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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8 Responses to Does Comics Need an Auteur Theory?

  1. Salkowitz says: “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,” missing the boat at the dock and the forest for the trees: as long as he (and all his like-minded writer contemporaries) considers the artwork in comics–bringing a collaborating writer’s words to visual life–as merely “roles in the production process,” and not an ESSENTIAL (read: “auteur”) role in the CREATIVE process, we’ll never leave square one.

  2. Patrick Lemaire says:

    It isn’t very scholarly indeed but Arlen disdains writers and writing. I don’t think he’s a grade-A propagandist. While his theory has many holes, it is interesting that even allowing it, we wind up with Stan Lee as the auteur of Marvel Comics. Just as a director manages the various elements, screenplay, actors, photography, Stan Lee the editor controlled the content, what type of story Kirby or Ditko were supposed to write, the inker, letterer, colorist, he shifted them from feature to feature and regularly reinterpreted the delivered stories with his script and dialogue. He decided to spotlight the characters in other series, engaged the readers to participate via no-prizes, etc.

  3. And if a “most talented writer” has the unfortunate fate of having his “most talented” script illustrated by the “most mediocre artist”? Guess what, Salkowitz? Yeah, it means it’ll be a lousy comic book reading experience, because that mediocre artist is the auteur now of that comic book-reading experience.

  4. I notice that NEITHER Salkowitz nor you, Lemaire, bother to ever actually QUOTE from my essay, not even ONCE in ALL your published rants. Real professional critics would’ve quoted me and THEN rebutted it. All you both wrote are general put-downs, like Salkowitz’s “rhetorical incoherence”; care to quote some of that of mine? I’m all ears!

  5. And lemme ask you both something: if Herman Mankiewicz’s screenplay for Citizen Kane had been filmed/directed by Ed Wood, you think it would’ve won an Oscar? After all, he was a “most talented writer,” wasn’t he? But the poor guy got saddled with Ed Wood, who autered his CK script into an Ed Wood film! Poor Herman! Same thing in comics, folks! A great script is still a great script (like stan’s dialoguing)–but the artist/director is STILL the AUTEUR of the finished artistic product. You both (all?) still DON’T GET IT.

  6. And lastly (for now) Salkowitz, why not actually QUOTE from my AT essay, like a REAL professional critic would do, versus your cowardly general put-downs and broadside generalities like my “rhetorical incoherence”? Let’s see an actual example of that, Salkowitz–we’re all ears!

  7. oops! Reposted that last comment by mistake! Feel free to remove it and this!

  8. Terry Levin says:

    All one has to do to accurately assess the relative contributions of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby is look at each creator’s work without the other. Lee’s collaborations with Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Wally Wood, etc., resulted in comics equal to and in some cases superior to his work with Kirby. Kirby’s non-Lee comics of the same general period (Challengers of the Unknown, the Fourth World saga) were very well drawn but lacked the heart and soul of contemporary Marvel work. I regard Lee-Kirby the same as Lennon-McCartney: both very talented creators who, together, created a whole greater than its parts. As for Schumer, lighten up, dude. There’s nothing sadder than a critic who can’t take criticism.

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