Monday, 3 April 2017

Who Makes the Comics?

The second issue we need to address is the maelstrom surrounding the question of the individual contributions of Lee and Kirby (and to a lesser extent, other artists) to the creation of the 1960s Marvel heroes.

American Theology, Superhero Comics, and Cinema 
Anthony R Mills, Routledge, 2014

Mills' interest is not so much in the revolutionary changes made by
Marvel comics during the 1960s but the way that they represented a shift in American values. Moving away from the 'monomyth' of the USA - broadly conservative and patriarchal - Mills sees the Marvel Age and its subsequent cinematic interpretations as a platform for a series of discussions about the shifting emphases of theology in the recent past. 

Ultimately, he contends that Stan Lee is the 'best point of focus' because Lee has spoken most frequently about the characters and remains 'the public face of Marvel'. It also allows Mills to discover a continuity between Christian theologians and the values of the Marvel Universe: while Lee offers a vague belief in 'The Golden Rule', many of his collaborators - notably Steve Dikto (objectivism) and Kirby (Judaism) - explicitly followed different spiritual or philosophical traditions (2014: 103).

Since Mills is interested in the general thrust of Silver Age comics and their assent to a particular brand of American liberalism, the choice of Stan Lee is obvious. As a writer, he provides both serviceable quotations on his story-telling and determined the
dialogue of the comics. However, the study of comic books on their own terms, and not as an adjunct to theology, renders this decision hugely problematic. It removes the importance of the artist, ensuring that the comic book remains within literary studies. 

The mode of production is not examined, and Lee's statements about his creative process and intentions are 'word of God' rather than subjective arguments that bolster Lee's own legacy. A more complicated, and precise examination of the nature of comic book creativity is dismissed: Mills describes the alternative process as 'Lee merely became a transcriber of Kirby's scripts' (104), which is merely the mirror extreme of Mills' belief in Lee's primacy.  

The question, then, of the dramaturgy of comics is reduced to a formula: it is the writer who holds the creative keys, and the artists are reduced to secondary collaborators. In this approach, the ontology of the comic is reduced to that of a novel, with a few illustrations. While it may work for Mills' particular project - to isolate the morality contained in comic books and observe the shift towards a form of 'realism' - it does little to open up the form to wider questions of authorship or do justice to the intensely collaborative nature of 'sequential art'.

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