Happily reading through all The Authority trade paperbacks, I was struck by one thing that all comics readers have to put up with. In any other visual medium, be it TV, film, or traditional illustration, it would be met with great resistance and loud complaint. Once I hit the middle of the second Authority TPB, Under New Management, I was hit with a Darren. For those of you who didn’t watch Bewitched, when it was originally on or in re-runs, it was a wacked out witchy sitcom from the mid 1960s. A kinder, gentler, more housewife-y version of Charmed, if you will. The show starred Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha, a witch with only good in her heart, living in the suburbs and using her powers for things like cleaning. Who wouldn’t? In 1969, between one season and the next, the powers that be replaced the original actor playing husband Darren, Dick York, with another actor, Dick Sargent. No one on the show acted as if there had been a swap, and it seemed the audience was expected to just go with the fact that dearly beloved Darren was suddenly another man. The switch is still referred to as a joke of TV lore — did the creators really expect that the audience wouldn’t notice and wouldn’t care?
And yet, comics readers are asked to adjust every time just such a switch happens. In the middle of that second Authority volume, a new penciler arrived. Thus, with just little fanfare as the Darren-swap, it was as if the entire cast of the tale had been replaced with slightly different people and whole shebang had been filmed with a new filter. I was expected to accept that Apollo was still Apollo, even though he was suddenly beefier and had a way more pronounced jawline than I knew and loved.
Imagine taking the entire cast of, say, Buffy, and replacing everyone with actors who look kind of like them. The fans wouldn’t stand for it. You get attached to the character via their physical appearance. The person who’s playing the character makes a huge difference in each audience members’ reactions. Given our culture’s massive fan mentality, the actors often outshine their parts. With comics, the penciliers give each character their look, and when the penciler changes, so does the entire world. Below, you can see the original Apollo, by Brian Hitch, his later incarnation by Chris Weston, and a third version by Cully Hamner. No small difference.
Each reader has their own reaction, surely. I personally prefer the first Authority penciler, Bryan Hitch, to the most frequent later contributer, Frank Quitely. I get sad reading a Quitely story, despite the same snappy dialogue and personalities I love, wondering what Hitch would’ve done with that scene, that vista, that smirk.In the end, though, the flexibility of comics readers and artists is both unique and wonderful. I can certainly imagine just how uproarious the noise would be if Joss Whedon did recast Buffy. There are comics fans, I know, that are just as vehement about their opinions about pencilers, writers, and the variety of worlds comics provide within even one title. We can all have our favorites, sure, and argue the nitty gritty details to death. It seems, though, because of this tradition in the industry of trading off to other creators, that the love of the creation itself transcends particular preferences. I’m not going to stop reading The Authority because the view shifted one degree to the left, just as Bewitched viewers, after a few mumbled complaints, kept watching Samantha and her wacky hijinks.
I don’t think many TV fans now could make the adjustment as easily, nor is there another example in TV-land of such a swap. Films have more leeway — just think of Alec Baldwin changing into Harrison Ford in the Tom Clancy films — but the recasting is more noted and less a part of how films are made. If Alec Baldwin had agreed to continue playing Jack Ryan, you can bet he would’ve.
If anything, though, this phenomenom also emphasizes just how vital the visual is to a comic. The switch can be jarring, exciting, or seamless, but it never goes unnoticed. Unlike books, where we all make up our own impressions from a few fleeting descriptions, comics, like TV and films, provide those images, big as life.
That remains unique among literature for adults. The divorce of the image from the word usually occurs when all of us start reading chapter books, when books with pictures in them are generally considered lower by literature standards. We react viscerally to images, and it seems bizarre that the word and the image should be so removed from each other. The turn of good phrase can be as transcendant as the absorption of a fine painting. Why not combine them? It’s time, bit by little bit, to break down the bastions of culture and point out that books with pictures are not somehow less that books without. In fact, with the right combination of talents, they can be so much more.
Of course, I may well be preaching to the converted here. Join me in a toast. Here’s to the breaking down of the word/image divide. Comics are leading the way.
image credits: The Authority: Relentless created by Warren Ellis and Brian Hitch, copyright Wildstorm/DC Comics 2000
image credits: The Authority: Earth Inferno by Mark Millar and Chris Weston, copyright Wildstorm/DC Comics 2000
image credits: The Authority: Annual 2000, “The Breaks,” by Joe Casey and Cully Hamner, copyright Wildstorm/DC Comics 2000