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The Seven Deadly Sins of Comics Creators

by C.C. Beck • Edited by P.C. Hamerlinck

From Alter Ego Vol. 3 #6

EDITOR'S NOTE: FCA is proud to present another previously unpublished essay by C.C. Beck, the original chief artist of Captain Marvel. In the late 1980s, after Beck's stint as editor of FCA (called during Beck's tenure FCA/SOB-Some Opinionated Bastards) and prior to beginning his column "Crusty Curmudgeon" for The Comics Journal, Beck formed a roundtable discussion mailing group which included several friends, fans, and pros. The group was called The Critical Circle, and I was a regular member. Beck would frequently send out essays to us on various subjects (usually related to comic art) and we would reply with our comments. (This was years before Internet "chat rooms.") More of these essays will appear in future issues of FCA.-P.C. Hamerlinck.

Top: C.C. Beck-a 1980 self-caricature-juxtaposed with a different seven deadly sins, bottom, from Captain Marvel Adventures #100, 1949, with artwork by Beck and Pete Costanza.
Caricature ©2000 Estate of C.C. Beck; CMA panel ©2000 DC Comics.

Theologians of the Middle Ages set up a list of seven deadly sins... the commitment of which, they said, would condemn their victims to eternal punishment in the hereafter. These sins were based on the discoveries of ancient pagan philosophers who had worked everything out hundreds or thousands of years before.

In the world of literature and art, certain rules and principles have also been worked out over the past hundreds and thousands of years. While it is no sin to break one of these rules (they are not "laws"), those who disregard them or deliberately break them will suffer for their acts later-if not during their lifetimes, then in future ages when people will look back at their work and shudder as they condemn its perpetrators to oblivion.

The seven deadly sins of writers and artists, especially those involved in the creation of comic books, are as follows.

Sin Number One: Not Staying within the Limits of the Medium
Comic pictures are basically line art with color added. They are small, framed with panel outlines, and are presented in sequence. Each picture should not be complete in itself but should be only a part of the whole presentation.

Comic drawings are printed; they are more like woodcuts and etchings than like paintings and murals. The artists who prepare the drawings should be aware of the limitations of printing. Art prepared with too much fine detail, too many gradations of tone and color, and with too much shading and technique will not reproduce properly.

Comic pictures are small, only a few inches wide and high. They are viewed at a distance of a foot or so; readers will not back off to look at them as they might have to when viewing a large painting or a mural, and they will not examine them with a magnifying glass as they might when looking at a bit of jewelry or a miniature painting on a snuff box. The drawings should be simplified and easily understandable, as the reader will only glance at them out of the corner of his eye while reading the story they illustrate.

As comic pictures are each only a part of a sequence of pictures, they should be separated from each other by being enclosed in panel outlines. Artists who use too many vignettes, too many montages, or who make their pictures of different sizes and shapes, are straying outside the limits of the medium and will lose their audiences (comic readers) without gaining other audiences (gallery goers, fine art collectors, readers of other kinds of printed material).

Beck's "Billy Batson and Captain Marvel were drawn in cartoon-comic style because they appeared in comic books. They were never intended to be taken seriously, and for that reason were not drawn realistically (by me)."
Art ©2000 C.C. Beck Estate; Billy Batson and Captain Marvel ©2000 DC Comics.

Sin Number Two: Revealing Presence of the Creators
Comic stories are like plays. The actors in the panels should face each other, fight each other, and at all times stay within their panel outlines. Artists who show people bursting out of their panels and leaping off the pages are destroying the illusion that the reader is seeing an exciting story unfolding itself on the printed page.

Actors in a play should be concerned with what's going on in the play. They must act as if they don't even know that anyone is watching them. They should not turn to the audience and wink, grimace, posture, and ham things up with needless asides and pointless remarks.

Sometimes an actor will deliberately turn his face to the audience so that they can see his expression and so that the others in the play will not. Sometimes he will express thoughts which others in the play can't hear. In comic art this is indicated by putting his lines in a "thought balloon." Sometimes the attention of the reader will be directed to a prop or a bit of action essential to the plot, but of which the actors are unaware. These tricks must not be used too often, however. Comics with too many trick shots in them call the reader's attention to the presence of the writer and the artist in the action, and when overdone or badly handled can make the reader feel that somebody is making a fool of him.

Of course he is being fooled, but he should not be reminded of it.

Sin Number Three: Overdoing the Job
Many artists and writers are like orators who go on and on long after they have lost the attention of their audiences. They overload their panels by including all sorts of things that don't belong in them. Artists become intrigued with tricks of perspective, odd ways of viewing figures and scenes, lighting effects, extreme closeups or panoramic long shots, and other eye-catching devices. Such "tricks of the trade" are useful now and then, but must not be used to the point where the reader becomes bored with them. The worst examples of overdone comic art are those seen in books in which human anatomy and costuming are overdone to a point where they become silly.

Comic writers often overdo their captions and dialogue copy, forgetting that the pictures show what is going on without further explanation in words. They sometimes ask the artists to draw things which are better imagined than seen, and many writers fall into the habit of writing "purple prose" and throwing in slang and bad grammar and other forms of mutilated expression which mean little or nothing to most readers.

Sin Number Four: Losing Control
Some very funny acts are those in which an actor seems to be drunk, exceedingly stupid, or unable to keep his act under control. A magician whose tricks all go wrong, or an animal trainer who can't control his charges, can be very, very funny. But such performers must not really be drunk or unable to control their acts, or the performance will be a fiasco.

Comic art (or any kind of art) can very easily get out of control. The characters in a story can begin to take on a life of their own and start to do all kinds of strange things. The backgrounds, props, and special effects can run away with things and overpower the whole production.

Too much detail and too many things going on at the same time are indications that the writer or artist has lost control. Oddly enough, some people enjoy seeing things get out of control and degenerate into mindlessness. But a writer or an artist who loses control of his creation is not long for this world. He will either go crazy and be put away, or will commit suicide, or his audience will desert him and go running after some even more demented writer or artists, of which there are always some around.

Artists and writers who are asked by publishers to go "hog wild" should refuse to bow to such commands. Letting a comic book go all to pieces because some inept publisher wants it to is the quickest way to destroy it.

Sin Number Five: Tastlessness
The general public has very little knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. It has practically no taste; it will accept almost anything that is presented to it, no matter how bad it is or how poorly it is made.

Nobody can change the public, which has always been this way. The best thing that can be done is not to offer the public things which are in bad taste and which degrade both the public and the producers of products. Writers and artists should be able to tell bad writing and art from good, even though their public (and sometimes their publishers) can't.

There are no subjects which ought to be barred from books by edict, in spite of some people's opinions. Sex, rape, murder, incest, crime, perversion, drunken behavior, insanity, and disease or malformation are all legitimate subjects for books and pictures.

But not everything is suitable for presentation in comic books. Comic books are read mostly by children for entertainment. Comic strips, a different sort of art, are read mostly by adults and can present many things which should not be shown in comic books. But even then they should be presented with taste and restraint, not thrown at readers like fistfuls of mud or garbage.

Sin Number Six: Pandering
Some comic book publishers believe in giving readers anything they think they want. Such publishers underestimate their readers, who are not all stupid and with the mentalities of idiots. Children are not stupid, although when they grow up they may act stupid-perhaps to fit better into their social environments.

Catering to the tastes of the lowest members of society-the people who want sex, violence, razzle-dazzle, and constant titillation of their senses-is what makes civilizations go down the drain. History proves this; when literature and art start to degenerate, it's a sign that the public is not getting what it needs but what it needs least: pandering to the wants of the lowest, most mindless of its members.

Beck: "In these illustrations from the Golden Age (lettered in Portuguese for Brazilian readers), the center of interest in the first panel is the villain King Kull's face; in the third panel it's Captain Marvel's face. All the other elements are deliberately simplified so that they will not draw too much attention to themselves."
Artwork by C.C. Beck. ©2000 DC Comics.

Sin Number Seven: Breaking the Rules
Many of the rules governing the production of literature and art are broken because of ignorance. Without any knowledge of what produces good results and what produces bad results, a writer or an artist is likely to do everything wrong rather than right. If he does get something right now and then, it will be by accident, and he won't be able to do it again when he wants to.

There are exceptions to all rules, of course. You can bend or break a rule once in a while if you have good reason for doing so and if you get better results than you would by following it. But those who break all the rules all the time, deliberately and gleefully, are merely making asses of themselves. There is little or no excuse for such people; they are the ones who give comics (and other forms of art) a bad name.

Comic books have never been placed very high on the list of worthwhile reading material. The art in them is not regarded as of much value by most art experts; and, as a matter of fact, it is not highly regarded even by some of the people who produce it.

Why make things worse than they already are?

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