Monday, May 14, 2012

Writing Comic Books Marvel Style

Robert Pope asks "Have you ever professionally worked "Marvel Method," and if not, would you like to try it to see how writing a comic book "fill in the blanks" style would suit you?"

For those of you who don't know what working Marvel Method means, it's a way of writing comic books that was created out of necessity by Stan Lee at Marvel Comics in the 1960s. At the time Lee was writing a vast number of stories for Marvel and it would not have been feasible to write each story as a full script.  Writing a full script for a comic book story which includes breaking each page down into a set number of panels as well as describing all of the visual information for each panel such as characters, their actions, facial expressions, costuming, physical setting, time of day, time of year, time in history, props, weather and so on, as well as the verbal information such as the dialogue and sound effects. 

What Lee did instead was to give his artists a very bare bones outline of the plot for each story, often times just the beginning, middle and end. The artists would then figure out the rest, draw the story including subplots with supporting characters and hand the pages of art back to Stan Lee with notes as to what was happening and sometimes suggested dialogue. Lee would then, using the art as a guide, create the dialogue and narrative captions for each panel of the entire story. 

For example; for a 22 page issue of Spider-Man Lee could tell his artist over the phone (as he often did) or jot down on a single sheet of paper -- Aunt May is sick and the bills are stacking up. Peter is worried about her and feeling frustrated and guilty. His camera was smashed by the Rhino in the previous issue and without it he has no means to continue working as a freelance photographer to get Aunt May the Medicine he needs and to help her with the bills. Without a job, he can't even earn money to buy a new camera. As Spider-Man, he is determined to catch the Rhino, whom he blames for his unfortunate circumstances, stop his crime wave and bring him to jail. 

What this really meant is that the artists ended up doing the bulk of the work while Lee got virtually all of the credit as writer. There is no doubt that this method can work as the Marvel comics that Lee collaborated on with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko from that era remain some of the finest comic books ever produced. 

Have I ever written this way? Yes. Once. I honestly cannot remember what comic book story I tried this on, but found the end result to be a failed experiment. I went into it thinking it would be freeing and allow the artist a bigger hand in determining the choreography of the action sequences and interesting ways to depict the more normal day-to-day life sequences. What happens, and this is by no means the fault of the artist, is that the story comes back looking fantastic until you sit down to the dialogue for the art. Expressions and body language are wrong for supporting the proper feelings  being conveyed in dialogue, characters are on the wrong side of panels (or even missing) disrupting the flow of speech between them, the panel that requires the greatest amount of text will be the smallest on the page, as often ends up happening to the panel which should be the largest and most dramatic. Important props end up missing, etc. This happened even when I provided a plot that actually broke everything down page by page and provided an overview of the emotional character arcs and thematic nature of the story. 

I do prefer writing full script so that the artist has all of the information necessary to inform them of what's needed in the story. Providing them with dialogue in advance allows them to get a feel for how to lay out the panels so that the conversations flow smoothly and maintain a rhythm. It also gives them a sense of the relationship between the characters doing the speaking which not only allows them to depict the characters with the correct facial expressions and body language to emphasize their attitude to what they are saying, but their attitude to the person they are talking to to, whether they are feeling at ease, or tense, or transition from one state to the other. Providing setting and prop information adds to the artist getting abetter sense of the mood of the story, and a better feel for the characters based on their environments. Even describing the action provides a sense of how quick to pace the action, or whether one character is physically pushed while another is handling it with ease. 

I often write a 40+ page script for a 22 page comic book story, especially if the artist is someone I've never worked with before. My feeling is that the more information I provide, the more they'll get what I'm striving to do with the story. For a long while I felt guilty, like I was micromanaging everything and not letting them have as much input, but my guilt was erased when no artists complained and often would commend me for putting so much thought into the script that it would often trigger ideas of their own and that they felt like they had more room to explore how they want to depict the story. 

Something I always emphasize with any artist I work with is that even though my scripts are detailed and broken down panel by panel, they should feel free to reconfigure that if they think they can do it better in fewer panels, more, etc. This usually works marvelously (no pun intended). When it's an artist I've worked with in the past, or am working with regularly, the dynamic changes and my scripts tend to get shorter. When I first wrote Xombi in the mid-90s, my scripts became really short, since J.J. Birch talked about the stories at least two or three times a week, so he had most of the information he needed. The scripts ended up with shorthand description and panel breakdowns including the acting for the characters and the dialogue. In the more recent Xombi, my scripts also become considerably shorter once I saw how well Frazer Irving and I were matched. I started leaving a lot of the layout decisions to him, and stopped dictating color choices (which I often include because it can emphasize the mood, or emotional state of scenes) altogether. I also scaled way back on the descriptions of character interactions. He asked a lot of questions up front about their relationships with one another, and conveyed all of that beautifully in their body language, which also made it unnecessary for me to cover some of that same information in dialogue or script descriptions. I would still over describe set decoration with him knowing full well that it would all be ignored in his more minimal presentation. My reasoning is that by seeing how I visualized it and what I was looking for, he could more accurately suggest the same thing with less. 

For the Cartoon Network titles such as Scooby-Doo and Dexter's Laboratory, my scripts were also pretty short. The artists, including Robert Pope, were all people I worked with regularly, and we were all working from a known property and had the animated tv series for each property to inform how the characters would act and react, as well as what the physical design elements would look like. Most of these scripts had a couple sentences of description per panel plus the dialogue. 

Having said all that, the Marvel Method still appeals to me, but I think it has to be down in collaboration with someone you've already worked with successfully , and the writer and artist need to be in regular discussions about how the story will progress. Even so, I think that all of the dialogue and character performance should be provided in advance. 


Robert Pope said...

Great post, pal! As much as Stan is skewered for credit-grabbing (some intentional, some more the fault of lazy reporting) the fact he was able to make so much material from so many different artists gel remains a really amazing feat.

John Rozum said...


Unknown said...

Great Blog post thanks for all the really cool and interesting information, I might use it in my own comic writing