Monday, May 30, 2016

As Good As It Gets: The Marvel Method

In a few of the reviews posted here at the PPC, I've come to notice several instances where I've called into question the writer's intent regarding how a certain set of panels was written in relation to the art to which it applies; maybe a scene ended up reading oddly or awkwardly, or perhaps the events playing out didn't align with the words that were describing them. To be fair to the writer, my first thought should have been that I just wasn't seeing the whole picture, so to speak. I.e., "Why can't I make sense of whatever [INSERT WRITER HERE] is going for here?" The other extreme also occurred to me--that the scenes I was confused by instead made perfect sense, and my observations were completely missing the mark. But for argument's sake, let's assume (for the moment, at least) that I'm a perfectly sane reader and that I'm not quite ready to book a room at Shady Pines--and while we're at it, let's go on to postulate that perhaps there's method to Marvel's madness.

Specifically, the so-called "Marvel method," which Stan Lee elaborated on in a 1966 speech he gave at Princeton University:

"We don't work the same as other outfits. ... Well, the way we did it up 'til five years ago, the writer writes a script just as a playwright writes a play, then the playwright gives it to a director, who gives it to the producer. And the director will be the equivalent of the artist. But we don't do it that way. We have what I think is a much better system, that we stumbled into because of necessity! I marvel that everybody doesn't do this.

"I had been writing all the stories myself, and I just didn't have time. If I was writing a story for Jack Kirby, Don Heck might be sitting on his hands, waiting to do something. And we're so... our schedule is so tight, we can't afford to have Don be sitting around. And yet, I had to finish this story. So I said, 'Look Don, I can't give you a script, I've got another day's writing to do, because Jack needs it. But the next story would be Iron Man goes here, he does that, he meets that guy. You go ahead and draw it, draw it any way you can, I'll put the copy in later.'

"Don went ahead and did it. And ah, his drawings were like a crossword puzzle, I didn't know what was going on. But anyway, I put the copy in. And I found, as I was doing it, it made it much more enjoyable. Because I wasn't looking at blank paper in a typewriter, but I was writing copy for people, for drawings that I was looking at, with expressions and actions. I felt carried away.

"My wife said, 'What are you talkin' to yourself about? Writing out loud, singing out loud!' So that's the way we do it now. Now I give the artist a synopsis, and he draws the story himself. I have no idea what I'm going to get. Sometimes it comes out so far removed from what I'd expect."

Five years later, Lee makes this practice the subject of one of his famous Bullpen Bulletins soapboxes:


A couple of issues back we discussed a few aspects of comic-book script writing. So, it now seems only fair to yak it up about the artwork that graces our phantasmagoric pages. Have you ever stopped to think how multi-talented a Marvel artist has to be? Not only must he be the equal of any book, magazine, or advertising illustrator, but he must also be a master story-teller, as well. Remember, here at the Bullpen, we work differently than at any other comic-book company. Here, the artist actually collaborates with the writer on the structure of the story. Working from the script-writer's synopsis, the artist himself develops the story pictorially, and only then is the artwork returned to the writer so that he may add the required dialogue and captions. Our illustrators must be masters of dramatic portrayal--of visual characterization--of anatomy, composition, and continued-action layout. Not only must they create a viable, three-dimensional world on paper, but they must then imbue it with life, with excitement, with a sense of belief. And, above all, unlike the so-called "fine artist" who can work at his leisure over a single drawing, the comic-book illustrator must create his panels one after the other, always speeding towards an impending deadline, with one eye ever on the clock and the calendar, producing from one to three pages a day--day after day--in this, the comic-book field--a truly native American form of art which, in a few short decades, has made its influence felt throughout the entire globe. As an editor and writer, I proudly salute the magnificently dedicated, monumentally talented comic-book artists who have made the world a little more thrilling, a little more dramatic, and a lot more colorful for us all.


Assuming that this was true across the board--i.e., that every writer and artist at Marvel worked in this fashion--and that the practice was in use for 25 years or so until Lee stepped down as Editor (maybe even after his departure, who am I to know?), it would help to explain why there are lapses in logic here and there in the narrative or dialogue that are in conflict with or otherwise fall short of the images we're seeing on the page.

Take, for instance, the PPC's previous post, where Dr. Strange was confronted with and overwhelmed by images of those who died while he was in seclusion following the accident which damaged his hands and ended his career. The copy attributes those deaths to Strange wallowing in self-pity: "...those who died--because you were too frightened--too morose--to perform the operations that could have saved their lives!" There are a lot of ghostly patients preying on Strange's guilt in that scene--yet, with his hands irreparably injured, he would have been unable to perform their operations. "...thru your cowardice--your carelessness--you killed us--killed us all!" Cowardice? Carelessness? How does either apply here? Strange was by that point incapable of performing surgery.

Or, consider a scene from an issue of Avengers, where the Vision is seeking to shield both Marvel Girl and the Scarlet Witch from erupting boulders by increasing his mass. The dialogue we're given isn't more extensive than that--and it doesn't correspond with the images we're seeing that mostly show Wanda hopping on the Vision's back and all but saying "Giddyup." How that amounts to being shielded isn't adequately conveyed.

Since Lee puts so much emphasis on the time factor involved in producing a comic book issue, we could reasonably assume that once the penciller has finished his pages, there is no time available for the artist to make revisions if such inconsistencies arise between the intent of the writer and the interpretation of the artist, and so the writer must make do with the artwork they have in hand, which is captioned and lettered before being passed on to the inker. In extreme cases where what's in the can simply must be changed before press time (e.g., the fate of the Phoenix before what finally became Uncanny X-Men #137), we can also assume that both overtime and the burning of midnight oil were involved.

On the whole, it would be difficult to conclude just who inadvertently dropped the ball in such cases. In the Giant-Size Defenders story, for example, it could have been writer Len Wein who misinformed artist Gil Kane on the details of why those phantoms were so livid with Strange; or Kane might have been provided with insufficient details of what Wein wanted for the scene, and filled in the gaps as best he could; or Kane could have misinterpreted Wein's conception of the scene and worked from his own memories of Strange's history. Perhaps even both men were on the same page and were simply working from misinformation.

Now that the Marvel machinery has long since shifted gears, the production process "back in the day" has often been as interesting and informative to me as its counterpart, the creative process. I also found Lee's earlier thoughts in another Soapbox missive pertinent:

"Though the comic-book script requires the same attention to characterization, the same realistic dialogue, and the same dramatic literary structure as any other type of scenario, only the comic-book writer must contend with the torturous limitation of space! Only the comic book scripter must capsulize, in a few brief dialogue balloons, the same premise that an author in any medium may take page after page to expand upon. Yet, the comic-book writer, limited to a few words per dialogue balloon, must give his reader the same reading satisfaction, mental stimulation, and cultural fulfillment as any other practitioner of the literary arts."

Please don't hesitate to offer your own insights on the matter in the Comments section. Was the Marvel "method," as Lee put it, "a much better system" of producing the work involved than closer (and more synchronous) collaboration between writer and artist (and, needless to say, editor)?


Rip Jagger said...

I think the "Marvel Method" was as good as the artist who was tasked with pacing out the story. Most of the guys working for Marvel in those early years were tried and true pros who had been in the field for many years (some had gone away to find other work) and had sufficient experience to have a handle on what Stan might want in a given story. They'd done it before, many times and so could rely on that to give them guidance. Lee's offhand directions were enough for a seasoned vet.

Then came the new wave beginning with Roy Thomas and others and I think the game gets more and more confusing, and sometimes the results are too. I've always wondered what a vet like Gardner Fox did when he came over to Marvel briefly after his long time at DC. Did he use Marvel Method for his few stories. Likewise Arnold Drake.

Much is made of the Marvel Method, often thrown out by Stan in his descriptions as a necessary to make the trains run on time, but at its best (with creators like Kirby) it yielded something greater than the sum of its parts, and that's been the reason parsing out who gets credit for what has been such a challenge for so many decades now.

Rip Off

Steve Does Comics said...

The example that always strikes me is Amazing Spider-Man #1, where Ditko's pictures appear to show our hero trying to release a jammed parachute in John Jameson's rapidly descending space capsule, whereas Stan's words tell us he's trying to attach a stabilising device to the capsule in order to get it back under control. I assume that either Lee misunderstood Ditko's pictures or he decided his own version was more dramatic.

Comicsfan said...

That's a fair point, Rip, concerning how attuned some artists were to Lee's train of thought as to what he was looking for in a particular story, as opposed to other artists who might have worked differently; though I must say, there were many instances where Kirby, who would have been on the same page with Lee in that respect as much as anyone, seemed to be telling a different story than the one Lee finally scripted. In such cases, it might have been better for the finished product if Lee had simply rung up Kirby on the phone and asked for clarification on the panel(s) in question--though perhaps it would have meant returning to a format (i.e., "Story by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby" instead of "Stan Lee, Writer" and "Jack Kirby, Penciller") that shared the creative credits more openly. (Something the "Co-Plotters" credit in the '80s occasionally made an effort to do.)

Steve, I might disagree with you on the scene you mention. From Ditko's panel sequence, it does look like the capsule goes out of control while in orbit, which is what causes it to lose altitude so wildly--so I suppose deploying the 'chute wouldn't have been feasible until the capsule stabilized. If I remember those early orbital missions correctly, though, the real problem with the story is that the capsule would have had to fire its thrusters in order to adjust its trajectory and fall to Earth so that its rear portion (with its heat shield) faced the atmosphere. With the capsule out of control, that wouldn't have been possible, and Jameson would have been toast--well before it could have fallen to an altitude where Spider-Man could have reached it. (Of course, that was fifty years ago, so I may be misremembering the mechanics of orbital space flight and re-entry!)

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