Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Comics Journal #300 Conversations: Dave Gibbons and Frank Quitely

Among my Christmas presents this year was the 300th issue of the Comics Journal, a bit of a bittersweet milestone, as it's the last regular issue for the foreseeable future. I've always appreciated the Journal, even though I found it less enjoyable over the last few years. And I'll be sorry to see it go, even if it's not really gone; the Journal will be expanding it's online presence while publishing a few special print issues a year.

But back to #300. The Journal has always done a fine job with special issues, and this one is no different. As editor/overlord Gary Groth explains, the Journal editors brought together several creators from different generations together for informal conversations. The results, we hope, will enlighten us all about how comics have changed over the last 20-30 years. So I thought it would be fun to read each one and post my thoughts and reactions. I'll be reading these, more or less, in my own order of interest. First up: Dave Gibbons and Frank Quitely.

The first time I ever saw Dave Gibbons' work would have been during his Green Lantern run in the early '80s, but the first time I became aware of it would've been the same as most everyone else: Watchmen. And I think, frankly, that he's more or less coasted on that; the only other work of note that he produced was the Give Me Liberty cycle, of which I'm not a fan. Frank Quitely, on the other hand, is just about the best artist in mainstream comics at the moment. My first exposure to his work (I think) was the Vertigo series 2020 Visions, and I thought it astonishing. I've bought pretty much everything he's done since then, and Quitely's name on the book is one of the few ways to guarantee I'll read something.

Anyway. Judging by the bits I've read of the other conversations as I flipped through the Journal, I'm afraid that I may have chosen to start with the least interesting first. There's sadly very little discussed between the two men that could be considered engrossing. Much of the conversation revolves around the effect of computers upon working methods, and I think the most interesting thing said here is that Frank Quitely still draws on paper because he feels he needs to have the original art to sell in order to make a living.

Think about that for a minute: Frank Quitely, one of the most successful artists in the industry today, can't survive on his page rate and royalties alone. And sure, a lot of that has to do with being a British national working for an American company, and the lousy exchange rate, but still. Quitely's been the artist of some of the most notable books published in the last decade; one would think he'd at least feel financially stable enough to abandon drawing on paper if he wanted to.

Which leads me to a topic that I would have loved for the two to discuss, but sadly is never brought up: perennials. Gibbons, of course, is one of the creators of the ultimate perennial, which will probably always be one of the best selling books in any given year (though probably never again quite like the last year); Quitely, I suspect, will have a perennial of his own with All-Star Superman. How much does this mean to the artist? Will they continue to see monies from books that continue to sell years after their original publication? Is having a perennial on the shelf something to strive for, or does it still not matter in comparison to having the hot new comic on the stands?

One other item from the conversation struck me: the changed role of editors in comics. When Gibbons broke in, editors were still very much teachers, and his work would often come back with notes of things that needed to be improved. But Quitely, 20 years later, has never had such interaction with his editors. He notes that, nowadays, editors have probably never worked as writers or artists previously, and aren't likely to offer any kind of tutorial on the mechanics of storytelling to young talent. And I thought: yeah, that's true, why is that? Used to be, guys like Geoff Johns and Bendis would get a staff job, just like Marv Wolfman and Len Wein and so many others did in the '70s and '80s. But you don't see that any more. My guess is, probably, because the economics have changed. Most of those writers and artists became editors (or the editors started writing) to sublimate their incomes. And guys like Johns and Bendis make plenty of money- and have plenty of say in the direction of the respective fictional universes they shape- without having to worry about the letter page getting to the typesetter before the deadline.

This isn't a bad thing, necessarily, but I'm not sure it's a good thing either. You've now got at least a generation's worth of editors that have little power, really, compared with the talent; again, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but what if the talent's wrong? What about when a writer wants to have the spouse of a prominent Justice League member raped? Does the editor have the position to say no, and be backed by his bosses? At the end of the day, I think the paradigm has shifted towards the talent. Again, this in and of itself is not a bad thing, but without the likes of Archie Goodwin behind the scenes, are we really better off?

But I digress. You'll note that the things I found most interesting in this conversation weren't really things Gibbons and Quitely talked about at all. At the end of the day, these are two guys who are pretty satisfied with their careers, but pretty far removed from comics as a whole. Sadly, it feels like so many other topics are left on the table untouched. Like: these men are primarily known for having worked with two of the most brilliantly idiosyncratic writers in comics. Shouldn't their names have come up a few times? All in all, this conversation feels like a lost opportunity.

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