman, I don't see anybody rushing to copy, and perhaps that's a compliment to him...I don't think he does well at all in the Marvel Milieu, but he's certainly head and shoulders above anyone who'd seek to emulate him, if any people like that exist. His influence (like Millar's) on the MU I think will dissipate...they like to break the toys too much. Waid's influence on DC is surely more pronounced: the toys he's broken look to stay broken. DeMatteis and Giffen are actually the originators of the "super-badass" Batman in their Justice League, but outside of that...I mean, they were really great comics (and had a lot of face-smacking drama in them too, at first!), but I'm not sure they'll ever be truly "influential".

Finally, I would say Gerber, but not entirely for the reasons you cite. Mebbe I oughtta elaborate on that, but I dunno...not sure I can pull off my own version of this because I'm crap at list-making, but maybe I'll give it a shot?

The rest of these are pretty immaculate.

Justin said...

Huh, I did actually *mean* to use the phrase "soap opera" in my Claremont explanation but apparently didn't. People sometimes associate Stan Lee with soap opera, but I don't really think his interpersonal plots were *sprawling* enough to use that term ("Matt Murdock/Scott Summers/Tony Stark loves Karen Page/Jean Grey/Pepper Potts and vice versa, but they never admit their feelings" is more of a sitcom setup and not a soap opera plotline?)

Also: Claremont really *is* a sort of proto-Bendis in a lot of ways, isn't he? Very distinctive dialogue tics (though different from each other), favorite characters that keep "following him" from book to book...

I agree that no one really imitates Bendis in an obvious way because it would be *too* obvious (no particularly keen insights are necessary to write a dead-on Bendis parody, after all). I think he's been influential more in structure, maybe? Pacing, for sure: taking six issues to do the Spider-Man origin really kicked down a lot of doors, I think. I'm not sure the economy in storytelling that used to be standard in superhero comics is likely to come back any time soon.

Likewise, Bendis showed that people would buy superheroes talking to each other *about* superhero things (often at the expense of actually *doing* superhero things). And today there's an awful lot of comics with the Justice League or a bunch of supervillains sitting around a boardroom table chatting away in a way that feels almost procedural.

I suppose for Bendis, like Johns, it's a bit early to tag him as being influential, and it'll take awhile to see if his stuff really holds. I hope it doesn't; I liked stuff like Torso better anyway. I tend to think he might like superheroes more *conceptually* than in practice, which might explain why the most vibrant parts of his comics are the procedural bits, and the actual action just tends to be tossed-off, double-page spreads of random carnage. He doesn't seem *interested* in action, does he?

Ooh, wait, am I overloading Blogger's comments?

Justin said...

Made it through! Okay, couple other fast things.

-Valid point on Gaiman, I think. I also waffle a bit on Morrison being on the list; he's rarely *imitated*, but later writers refuting what he's done *kind of* indicates influence, doesn't it?

-I stand by Bendis on the list, but I'll admit I wasn't entirely confident about Giffen/DeMatteis and Johns. G/DM, though, I can at least see in Gail Simone's stuff and a few other places. Feels important, but I don't think I'm expressing it well.

-Wasn't sure if Harvey Pekar was "mainstream" enough, but he's important enough where I'd feel bad leaving him off in favor of, God, I don't know, Roger Stern or somebody.

-I actually considered putting Waid on because Kingdom Come brings with it the "legacy hero" stuff, and that reactionary nostalgia, and they keep trying to nudge the DC Universe closer to it for some reason. But ultimately, Alex Ross is the guy who wanted to draw Nightwing and Starfire's daughter, and a new Wildcat, and Red Robin -- Waid doesn't give them much to do because he'd much rather write about Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman

plok said...

I think you've convinced me about Bendis, actually...decompression and desultory action-climaxes, the slight souring of the "realistic" superhero into something more Sopranos-ish...I do actually think those things will continue to be big influences, in much the same way as Claremont's amping-up of the soap-opera shenanigans and TV drama beats he found lying around in the Eighties has stuck. Good point. You could also argue that Bendis has been the most successful emulator of Alan Moore, for all this "souring"...possibly you could say that when the book of Bendis is written, the first chapter in it will consist of a brief look at Moore's Swamp Thing. Maybe.

Good point about Waid, too...I don't know, maybe one could propose that Waid's reactionary decomposition (not just in KC, but other places too) has already been an influence on Johns? I'd sort of put Morrison in here too, for his attempts to revivify the "superhero poetry"...if he isn't influential already, I'm certain he soon will be.


Justin said...

Wow, y'know, I've never actually thought of Bendis as a continuation of Moore, but I see it now! I suppose he's a bit more fannish than Moore, which is why you get stuff like the Illumnati talking about what went on behind the scenes during Infinity Gauntlet and all that jazz; is it too reductive to suggest Bendis likes to explore the past, and Moore prefers to explore the future?

Still, Bendis' "mature" take on superheroes is generally more legitimately mature than, say, Judd Winnick's or Mark Millar's. He's a talented dude, but the decompression stuff gets to me, and ultimately I feel like Marvel's current approach isn't sustainable -- that these linewide status quo shifts are going to start distancing the audience too much from the core concepts and the "world," if they're not doing so already. From what I see of Dark Reign on the periphery, it's very non-organic feeling; the Dark Avengers are showing up everywhere not because they're popular and in-demand, but because Marvel has *decided* to push them.

I see Waid in Johns sometimes, but not always. From things he's written about his process, Waid always seems like he's keeping himself in check; that he'd be perfectly happy to write Superman comics exactly like they were in 1978, or to bring back Barry Allen -- but he knows that the market doesn't want Elliot S! Maggin Superman, and he was determined to make a go of it with Wally West. I'm not sure that same *discipline* is there with Johns.

Like, Johns has Superboy-Prime as a metatextual comment on the type of fan who wants things exactly like they were when he started reading comics, but at the same time Johns brings back Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. It's a mixed message, and it's another reason why I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT JOHNS IS ABOUT.

Justin said...

As for Morrison (whom I am admittedly biased toward as my favorite comics writer, and the guy I sort-of named my pseudo-band after), I feel that he should be more influential but isn't, somehow.

I think it's too easy to dismiss him because he has that reputation of "the drug guy." Like, "Ooh, the infant universe of Qwewq contains 'our' universe ... he must have been totally high when he had that idea!" And, y'know, maybe he was, or maybe he is A CREATIVE WRITER WHO HAD AN IDEA YOU HAVE NOT SEEN BEFORE.

So his stuff is generally well-thought-of, but nobody else thinks they can get away with it. People were intrigued by the ideas of mutant culture in New X-Men, but they brought Magneto back right away and gave up on the culture stuff. JLA was one of the top-selling books of its day, but he goes away and people think, "Well, you can't *really* do a team book motivated so primarily by plot, you need more character-driven stuff." Nobody has a bad thing to say about the Manhattan Guardian, but nobody will touch him!

plok said...


cease ill said...

If you're on the fence about anyone here...consider replacing them with Steve Englehart. Or maybe the "rising and advancing of the spirit" thing is not seen ENOUGH in modern comics, and he's just a quality writer too far past without a dip into research. Could be he is an influence to many on your list, actually, but not well known anymore! His DOCTOR STRANGE run is memorable and is almost certainly a precursor to Moore's PROMETHEA in terms of authentic magic concepts, and his manner of heroes coming to terms (Cap/Nomad for one; Pym, another, though that seems lost)with their failings or disillusionment is famous. But don't take my word for it; Plok's "The Two Steves" and poor mad Martian Manhunter's blog come from people there whilst I was a gleam in Dad's eye...