JimShooter.com

Writer. Creator. Large mammal.

A Question About Writing for Television and Movies

QUESTION:

Dear Jim,

I hope this isn’t a silly question, but what differences do you see between comics writing and writing for TV or movies? Would you say that comic book story structure is less rigid and formulaic?

Pete Marco

ANSWER:

Writing for television means adhering to many strictures and limitations — things like building in a hook before each commercial break, obligations to performing talent, sticking strictly to the bible and staying within strict conceptual parameters. And more. The money is bigger, the stakes are higher. Therefore: There is very little tolerance for inflated egos and self-indulgent prima donnas. The supervision is rigorous and exacting. The people who write TV, almost without exception, know their craft and are skilled professionals. For most shows that accept pitches you have to be qualified and approved before you’re even allowed to pitch.


All of that said, there are, of course, some writers who work brilliantly under those tight conditions and do great things, some who do impeccably structured, uninspired crap and many who fall in the middle. Knowing all the steps does not make one a great dancer, but at least TV writers in general know the steps.

So do film writers. The competition there is so fierce that unskilled writers fall by the wayside or, at best, sell a draft for the ideas in it, which is summarily rewritten by someone with skills.  The problem with movies is that too often good scripts are weakened downstream by directors, producers, studios. The well-written screenplay for Dragonslayer, for instance, was eviscerated by studio execs who thought many more minutes of “action,” i.e., a rubber dragon flapping around would be “more commercial” than a solid story. Even William Goldman has many such horror stories. 

The comic book industry is rife with writers who do not know writing basics, the sort of things Mark Twain cites in his “Nineteen Rules.”  Supervision is usually lax and the supervisors often are clueless. So, there is more “freedom” in the sense that some can get away with more self-indulgent, amateurish garbage; and some who don’t have basic skills are allowed to fumble their way along blindly. It seems that the only skills the creative management at the two major companies require of writers are a knack for glib patter and “events,” or gimmicks.  In an earlier comment, Marc Miyake hit the nail squarely —  they seem to focus on STIMULI, not story. What’s the most shocking thing we can do? Break Batman’s back! Kill Thor! Make Hal Jordan a villain! Then throw it all away and start over with Ultimate or New 52 so there are new opportunities for shocking stimuli. That seems to be all the companies care about.

And P.S., too many artists these days can’t tell a story even if given a good one. But, they’re given carte blanche, as long as they’ve got some dazzle.

Seems to me that’s a good way to kill an industry.

All of that said, there are some writers who actually do have a clue and do some brilliant work. Too many do work that is craft-less, clueless uninspired crap or mediocre at best.

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40 Comments

  1. My suspicions were confirmed yesterday. A girl I went to high school with (and we were also former coworkers) produced the Tom Cruise movie collateral alongside Michael Mann. I emailed her. She remembered my name but wasn't sure where we knew each other. I would like to send her a Harbinger TPB because she's from Tucker GA where part of the story takes place. I thought she might find it interesting as I did.

  2. I don't think planning out a series far in advance necessarily means anything about the quality of the writing. I think that most of the writers assigned to a regular series planned ahead at least to some extent.

    Thanks. I'd guess that long-term planning at Marvel, at least, is unimportant now because events are so dominant from an editorial standpoint, and miniseries and one-shots are conceived as complete packages.

    The wryly funny thing to me, about Marvel's editorial retreats and brainstorming for ideas for events, is that the retreats should be unnecessary. I'd think that, for an idea guy, coming up with an event that affects Earth or the universe and forces heroes to respond or die, would be much easier than coming up with a short story that has an interesting plot and is also character-driven.

    If some entity were, say, to digitize all the life on Earth and place it in a digital universe (cf. the digitized Robinette Broadhead in Pohl's Heechee series), the event could go on indefinitely, exploring the differences between digital life and organic life, digital death, whether digital life could communicate with other dimensions, and whether a digital existence was actually superior to an organic existence.

    Also, if the rationales for the "illusion of change" policy were ever solid, they're obsolete now, given the frequency of relaunches and reboots, even with movies. Why not give the writer a very loose leash and see how readers respond to significant changes?

    SRS

  3. Having studied screenwriting and TV writing, TV writing is very rigid and structured. It's a challenge to stay creative in an environment like this, but it can be done.

    Film and TV are collaborative process so when I write for them, I tend to use a looser more modular style of writing where scenes and dialogue can be swapped out and replaced if possible without damaging the overall structure of the story.

    In contrast, a novel requires a tighter leaner form of storytelling. But in a commercial context I'd keep it a little looser because a writer has to work with an editor to make the story just right.

    Storytelling is abut setups and payoffs.
    Most comics today are all setup with no payoff or it takes so long for the payoff to come the reader is dissatisfied with the reading experience.

    Back in the late 70's 1980's when I read comics, the comic book had the fastest payoff in proportion to the money spent on it.for 50 cents you got complete story with a beginning, middle and end in 21 pages. Now that story costs $3-$4 and takes 12-24 issues to complete.

    For the consumer, the payoff isn't there. It takes $72-$96 for a comic to payoff and satisfy the reader. It's cheaper to get a payoff from a story from movies, Television, video games, music, and even paperback novels than from a comic book. Moreover, those forms of media have a repeat entertainment value comics don't have.

    With other forms of entertainment delivering payoffs to the consumer quickly these days, I'd think comic book writers would step up their game to compete with them. But instead they've gotten lazy writing at an even SLOWER PACE. Personally, I feel this is because some writers and artists have been given too much power by their editors.

  4. Dear Steven,

    I don't think planning out a series far in advance necessarily means anything about the quality of the writing. I think that most of the writers assigned to a regular series planned ahead at least to some extent. You almost have to have some idea where you're going. Offhand, I can't think of any Marvel regulars who just winged it issue by issue. As for writers who plan ahead being more employable, I suppose some editors would find comfort in knowing that a writer had a plan, but I think the quality of the work would be more important to most.

  5. One example of how taking a scientific, detailed approach to superpowers can result in original material:

    Suppose that a writer wanted to dramatically change the status quo of Marvel’s mutants. He could reason that further evolution of some mutants would result in changes to genes in their brains, their brain chemistry, the expression of their powers, and their compatibility with the backwards mutants. They would regard the inferior mutants as things to get away from, if not to kill. While undoing or modifying the behavioral changes would be suggested, those affected wouldn’t want to do it.

    The scenario would end with the separation of the two groups of mutants being a biological imperative, whether it was done peacefully or forcefully. The nature of the changes could be flexible enough so that heroes could become villains, villains could become good people, lovers could become enemies, etc.

    Such drastic changes might not be desirable, of course, but they’re possible. Given a flexible framework for the definition of powers, and a detailed approach to the material, a writer can justify doing practically anything that is compatible with the themes of the characters.

    SRS

  6. Jim, when you get to the New Universe and Star Brand, the thing I most want to know is what YOU intended to have caused the White Event.

    All the explanations, IIRC, post-dated your departure by several issues or more. Which makes me think that maybe the Old Man didn't cause it, perhaps the Star Brand was not involved, and (BIG hopes here) that the Old Man was not intended to be insane Ken Connell from the future.

  7. Byrne hilariously claimed, a few years ago, that the shots at Jim were just incidental to the story that he wanted to tell. He wasn't sorry they were there, but they weren't a big deal, was the impression he tried to give.

    Uh. Huh. That's believable.

  8. Thank you for answering Jim. I thought there were some cool expansions of the concept in his Starbrand run.

    But a lot of it is overshadowed by his need to take shots at you.

    I'm very interested in hearing what your plans were. The book seemed to be picking up momentum before you left. I really enjoyed the fight between Ken and the Old Man in space.

  9. Considering how badly he's used in the new Defenders that's probably a good thing.

    Thanks for the warning. Dr. Strange is one of only three to four Marvel characters I'd be interested in using in stories, but there's no need for me to see him handled badly.

    Gods have been used badly for a long time, mainly, IMO, because too many writers set them up as opponents for the heroes to humiliate, teach lessons to, or make envious, instead of being in control of things. They'd be a natural alternative to psionic energy as a source of powers (see Piers Anthony's Xanth series).

    Relationships with gods are also multifaceted. One idea I've had for a series is a priestess for a god of vengeance who takes requests for vengeance to be enacted on evildoers when the justice system fails. Such situations would naturally be fraught with emotion and regularly raise philosophical questions. Are the criteria the priestess and her god use for deciding who should die rational? How does the government deal with someone having the power of life and death over others? Can she and her family have a normal existence aside from her duties?

    Treating gods as abstractions that nevertheless affect humans' existence constantly, instead of as heroes and villains with better power sources, results in much more intriguing scenarios.

    SRS

  10. Dear Jim,
    Thanks very much for the reply. Of course, you're right; Carina does just hesitate, not actively turn against Michael. Because the story made such an impact on me, about thirty years ago, I tend to remember in shorthand. That particular Star Trek story also has similarities with Jean Gray momentarily regaining control from Dark Phoenix, begging Wolverine to kill her. But again, my memory may be playing tricks. Again, thanks for being so generous with your Sunday (although it's probably Monday in the States – is it forward or back?)

    Phillip

  11. Dear Phillip,

    At the end of the Korvac Saga, Carina does not turn on Michael. All she does is hesitate, for an instant, to attack the Avengers and join in the bloodshed. Michael's heart is broken by this and he extinguishes his own life. When he does so, enraged Carina attacks the Avengers, too late to save Michael. There is a theme running throughout the story involving hesitation. Many major developments occur because someone fails to act, or does nothing. "Not making a decision is making a decision." Similarly, Korvac is discovered not because Starhawk senses him, but because he senses nothing there at all.

    At this point, I don't remember seeing the Star Trek episode you mention, but I may have. If so, it had no bearing on my story.

  12. Dear Jim,
    Nice discussion (a couple of posts back) of Moon Dragon's decision to erase Quicksilver's prejudices, and the Avengers' memories of Korvac. I suppose it also chimes with Korvac's erasing parts of Starhawk's mind – Moondragon is cut from the same cloth as Korvac.
    When you conceived the finale, when Carina seems to turn on Michael, could you have been unconsciously remembering the ending of the Star Trek episode, 'Where No Man Has Gone Before'?
    In that episode, Gary Mitchell gains godlike powers, as does his girl, Dr.Elizabeth Dehner (c.f. Michael & Carina). When Mitchell is about to kill Kirk, Dehner turns on the godlike being, using her powers against him, and giving Kirk the opportunity to finish him off.

    Phillip

  13. ja,

    Thanks. As stated before, a female friend was actually in the process of setting up a pitch session for me. She'd already been in communication with the guy. At the time, I'd only been drawing and writing my cartoon for about 2 years. I had maybe 30 or so 3-4 panel strip cartoons under my belt. They didn't meet my standards, but they entertained preople. I had NO prior attempts to ever draw a cartoon and NO formal writing experience. My friend started acting like she was going to be a co-creator, executive producer, etc. I scurried around to collect as much info on copyrights as I could. She was rushing me, and it felt like I was being exploited. I even emailed Jim himself because I needed an inside scoop on copyrights and protecting my creative concepts. I'd read about what had been done to Mike Judge, so I didn't want a repeat. Jim directed me to Bob Burden. Bob is already a good friend of the woman who was rushing me. I didn't really want to discuss the issue with him because it would've involved me questioning the intentions of his friend.

    I put together a little packet of info. It was a complete guess at what a "care packet" should be. When my female friend saw it she was unaware my comic idea had as much back story and depth as it did. She took it home and brought it back filled with post-it notes of what she wanted changed. She wanted to letter some notes I'd written on sketch art samples. It was whole lot of little things that seemed a little extreme. I didn't really feel she had the experience to be making suggestions on how to present my creative work. Her suggestions would have been fine if she'd communicated why her attitude and personality had gone from candid and relaxed to rushed and controlling. I had too many things going on in my life and I'd already told her I was going to give up drawing more because I could not allocate the time.

    Eventually I wrote her and clarified that I was the copyright owner and that her help was just that… help from a friend. From that point forward she went from rushing me every moment to being "very busy" and not having a chance to reply. At that point I wrote off the idea that I'd ever have the pitch session.

    For me, the cartoon I had published was equivalent to a self-taught swimming lesson being shown on you tube. If anything had panned out, I'd feel like I was being asked to do synchronized swimming for dignitaries.

    I was so angry at the behavior of the woman, I quit trying to call her. I've only spoken with her a few times since. I'm over it now, but I'm more likely to see her friend Bob Burden than I am to see her.

    As a follow-up, I did jump at the chance to meet Mike Judge. He was hosting an Animation Show at the Carter Center in Atlanta. I tried to squeeze in a few questions, but it wasn't really possible to answer the questions I wanted answered. Too many people were crowding him for autographs and he seems to be more of an introvert.

    The only cartoons I ever draw anymore are birthday cards for my girlfriend or during meetings at work.

  14. "Dr. Strange is dead as a title character at Marvel now…"

    Considering how badly he's used in the new Defenders that's probably a good thing.

  15. Dan

    I often can't tell if modern comics have a story or not. The plot is stretched so thin that so little forward movement happens in any one issue that they each just read as a few scenes. You almost have to read them all at once to discern what the story actually is. And IMO, there isn't any story worth reading. If somebody told me what the "story" of just about any mega crossover was, I wouldn't believe them worth the money or effort.

    For example, Final Crisis. I read the mini series and all of the major crossover issues. I still didn't know what the outcome was until I read interviews, blogs, message board posts, etc. Only then did I have a clue what the new continuity was.

    It's not a good story if the reader has to treat it like homework to just figure out what they're reading.

  16. People might relate (superhero) comics writing to TV and movies now, because of the prevalence of dialogue-only scripts, wide-screen panels, and screenwriters doing comics, but until those trends took hold, comics ('70s Marvels, esp.) were directly comparable to prose stories. The art rarely served any purpose other than describing events as an author's narration would. A plot could be as complex as a prose story's; a writer could use a logical extension of a hero's power to justify an escape or surprising resolution because he could explain the extension via narration. A storyline such as the Celestial Madonna saga was the content equivalent of a novel.

    Dr. Strange is dead as a title character at Marvel now; I'd argue that's due not to the character being revealed as weak, or out of style, but because writing a sorcerer at work requires abstract concerns and elements that don't work well in dialogue-only stories.

    The combination of stimuli and retcons is deadly because the result is a formula that can be applied to anyone. Whether the hero goes insane, dies, undergoes a transformation, or has something else happen to him, attributing it to some hidden event in his past is the laziest approach to justifying the change.

    I've seen the expression "Continuity shouldn't interfere with a good story" bandied about, but it's never been supported by examples. I'd bet money that in practically any situation in which someone thinks violating continuity is justified, a workaround that avoids the violation can be found.

    At least some of the problems with poor writing are attributable to the writers regurgitating what they've read. Bendis regurgitates crime fiction scenarios and alters the characters to fit them. Brian Reed's Ms. MARVEL series provided readers with examples of an unskilled writer going with whatever he could come up. When his series premise, Ms. Marvel seeking to become famous (see HOUSE OF M), collapsed, he was lost.

    Could Mr. Shooter provide examples of writers who had one or two ideas for storylines and then had to work to generate more, as compared to writers who had a year's worth or more of stories planned? One can't assume that the writers who had multiple stories planned were better — they might have relied on formulas and well-known plots — but they might have been more employable.

    SRS

  17. ja

    Defiant1,

    Pitching your work is a giant pain in the ass. It's sometimes helpful if you know someone who can get you into a pitch situation. Other times it requires the most ridiculous circumstance of luck. Or, you have to have the name and accomplishment recognition that will open doors for you.

    If all that doesn't work, I suggest you don't get so discouraged that you give up on trying anymore. Take a deep breath, and start again.

    I storyboard for animation, along with being a concept, character and prop designer for animation projects. I decided several years ago to work on a portfolio of properties of mine that I believe would make fun animated feature films, or animated series, or video games, or all of the above.

    My intention is to have not just one, but many properties of mine in the form of full-fledged pitches, so I can shop them around as a group. It seems to me that if I walk in the door with one property that maybe-kinda-sorta would get someone's attention, I might be able to pitch the other properties I have in the same meeting. To better my odds at getting something accepted.

    All you need is one property to break through, and that gets your foot in the doors of many other places, just because you have sold a property. It's a form of equity that enables you to accomplish more, to be more seriously considered for the next time you pitch your properties.

    If you ever decide you wish to pursue your desire to pitch a property to someone again, I thought maybe you'd be interested in learning more about what goes into pitching a property for serious consideration.

    I ran across The Pitch Bible Blog at http://www.pitchbibles.blogspot.com/.

    I thought you (and others here) might be interested in reading this blog. It's been very helpful to me to understand how to go about preparing my pitch packets.

    One day, we'll see if it all works.

  18. I think the increase of the quality of television entertainment in the '90s is one thing that hurt comic book sales. Competition from TV was always there, but most critics seem to agree television got a lot more interesting and creative in the '90s than it had been for a while. Meanwhile, a lot of comic books were slouching. People were being asked to pay for those, which is kind of hard to keep doing when quality TV was available for free.

    The renaissance in TV programming probably started with The Simpsons, of which I think the first 8 seasons qualify it as the greatest TV show ever made. There were also the Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and X-Men animated series, X-Files and Buffy to appeal to genre fans. For mainstream tastes, there were breakout comedy hits Seinfeld, Friends and South Park and dramas like Law and Order and E.R. Near the end of the decade, mature audience, pay cable hits like Sopranos got started.

    You could pretty much turn on any channel during that decade and get better quality than you were getting ten years prior. That's the same position comics were in during the '80s, which led to growth in the audience, but seemed to be no longer true in the '90s. At that time there was a lot more interesting stuff going on in television than in comic books, where at least the big two companies seemed to become mired in uninspired formula.

    Jim said:
    Genius types mess around with the "linear" part. Fine. But, before you do that, be awful goddam sure you're a genius.

    That's kind of funny you say that because "Plinkett" in the RedLetterMedia Star Wars review that's linked above basically makes the same point in the bit that JayJay referenced. This is where he says to George Lucas, unless you're a Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese, etc., you better stick to a more or less linear storytelling formula.

    Here is a page that links to all of RedLetterMedia's "Plinkett" reviews. The "Plinkett" reviews, to me, represent the most creative advancement in movie criticism since Siskel & Ebert got started. The points the narrator makes are incredibly literate about the filmmaking process. The use of video to analyze and critique films visually is some of the best anyone's ever done. On top of that, the whole thing is done in the voice of an inspired comedic character (which is somewhat reminiscent of Eddie Murphy's "Mr. Robinson" from SNL, both being hosts whose dark, seamy lives spill over into their programs) and even has clips of his unfortunate episodes interspersed with the review.

    These reviews represent true creativity. They break the mold and do something new with the movie review format and the internet video medium that hasn't been done before. It's also clear that a whole lot of thought, work and effort goes into them. So much so that sometimes it seems they're slowing down or might stop doing them altogether. But they do seem to get a new review out every 4 or 5 months.

    My favorites are The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. There are several segments in both of those, like when they interview people and try to get them to describe the Phantom Menace characters, that work both as devastatingly incisive criticism and absolutely hilarious comedy bits at the same time.

    I don't think the Star Wars prequels are as terrible as he says, but they are definitely flawed. "Plinkett" does a masterful job of identifying and dissecting every flaw. One mark of good criticism is that it's entertaining and informative even if you don't agree with all of the critic's conclusions. The Plinkett reviews definitely meet that standard. They are also seem to work as a kind of cleansing antidote to help Star Wars fans work through some of their disappointment in the prequels. Oh, and, if you actually thought Jim's comic book reviews were too insulting or blunt, well, you ain't seen NOTHIN' yet.

  19. Anonymous

    Dear Jim,

    Thanks, very reassuring to see you say that a generic, rigid structure is not desirable.

    I'll make a point of reading Stray Bullets #1 ASAP.

    Your advice is invaluable, much appreciated!

    Pete Marco

  20. Dear World Famous,

    I remember a good bit about my plans for Starbrand. I'll get to that.

    I never read Byrne's issues, though I've been told a lot about them. From what I heard, I think they were a somewhat clownish, geeky attempt at vindictiveness. Over what, I'm still not sure.

    Archie Goodwin was the key contributor to the concept for Starbrand. Archie was a genius. I tried to develop his seminal ideas into something worthy of them. I wish I had done better, but I'm proud of what I did.

  21. Dear Pete,

    No. There is no "right way." There is no (or there should not be) a "basic" structure. The big money involved in movie making tends to militate toward a "way," a formula, that must be followed. That's just heavily invested people wanting a belt to go with their suspenders. The beauty of the writers' craft is that, if one accomplishes the essentials that the reader/audience/viewer needs to "get it," it does not matter how that is accomplished. I remember a Daredevil story in which Miller deliberately saved the introduction of the hero till the last page — just showin' off — and it was great. The first issue of David Lapham's Stray Bullets has the disruptive element occur off-panel, well before the narrative begins, and only referenced in retrospect. Brilliant.

    Most times, when I read a story or see a movie, I can't help but analyze it as I go along. Usually, I think, (if the story is good), yeah, yeah, big deal, I could have done that, maybe better, if given the task. But every once in a while — Stray Bullets #1 comes to mind — I think, "I could not have done this on the best day of my life."

    I do not advocate formulas or rules. Tell the story. Any which way that works. Shakespeare, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dickens, and way down the scale, me, do it in orderly, straightforward, linear fashion. Genius types mess around with the "linear" part. Fine. But, before you do that, be awful goddam sure you're a genius.

  22. Dear Van GoghX,

    I haven't read the comics work of either Straczynski or Whedon. I have watched several seasons of Buffy on DVD, however, and, clearly, Joss Whedon knows the craft, operates easily under the oppressive strictures of TV writing and is thoroughly steeped in early 60's Stan and Steve/Stan and Jack work. Issue by issue, episode by episode compare Whedon's work with Stan and Steve/Stan and Jack's. The developments, the rate of development and the artful way the writers maintained the "status quo" while introducing speed-of-life changes to the characters and the series is so close…! If Whedon handled the peculiarities of the comics medium as well as he handled the TV strictures, I bet he did well.

    More freedom to a good writer does not mean freedom to abandon the craft of the writer. It just means that you can get away with some flings and experiments the TV network police won't let you try.

  23. Dear jimmy A,

    A great deal of what I write is extrapolated from people I have known or encountered and personal experiences. And a great deal is extrapolated from things/people I've heard about or researched. And a great deal is just plain made up.

    By a writer being "inspired" I mean taken hold of by a new thought. An insight. A revelation. A new way to look at or understand something. And, therefore, he or she produces a story that brings something new to the reader, has content not seen before, has something to say. I'm not talking about a moral or a lesson. I mean an eye opener. Something that relates to me and broadens my experience. The way that Anthony Burgess and Stanley Kubrick after him brought new insights into the nature and value of free will in A Clockwork Orange. The way Mark Twain brought insights into the equality of man in Huckleberry Finn. Doesn't have to be that deep. Just some little, new thought about courage, or despair, or loneliness, or whatever. High aspirations for a comic book? Yep. Why aim for meaningless? Go for the brass ring. Fail nine times out of ten. Then, once in a while achieve some comment on the human condition. Victory.

    Secret Wars II was in no way about me. What I was going for was how a God, in the Biblical sense, would come to understand humankind. Answer: Only by becoming one of us, in the case of SW II by means of the "Mama Machine." It was an ambitious try. Most industry critics mark it a failure, though a few scholarly types got it, wrote about it and praised it, and an SF organization in New Jersey gave me an award for the attempt.

    I haven't used people in the biz much as bases for characters, except for my famous lampooning of Steve Gerber once (which he loved). Little bits of many other people I've known, mixed and matched and combined with fictional elements gave rise to many of my characters.

  24. Wow, Mister .44, I love that review. I'm still laughing. He even names all of my favorite directors as the "non-formula" people. But I'm a huge Star Wars fan. I have to say I love every Star Wars movie, but I don't disagree with any of the critical points the review made. Actually, I had totally forgotten what the plot of Phantom Menace even was. I think I blanked out that whole trade federation thing, whatever that was.

    There is definitely good TV out there. I've been hooked on True Blood since the first and the cliffhanger endings every season make me nuts. Heck, the cliffhanger ending on every episode makes me nuts that I have to wait a whole week. I was searching for the episode previews every Wednesday all last season. Shows like Dr Who, Buffy, Firefly and True Blood (that inspire tons of fanfic, btw) must be doing something right to make viewers so passionate. It has to be the stories as well as the characters. TV costs a lot more than a comic (well, duh) and the rewards are much greater. But the possibilities inherent in doing comics are kind of awesome. With digital self publishing more people are able to try their hand at the medium. I agree with a point that reviewer made, "Art from Adversity." Sometimes when a creator has "too much" it just dilutes his process and blunts his edge. Maybe the next Stan Lee will emerge online.

  25. Anonymous

    I second "World Famous Psycho Chicken"'s sentiment. 🙂

    t.k.

  26. Jim I'm very interested in hearing about your work on Starbrand. Do you remember what your plans were for the book if you had kept writing it?

    Not to stir anything up, because I am genuinely curious about this. Did you ever read Byrne's run on the book? What did you think of it?

    All in all, I found Starbrand to be a very underrated comic and concept. I wish it could of been worked into the Main Marvel Universe somehow.

  27. JayJay

    It is a sad state of movies. If you want anything 1/2 way original, new, or surprising it generally has to be an independent film. Like Mr. Shooter pointed out, Movies have many more people to answer to, and thus waaaaay more people to fuck things up. Because of this 90% of the time Hollywood stays "safe". If they want to "blow peoples minds" it will be with effects, not story. Not that a simple story can't be fun, but as I said in a recent post they seem to have no shortage of RETARDED SHIT™. (Can you tell I am passionate?)

    TV is obviously higher stakes than Comics, and have more people involved, but they have a lot more chances to get things "right". Having a few bad episodes won't necessarily make the whole thing a flop. Because of this I really think there is some fantastic stories out there right now that puts any Oscar winner to shame.

    Most notably is the Reboot of Dr. Who. From David Tenant to Matt Smith and the assorted casts, there have been some DAMN fine episodes. Some of the best Sci-Fi on TV in YEARS (maybe ever). There are the occasional cliff hangers and they are usually met with, "No no no no – I can't wait that long!" Or worse, "Noooooooo they aren't going to have the next season finished in over a YEAR!!!"

    They have also masterfully woven in elements from past stories that become part of a hidden subplot that runs through the whole season and comes together at the end.

    Slightly off topics – let's laugh a little. If you love Star Wars and films, and appreciate a weird sense of humor – check out this review of the Phantom Menace. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxKtZmQgxrI

    This guys is hilarious (though NSFW language). Not only that, he obviously has a film back ground, and while he will say "This is the most fucking retarded thing ever done in the history of man!", he actually has the language and ability to tell us WHY this is true.

  28. Anonymous

    Piperson wrote: Stan Lee transformed the comic industry when he wrote about an unpopular teenager, in Spider-Man. It wasn't the costume or the name or the powers that made Spider-man a hit, it was the human stuff that separated this story from the rest of the titles on the stands at that time.

    The choice of Peter Parker for Spider-Man's secret identity was inspired. If Spider-Man had been a creation of DC comics, his secret identity would probably have been Flash Thompson, popular jock and ladies man. DC heroes all seemed more "perfect" and more together than anyone you were likely to meet in real life, even in their civilian identities.

    Marvel (meaning Stan, Jack & Steve, primarily) was the home of heroes who resembled people you might expect to encounter in your own life. Heroes who had imperfections but were heroes nonetheless. Heroes who were heroic even when heroism was HARD. Even someone who appeared to have it all, like Reed Richards, the smartest man in the world, who was tortured by what his hubris and impatience had done to his best friend. Or Ben Grimm, the deformed monstrosity who was all heart.

    The early days of Marvel were a joy and a wonder to experience. Every month seemed golden.

    Wayde Murray

  29. I think there are good things and bad things about mainstream movies and TV. One thing that bugs me about the "blockbuster" movies and many action TV shows is the predictability. They will set up the "thing that must not happen" and then predictably that "thing" will happen. It just takes all the suspense out if it for me. But then, I've always been drawn to independent films. Maybe that's one reason why.

    Marc, I remember that time that David got a bunch of us to go and see Lost Highway. The various reactions of our little group were pretty diverse. It was funny.

  30. Anonymous

    Dear Jim

    Thanks for making my comment the basis for an entire blog entry, and I appreciate your insights into the question.

    Have you read the 'Save The Cat!' book about screenwriting? In it, the late Blake Snyder outlined a basic definable story structure which he claimed is used for just about every movie ever made, and should not be deviated from.

    Comics are much freer in terms of story structure, but as we've seen, that carefree approach to story often doesn't work out.

    Do you think the basic movie structure could (or should) be applied to comics?

    Pete Marco

  31. Interesting. I was supposed to do a pitch of my cartoon idea to a Southpark producer. The female friend that was supposed to introduce me pissed me off, so I just dropped the whole idea. I'm sure I would not have met their criteria. For one, I'm neither a writer nor an artist!! I had no desire to immerse myself in a world I was unfamiliar with.

    I think your blog confirms my apprehensions.

  32. In general, I care less about craft and more about being told a good story. Tell a story right and I'll pay attention to just about anything.

    This summer I watched a short-ish documentary about John McEnroe vs Hans Borg. I was enthralled and watched the whole thing. I LITERALLY spent more time watching this show than I have spent watching tennis in the whole rest of my life.

    I am sure that was put together by people who know the fundamentals of story telling and used it to tell a good story. But likewise, some people are just natural story tellers and could bet telling you about just about anything and keep your interest.

    That said – it's just like "regular" art: some people know all the rules and fundamentals and work hard to create "good" art. Other people just have a natural talent and do so effortlessly. Same with music and people who are seen as among the best, but can't read a lick of music or took a lesson in their life.

  33. I think the one thing that differentiates good writers from bad writers is that good writers write about people, REAL people. The back bone of any story weather it's a superhero story, action, comedy, Romance, is the individuals who are participating in that story and how the events effect and change this person.
    Jim talked about Moondragon in his Avengers story a few posts ago and how the events effected and changed her. It's the extent to which the writer shows this that makes the story good or not.
    Stan Lee transformed the comic industry when he wrote about an unpopular teenager, in Spider-Man. It wasn't the costume or the name or the powers that made Spider-man a hit, it was the human stuff that separated this story from the rest of the titles on the stands at that time.
    With that in mind, you can write about the Power Pack or Millie the Model. You put them in a situation and you bring them out the other side – changed people.

  34. Dan

    Shooter just explained why I buy/read so very few new comics.

    It's like and endless loop of Quentin Tarentino films…. stimuli, stimuli, stimuli, and then pray nobody notices there's no story.

  35. Dear Marvelman,

    Mark Evanier comes to mind as an example of comic book/TV writer versatility.

    I see versatility as a plus because it forces you to think outside your own personal favorite box, to approach the Maggot problem you mentioned objectively. I don't care for the character personally, but can I find a way to make myself — and the readers — care about the character without simply retconning him so he is exactly what I want?

    I think Jim's very varied career has enabled him to focus on a common thread of craft that is applicable regardless of genre:

    And so I ended up doing advertising comics for companies like U.S. Steel and Levi's and other substantial things […] I got good at understanding the need of the client and finding a way with words and pictures to get that over. And that was really good experience, because then I felt like I could do anything, and after that I did. I wrote children's books, I've written animation developments, toy developments. I designed a float and a balloon for a Macy's parade. All kinds of stuff. I've done film development stuff […] I think to this day I probably am somewhat rare among comics guys because I can give you cute, cuddly little furry animals in the forest story, or I can do superheroes, or anything in between. When you're a freelancer you learn to say yes. Basically people call you up and say, "Can you do this?" "Oh, sure I can." Then you figure out how to do it.

    And you can do it if you have the craft down.

    But craft isn't enough. Even versatility isn't enough. Who wants to be a generic writer able to churn out stuff in any genre that no one remembers? There is a place for passionate specialists too. Would Tolkien have been a better writer if he had dabbled in film noir and comedies?

    Passion by itself isn't enough. Comics fans have no shortage of passion, but that enthusiasm doesn't necessarily translate into great stories.

    Bottom line: Writing is hard. I'm participating in National Novel Writing Month for the third year in a row. I've never "won" yet and I don't think I'll "win" this year, but I don't care. I don't want to just theorize about writing; I want to actually write. Even if it hurts. My brain could use a Band-Aid sometimes.

  36. Dear Jim,

    Thanks for the mention. I'd like to make it clear that I don't think what I call "stimuli" are inherently bad and should be banned. Breaking Batman's back, killing Thor … okay, maybe not corrupting Hal Jordan which seems out of character to me … those things could work as story premises, but not if they're just used for shock value and short-term sales. There were a lot of big changes during your years as editor-in-chief at Marvel, and I wouldn't want to undo the death of Phoenix, the debut of Beta Ray Bill, Spider-Man's new costume, etc. on the grounds that they were "stimuli."

    Stimuli is my fancy word for cool stuff. We all like cool stuff. As you wrote in "My Word" in Shadow State #3, "We're all fans, readers, pop culture-movie-TV-cool-stuff-SF-fantasy-fun junkies." The trouble is when the cool stuff doesn't have a structure pinning it together. When the fenders and chrome have no engine. Great-looking car, but does it go anywhere? Do cool, even shocking things, but make sure they have consequences. Once death becomes a revolving door, readers like me head for the exit. If anything can happen and it all gets ignored or retconned later, why should I care?

    I know you almost got to write a Batman script back in the 60s. (What if the show hadn't been canceled and your script were filmed? Would you be in Hollywood today?) Did you have any other opportunities to write for TV?

    You've described how TV shows are much easier to follow than comics:

    Turn on the TV. Watch a show you've never seen before. You'll figure it out. In the first couple of minutes you kind of find out who everybody is and what's going on. Go to any movie, except Lost Highway, and you can pretty much follow it. You might like it, you might not, but you don't feel like you're in the middle of a Swedish movie with no subtitles. But comics?

    How many movies have we caught in the middle on TV and understood even if we missed the first half?

    There's a craft gap between US "mainstream" comics and mainstream entertainment that has to be filled if the former is to ever become truly popular again. And I think the stimuli blind creators and fans to the gap. We only see what we like and we forgive the weaknesses. The problem is the latter, not the former. Throwing away the cool stuff and deciding to never shock the reader again is not the solution. We're not like Aunt May who would supposedly fall apart if only she knew who Peter was. No, keep the cool things, but remember that they're means, not ends. Parts of stories — important parts — but not stories themselves.

  37. It seems to me that one of the necessary talents required for being a comic book or television writer is versatility. You have to be able to write anything that comes down the pipeline. If you asked me to write, say, a Power Pack story, I probably could write an excellent Power Pack story just because I am so passionate about those characters. I might not know the form or technique as intimately as, say, Louise Simonson, but heart would carry the story even where my lack of experience would hinder me. But if some editor said to me, "We want you to write an ongoing Maggot series, and we want you to make Maggot our best-selling character," I'd be going, "What the f—?"

  38. How about proven TV and movie writers who are let loose in the comic world? J. Michael Straczynski and Joss Whedon spring to mind. Do you feel that writers who are practiced in the more structured world of television and film can make for good comic book writers, where they can let their hair down and let loose with their skills?

  39. jimmy A

    Hi, Jim

    How much of your writing, stories, characters and ideas are based on yourself, your friends and your own personal experience?

    In this post you mention writers being inspired. What does that mean to you? This question has been on my mind for a while but especially since I started re-reading Secret Wars 2.

    I'd always assumed secret wars 2 was your story, about you. Fish out of water in the big apple trying to answer life's big questions with your favorite fictional friends as your guide. I've think its a great metaphorical romp through some huge life affirming and altering territory with an incredibly brilliant ending.

    You speak a lot of conflicts with other writers, editors and artists. Do you ever use these people as archetypes for characters? What about friends, family, lovers and so on. How much of your life and the characters around you if any makes it to the page.

    Thank you
    Jimmy A

  40. Anonymous

    I'm just waiting for "Anonymous" to show up and poo-poo Jim for saying modern comic writers produce "self-indulgent, amateurish garbage" or about how he dumped on the artists. I like Jim's frank honesty about this stuff… Jim's only saying what we're all thinking anyway.

    t.k.

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