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Which is more important in cartooning? Writing or art?

King Features comic editor Brendan Burford tackles the question – which is more important in cartooning the writing or art?

I suppose I can agree that good writing can save bad art better than good art can save bad writing. But this whole debate frustrates me. Comics are a medium that relies on words and pictures and symbols equally. And isn?t it a flawed notion to suggest that any component of the end product is somehow expendable or less important? Why not strive for good writing and good art? Why not strive to find a writing style and an art style that blend so congruously and expertly that the end product is something truly great?

Read the rest for his answers.

Community Comments

#1 amuletts
September/21/2011
@ 7:50 am

Excellent answer! I think that the people who ask this kind of question have kinda missed the point of cartooning…

#2 C. Hart
September/21/2011
@ 7:58 am

I think cartoons should be fun to look at.

Gary Larson, for instance, had hilarious drawings. Only he could draw a bunch of scientists having an eraser fight and make it look funny.

#3 Howard Tayler
September/21/2011
@ 8:25 am

“Both” is the right answer, but it oversimplifies. Larson’s eraser-fights were rendered in a charming way, but they were also composed well, and the composition and rendering worked together to point up an incongruity that we want to laugh at.

The choice of subject matter, the writing, the composition of the panel, and the rendering cannot be independently extricated and accurately evaluated. Had any of those pieces not been up to the high level of the others Larson’s work wouldn’t have shone the way it did.

#4 Stephen Beals
September/21/2011
@ 8:28 am

That is a frustrating question. I always felt it was the writing, but it’s really both. I think beautiful artwork can sometimes kill a joke. Funky, scratchy drawings are often funnier to look at.

But it all boils down to what a person likes.

#5 Alan Evans
September/21/2011
@ 8:31 am

Didn’t the rise of Image show that art was more important than writing? I’m not goofing around either. I remember that Jim Shooter (arguably a good writer) started his own comic line that died pretty quick. It was supposed to be the writers version of Image.

In a perfect world, we’d have both wouldn’t we?

#6 Gerry Mooney
September/21/2011
@ 9:08 am

I understand several publishers are coming out with audio books of graphic novels. It will be interesting to see how they are done, and how popular they’ll be.

#7 Stephen Beals
September/21/2011
@ 9:09 am

There was a big deal when Eric Larson wrote an anonymous letter to the Comic Buyers Guide saying that artists didn’t need writers, but all it proved was that creators can squabble like high school students.

That was before the internet. I think it took over a year for all of the angry letters to die down.

#8 Terry LaBan
September/21/2011
@ 9:09 am

The thing that’s never mentioned in discussions about what component of cartooning is most important is design. It’s design, much more than any actual drawing ability, that makes a cartoon readable and effective on a page. That said, generally speaking, I’d have to say that writing trumps all. The “rise” of Image only proves that most mainstream comic book fans are essentially boneheads.

#9 Jeff Pert
September/21/2011
@ 9:20 am

“The ?rise? of Image only proves that most mainstream comic book fans are essentially boneheads.” Ha! I’ll second that!

Who was it who said (I’m paraphrasing here), “I’m not a good artist and I’m not a good writer, so I became a cartoonist”?

#10 Scott Metzger
September/21/2011
@ 9:46 am

Jeff – I think you?re talking about what Schulz said: ?If I were a better artist, I’d be a painter, and if I were a better writer, I’d write books. But I’m not, so I draw cartoons.?

#11 Kevin Moore
September/21/2011
@ 10:26 am

Gary Larson’s jokes worked, because they were funny ideas in the first place, then he served them with a funny drawing style. The two were inseparable. Writing in cartooning is not always “writing” per se — exploring ideas through words — though it can be; a big part of the process is exploring ideas through pictures, grabbing the sketchbook and searching for the right expression, angle, etc. Similar to a “take” in film or television or music recording. You make several and select the right one.

IOW, don’t forget about editing. :-)

#12 John Cole
September/21/2011
@ 10:31 am

Actually, it’s “getting paid.”

But all that other stuff is important, too.

#13 Daniel Boris
September/21/2011
@ 11:34 am

I’m thinking the people at xkcd would say writing. ; ))

#14 Tom Racine
September/21/2011
@ 12:12 pm

Short answer…both. Long answer…if I had a gun to my head, I’d say “writing.” (I’d probably say anything to stop the person with the gun, but you get the idea.) But obviously, it’s got to be a marriage of both. I think in comic books, it skews more towards art…we sort of expect great art in our comic books, but comic strips can get away with a lot more simple art (Pearls, Dilbert, XKCD).

I think for me, great art with bad writing just won’t keep me reading, but great writing with OK art will.

#15 Kat Ruhl
September/21/2011
@ 12:41 pm

The question is itself invalid, sequential art of all types (I’m including animation and story driven comics as well as traditional cartooning) are a marriage of writing and art. Both parts must reflect the other, if they’re at odds you’re going to get sub par crud.

That isn’t to say you need WORDS to have a successful piece of sequential art but ‘words’ and ‘writing’ are separate things here.

#16 Brian Powers
September/21/2011
@ 1:01 pm

I’d say writing and DESIGN are equally important. If you design the strip (characters, art, lettering, etc) a certain way that works hand and hand with your writing – you are WINNING. I choose to draw simply so I can have more time to write funnier (hopefully) and more often.

#17 donna lewis
September/21/2011
@ 1:28 pm

Is the answer breast size?

#18 Tom Racine
September/21/2011
@ 2:01 pm

Well, Donna, as Monty Python once said “We decided that no one wins this contest, so we’re giving the trophy to the girl with the biggest tits.” So…yes.

#19 donna lewis
September/21/2011
@ 2:08 pm

I win! (for the correct answer) (not the breast size)

#20 Tom Racine
September/21/2011
@ 2:17 pm

Of course, many male cartoonists have larger breasts than you. And this is not a good thing.

#21 Mike Lester
September/21/2011
@ 2:23 pm

My comment is probably not going to win “MOST POPULAR”…again but for me, the success of a comic rely’s less on writing vs. art and more on whether the same person is doing both.

-And how big his augmented breasts are.

#22 donna lewis
September/21/2011
@ 2:24 pm

Which is more important in cartooning, male breasts or female breasts?

#23 Dan Bielinski
September/21/2011
@ 2:57 pm

@Donna – LMAO!

#24 Stephen Beals
September/21/2011
@ 3:46 pm

It should be no surprise that Monty Python, once again, has the best answer.

#25 b.j. Dewey
September/21/2011
@ 7:34 pm

IMHO, good cartooning is a combo of humor, characters, writing, and artwork – and more, but we’ve gotta stop somewhere. And if you don’t have a good sense of humor, it’s all over. Good characters would seem to come first, since the writing is based on them (they do the “talking”) as is the artwork, which can really bring it to life.

Speaking of xkcd, it may mainly be stick figures, but somehow they are characters and Munroe expresses them perfectly. He’s the only cartoonist I’ll happily read even when it’s all about physics and I can’t even begin to fathom it. Then again, there’s Harriman, whose writing many people struggle with, but who still love Krazy, Ignatz and the great scenery.

#26 Carl Moore
September/21/2011
@ 11:33 pm

In a newspaper strip, there’s a third element besides writing and drawing that makes a successful strip – concept. I’m thinking of “Dilbert” as an example. It’s well-written and badly drawn. But the concept of the cubicle culture made it unique, especially when it began in, what, ’90?

#27 Dave Stephens
September/21/2011
@ 11:50 pm

Gestalt theory: A physical, biological, psychological, or symbolic configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that its properties cannot be derived from a simple summation of its parts.

#28 Mike Peterson
September/22/2011
@ 3:24 am

I’ve come across some weird-looking cartoons that I’ve stuck with until they grew on me, and I’ve also seen some great-looking ones that I stuck with until I realized that the cartoonist was just producing pretty pictures and had absolutely nothing to say.

Which is sort of the opposite of giving the prize to the one with the biggest tits, innit?

#29 Gar Molloy
September/22/2011
@ 5:24 am

@Mike: Well, we’re on to augmented man-tits now, so weird-looking ones that grow on you? Maybe it’s time we dropped this metaphor.

#30 b.j. Dewey
September/22/2011
@ 9:09 am

Dave S.,

I would agree. It’s the wholeness of it, all the parts working together, working off each other until the sum is more than the parts. Sometimes the parts work so well together that, on closer examination, you can’t even separate them and that’s beautiful. Of course, not even the greatest cartoonists can produce that perfect wholeness every day, but they reach it more often than most.

I also agree with Carl M. about concept, especially in the case of “Dilbert,” and the cubicle culture. He struck gold with that one.

#31 Steve Skelton
September/22/2011
@ 9:15 am

I disagree that Dilbert is poorly drawn. It actually is perfectly drawn for what it is. I like the style of Dilbert very much.

And, as much as we all want to “strike gold”, you might have a great idea, but the gold is mined very slowly. You are really only as good as your last cartoon in this business. And Scott still knows how to write very funny material. I loved his strip yesterday.

http://www.dilbert.com/2011-09-21/

#32 Andrew Caddell
September/22/2011
@ 9:32 am

If it makes you laugh . . . who cares. :)

#33 Nancy
September/22/2011
@ 12:56 pm

I think a good strip should have both – working hand in hand. But writing is definitely harder – those who can write (like Scott Adams – genius) are those who rise to the top.

#34 Gerry Mooney
September/22/2011
@ 1:40 pm

there’s a critical distinction to be made between “bad drawing” and “crude drawing”. Lots of people, Larson, Adams, Guiswite, etc, have sucessfully developed a crude (for lack of a better word) style that supports their gags better than something more polished. In fact I think it’s fair to say that crude drawing is funnier than slick, perfect drawing. And you always bring the funny.

#35 Scott Lincoln
September/22/2011
@ 2:12 pm

I’ve been watching a steady progression from the ’80’s till now. It was somewhere around there that the industry as a whole started saying, “good writing will cover bad art, but good art won’t cover bad writing”.

I knew back then it would be the death of comics and I’ve seen little in the last 30 years to prove otherwise. Not because there isn’t an element of truth to it, but because I knew human nature would push it to the very most extreme and destroy something truly special.

I agree with Terry that “Design” is often overlooked and design is part of the art regardless of how “simple” or “detailed” a strip is. There is a difference between “iconicism” and “minimalism” and I suspect “design” is a big part of that. “Good art/bad art” is somewhat of a misnomer on these points as Gerry mentions.

There are a number of stylistic, minimalist comics that I enjoy because they remain iconic, but the one’s I consider truly great always include beautiful art of some kind. When I get right down to it… if I don’t like the way a comic looks, I don’t read it (because it should be both).

#36 Keith Brown
September/22/2011
@ 3:12 pm

Either way I’m screwed!

#37 Daniel Beyer
September/22/2011
@ 3:18 pm

#32 \o/

#38 Andrew Caddell
September/22/2011
@ 3:29 pm

#39 – Tru dat :)

#39 Shannon Wheeler
September/23/2011
@ 3:58 pm

They should have this debate with drawings.

#40 David
September/25/2011
@ 10:17 pm

Both. That’s why Pearls Before Swine sucks. It has neither.

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