Howdy, MGKommunity. The following is a revised version of a post that first appeared on my blog. Thanks for having me.
The Onion AV Club recently compiled a list called Reinventing the pencil: 21 artists who changed mainstream comics (for better or worse). The purpose of any such list in a magazine or website, whether it’s “100 Greatest ’80s Dance Hits” or “Top 10 Worst-Dressed French Revolutionaries”, isn’t to generate some sort of set-in-stone canon, but rather to invite spirited yet respectful debate and discussion among its readers. (Also: a paycheck for the writer.)
Of course, the result is also a lot of HOW COULD YOU HAVE FORGOTTEN ________ YOU IDIOT THIS IS A LIST OF LIES, but what can you do?
In the same spirit, lucky people that you are, I’ve come up with a list for comics writers in the same spirit as the Onion piece with some things to keep in mind:
1.) These are not ranked in any order, although the top four are set apart as being, I think, harder to argue.
2.) These are going to be superhero-heavy because the original article says “mainstream,” and I tried to keep to that.
3.) This is a “for better or for worse” situation. There’s writers on here I don’t care for and writers I do, writers whose work I like but who’ve influenced a lot of lesser writers, and so on.
4.) There’s going to be editorializing, but it ultimately it’s a non-academic list made by one human guy who has not read every comic book ever. There would be editorializing whether I meant for it or not.
1. Stan Lee
’Nuff said? Again, these aren’t really ranked, but I don’t really think there’s a bigger game-changer than Lee. His once-wild innovations and experiments have become the very basic building blocks of mainstream superhero comics. He’s the Beatles of comics writers; you’re influenced by him even if you do not intend to be.
2. Alan Moore
Introducing new levels of literary sophistication to mainstream comics, Moore’s almost inarguably number two behind Lee, though I think (and Moore seems to agree in interviews) that his influence has been mostly destructive. To me, Watchmen demands that you either reject superhero comics for their disconnect from real life and their inability to tackle morally complex situations, or you accept the trade-off of simplicity for symbolism and power. The third option, of course, has been the most prevalent, and that is to simply graft “mature” themes onto “immature” superhero comics and hope that the resultant birth favors the mature side. It usually does not.
3. Chris Claremont
Things Claremont pioneered – or at least popularized – with X-Men: 1.) “Voice” in comics, no matter how hideously purple some of his prose and dialogue can seem today. 2.) Plugging his own interests (Japan, etc.) into the work, often veering into self-indulgence. 3.) Moral ambiguity, resulting in villains who are sympathetic (Magneto) and heroes who cross lines traditional superheroes after the ’40s never would (Wolverine, Gambit). 4.) Probably most importantly, true soap-opera-style plotting over a long run of comics, with complicated character arcs taking years to pay off.
4. Neil Gaiman
On this list for some of the same reasons as Alan Moore but with some distinct differences. For one, Gaiman wore the literary business on his sleeve a bit more, to the point of threatening to become overly showy. For another, Watchmen, for all its achievements, is still a superhero story (or at least a story about superheroes), while Sandman is a fantasy comic. His mature-readers work showed that comics could, after decades of absolute dominance by superheroes, reach a different audience (including that elusive, nigh-mythical female reader).
Those are some of the more obvious ones. Here’s some that I’d think could invite a little more debate.
5. Jerry Siegel
For inventing, along with Joe Shuster, the most basic building blocks of the superhero myth – the costume, the secret identity, the powers, the very name “Superman,” which gave us the word “superhero.”
6. Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson
Because everything that we associate with Batman comes pretty much from them (and I’d say it’s probably the most powerful mythos in all of comics), and for the advent of the superhero with his motivation in tragedy.
7. Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
For essentially inventing the horror comic with EC’s New Trend, creating a craze that really only lasted a couple years but is still immensely influential. For being one of the reasons why there was a Comics Code. For the “We’re all pals here” approach they took to fan interaction, which would pave the way for Stan Lee’s jocular narration and editorial style.
8. Harvey Pekar
If American Splendor wasn’t the first autobiographical comic, it’s the first one anybody seems to remember. Stretching the definition of “mainstream”? Perhaps, but given the sheer abundance of autobio comics (especially webcomics, which may or may not be the new mainstream), I’d hate to leave him off just so Mark Millar or somebody could get on here.
9. Warren Ellis
I don’t think Ellis gets enough credit for being influential. When superhero comics seemed mostly to be trying to do some sort of Silver Age revival in the late ’90s, Ellis gave the middle finger to nostalgia and invented “widescreen comics” with The Authority. Ellis’ Authority begat Mark Millar’s Authority, which begat Millar’s Ultimates, which begat Millar’s Civil War, which begat the return of the massive crossover. So about half of the most awful stuff Marvel and DC are doing these days is traceable back to Ellis. Not that he’d care, I suppose.
10. Gardner Fox
Stan Lee created the first comics “universe,” but might Fox’s Earth-1/Earth-2 stuff have been the first comics cosmology? For good or ill, the idea of complex continuity you can actually catalogue stems from him.
11. Mort Weisinger
Not technically a writer, but all that wacky ’50s stuff we associate with Superman reportedly came from him (and, if rumors are to be believed, as some sort of odd therapy), and ’50s Superman is arguably the most infamous of all Supermen. Writers keep trying to shy away from the Fortress of Solitude and Super Pets and multicolored Kryptonite, but Weisinger’s mythology inevitably creeps back in.
12. Len Wein
Perhaps less for his work itself and more for what it led to. He created, after all, Wolverine, the X-Men, Swamp Thing and others, and as an editor helped bring Watchmen into being. Grant Morrison credits him as a big influence, and hey, speaking of him…
13. Grant Morrison
Superhero comics’ foremost re-imaginer freshens up stagnant properties by reintegrating elements that might have been dismissed as outdated seamlessly into a modern aesthetic, while at the same time taking the franchise in uncharted directions. His ultracompetent Batman is still the standard characterization for Bruce Wayne, and he made people believe that you could do an A-list Justice League roster again. Even on books like New X-Men where his work is largely undone after he leaves, the abrupt break from years of wheel-spinning gave creators a new starting point, if only to reject everything Morrison’s done.
14. Brian Michael Bendis
Probably the biggest writer shaping Marvel today. His superhero work seems to de-emphasize plot; villains and fights are really only MacGuffins to facilitate characterization and interaction, and shuffling around the status quo. However you feel about this approach, and the rise of “showrunners” at Marvel and DC, it’s here to stay for a while longer, at least. Bendis works long-term on a scale even Claremont never dared.
15. J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen
People still use “Bwa-ha-ha” to describe superhero comics like their Justice League that lampoon conceits of the genre while still playing by their rules. At best, DeMatteis and Giffen let the air out of the tires and keep us from taking our beloved superhero narratives too deadly seriously. At worst, it makes us complacent, believing that laughing at the occasional goofy third-string character is all it takes to make a comic book “mature.”
16. Roy Thomas
Roy the Boy set a precedent for how a writer follows up on the Stan Lee stories that make up the foundation of the Marvel Universe (and thus defined how DC writers would eventually make use of their own continuity).
17. Steve Gerber
For bringing personal politics and satire into it, and showing that superhero comics could be a vessel to explore greater themes (while still being good superhero comics in their own right).
18. Denny O’Neil
O’Neil introduced “relevance” to superheroes (by which we usually mean “superheroes dealing with real-world issues”) to modern comics with Green Lantern/Green Arrow, however hamfisted. Also, I suppose, for his ’70s refocusing of Batman as a grimmer sort of chap.
19. Frank Miller
His development of the “grim ‘n’ gritty” approach alone would make him on the list, as would Dark Knight Returns, but both of them together?
20. Carl Barks
He’s on the Onion’s list for the art, but he wrote all those stories, too! Aside from his contributions to Disney’s catalogue of trademarks, he showed that sheer quality could rise a comic creator from anonymity … that the people working on the comic were just as important, if not moreso, than the characters themselves.
21. Geoff Johns
I’m not totally confident on this one; at times he seems so backward-looking that it can be difficult to say what new he really brings to the table, but it’s hard to argue his approach is becoming influential. Time will tell, but I think Johns will be remembered as important … for better or for worse.
So … who did I leave off, and why am I an idiot for having done so? (Edit: Also, who would you take out of my 21 to add your pick?)