In the 1950’s, French film critics like Andre Bazin and Francois Truffaut came up with an idea called the “auteur theory” of film. Auteur theory basically says that film, an undeniably collaborative medium, should be evaluated and analyzed in terms of strong individual creators or “auteurs”. Anyone whose creative presence is so strong it dominates the making of a film can be an auteur. Auteur theory is important because it helped legitimize film criticism. At the same time, even the theory’s strongest proponents knew it was kind of a hustle. No movie is really the product of just one person, no matter how talented they are. Auteur Theory was a means to an end, an extremely helpful fallacy. The theory took hold and crossed over into mainstream criticism where it thrived because it indulged a very popular idea: The idea that nothing of artistic worth can ever be created by committee, and that only focused, singular visionaries can produce good art.
So, what does all this have to do with comics? Comics are now deep in an era where the concept of the celebrity creator has entrenched the idea of auteurism very deeply into the medium. Characters that were once infinitely bigger than any one writer or artist often find their popularity (and sales) dependent on the comings and goings of hyped talent.
A belief in auteurism certainly makes sense in comics, since a title can be produced wholly by only one or two people, but the comics medium is also where the collaborative innovation of the shared universe is shown in its ultimate state. The respective comic book worlds of the mainstream publishers aren’t like novels, bound finitely between 2 covers, or movies that end when the reels run out and the lights come up. A comic book universe is more like a big sandbox. Lots of people get invited to play inside those sandboxes and they all have to get along, furthermore, when it’s time for one group to leave, it has to be left in good shape for the next kid to play around in.
In a lot of ways auteurism and the sandbox aesthetic don’t mix well at all. Sometimes to lure big ticket talent into your sandbox you not only have to invite them in, but you’ve also got to promise them that they can play by any rules they want to, even if that means they won’t play well with others. An auteur may want to hog all the best toys in the sandbox for themselves, or maybe they’ll want everyone else to play the same game they are. Either way, one unfettered creator can turn a sandbox into a gigantic pile of mud.
To understand the auteur-driven mindset of comics today and the pitfalls it creates, it’s illuminating to take a look back at the creator-owned comics movement of the 90’s, a movement that nurtured and inspired so many of the superstar talents of today. In the aftermath of landmark works like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in the 80’s, graphic storytellers, especially those in the superhero genre, were both galvanized and challenged by the newfound literary and mainstream recognition of the comics medium. By the early 1990’s the tension between publishers managing their franchise characters and million-selling creators champing at the bit to make the next big game-changing comic masterpiece finally broke, and a new era emerged, an era where talent was empowered over management. Artists like Rob Liefeld and Todd Mcfarlane left the big two to build their own franchises, and superstars like John Byrne, Frank Miller, and Mike Mignola seemed to reserving their best ideas for their own copyrighted, creator-owned projects like Hellboy or Next Men.
Even before the 90’s, independent, creator-owned comics were nothing new, but the profitability and high profile of newly-minted, independently owned superhero comics was a revelation. For the first time since the silver age, comic fans seemed to be interested in brand new characters as much as they were the established characters of the big publishers. It was a brief halcyon age where speculator fallacies and a sincere thirst for new ideas had artists and writers going it alone with wild abandon, reaping profits with every #1 issue of every all-new, all different spandex creation. This pyrite age didn’t last very long, but when the big money did dry up, a modest yet robust independent market still remained, a market where indy superhero, horror, and crime comics could exist besides the ubiquitous books of DC and Marvel.
The creator-owned movement was one driven by extremes, and not just extremes of sex, violence and ridiculous anatomy. Many creators chose to push the extremes of psychological or sociological realism. Erik Larsen even adopted what could be called extreme “chronological realism” in Savage Dragon, a series that progressed in real-time, with characters who age appropriately. It was these true innovators who survived when the speculator money dried up. The way to thrive in this new independent comics world was through idiosyncrasy and artistry, not bulging muscles, big guns and variant covers. Creators who could approach old tropes from a new perspective, or creators whose sensibilities were so singular that they couldn’t be imitated anywhere else were the ones who made waves.
The creator owned movement, founded by established creators wanting to flee the restrictions of Marvel and DC, soon became the stepping stone for hotshot up-and comers wanting an invitation to play in the big two’s respective sandboxes. Where once artists used their mainstream clout to legitimize their quirky dream projects, new creators began in the industry with their indy dream projects, hoping to get noticed by the mainstream. The existence of a feasible market for ‘auteur’ driven superhero series also attracted the attention of writers from overseas, where graphic storytelling had different sensibilities, as well as creators from outside the comics medium, drawing in novelists, and television and film writers.
On the whole, the fallout of the creator-owned movement has been overwhelmingly positive, especially in the superhero genre. Creators recruited from the indy ranks have helped inject an aesthetic of psychological realism, enhanced character development, and a diverse approach to plotting into the mainstream books that have diversified what a comic book story can be. But like any step forward, the rise of the independent-minded comic book auteur has its down side.
The attitude that fuels creator-owned comics is one that, by its very nature, puts collaboration and interactivity on the back burner. The essence of auteurism, in short, is to oppose the Status Quo. But working in a shared universe is ultimately about manipulating the status quo without obliterating it. Building and working in a world that is meant to be shared, playing in the sandbox so to speak, requires completely different set of tools and sensibilities than ones used for building a creator –owned project. Frank Miller never had to worry about cross-title repercussions whenever Miho wacked some mafia scumbag in Sin City, but if Marvel put Miller back on Daredevil and he had Matt Murdock beat The Kingpin to death, there would be complications. Likewise, Bryan K. Vaughan was able to exploit an ingenious story hook with his comic Ex Machina, in which a a superhero goes public and becomes mayor of New York City, but if Vaughan was penning Amazing Spider-Man, and wanted to do the same thing with Peter Parker, what kind of havoc would that wreak on the Marvel U and on the future of a franchise character?
Being free of all of these complications and restrictions was what the creator owned movement was all about in the first place, well, that and royalties, but as the independent ranks have thrived, DC and Marvel have tried to integrate that spirit into their franchises often with troubling results. In mainstream comics today, a star “auteur” who dreams up a radical new story angle can easily get free reign over the whole sandbox, and editors, hypnotized by auteurism, sometimes don’t really care what toys are going to get broken and which sandcastles wind up stomped into the ground when the dust settles.
Civil War was Mark Millar’s chance to pen an epic story about superheroes at war with themselves and their government , but it not only wreaked havoc with the Marvel Universe during its run, it also polluted the very identity of several longstanding characters to such an extent, writers ever since have been scrabbling to patch up the damage. Spider-Man’s forehead slapping deals with Mephisto were partly necessitated by Spidey publicly revealing his true identity in Civil war (and partially to return the character to his swinging single, silver age roots). Despite a promise to keep both the pro and anti-registration sides sympathetic during Civil War, pro-reg. characters like Tony Stark and Reed Richards emerged as villains in many readers’ eyes, leaving subsequent writers to deal with mess, and, Although Captain America’s assassination at the end of Civil War was, according to Ed Brubaker, part of a long-term plan formulated at the very beginning of his run on the title, some readers have taken that with a big grain of salt.
Civil War is definitely a story born from the status-quo destroying independent mindset, a story that would have been better off playing out in a private sandbox. Picture Civil War’s storyline, the story of the government forcing superheroes to register and operate under federal supervision, in a self-contained auteur-driven universe like the world of Robert Kirkman’s Invincible. With one creator in control of the whole milieu, repercussions of dramatic events could all be managed according to a master plan, future baggage to popular characters from the event would not be so troublesome. Civil War’s story hook was irresistible, but also apocalyptic, because the Marvel Universe isn’t a toy exclusive to one or two creators, or even one generation of readers. No story within it is told in a vacuum. In the end, for many readers, the innovative ideas of Civil War were overwhelmed by its contrivances, and the need to narrowly redefine characters like Tony Stark or Reed Richards to cater to Millar’s vision.
The auteur mindset can also cause serious administrative complications. The most interesting example of this may be the Dwayne Mcduffie/JLA fiasco at DC. Mcduffie’s trials and tribulations on JLA and his subsequent dismissal makes one wonder what side of the Auteur dilemma was at fault. Mcduffie, who helped craft the universally beloved JLU animated series’, seems as eligible for auteur status as anyone, but his recent run on the JLA comic bafflingly became one of the most disappointing in recent memory. McDuffie responded to fan criticisms by revealing, in a series of now infamous blog posts, all of the restrictions DC’s editors put in place regarding availability of characters during his run JLA. These dispatches gave readers a priceless first-hand look into the editorial morass that can arise when managing or working in a shared comic book universe. McDuffie ultimately got the pink slip for his candor, but the whole incident presents a tantalizing question: was the JLA debacle the result of a writer with an auteur’s mindset (McDuffie), causing problems because he wasn’t able to do things his way, or was it just the opposite: was it the sort of disaster that occurs to a humble writer when the other kids in the sandbox don’t want to share the toys.
One way to defuse the dilemma of auteurism is the creation of alternate continuities, little miniature sandboxes where creators can go wild with established characters, the problem with this solution is that, for many fans, anything out of continuity “doesn’t count”. Conversely if those self-contained projects do manage to grow and threaten the popularity of their in-continuity counterparts, it’s only matter of time before publishers look to remodel their old sandbox accordingly, and fans are left with the same dilemma they started with. Marvel has a hit on another potential solution with its cosmic line, an in continuity subset of their universe, where several titles and even mega-event crossovers are managed within the Marvel U proper, but all under the control of a single writing team with a long-term plan. That solution, alas, is not applicable in their universe as a whole because part of the success of the strategy stems from the fact that the cosmic characters are isolated from the mainstream of the Marvel Universe. On top of that, logistically there’s just too many characters and titles in the Marvel line to narrow control of the big franchises to just one or two writers anyway.
Perhaps we’ve all underrated the genius it takes to step into the sandbox for a while and still leave with all the toys intact when the playdate is over. Telling a good story doesn’t necessarily mean you have to kick up a dust storm, and being a genius doesn’t mean you have to keep all the best toys to yourself. It takes a lot of vision to create those sandboxes in the first place. From today’s perspective of widescreen comics and decompressed storytelling, the conservative, formulaic approach of the golden and silver ages often seems quaint and uninspired, but it was that steady going, that dialectic between inspiration and familiarity that allowed the rich mythologies, the sandboxes we like to play in today, to be built.
In the end, are hotshot writers, writers who upend entire universes with every brainstorm, writers like Grant Morrisson, Mark Millar, and Geoff Johns, really looking towards the future? A future that extends far beyond their respective runs? Better yet, should they, as artists, be obligated to?
Ultimately, there’s no quick fix for the auteurism dilemma. Like so many things in life and art the key would seem to be balance, maintaining that tension between bold singular vision and rich tradition, between bending the status quo and shattering it. Whatever side gains ground in this titanic tug of war, one thing is for sure, it would behoove both editors and writers alike to remember the rules everyone on the playground had to learn way back in kindergarten: Play nice with others, share your toys, and always pick up after yourself when you are done. No matter what games are being played, everyone should get a chance to enjoy the sandbox, for now, and years to come.