Some of Marvel’s top talent came together for the Marvel Writers Unite panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Mark Waid, Chris Claremont, Matt Fraction, and Brian Michael Bendis were all present to share the Marvel way of writing with the audience.
The panel got off to a fun start with one plucky audience member asking the four writers who they were and what they drew.
“We draw crowds,” Claremont replied without missing a beat.
With introductions over, the Q&A began with a question for Bendis regarding “Ultimate Spider-Man” and the editorial influence that affects all of them.
“That was a very unique experience. In this instance, ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ was actually a baby born in the brain of Bill Jemas,” said Bendis, referring to the former Marvel publisher. “I took a shoebox full of notes and took them back to my house and sifted through the good stuff.”
Bendis told of how he’d struggled to work the idea of Venom appearing from Spider-Man’s web-shooters, and how ultimately he could not come up with a plausible way to make that work. Still, consulting each other for ideas was a great benefit. “A good editor will be there for you for anything,” said Bendis.
The panel then answered the question of what works of their fellow panelists that have influenced them in their work.
“As the guy who writes ‘Uncanny X-Men’ now… hundreds,” said Matt Fraction about Chris Claremont’s work.
“I’m a huge fan of Chris’s annuals,” added Bendis. “I think Chris is one of the best annual writers ever. Every one of those annuals to me was like a major summer movie event.”
Fraction also complimented Mark Waid on his work on “Flash,” saying, “I still have comics you both [Claremont and Waid] have signed for me at various conventions.”
Waid was next to answer with praise for both Bendis and Fraction’s work, citing how important it is to open your mind to the newer generation of talent. “I think the easiest way to become yesterday’s news is to look at the way the next generation of guys write and draw comics and go ‘Bah, that’s now how we do it!'”
Next up was Claremont, saying “One of the advantages of being a terminally old fart, I mean elder statesmen, was that I got to come into Marvel when Stan was still writing regularly.”
Claremont described his early days working in Marvel’s bullpen with peers like Frank Miller.
“One of the fun things in the old days about writing with Frank Miller was that every issue of ‘Daredevil’ was a challenge to every issue of ‘X-Men.’ If Frank could do this well, how could I find a way to do this differently and better,” said Claremont. “You know, when you’re a writer you don’t look at this stuff for entertainment. You look at reading to see what works and what doesn’t. What you can adapt to your own craft to make it better, which is a polite way of saying what the hell can you swipe, and essentially keep pace with them.”
“I think what Chris is trying to say is that he doesn’t know who the three of us are up here,” joked Waid.
In another question for Bendis, one audience member asked what it was like writing “Daredevil.” “It was a thrill on numerous levels,” said Bendis, who gave a rundown on his many false starts within Marvel, from Marvel West Coast to the Ultraverse, to a never-launched Nick Fury book. Feeling that false starts would be the story of his career, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada offered him “Daredevil” to follow up Kevin Smith’s run.
“It got me into Marvel, it got me ‘Ultimate Spider-Man,’ it got me my best friend David Mack, it got me on a long term relationship with Alex Maleev that continues to this day, and I didn’t embarrass myself on not only my boss’s favorite book, but my favorite book.”
Speaking of “Ultimate Spider-Man,” Bendis gave his rational for choosing the different art style of Stuart Immonen to follow Mark Bagley’s original work on the series. “What I didn’t want the book to become was a long list of Bagley clones trying desperately to capture our glory days. I wanted to find people who had new things to say to the character and new ways to tell the story,” Bendis said.
The writers also shared their various experiences working with artists, especially trying to maintain creative balance between collaborators.
“To me, an artist is like a Stradivarius,” said Fraction. “It’s up to me to figure out how to make the music.” Fraction continued explaining how he researches artists he’s scheduled to work with to see how best to fit to their style. “Anytime I get a new artist I turn into like John Doe from ‘Seven,'” Fraction said. “I obsessively study anything of theirs I can find and try to figure out how do I write the ultimate ‘blank’ comic.”
“Once it leaves your word processing program and goes out to the artist, it is no longer your story, it’s our story,” said Waid. “We also tend to be, from our perspective, a little more respectful and a little more willing to give the benefit of the doubt because we know in our hearts how easy it is to write the words ‘establishing shot: interior baseball stadium.’ That’s what, four seconds? That’s two days of a guy’s life we’re asking to do.”
Still, mistakes can be made and even comic book scripts are open to interpretation. Waid shared a story about one such misunderstanding.
“I’ll never forget I got some pages back, and I was doing plot first and then dialogue in this case, and I’d written a scene with two characters alone in a circus tent at night. They’re talking and there’s stuff going on, but all around them there are helium balloons floating everywhere.
“They’re everywhere,” Waid reiterated. “They’re very distracting and I had no earthly idea what this guy was thinking and what was in his head when he drew this until I went and looked back at the plot and it said very clearly, ‘Artist, leave room for balloons.'”
The panelists discussed how worldwide networking has increased the need for clear lines of communication.
“The interesting thing is, in the old days you could sit in the office and interact,” said Claremont. “This was way back when you could only send international mail by horse drawn cart, which is a neat trick over the Pacific.
“Now you’re dealing with artists in South America and Europe and oddly enough very few of them speak English,” Claremont joked.
Mistranslations between writer and artist can happen under normal circumstances, but when two different languages are involved it can be even more confusing, as Waid demonstrated with a story about working with artist Humberto Ramos.
“Once I realized he was a really good storyteller, I would throw something in there just to see what would happen, like ‘and he drives a zamboni,’ just to see what that would be,” said Waid. “I could just see this poor guy running around in the pre-Google days trying to figure out what in the hell an ‘ox-cart’ is.”
The next question asked each of the panelists how they got their start in the industry.
Waid began by telling how he got to know various people in the industry before getting his break, sometimes in unusual ways. “I did the convention circuit where I’d be the volunteer who would drive you to and from the airport,” said Waid. “Driving Dave Sim to Dealey Plaza at his request to reenact the assassination of JFK was a highlight.
“I’m not kidding, I’m 23 years old with big cartoon sweats coming off my head thinking, ‘What have I done? Maybe mom was right, I should have been an accountant.'”
Claremont’s beginnings were a little different. He had talked to a friend of his parents, Al Jaffee, about working at “MAD” magazine. Jaffee denied him, saying that his parents would never forgive him if he let Claremont work there. Instead, Jaffee put him in touch with a guy named Stan Lee.
“He called Stan, Stan called me, I said I’d work for free,” Claremont said. “The rest of it was two and a half months of answering fan mail and sorting art work.”
Fraction, like Waid, got his start by getting to know people at conventions as well, meeting not only writers, but editors. “I got water for Mark at shows, I picked Mark up at the airport. I would make sure Kurt Busiek got to lunch every day…”
As one who’s spent the most time as an editor, Waid offered his view on finding writers. “Editors hire people, they don’t hire scripts,” said Waid. “Now this sounds like I’m telling you to go fetch me water… although if you’ve got a Diet Coke, I’ll take one.”
Naturally, an audience member immediately appeared to offer Waid a diet cola.
“Your ‘Irredeemable’ #16 script is due Monday,” joked Waid.
Waid then continued, saying, “Making personal connections without being in everybody’s face, without being bothersome or intrusive, it’s just human nature. You meet a guy, you like a guy, you want him to succeed.”
“It’s important to know when not to bring the water,” Fraction added.
This lead into a discussion about the writers themselves trying to find a balance between getting personal space without being dismissive of their fans.
“I think if you show up at the floor, you’re fair game,” said Bendis.
“On the other hand, being legally blind and deaf helps,” added Claremont.
The next question asked each of the panelists what character they’d like to write more.
“Yeah, Superman,” said Waid.
“As somebody who’s only worked on one side of the street, there’s an entire other universe out there,” said Fraction, referring to the fact that he has not written for DC Comics.
“I kinda like the X-Men,” said Claremont.
“Doc Savage,” said Bendis.
The next audience member thanked the panel for championing women in comics, sparking a conversation about the importance of treating social issues within the medium.
“Every bit of that goes back to Chris,” said Waid. “Why can’t this character be a woman? That was always your question on every single character when you were writing.”
“That was the question on every human being,” said Claremont.
In Faction’s case, his view towards women in comics started close to home with the birth of his daughter.
“I just thought that if I do have a daughter, I’m going to have a lot of explaining to do for my field,” said Fraction. “The greatest sin for me in sexism is the sin of omission.”
One question put both Claremont and Fraction in the hot seat, as Claremont was asked what he thinks about today’s X-Men.
“I’m intensely jealous, but fortunately I get to reserve all my animosity towards Axel [Alonso]. Axel is the editor. He’s the cruel and evil genius.”
Fraction then told the panel what Alonso had told him when he came on as the X-editor. “We’ve got to stop picking the bones of Chris’s body of work,” Fraction relayed. “That’s such a thing to get your head around, and then to see ‘X-Men Forever…'”
Finally, the panel ended with a talk about the pros and cons of working under the rules of an existing property and working on original material. Working under established continuity can be limiting, but it also provides the security of a pre-built world where original material has to be made from scratch.
“When you’re in the mood to completely start from scratch, you go write your own comic,” said Bendis. “At the same time, I look at the rules of the characters you’re writing as excuses for creativity.”
“On the flip side,” said Claremont. “If you get tired of working on the X-Men, you just change the setting on your computer and you work on something else.”
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