By Darryl Ayo
Why don’t indie comic cartoonists collaborate more often? A large part of it is obvious when you look at the name “INDIE” cartoonists. Independent of all interference. That’s cool, I can respect that. Indie comic dudes (and ladydudes) just want to do their own thing and pursue their own vision. But on the other hand, not all of these solo cartoonists have the full range of skillsets to truly go it alone.
I’ve been talking to people about this weird duality: on one hand, the indie comic scene is full of people doing their best at working on their own stuff as best they can–for better or worse. On the other hand, there’s a whole lot of friend-based groups, cliques, geographic alliances and both formal and informal partnerships in the indie comics scene.
Part of it is simply that friends or no, indie cartoonists want to remain fully autonomous. Again, that’s cool, but I wonder how much of that is cultural. Since the default and assumed position in indie comics is that each cartoonists is doing all tasks, maybe it never fully occurs to some people as a legitimate option.
I think that the idea of the “auteur theory”– that comics are at their best when they come from a single mind–is perhaps not a sound theory, but rather a cultural reaction against mass-produced and micro-delegated corporate comics. I don’t see why the “auteur theory” should suffer if the authorship of a work is split between a writer and and artist rather than one person who does both.
This concerns me because it seems like potentially good comics are not being born because many people who *might* be able to enhance one another’s work may never even consider working together. For example, when cartoonists get together, lots of times, we’ll come up with some silly joke that could make for a fantastic strip or comic book, but will never be pursued because the people who came up with the joke decide to leave it on the table.
Last year at the Small Press Expo, I was impressed by the work of Maris Wicks who had not one but TWO wonderful minicomic collaborations. The first was a picturebook/minicomic called Yes, Let’s. This gorgeous storybook was written by Galen Longstreth and featured full color illustrations by Wicks.
I later ran into Wicks who tipped me off that she had another collaboration, this time with Liz Prince, both of whom would write and draw the minicomic Duddits.
One thing that I find pretty interesting is the webcomics tradition of “guest comics.” I don’t see too many of these anymore, at least among the webcomics that I personally follow, but it’s worth mentioning. Guest strips are not true collaborations, but they relate to my earlier point about what can happen when cartoonists get together and start sharing ideas, jokes and so on.
Collaboration 2: The Marvel Method.
There’s more than one way to make a comic. Continuing with my exploration of the idea of creative teams in independent comics, I want to raise the notion of the old-school “Marvel Method” of comics creation. Most comics that are made by more than one person are created in a way that you’d expect: one person writes a whole story and another person draws it. And sometimes the drawing is broken into components such as “pencilling,” “inking,” “coloring,” and what-have-you. For a long time, this completely sensible system was the norm. Of course there was some variety.
DC Comics were known for their “full script” method in which a writer writes a complete story, dialog and everything which is sent off to the artist to render and bring to life. Cool.
EC Comics (see also: Kurtzman) were sometimes known to have scripts that included (or perhaps consisted of?) thumbnails. A comic made of comics, as I often think of it! [note: I’m going to just make stuff up for this paragraph] I personally work this way. I write down little notes for myself, but generally I do little thumbnails of my comic pages to work out my scenes in my notebook. Having a sense of the shape of a comic before going forward with drawing the final pages helps tremendously. I don’t give myself a script though, I basically make stuff up on the final page. That differs greatly from what I tend to think of as the EC method, but leads us directly into the madness of…
THE MARVEL METHOD.
The Marvel Method of making comics is totally crazy. Two guys (usually named Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) will sit around and talk about comic ideas. They’ll basically shoot the breeze like buddies and the resultant effort would be approximately (more or less) a single typed-page of story. A general plot outline for the issue of the comic. Then the artist (Kirby) will lock himself away and draw the whole thing up however he sees fit. He may have to include pertinent notes for the next stage. But the artist here is a full controller of the situation. He may not have written the plot or he may have assisted in that stage. But whatever the case is, he completely directs and controls how that loose plot plays out for 20-plus pages. When the artist turns in his pages, the writer looks at this glorious mess and has to make sense of it. This is where it gets hilarious. Now the writer (or primary writer, since the artist is essentially a co-plotter) will go and write the entire script from dialog to captions to thought balloons after the major storytelling decisions have been made by the artist.
The results of this method are similar to how I like to think of jazz music. You have the vision of not one master performer, but rather multiple intelligent forces driving the project simultaneously. At their best, these collaborators will know when to take charge and when to fall back and allow room for their respective partner to take the lead. Part of it is intuition, part of it is communication, a BIG part of it is mastery of craft on the part of both contributors.
So I got to thinking: man, it would be off the chain insane if indie comics people let their guards down and started to work this way. I know that I’d love to try it out. I’ve heard it said that indie comics have gotten a bit stagnant. I think that it would certainly liven up the game to have some smart, but sort of bored cartoonists bounce ideas off of each other and give each other’s batteries a charge (sounds romantic), even if only for a side-project. Sometimes two heads is better than one, and sometimes, you just need somebody to shake up your comfortable processes.
Images (c) DC Comics, (c) Marvel Entertainment, (c) Galen Goodwin Longstreth + Maris Wicks, (c) Maris Wicks + Liz Prince, (c) Darryl Ayo Brathwaite