Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #12, and this week’s questions is…
Who are the comic book writers and artists who have had the greatest influence upon me?
The heart of this is not who are the best writers and artists, or who are the most influential to the genre of comics, but rather, who are the most influential for me personally, in terms of my thinking of creativity and storytelling, and so on.
Now, what makes this question a bit challenging is that it’s hard to pin down in what ways professional comic book writers and artists have genuinely influenced me. I mean, I’m sure that with the amount of comics I’ve read that the influence has been there, but it’s not so easy for me to identify exactly what it is. I don’t create comics in general (mostly, I think, because of my lack of artistic talent and the fact that I’ve never strongly pursued finding a collaborator), but I do write scripts and make movies and record audio dramas and occasionally compose prose stories…but I can’t necessarily trace direct influence from my comic book consumption.
What I can do, though, is identify who has been influential to me in terms of my understanding of what a comic book story can be, and how the medium can be used to communicate plot, character, themes and emotions–in other words, how it can convey narrative power.
The idea is for me to list five writers and five artists. Writers is fairly easy for me, artists are more challenging–I can recognize the differences between some artists, but a lot of the nuances escape me. As a result, I’ll probably have more to say about writers than artists, and in fact I’m going to tweak the list by including six writers and four artists. And in fact, two of those artists I mostly know from stuff that they wrote as well. But anyway, we’ll give this a go, and I’ll list each one in their category in order of their birth year, just to try something different.
Influential Comic Book Writers
Notable Works: Suicide Squad
So, when I say “Notable Work”, I’m talking about the work that actually influence me, not necessarily their best known work (although it might be).
Reading John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad now definitely reveals some bumps, but there is no mistaking that the book pulls off an impressive feat: taking an extreme concept (criminals bought by the US government to go on black op missions) and marrying it to brilliant character development and gripping plots. It was impressive how Ostrander could juggle together so many characters with such disparate points of view, and make them all feel compelling. The heroes, the villains, and the supporting characters alike all felt like real people that you completely captivating, even if they were at the same time mostly horrible people.
In terms of influence, I think the thing that Ostrander showed me in the 1980’s incarnation of Suicide Squad that stories could tell intense, “adult” stories without resorting to a lot of graphic content. There were a lot of people doing horrible things in that book, and a lot of unsettling deaths (even while there was a lot of heroic stuff) but never the type of off-putting gruesome spectacle that you’d expect to find in such a story nowadays.
Ostrander’s characters in Suicide Squad also included a couple of Christians who were genuinely working through their faith. There were others with sincerely held belief systems as well, but it was encouraging to me as a young Christian to see a couple of people of similar faith (Nightshade, Father Craemer, and even the more comical Shrike) in a non-religiously-themed book, and made the whole thing feel more real.
John Ostrander also wrote Martian Manhunter for a while, which I’ve read the first trade paperback for (it’s great) and a Batman miniseries I liked a lot called Gotham Knights (which you can read about here). He also did an interesting series called The Kents, which was a pastiche of American frontier history with the ancestors of Jonathan Kent thrown into a whole range of real-life situations.
Notable Works: Watchmen, Tom Strong, Supreme, Superman
So, this is a reluctant pick for me. Alan Moore is generally considered the most celebrated name in graphic novel writing. His Watchmen is routinely considered to be the very finest example of superhero fiction that has ever graced our mortal coil, if not the greatest comic book ever. And it a striking piece of work–an intricate character study wrapped around a deconstructionist plot that took everyone by surprise because they had never seen anything quite like it. It’s brilliantly structured, and managed to subvert expectations left, right and center, about what a superhero story should be.
However, I don’t really like it. I don’t enjoy reading it, and it’s never made me want to go back to it, and I find it’s bleak outlook to be dreary and uninspiring, and I’d rather read pretty much any other work I’ll mention on this list.
But the thing is that Watchmen isn’t all Alan Moore ever did, not by a long shot. He also did some great work on Superman. Just a few issues, but they were some pretty memorable ones.
He also did Tom Strong, where he basically reinvented the whole idea of superhero fiction, imagining instead that the early pulp heroes (like Doc Savage, Tarzan and so on) had remained the basic template for comic book adventures, and going from there. At it’s best, it’s an amazing piece of work.
And beyond that he did Supreme, which took a violent Superman subversion and turned him into a tribute to the entire Silver Age of Superman stories, and a forum of ongoing reflection and commentary over the whole history of comics.
Also, he did The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which various public domain characters from famous novels band together to fight public domain menaces from other novels, all at the dawn of the 20th century. The second volume had them dealing with the Martian invasion from War of the Worlds. The whole thing was almost too clever to talk about, though quite brutal and intense.
And on top of that he did a bunch of straightforward superhero stuff, with characters like Superman and Green Arrow for DC Comics.
All this to say that although a lot of Alan Moore’s work is unpleasant and off-putting to me, no one can deny the man’s potential range of work…of critically acclaimed, highly vaunted work. He demonstrated his skill not just by barrelling through with his personal vision for things, but by working to the strengths of his artists and creating things that would allow them to shine as well.
When I considered the description of “influential” that I wrote above, in terms of showing me what a comic book could be, I found that I couldn’t ignore Alan Moore’s contribution to the medium, as much as I’d like to sometimes.
Notable Works: Legion of Super-Heroes
So, the Legion of Super-Heroes is my all-time favorite comic book property, and Paul Levitz is a big part of the concept’s enduring appeal to me. Levitz actually had three runs as writer on the Legion, but it was his second one in the 1980’s that turned the book into a sprawling science fiction epic that grew and developed more than almost anything else that was coming out at the time. Levitz had the ability to handle a cast of literally dozens of main characters, make all their characterization sharp and clear, and to involve them in an overlapping series of plotlines that always kept his book engaging. Punctuating this were giant epic tales where the massively powerful Legion would be confronted by threats that were both galactic and personal. His storytelling pacing and rhythm was masterful, and the sort of thing you can only get one a writer stays with a book for a long time (that run was about 110 issues long).
Levitz wasn’t the Legion’s greatest “inventor”, but he was the writer who more than any other before (and I’d say since) maximized the creations of others. So, he’s not the creator of the Legion of Super-Villains, the Emerald Empress, Universo, Lightning Lord, or the Time Trapper but he wrote maybe each ones best story…even, dare I say it, the best story that Darkseid ever appeared in. He could see the potential of these characters and concepts and capitalize on them to create maybe the “ultimate” version of each. This is definitely something I have found in my own writing–some of my most elaborate stories have been expanding on ideas that were originally developed by others. Most of these are not in any sort of shareable form, but you can watch Stingray and see an example of it.
The other thing that Levitz did that I really enjoyed was that he did his own letter columns. Usually, this was the job of an assistant editor (back in the day when there were letter columns) but in Levitz’s Legion you got comments from the man himself, responding to fan’s comments, requests and complaints with an openness and humility that you was really enjoyable. This probably came from Levitz’s background in fanzines and fan culture–he helped to makes us all feel like we were part of something together with the book, even if I never wrote a letter to the Legion myself.
Notable Works: Astro City, Superman: Secret Identity, JLA / Avengers, Avengers
Kurt Busiek is a guy whose work has completely reshaped my idea of the types of stories one can tell in the types of shared superhero universes that comic books have made popular. Astro City–which I wrote about just recently–is an original series that takes place in such a universe. It’s original because all of the characters were created for the series, but it’s familiar because it uses the tropes that Marvel and DC have been using for decades as a springboard for all of its stories.
But rather than just retelling the sorts of stories that we’ve been reading about all this time, it peels back the curtain and fills in the gaps–between issues, between panels–all the other things that were going on, all the things that we never got to read about. The big superhero stuff that we all know so well, that’s the backdrop, the setting, or the framework. We get that stuff in quick asides, or a couple of brief panels. But then we’re finding out how the epic super-villain battle impacts the lives of ordinary people, or even the superheroes themselves.
Maybe we’re seeing a story about a doorman of a hotel who constantly encounters tourists interested in seeing superheroes in action, or about a young superhero who wants to know how ordinary kids live, or about a comic book writer in a world where superheroes are real. Maybe it’s a story that shows you what happens when a hero gets sick of his love-interest constantly trying to expose his secret identity, or when a career criminal tries to go straight, or when a daredevil hero finds that he is getting older. The series brings to life the humanity and naturalism of these characters and situations.
But, and this is important, Astro City is in no way trying to be “realistic”. This isn’t deconstruction, it’s not showing what would happen if superheroes existed in the real world. No, Astro City is more posing a question like what if the high-fantasy / science fiction world of comic books was real? What would be happening that existing comics normally don’t focus on? And then it answers that question in one engaging story after another.
How did Kurt Busiek influence me? He showed me that superhero stories could be bright and optimistic, and thoughtful and emotive at the same time, while remaining endlessly varied.
Notable Works: The Flash, The Legion of Super-Heroes, Kingdom Come, JLA Year One, Superman Birthright, The Incredibles, Archie, Brave and the Bold, etc etc
It may be that Mark Waid is actually the most influential comic book writer in my life, the one who has taught me the most about how to craft a story. He wrote big chunks of the Legion of Super-Heroes, which I’ve already mentioned is my favorite all time series, but it’s his work on The Flash that really caught my attention. Waid was writing The Flash when Wally West was the title character, and it was during his run that Wally grew firmly into the role, erasing for many (including myself) any wish to see his predecessor, Barry Allen, return to life (after he’d died during Crisis on Infinite Earths).
The high point of the run was The Return of Barry Allen, in which Wally believes that Barry has returned from the dead, but finds that the hero of his memory is only a shadow of what he believed. The story is one of the all time best examples of plot marrying character, as Wally’s growth as a man and a hero is absolutely central to what was a big deal plot point at the time, the long-dead Silver Age Flash returning to life.
Of course there is work that Mark Waid has done which I’m not a big fan of, but there’s so much I’ve liked across so many titles…from Archie to The Incredibles to Kingdom Come. And he regularly shows the strengths that we got from his Flash series–there are inventive plots that are always firmly grounded in the characters, full of clever dialogue. But maybe the most notable thing is the Waid’s ability to complete, fully satisfying individual issues which still fit as part of the larger narrative. In other words, every chapter of his longer arcs gives you a full, complete story experience, even while still leaving you a cliffhanger for what comes next. That makes reading his work genuinely enjoyable.
That talent probably doesn’t influence me enough, but it does give me something to aspire to, particularly as I really enjoy serialized storytelling.
Gene Luen Yang
Notable Works: Boxers and Saints, Animal Crackers, Secret Coders, The Eternal Smile and Other Stories, Prime Baby
And we arrive at the first creator on this list who is actually younger than me! Or maybe the only one? Gene Luen Yang is an Asian-American writer and cartoonist, and I was tempted to count him as one of my influential artists just to keep the lists to the originally requested 5 and 5, but though I enjoy his imagery it’s really as a writer that the man has impacted me.
In the last few years, Gene Yang has done a lot of work for DC, writing Superman and then eventually introducing the “New Super-man”, a Chinese character, as part of DC’s Rebirth initiative. I’ve enjoyed some of this (particularly the first New Super-Man trade), but it’s his less mainstream “independent” stuff that really caused me to take notice. Particularly, it was a book called Animal Crackers. It featured three separated but interrelated stories, all of which involved food as a theme: In the first , recovering bully Gordon Yamamoto finds that his animal crackers have come to life and have become avatars, of a sort, to the hatred of one of his former victims. In the second, a baker foolishly creates a new recipe for a cupcake that turns into malevolent rhinoceros. And in the third, Loyola Chin discovers that she can dream herself into different fantasy worlds by eating particular odd combinations of food before sleeping. As I’ve written before, I’m sort of in awe of this collection. They include young angst and trauma, mixed with the fantastic and the absurd and a easy-going touch that includes a lot of humor.
Really, across so much of Yang’s work, including most of what I listed above, there is so much bizarre wierdness, but an equal amount of serious exploration of difficult themes. The stories are about identity, about forgiveness, about healing and about redemption. A lot of this I believe comes out of Yang’s perspective as a Christian, and so maybe one of the most significant parts of his work for me is his ability talk about both challenging topics and absurdist humor while allowing his worldview to shine through, sometimes overtly and sometimes not. When it’s overt, he always avoids the temptation to use faith as a quick fix, instead inviting some serious grappling over deep issues.
Maybe that was never more evident than in his double volume work, Boxers and Saints, which tells two separate but intertwined stories during China’s Boxer Rebellion–one from the perspective of a guy who views himself as a cultural protector of China, and the other from the point of view of a girl who has become a Christian because of the work of foreign missionaries. It’s a gripping piece of work that kept my attention over one night until I had finished them both.
Influential Comic Book Artists
Notable Works: New Gods, Mister Miracle
Really, if we like American superhero comics, than Jack Kirby influenced us all, whether we know it or not. As a co-creator of the Marvel Universe, he certainly influenced me, and helped to even get me into superhero comics in the first place. But if I’m thinking about the stuff that has actually made me think about storytelling and creativity, than I’m going to his Fourth World saga–the four interconnected titles that he produced when he first moved to DC Comics in the 1970’s. These were something I read relatively recently in my life, and got a lot of enjoyment out of.
Now, truth be told, I’m not the biggest fan of Jack Kirby’s actual illustrative style. His people always look a bit lumberingly awkward. But the pacing of his storytelling–especially in something like his Fourth World books where he was in charge of everything–was brilliant. Really, Kirby was one of the best visual storytellers at crafting his single issues so they resulted in the ideal length of reading experience–neither too long nor too short. Each issue of New Gods, Mister Miracle, The Forever People or Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen had a couple of full page pictures, or even double-page spreads, but it never felt like a cheat. The stories were just that big, and even when you feel like you’re breezing through part of an issue you’d still felt fully immersed into an epic.
Notable Works: Sword of the Atom
Sword of the Atom? Really? That’s the book you’re going to cite when talking about Gil Kane? Not Green Lantern? Amazing Spider-Man? Action Comics? Regular, non-swordy Atom?
No, it’s true. As a young comic fan, I came across a new miniseries called Sword of the Atom and I was hooked! The story was interesting (Ray Palmer finds out his wife is having an affair, so he goes on a trip to get his head together, gets in a plane crash and gets stuck in a miniaturized state and meets some fetching aliens who are conveniently the same height, and proceeds to have a John Carter-esque adventure with them.
But what really caught my eye was the art by Gil Kane (who also plotted the story). I had no idea the guy was such a legend. Even when I saw Kane at a local comic shop and got his autograph, I was confused that the guy in front of me was having him draw a sketch of Green Lantern. Why Green Lantern, buddy? Don’t you know that this guy draws the Atom…with a sword?!
Gil Kane’s compositions were strong, his storytelling clear, and his action sequences dynamic. But what really made him stand out to me was the actual rendering of the imagery. I just loved looking at the lines that Kane used to create his illustrations. It had a rough quality, but unbelievably dynamic which brought the images to life for me. I eventually learned that this was,in part, a function of the fact that Kane was inking his own pencils. Whenever anyone else did the finishes on his art, it would still be strong but not draw me so intensely.
Trevor Von Eeden
Notable Works: Thriller
Trevor von Eeden has a long and varied comic career, but it’s DC’s Thriller that has stuck with me over the years. This was a short-lived adventure series that was disconnected from the rest of DC continuity, about a semi-dystopian world and a team of seven unusual operatives who worked together to try to save it. Originally written by Robert Loren Fleming, the series only ran 12 issues, and Von Eeden only drew 8 of them, but in the format of the series (a higher quality than “regular” comics) he was given tremendous opportunity to experiment and innovate.
Techniques that are pretty standard now were blowing my little mind at the time, as images broke out of panel borders, and layouts defied common categorizations. The book was on one hand a bit impenetrable, but as a result invited repeated re-readings, and Von Eeden’s dynamic imagery was a big part of that.
Notable Works: Bone
Jeff Smith is more often referred to as a cartoonist, rather than a comic book artist, but that seems to be just a function of what sort of drawings one produces, more than anything else. Smith’s Bone, which is his most famous work and the one that I mainly know him from, has got lots of “cartoony” elements, with characters rendered in broader artistic terms, talking animals & funny monsters, and the like, but it all came out in short-form serialized comics, so is there really any meaningful difference?
Bone is an impressive piece of work, as it combines those cartoony elements (reminiscent of things like Peanuts or Pogo) with epic high-stakes adventure along the lines of Lord of the Rings. But in that all, what I really find notable about Smith’s artwork is his skill with comic timing, for which he often uses silent action panels to help create, and the “acting” of the characters in the story.
I’ve read somewhere that Smith’s work habit is to do the fine artwork on his figure’s faces when he’s at his freshest, so that that aspect of the work would be the strongest, and if this is true it really shows. The book is full of powerful and clear personalities, which of course are conveyed through action and dialogue, but most prominently through a non-stop series of memorable facial expressions. And Smith is able to do this whether his characters are human, the unspecified Bones, or even monsters like the Rat-Creatures. This quality makes his work not just enjoyable, but actually delightful, to read.
Aaaaand, that’s it. There’s lots, of course, that I didn’t mention, but these ten guys are influenced me and my thinking about comics and creativity in general in one way or another, even if they’re not all favorites of mine. Anybody else have ten or five or even one influential comic book creator that you’d like to share? Otherwise, see you next week.