Master Of The Obvious: Issue #45

Wed, June 7th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Continuing on the topic of writer weirdness. For some reason it has been generally decided writers exist to take a lot of crap.

Take Mark Waid. You may or may not like Mark's work; your prerogative. Mark's part of the Gorilla group, producing their own line of books through Image. Gorilla was briefly being financed by an entrepreneur, and at the 11th hour that financing fell apart. The Gorilla participants decided to continue and finance their own books. As most talent in comics don't end up with much money to speak of, underwriting a regular title is something of a burden. These circumstances forced Mark to slightly delay his upcoming EMPIRE and reduce the publication schedule to bi-monthly. For that, he has recently taken harangues sniping at both his writing talent and his commitment to both his book and the industry.

"For some reason it has been generally decided writers exist to take a lot of crap."

This is nuts. This is the sort of ignorant bad manners that now saturates the fan base in this business. It's true that far too many talents have produced creator-owned books, decided they'd made it, and sloughed off on producing new material until reader confidence in creator-owned titles was totally eroded. But this isn't that situation. In a perfect world Mark would be able to produce EMPIRE on the schedule he originally intended. Circumstances changed, and he can't. He's producing now to the best of his ability.

Some people have blamed the rise in bad manners in the fan base on THE COMICS JOURNAL and their merciless sniping at all that's good and true in comics (don't worry, TCJ lovers; I'm being facetious) but if that were true, I'd expect many more complaints about the content of Spider-Man than about not enough talent dedicating their lives to working on Spider-Man. Clearly the influence of the Journal on the fan base has been minimal. All of society has come to believe bad manners (which, properly applied, can be an effective tool, but so few people know how to apply them properly) are cool; it's to be expected that fans play the same game. The question is whether they'd rather support Mark Waid's attempt to expand his (and, hopefully, their) horizons, or drive him out of the business or watch him spend the rest of his life churning out half-hearted retreads of THE FLASH? If Mark were making his own obstacles, that would be one thing, but unexpected obstacles merit a little patience and support.

Also spoke last week to a fairly well-known comics writer who's being courted by a Hollywood studio on a project. Sort of. They're not actually offering him work. They just want him to come in for some meetings. My screenwriter friends tell me this behavior is currently fashionable in Hollywood: have writers come to project meetings and pick their brains for ideas, then send them on their way without work or pay and incorporate their ideas into material that other people will be hired to write. That this is ridiculously unethical doesn't seem to bother executives. That they're deliberately preying on writers struggling to get any kind of work in a shrunken market for some reason hasn't prompted the Writers Guild yet to shut the practice down. The writer I spoke to had so far not played the game, but what bothers me is that this behavior is starting to surface in the comics industry. Is what's good enough for Hollywood good enough for comics? How much further do we want to undermine the status of the comics writer, which has taken a beating for decades and is only now starting to crawl back into the light? What can writers do to protect themselves?

Experience has convinced me of the overall virtue of the full script method.

For those who haven't a clue what I'm talking about, there are several different ways to write comic books. But they basically break down into two methods: full script and plot-to-art. The former consists of writing out the script in full, breaking it down into pages and panels roughly as follows:

PAGE 1

Panel 1

SCENE: Seated behind his desk in the Oval Office, Bill Clinton looks up with surprise to see Femme Fatale, stripped down to garters, mesh stockings, spiked black heels, a g-string and a bikini top, leaning seductively against the doorframe, giving him the eye. In her hand, she casually holds a big gun, but she's not aiming it, and a trail of smoke still trickles up from the barrel.

FEMME FATALE 1: Hillary won't interrupt us this time, big boy.

FEMME FATALE 2: Consider this a campaign contribution.

CLINTON 3: URK!

The latter, considerably abbreviated, consists of loosely sketching out the action and letting the artist make most of the storytelling decisions:

Clinton looks up from his desk in the oval office and gasps as he sees Femme Fatale standing in the doorway in a sexy outfit, a smoking gun in her hand and a sly smile on her lips.

In this method, most of the dialoguing is left until the penciling is done and the writer has a copy of the actual art in front of him. While what I wrote above would cover one panel of art in my mind's eye, an artist might break it down to several panels: Clinton at his desk, a seductive shadow in the doorway, close-up of Clinton looking up in alarm and panic, medium-to-close shot of Femme Fatale in the doorway with gun in hand and smile on lips, Clinton's eye-view close-up of Femme Fatale's breasts, extreme close-up reaction shot Clinton's panicked eyes and beads of sweat running down his forehead. At which point you've just had a page and a half of other content pushed out of the story.

Or, as Warren Ellis put it in this Come In Again column a few weeks back, the artist might decide this is a good place to draw a dinosaur.

A lot of people think Stan Lee invented the method when he was the only writer to speak of on Marvel's staff in the early 60s and writing 14 books a month, hence it's known as "the Marvel method." It actually extends back to the dawn of comics and many comics were done that way before more formal working methods were developed. Stan adopted it because he was working with natural storytellers like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko who had no trouble developing whole stories on their own, and because he just didn't have time to do it any other way. By some reports, much of Stan's "plotting" consisted of little more than "Bring back Dr. Doom this issue," and some who have used the Marvel method have stripped it so far down that the above one panel synopsis is already way too elaborate, and the plot of an entire 22 page story centering around that scenario would be:

Clinton has sex in the oval office with a gun-toting femme fatale. Throw in some character bits.

I'm not being facetious about this. I've seen plots like that, from writers once widely touted to be among the greatest in the business. The weird thing about it is that when they say "character bits" they always seem to have very specific things in mind, and they get upset when those things aren't in the end product. That's just loony behavior. If you're going to cast your bread on the water like that, you have to put up with what comes back.

In theory, the virtue of the Marvel method is that it turns the artist (if we can make filmmaking analogies) into the director, whereas with the full script method they're more like the cinematographer. Not surprisingly, many artists like this. In theory. Many don't realize how difficult storytelling is, what constitutes it. Many get irritated that the writer often ends up credited with ideas the artist inserted into the story, many get upset that the writer can come in after the fact and totally alter intent and meaning with the words he chooses. While I'm reasonably certain there were additional grounds for the rift, legend has it that Jack Kirby broke up his celebrated collaboration with Stan Lee because much of the dialogue Stan used in the books was written by Kirby in the panel borders as dialogue suggestions when Jack drew the stories, and he felt he deserved credit as the writer. And the story goes Steve Ditko left AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and Marvel partly because he was plotting serious stories for the book only to have Stan turn them into shallow yokfests with his dialogue. (I vaguely remember Ditko denying this. If he did and anyone knows where, please drop me a note about it. But I could just be hallucinating.)

Another suggested benefit is that the Marvel method allows for comics that are more spontaneous and energetic than full-scripted comics. They're just as likely to result in an unreadable mess. There used to be a prominent delusion in the comics business, fostered by fans in the 70s, that products from writer-artists were innately superior to those produced by writers and artists collaborating, but over the past 30 years we've seen enough crap from writer-artists to blow holes the size of Montana in that theory. It's also a myth that in the early days of comics the writer-artist was prevalent and it was only the business necessities of a cookie-cutter industry that considers all talent interchangeable that broke the functions into separate, manageable disciplines. A quick glance at the roles shows comics from the start separated functions into writer/artist/letterer/etc. Siegel and Shuster, anyone? Even Will Eisner, long the poster boy for the writer-artist movement (and now bewilderingly being touted in some quarters as "the father of the graphic novel" as if there weren't already enough real accomplishments that can be laid at his doorstep), shopped out much of the work on his features; many of the most memorable SPIRIT stories were written by Jules Feiffer, though he was obviously following Eisner's lead.

Perhaps the studio method is the best method for producing comics. The main beneficiary of the Marvel method is the editor. Plots are easier to read than scripts. (I'm amazed at how few editors even know how to read full scripts anymore.) Time-consuming art corrections (which used to be called for if the artist had taken it on himself to unilaterally revise content or eliminate transitions or excise story logic) can be bypassed by sending the book to the writer to "fix," usually resulting in too many captions and too much verbiage in an attempt to beat sense back into a story gone horribly out of control. And it's usually the writer who takes heat for the end result, as in "how can they let Writer X mess up Artist Z's art like that?" or "Why do they make Artist Z waste his talent on Writer X's crappy stories?"

"...it's usually the writer who takes heat for the end result, as in "how can they let Writer X mess up Artist Z's art like that?""

Not, of course, that comics writers aren't perfectly capable of producing crappy work all by themselves.

Studios now have a bad rap, due to too many talent-turned-entrepreneurs who hire other talent to conform to a "house style" and cookie-cutter out nondescript comics in imitation of bigger companies. But small studios have a great appeal, creatively: a writer and artist (or, given the disparate amount of time it takes to write a comic and to draw it, more than one artist) working in close proximity to oversee and fine-tune each other's contribution as they're being done, to bounce ideas off each other. I'd love to work like that: a realization of the "Marvel bullpen" that was often talked about but never really existed. Distance, now that the business isn't clustered around Manhattan, usually makes it impossible. (CrossGen Studios is perhaps an approximation of that, but I have an inbred revulsion of company shops and the idea of having to live in proximity to them. But that's just me.)

That said, full script remains the best method of writing comics. If you're familiar with your artist's work, if you trust your artist to make storytelling decisions with a reasonable certainty that he's trying to tell the same story you are, Marvel method can work fine. It's not a luxury many of us have. Full script at least allows the writer some control over flow, structure, character development. It allows the writer to get his point of view across. Not that it's perfect. I recently got back art pages to balloon and reached a section where a group of men stand gaping in shock at the villain of the piece. Which would be fine, except… I checked the full script to see I wasn't misremembering, and there it was: the script called for all the men to be unconscious and sprawled on the ground. It was a minor but important story point, as it was window dressing for the next action, and without it the logic and surprise of the next action became shaky. I've no idea why the artist decided to ignore the scene directions. I do know editors never make artists redraw anything anymore. There are things you just have to let go of. You also have to take into account that many artists don't seem to own a dictionary. I wrote a THOR story some years ago which was supposed to have the odd imagery of Thor battling a very gaunt, deathlike villain. That was the exact description I used: gaunt. I got back a villain maybe twice as bulky as The Hulk. Either the artist didn't understand the word and didn't think to look it up, or he decided the Hulk look was cooler. It wasn't. Needless to say, the editor shrugged it off.

Having the writer and the artist on the same page creatively (even writer-artists find one role often conflicts with the other) with respect for each other's talents and egos in check is still far more important than the method of producing a comic book. Rather than worrying about method, the industry rule of thumb should be: whatever works. But to the extent that the industry promotes the separation of disciplines and writers often don't even know who their artists will be, full script remains the best way of protecting whatever vision a writer brings to a project. If a writer isn't bringing a personal vision to a project, he shouldn't be there. If he does have a vision, it's worth protecting as much as possible. There's a reason architects make blueprints. Many artists find once they've worked full script they prefer it. Many people seem greatly concerned that things like Mark Waid's slowdown with EMPIRE will undermine faith (to the extent it still exists) in the industry, but the continued flood of mediocrity does considerably more damage. A new emphasis on full script, on giving rein to authorial vision, might stanch that wound. At the least, it would give us the means to lay credit or blame where it's due.

Thanks very much for the great e-mail raves from so many of you about X-MAN. I'm glad you're enjoying it. I just don't have time to drop a personal line to all of you, but I didn't want you to think I don't appreciate the support. Still putting together other projects; hopefully we'll have some news in the next couple of weeks.

I'm really excited about this week's update to @VENTURE, the online all-fiction site featuring prose fiction by comics writers. When I first concocted the site, one of my goals was to provide a venue to writers to continue, via prose, great creator-owned comics series that for one reason or another are no longer being published in comics form. This week debuts a new story featuring two of my all-time favorite comics characters: Matt Howarth's THOSE ANNOYING POST BROTHERS. If you've never read the comic, go scrounge those back issues. In the meantime, @VENTURE is thrilled to resurrect them in all their anarchistic, sociopathic, edge music-loving glory. Don't miss it. Also not to be missed this week: further chapters of Mike Baron's excellent THE HODAG, and more. Hit it.

Speaking of hits, the hit campaign continues to build numbers. While part of me desperately wants to ascribe it to my wonderful column, I know most of the credit goes to those people who have earnestly and steadfastly pumped the column to everyone they know. You're doing great! Keep up the good work. I can almost taste the new comics series a large enough hit ratio will make possible. Thanks.

This week's question of the week on the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: what single issue do you think is most critical to the comics industry at this moment, and what would you propose to deal with it?

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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