The Marvel Method
The Marvel Method produced many of the greatest comics of the 20th century. This is a blog about the creation of these great comics, not about the wages or credits of the contributors. That is another worthwhile blog.
I had given up on “new” comics in 1978. I had never been part of “fandom.” I never had been to a convention and I had not read fanzines. Just the comics. Entering the fold in the early part of this millennium I was surprised to discover a group of readers, the new Comics Cops, had such vitriol for the Marvel Method and the man who used it most, Stan Lee.
In the early 1960s most companies produced comics this way: An editor would either think of a story idea or get one from his writers or artists. A writer would then be assigned to write a detailed story, describing the scenes on each page and including the dialogue. From that script an artist would pencil the required pages of story. A letterer, using black ink, would then letter the dialogue, narration and sound effects. Then an artist would ink the penciled figures and the stats of the pages would be given to a colorist, who determined what colors would be used and where.
Although it is now named after them, Marvel was not the first to use the Marvel Method. Companies, including Fiction House in the 1940s, had used it. With the Marvel Method, the writer and artist first collaborate on a plot and the pacing of the story. The artist then pencils the pages, before any script or dialogue is written. When the artist is finished he turns the pages over to the writer who then writes the dialogue. At this point Stan would often have the artist redraw some panels to better tell the story, which a few artists did not like. Kirby did not have final say on his own pencils. Roy Thomas said (Email 2017): (Stan) let a lot of things he didn’t like go through with minor changes to keep Jack and Steve (Ditko) happy, more than anything, but when he strongly wanted something changed--like the origin of Galactus in THOR--it got changed. Once the art was complete, it was then given to the letterer, inker and colorist in that order.
The Marvel Method of creating comics changed the traditional structure of writer and artist. Stan Lee described the situation at Virginia Tech in 1977: “Initially, comic books were done just like a play. You would write a script where in a play you would write Act 1, Scene 1, the protagonist enters from stage left and does so and such. With a comic we would write Page 1, Panel 1, the super-hero enters from a doorway and leaps through a window or so… I was writing most of the stories…and I found I was having trouble keeping up with the artist. For example... I’d be writing the Fantastic Four story and the artist who does Spider-Man would come in and say, “Hey, Stan, I need a script… I finished the one I was doing.” But there I am doing the Fantastic Four and I can’t stop …so I would say to the artist, “Look, I tell you what. I don’t have time to write your script,” but he needed a script. He couldn’t wait ‘cause we have to – a production schedule, so I’d say, “I’ll tell you what the plot is. You just go home and draw anything and – as long as it follows my plot. Bring the drawings in. By then I’ll have finished this story and I’ll put the dialogue in the captions on your artwork.” Well, I found in that way I was able to keep a lot of artists busy at once.”
At other comic companies the writer could not see the images yet, so he had to highlight the description in dialogue. For example, when Superman is jumping out the window the panel would show someone below saying, “Look, there is Superman jumping out the window.” Or the description would read, “One day, as Superman jumped out of a window.” At Marvel Stan looked at the image and then did the dialogue. You saw Spider-Man jumping out the window, no need to repeat it. So Stan would have Spider-Man say, “I wonder if Aunt May is feeling better.” Lee was able to advance the plot and the characterization.
Looking back fifty years, the new Comic Cops resented this accepted way of production and want to retroactively be the managers, lawyers, agents and mothers to the artists, as if the artists were forced to work according to the Marvel method. Roy Thomas told me, “and nobody was a slave…nobody ever held a gun to anybody’s head.” The Comic Cops feel that the artists should have received greater compensation. And I do wish they could have seen the future and negotiated better residuals. In the early 1960s there was no live action or animated TV shows with comic book characters. There were no movies being made. There were few reprints, just occasional yearly “Annuals” for a few characters. There were no hardcover archives or softcover trade paperbacks. Comics were considered cheap entertainment and disposable even to many of their readers.
Goodman, and the other publishers, did not pay for “ideas” but for finished pages of art and script. (In the 1970s Marvel began to pay for plotting. First $25, then $50 to the artist. The money was deducted from the writer's payment) Jack Kirby was often asked in interviews what he did at Marvel. He didn’t say, “I draw comics.” He most often said something like, “I sell magazines.” Kirby said in a 1992 interview with Leonard Pitts, “I’m not interested in the ego trip of creating or not creating. I’m interested in selling a magazine. Rock-bottom, I sell magazines. I’m a thorough professional who does his job.”
(Examples are: Kirby with Randy Hoppe 1992; Comic book collector; 1993: Kirby Collector 1994; Kirby and Pitts: Kirby with Randy Hoppe 1992; Jack Kirby The Golden Age; Interview with Glenn Danzig, 1990)
|Michael J. Vassallo is with Dick Ayers in Dick's hallway which was filled with original art.|
Dick Ayers told me that he enjoyed the Marvel Method. It would allow him to properly pace the story and not be “glued” to what a writer had written. He especially liked working with Stan and Tony Isabella, both of whom gave him a one page outline for the story, often over the telephone. Ayers mentioned that he had trouble with Gary Friedrich who often only gave him a couple of sentences. Roy Thomas, Ayers went on to add, did quite the opposite, giving him twice as many pages as Stan! Only, Once, Ayers said, was Stan stuck for a plot. Stan called him regarding issue #23 of Sgt. Fury and asked him to come up with a plot because he couldn’t think of anything. Dick was very disappointed when Stan left the series a few issues later.
The Incredible Tony Isabella wrote in his blog
on April 4, 2017: There is no one “Marvel
Method” … I wrote comic-book stories in every way imaginable, depending on the
situation at the time I wrote them. I wrote full scripts for some artists. I
wrote loose page-by-page plots for others. I wrote panel-by-panel plots for
others. A few times, when an artist needed work right away, I broke down the
plot on index cards and read it to the artist over the phone. In desperate
situations… I sat down with an artist and worked out the plot with him.
|Michael J. Vassallo and Tony Isabella|
Gene Colan told me that he loved working with Stan using the method. As a reader, though, it was easy to see that Gene had a looser pacing with Stan than he would have with Roy Thomas, where the stories became more detailed. In an e-mail to Nick Caputo in 2000, Colan wrote: Stan really came up with all the ideas for the story, as minimal as they were, and I interpreted them. I remember how free I felt. I felt total freedom. There was just one problem and that was pacing so the events wouldn’t get bunched up. [Stan gave] a rough verbal outline with no dialogue. Working with other writers like Roy Thomas and Archie Goodwin was restrictive for me, feeling like the writer had all the control and I had very little. As writers and editors, both those men treated me well. But for me, the fun was taken out of the work.
|Flo Steinberg, Stan lee, Joe Sinnott and Gene Colan|
|The "ME" here is Rich Buckler|
Roy told me in 2019, “I usually gave Gene a synopsis of 2-3 pages, maybe occasionally more, maybe occasionally a bit less... perhaps in a few cases it was mixed, writing and telephone. But I tended to send written synopses to most artists, even the Buscemas, Colan, etc., unless it was someone who preferred we just talk over the ideas, like Barry (Smith) or Neal (Adams).”
John Romita also stated that he liked working this way with Stan. He joked that some old fans even called him a “company man” because he’d always say that whenever he finished drawing a story, Stan would take it and make it better.
In 2002, I spoke to Julius Schwartz and Carmine Infantino about how they produced DC comics in the 1960s. The two mentioned that they would go out to lunch and come up with an idea for a cover (and therefore a plot) and then give it to a writer. Even Schwartz was consulting with his artists for ideas. Schwartz, however, was editing about six books a month and then handing off his plots to writers. Stan was editing up to three times as books a month and writing ten of them. To expect one person to come up with a brilliant story EVERY DAY for ten years is unreasonable.
Writer Arnold Drake told me that when he wanted to write a story, he not only gave the editor the plot of approval, but layout the cover too. No one ever suggested that the cover artist should share his money with the writer who suggested a cover.
|Stan Goldberg stands between Michael J. Vassallo and Nick Caputo|
At this time at Marvel, not all stories were done in the Marvel Method. Larry Lieber, Stan’s brother, was an important writer in the beginning. Larry told me that he did full scripts, including the first Thor story, and did not work with the Marvel Method. Some written plot outlines have survived.
To edit up to eighteen comics a month (this includes Summer Annuals) Stan had to delegate a lot of his authority to people he trusted. Stan Goldberg was Marvel’s colorist and was involved with the production of the comics. Stan G. was proud of the responsibilities delegated to him at Marvel, with no one looking over his shoulder, Lee had trusted him. In Alter Ego #18, Stan G. said, “Some people weren’t happy about it, because Stan was putting work on the artist for no extra pay. Some artists resented it, but that was how it was done. I wasn’t happy about it at first, but I learned how to do it. I wanted to tell stories. So I’d start off with something big happening, so I’d get the reader caught up in the story. And I wanted to keep on working and please Stan. And Stan was pleased with what I was doing.” Stan G. explained to me that it is a far more complicated job than you might think. He worked hard to make sure that each comic on the stands that month looked different from the other Marvel comics and at the same time each issue had to look different from the title’s last issue! He originally wanted to make the Hulk orange, but then he would look like the Thing! I asked him, “Did you ever get color suggestions from the artists?” He replied in a loud tone “I never listened to those prima-donnas!!!”
This method was not for everyone. Joe Kubert, a favorite of Roy Thomas, did not work for Marvel because he did not like this method. Roy says, “Joe Kubert has been my favorite comic book artist since 1945." Joe Orlando did three early issues of Daredevil (#2-4) and Wally Wood did six (#5-10) and then left. Neither of them was there long enough to leave a lasting impression. Tom Brevoort, (MarvelSilverAge BlogSpot, May 28, 2017) wrote that Orlando told him that he, Orlando, would bring in pages and Stan, wanting the story to go in another direction, would have him redraw many pages for no additional pay.
We don’t know how much Wood’s alcoholism and health problems contributed to his behavior. William Gaines, publisher of EC comics and Mad Magazine for whom Wood did his best work called him “troubled.” According to Russ Jones in Alter Ego #8, Wood left Mad magazine when they rejected a project he was working on in 1962. He was being paid $50 a page but refused any contact with the publisher. He went to work at Charlton, inking for $10 a page. Stan was excited to have him and put on the cover of Daredevil #5, (street date October 1964) “Under the brilliant artistic craftsmanship of famous illustrator Wally Wood, Daredevil reaches new heights of glory!" The pairing of Lee and Wood produced only five issues. They created just one exceptional story: Daredevil #7, which featured the Sub-Mariner. I am not a fan of the Matador or the Stilt-Man, but some fans really like those stories. If Wood had stayed, who knows?
Wood did redesign DD’s costume and Stan G. told me, in 2010, that he, Stan, had colored it. In issue #10 Wood wrote the first part of a two part story but Stan had to finish it stating “Well, if you’ve ever seen a more complicated, mixed-up, madcap mystery yarn than this one, you’ve got US beat a mile.” Finding a more hospitable workplace at the new T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, Wood left after just inking issue #11, (street date: October 1965). John Romita took over Daredevil and circulation went up.
A great deal of lamentation has been made about Steve Ditko’s leaving Marvel. Steve Ditko’s leaving was not a failure of the Marvel method, but an absence of it. Lee and Ditko were no longer talking and Ditko felt isolated, perhaps abandoned. It seems, and this my observation, that Ditko and Wally Wood complained that they were doing it all. So Stan, perhaps stubbornly, told them, if they felt that way, to do it without him. Wood gave up quickly; it took Ditko a year to leave.
Jack Kirby will always be remembered for the work he did with his partner Joe Simon on Captain America and the stories he did with Stan, using the Marvel Method, in the 1960s.
Wally Wood did say some harsh things about Lee after he left Marvel in 1965.
Jack Kirby insulted Lee by doing a malicious characterization of both him (Flunky Flashman) and Roy Thomas in Mister Miracle #6. Yet Lee took them back when they wanted, or needed, to come back.
Apparently, Stan’s weakest attribute was coming up with a plot every single day for ten years. He did heavily rely on his artists in that regard. As an editor he succeeded and got the best out of the creative people he worked with. They often developed the plot and then he advanced the story in the dialogue, his greatest strength.
In the early 1960s Stan, through his dialogue, gave characters uniqueness and personality. Stan put a great deal of humor into the comics. These concepts allowed great continuity at Marvel. It would be difficult to read the Marvel comics of the 1960 out of chronological order. But you could mix up a batch of DC comics from different years and it usually made no difference.
with Marvel’s circulation rising, from 16 million to 70 million Goodman not only knew what was going on, he saw it was working!
Thirty Years Later:
Writer J.M. DeMatteis on the Death of Harry Osborn in The Spectacular Spider-Man Vol 1 #200, 1993.
On the final two pages, Spidey accompanies Harry into an ambulance, they drive off and Harry passes away... The sequence was small, quiet, but, on an emotional level, it was massive.
I did everything I could to communicate the power of those last pages to Sal in the plot—along with my thoughts on how the sequence would be handled in the final script. My intention was to verbally milk the pages for all they were worth, wringing out every last drop of emotion; going big and melodramatic via captions, inner monologues from Peter or dialogue between the characters. (Another benefit of "Marvel (Method)": I didn't have to decide then, I could make up my mind when the art was done.)
Then Sal’s pages came in…The panel to panel flow was cinematic and crystal clear, the characters dramatic and achingly human. And those final two pages? Perfection! At first—locked into my original vision—I began writing captions and dialogue for the end-sequence, but it quickly became clear that everything I wanted to say had already been said, and better, by Sal. It was all there in the pictures. He had translated my plot so expertly that words would have capsized the sequence and destroyed the emotional power of the moment. So I shut my big mouth and let Harry Osborn die in silence…
That, too, is part of a writer’s work—especially in comics: deciding when to speak and when to shut up. Deciding whether to go for a barrage of machine-gun dialogue, a series of powerful captions or to surrender to equally-powerful silence. Whether we’re working full-script of plot-first, we make those decisions on every panel of every page.
You might want to check out: The Most Influential Comic Books in Pop Culture a list of the most influential and best comic books of all time.