Writing is often discussed as a solitary act. Yes, it’s often just you and the keyboard in the room when the words first pour out of you, but you’re far from the last person to read, interpret, and possibly alter the work. Novelists have editors. Playwrights and screenwriters have directors, actors, and countless technical professionals. People working together to create something; it’s the nature of collaboration. And in comics, one person has more effect on the written words than anyone else – the artist. (In this case, by artist I’m mostly referring to the penciler, but inkers, colorists, etc. have their roles as well and the boundaries between each can be difficult, if not impossible, to determine).
People who write about comics often compare artists to a screen director. But that’s reductive. The artist is the director, sure. But their other jobs include acting, photography, set and prop design, lighting, wardrobe, special effects, and casting. Next time you see a film’s credits, really think about how many of those listed people affected the visual aspect of the film. A comics artist is all those people. A writer who respects that fact and encourages collaboration on their work will always get the best results.
The past twenty years have seen some truly great writer and artist collaborations. Azzarello and Risso. Loeb and Sale. Gillen and McKelvie. But you can’t tie BKV to any one artist. Almost every one of his books has had a singular artist connected to it. Y: The Last Man had Pia Guerra. Runaways had Adrian Alphona. Ex Machina had Tony Harris. The Private Eye has Marcos Martin. Though there were fill-ins and one shots drawn by others, those artists defined the look of those series from beginning to end. Which brings us to Vaughan’s current book, Saga, and that book’s artist, Fiona Staples.
For those of you unfamiliar, Saga tells the story of Alana and Marko, new parents from warring societies. Her people have wings. His people have horns. Drama ensues.
Staples has previously worked with Steve Niles on the IDW-published Mystery Society as well as an Authority miniseries focused on Jack Hawksmoor. As she did on those books, she pencils, inks, and colors the book herself. She even does part of the lettering. And so, the multiple Eisner-winning Saga looks like nothing else on the stands. The book is hers. Should she break her right hand tomorrow, I have no doubt the series would go on hiatus until she was drawing again.
During a Brian K. Vaughan spotlight panel at this year’s San Diego Comic Con, he said some great things about Saga, Staples and their process.
“Yeah, we do have a weird working relationship. We talk before each arc very generally where we sit down and I’ll ask what she hated drawing and what she’d like to draw more of, and what kind of themes she thinks we should explore.”
That relationship shouldn’t be weird. It should be commonplace. Empowering an artist that way is only going to create a better book. Being a stakeholder and a driver of the story, not just a pencil monkey, results in true investment. If they don’t like to draw cars, maybe don’t have a chase seen in the next issue. Vaughan knew that Staples didn’t like drawing machinery, so the family’s home/spaceship is made of wood. Likewise, when my best bud told me to write something for him to draw, my first question was what he wanted to draw. His quick response was “Monsters.” So I found my way into a werewolf story. One day, maybe we’ll see those pages.
But in addition to what she wants to draw, Vaughan also asks what themes Staples would like to explore. Her ideas, leading back into his writing, a cycle of creation. Saga may have started as Vaughan reflecting on parenthood, but their collaboration is making it much more.
“I write the book for one person — for Fiona … I spend a lot of time just thinking how she’ll react to things and manipulating her into drawing perverse, horrific things. It’s a really weird job but I enjoy it.”
While I don’t believe that he writes only for Staples, it’s clear she weighs on his mind. Staples gives feedback to Vaughan. He writes the story. She draws the story. A big cycle of collaboration, a collaboration has already resulted in an obese creature with a prodigious scrotum and a blue space-cat with a smaller vocabulary than Groot.
But let’s not forget ourselves, the readers. If we didn’t buy the book, they wouldn’t publish it. BKV and Staples may be the first steps, but as Vaughan himself said through D. Oswald Heist:
We read. We interpret. We write letters and our feedback is inserted into the loop. The cycle of collaboration begins again.
Saga is published by Image Comics. The most recent issue, #23, was released to physical and digital retailers on September 25. All art in the post is by Fiona Staples with letters in the first and third by Fonografiks.