America is home to some of the finest serial fiction writers in the world. But they're all working in television. Are all America's best comic writers now past-it old men with beards?
30 August 2002

Oh, how we Britons used to lord it over the Americans. Perhaps no more than five years ago, our position in terms of quality televisual entertainment was unassailable. To cut a long story short; we rocked, and America sucked. The BBC turned out some high quality period drama or hilarious sitcom, and America turned out some awful old load of tosh that I don't even care to remember.

No more! Now, Britain has found itself bumbling ineffectively like a bad caricature as America pumps show after brilliant show across the globe. OZ. THE SOPRANOS. THE WEST WING. SIX FEET UNDER. The first half of 24. Britain has lost the edge, and spectacularly.

And it's as it should be! North America (the United States Of America and Canada) contains about three hundred million people. Great Britain contains about sixty million people - a fifth of that. North America should churn out the best television, simply in terms of statistics.

So that's television fixed. Hooray! But what about comics?

'America's big names are fairly few and far between.' Our beloved medium has been dominated in the mainstream for at least fifteen years by Britons. A look at the sales charts right now disagrees with that, on first glance, but when you discount books that are selling high for reasons that don't include their creative team - nostalgia, inbuilt fanbase, big license, whatever - it's pretty clear where most of the good writers are coming from.

I think patriotism is a fairly retarded concept that owes its origin to humanity's natural instincts to form tribes and hit anything that isn't the same colour as itself, so that doesn't make me proud, or happy that 'my' country is dominating - it just puzzles me. But before I go off on a tangent about 'one world', love and blissful understanding, let me get back to the important matters - comics.

The American big names in mainstream comics are fairly few and far between. I'm going to look at a few of the big ones - here's a brief rundown.

Frank Miller. Frank Miller is highly influential, and is a fantastic artist with his own unique style. He's responsible for a lot of good work in comics. Except... Miller has been a bit unpopular of late, hasn't he? I hear things - and naturally, my evidence is entirely anecdotal, but let us soldier on regardless - like "Bored of SIN CITY. Too samey". "Didn't like THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS RETURNS - wasn't enough like the first, too silly, bad colouring".

Miller's next work is rumoured to be a look at the life of Jesus Christ. It's oddly titled JESUS!, complete with exclamation mark - or exclamation point, as I'll call it in a gesture of good will and apology to the Americans I'm being nasty to in this article.

'Byrne's recent art looks like he's inking it with a water pistol.' Chris Claremont. Chris Claremont revitalised the X-MEN franchise in the 80s, and while I'm not really a fan, I can grudgingly admit that a lot of people really liked it, and still like it today. But Claremont's recent efforts haven't been as well received. There's the entirely awful X-TREME X-MEN, which is a title that screams 'PARODY ME!'. I resist, as I am a gentleman. Claremont - an American in spite of his protestations that he spent about a minute of his infancy in England - is also taking on a relaunch of DC/Wildstorm's GEN 13. I fear that his take on GEN 13 is going to resemble nothing more than your Dad trying to sing along with Wu-Tang Clan.

John Byrne. John Byrne was Claremont's partner-in-crime on X-MEN back in The Day, and truth be told, I genuinely like his pencil work. He's a very good artist. But his recent art looks like he's inking it with a water pistol. His recent works as a writer/artist include GENERATIONS, which is a sort of bad fanfic version of the entire DC Universe. I personally find it criminally bad.

His other recent work is LAB RATS, a look at some super-powered teenagers in the DC Universe. I'm struggling to find something nice to say about it. Erm... "it had Superman in it"? "It's nice to see that Arsenio Hall's haircut is alive and well and sitting on top of a token black character's head"? LAB RATS has been cancelled due to low sales.

Brian Micheal Bendis. I can't really say anything bad about Bendis. I'll grant you, he is a fantastic writer, and an American to boot. No snarky put-downs for Bendis. You win on Bendis.

Kevin Smith. Much the same for Kevin Smith, who sells a little higher, but also has a few more critics. He is at least a competent writer, and while a lot of his audience is, I suspect, brought in from his film audience, it does place him very high in the rankings.

Joseph Michael Straczynski. Straczynski, or JMS, as the Oliver Stone film will eventually be called, comes from a similar stable to Smith. Competent writer, large audience, one suspects coming mainly from his television work.

'Neither David nor Casey really has much broad appeal at the moment.' So, because this is my column, I'm only actually allowing one of those. Miller, Claremont and Byrne are all unpopular at the moment, for whatever reasons. Straczynski and Smith have underhandedly brought their pocket audience from their careers in other media, so they don't count. Even Greg Rucka, another of the few reliable US talents around at the moment, learned his trade writing novels. Leaving us with Bendis, and I don't think anyone's going to tell me that one writer represents a significant representation of the good ol' US of A.

I know there are other American writers. There are in fact, other American writers that I like, like Peter David and Joe Casey. But neither David nor Casey really has much broad appeal at the moment, and neither has as high a critical success rate as their British contemporaries - although one hopes that's poised to change, what with Marvel's U-Decide antics and the return of Casey's previously fantastic WILDCATS.

Is it just me? Tell me if it's just me. But I don't see a big American showing when it comes to good, popular writing.

Are we staged for a turnaround? Looking at the lists, it's inconclusive. Bendis is a big force in American writing, and puts doubt to the 'American comic writers can't write' theory. Is he an aberration, or the first of a new wave of American writers? I'd like to think the latter.

At the end of the day, I don't care where the writers who craft my comics come from, just whether they're good or not. But with the sort of talent America's been able to produce for the small screen, it seems criminal that comparable talents can't be found for comics.

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

All contents