A few minutes to kill before going to continue working my way through the first series of Mad Men, and I figured I’d blog an old and odd theory of mine. It’s basically a paradigm for comics criticism. It’s a bit silly and probably has been said at least a half-dozen times before but I think it concentrates our attention on a few pertinent points which most approaches brush over. So I’m going to write it. Yes.
The idea first arose when the reviews of the first Phonogram series started turning up. Specifically, it was a review over at an Unknown Armies fansite (UA being an urban fantasy role-playing game which shares a few themes with Phonogram). The reviewer thought it was created by a single person called Gillen McKelvie. Presumably because our names were so large on the cover, and by one another. Which of course, is pretty funny. But it also struck me that, of all the Phonogram reviews, it had a certain truth. And in the time since then, looking at reviews of my books and books by friends and peers, it started nagging at me.
What I’m talking about is the problem of properly crediting innovation. Specifically, comic reviewers – especially mainstream comic reviewers – tend to dissect art and writing separately, and credit all praise or hatred at the artist or writer respectively. Which of course, is fair. Their names are on the book, after all. But on another level, it’s totally delusional. From the outside you have no idea of the machinations of the book. Writers and artists push and pull against each other constantly. The book warps. If a writer asks for a specific effect and the artist simply executes it, while the specific rendering is to the artist’s credit, the actual choice of the moment lies with the writer. Conversely, if an artist adds a panel, creating a specific heart-breaking glance, it’s more likely the writer will get the credit for choosing to capture this heart-on-sleeve. Especially if then, after the fact it’s been added, they’ve added a half-line there in response with the artist’s innovations. I can easily pick up bits of Phonogram where I’ve got credit Jamie should have got, and vice versa.
Because from the outside, no-one would know.
So why do we pretend we do?
We’re the hags gathered around with a single shared tooth and eye between them, trying to get by. The Writer/Artist team is basically a faux-cartoonist, two people trying to work in harmony to do the job which abstractly could be done by one. We push and pull one another, and the work which comes out the other end is some strange alloy of our skills, desires and ability to give a toss on any given day.
Point being: since they’re attempting to become a faux-cartoonist for the space of the work, ,maybe it could be interesting to treat them as a faux-cartoonist and consider all their work together as a single entity. The closest parallel is bands, the other small groups of impassioned individuals gathered together for a larger purpose whose work – even the work which can be clearly originated by one member of the collective – is best analysed as part of the whole. Tracing Gillen McKelvie’s work is a different thing than just tracing Jamie McKelvie or Kieron Gillen’s work. Run a finger down – to choose a couple of examples – the Ennis Dillon, the Diggle Jock or Morrison Quitely spines and you’re seeing something which is unique between the creators, of how they work off each other and all that. Of – fundamentally – how they make each other look good.
(I’m of the opinion that all great collaborative comics are based around making the other party look good as possible. They save each other’s arses.)
Of course, it’s true of most forms. For example, directors get far more than their fair credit for the worth of a film… but in comics, where there’s so relatively few people involved, bifurcating the two elements and giving them all to one individual or the other strikes me as worse. And, equally obviously, there’s often more individuals who shape a collaborative comic than just the writer an artist. Even the artist can be multiple individuals, with the inkers and colourists (And, in Phonogram’s case, the colourist is of obvious paramount importance). But, much in the same way the Director getting so much credit was a result of little more than deciding someone should get the credit from the film instead of the studio, it’s acceptable just in trying to get people thinking about comics in a different way (i.e. It’s a utilitarian argument). As in, thinking of the comic created by an novel gestalt that should be considered as such.
What’s the advantages about this from a critic’s perspective?
1) You won’t be lying. If you have no idea who to credit or blame for a feature, you’re lying. Blaming the hive-mind faux-entity who created it means that you’re appropriating it all appropriately.
2) Thinking about it holistically means that you start looking at its holistic effect (i.e. What it actually does) rather than some once-removed division from the actual effect (i.e. Something that doesn’t matter). Which is a different thing from saying that comics should be considered only holistically – breaking apart how a panel transition creates an emotional effect is something I’d love to see more of in comics criticism. But that’s a whole different rant.
3) It’s enormously pretentious.
4) It’ll annoy creators who are a little too hung up on their own contribution to the book, rather than the actual merits or faults of the book itself.
5) You won’t be lying. I’ll say that twice, because truth matters.
Of course, I’m writing this all smirking more than a little (If I was serious, I wouldn’t have called it The Gillen McKelvie Paradigm, obv) and don’t expect anyone to actually try and do this. But I think, as a push, towards thinking about creative teams rather than the individual creatives in those teams it serves a worthwhile purpose. And could even lead to some interesting places.
And now, to Mad Men.