Friday, July 17, 2009

The Auteur Theory

In the comments to my original X-post a week or so ago, dddoofus made the following comment, in reference to the current reduced circumstances of the X-books:
I notice everyone here is focused on blaming the writers. But notice that [the] X-Men's high points in terms of sales and popularity were always because a new artist showed up who draws different than everyone who came before.

The Neal Adams era, the Cockrum/Byrne era, Jim lee era, and Joe Madureira era. I'm not saying all these artists were great or even that I enjoyed all of them, but they all were something new and different when they showed up. and people payed attention.
People read X-men for Byrne or Jim Lee, not Claremont. When Jim Lee showed up X-men was the most popular comic book in America.
This makes a lot of sense, and to a degree I think it's a necessary corrective to the line of reasoning into which many critics (such as myself) naturally fall: mainstream comics as an auteur's medium, whose successes occur as a direct result of a writer's vision and his (usually his, since we're talking about mainstream comics) ability to wrest control over the corporate production line utilized in the creation of superhero books.

Sometimes this is a more accurate assertion than others - Neil Gaiman's Sandman is obviously Neil Gaiman's book, and the best proof of that is the the series' original artist left within the first year due to creative disagreements with Gaiman. Starman was James Robinson's baby; Punisher MAX was Garth Ennis through and through. But Uncanny X-Men wasn't some (relative to mainstream tastes) art-house critical darling: it was mainstream comics. Every artist who worked for any significant time on the main X-book became industry superstars - save for Paul Smith, who purposefully chose not to be. I think it is safe to say that in terms of immediate appeal, the art was the primary reason why Uncanny X-Men became and remained Marvel's ostensible flagship title* through most of the 80s and 90s.

But pointing out that the book was the visual trendsetter not just for Marvel but for the entire industry doesn't really take away from Claremont's achievement, or from what I believe to be his central responsibility for the flagship's success. He was, after all, the one common denominator. If he had left the book when Byrne left, who knows what would have happened. Bill Mantlo? What if Byrne had managed to push Claremont off the book? It might still have been popular, but every creative shift changes direction. It might have tanked after a year of fill-ins. Who the hell knows? The point is: the fact that the same writer remained, year in and year out, created a consistency and continuity that in turn fostered the situation wherein the company's best and brightest art stars were naturally drawn the company's biggest book - and the book remained big because all the hotshot artists were drawn to it, and they were drawn to it because it was a consistent and recognizable brand. And it was able to remain consistent for all those years because of one man: Chris Claremont.

So, this is the distinction I'm attempting to draw: the book was incredibly popular in large part because it had the best art in the industry throughout the majority of Claremont's run. That would have been the reason why it sold so well, why it appealed to burgeoning readers looking for the coolest book. I don't want to say something as stupid as "kids love looking at the pictures, grown-ups like reading the words", but there is a grain of truth in the assertion that eye-popping visuals will hook kids far more consistently than even the most awesome story content. I mean, seriously, if you're seven or eight or nine and you're getting sick of Mickey Mouse and want to try something your parents might not be quite so thrilled about, something with a hint of transgression and danger and risque content, what are you gonna do? You're gonna scan the racks for something that looks like this or this or this. Something that looks like you might need to hide it between the covers of your mattresses. Something that you imagine your older brother might want to read.

But the reason the book was blockbuster was that it had spent years crawling up from the abyss of Marvel's back bench, building its readership person by person and slowly assembling the building blocks of what would eventually stand revealed as an invincible sales juggernaut. What was the foundation? Consistency. Look at Daredevil: before Frank Miller, one of Marvel's consistent underachievers. Sold well during Miller. But then whenever Miller left, the book fell on rocky shores. Most books have occasional well-regarded runs interspersed by long low valleys of nothin' special. This happens as a result of the fact that these books, for the vast majority of their history, have placed a premium not so much on being really good as being on time. Imagine a book that gains a reputation for being really good month in and month out, and builds that reputation not just for being good for a year or two years or even five years, but 17 years. The reason why the book had the best artists is that it sold well, and the reason it sold well was that it had the best artists - it really is a chicken & egg situation, which is one reason why it's hard to definitively say one way or another what single element was of premium importance.

But I'll do it anyway: the single most important element was Chris Claremont. If the reason the book sold was because it had the artists, the reason it had the artists was that it had the momentum as a top-seller, and it had that momentum was because of consistency - and that consistency came from having the same writer for 17 years. Of course, we're leaving out another very important element - that is, the actual characters themselves and their stories. These elements would eventually prove to be more important than any other single element, at least in terms of the company's understanding of why and how the properties succeed. But that is another conversation.

* I still believe that Fantastic Four is Marvel's flagship, simply because it was the first, although I fully realize this is mainly a sentimental argument. You can probably make a better argument for Amazing Spider-Man.

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