Tis that season where we profess our thanks for those near and dear—and it seemed the perfect time to express my admiration for and gratitude to these titanic scribes. To be clear, I am not saying that these are the “Best Writers to Ever Have Written Comics.” I’m not qualified to make that call and, were I to even try, I’d need more than five slots. And some listed here would remain, to be joined by multitudes of others. But these people speak to me and I am a better writer for having read them.
Warren Ellis is, personally, the comics writer I always wanted to be when I grew up. He has this big, churning brain that never met an idea that it wasn’t perfectly happy to twist and pervert into something frighteningly science fictional. He wasn’t afraid to take something like Stormwatch and break it—and its characters—down until it was rubble and, from that debris, create something like The Authority. He can work both longform (like Transmetropolitan, his sweeping sci-fi novel) and short (RED was just three wee issues). And he was funny, the kind of funny that only Brits seem capable of being, and that post-Empire dark humor ran through his work. But Ellis always struck me as a ruthlessly efficient writer—he never wasted words, or panels, or issues. Everything you read was necessary.
When I think of Neil Gaiman, I think of James T. Kirk. While I am not aware of the strength of Gaiman’s judo chop, it’s more Kirk’s relationship with the Kobayashi Maru, the Starfleet Academy exam which was designed to see how cadets dealt with failure, how they reacted when success was impossible. The bit that makes be think of Gaiman is this: That Kirk changed the conditions of the test which made it possible to win. Gaiman’s Sandman series was unlike any other comic that came before it because Gaiman designed it to be able to be any comic he wanted it to be. If he wanted to tell a sweeping, issues-long story, he could. If he wanted a one-off, he could do that, too. If he wanted an issue where Dream barely appeared, so be it. He built a framework that could contain multitudes. He set his own rules, and then stuck to them. He changed the conditions of the test.
It’s not that he does phenomenal character work, which he does. Or that he’s laugh-out-loud hysterical, which he is. Or that he can plot with the best of them, which he can. It’s those goddamn cliffhangers. Every issue of Y: The Last Man ended in such a way that propelled the story in a direction that felt fresh and different and earned. Nothing came cheap in Y, and that’s why we loved it. (And that’s why he ended up writing for television; anyone who can create 80-some-odd cliffhangers without them feeling forced is some kind of savant.) And when he returned to comics, for Image’s SAGA, he brought all of those gifts to bear on a work that feels entirely, defiantly something that could only be done on the page. And in comics.
Lee’s well-documented creative explosion in the 1960s—in which he co-created The X-Men, The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Daredevil, Spider-Man, and Iron Man, among others—is one of the single greatest sustained periods of innovation in pop-culture history. And you don’t churn out that much awesome if you second-guess yourself along the way. I don’t know exactly what was going on in Stan the Man’s head while writing these building blocks of the 20th century, but if he was experiencing self-doubt—and it would seem like asking one’s self, “Is having a radioactive spider confer superpowers cheesy?” would be someone logical—he didn’t allow himself to become crippled by it. And that’s the take-away: You’ve gotta push through and get it out there. And then get on to the next one.
We are all good at something. We all have a skill, a proficiency that we can bring to bear on a thing—be it mowing the perfect lawn, making the most excellent grilled cheese sandwich, installing pacemakers, writing melodies. It might be big, it might be small. I’m not sure there’s a better writer of superhero comics out there than Waid. That is his gift. He seems like he knows it on an almost instinctual level, the way that some kids just KNOW math, or cheetahs know where the jugular is. And it’s not because he’s a better writer of the smashy-smashy than anyone—it’s because he understands what makes those characters function and he knows the thing about that that no one else has discovered but still feels fundamentally TRUE. Read his current run on Daredevil. Or his Superman: Birthright. Or his Fantastic Four with the late Mike Wieringo. Or Empire (my favorite). And you’ll see a man born to do it.
Who is on your list?
Devourer of Words by Marc Bernardin appears the third Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!