INTRODUCING SHELF LIFE
Why me? Why did CBR invite me to inflict a column upon you every two weeks? Fair question. I mean, they’ve already got a terrific writer in Jason Aaron writing about the writer’s life, breaking in, staying in and everything that goes with it. So why another column from a guy who makes his living writing comics?
Perspective, maybe? The kind of perspective that comes from having done this job for two decades? The first comic I wrote – in fact, the first comic I ever wrote – came out in 1990. Twenty years. Believe me, I scratch my head and wonder where the years have gone. That story was “Silver Surfer Annual” #3 – 64 pages for the princely sum of $2. Obviously a lot has changed since then, chief among them that 22 pages now costs you $4.
When my first comic reached shops, I was a single guy who had met my future wife, but wasn’t yet dating her. Both my parents were alive. Most comics were still printed on newsprint, and “digital” wasn’t a word associated with the art process, much less distribution. Now, with my latest issue, “Artifacts” #4, due in shops next week, I’m a happily married father of three. My own father died almost 15 years ago, and my mother’s health is failing. If you want to find newsprint, you need to go buy a newspaper (while they still exist). And nearly every aspect of comic creation is dependent upon digital technology.
The two decades between the “Surfer Annual” and “Artifacts” have been marked with life and death for me. Children born, parents and a few friends buried. One of the constants in those 20 years, present virtually every day of my life, is comics. Most days over the last two decades, I’ve sat down at the same desk and gotten paid to make up stories. I don’t really know how many stories. I’ve never counted how many issues I’ve written. Enough to fill a few long boxes, if some of my convention signings are an indication.
I’ve worked for almost all of the U.S. comic publishers at one time or another, and watched a few of them crash and burn. From the day I took over “Silver Surfer” as my first monthly gig, I’ve never been without work. I realize that just being able to write comics professionally makes me one lucky son of a bitch. To have been a freelancer for most of those years, and never wondered where the next check was coming from, makes me so insanely fortunate it’s almost incomprehensible. I’ve been blessed to sustain a career when so many others have never been able to break in, or maybe broke in but didn’t manage to stay in.
I always knew I was going to be a writer…mostly because it never occurred to me to be anything else. Well, besides third baseman for the New York Mets, but that didn’t go as planned. I worked as a journalist for a few years, getting my start in that even before I graduated from college. I had a job at a daily newspaper as a sportswriter, then as the entertainment editor, writing everything from features to film reviews. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but journalism was a pretty useful training ground for writing comics. Obviously not in the creative sense, as making up everything is still generally frowned upon in most journalism outlets; see Blair, Jayson. The tools I learned were writing on deadline and writing to fit a pre-determined length. Both pretty handy when you’re writing a 22-page monthly book.
Comic writers invariably are asked a handful of the same questions. The first one is usually: “Do you draw the pictures?” No, I can’t draw to save my life.
Soon after: “Where do you get your ideas?” I don’t know, they just show up. I’m really glad they do.
And almost always: “How did you break in?” That one has a longer answer. I’ve told the story so many times I feel like damn near everybody must’ve heard it by now. But for the sake of starting this column at the beginning, or at least my beginning. I broke into comics thanks to Jim Starlin, whom I’d met and become friends with because we lived in the same area and ended up moving in the same social circles. I copy-edited one of Jim’s prose novels for him. That led to him eventually asking if I’d like to try my hand at writing comics. I remember, to this day, his exact words: “It’s a good way to put food on the table.” It certainly has been.
Jim co-wrote a few “Surfer” jobs with me, showing me the ropes, showing me the script format I’m still using 20 years later. He impressed upon me that each panel was “a frozen moment in time,” like one frame of a movie reel. First-time comic writers, and frankly even some established pros, almost always make the mistake of asking for too much in a panel, asking for multiple actions, as if the static pictures could move. I never made that mistake, because an artist taught me how to write a script.
When Jim left “Surfer” to launch a new “Warlock” title, he somehow talked Marvel into letting me take over. I’ve been writing comics ever since, for Marvel, for DC, for Image, for Dark Horse, as well as for some publishers that have since joined the road kill on the comics highway, like CrossGen and Valiant. I’ve written company-owned icons, movie-franchise properties, creator-owned material. It’s all different, but it’s all the same: what comes out of my head gets turned into reality by amazingly talented artists.
I’m probably having more fun now than I’ve ever had in my career, and hopefully I’m doing my best work. Your best story should always be your next story. It doesn’t always turn out that way, but having the mindset of not being satisfied, of not repeating yourself, is half the battle. There’s really no better job on the planet. Except maybe third baseman for the Mets.
So that’s been my life for the last 20 years, thanks to a friend who put the opportunity in front of me. There’s certainly been luck involved, and a lot of hard work, maybe a little bit of talent. Hopefully I’ve learned a few things along the way: about writing, about art, about editing and the business of comics, even about people in general. I’ll try to impart some of that here every two weeks. If you happen to follow me on Twitter, you might already have a sense that I try to be as honest as possible. This column will be no different. You show up, I’ll always tell you the truth.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts,” “Witchblade” and “Magdalena” for Top Cow, and his upcoming creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image, set to debut in 2011. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com