Are Artists Working from Scripts Doing Anything Special?

Over at The Beat, Marc-Oliver Frisch tossed out a flame bomb in response to an article written by one of our contributors, David Brothers, over on 4th Letter.

Frisch says this:

The artist rarely does more than to execute other people’s ideas, to realize other people’s scripts in a fashion that doesn’t seem to leave much room for actual collaboration when it comes to the creative decisions made on a page-to-page level.

I’m not saying that artists are interchangeable.

What I’m saying is that, by the time, say, Marcos Martin, whom I have a great deal of admiration for, gets anywhere near Spider-Man, both the story and the way it’s told tend to have been largely decided by people who are not Marcos Martin.

What I’m saying is that, under these conditions, it occurs to me that “story” and “art” appear to be separated from each other in a way that inherently contradicts the way comics work as a narrative form.

In other words: Are Chris Ware and John Romita Jr. working in the same medium?

Comics pros were quick to jump into the fray, and discount this rather easily discounted supposition.

Phil Hester, both a writer and artist, posted:

A bit like saying directors aren’t truly collaborators since all they do is interpret screenwriters’ decisions.

Does that sound ludicrous to you?

It should, and so should the idea that an artist isn’t bringing just as much to a narrative as a writer. Kind of stunned to see that notion get play anywhere.

Irredeemable artist, Peter Krause also responded:

I guess my main argument is with the subtext that I infer that artists just “spit it out” with their innate talents and blindly follow what the writer puts down in the script.

Good illustrators go deeper than that.

Suppose I get a direction from my writer that the character in a panel is troubled or anxious. I might show her fumbling with a cigarette, or nervously twisting her necklace. Those actions aren’t specifically written, yet they become part of the story. At the very least, they enhance the writer’s direction.

Or perhaps I get a page with a six-panel breakdown from the writer. I decide that it would work better with a nine-panel layout. I run that by my writer, and the writer agrees. That pacing makes the perceived writing much different.

And the distinction between “writing” and “art” becomes less clear.

Personally, as a person who has read and thought about comics, writing and art extensively, and even written a few comics, in collaboration with artists, the notion that someone would come out and suggest that an artist drawing something scripted by someone else, isn't doing anything other than executing someone else's ideas, is, quite frankly, absurd.  I suppose that in some instances, an artist could phone it in and bring nothing to the table, but there are countless creative decisions being made in every panel, with every pencil or brush stroke that an artist puts down. The placement of an eyebrow can change everything.  An artist isn't interpreting nearly as much as he's collaborating, and melding the ideas of the writer into something new on the page. 

Comparing the director of a film to a comic artist, as suggested by Hester, is one way to think about it, but really, the artist is director, cinematographer, lighting director, set designer, costumer, and perhaps more than anything, the entire cast.

Take Frisch's statement: "The artist rarely does more than to execute other people’s ideas, to realize other people’s scripts in a fashion that doesn’t seem to leave much room for actual collaboration when it comes to the creative decisions made on a page-to-page level."

Now, take out the word "artist" and substitute the word "actor", and imagine he's talking about Philip Seymour Hoffman.  How ridiculous does it sound now?  Yes, that's how ridiculous it is when applying it to comic artists as well.

He also asks, "Are Chris Ware and John Romita Jr. working in the same medium?"

Yes. One is working with a collaborator, and one is working alone. This implies that when working in collaboration, the result is somehow less than if done otherwise.  If that's the case, then Tony Daniel is head and shoulders above the rest of the non-scripting artist community.

A writer and an artist work together to create a story, to tell a story, and make it great. How that works out in the division of labor is completely different for every project, every page, and every panel. If you wanted to test it out, you could give 3 artists the same script, and watch how differently each interpretation would come out.  Now, take those 3 artists and give them 2 other scripts by other writers.  Each of those scripts are going to have a different style, and differing amounts of detail, and again, you'll get entirely different end products every time.


  1. Back when Marvel Vision was still around they had a feature called Artist vs Artist where they would give two different artists, one of them usually John Romita Sr., the script for one page of a story. It was remarkable the differences in some of them for something as simple are Captain America diving off the Brooklyn Bridge to rescue someone or Spider-Man landing on the roof of the Daily Bugle and encountering the Shocker.

  2. I’d love to see 3 artists take 1 script and see the difference.

  3. This discussion surprises me. Every now and then I’m a little shocked at the perceptions some fans have of how comics "work," at least in terms of storytelling.

    I grant you that, as a writer, I give the artists I’m collaborating with fairly minimal stage directions, operating under the assumption that they’ll find dynamic and engaging shots to be mined from what I do give them. But even scripts with more heavy-handed direction allow for an artist to bring his or her personality to the fore, and impact the pacing, look and feel of the book to varying degrees depending upon their own approach.

    My collaborator is the single most important element of any project I take on, and there’s certainly nothing "interchangeable" about it. 

    Oh, and Phil’s directorial analogy is a good one in my case. I’d rather tell an artist how a character feels, and let the artist ("director") determine how best to communicate that for the "camera." The impact of the end result then shifts to the artist’s shoulders, and no two artists are going to approach things from exactly the same perspective, leaving that end result very much open to their interpretation.

  4. Great comparison to the film world where in a strange reversal the guy who writes the thing doesn’t get the same credit as the dude who executes it, so to speak.  You get a few superstars like Charlie Kaufman, David Mamet, etc. but the limelight typically shines on the director.    I always found it odd that the opposite holds true with comics but there you go…

  5. @cenquist

    I’ve always wanted to see something like that myself.  I can see the reticence on the part of the artists because inevitably people would argue about which one was the best, but I’d just love to see the different takes on the same story.

  6. This is a classic case of someone blabbing about something that they have never tried.  I have always been appreciative of coloring in comics, but had NO IDEA how much skill the craft takes until I actually tried it for myself.

    To this Frisch fellow, I say this: Try drawing a 22 page comic book buddy.  Especially with an inexperienced writer.  You’ll have to make decisions on all kinds of things.  Aside from summoning your creativity to bring the words to (visual) life.

    I hate that this a-hole’s opinion has even garnered a discussion.

  7. Are directors who follow the script to the letter complete hacks?


    Is this completely dicussion idiotic?



  8. If it helps readers appreciate the specific contributions of the people who make our comics, it’s always a discussion worth having.

  9. i’m sure that there are some lesser talented or maybe inexperienced artists who may fall into the trap of being very literal with the script. And i’m sure that there are some of the same types of writers who might micromanage their scripts to the point that it hinders the artist ability to contribute anything beyond being a hired hand. But those are the mundane creators that are just there and never really notice. The top talent on both sides understand the collaborative process or else they wouldn’t be where they are today. 

  10. As it happens, this reminds me a lot of a 1993 article Peter David reposted recently about character creation. Back in the day, there was a controversy much like this one taking place in the pages of Wizard magazine over whether the artist or the writer was primarily responsible for creating such characters as Venom and Cable, and in response David posited the WACKO theory (Writer As Creative King/Overlord). Even seventeen years later, it’s an interesting read; unlike this latest brouhaha, the person starting the comics artist v. comics writer debate actually is one of those things.

  11. this seems like a weird discussion to even entertain. of course artists do something special. what is there to even discuss?

  12. There are obviously varying degrees of input from the artists in drawing the stories. Whereas Alan Moore may tell you how many hairs to draw on someone’s head, someone else may just say draw a big fight scene.

  13. For people who don’t think artists contribute all that much, I’d suggest opening a BPRD trade and look at all of the backmatter from Guy Davis.  He brings an INSANE amount to that series.  And he’s more the norm than the exception. 

  14. This kind of thought is like racism or sexism, in that I know that it exists, but I am always troubled when I come across it.

    Of course artists are doing creative work, how much they do varies from artist to artist and project to project.

  15. @Jimski – This article is fascinating. Thanks for posting it. It’s clear from the language he uses that Peter David was a bit frustrated with the "Artists Rule" mentality of the 80’s and 90’s, and it’s funny to read this now, where (in my humble) it seems that writers are the superstars.

  16. It’s interesting to note how different the stakes were in 1993 compared to 5 years before that, or even now.

  17. @josh:

    I am sorry, but can anybody in their right mind propose that the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is not as much a Kevin O’Neil book as it is an Alan Moore book? Would Astonishing X-men be half as good with Rob Liefeld, if he had followed the same script? Powers? Unwritten? Locke & Key?

  18. I saw that yesterday when I read the comic news roundup and I knew that people would go bonkers if they read it. And rightfully so.

  19. I agree with the majority opinion that pencilers/inkers/colorists/letters all combine to make the director part of comic books but just to stir the pot, doesn’t this all depend on what you thinks "special" is?  

    cause there’s Dave McKean and the painterly fine art artist types

    then there are master story tellers, Jack Kirby, etc. . . 

    then there are all those in-between.

    and those that can tell a story but can’t draw a stick figure and those that can create great imagery but not tell a story worth a crap. 


    and just for another way to look at this, it takes an artist 8 hours or so to do a page x 22 is 176 hours an issue, depending on the artist of course, I can’t imagine a writer taking that long on a page or an issue, well maybe Bendis or Kevin Smith (dialogue freaks :p )   I honestly don’t know writing or writers that much I know there’s draft after draft that is done but just on time taken alone, I don’t know, I know writers can struggle just as much as artists when they get to telling the stories. does anyone have an idea of how long it takes professional writers to write a comic book issue? 


    I just realized I have no idea what I’m talking about, but anyway, there it is!    

  20. You know, if you look at Mr. Frisch’s article, I think what he’s doing is suggesting the idea that perhaps the work done by artists in indy comics is "art", and that the work they do in mainstream comics ISN’T "art".

    As I understand his musings, it’s sort of like saying that "The Amazing Spider-Man" is to "Bone" in comic book form what "Armageddon" is to "Pulp Fiction" at the cinema.  Does the indy example in both cases ("Bone" and "Fiction") have more artistic value than the homogenized mainstream example ("ASM" and "Armageddon")?  Is Michael Bay as much of an artist as Quentin Tarintino?  That’s really what Mr. Frisch is asking here, I think, and that’s a slightly more defensible stance than simply saying "artists don’t add anything of ‘artistic’ value to a comic, ever", which is not what I think he’s actually saying and what I think many of the commenters here DO think he is saying.

    (P.S. – I picked "Bone" as my indy-comic example because I just love it to death.) 

  21. I would say that is no less defensible, but I did get that impression as well, but not so much that I wanted to go after it. But I would. 😉

  22. It’s good to see there’s an issue on the table where we all generally agree. 🙂


  23. I bet you some artists add to a comic script and some don’t. Just like some directors add to a film script and make it a fully realized work, or some directors are just there to film a script. 

    Either way, generalizations always tend to be false. You have to take it on a case by case basis.

  24. @lostartist
    Alan moore has been known to 100+ page scripts per issue, focusing on every minute detail. But lesser artists couldn’t have ever rendered those details.

  25. @racemccloud
    Well no, because Armageddon was sloppily written to begin with. I’d rather say the same about Pulp Fiction, but if we judge it on your standards, then the analogy fails because the original argument was not that indie comics are better than mainstream comics. It was that, all else equals, artists on the latter dont pull their weight in the same way as indie cartoonists do, and that their own ability is irrelevant to the storytelling.

    A better analogy in movies would be The Core and Sunshine. Both are essentially the same horrible script, but one is made by a talented filmmaker while the other is a fuming pile. I am not to fond of either, but at least sunshine is watchable.

    Yes, Marcos Martin got strict instructions for his work on ASM, but I doubt they told him how to render that facial expression in that panel. There are ultimately hundreds of decisions such as an artist has to make.

  26. @Josh – For the record, I’m not saying I AGREE with him.  I’m just trying to offer clarification as to what I think he’s saying.  But I DO think what he’s saying is SLIGHTLY more defensible than what many THINK he is saying… but you think it’s not.  That’s entirely fair.  I’m certainly not inclined to "go to the mattresses" for this guy, so to speak.

    @muddi900 – If you think that "Pulp Fiction" is "sloppily written", then there isn’t a whole lot you and I are going to agree on, so we can just leave it at that.  (BTW… Is there anything you like?  You don’t like my examples, you don’t like your examples…)

    Seriously, the screenplay for "Pulp Fiction" is brilliant.

  27. @muddi900 – And if you read the blog musing of Mr. Frisch again, you’ll notice that he’s not going anywhere near the subjective "quality of writing" discussion.  He’s simply making the observation that perhaps mainstream comic book storytelling leaves very little room for intepretive work by the artist.  "Good" and "bad" writing (again: completely subjective qualifiers, as our disagreement on the quality of the "Pulp Fiction" script bears out) have really nothing to do with his point.  Whether the artist is drawing from a "good" script or a "bad" script, he (or she) still can add almost nothing (according to Mr. Frisch) to put his (or her) own creative stamp on the story being told.

    Again: I don’t necessarily agree with his point.  But I understand his point.

  28. Frisch poses an interesting idea that I don’t want to throw away so quickly. I can kind of see his POV but then again POV and style is how the artist interprets the script.

    I’ve seen creator owned stuff done by the creator and then by other artists and often compare the vision of the characters, environment and story to see how faithful the latter is to the former.

  29. I think it’s an interesting point that the mainstream comics system actively discourages creators to write/draw their own work even though many are capable (only Darwyn Cooke and a few others seem to be able to get around this), but I think it’s an awfully big leap to say that artists who work from scripts aren’t doing anything.