Time is the enemy of good comics.
It's been said many times before, but it always bears repeating: comics are a visual medium. Even the best writer is helpless without a talented artist to bring their script to life. And very often, it's those writers and artists who form close, lasting partnerships that produce the best stories. Names like Lee and Kirby or Brubaker and Phillips or Morrison and Quitely carry a lot of weight. That's why it's so unfortunate that consistent, lasting creative teams are becoming such a rarity in mainstream comics. Consistency doesn't seem to be a priority anymore.
Consider this. Marvel is wrapping up Star Wars: Darth Vader in a few weeks. The fact that all 25 issues of the main series featured the same creative team (writer Kieron Gillen and artist Salvador Larroca) is impressive. But Darth Vader is an anomaly in today's market. It's becoming increasingly rare to see an artist draw five issues in a row on a mainstream comic, much less 25. It was less than a decade ago that Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley broke Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's record by collaborating on 111 issues of Ultimate Spider-Man in a row. There might be a handful of creator-owned comics that achieve such Cal Ripken-worthy feats (The Walking Dead comes to mind), but certainly no book at Marvel or DC has come remotely close in the nine years since.
The problem is that both Marvel and DC have become so focused on shipping books more often. Many Marvel titles now ship as often as 18 issues a year rather than the traditional 12. DC has gone even further by consolidating their line for DC Rebirth and putting most of their core books on a twice-monthly shipping schedule. For most artists, it's simply not physically possible to keep up with a schedule like that. It generally takes four to six weeks to pencil a single issue. Even on a monthly schedule, it's only a matter of time before artists fall behind and need to pass the baton to someone else. On creator-owned comics like Saga or Lazarus, artists often take a break in between story arcs in order to get caught up. That's usually not an option at the Big Two.
Given that approach to shipping, readers really have to accept that they're very rarely going to see a "one writer, one penciller" approach to superhero comics. But shouldn't they expect a certain level of consistency to these books? If publishers are going to rely on rotating teams of artists, can't they at least ensure that those artists have styles that complement each other? Sometimes that's the case. Marvel set a strong example on Matt Fraction and David Aja's Hawkeye comic, bringing in guest artists like Steve Lieber, Annie Wu and Javier Pulido who could replicate the tone of Aja's work while bringing their own flavor to the book.
Readers could be forgiven for not even realizing those issues are drawn by different artists. The same has been true for the Archie reboot, which has maintained a very consistent look and feel despite experiencing a great deal of turnover during the past year.
The current Wonder Woman series, meanwhile, is a great example of how to take advantage of the twice-monthly format. Liam Sharp and Nicola Scott's respective art styles might not have much in common, but it doesn't matter, because each artist is telling a very different story set at a different point in Wonder Woman's life. The Greg Rucka/Liam Sharp/Nicola Scott partnership is the sort of close, collaborative effort that yields great comics.
Unfortunately, for every case where multiple art teams come together to build a cohesive comic book, there's another where artists at seemingly thrown together at random. Take Invincible Iron Man, for example. Artist David Marquez and colorist Justin Ponsor set a strong visual standard for that comic when it launched last fall. The book was dynamic, colorful and easily one of the best-looking comics on the stands. But Invincible Iron Man's momentum came to a screeching halt once Marquez and Ponsor left to work on Civil War II and artist Mike Deodato, Jr. and colorist Frank Martin came on board. Suddenly, Invincible Iron Man went from this:
Deodato's Invincible Iron Man is so drastically different from Marquez's that the two might as well be completely different comics. And the series has suffered greatly, as it seems very tonally unsure of itself nowadays.
DC has struggled with this problem plenty in recent years, especially as the New 52 ushered in a "Timeliness is more important than consistency" mentality. Sure, it's nice that we can generally count on DC's books to ship on schedule, but it's frustrating to so routinely see new comics arrive with unannounced fill-in art. This problem has only intensified thanks to Rebirth. To date, very few Rebirth titles have made it past the issue #2 mark without the original artist being replaced. Action Comics is only five issues into its new status quo, and already we've seen the book transition from Patrick Zircher to Tyler Kirkham to Stephen Segovia.
Similarly, Brad Walker was only able to draw one issue of Aquaman before making way for Scot Eaton and then Phillipe Briones. There's no way for a comic to establish a consistent visual tone with such a haphazard mix of conflicting art styles.
It seems that time is at the root of all these problems. I'm sure Marvel and DC's editors are just as frustrated as readers when books ship with fill-in art or regular artists are temporarily replaced. But deadlines have to be met. Therefore, the best way to address these problems is to give creators more time to meet those deadlines.
It's tempting to argue that the Big Two should follow the example of Mark Millar, who recently pledged that he'll no longer solicit any new comics until they're completely written and drawn. In a perfect world, all publishers would take that approach. But what's feasible for one writer working on a handful of short, self-contained books doesn't necessarily work for giant companies publishing dozens of titles that all exist as part of a larger, shared universe. Plans are always changing and evolving, especially where crossovers and event comics are concerned. If creators work too far ahead, they run the risk of having to scrap entire issues and start over because those issues clash with other books in the pipeline.
That said, it's clear Marvel and DC need to start giving creative teams more lead time. The fact that so many DC Rebirth titles have resorted to fill-in artists so soon is a sign that DC didn't spend enough time preparing for their relaunch. Had they organized creative teams and gotten the ball rolling a few months sooner, or delayed Rebirth until more finished comics were stockpiled, these problems wouldn't be so pervasive. If Marvel followed that approach for their annual events, we wouldn't have so many cases where event comics like Secret Wars fall months behind schedule and threaten to derail the company's entire publishing strategy.
It all comes down to planning and preparation. Artists need to be given enough time to work on their comics and stockpile finished issues. Editors need enough time to plot a course and choose the artists that are the best fit for each book, not simply which ones are available to plug holes at a moment's notice. And it always helps when writers know which artists they're writing for. Strong partnerships are the key to good comics, and publishers should be doing everything they can to foster those partnerships.
"Between the Panels" is a bi-weekly column from Jesse Schedeen that focuses on the world of comics. You can see more of his thoughts on comics and pop culture by following @jschedeen on Twitter, or Kicksplode on MyIGN.
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