Fanboy Rage: My Top Ten Comicbook Writers And FUCK YOU If You Don’t Agree
It’s been a year since CBR published their top ten comic book writers, as voted for by the readers. I was talking with my friend Gav about our respective lists, which were quite different from the official top ten, and from the individual lists we had produced. In a supremely self-indulgent and ludicrously long post, I’m going to discuss my top ten writers, and Gav will post his own top ten writers, if he gets the chance.
Here is the CBR top ten:
10 Geoff Johns
9 Ed Brubaker
8 Garth Ennis
7 Brian Michael Bendis
6 Frank Miller
5 Stan Lee
4 Warren Ellis
3 Neil Gaiman
2 Grant Morrison
1 Alan Moore
My list overlaps with CBRs, but we should talk about the criteria that I used to decide on my top ten: 1) I focussed on writers I loved, as opposed to writers that I think are worthy; 2) I missed off quite a few writers who are probably great writers, but I have not read enough of their stuff to warrant their inclusion in my own personal list; 3) I am a superhero junkie, and tend towards Marvel more than DC (although I follow creators more than characters); 4) I claim no special insight into the best creators EVER, and recognise that this is my own list, and should be conceived of as part of an ongoing conversation as opposed to my decree of the TOP TEN WRITERS IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE, as provided to me on stone tablets on Mount Sinai (although FUCK YOU if you don’t agree); 5) I think artists are more important than writers.
Fanboy Rage… Who Is More Important: Artists or Writers?
Imagine two different prospective partners: the first is the man or woman of your dreams, a gorgeous, witty, intelligent, thoughtful person, a person that has the same hobbies you do, that’s there when you need them but gives you the space you need as well. The second is also a witty, intelligent, thoughtful person, a person that has the same hobbies you do, that’s there when you need them and who gives you the space you need, but who happens to look like a turnip. All things being equal, which one do you want to spend more time with? Yes, if you end up with the latter, you might grow to love the ugger lying across from you in bed, even if you initially recoiled at their bark-like features and hippotamus figure, and as time goes on you might be able to bask in their glorious personality, but you still have to get over the fact that – shallow as you are – they have no aesthetic value, even if they are an outstanding human being. Indeed, while (as my friend Kevin says) it’s funny how fast a beautiful person turns ugly the longer you talk to them, you don’t have to get over that initial repulsion; beautiful people have the deck slightly stacked in their favour.
The fact of the matter is that comic books are a visual medium, and whilst good writing is necessary for a good comic, it is not sufficient to make a comment good. Bad art with good writing can be ultimately enjoyed, but it’s an effort; good art with bad writing is unsatisfying, but a good artist will provide a bad writer with more slack than vice versa. Put another way, I suspect people are more likely to enjoy a comic with good art and a bad story than they are a comic book with bad art but a good story.
Which is really a roundabout way of saying that maybe I’m not the person to trust on a list of best funnybook writers.
10 David Michelinie
A lot of fans would probably place the Iron Man tale ‘Demon in a Bottle’ as their top David Michelinie story, but I haven’t read it, and nor do I intend to. The whole ‘rich guy has it so tough he hits the bottle, even though he is rich and beautiful and is a superhero to boot’ just doesn’t appeal to me, even though I’m sure the story is exemplary. You don’t see Batman hitting the bottle if things get tough for him; he just goes out and beats up some blue-collar working class schmoes (who’ve probably turned to crime because of the economic downturn) to make himself feel better.
Robert Downey Jr certainly played the ‘alcoholic’ angle with some gusto in the second Iron Manmovie – and heaven knows, he’s certainly had experience with the dangers of hedonistic nihilism – but after a while, even Downey Jr knows that Tony Stark works best when he’s building gadgets, bedding models, and making snarky comments, in between blowing up terrorists. Tony Stark is like a cross between Tom Cruise and Steve Jobs, a man who might have his odd demon (whether in a bottle or not), but who leads a life that is utterly exotic and unattainable. Stark is appealing because he is something we will never, ever, be, but with the whole ‘self-constructed robot suit’ there is the slightest hint of geekiness, a point of reference to allow us nerds to gain our bearings. But if you met him in real life, you’d think he was an utter dick. Like watching James Bond, Tony Stark appeals to the inner sociopath in us, a man that can do almost anything he wants, and looks great doing so. And so to have him hit the bottle and suddenly get all introspective and feeling guilty about collateral damage just doesn’t fly, especially if his Alcoholics Anonymous consists of him moaning to the fifteen playboy bunnies that he’s been banging for the last week.
This is a very different character from Peter Parker. As many people have commented, for a geek audience, Peter Parker plays much closer to home. He’s a bullied science nerd that does end up having secret powers and abilities, but this is tempered by the fact that he has his struggles and problems both in and out the costume: you do not see Peter Parker waking up in a billionaire’s mansion with three playboy models in bed beside him. And this, (so it goes) is part of the appeal of the character of Peter Parker, that despite being a fanboy’s power fantasy, he is also reflective of a fanboy’s day to day life: Parker has to deal with the struggles of being young, single, ignored with his mask off, and reviled with his mask on, a Live Action Role Player with super-powers if you will (did you know that every 17 minutes of everyday a LARPer commits suicide? You didn’t? That’s because I just made it up).
And yet, when I first came across David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane on their run on Amazing Spider-Man in the late eightes, Peter Parker was married to MJ the model, and was now a young adult. Sure he had money worries, but he was making his way in the world as a photographer. All of the things that were supposed to appeal to me, as a young teenager, were gone: his life was getting towards sorting itself out in his early twenties and he was married to a beautiful woman, neither of which I was supposed to associate with. (Which is why Marvel have recently had Peter’s marriage written out of continuity.) But you know what? I liked the fact that this geek, this nerdy kid, had grown up and had some semblance of normality; I liked the fact that he was married and his relationship with his wife was cool. This was something to aspire to, the hope that even though my head was pretty messed up in those early teenage years, things would turn out okay.
David Michelinie wrote – for me – the definitive Spider-Man, and it wasn’t the teenage-angst Spidey, but the slightly older Spidey that was starting to get his shit together. And he co-created Venom with Todd McFarlane, and whether you like the character or not, he’s one of only a handful of new characters to come out of the last twenty years that has retained any sort of cultural currency (alongside Cable and Deadpool, created by whom? Oh yes, Rob Liefeld: FUCK YOU HATERS). I don’t know if I would rate Michelinie’s work on Amazing Spider-Man if I read it for the first time now as a thirty-something year old male; as a thirteen year old male, his run with McFarlane introduced me to super-hero comics, and left a huge mark on me.
9 Frank Miller
Choosing your favourite writers is a tricky thing to do: should you prioritise writers who have remained consistent throughout their careers, or, should you select those that have produced a couple of a brilliant pieces but have otherwise languished in mediocrity (or worse)? I hummed and hawed about including Klaus Janson on this list, as his Batman Black and White story Good Evening Midnight is my favourite comicbook story of all time, although as far as I know, Janson hasn’t written anything else.
And so, to Frank Miller, a man whose politics I detest, and whose work ever since the mid-eighties has had a detectable strain of Nietzschean survival-of-the-fittest cod-philosophy alongside a healthy dose of misogyny. In the eighties, he produced some remarkable comics, including the seminal Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns (TDKRs). During the nineties, when Sin City and 300 appeared, the quality of his work seemed to dip slightly, and we were never sure if Miller actually believed in some of the motifs and fetishes that seemed to be showing up more frequently in his work, or whether he was just apping the styles of pulp writers/creators of eras gone by. And by the time he did Holy Terror and had a pop at Occupy Wall Street, we were pretty sure where he sat politically. Especially with nuggets of wisdom like this:
The “Occupy” movement, whether displaying itself on Wall Street or in the streets of Oakland (which has, with unspeakable cowardice, embraced it) is anything but an exercise of our blessed First Amendment. “Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America.
Alan Moore, himself a cantankerous old codger from the other end of the political spectrum, had this to say in response:
Well, Frank Miller is someone whose work I’ve barely looked at for the past twenty years. I thought the Sin City stuff was unreconstructed misogyny, 300 appeared to be wildly ahistoric, homophobic and just completely misguided. I think that there has probably been a rather unpleasant sensibility apparent in Frank Miller’s work for quite a long time. Since I don’t have anything to do with the comics industry, I don’t have anything to do with the people in it. I heard about the latest outpourings regarding the Occupy movement. It’s about what I’d expect from him.
Fairly or unfairly, the misogny and homophobia that fanboys have detected in Miller’s latter work have provoked a re-examination of his early masterpieces. There has been the suggestion that the reason he switched to a female Robin in TDKRs because he was uncomfortable with the sexual overtones of a male Robin, even though a superhero recruiting a female teenage sidekick is just as questionable as a male one, if there is a sexual element or motivation. (Still, as Dr Dan points out: “we should probably just rejoice in the fact that Robin in TDKR is a female character written and drawn by Frank Miller who isn’t a prostitute or stripper, doesn’t wear fishnet stockings, and doesn’t thrust her boobs forward aggressively in every single panel.”)
Either there is a sexual component to having a sidekick (of course there isn’t – Aunt Harriet’s in the house to make sure that Bruce and Dick don’t go bump in the night) which is a criminal offence whether the sidekick is a boy or a girl, or, there is some sort of paternal component that is totally fucked up, as Bruce ‘brings the kids on board’ to look after them, and then does what any responsible parent would do: sends them out in their circus gear to get shot at by psychos.
Now, I can’t really fault Miller for tinkering with the character of Robin even if I wonder about his fear of superhero man-boy love: writers have struggled with providing a plausible explanation for Robin over the decades, and I think this harks back to Alan Moore’s critique of his own work, Watchmen, where he stated (and I paraphrase) that he himself tried to place too much weight on superhero stories by updating them to the real world: they’re not meant to carry that much explanation. And so, a character that (I assume) was created during the post-WWII comic book boom to give young boys a superhero their own age to identify with suddenly becomes a nightmare to write when your target audience for comics becomes thirty-five and starts wondering about child protection, or billionaires with personality disorders taking impressionable young street urchins under their wing.
Much of the origins of this ‘grown-up’ approach to writing superheroes can be laid at Miller’s door, who alongside Moore, ushered in ‘grim n’ gritty’ in the eighties with TDKRs and Year One. (Didn’t you hear? Comics ain’t for kids anymore, kid.) And yet, Miller’s work feels less concerned with the ‘real world’ than Moore’s, and in hindsight, the inner monologue of Bruce Wayne in TDKRs isn’t a million miles away from Marv in Sin City. Unlike say Batman Begins (which ironically has a real debt to the plot of Miller’s Year One), a movie that has to make every little part of the Batman mythos ‘plausible’, Miller is more concerned with getting Bats on the street in-costume and dishing out the pain to the criminals than he is on explaining why the bat ears are really shaped like that (that’s because – of course! – they are snorkels that Batman can use in-case he is ever knocked into the water).
Miller does succumb a little to this type of rationalising explanation here and there, but TDKRs especially is a tale of Batman as a borderline psychotic, an old vigilante who decides to put the maxim ‘that which does not kill us makes us stronger’ to the test by getting back in costume, and –what’d’ya’know? – he does almost get killed several times but instead gets his psychotic mojo back, even getting to kick the living shite out of Superman.
In hindsight, the political leanings really were written on the wall.
And you know what? In TDKRs, I still get a (rather worrying) kick out of seeing Batman giving Superman a good thumping; I like Miller’s use of tiny panels and fractured monologue to provide us with an over-cranked slow-motion experience of the nuttiness that is Bruce Wayne; I get a chill from the way Miller writes the Joker and the mutant gang leader; I get all torn up at the mother in the subway who is trying to travel home to give her son a painting set, but ends up another victim of a brutal execution. Even though I dislike the politics, and think Miller hasn’t written a good comic-book in a long long time, his Batman work from the eighties is utterly spellbinding. And that’s why Miller makes number nine on my list.
8 Peter Milligan
Peter Milligan – a great writer with a phenomenal body of work behind him (including a great run on Batman) – is primarily on my list for his work on X-Force and X-Statix, two books that tried to examine what “superheroes as celebrities” would really be like. Beautfully adorned by the pop-art stylings of Mike Allred, Milligan created a roster of new characters that were constantly rotating, being killed off at any moment in all manner of grim ways. Unlike, say, The Boys, or Marshal Law, Milligan never seemed to be going just for the shock value (at least, not initially), even though shocking things happened to the characters. Rather, he gracefully explored the pressures of being in a corporate super-team, while keeping a frenetic pace and hip feel.
Now, it might just be a historical coincidence, but I wondered if Milligan also used X-Force as a snub to Image Comics creator, Rob Liefeld. Rob Liefeld created X-Force in the early nineties for Marvel Comics, and it was all big shoulder pads, time-travelling warriors, massive guns, and gritted teeth. Liefeld moved on to his own creation, Youngblood, soon afterwards, which was basically exactly the same as X-Force, except that there was a crude suggestion that Youngblood were a government sponsored celebrity super-team. Neither X-Force or Youngblood are held in particularly high regard amongst the nerd-brethern (although I’m not ashamed to admit that I liked ‘em, and FUCK YOU haters); you do not find them being discussed in the same breath as Watchmen or TDKRs.
When Peter Milligan moved on to X-Force, not only did he completely disregard everything from the previous decade’s run (including Liefeld’s characters), but he then proceeded to show Liefeld how a superhero-as-celebrity book should be done. To add to this, one of the shadowy characters in the background is a youthful baseball-cap wearing corporate asshole that looks suspiciously like… Rob Liefeld. In fact, apparently Milligan laughed out loud when he was asked to take on X-Force; on release, Liefeld was said to have sent him a note saying ‘thanks for ruining my book.’
X-Force morphed into X-Statix for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, and it started going downhill when Milligan proposed to Marvel that they bring back Princess Diana as an undead superhero… and Marvel said yes. Read that sentence again. Princess Diana… as an undead superhero. Who was (in the comicbook continuity) executed by her father-in-law, Prince Phillip. This is what Milligan had to say in The Guardian:
So I thought it was time we had a real dead girl in the team, and, clearly, Diana was made for X-Statix: someone famous for being famous. In the world of the X-Men, the mutants are feared and hated. In X-Statix, they have turned this around and made themselves stars – glamorous, rich and powerful. That seems, to me, to be pretty much what Diana did inside the royal family.
This storyline was to be called ‘Di Another Day.’ The Daily Mail kicked up a fuss, and someone at Marvel finally woke-up and realised that Marvel was a conservative mega-corporation that probably didn’t want the heat that this would generate. (I imagine that the Marvel legal team who missed this first time round now have concrete poured in their boots and adorn the bottom of a river in upstate New York, after they’d been anally gang-raped in a masonic ceremony by their corporate overlords.) Problem was, the issue was written, and the pages were drawn, and so Princess Diana was hastily changed to ‘Henrietta Hunter’:
Now, I’m not sure if any issues were released pre-alteration (I only have the trades), and I have a hazy memory that the comic-book arm of Marvel came under a lot of heat, not just for this, but for a very explicit Nick Fury comic-book that basically put George Clooney off playing the super-spy in a movie version: Avi Arad (remember him? – he was the suit out in LA who greased the wheels of the Marvel movie industry) was not amused, and so Marvel Comics EIC Joe Quesada was apparently told to get his house in order. X-Statix never really recovered from this, and I lost interest soon after. But the first couple of trades are awesome, and really do a good job of exploring the ‘superheroes as media whores’ angle, while being beautfully adorned by Mike Allred’s art.
7 Stan Lee
Here’s just some some of the characters that Smilin’ Stan co-created:
Kraven the Hunter
Mary Jane Watson
I did open this blog post by arguing that artists are more important than writers, but then, Stan Lee was never a writer. Stan Lee was (and is) a hack, one of the luckiest, most glorious hacks that ever existed, and a salesman par excellence. For a period in the sixties, he was an ideas machine, coming up with high-concept pitches decades before they were the norm in Hollywood. Now I’m not sure if Stan’s stunning list of creations is due to the fact that, for every memorable character he created, he created five dreadful cretin characters that vanished into obscurity (certainly, reading his run on Amazing Spider-Man might lend credence to this interpretation). I’m not sure how much of his success is due to the team of artists that the gods assembled into the Marvel offices in the early sixties, artists that – depending on who you believe – had more than a helping hand in creating characters that Stan ended up taking the credit for. Certainly, Stan Lee hasn’t created anything memorable in the last three decades (with the exception of Overkill, a rare insight into the Marvel method of creating characters?) But still, I wonder what was in the fucking water at Marvel Comics in the 1960s. Jaw-dropping.
6 Mark Millar
It’s become fashionable to hate on Mark Millar: he’s a publicity whore that would pimp his own Granmother for fame, and would laugh while she was getting gangbanged by illegal imigrants! He’s the Judas Iscariot that screwed over Grant Morrison, his Socratean mentor, and to top it all off, he had the cheek to have his creations turned into a series of movies, whereas Morrison languishes in Hollywood obscurity! His book are little more than pitches to Hollywood, calling cards to get movies off the ground, soulless xeroxes of more worthy books, his own approximations tweaked to appeal to movie-making suits! He finished the comic Wanted by having a character who looks suspiciously like Eminem anally raping comicbook fans (say it aint so)! All of which may be true, but he’s still written a great four parter on The Authority, defined the look and feel of the Marvel movies with The Ultimates, imagined Superman as a commie in Red Son, wrote Civil War, and gave the world Hit Girl, amongst other things. There haven’t been too many experimental avant garde pieces, no spoken-word poetry events or prayers to a sock puppet, and while Mark Millar is happy to play to the lowest common denominator, he hasn’t made any calls for us all to collectively masturbate to provide psychic energy to help his titles (though I bet he was cursing that he never thought of that promotional gimmick first), relying instead on good old-fashioned no-scrupples self-promotion. He also forced Bryan Hitch to draw an issue of The Ultimates where Hawkeye’s kids were executed, the catch being that Hitch had used his own children as models for the characters. If I were Hitch, that would’ve been Millar of my Christmas Card list; I guess he’s made peace with the paycheck. Mark Millar is a schmuck. But I’ve enjoyed his work.
5 Warren Ellis
Gah, there isn’t a lot to say about Mr Ellis, except to mention some of his ouvre: Planetary, The Authority, Global Frequency, Transmet, Minstry of Space and Iron Man Extremis, to name a few. For a man that has rallied against work-for-hire, and the general creative dead-ends that are super-heroes, he’s done a stunning job of writing them, especially in Planetary and The Authority, which are about as high-concept as they come.
4 Mike Mignola
Mignola is an anomaly, a writer-artist combo where it’s the synergy of both that creates his very peculiar brand of Lovecraftian folklore magic. In his run on Hellboy he somehow channelled Lovecraft and an expert’s knowledge of folklore from around the world, and combined it with some big-concept Jack Kirby-esque cosmic mumbo jumbo. Reading his work gives me a queasy sense of unease at the unknown, and like the very best pulp he creates an enticing, exotic Other in his melding of psychic technology and other levels of reality. I personally found Mignola’s Hellboy far better at invoking a sense of mystical wonder than Moore’s dull-as-dust (and a bit preachy) Promethea, and it always helps to have the big red guy punching things as the solution to everything, an approach that I have employed to no end of success when my computer malfunctions, my car breaks down, or my dog defecates where it shouldn’t (one of these three things is untrue).
Grant Morrison is a Lex Luthor look-a-like from the Glasgow area who seems to inhabit two discarnate universes, a living hyper-textual multiplicity if you will. One ‘Grant Morrison’ is a hyper-textual chaos magician par excellence, a role that he inhabits both in print and online, and a role that has allowed him to recount how he has a) visited Tibet and had a UFO encounter, b) done his level best to make the DC Universe self-conscious by encouraging the increasing complexity of DC continuity (he’s assuming that consciousness is an emergent property of complexity, philosophy fans), and c) tried to increase sales of one of his books by encouraging a readership wankathon whilst focussing on a magical symbol. The other ‘Grant Morrison’ is the Morrison of the real world who looks a little like a grown-up Glaswegian chav that would happily put the ‘heed’ on you (‘what er you fuckin’ lookin’ at big man?’) What he does have going for him is genuine love for the superhero genre (as well as doing stellar work across a variety of genres). My favourite Morrison superhero run has to be All Star Superman, a gorgeous, glorious celebration of the Man of Steel that is anti-deconstruction to the hilt, and a book that features probably my favourite single-act scene of any comic, only comparable to Klaus Janson’s Good Evening Midnight in its emotional gut-punch:
2 Alan Moore
This little-known writer is a practising magician who lives in Northampton, Middle Earth, where he has no internet access, dvd player, running water nor electricity, and who sits by his fireplace smoking a long pipe and doing magic rituals that attempt to curse Steve Bissette, David Gibbons, David Lloyd, Paul Levitz, Jim Lee, and every other creator who has tried to steal his work, sell him out to a corporation, or generally fuck him over. You know things are bad when Rob Liefeld has this to say about you:
“Tom Strong is Supreme, it’s flattering that he found his groove back with us and started winning awards back with us because people forget, he’d fallen off the map [...] If you’ve done business with Alan, you have a different opinion of Alan. He markets himself as a poet, but he’s just a ruthless businessman, like everybody else, he kept wanting to more work because he just wanted to get paid. Jeph Loeb, he can tell you.”
When he puts his mind to it though, Moore has produced the odd comic-book that has blown people’s minds, even though I don’t think he’s read a comicbook since Kingdom Come (to be honest, I felt like giving up comics after reading that as well). Swamp Thing, Watchmen, The Killing Joke, From Hell, Supreme, America’s Best Comics, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and so the list goes on.
He’s also tried his hand at doing intellectual pornography with Lost Girls, a tale that featured under-aged characters from several children’s novels getting into very literate and sophisticated gangbangs (or so I’ve heard, as I’ve never read it – too embarrassed to buy it from the bookstore — although the response from female comicbook readers has been mixed), and all this in between worshipping a sock-puppet that he has adopted as his God, and doing spoken-word poetry events.
Some people worship him as a messianic figure who turned his back on comic-book nerds when he realised that the sinful, heathen masses were more interested in spandex than joining him in his quest to push the limits of the artform: me, I’m off to re-visit Watchmen and cheer on Rorschach as he murders some criminal scum.
Brian Michael Bendis has his share of detractors. One of the main innovators of ‘decompression’ story-telling, Bendis can famously spend twenty-two pages covering very little ground as two characters have a stylised back and forth, as if they have spent their lives watching David Mamet movies on repeat. (Fanboys start to twitch if no fists are traded at least every five pages.) Also, Bendis is most suited to writing noir and books that focus on single characters (or pairs of characters), and so – of course! – Marvel put him on a bunch of team books over the last decade, and Ultimate Spider-Man, leading to (at best) mixed results. Finally, he’s good at the take-off but not so hot at landings, and over the years his ability to wrap up tales can often be a little lacking (I’m thinking of his first Sam and Twitch arc, Who Killed Retro Girl in Powers, and the concluding arc of Alias). The reason that Bendis is my own favourite writer is because of Powers, Alias, and his run of Daredevil, all of which are comics that are just genius. His run of Daredevil, especially the issues that make up the first volume of the Ultimate Collection, took some incredibly daring risks with the character, and I was on tenderhooks for months as Matt Murdock denied that he was DD as he was mirred in all the legal ramifications that his unmasking brought (fucking decompression – if Jim Shooter had written this, fifty issues of Bendis’s plot could have been dealt with in five pages). Now, according to Erik Larsen, other writers have often proposed – and been denied from undertaking – the sorts of game changing ideas that Bendis! has actually got approval for, and that may be true; perhaps Bendis has been allowed more leeway by his corporate overlords than lesser known creators (although for my money Powers trumps Savage Dragon any day of the week). But still, I look at Marvel over the last ten years and even though we’ve had Bill Jemas, One Fine Day, too much of Loeb/Straczynski, and too many crossovers, I still see a renaissance when compared with the bad old days of the 1990s,with hologram covers and clone sagas and that corporate mangina from Toy Biz that bankrupted the House of Ideas. And credit for this renaissance can be attributed in part to Joe Quesada, Bendis, and Mark Millar.