The comic book industry has changed. No longer are our favorite funny books solely produced by lifelong superhero scribes – the 21st century has also seen the rise of “outside” writers.
The trend is typified by the announcement that young adult author Rainbow Rowell will helm Marvel’s Runaways revival, but it stretches out to Margaret Stohl on Mighty Captain Marvel, Chelsea Cain on Mockingbird and even R.L. Stine on Man-Thing. Let’s not forget that Wonder Woman powerhouse Greg Rucka also came to comics from the prose world.
So what’s the upshot of this influx? Are comics better or worse off for it? Do these writers reach audiences others might not, or should Marvel and DC just stick to the old pros and meat and potatoes? YES, it’s another AiPT! Roundtable, and our staff is here to figure it all out!
Cam: I think the decision to bring in novelists is like any business choice; the quality of the results are dependent on how much of the decision was based on economics and how much of it was based on art. Because there’s no reason that your previous writing form disqualifies your current work.
Comics aren’t books though, just like comics aren’t still life oil paintings, and when you get thrown into the deep end and told to come up with a superhero, it becomes quickly clear whether or not you understand how to make the transition.
So the problem then becomes that Marvel and DC are fast-tracking these “outsiders” for an economic reason, and paying the price creatively.
Dog: Creatively, I think a lot of them are fine, but you’re right in that there’s a definite learning curve when figuring out how to write a comic — cliffhanger to end each page, judicious use of text, etc. When picking up an author’s first story, you can even sometimes see them grow and work the kinks out over the first few issues. That’s neat, but should we be paying for someone’s practice swings?
Brian: My concern is the goal that companies have in mind for these writers. It’s like stunt casting in a Broadway show. Bear with me on this metaphor. You have a show with a role that can reasonably be played by an actor with a pulse. In order to juice ticket sales, you hire a famous person to fill said role for a short run. Any longer than that and ticket sales will sag again after the novelty wears off. (See: Jerry Springer as Billy Flynn in Chicago.)
So, in terms of “outsider” writers, what is the goal? Are you looking for new voices to improve comics or tell new stories? Or, are you looking to goose sales for a few issues? Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, is not a stunt casting decision in my opinion. His pedigree lends more towards telling a better or more insightful story in a new form. CM Punk or going back to Kevin Smith or Joss Whedon are more likely to get people staring at the new comics wall to pick up a book. They’ve got nerd cred and can handle themselves around a story for a short time.
Cam: Because it’s a transparent “stunt” it’s hard to get excited for a book without feeling apprehension. I think you’re right on with the Broadway casting metaphor, Brian, and just like with Broadway, it’s cool to see the names on the marquee, but I would buy a ticket to a show I know is good before I go to a show with novel casting.
Eric: I have to wonder if sagging sales are also affected by the specific characters these writers get assigned to. In the current marketplace, non-A-list characters seem to have trouble sticking. Are slumping Black Panther sales much more surprising now, even with a big-name writer on the book, for example?
Dog: For all the talk of “stunt casting,” a lot of these novelists don’t seem to move product. Something that’s hard for us to think about is that the “friendly, local comic shop” is not the all-encompassing nexus of readers that it used to be. The oldheads still pick up their capes there, but the book store channel is growing MUCH more these days, and the titles selling the highest there are things like Coates’ Black Panther, Bitch Planet and Ms. Marvel. G. Willow Wilson herself has talked about how the “outsider” Marvel books don’t show the rise of “diversity” as much as it does the influx of female and young adult readers.
So while a lot of these books tank in comic stores, they clearly have an audience, one that should probably be cultivated to ensure the future health of the industry. How can Marvel and DC address that? Print some books SOLELY for the bookstore channel? Is that divisive? Is letting the tail of the FLCS wag the dog of the publishers any better?
Cam: That’s a good point. Why would someone who has never touched a comic have a reason to even KNOW a series like Ms. Marvel exists if not for G. Willow Wilson’s name on the cover? When would they ever cross the book if not in a bookstore, and they happen to recognize the name Coates?
Jordan: I think bringing in writers from other areas can be a good thing ultimately. Lots of beloved writers got their start somewhere before they wrote comics. Tom King, Scott Snyder, Greg Rucka like mentioned, and even Kelly Sue DeConnick counts because she started with editing manga like Black Cat first. However, it doesn’t always work and when a company announces they’re bringing in a popular person from a different field to write comics, I get worried.
I get worried for several different reasons, one being experienced in writing actual comics. The comic medium is very different from novels, screenplays, and more. There is a different way of pacing; there’s a different way to convey emotion, mood, and tone due to having an artist backing you up visually; and scripting actual pages and conveying to the artist what should be seen. The book can be very messy or awkward if not written well, which I found to be the case with Margaret Stohl’s Mighty Captain Marvel at times.
Now this issue can easily be averted if the editors work closely with the writers to help them learn the ropes and fix up problems. Or even if a new writer is paired with a veteran, like in the case of Tom King. When he wrote Grayson, he wrote it alongside longtime writer Tim Seeley, and the two worked magic together. America from Marvel is getting a co-writer with Kelly Thompson as another example, though it probably should have happened right away, given how awkward that book has been up until now.
The second concern is continuity, which really only applies to DC and Marvel. If you bring a new writer who’s not from the comic book world to write a character with a rich history, they should probably get a quick crash course on who they’re writing, what makes them popular, or other important things.
If you don’t, you get problems like when Aron Coleite wrote Ultimate X-Men back in the day and showed he clearly did not know what was going on at all. America has had trouble with Gabby Rivera writing the main character as kind of dense, which goes against her portrayal elsewhere. Even Black Panther, for as beloved and critically acclaimed as it is, has a lot of fans mad because Coates does not seem to understand Wakanda all that well and is writing it in a completely different manner that other writers have wrote it.
There’s also other various minor issues, like new writers trying to fix things and making them unintentionally worse. Chelsea Cain trying to retcon Mockingbird’s rape ended up turning Mockingbird into a cheater who killed her lover and almost implies that anyone who does get taken advantage of is weak. But that’s a whole another issue.
Ultimately, in the end, my feelings on this are mixed. While I do believe and think there is value in bringing in writers from different professions to write comics, since there’s evidence and proof of success, I do also see there being many issues where this can go wrong. It’s up to the editors, higher-ups, and the old guard to help out newcomers to bring out their talent and write the best things they can.
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