Shelf Life: Writing Under the Influence

Thu, April 3rd, 2014 at 3:02pm PDT | Updated: April 3rd, 2014 at 3:02pm

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist

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Writing Under the Influence

A few months ago, I was reading an issue of New York Magazine -- bathroom reading it, to be perfectly honest -- and came across an article in which "Community" creator Dan Harmon listed his cultural influences. I've actually never been a devotee of "Community." I tried a few episodes and it didn't click with me, so I moved on.

But Harmon's article got me thinking about my own influences, most specifically creatively. In no particular order, these are the things that made me who I am:

1. "Star Wars"

I was exactly the right age when the first film was released. I still remember the seat where I was sitting in the theater when the Star Destroyer's endless bulk cruised over my head and changed my life. I went back again and again to see the film in theaters, bought the toys, collected the trading cards. It all crystallized in me a love of genre and outsize adventure. The "Star Wars" comics from Marvel that followed were the ones that made comics a regular reading experience for me. If not for "Star Wars," I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing.

2. Jim Starlin

Obviously without Jim, who showed me the ropes in me comics and ushered me into Marvel, I wouldn't have a career. But even beyond teaching me how to do this job, Jim's work had a profound effect on me. His stories featuring Warlock and Thanos, and especially "The Death of Captain Marvel" graphic novel, showed me that superhero stories could have lasting, serious consequences. Characters died, and they didn't come back (at least right away).

3. Frank Frazetta

I probably learned just as much about story from Frazetta's book covers as I did from the books themselves. His barbarians, maidens and monsters spoke to me like little else. By the time the Ballantine collections of Frazetta's work appeared, I knew I wasn't going to be an artist. I just didn't have the ability. But I wanted to tell stories that inspired this kind of artwork.

4. Edgar Rice Burroughs

Like "Star Wars," I discovered Burroughs at just the right age, and devoured practically everything he wrote, from Tarzan to John Carter and all the rest. Burroughs made me want to be a writer; made me want to write the same brand of adventure and romance. Finally being able to work on some ERB properties is literally a dream come true for me.

5. Walter Simonson's "Thor"

My favorite run in comics, by one of my favorite creators, someone I'm lucky enough to call a friend now. Walter's "Thor" was (and is) pure comics to me, full of power and majesty, the first series I had to have every month.

6. Bruce Springsteen

I've written previously in my column about Springsteen's influence on me, specifically the narratives of his songs, and the sense that he tells stories of average people. The connection I feel to Springsteen's characters challenges me to write characters that readers can form a connection with.

7. Stephen King

The same college girlfriend who introduced me to Springsteen also introduced me to King, whose work I had previously dismissed as low-brow, populist entertainment (without ever reading it, of course). But when a pretty girl gives you her copy of "Pet Sematary" to read, you do it. I discovered one of the great American storytellers, and my favorite writer, bar none.

8. Frank Miller

If you came of age as a comics reader in the 1980s, Frank Miller was a huge reason why, both as a writer and an artist. When I was just dipping my toe into comics, someone gave me one of Frank's "Daredevil" issues, and I was hooked. I followed him to "Ronin," to "Dark Knight Returns," to "Batman: Year One" and "Martha Washington" and "Sin City" and everything else.

9. Steven Spielberg

So much of my list reflects things discovered at just the right age. Spielberg is another, starting with "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." My generation matured as Spielberg matured as a filmmaker. Yes, I've heard the criticism that his films are emotionally manipulative, blah, blah, blah... but you know what? That's what I want. I want a film to make me feel something, to make me care.

10. Norman Rockwell

Everybody knows who Norman Rockwell is. At this point, his last name has become an adjective at this point. But being friends with illustrators opened me to a far deeper appreciation for his work, both the sheer technical skill of his execution, and his ability to tell an entire story in one image. There's more story in one of Rockwell's covers than there is in most comics.

11. Alan Moore

For my money, still the best writer who has ever graced comics. Finding his work in "Swamp Thing" was formative for me, as was "Watchmen" and so much else. Moore brought new levels of literary and visual sophistication to the medium. Most of us are still trying to catch up.

12. Robert E. Howard

Howard was like the grimier, grimmer cousin of Edgar Rice Burroughs for me. Marvel's "Savage Sword of Conan" black-and-white magazine led me to the original Conan tales, which led to the Conan pastiches, and even more importantly, Howard's other heroes like Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn and El Borak. I love Conan's exotic world, but truth be told, I love Solomon Kane just as much.

13. Bernie Wrightson

I first met Bernie when I was a senior in high school, when I visited his Woodstock, NY studio to interview him for the school newspaper. We ended up being friends (I met Starlin thanks to Bernie, so had I never met Bernie, I'd never have had a career). But far more than that, Bernie was the first person I ever met who actually made his living as a writer or artist. He was my introduction to the possibilities of a creative life. The memento-stuffed studio behind his Woodstock house, long gone now, was one of my favorite places in the world. Oh, yeah... that Wrightson guy, he draws pretty well too.

14. J.R.R. Tolkien

Hard not to be influenced by arguably the greatest fantasy story ever written, the model for everything that came after. You could argue Tolkien invented the genre.

15. Ray Harryhausen

When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be Ray Harryhausen, and make the impossible become real on the screen. Anytime one of his "Sinbad" movies pops up on television, I'm still powerless to resist. My friend and fellow writer Ian Edginton got me Ray's autograph in a coffee table book, and it's one of my prized possessions.

16. David Lean

I probably learned more about framing powerful images via watching "Lawrence of Arabia" than any other source. "Lawrence" is my favorite, but I'm enthralled by all of his epics: "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Doctor Zhivago," "Passage to India." We talk about widescreen comics, but David Lean is what widescreen is all about.

17. "Star Trek" (the original series)

I watched all the original episodes countless times, even the lousy ones, 6 o'clock every night on channel 11 out of New York City. I loved the characters and the universe they inhabited. And even as a kid, I loved that under the space-adventure trappings, the stories were about something real and meaningful.

18. "Raiders of the Lost Ark"

My favorite movie, which I've also written about in this column. Its breathless, one-thing-after-another pacing instilled in me a love of cliffhangers and pulp storytelling. More than that, it made me appreciate heroes who weren't perfect, who got beaten and bloodied and even failed.

19. Disney

More specifically, Disney feature animation, where story is king. The classic Disney films, as well as those from the renaissance period in the '90s, are textbook examples of visual storytelling. I was already an animation fan, but Jim Starlin pointed me toward Disney specifically for understanding how to tell stories with pictures. "Frozen" feels like throwback to the classic era.

20. KISS

Yeah, I'm kind of surprised to see this on the list too. But when I was in fourth grade, KISS meant the world to me: the makeup, the costumes, the stage theatrics, the painted album covers by Ken Kelly (nephew of Frazetta's wife), and yes, even the music. I grew up, and thought I put aside such childish things, but I never really outgrew KISS. There are musicians whose musical body of work means more to me -- Springsteen, Beatles, U2, Dylan, the Clash -- but none that fired my imagination like KISS. Adult me knows that there's far more sound and fury here than sophistication. But adult me doesn't care.

If anything, this entire list is a testament to embracing the things that touch you. That's the real lesson: there's no shame in loving what you love.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Witchblade" and the graphic novel series "Ravine" for Top Cow, "The Protectors" for Athleta Comics, his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image, and Sunday-style strips "The Mucker" and "Korak" for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

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