Does Comics Need an Auteur Theory?

Comics historian Arlen Schumer has offered a number of provocative takes on the theory, design and business of comics over the years, but few as controversial as the monograph he penned for the Kirby Museum called “The Auteur Theory of Comics.” Today at Jason Sacks’ site, Comics Bulletin, Sacks and my pal Batton Lash (Exhibit A Press) critique Schumer’s theory. I was invited to participate, thought the better of it, then decided to chime in after all.

Schumer suggests that the comic book artist occupies a role¬†analogous to the director of a film in terms of making the creative choices that shape the reader’s experience. Film directors, Schumer notes, enjoy critical recognition for their creative role, while comic book artists are frequently seen as subordinate to the sensibility of the writer. Significantly, many jurisdictions in Europe and Asia (but not the US) award the director of a film co-ownership of the work’s copyright – a legal status that would greatly benefit comic book creators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who not only do not benefit financially from their many and manifest contributions to Marvel’s multi-billion dollar character franchises, but also, Schumer argues, are generally overlooked by a public that credits writer/editor Stan Lee as the main creative talent behind Marvel’s Silver Age.

Schumer believes that according artists recognition as the “auteurs” of comics brings creators like Kirby and Ditko a step closer to fair compensation for their work, and might redress some of the imbalance Schumer perceives in the critical discourse that lionizes writers. In this, he is on the side of the angels and is to be commended for his enthusiasm.

My problem with the article is that it reaches beyond this logical and narrowly-defensible theory and tumbles into rhetorical incoherence. It’s one thing to argue that Kirby, Ditko and other indisputably-talented visual artists deserve greater (and legal) recognition for their creative role. It is another to draw an overly-broad conclusion that implicates all writers and artists into some grand aesthetic construct that automatically elevates the most mediocre artist over the most talented writer simply by dint of their roles in the production process.

Schumer carves out exceptions for the likes of visually-minded writers like Alan Moore and Harvey Kurtzman, but why stop there? Even the examples he cites in the essay are contentious and inconclusive at best. Lash and Sacks do a better job than I could at pointing out that set of problems. I would add that most film scholars would dispute the (ahem) authority and comprehensiveness that Schumer imputes to auteur theory, but he applies this framework with a categorical insistence that defies common sense and invites ridicule.

At the end of the day, the whole enterprise savors more of polemic than a scholarly inquiry, and Schumer’s barely-concealed disdain for Stan Lee panders to the worst elements of pro-Kirby boosterism while not doing Jack’s cause any real good among the unconverted.

Schumer is a grade-A propagandist and wrapped the whole essay in a visually-dynamic design. He is a tireless advocate of his cause, and his subject matter knowledge is beyond dispute. The essay is, if nothing else, worthy of discussion. You can order a print copy here (and also contribute to the Kirby Museum), and if you are in LA on November 8-9, be sure to catch the Arlen Schumer Experience live as he discusses a much more agreeable topic, Illustration and Design in Comics.

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