You’re Drawing it, Too?
Updated: Mar 21, 2022
When words aren't enough to tell a story.
As I’ve been talking about creating a graphic novel, it’s been a surprise when people stop me and ask if I'm going to draw it as well. For me, there’s no alternative—most of the comics that I admire most were the work of a single writer-illustrator. But it’s easy to see that the two disciplines seem separate.
The mainstream mass-production lines at DC and Marvel have perpetuated this approach, since it’s more efficient to have a writer working on the next issue while the artist completes the current one. (Lots of artists don’t even get to ink their work, much less color or letter them.) There’s no lack of great pairings there, from Stan Lee / Jack Kirby to Alan Moore / Dave Gibbons, among many others. But it does make me wonder what solo work we may have missed.
The legendary Harvey Kurtzman could do it all, but he took a lo-o-o-ng time to write and layout his stories—so he was forced to collaborate with a stable of illustrators to meet his deadlines. Because he would break down each page panel-by-panel with fairly detailed sketches, his voice came through whether the final art was rendered by John Severin or Will Elder. I particularly admire his war comics from EC.
I’m also very fond of “American Splendor” comics written by the late, great Harvey Pekar, who partnered with dozens of different artists to illustrate his memoirs. Even though his stories were rigorously autobiographical, the range of art styles changed the way readers perceived Harvey. Even his future wife Joyce Brabner wondered “which Harvey” she would encounter in their first meeting, based on all of the various portrayals.
But my favorite comics tend to be the work of a single creator. That began with the example of newspaper cartoonists, whose strips tended to be the work of a single auteur (although many employed assistants for the grunt work of cutting paper and lettering balloons, or even giving up-and-coming artists a chance to ghost for their celebrity bosses).
Bill Watterson personally created every one of his “Calvin and Hobbes” strips for 10 years, until he’d had enough of shrinking newspaper formats and the daily grind. It’s hard to think of a better match between look and feel than Gary Larson on the quietly surreal “The Far Side.” Most famously, Charles Schulz wrote and drew every one of his 18,000 “Peanuts” strips over 50 years—and he died the day before his last installment was published.
Many of my favorite graphic novelists are equally idiosyncratic. I delighted in Mimi Pond’s quirky memoir “The Customer is Always Wrong” (set in 1970’s Oakland, CA). Chris Ware is simply amazing in his meticulous works that include cutout paper buildings and obsessive layouts (like “Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth”). I've admired Alison Bechdel from her syndicated “Dykes to Watch Out For” through “Fun Home” and beyond. They make writing and drawing comics look easy—which it ain’t.
Nevertheless, that’s exactly what I’m signing up for!