I had a moral dilemma this week when contemplating a submission for a ‘best comic of the last decade’ article.
It may not seem like the kind of subject that would be fraught with dilemma’s, other then trying to choose from the well of excellence on offer, however, I had to put pause to my initial gut instinct and consider much more carefully.
The emerging dilemma boils down to authorship and the connection between the Art and the Artist. Over the years I have encountered the issue of separating the Creator from the Creation often. While studying Visual Art it was a central theme that we returned to time and time again, especially during critical theory and Art History. Roland Barthes wrote an essay in which he discusses ‘The Death of the Author’ and puts forward the hypothesis that the true author of a piece of Artwork is the Audience. Herbert Read, a critic I studied during my University years, also followed the European Idealist traditions that the mind is not created by what it sees but gives meaning to, and therefore creates, the reality around it.
In essence, once the artwork has been let loose on the world, it’s importance, significance, and ultimately it’s worth, is entirely at the judgement of the audience. Obvious forms and creative structures can be discussed to argue why one piece of work is better than another, but a lot of this will come down society, culture and time in which the work of Art is being examined. Some work transcends these three things and continue to be hailed as excellent examples of their medium: for comics think Watchmen, or Maus.
But what does this have to do with having a moral dilemma, and how does it relate to picking the comic of the decade? Well, to reach that point we have to discuss something that is very significant at the moment. To remove the Author from the work and allow the audience to decide what the work is about and it’s importance is one thing but what if the ‘author’ in question lends something to the work other than what is, for the sake of this discussion, published? What if the personality of the creator overshadows the work, whether directly or indirectly?
In the late 19th Century Oscar Wilde fell from grace when a series of trials resulted in his imprisonment for, essentially, being gay. A number of his works were lambasted at the time because of the homosexual undertones. Later in the 20th Century, D. H. Lawrence saw one of his novels, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, banned for being obscene even though it was merely an expression of the writers experiences with those that he loved and cared for. In both cases it was the actions and beliefs of the creators that caused the controversy, with their works becoming victims. The Picture of Dorian Gray was treated harshly by the critics and reviewers, not because of the novel itself but because of its creator.
From our standpoint in time, we can judge the historical critic’s harshly for their biased and influenced opinions. These days one would hope that the personal beliefs of the creators do not impede judgement of their work. But what if their actions were unsavoury, or even criminal? Is it acceptable to dismiss a creator and their misdeeds and simply enjoy the artwork?
Recently a number of big celebrities have been making waves because of their, for the want of a better phrase, bad behaviour and in some cases it has proven criminal. Actors, such as Kevin Spacey, have seen their careers crumble because of accusations and court cases surrounding sexual abuse and assault. In the comic world Roc Upchurch, artist on the highly praised and successful Rat Queens comic, was arrested for battery against his wife. This led him to be removed from the comic but also had a knock on effect with the comic itself. By association, and a few misguided decisions later down the line, Rat Queens lost its charm and fell out of favour. The comic’s success was ultimately judged by the audience based on the actions of the artist.
The reactions to Rat Queens and The Picture of Dorian Gray are very similar: at one time the merit of the work is overshadowed by the creator. For Oscar Wilde, it was on release that his work was deemed unworthy, for Rat Queens it was after the fact. Personality aside, did the artwork change overtime? Did Dorian Gray become a better book? Is Rat Queens not actually that good? The structures that were in place for measuring their artistic worth, especially in the case of Rat Queens, hasn’t changed but the impression of the artwork has. It would seem to be contradictory to Barthes theory: in the modern world, the author is not ‘dead’ and their works are held accountable for their actions. It is not a simple act to separate the Creator from the Creation.
And that leads us into the dilemma at hand. When presented with the question of which is the best comic (or comic run) of the last decade it seemed like a daunting problem but one title pushed its way forward. The Massive is a comic series that I love, I enjoyed every issue and was impressed by the collective talents who worked on it. The art work and outstanding storytelling flowed from issue to issue like a well oiled machine. I therefore started to write my submission based on this comic.
There was a nagging in the back of my mind, however. A small bit of doubt which had nothing to do with the comic itself but with the writer Brian Wood. Wood has written a number of comics that I have enjoyed over the years, in fact I have favourably reviewed his recent Aliens run from Dark Horse Comics. Wood has also been the centre of a number of controversies in the last decade. He has been accused by two separate people, on two separate occasions, of abusing his position within the comic industry and of sexual harassment.
Although no formal charges have been brought against Wood, the latest accusation was enough for Dark Horse to cancel his upcoming work, deciding that they no-longer wished to work with the writer. In such instances as this, the audience is faced with a choice of their own. With comics it can become difficult because, as in this case, the writer is only one part of the creative team. It is easy to decide not to buy any future work with that person’s name on it but what about past work? The quality of the entire run of The Massive hasn’t changed just because my opinion of the writer may have. Part of me does not want to promote future sales of the comic despite the other amazing talent that has worked on it. My admiration for The Massive hasn’t abated but my desire to support the writer has. In such cases should the audience separate the Creator from the Creation? Is that even possible in the 21st Century where the creators are so public, promoting themselves and their work?
Maybe this is a change that has happened over time; as an audience we can still see the merit in pieces of work and don’t feel the need to attack the Art itself to punish the creator. Our real power, as audience authors, is to step away and find alternative work that achieves the same goals without the questionable, albeit unrelated, personality behind it. Positive images from writers and artists will sell their work. And the audience isn’t looking for Saints, just honest, fair, passionate people.
The days of the Creator being a distance, unseen figure are long gone for most branches of the Arts. Writers and Artists in every field now have a presence in the world that the audience can interact with. Art works these days have traceable links to their creator and breaking those links is becoming ever harder. The worth of a work of Art has guidelines and structures but whether we chose to even hold a work up for appreciation is in the hands of the audience.
I love The Massive and I will continue to enjoy it in private but if anyone asks for recommendations, I will find something else to pass on. The comic industry is teaming with amazing talent, all working hard to produce some of the best comics created, not only this year but ones that can stand with the ‘classics’. Everyone has to make their own judgement on who to support and who not to. I will promote creators and comics that I believe in and admire.
And now, I have to rethink my 'comic series of the decade’ submission. It may take some time.
Life long comic book reader, collector, and reviewer.