I'm late to the party on this from ASIFA's Animation Archives:
The other day, a discussion on cartoon writing erupted in response to recent posts on the subject in John Kricfalusi's blog. One of John's main points is that the golden age cartoons that we all regard as the greatest cartoons ever created were written by cartoonists as storyboards, not written in words as scripts.
John K. is more or less correct, that classic shorts were mostly created on storyboards, howsoever ...
They were also written. All those words under the drawings? Some artist ... or a writer working with an artist, wrote those.
But of course, the driving force of most cartoon shorts was the visual, because more often than not. the little square drawings of thosee funny little cartoon character were the locomotives that pulled all the trains.
Today, most shorts start with the written word rather than the drawing. (And most shorts are done, obviously, for television.)
The same applies to features. Where once features were pulled along by storyboards, now the initial blueprints are fat, live-action style scripts. Sometimes the scripts are good, other times not so good. But the drawings are not the prime movers the way they used to be. When I walk into a board artist's room these days, the artist is likely to say (as one said to me last week):
"I don't have much to do right now. The script is being reworked by the new writers on the project before our next pass, so I'm just sitting here waiting."
In the days of Walt, it was the story artist who sat in the cab driving the train. Outline boards, then sequence boards dominated, and the guys with the pencils had lots of input.
But board artists are no longer in the driver's seat, because in 2009 ... as in 1999 and 1989 the live-action model predominates: script, then boards, and finally full-blown production. One isn't "wrong" and another isn't "right", they are simply different.
But the debate is a little silly anyway. There are many ways to skin the creative cat, and artists make solid writers far more often than the other way around. Ron Clements and John Musker, who both began their animation careers as animators and board artists, have written fine animation scripts. Mike Maltese wrote classic Warner Bros. shorts and trend-setting television product at Hanna-Barbera.
And story artist Bill Peet (as I've noted before), wrote one of the great post-war Disney features with "101 Dalmations," even if he did closely follow the novel on which it was based. Peet wasn't a "writer" in today's use of the term, but a gifted Renaissance man, who began his professional life as a visual artist. He ended it, of course, as a writer of children's books.
So who has the best chops? Who is the most important? There is no final answer. But I know a lot of board artists who are double threats: they write and they draw. A pretty compelling combination, when studios execs deign to notice.