Suffering Through a Case of Stage Fright
I’ve only had stage fright once in my career. Not stage fright in terms of appearing in front of an audience of people. I’ve done enough panels, lectures and interviews that it’s never an issue. I mean stage fright as a writer.
That’s a different thing than being stuck in place because an idea’s not quite right, which is really a self-criticism mechanism. It’s also different than “writer’s block,” which is, frankly, not a real thing. “Writer’s block” is a bullshit excuse that people give when they still want to think of themselves as writers, but don’t want to do the actual work of writing.
What I’m talking about is stage fright, the feeling of just being overwhelmed because the task in front of you seems beyond your skills. My one moment of stage fright, in more than 20 years of putting my work in front of the public, is “Doctor Strangefate,” the Amalgam Comics title that came out of the “Marvel vs. DC” crossover I wrote.
I had no stage fright, no self-doubt, working on “Marvel vs. DC,” which is the most high-profile project of my career. I dove into that script anxiously, happy to be playing with all those toys at once. But “Doctor Strangefate” made me freeze up like nothing before or since. Why? Because of the art team, or more specifically, the penciler — Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, who as far as I’m concerned, is one of the legendary artists ever to have graced the medium.
The pressure of writing for Jose proved overwhelming. There was, of course, the added pressure of having the equally legendary Kevin Nowlan inking the book. But I knew Kevin, we’d worked together before. I’d never met Jose, I’d only admired his work since I was able to recognize one artist from another.
The initial meeting for “Marvel vs. DC” took place at Marvel editor Mark Gruenwald’s Manhattan apartment. The project was so secret at that point that most of the editorial staffs at either company didn’t know it was happening. There was an absolute effort to keep news of the project from leaking (and this was before Twitter and Facebook and Instagram). The only people present were me, Mark, Mike Carlin of DC Comics, and the other writer, Peter David.
The basic concept of the project was laid out to me and Peter, a story in which the Marvel and DC Universes would meet in a “contest of champions” type of event. Readers would vote on the outcomes of five of the contests, meaning we’d have to prepare multiple outcomes. We kicked around additional ideas, and drew up a list of the logical battles that would be taking place — Hulk vs. Superman, Batman vs. Captain America, and all the rest. Then Mike and Mark dropped the other shoe, telling us about Amalgam — a universe combining DC and Marvel characters that would appear between issues #3 and #4 of “Marvel vs. DC.”
I can remember being stunned and delighted at the audacity of Amalgam. Working within the confines of the long-established Big Two universes means you’re most often writing characters and exploring territory that’s been mined before. There’s a cyclical nature to it. You know that at some point, the Fantastic Four is always going to fight Doctor Doom again.
But Amalgam was something that hadn’t been done before, except maybe in the fevered dreams of hardcore fanboys. It was utterly new and different. More than anything, it was a hell of a lot of fun.
Mark and Mike already had a list of “amalgamated” characters, including the Batman-Wolverine mash-up Dark Claw, and the Superman-Captain America combination Super Soldier. But the name from the list that jumped out at me mashed together two of my favorite characters: Doctor Strange and Doctor Fate, resulting in Doctor Strangefate.
I said, “I have to do that one.” And the answer was, “Okay, that’s fine.” It was just that simple, without a pitch or even much discussion. I don’t remember why Peter didn’t end up writing an Amalgam issue; maybe it was purely a scheduling thing.
Not long after the initial meeting at Grueny’s apartment, the DC and Marvel editorial staffs were informed of the project, and the Amalgam titles were handed to various editors. “Doctor Strangefate” ended up in the care of DC editor Dan Thorsland. Within the next week or two, I popped into Dan’s office to chat about “Doctor Strangefate.”
I said, “I don’t care who you get to pencil it, but we have to get Kevin Nowlan to ink it.” Without missing a beat, Dan said, “How about if we get Garcia-Lopez to pencil it?” I think I managed to blurt, “Uh… that’d be all right.” What an amazing pairing.
Jose had actually been DC’s first choice to draw its half of the “Marvel vs. DC” crossover, an inspired choice, since his art was so emblematic of DC as a whole. But Jose politely declined because, I was told, he didn’t want to draw that many superheroes.
I got my “Marvel vs. DC” scripts written, and cleared other projects off my plate, so I could focus complete attention on writing “Dr. Strangefate.” I was going to savor this. Two of my favorite characters merged into one. Two legitimately legendary art talents, with a great colorist in Matt Hollingsworth and a masterful letterer in Chris Eliopoulos. This was going to be great.
Then… nothing. A week went by, and I hadn’t managed to write anything useful. I couldn’t get a handle on the story. I was too concerned with coming up with a story worthy of the colossal talents I was working with. In particular: Jose, who had drawn everything and worked with everybody. My script couldn’t just be good, it had to be great.
I was into my second week of futility when Dan called, nudging me about where the script was. “I’m, uh, working on it,” was the best I could come up with. Then Jose turned in some designs for Strangefate himself, as well as his foreboding tower (I’d actually managed to write notes for character and location designs). They looked amazing… and didn’t help at all. If anything, it reinforced the “Oh my God, I’m working with Garcia-Lopez and Kevin Nowlan!” stage fright. More days went by.
And then, out of the blue, I had an epiphany. I don’t know why, I don’t know where it came from. But as I flopped on the couch in my office, this thought popped into my head: “Oh my God, I’m working with Garcia-Lopez and Kevin Nowlan … I can write anything and it’s going to look amazing!”
I sat down at my desk and banged out the script in just a couple of days. Instead of worrying about how cool it needed be, I reveled in how cool it was going to be. Shrugging off the self-imposed pressure was the only liberation I needed.
The lone remaining glitch was that we needed to figure out exactly who was under Strangefate’s Helm of Nabu. It needed to be a character who was not spoken for in any of the other Amalgam books.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered Charles Xavier’s encounter with Amahl Farouk in Cairo back in the classic Claremont/Byrne/Austin “Uncanny X-Men #117.” I liked the notion of Xavier’s Egyptian adventure perhaps including an excursion to secret ruins in the desert, where he uncovered the Helm of Nabu. Of course, that was just backstory in my head that never made it to the page, but it made story sense to me. I also wanted someone who would be immediately recognizable when the helmet came off. Baldy Xavier seemed like a good choice.
For reasons I’m still not terribly clear on, Marvel initially was resistant to Xavier being the man under the helmet. Fortunately, the writer of “Doctor Strangefate” was clever enough to save the reveal until the last page of the issue, meaning everything else could be drawn. It took a few weeks, but Marvel finally signed off on Xavier’s use. Now the original art of the issue’s final page, with the Xavier reveal, hangs framed in my office.
“Doctor Strangefate” remains one of my favorite projects. I have a battered copy in a desk drawer, amid a stack of comics that I keep for inspiration (the rest are other people’s comics, not comics I’ve worked on). I keep it there because… well, duh, Garcia-Lopez and Nowlan. But I also keep it there as a reminder. I had stage fright once. I’ll never have it again.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts” and “Ravine” for Top Cow, “The Protectors” for Athleta Comics and his creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.