Tuesday, 25 June 2019

THE MARVEL METHOD - GUEST POST BY BARRY PEARL...


Images copyright their respective owners

Bashful BARRY PEARL has done it again.  He's kindly written another great guest post for Crivens all about the 'Marvel Method' - and no, he doesn't get paid for it - he does it 'cos he loves comics.  Don't let me hold you back from Barry's thoughts - get stuck right in!  Incidentally, lines in red are inserted by me for the purpose of clarity.

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The Marvel Method produced many of the greatest comics of the 20th century.

I had given up on 'new' comics in 1977 (for details see here).  I was then surprised on my return, in the early part of this millennium, to discover a group of readers, who I now call Comics Cops, had such vitriol for the Marvel Method and the man who used it most, Stan Lee.  (Sadly, such attacks continued even after Stan's death.)

In the early 1960s most companies produced comics in the following way:  An editor would either think of a story idea or get one from his writers or artists.  A writer would then be assigned to write a detailed story, describing the scenes on each page and including the dialogue.  From that script an artist would pencil the required pages of story.  A letterer, using black ink, would then letter the dialogue, narration and sound effects.  Then an artist would ink the penciled figures and (stats of) the pages would be given to a colourist, who determined what colours would be used and where.


Although it is now named after them, Marvel was not the first to use the Marvel Method.  Companies, including Fiction House in the 1940s, had used it.  With the Marvel Method, the writer and artist first collaborate on a plot and the pacing of the story.  The artist then pencils the pages, before any script or dialogue is written, sometimes adding elements or characters of his own which he thinks serves the tale. When the artist is finished he turns the pages over to the writer who then writes the dialogue and captions.  At this point Stan would often have the artist redraw some panels to better tell the story, which a few artists did not like.  Jack Kirby did not have final say on his own pencils.  Roy Thomas said to me:  "(Stan) let a lot of things he didn't like go through with minor changes to keep Jack and Steve (Ditko) happy, more than anything, but when he strongly wanted something changed -- like the origin of Galactus in Thor -- it got changed."  Once the art was complete, it was then given to the letterer, inker and colourist in that order.


The Marvel Method of creating comics changed the traditional structure of writer and artist.  Stan Lee described the situation at Virginia Tech in 1977: "Initially, comic books were done just like a play.  You would write a script where in a play you would write Act 1, Scene 1, the protagonist enters from stage left and does so and such.  With a comic we would write Page 1, Panel 1, the super-hero enters from a doorway and leaps through a window or so… I was writing most of the stories… and I found I was having trouble keeping up with the artist.  For example... I'd be writing the Fantastic Four story and the artist who does Spider-Man would come in and say, 'Hey, Stan, I need a script… I finished the one I was doing.'  But there I am doing the Fantastic Four and I can’t stop… so I would say to the artist, 'Look, I tell you what.  I don’t have time to write your script,' but he needed a script.  He couldn't wait 'cause we have... a production schedule, so I'd say, 'I'll tell you what the plot is.  You just go home and draw anything and – as long as it follows my plot, bring the drawings in.  By then I'll have finished this story and I'll put the dialogue in the captions on your artwork.'  Well, I found in that way I was able to keep a lot of artists busy at once."

At other comic companies the writer could not see the images yet, so he had to highlight the description in dialogue.  For example, when Superman is jumping out the window the panel would show someone below saying, "Look, there's Superman jumping out the window."  Or the description would read, "One day, as Superman jumped out of a window."  At Marvel Stan looked at the image and then did the dialogue.  You saw Spider-Man jumping out the window, no need to repeat it.  So Stan would have Spider-Man say, "I wonder if Aunt May is feeling better?"  Lee was able to advance the plot and the characterization.


Looking back fifty years, the new Comic Cops resented this accepted way of production and want to retroactively be the managers, lawyers, agents and mothers to the artists, as if the artists were forced to work according to the Marvel method. Roy Thomas told me, "And nobody was a slave... nobody ever held a gun to anybody's head."  The Comic Cops feel that the artists should have received greater compensation.  I do so wish they could have seen the future and negotiated better residuals.  In the early 1960s there was no live action or animated TV shows with comic book characters.  There were no movies being made.  There were few reprints, just occasional yearly 'Annuals' for a few characters.  There were no hardcover archives or softcover trade paperbacks.  Comics were considered cheap entertainment and disposable even to many of their readers.

Martin Goodman, and the other publishers, did not pay for 'ideas' but for finished pages of art and script.  Jack Kirby was often asked what he did at Marvel.  He didn't say, "I draw comics."  He most often said something like, "I sell magazines.*"  Kirby said in a 1992 interview with Leonard Pitts, "I’m not interested in the ego trip of creating or not creating.  I’m interested in selling a magazine.  Rock-bottom, I sell magazines.  I’m a thorough professional who does his job."

(*Examples are:  Kirby with Randy Hoppe, 1992;  Comic Book Collector 1993; Kirby Collector 1994;  Kirby and Pitts;  Jack Kirby The Golden Age; Interview with Glenn Danzig 1990.)


Dick Ayers told me that he enjoyed the Marvel Method.  It would allow him to properly pace the story and not be 'glued' to what a writer had written.  He especially liked working with Stan and Tony Isabella, both of whom gave him a one page outline for the story, often over the telephone.  Ayers mentioned that he had trouble with Gary Friedrich who often only gave him a couple of sentences.  Roy Thomas, Ayers went on to add, did quite the opposite, giving him twice as many pages as Stan!  Only once, Ayers said, was Stan stuck for a plot.  Stan called him regarding issue #23 of Sgt. Fury and asked him to come up with a plot because he couldn't think of anything.  Dick was very disappointed when Stan left the series a few issues later.

Dick Ayers in his office at home

Gene Colan told me that he loved working with Stan using the method.  As a reader, though, it was easy to see that Gene had a looser pacing with Stan than he would have with Roy Thomas, where the stories became more detailed.  In an email to Nick Caputo in 2000, Colan wrote:  "Stan really came up with all the ideas for the story, as minimal as they were, and I interpreted them.  I remember how free I felt.  I felt total freedom.  There was just one problem and that was pacing so the events wouldn't get bunched up.  [Stan gave] a rough verbal outline with no dialogue. Working with other writers like Roy Thomas and Archie Goodwin was restrictive for me, feeling like the writer had all the control and I had very little.  As writers and editors, both those men treated me well.  But for me, the fun was taken out of the work."

Gene Colan had glaucoma, hence his special glasses

Roy told me, "I usually gave Gene a synopsis of 2-3 pages, maybe occasionally more, maybe occasionally a bit less... perhaps in a few cases it was mixed, writing and telephone.  But I tended to send written synopses to most artists, even the Buscemas, Colan, etc., unless it was someone who preferred we just talk over the ideas, like Barry (Smith) or Neal (Adams)." 

John Romita also stated that he liked working this way with Stan.  He joked that some old fans even called him a 'company man' because he’d always say that whenever he finished drawing a story, Stan would take it and make it better.


In 2002, I spoke to Julius Schwartz and Carmine Infantino about how they produced DC comics in the 1960s.  The two mentioned that they would go out to lunch and come up with an idea for a cover (and therefore a plot) and then give it to a writer.  Even Schwartz was consulting with his artists for ideas.  Schwartz, however, was just editing about six books a month.  Stan was editing up to three times as many books a month and writing ten of them.  Writer Arnold Drake told me that when he wanted to write a story, he not only gave the editor the plot for approval, but laid out the cover too.  No one ever suggested that the cover artist should share his money with the writer who suggested a cover.

At this time, at Marvel, not all stories were done in the Marvel Method.  Larry Lieber, Stan's brother, was an important writer in the beginning.  Larry told me that he did full scripts, including the first Thor story, and did not work with the Marvel Method.  Some written plot outlines have survived.


To edit up to eighteen comics a month (this includes Summer Annuals) Stan had to delegate a lot of his authority to people he trusted.  Stan Goldberg was Marvel’s colourist and was involved with the production of the comics.  Stan G. was proud of the responsibilities delegated to him at Marvel, with no one looking over his shoulder.  Stan G. explained to me that it is a far more complicated job than you might think.  He worked hard to make sure that each comic on the stands that month looked different from the other Marvel comics and at the same time each issue had to look different from the title's last issue!  He originally wanted to make the Hulk orange, but then he would look like the Thing!  I asked him if he ever got colour suggestions from the artists.  He replied in a loud tone, "I never listened to those prima-donnas!!!" 

This method was not for everyone.  Joe Orlando did three early issues of Daredevil (#2-4) and Wally Wood did six (#5-10) and then left.  Neither of them was there long enough to leave a lasting impression.

We don’t know how much Wood's alcoholism and health problems contributed to his behavior.  William Gaines, publisher of EC comics and Mad Magazine for whom Wood did his best work, called him 'troubled'.  According to Russ Jones in Alter Ego #8, Wood left Mad Magazine when they rejected a project he was working on in 1962.  He was being paid $50 a page but refused any contact with the publisher.  He went to work at Charlton, inking for $10 a page.


Stan was excited to have him and announced it on the cover of Daredevil #5.  With the exception of Daredevil #7, which featured the Sub-Mariner, the pairing of Lee and Wood did not produce great stories.  Wood did redesign DD's costume and Stan G. told me, in 2010, that he, Stan G., had colored it.  In issue #10 Wood wrote the first part of a two part story but Stan had to finish it stating, "Well, if you've ever seen a more complicated, mixed-up, madcap mystery yarn than this one, you've got US beat by a mile."  Wood left after just inking issue #11, (street date:  October 1965) having begun T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents a month earlier.  John Romita took over Daredevil and circulation went up.

A great deal of lamentation has been made about Steve Ditko leaving Marvel.  Steve Ditko's leaving was not a failure of the Marvel method, but an absence of it.  Lee and Ditko were no longer talking and Ditko felt isolated, perhaps abandoned.  Wood gave up quickly;  it took Ditko a year to leave.

Jack Kirby will always be remembered for the work he did with his partner Joe Simon on Captain America and the stories he did with Stan, using the Marvel Method, in the 1960s.


Wally Wood did say some harsh things about Lee.  Jack Kirby insulted Lee by doing a malicious characterization of both him (Flunky Flashman) and Roy Thomas in Mister Miracle #6.  Yet Lee took them both back when they needed work.

Apparently, Stan's weakest attribute was coming up with a plot every single day for ten years.  He did heavily rely on his artists in that regard.  As an editor he succeeded and got the best out of the creative people he worked with.  They often developed the plot and then he advanced the story in the dialogue, his greatest strength.


In the early 1960s Stan, through his dialogue, gave characters uniqueness and personality.  Stan put a great deal of humor into the comics.  These concepts allowed great continuity at Marvel.  It would be difficult to read the Marvel comics of the 1960s out of chronological order.  But you could mix up a batch of DC comics from different years and it usually made no difference.

A final note:  The Comic Cops often paint a picture, a myth, of Stan somehow trying to fool Martin Goodman.  I spoke to Flo Steinberg, Stan's secretary about this.  As an example, when Steve Ditko delivered his artwork he gave it to Sol Brodsky, the production manager, and Sol gave it to Stan.  Other artists would come in and have shut door sessions with Stan.  Everyone knew what the procedures were.  In the decade of the 1960s, with Marvel's circulation rising from 16 million to 70 million, Goodman not only knew what was going on, he saw that it was working!


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Thanks again to Barry for taking the time to write this post for all we Criv-ites.  Don't let his efforts go unappreciated - leave a comment saying what you think, for or against, the 'Marvel method'.

12 comments:

Philip Crawley said...

Great post! I knew a little about the Marvel Method but now understand it a lot more than I did before reading here.

I am a die-hard Marvel fan and always have been, often dipping back into a collected Masterwork volume to re-live the glory days and was not even aware of the 'Comic Cops'. People who try to retrofit history always come unstuck, as I don't know who once said, "the past is a different country, they do things differently there' (or words to that effect). A lot of this sort of chatter is just background noise to me, the downside of everyone and their dog having a voice on the internet is that they all get to add their two cents on this or that (and often that 'opinion' is grossly over-valued at two cents!).

Kid said...

Some artists actually preferred the 'Marvel Method' because of the freedom it gave them. John Buscema preferred working that way, even saying that if a writer gave him a full script, he'd do the job, but never work with them again. I bet Jack Kirby preferred that freedom as well - until he started to think that Stan was receiving too much credit for their collaborations. In my view, Stan could never receive too much credit, as anyone who ever read a Lee/Kirby or a Lee/Ditko comic would know when he compared them to solo Kirby and Ditko mags. Stan added the magic. Glad you liked the post, PC - Barry will be pleased to know his hard work didn't go unnoticed.

Barry Pearl said...

Thirty Years Later:

Writer J.M. DeMatteis on the Death of Harry Osborn in The Spectacular Spider-Man Vol 1 #200, 1993.

On the final two pages, Spidey accompanies Harry into an ambulance, they drive off and Harry passes away... The sequence was small, quiet, but, on an emotional level, it was massive.

I did everything I could to communicate the power of those last pages to Sal in the plot—along with my thoughts on how the sequence would be handled in the final script. My intention was to verbally milk the pages for all they were worth, wringing out every last drop of emotion; going big and melodramatic via captions, inner monologues from Peter or dialogue between the characters. (Another benefit of "Marvel (Method)": I didn't have to decide then, I could make up my mind when the art was done.)

Then Sal’s pages came in…The panel to panel flow was cinematic and crystal clear, the characters dramatic and achingly human. And those final two pages? Perfection! At first—locked into my original vision—I began writing captions and dialogue for the end-sequence, but it quickly became clear that everything I wanted to say had already been said, and better, by Sal. It was all there in the pictures. He had translated my plot so expertly that words would have capsized the sequence and destroyed the emotional power of the moment. So I shut my big mouth and let Harry Osborn die in silence…

That, too, is part of a writer’s work—especially in comics: deciding when to speak and when to shut up. Deciding whether to go for a barrage of machine-gun dialogue, a series of powerful captions or to surrender to equally-powerful silence. Whether we’re working full-script of plot-first, we make those decisions on every panel of every page.

Kid said...

Says it all really, eh, Barry? With the right writer and artist, the 'Marvel Method' is probably the best way to do comics.

Incidentally, I'm surprised to learn that Harry Osborne died 26 years ago. I thought he was still around.

Barry Pearl said...

So did Harry!

Kid said...

I bet he was just as surprised as I was when he found out he was dead.

Anonymous said...

When it works, it works brilliantly. When it doesn't, it leaves creators frustrated and fans baffled. It also creates a potential vacuum where no one really knows who did what. Finally given that creator payments were based on the credit box, was the process in the 60's moral? Did Dick Ayers ( or his wife, who gave him the idea for the issue he plotted) get payment for the use of his plot? Was creative freedom a true reimbursement to the artist in exchange for plotting and pacing an issue?
Is the DeMatteis example a good example of the Marvel method? On first reading yes, but looking at it deeper, it shows a writer who is fully in control of the creative process, who is guiding the artist through that creative process. So its a good example of Sal's strengths in giving life to an author's imaginings, but not of the Marvel method pre se. As for the Marvel method today, I am not into today's comics or how comics are created, but I am under the impression that comics have gone back into its straightjacket. Editorial is now so all-imposing that creative spontaneity, which the marvel method unleashed, is something that is confined to 20th century history.
Barry/Kid top blog and musings as ever.
Spirit of 64

Kid said...

Insightful comment, S64, but I think Kirby and Ditko got a higher page rate for their work than other artists, to compensate them somewhat for whatever plotting they did. The reason first choice John Buscema didn't draw Conan from issue #1 was because Barry Smith was on a lesser page rate (I bet that soon changed), and that's all the budget on the comic allowed for. So though Stan's collaborators may not have been paid for plotting or ideas under that category, Stan made sure they got a bit more because he knew (and often admitted) that certain artists did more than merely pencil a page. He even had Ditko earmarked for another raise, but Steve quit without ever learning that he would be getting more money per page. (And I bet that was to compensate him a bit more for his plotting.)

On DeMatteis, I'm inclined to accept his view of the Marvel Method being effective. He may have told Sal Buscema what he was looking for, but another artist working under the same instructions could have delivered something far less potent. If he believes that Sal added something to the scene that rendered words redundant, then that means Sal turned in something far more than was expected. And, as DeMatteis admits, not writing precise panel descriptions with captions or dialogue in advance allows the artist (if he has the skill) to add something of his own to the finished result. And that basically is the Marvel Method - the script being written after the pages have been drawn.

As for how comics are written nowadays, I'm not entirely sure, but I imagine that some form of the Marvel Method is still used to a greater or lesser degree, depending on who the collaborating creators are.

Glad you enjoyed Barry's post.

Phil S said...

I totally agree with everything in this post. I think the bad feelings came after some of the artists realized Stan was getting paid to be the writer and editor and wasn’t really writing the stories any more. The artists were. The DC method made for amusing stories but you often felt as if one issue was interchangeable with any other . On the other hand reading Spidey from 25 to 50 you miss a lot!

Kid said...

It seems that Ditko more or less demanded sole plotting duties on Spider-Man, PS, which is why he and Stan got to the stage where neither man was speaking to the other. Did Stan initiate this non-communication? It's hard to blame him given how resistant Steve was to his input. He often ignored Stan and did what he wanted, with Stan later having to get other hands to course-correct some of the things Steve had done. Usually he could do it himself via the dialogue and captions, but sometimes he had to get someone to redraw some panels. Did Ditko have the right to demand what was essentially another job (and another wage)? In Kirby's case, he never seemed shy about volunteering ideas and stories and Stan was prepared to let him as it took some of the pressure off of him. He did try to compensate both men for they're extra input by upping their page rate from time to time, but Stan genuinely believed himself to be the writer (or scripter or whatever) because he tied it all together with his captions and dialogue which tended to define the characterisation of the main protagonists.

Who was right and who was wrong? Well, it's hard to argue with success. Kirby and Ditko were always good ideas men, but their solo work, while being arguably as imaginative as their Marvel work, lacked that magical spark which Stan's input disproportionately added to the finished result. That's how I see it anyway, others may be of a different view.

Dave S said...

I don't really have much to add to this discussion but just want to thank Barry for taking the time to write such an interesting and informative piece- I hadn't heard the story about Stan Goldberg wanting the Hilk to be orange, for instance.

Nice to see Sal Buscema getting some praise too. Many people are critical of Sal based on some of his rushed work in the 70s, but the stuff he produced from the mid-80s onwards is outstanding and very underrated, and he was always a great storyteller.

Kid said...

It sometimes wasn't immediately obvious it was Sal and not John who was the artist, DS, depending on who the inker was. Yeah, his storytelling was always clear.

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