The first mock-up of the cover for The Warren Commission Report: A Graphic Investigation into the Kennedy Assassination showed that the book was “by” me and “illustrated by” Ernie Colón and Jerzy Drozd. An ego boost for sure, but also a pretty insane way to describe the writers and artists of a comic book. I said as much to the folks at Abrams ComicArts, our publisher, and they quickly rectified the situation. The credit line now just lists our three names.
My objection to the original credits is twofold: the idea that I’m the true author, the possessor of the singular vision that carried the work through from conception to completion; and the description of what comic book artists do as “illustration.” Unless one person really is doing it all, making comics is a collaborative effort; and the people who draw them are not illustrators—certainly not in the sense that they provide adornment for a finished text, or even that the pictures they create explain or clarify some aspect of that text. With no slight intended toward artists of children’s picture books or those who do spot illustrations for novels (many of whose names will be lauded long after mine is forgotten), what comic book artists do is something different.
That is, comic book art is not an aid to understanding the narrative; it is central to it. It is the thing itself. Because without the drawings, there’s really no narrative at all—at best, there’s a sketchy and frustratingly incomplete blueprint for one. The visual thinking—the visual storytelling thinking—that artists bring to a project is essential to making the narrative work, and writers ignore or reject it at their peril.
Even in a book like The Warren Commission Report—which began with a huge amount of content that had to be considered, selected and organized, and where that selection process was almost entirely in my hands—it was essential for me to be open and responsive to the artists at work.
For one thing, Ernie now has a long track record in nonfiction comics, starting with The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation in 2006; and in that book he devised a particular reportorial visual style that I needed to understand and internalize (as did Jerzy) in order for us to work effectively as a team. That style plays a crucial role in establishing the fairness and objectivity of the narrative, and I could not have conceived of it myself.
On the other hand, to portray me as “author,” and Ernie and Jerzy as “illustrators,” rather underplays my role in the finished art, even while overstating the mighty force of my guiding intellect. I thought long and hard about what each page would look like, drawing on more than thirty years of comic book writing experience to find the best and most apt techniques of visual storytelling to use. Not just the basics, like making sure I didn’t clutter the page—though Ernie will correctly say the early drafts didn’t always succeed at that—but choices related to compressing or expanding the action; what image should dominate a page; appropriate balloon placement (a visual element just as much as it’s a textual one); and the use of color to provide cues about both factual and emotion content.
The truth is, as anyone who has worked in comics will tell you, readers regularly praise or pan an artist for something the writer bears greater responsibility for, and vice versa.
And yet, when I look at comic book reviews in places like The New York Times, what I see is that old formulation: “by Writer X, illustrated by Artist Y.”
Of course you don’t have to tell me that the “illustrator” credit has plenty of history in comics, used liberally when credits started to appear in monthly titles, especially at Marvel. I suspect, though, that the term was at that time meant to elevate the presumed hack scribbler working in a gutter medium. “Illustrator” sure sounds important.
But it’s the wrong word. And to use it now, I think, perpetuates a pernicious misunderstanding of what the people who draw and write comics actually do. If a rough distinction has to be made regarding who did what, I’d say that “written by” and “drawn by” are much closer to the mark—it’s the “drawn-ness” of comics that makes their narratives unique, after all.
What I know for certain is that a story told in comics is told collaboratively, by everyone whose name is in the credits, not “authored” by one and then “illustrated” by another.