Back in ’71, on my first trip to New York City to attend Phil Seuling’s annual (and lamentably now defunct) July 4th con, I signed up for a writing seminar run by Jim Steranko, to the best of my knowledge the only one he ever held. It was an all-night deal in Steranko’s hotel suite, an intensive if necessarily superficial rundown of all the elements that make a comic book script. (See MOTO #38 in the archives for the cute anecdote version.) There’s no single person in comics today who compares in stature to Steranko in ’71, who’s so universally accepted as an innovator and a great talent (Frank Miller comes closest, probably, but the dissenting view is much stronger than it ever was re: Steranko). At that point, he had blazed a trail through NICK FURY and revitalized X-MEN (at the time a bottom rung Marvel book), brought back horror comics (after a fashion) and was seriously talking about graphic novels, then a practically impossible dream. He’d brought in a new storytelling style fresher than Stan Lee’s by then tired glib Glickisms and punchier than DC’s staid scripts – an updating of the edgy, staccato style Will Eisner and Jules Feiffer had developed in THE SPIRIT; he introduced an art style built on earlier breakthrough styles (Wally Wood, Joe Maneely, Jack Kirby, Eisner) but articulated by an exciting, up to the moment blend of surrealism and photorealism. He was, simply, the best mainstream comics had to offer at the time, bar none. To be a nobody out of nowhere and end up spending hours picking his brain (even while sharing him with 24 other nobodies, piled on the chairs and sofas, propped against the wall) was, for a fanboy, akin to sitting at the right hand of God. Even if it was hard to stay awake by 6 AM. Even if I was unable to really participate due to acute laryngitis caused by a drinking spree with a slew of comics writers the previous night. (It was a heady weekend.)
I still have the seminar cheatsheet around, somewhere in the files. Maybe I’ll dig it out one of these days. I remember him discussing the importance of theme, the first time I’d heard it discussed in relation to comics. (Barely anyone in comics concerns themselves with theme, and in standard superhero comics there’s barely a need to, since the subject is the theme. A few years back I made a total nuisance of myself at one of these “line conferences” companies have grown so fond of, where writers are brought in to sit around and shoot the breeze and generate, alongside editors, the “game plan” for a group of books for the next n period of time. When others were talking about their books, I kept asking “what’s it about?” Meaning not the plot details but the theme. Theme shapes the plot as much as character, but, for some reason, comics pros seem incapable of discussing story as anything but plot, where they’re willing to discuss story at all. “With great power comes great responsibility” is a theme. “Colossus dies to save the world from the Legacy virus” is a plot. Beating themes out of my fellow writers and their editors, I kept the conference going literally hours longer than it should have. The publisher was highly displeased, but not with me. Perhaps coincidentally, an editor on the line was fired a couple days later. Probably much less coincidentally, I’ve never been asked to another one.) I remember Jim impressing on us the need for visual thinking. He cited a story he planned to do, with a splash page of a ferocious tiger lunging at a pretty girl in a pretty dress, who seemed not to know the beast was there. It’s the sort of thing splash pages are made for, a shocking image that grabs your attention, immediately introduces a crisis, and makes you want to turn the page to see what’s going to happen, as well as to find out how such danger could occur. By making the victim-to-be a nice, unaware girl clearly deserving better than to be mauled and devoured by a rampaging beast, the image immediately focuses our sympathies as well. This is what’s known as a “hook.”
The kicker? Pull out on the next page to see the girl standing at a bus stop with a circus poster behind her. A cheat, sure, but it explains everything, relieves the tension, gives us the chance to shift reader attention to the real story – seamlessly, if we’re any good. Lesson: don’t be afraid of exciting imagery. It’s what quickly draws people into a story. And don’t be afraid to cheat on it, if it builds to a better payoff down the road. Thematically, of course, the tiger imagery should tie into the overall point of the story; structurally, it should have some influence or resonance, ironic or otherwise, on the resolution of the story.
(Lesson #2: Jim warned us that if anyone used this specific example in their own work, he’d personally make sure they regret it.)
I don’t remember much else about that night, except that Steranko was brusque and funny, and a captivating speaker. He was in his element, laying down the gospel according to Jim and making a good case for it. He was also the first major talent I was aware of who walked away from comics in his prime. He left, ostensibly, for a venue that allowed him to do stories he wanted to do rather than stories “they” wanted, and without “their” meddling. (His last mainstream work at that time was a horror short called “At The Stroke Of Midnight,” about an evil couple getting their comeuppance by finding themselves somehow transported to the horrors of the French Revolution, where they were herded to the guillotine. Ornately drawn in a filmic style reminiscent of Bernie Krigstein’s more adventurous experiments, and laid out in a staccato array of multiple frames that broke the action into an extended series of fast-moving panels, stylistically it may be the single most influential story in comics history, changing a whole generation of readers’ view of what comics were capable of visually. The legend goes that Stan Lee – who filled the rest of the comic with ’50s retreads like the story of a miner who sabotages a machine he thinks will take his job only to learn, during a cave-in, it was there to save his life – wanted to “glib” the title to “Let ‘Em Eat Cake” and Steranko decided his path lay elsewhere.) That venue was Jim’s COMIXSCENE, the first newsstand magazine about comics, built on the Warren Comics model (Warren published magazines like CREEPY and FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND) of supporting the mag via sales of house merchandise in the back. It mutated into MEDIASCENE, focusing on more popular media than comics.
I worked for MEDIASCENE for a few months c. 1980-1, writing the news column that constituted the magazine’s last vestigial comics coverage. (I had the dubious honor of notifying Jim that John Lennon had been murdered.) There was one good scoop in six issues – a story no one else got on how Bill Mantlo had been invited to the White House to receive an award for an anti-drug story he wrote, and how Marvel’s mailroom had gotten him the invitation several days following the ceremony – but it didn’t take many versions of “In November, The Fantastic Four battle Galactus” before both of us realized maybe a comics column in MEDIASCENE had outlived its usefulness.
Cut to San Diego, mid-90s. Still inspired by Steranko’s seminar, I decided to hold an intensive all night clinic on comics writing. (Mentioned in passing in MOTO #43.) Looking back on it now, one thing’s clear: I ain’t ever going to be mistaken for Jim Steranko. Jim’s seminar was like an informal college course. Mine followed a simple philosophy: the best way to teach a baby to drown is to throw it in the water.
As opposed to the luxurious surroundings of 1971, the Con scored me an austere meeting room in the Pan Pacific Hotel, across the hall from the Con’s annual rubber chicken lovefest, the Inkpot Awards. 25 signed up. I think 19 made it. (Unlike Steranko’s seminar, the clinic was free: ComiCon policy.) With some stiff chairs, a marking board and some magic markers as props, and with Dark Horse on board as publisher, the group set about creating a comic book script.
The object was to simulate the conditions of working for a comics publisher. No theory there. No proclamations about art and dignity, or pursuing your muse. Not that I’m against any of those things, but that’s not the comics professional experience. These were people who had dreams of being comics professionals; I wanted them to understand what the reality was all about. (As Rorschach says in WATCHMEN, in reference to the Pharoahs traveling in resplendent barges to the afterlife, “most of us travel steerage.) In most cases, we work alone in comics; in this instance, the group functioned in a haphazard democracy, a dictatorship of the majority, to jointly create a comics story. Five pages, from scratch, in one night.
The approach wasn’t a universal hit. Some had come looking for The Big Secret, that one phantom bit of insider information that would catapult them to the Show. (I might have mentioned this before: there isn’t any big secret.) A couple were very upset their ideas were dismissed by the group. (Always a risk in these situations.) Some wanted a structured lecture on The Right Way To Write Comics, and that just wasn’t going to happen.
I don’t know the “right” way. There isn’t one, though you’ll always find those who insist their way is. Any way that works is the right way. Structurally, there are three basic ways to write a comics story.
Full script: writer dictates everything
SCENE: A beautiful GIRL stands facing us, wearing a lovely spring dress, smiling sweetly, daydreaming. She stands as though waiting for a bus. Directly behind her, a giant TIGER lunges, his claws ready to shred her, his jaws wide and ready to rip her apart. But Girl seems totally unaware of the danger. CAPTION 1: Yesterday… GIRL 2: I wonder what happened to Tom.
Etc., breaking down all action and dialogue page by page, panel by panel, until the story’s done.
“Marvel” method: plot, sometimes just describing story action, sometimes with no panel breakdowns and few if any page breakdowns – artist draws plot – writer dialogues art
A beautiful GIRL stands facing us, smiling and daydreaming, as if waiting for a bus, unaware a giant TIGER is leaping threateningly toward her from behind. (Etc.)
The artist would then draw this page, and the writer would be sent a Xerox of the pencils. He writes the dialogue:
CAPTION 1: Yesterday… GIRL 2: I wonder what happened to Tom.
Then marks on the Xerox where the balloon placements are and marks them with their corresponding dialogue number (in this case, 1).
Screenplay style: this is my own little innovation, an attempt to get in everything a full script needs – all the dialogue and action calls – with more freedom for the artist than full scripts allow
A beautiful GIRL stands facing us, wearing a lovely spring dress, smiling sweetly, daydreaming. She stands as though waiting for a bus. Directly behind her, a giant TIGER lunges, his claws ready to shred her, his jaws wide and ready to rip her apart. But Girl seems totally unaware of the danger.
I wonder what happened to Tom.
There are as many other ways to do it as there are writers. In the clinic’s case, we had 19 writers – I was working hard, if fallibly, to keep my own tastes and biases out of it while providing direction where I thought useful. As good editors do. In comics terms, five pages is nothing. It’s a lark. There have been good five page stories, but very few of them. Their job was to figure out the nuances of idea, plot, theme, story, character, structure and action, and, because that was the promise if the clinic and Dark Horse was expecting it, to weave them together into five publishable pages of script. With virtually no prior practical experience.
In 8 hours.
To be continued.
For those who care, the inspiration for MOTO was Harlan Ellison’s TV crit column in the long dead L.A. FREE PRESS, The Glass Teat. Collected into THE GLASS TEAT and THE OTHER GLASS TEAT, they’re still worth reading. If you can find them.
Thanks to everyone who voted for MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS as favorite column in CBR’s Corrie Awards. Congratulations to Gail for tying. (@#S! O! When will glory be mine and mine alone?) (Seriously, congratulations, Gail. You rock.)
In the absence of other solid news (hopefully next week), let me remind everyone to read Larry Young’s new column, LOOSE CANNON. Larry rocks too. We all rock. Everything is beautiful.
Question Of The Week, at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: whose work will you never, ever buy again, under any circumstances? Why? (Yes, you can include mine. I won’t get mad.)
Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.
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