Oct 29, 2010

Creating the Marvel Universe: Who Deserves the Credit? Part Two

In Part One of our adventure, The Comics Cube! took a rollicking tour of the Marvel Universe and its creation in the 1960s. We described the effects of the Marvel heroes such as the Fantastic Four and the Amazing Spider-Man, the Mighty Thor, and the Incredible Hulk, and showed how it turned superhero conventions on its ear. We also named the three major architects of this movement: "The King" Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and "The Man" Stan Lee. Lee, of course, is the name most people associate with the characters, the reason being he was the writer. Sound reasoning. Except it's not true.

Accurate? You decide.

When writing a comic book, there are two methods primarily used by writers. The first is the full script method. In this method, the writer details every single important aspect of the scene. He'll talk about how the page is laid out, the lighting, the blocking of the characters, the angles from which we are seeing the scene, and the specific lines of dialogue and narration that will actually go into the final copy. The guy most famous for using this is Alan Moore, who, in one example, used forty single-spaced pages to describe the first twelve pages of BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE. (You can read it here.) Now, Moore asks his collaborators what they want to draw first, but there's never any doubt that he's the writer, as it's he who controls the pacing and expressions. Still, since he and the artists he works with collaborate, Moore shares co-creator credit with his artists. David Lloyd is his co-creator in V FOR VENDETTA. JH Williams III co-created PROMETHEA. And so on. Moore never claimed sole credit for his works, and neither did Neil Gaiman, who also works full script.

Now, the other method for writers is the "plot-first" method. Using this method, the writer will just come up with a basic outline of the plot - maybe a page or two - detailing what happens. Then it's up to the artist to actually tell that story, applying pacing, mood, angles, lighting, and their own brand of drama into the pages. When they're done, the writer has to get the pages back and add the dialogue. This method is preferred by several writers, and one of the obvious reasons was time constraints. The method is also known as the Marvel Method, because it's the method Stan Lee used when working with his artists.

To compare and contrast, here's a page from an Alan Moore script for THE NEONOMICON. This is a single-spaced page. It describes one panel. (Thanks to Tim Stout for this.)

Meanwhile, here's Stan Lee's "writing" of FANTASTIC FOUR #1, which he then gave to Jack Kirby. This is two pages. It describes one story. (Thanks to the Shadow Sanctum for this one.)

Note how it's different from the actual final product, since Kirby obviously chose to do away with the whole "The Invisible Girl is always invisible" thing, and ended up making the Thing probably the most lovable character in the group. All right. So this is how Stan worked with his artists, and if plot were enough to classify one as the writer of the piece, then yes, Stan Lee would be the writer. But as any actual writer knows, more goes into writing than what happens in the story; there's the matter of pacing, drama, emotions, and all the other more abstract stuff that actually hook people on a story. (Case in point: boil WATCHMEN down to the plot. What is it? It's just an ensemble murder mystery, right?)

Now, to Stan's credit, he would give Kirby and Ditko co-plotter credit, while he would be credited as the scripter - which is true enough, in terms of dialogue, it's all Stan (at least as it pertains to the final product). In fact, some stories were pretty much all Kirby, like the classic FANTASTIC FOUR #50 (The Coming of Galactus!), which introduced the world-devouring Galactus and his herald, the Silver Surfer.

How was this all Kirby? Well, Stan Lee has gone on record, saying that in the middle of the story, there's all of a sudden a guy on a flying surfboard. The Silver Surfer was not part of the original plot, and Stan actually wanted him erased, and yet, here the Surfer was, taking up an incredibly significant part of the story. In effect, then, Jack Kirby wrote a very significant part of the story! I'm not sure how this could be contested.

And since he was the one who gave him his look and came up with the idea for him (that of an alien learning how to be human), Kirby solely created the Silver Surfer. While that idea may have been revised later by Stan Lee, defining the Surfer as a former human (albeit from a paradisical world) who had to give up his humanity, it doesn't make Stan the creator of the character any more than Frank Miller was the creator of Daredevil, or Denny O'Neil  and Neal Adams the creators of Green Arrow.

Steve Ditko was the same way. Stan would give him a plot, and then it was up to Ditko to tell the story. After a while, Stan wouldn't even give him an outline; he'd just say something like "Hey, Steve, let's have the Green Goblin show up in this issue," and let Steve run with it. In particular, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 30-33, "The Master Planner Saga," was pretty much all Ditko. The classic sequence in which Spider-Man lifts a ton of machinery from himself, Stan admits, was all Steve's idea and had nothing to do with him.

So did Stan Lee write the stories for which most people credit him as writing? In part, yes, but it's important to note that he wasn't writing it alone. His artists were doing the bulk of the work for him. So, the entire Marvel team of artists were also a team of writers.

Give credit where it's due for the writing: to all of them.

But what about the creation?

Who should be credited for creating these characters? Who should be credited for the Marvel Universe? Is Stan Lee really unfairly credited? Is Duy giving too much credit to Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby? And again, where does the Merry Marvel Marching Society fit into all of this? Click here for the conclusion of Creating the Marvel Universe: Who Deserves the Credit? same Cube time, same Cube channel!


Paul C said...

Stan's original plot for FF #1 is fascinating. It's surprisingly dark. I'd love to see a What If? that told the story of this version of the FF. Having said that I'm glad Kirby made the changes he did, I doubt Stan's FF would have been the hit that it was without Kirby's changes. It sounds more like the Doom Patrol.

Duy Tano said...

Paul, you've given me a great idea for a new post!

Allysons Attic said...

Don't sell Stan short... there is a point where you bow to a better idea... and run with it. There are those writers that can do that...and there are those artist that want that, and those artists that wait everything spelled out.

From what I've read, Stan would give the plot, but then also go in and add the lines after the story was drawn... that's not that easy.

The right lines make the story and the character, as well as a nicely drawn character.

Take Morrison's Return of Bruce Wayne,
Morrison admits that he didn't tell Kurbert to put a giant Bat-head on Bruce in the first issue, but Morrison went ahead and worked with the idea, and it's cool.

I've read a lot of nicely designed characters that SUNK like a lead balloon because their story wasn't worth reading, or didn't flow.

I've just read Stan Lee's Soldier Zero...by Cornell...and its a lot better then the current Action Comics story. How much of it is Lee? How much of it is Cornell? How much of it was the Artist?(can't remember the name right now)

I wouldn't have bought it without the Stan Lee's name on it.

BUT don't sell Stan short...he is a great Salesman.

Darrell D. said...

I always thought the two page FF plot was considered a little dodgy? As in, considered to be a fake, a bit of a retcon, drummed up by legal to try to cover Marvel's asses in regards to copyright, etc.
All in all, another fine post. I would never take anything away from Stan; but giving credit where credit is due concerning Kirby and Ditko is just right.

Duy Tano said...

Allyson: I'd respond to you in full detail, but that'd be spoiling Monday's post. I will say this though - please keep in mind that I'm always trying to target the demographic of "casual" fan - that is, people who don't really know much about comics, but are interested in it enough to want to try to learn about it. And for that demographic, Stan Lee usually gets sole credit. I would be saying the same facts from a different tone and perspective if I were talking to an uber hardcore comic fan who would insist that Stan Lee did nothing.

Darrell: Was that pitch really considered to be fake? I've never seen any claim of the sort, BUT I wouldn't doubt it if the actual proposal was a lot like that anyway. It would have been two pages long anyway.

Darrell D. said...

I just know that I have read in various publications after that was uncovered, that some questioned the authenticity of it.
Plus, it kind of flies in the face of the recollection of both Stan and Jack of how they first came up with the idea.

Duy Tano said...

Isn't it standard procedure (and keep in mind I wasn't alive in 1961) that even if you come up with an idea, you still have to come up with the proposal? I had to do something like that - a friend and I came up with the idea, but I came up with the proposal and added some of my ideas into it.

Darrell D. said...

I have no idea how it worked at Marvel at the time, but the feeling I get from interviews with Kirby, etc, is that it was incredibly casual. Stan would pitch a story over the phone or lunch or whatever.

Duy Tano said...

Ahh, gotcha. From what I've read and heard, that's the way it happened eventually - about a year or so in - but Stan was doing the one- to two-page synopses first.

But like I said, even if this was a retroactive document, I'd bet it was close to what they actually talked about.

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