The Auteur Theory of Comics

Here’s a great article I just got from Arlen Schumer. Here’s a link to Arlen’s terrific website:

The Auteur Theory of Comics
August 1, 2011

By: Arlen Schumer

In the same way French cinemaphiles in the 1950s—first Francois Truffaut in the journal Cahiers du Cinema, and then American counterparts like The Village Voice’s film critic Andrew Harris—postulated their Auteur Theory of Film, that a film’s director, and not the screenwriter, as was previously thought, was a film’s true author (auteur in French), the Auteur Theory can be applied to the “Marvel Method” of comic book authorship, innovated by the writer (Stan Lee), who gave his artists (prominently Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko) anything from a typed synopsis of a story to a verbal springboard of an idea—the equivalent of the screenplay in film—and the artists drew out/plotted/staged/paced the story visually to fill the page count given, using two-dimensional versions of the same tools and devices a movie director uses to craft a film: casting, editing, lighting, sound, choreography—after which Lee would add the dialogue and captions to the artist’s work.

Ergo it was the artists who were the actual storytellers, not “just” the artists, with Lee, of Marvel Comics, like the directors of films have been considered the true authors of their films for over 50 years now, entitled to the benefits of credit and copyright protection of their films.

Yet the recent court loss for the Jack Kirby estate in its battle with Disney, Marvel’s corporate owner, over copyright/ownership of the Marvel characters, revealed Lee’s testimony as being the usual lynchpin in deciding the case in his, and Marvel’s, favor, that testimony essentially promulgating the same misconception that he, not Kirby (or Ditko), was the true author of the Marvel Universe by dint of his salaried role as Editor and Writer, and Kirby’s professional status as a work-for-hire employee.

This misconception—ignoring the actual role artists like Kirby and Ditko played in the actual creation of those seminal comic books, as the auteurs of their stories—has proved disastrous for the Kirby estate, and obviously for Ditko and any other Marvel artists who would dare come forth in the future to claim authorship of their comic book stories (and the fruits of those stories spun off into other mediums) from the courts. A terrible precedent has thus been set—and must therefore be undone.

Think of this Auteur Theory of Comics being the testimony that should have/could have followed Lee’s entirely self-serving testimony, enlightening the judge and the media covering the trial to the truth of the “Marvel Method” in actual practice, asserting an artist of the magnitude of Jack “King” Kirby his morally and ethically rightful place as the auteur of the Marvel Comics Universe. This is not to deny Lee’s co-authorship and creatorship of Marvel Comics—he deserves exactly 50% of the credit, for his absolutely crucial contributions as editor/writer/art director/salesman and spokesman—but not a percent more or percent less.

The sad fact of the matter is that Lee has successfully campaigned throughout his post-working relationships with Kirby and Ditko to create the perception—and therefore the “reality”— that he was the 100%, primary, sole creator of the Marvel Universe, relegating Kirby, specifically, to the historically demeaning role of the artist as merely a “pair of hands,” a “wrist” who robotically drew up Lee’s scripts. This wrong must be righted here and now.