Bryan Talbot interview: giving comic book artists the recognition they deserve

Unfairly overlooked in favour of their writing colleagues, comic book artists seldom get their dues. Here, Andrew chats to artist Bryan Talbot about the subject…

We all love comics, right? They’re high-low-culture cinematic visions that you’d never see at a multiplex, avant garde tales of human experience on multiple levels, or whatever the hell else they want to be. There’s a comic for everyone, and with over a hundred years’ worth to pick from, it’s hardly surprising. You might think you don’t like comics, but you do – you just don’t know which ones yet.

“Who makes comics?” is a simple enough question, but with many variable answers. In general, though, people will answer with the names of writers, and writers of Marvel or DC publications. They are better known among casual readers and fans alike. I can guarantee you the number of people who picked up Nemesis in the shops and declared, “Oh cool, it’s the guy who did the art in Civil War” is in single figures. Steve McNiven is listed as the co-creator of Nemesis, in the same way that Bryan Hitch is for The Ultimates.

Hitch also co-created The Authority, and it’s impossible to separate Warren Ellis’ decompressed gargantuan sci-fi wonderthon from Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary and Laura DePuy’s awesome (an overused word, here applicable) depictions of alternative realities, dimension ships the size of cities, and God. These are some of the highest profile cases, but still, the artist’s role seems diminished in the creative process. McNiven’s lines were, while far from his best, probably the virtue of Nemesis, but he’s not the reason that people pick up Clint.

Superheroes, comics’ main representative in popular culture, are just the most visible part of the fractal. Jonathan Cape Publishers, along with Fantagraphics and Self Made Hero, are putting out a lot of interesting, non-superhero work at the moment, where the art and the story are the work of one person. While sales are on the increase in general, new writers will still find their work shifting fewer units than a sub-par Batman comic. Then again, as Stewart Lee has shown with his stand-up, a small and loyal following will give you all the time, money and acclaim you need to keep going. 

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It’s a smaller section of fans who would buy something purely for the artwork. The very nature of these one-person, literary graphic novels is different enough from mainstream comics to make the artwork alone a reason to buy. The ideal, obviously, is a perfect marriage of storytelling disciplines where the story is king. I feel, though, that the credit given for the final story is skewed in favour of writers.

The process starts with the writer. Their script can range from page long descriptions of single frames, detailing the domestic arrangements of foreground insects, or simply stating, “Dredd is on a bike, looking mint”. Without them, though, there is no story, and so nothing to draw. As they’ve elected to use the comic as their medium, no matter how much detail they provide they, are giving someone else the task of storytelling that would otherwise be fulfilled by descriptive prose.

One of the main areas of snobbery surrounding comics as a whole is that, because it has pictures instead of words, it is somehow a lesser form than prose. This is essentially saying that the Mona Lisa would work better as a paragraph detailing the pose of a smug woman with no eyebrows. I don’t consider this hyperbole. Comic book art is still art. Drawings are another way of telling a story, and require a different talent from prose writing, not a lesser one. Is the prose of Stephanie Meyer better than the artwork of Jack Kirby automatically, because of its form?

In cinema, the writer is considered important, but really it’s the director and the cast that people generally look out for. In comics, the artist is in control of nearly every comparable cinematic discipline other than writing the structure and dialogue that the tale hangs on. So says Bryan Talbot, anyway.

Straddling both sides of comic books, having drawn for DC and 2000 AD, as well as working on his own creations since 1978, Talbot is best known for his The Adventures Of Luther Arkwright, Alice In Sunderland, and more recently, Grandville and its follow up, Grandville Mon Amour. He kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.

Are artists not held in the same esteem as writers?

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That depends upon the writers and artists concerned – and the country they’re in. Writers such as Grant Morrison and Alan Moore may be regarded more highly than their artists in the American superhero genre, but in France, for example, artists like Moebius and Schuiten are valued far more than their writers.

As they come in at the end of the process, do inkers get the credit they deserve?

Probably not, though in superhero comics, most of them are simply doing perfunctory commercial work with no personal involvement. They’re just part of a production line.

As the workload is so much greater for the artist, has your experience of payment been equal or skewed towards the writer or the artist? Not naming figures, but when you were starting out did you find things skewed in favour of the writer? Is this similar on publications with a larger readership?

I think the payment system is usually pretty fair. After all, many artists don’t have a clue as to how to create an original story. Though writers can make far more money simply because the writing takes a lot less time. It takes me around a week to write a Grandville script and about a year to draw it. Then again, I’ll have been thinking of the script and making notes for months beforehand, while working on other things. I also rework and polish the script while drawing it.

What do you see the role of the artist as in terms of storytelling?

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The artists obviously have to do all the visual storytelling. They are the equivalent of the actors, cameraman, costume designer, lighting technician, and so forth in a film. In the “Marvel style” of writing, they even have to break the story up into individual panels and, sometimes, pages. To a large extent they control the pacing and atmosphere, not to mention the surface quality.

Obviously, each writer is different, but generally does interpreting a script involve a lot of additional detail that isn’t mentioned?

Of course.

As you’ve been drawing from your own scripts for a while now, do you ever find yourself adding in things while making the artwork that you hadn’t thought of while writing?

Occasionally. I’m a bastard when it comes to writing for myself. I’m always putting things in that I know will look great but that I’ll find hard or very time-consuming to draw.

Having performed both roles, would you say that people respond more to the writing than to the art?

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I’d say that they respond to the story, which is a combination of the two.

Bryan Talbot, thank you very much.

So, potentially, am I getting worried about something which is not really a problem? Are artists writing Anglo-American superhero comics getting fairly represented? Let the healthy, well-informed Internet debate ensue!

Thanks to James Robertson, webmaster at Bryan Talbot’s fansite, for his assistance in arranging this interview.