First, a Few Items
An Apology to Mark Waid
Mark Waid wrote this scene, which I showed as an example of an out-of-character use of Aunt May for the purpose of a shocker:
I had no idea that Mark had written that scene, not that it would have mattered. I’m an equal opportunity complainer. Anyone may find him or herself honked at here.
Here’s where I went wrong: I judged the scene against Aunt May’s character as it was when I was at Marvel. The Aunt May I knew of was a very old-fashioned woman, the epitome of propriety, who no more would have had sex out of wedlock than my Victorian-era Grandma, who was born in 1888. But, I’ve been told that Aunt May became a little more of a modern Golden Girl subsequently, and that the scene is not out of character for her. Okay.
In case I haven’t made it clear enough previously, I regard Mark Waid as one of the best and brightest writers I know or have heard tell of. Have you read Irredeemable?
Please understand that when I do my analyses of various issues or hold forth on various subjects like sex in the comics, by no means am I trying to tell you what you should or shouldn’t like. If a scene I find irrelevant, out of character or unsound for any reason happens to work for you or tickle your fancy, so be it. If a book I disparage is your favorite, so be it. We have no argument.
People like what they like. No one has to justify what they like or defend why they like it.
Most of us here have enough comic book background to understand and appreciate things that might fly right over the heads of the uninitiated. That’s cool. Today’s comics creators are creating the stuff for us to a great extent. While I think that might be a limiting factor regarding the growth (or survival) of the business, foolish business strategy and evidence of poor craftsmanship or bad judgment, so what? It’s not up to me to tell them what to do or tell you what to enjoy.
That’s why, in my rants, I take care to separate my comics-savvy reactions from my what-the-hell-is-a-new-reader-going-to-make-out-of-this reactions. What is the writer thinking or not thinking? All I’m trying to do is give anyone interested a peek at the man behind the curtain.
Same with the other perps—I mean participants. The artist, the editor, the publisher and the corporate overlords. All I mean to do is provide whatever insight I can, given my training and experience.
Nobody has to agree with me. It’s okay, I’m used to it. : )
On That Subject
Anonymous has left a new comment on your post “Sex and Drugs – Part 2“:
I love the blog and read it daily, but I have to disagree on one point: You can’t really compare a movie and a comic book title. There is no fat in a movie because of the time constraints;they have to cram a whole lot into an hour and a half or two hours. It’s more like a one-shot. Having to deal with a continuing narrative is completely different isn’t it? They don’t just tell a story and it’s done. It goes on and on and on. They really have to flesh the characters out quite a bit more. Maybe I’m looking at it from the wrong angle.
Again, I really enjoy the Blog!
Posted by Anonymous to Jim Shooter at December 27, 2011 1:21 PM
I respect your right to disagree. I think you are wrong. Are there differences between writing for comics and movies? Of course. Movies have time constraints, comics have page and panel restraints. Each medium has advantages and disadvantages. But, the basic obligations of the writer are the same. No matter how many comic book issues have preceded the one in your hands, no matter how many will follow, the one in your hands is the unit of entertainment you bought. The movie you are watching is the unit of entertainment you paid to see. They ought to be worth the price. That comic book, that movie, should be well-crafted. Well-crafted, from the writer’s perspective, means no irrelevant, confusing or non-sequitur parts. No shock-surprises that require prior knowledge to grasp their significance. Nothing to weaken or muddy the story. Nothing to ruin or compromise that unit.
That said, being usually a serial medium, comics do offer the opportunity to do continued stories and long-term continuity bits, teasers, slow builds and continuing sub-plots. I talk about how to do such things starting here: http://www.jimshooter.com/2011/11/how-to-do-continued-stories-and-next-or.html
A lot of movies these days have sequels or spawn a series. Bad directors, actors with clout demanding self-serving changes, interference from the producer or studio and film editors often compromise the screenwriter’s work, but I assure you that a screenwriter with any chops at all strives to make each movie, each unit of entertainment work as well as if it were the only one.
Some screenwriters use techniques similar to the ones explained starting on the post linked to above. For instance, in one of the Predator movies, we see a skull of a monster from Alien in a predator’s trophy case, presaging upcoming Alien vs. Predator movies. (But if you never saw Alien and don’t recognize it, it’s okay! It’s just another weird skull in a collection of skulls.) This has become more prevalent in recent times as sequels are planned, and often contractually obligated.
It’s easier for comic book writers to employ such techniques because it’s a month or so between our releases, as opposed to a year or so for movies. But the same logic applies. The same basic principles of craft apply.
Mystery is good. Confusion is bad.
A few of Mark Twain’s Rules of Literary Art:
- That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
- They require that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale and shall help to develop it.
- They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit sufficient excuse for being there.
Substitute “issue” for “tale” to apply these rules to comic books. Rule #3 is really Twain’s Rule #4, but it autocorrected to #3 when I cut one rule out (because it was irrelevant to this issue, oops, I mean reply.)
I would expand #3 above to say anything should show sufficient excuse for being there, and I am confident Twain would agree.
An old saw often heard regarding screenplays goes: If you show a gun in Act I you’d better fire it in Act III. Sufficient excuse for being there.
In comics, if you do it as a proper tease, you could show a gun in one issue and fire it in the next. You’d need to show it again in the issue in which it is actually fired.
Kurt Vonnegut had his set of rules, too, in general agreement with Twain’s. For one thing, he said, “If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” For comics, I’d modify that to “If a sentence or a bit or a scene does not illuminate your subject in this issue in some new and useful way….” Again, the tease principles apply.
And now, once more with feeling: Despite the “Rules” cited above, THERE ARE NO RULES! THERE IS NOTHING THAT CAN’T BE DONE. IF YOU TRY TO ENFORCE EVEN MARK TWAIN’S RULES, SOME WHIPPERSNAPPER LIKE SIENKIEWICZ, MILLER OR LAPHAM WILL COME ALONG AND DO SOMETHING WONDERFUL WHILE TRAMPLING ALL OVER THE RULES.
However, it’s the “something wonderful” part that eludes most people. Most people who throw down and dance upon the rules produce garbage. They can proudly say they ignored the rules. But they produced unreadable garbage. It takes someone with rare ability, insight and vision to venture off into new territory and make it work, make it wonderful and find a new way. When someone does, ain’t it grand?
I believe that Twain and certainly Vonnegut would heartily agree.
Even “decompressed” stories can be done if done well. I’ll talk about how to do that sometime, if anyone’s interested. Anything can be done if done with insight and skill.
So, take the “rules,” all rules, for what they’re worth: They’re tools. Twain’s rules comprise a pocket guide that helps writers analyze and judge the efficacy of their work.
The rules are not for readers! Readers shouldn’t be trotting out the rules and measuring works against them to see whether they like them. A reader should like something or not without worrying about whether all the screws are tightened. Unless they think it’s fun to take a story apart and see how it’s built, how it works.
Personally, I think that the notion that comics are so “different” that what would be unacceptably bad writing in any other entertainment medium is somehow okay in our medium is part of what’s killing our medium. The presumption that readers are familiar with what went on before and will keep buying more units in the hopes that irrelevant things will eventually become clear or meaningful is suicidal.
The best way to encourage a reader to buy next issue is to make the one in their hands great.
When I was a kid, when I finished reading a story by Stan and Jack or Steve I said “wow.” These days, when I finish reading a comic book, too often I say “what?”
A final qualifier: Every day, some poorly crafted, stupid, bad creative works succeed, and every day, some well-crafted, brilliant, excellent creative works fail. The success of a creative work is dependent upon too many uncontrollable factors to be entirely predictable. But I firmly believe that producing excellent works is like a batter having a level swing. At the end of the season, the creators who produce excellent work bat .406 and lead the league. Those who succeed here and there with bad work bat below the Mendoza line.
I suspect t’was ever thus. I suspect it always will be.
If there was a Legion of Super-Heroes artist who drew the figures nude and let the inker add the costumes. I think that was Jim Sherman. If so, he wasn’t the first comics artist to do things like that.
Today is Stan’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Stan.
At Marvel, one year while Stan was still East-Coast based, we threw a party for Stan’s birthday. Some weeks earlier, Stan and I had gone out to lunch together. Striding along toward the restaurant, Stan pointed at a “No Parking” sign and said that he’d owned one of those in younger days. Hung it on his wall. Really liked it. Didn’t know what had become of it.
I enlisted my Mission Impossible Commandoes, Elliot Brown and John Morelli to acquire such a sign. Secretly and evilly, by night. They did. It was lying under a trailer at a construction site, probably never to be used again.
We presented it to Stan and I think he was honestly moved.
The expanded version of that tale will be along when I get around to it.
And So This Is Christmas
It was Christmas day when I wrote this little segment. I would not, did not ask JayJay to post it (or do anything else) then, but here it is now.
I have a lot of Christmas stories. I have resisted telling them because, I don’t know, they may be of no interest. Meaningful to me, maybe, but not sufficiently to others. Also, in a couple of them I’m the good guy, and I’ve been accused of telling look-at-me-being-the-good-guy stories. And in a couple of them, I’m the Tiny Tim character and I’ve been accused of telling “poor me” stories. So, screw it. Here is one that might be amusing, though….
Marvel Comics stopped giving Christmas bonuses to rank and file employees in 1977, I think. Might have been 1978. Up until then, every hourly employee received $25 to $100 or thereabouts, depending on years of service. President Jim Galton handled the situation in characteristically insensitive fashion. No one was told there would be no bonus. The day before the holiday, no bonus checks came. People started asking—and were told that the corporation as a whole hadn’t done so well, so, coal in the stockings.
It might seem like a small amount of money, but the disappointment was palpable. Nice morale crusher. Good work, Galton.
The next year I asked Galton well in advance if there would be a bonus. He said, “We eliminated non-management bonuses as of last year.” What?
That was an early lesson in corporate evil for me. Tell the employees any lie that serves management’s purposes.
To paraphrase Otter in Animal House, this required a really stupid and futile gesture on someone’s part.
I recruited a bunch of editorial types who could carry a tune. I had my brilliant secretary Lynn rent choir robes for all of us, get us candles, candle holders Christmas Carol books…and, oh, yes, a pitch pipe.
And on the afternoon before the Christmas holiday started, in robes and full regalia, we Christmas Caroled the executives and staff upstairs.
For the staff and most execs we sang our little hearts out. Know ye this: Jim Owsley/Christopher Priest can SING! What a voice! And Louise Jones/Simonson has the voice of an angel, as one would expect. The halo and wings are invisible, I presume.
For the V.P. of Finance, Barry Kaplan, and President Jim Galton we sang the following:
“On the first day of Christmas, Marvel gave to us….NOTHING!”
Then, we marched on, caroling. And somehow—a Christmas miracle, perhaps—we did not get fired.
Anyone on the “manager” level or higher received a substantial “discretionary performance bonus.” Reasonably serious money. I gathered all the comics floor people who received such bonuses, all editors, art director John Romita and production manager Danny Crespi and me, of course. Maybe one or two more, I forget. I suggested we each kick in some dough and give our own bonus to the people in our department getting nothing. Everybody cheerfully contributed except one Scrooge, an editor. Screw him. Even without him, we put together enough money to more than make up for what the rank and file troops weren’t getting from the company.
We continued that tradition. Scrooge continued to be Scrooge. Screw him.
The 1990’s were the Age of the Bad Girls. Bad girls, starting with Lady Death, who may have been the first (I don’t count Vampirella, Elektra and other precursors), were anti-hero-ish super women with outrageously curvy bodies, skimpy clothes and stiletto heels. Wicked in attitude, usually, if not downright wicked.
Once Lady Death got the trend started, Bad Girls proliferated. You can probably name a lot more than I can: Barb Wire, Danger Girl, Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose, Avengelyne…. Most people include Shi, but she was more slender and less a caricature than most.
Broadway Comics offered Fatale.
I formed Broadway Comics in partnership with Broadway Video Entertainment, a division of Broadway Video, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels’ company. Our purpose was to make great and successful comics, of course, but with an eye towards properties that had potential for TV and film.
Among the experiments tried at Broadway Comics was writing comics sort of in the same manner that many TV shows are written—a group of writers working together. With me were Janet “JayJay” Jackson, Joe James and Pauline Weiss.
Each member of the group had special strengths. JayJay, besides being generally brilliant and having a gift for dialogue, is a great designer. She was wonderful with clothing and costumes. She also created floor plans of locations. She was always sketching.
JayJay, an excellent photographer, also took photos of me and whomever acting out some bits, as well as shots of settings. We often went out to film “on location.”
Joe is a terrific designer and a superb artist. He thumbnailed panels and choreographed action as we went along. He also was good with current slang, real-people talk and such.
Pauline can type faster than you can talk. She was the scribe. She took down every word uttered in our sessions.
I was the head writer/show runner/big cheese. Everyone, including Pauline (who you might think was too busy—but no) made story and copy suggestions. It was a bona fide team, and a good one.
We came up with the idea to do Fatale as an answer of sorts to the Bad Girl trend. She was a “Bad Girl” in appearance, but our intention was to play it more realistically. What if a woman who looked like that and had some fantastic power really existed?
Conveniently, JayJay and Pauline, both actual women, were there to represent feminine realities. Fatale would, said both of them, kick her high heels off before attempting to run or fight. There was a scene in which Fatale jumped down from a roof or some height. Both women pointed out that she’d instinctively cross her arms under her breasts. Etc.
And we stomped on clichés at every opportunity. A handsome high roller approaches Fatale in a casino? No cliché put down, no dumping the guy on his butt for daring to express interest, as so often happens in comics. She’s honestly attracted to a good-looking guy with the confidence to approach her in a charming way. As JayJay and Pauline averred that she might be.
We followed the Bad Girl trend in the sense that we made the series as sexy, sexual and daring as we could. Doing what the Bad Girl books did, but less plastic-y and artificial. Superhuman, but more human. Or so we thought. We purport, you decide.
NEXT: More About Broadway and Fatale