Mark’s Remarks – Marvel Age #107 (December 1991)

New Talent Department

Whenever I do a column about breaking into the comics industry, boy, do I get mail. If there’s a subject that a goodly portion of the reading audience is extremely receptive as well as sensitive to, that’s the one. It’s always been my intent to demystify such things as the hazy boundary between Us (the pros) and You, to give you the kind of straight talk I’d have sold my appendix for when I was You and wanted to become Us. I like to think of myself as the Penn & Teller of the comics industry, showing you how all the “tricks” are done even as I do them. And just as P&T get a lot of heat for, shall we say, their attitude, so too do I. You see, while I think I come across as an earnest explainer of hidden truths, sever correspondents tell me I come across as a self-satisfied bureaucrat of meager abilities who takes delight in discouraging hot, fresh, young talent from entering the field for fear they’ll show me up and steal all my writing assignments. When I get letters like that, it makes me wonder I bother at first. Then I think of how frustrated I felt when I was on the outside looking in and I can at least relate to the emotional climate at their creative cores. So, I continue to write about what I would have wanted to know back when I was an outsider.

Let me address the negative description of me in the first paragraph for a moment. (You just knew I couldn’t let that slide by without comment, right?) Am I self-satisfied? Yes, I’m conscientious about my work (both staffwork and Exec Ed of Marvel and my freelance writing work (and it makes me feel satisfied way deep down inside when I do it. Am I a bureaucrat? Guess so – Marvel’s organizational structure places me under the heading of “management.” Do I have meager abilities? That’s for you readers to decide by consensus (I’ve never seen my name near the top of the Favorite Writer polls) but I do believe if my abilities are meager, I know how to make the most of them. Do I take delight in discouraging new talent? No! Marvel constantly needs new creative soldiers to jump into the monthly trenches and help the company wage war against blank pages and deadlines and bad entertainment. Am I afraid of new guys being so good they’ll steal all my work from me? No, I think there’s plenty of work to go around. Marvel is publishing almost three times the amount of material it was when I started back in 1978 – I managed to get work then, I manage to get work now, and if in the future what I produce is not good enough for Marvel, I hope they have the good sense to stop using me. I’ll find someplace else to write since it’s something I’ve got to do, whether I’m paid for it or not.

Okay, so I say I don’t delightfully discourage new talent, but do I do anything to encourage them? Well, other than the pithy tips I try to provide in this column from time to time or the occasional portfolio review I do at a convention, no. I don’t do much. Know why? It’s not my job. What my job entails is a subject too big for a single paragraph – suffice to say that it has more to do with managing the editors who manage our talent pool of creative persons than finding and developing those creative persons myself. So if not me, does Marvel actively develop promising new talent? Only at a certain point.

Our submissions editor (a post that rotates every few months so I dare not even provide his name here since the info will soon be obsolete – just send all your inquiries to “Submissions Editor” and whoever it is will get it) separates the one percent from the ninety-nine percent who despite whatever talent or effort they may demonstrate are not ready for professional work. Our Editors (at last count there were fifteen) then work with this one percent and develop them when there is need for new blood on old books.

Another correspondent wrote me to take me to task for this policy. He said, and I paraphrase, “Doesn’t Marvel owe it to the talent, to the audience, and to itself as a profit-making business, to develop more than this one percent, to develop everyone who shows talent or promise?” The answer is no. In a more perfect world, everyone with potential would have that potential nurtured by those whose potential in a certain area (say, comic book making) was highly developed (professionals in that field). But…there are so many of you and so few of us proportionately, this is not possible. We have to be selective. But isn’t our selectivity process costing us scores of creative people who might be good at comic books if only they were given encouragement? I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again: Anyone who really wants to get into comics and has even some ability at it will get in. We are not missing out on the next Walt Simonson or Frank Miller by our too rigorous screening process. Guys like Walt and Frank have so much drive (as well as so much native ability) that we could have made the screening process anything and they still would have found some way to get through it so they could do comics. I have some evidence on this score.

Once upon a time there was a young artist named Jim Lee. He sent his samples in to Marvel to the Submissions Editor who was at that time Howard Mackie. Howard sent them back with the usual rejection letter. Why? They weren’t good enough to make the cut into that one percent of ready for professional work. End of story? Not quite. As you may know, Jim didn’t let this rejection get him down. He practiced and drew and drew and drew some more. Next time he submitted his work (years later) it was good enough. Where is Jim today? Drawing X-MEN, the best-selling comic in America. And what does Jim think of Marvel’s Submissions Editor rejecting his first batch of samples? He admits they stunk. Moral of the story: you tell me.

I don’t believe it’s Marvel’s responsibility to develop drawing and writing potential any more than it’s a film studio’s responsibility to develop acting or directing potential. A film studio’s responsibility is to make good pictures, the kind the audience wants to see. To do those things, both industries need professional caliber talent. It is the responsibility of those individuals with potential, be it drawing, writing, acting, or directing, to develop that potential into professional-level skills and abilities. The world owes nobody a living in the field of their choosing – you owe it to the world to develop your potential in some area so you can make an achievement in the field of your choosing. I believe this strongly.

Now then, onto the matter at hand. Every other column for the past few months, I’ve been working with one Jean-Jacques Dzialowski on his plot submissions. As I’ve pointed out before, this is a most unusual circumstance, a luxury that few if any other writers in Jean-Jacques’ position are afforded (Jean-Jacques was chosen at random), and I primarily do it so you might see how an editorial mind might examine a submission. This time out, we have a third plot for our perusal. The text for the five pager follows in bold face, after which I’ll be back in non-bold face to give my critique. Take it away Jean-Jacques…

Plot for 5 pages featuring SPIDER-MAN “Smashing Party”

“Que desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum”
“Let him who desires peace prepare for war”
VEGETIUS, De Re Militari.

1.Horizontal panel across the top of the page representing the world-famous Avenue des Champs-Elysées indicates that the action is taking place in Paris, France. A second horizontal panel focusing on the America Embassy located behind the aforementioned Avenue, next to the Place de la Concorde, makes it clear that the drama will actually unfold inside the walls of the four-storied mansion, which is being hastily surrounded by the police force.

We should see the police guards scurrying around while a C.R.S. Commando (short for Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité, the Républican Troops in charge of Public Sécurity, France’s counter-terrorist unit) are plotting their assault on the embassy, which have been invaded by six men belonging to the terrorist organization known as the Underground Liberated Totally Integrated Mobile Army To Unite Mankind-ULTIMATIUM. As far as is known, their leader is apparently the American criminal former Frightful Four member Peter Petruski, better known as the Trapster. A large number of people, diplomats and others, are being held hostage and the event, which occurs at the end of a sunny morning, has attracted the people from the Press and Television.

The rest of the page is a big powerful establishing shot of Spider-Man holding onto a webline and kicking the Trapster in the face. It should be done in such a way as to have a front view of both the characters’ costumes to immediately introduce their outlooks and specific features, consequently defining who is who. This takes place in a large room inside the embassy.

2. Spider-Man lands safely between the hostages (who keep back at the far end of the room) and the Trapster, now lying down helplessly (back to Spidey), who is astounded to find the wall-crawler in Paris. Close in on the Trapster’s grimacing face as he remembers that after his defeat at the hands of the web-spinner a while back, he decided to leave the United States because he thought the place was crowded with too many so-called super heroes for his comfort. He retreated to Paris where he thought he could easily gain money without any hero barring the way and thus make up for all his past defeats.

But it seems that the web-slinger keeps coming back to haunt him. The Trapster, on the brink of insanity, turns back and tries to paste up Spidey with this right wrist shooter. Easily dodging the blast thanks to his danger-warning Spider-sense and superhuman reflexes, Spidey uses his web-shooters to clog his opponent’s blasters and punches him out for the count.

As Spidey goes to free the hostages, he suddenly turns his head toward us as his spider-sense starts tingling. We should see behind him the hostages’ faces, on which one can see relief turning into initial fear.

3. The real mastermind behind this daring action is now revealing himself: The Flag-Smasher, accompanied by three ULTIMATUM members, points a machine-gun at the hostages and threatens to kill one of them if Spidey does not surrender immediately. The latter, as the responsible man he is, has no choice than comply with the Smasher’s order. Two ULTIMATUM guards hold Spidey in check, pointing their machine guns at him while the third one points his at the hostages to discourage any attempt by Spider-Man to go against the Smasher’s will. Close in on the Smasher’s face as he explains to Spidey his intention to reach world peace and unity through revolutionary violence.

But his goal cannot be achieved without money, which Smasher is precisely lacking now, having spent all his father’s inheritance to finance and improve his vast organization (unknowingly on behalf of the Red Skull, who truly masterminded ULTIMATUM) over its few years of existence. As a consequence of his repeated failures, the parties which originally supplied him with his weaponry arsenal refused to lend him the money necessary to prepare for a grand coup détat that would make up for the errors of the past.

Anyway, Smasher, devised a cunning scheme to get the money he needed while carrying out his grand coup at the same time, Resorting to insider help, he invaded the embassy to hold the diplomats hostage and ask a large amount of money for their liberation. Getting it, he and his group would go innocently out (without their outfits) passing as the first freed hostages while someone would stay inside to make the police believe the terrorists to be still in the place. Someone foolish enough to accept the role. The Trapster would be that person, the colorful figure one easily take for leader.

Just like Smasher, Trapster was defeated by the American Sentinel of Liberty, Captain America. (This is why Smasher chose to attack the embassy of his former opponent’s country.)

Smasher would use the unsuspecting Trapster as bait, leaving him to his fate while he and his group (among which is a woman who would simulate pregnancy as a means to get the money secretly out) would safely get out. Also, in one same stroke, Smasher would rob all the top-secret papers he would find, to dismantle or cripple international intelligence services. Finally, upon leaving, they would detonate a time bomb to destroy the embassy.

This guy’s a real nutcase! Spidey thinks, knowing only a small part of the whole stratagem. It wasn’t exactly the idea of enjoying my stay in Paris I had in mind! Spidey briefly recaps that Peter Parker, his alter-ego, was sent to the French Captial City to take photographs for the Daily Bugle, the Newspaper for which he is working as a freelance photographer in New York. I’ll decide your fate later, Smasher says. Suddenly, all the lights in the room are turned off. One guard goes to investigate. (Consequently, a single guard is now keeping Spidey under surveillance.)

4. As Bruce Springsteen would say, let’s go dancing in the dark, Spidey thinks. Getting rid of his watchdog, he jumps on the ceiling.

As the lights gradually come back, one can see two figures emerging out of darkness.

Holding his smoking stun-gun in his left hand, the mercenary known as the Paladin, makes a well-timed entrance, dragging behind him the (gun-stunned) guard who kept an eye on the hostages.

The infrared lenses contained in his helmet enabled him to make his way into the darkness into which he plunged the room seconds ago. Close in on the Paladin’s face as he coldly watches the Smasher standing before him.

Possessing super-strength, Paladin easily throws the guard on the Smasher who falls down, having no time to dodge the body.

While Smasher is momentarily incapacitated, Spidey leads the hostages out of the room as Paladin tells him that all the rest of the terrorist group has been put out of combat. At that moment, the Trapster comes around and succeeds in entrapping Spidey, who heeds the warning of his spider-sense too late, being busy with the hostages, who show a clean pair of heels. A thick paste ring is crushing Spidey’s body.

5. Paladin’s superhuman reaction time enables him to stun-gun the Trapster while handling the attack of the Smasher and his spiked mace, though losing the gun the process. They turn to hand-to-hand combat (Paladin is highly proficient in unarmed combat and gymnastics, while Smasher is a master of karate), till the Smasher grabs Paladin’s gun to fire it, in vain, for the gun is equipped with a secret safety-catch, so that only Paladin can operate it.

While throwing it at Paladin, Smasher uses his tear gas gun on him.

Paladin activates a belt-control to slide down his face plate, making his helmet airtight. Go closer and closer on Spidey as he struggles to break the solid paste, and succeeds. Leaping near Smasher, he punches him with a blow that sends Smasher crashing in the far end of the room, totally knocked out, thus marking the end of the battle.

We then find the two heroes outside the embassy, as they leave the bad guys under the French Police’s custody. Paladin finally says that he was hired by an unrevealed party to apprehend the Smasher. In order to do so, he infiltrated Smasher’s small terrorist unit and went with them into the embassy.

As they stand ready to go their separate ways, Paladin says his mission here is completed, that there are still other matters to take care of. He smiles and adds I love it so when a plan comes together!

“Peace hath her victories no less renowned than war.”
John Milton, To Cromwell

I’m back. Take a bow, Jean-Jacques…this is your best effort yet. I had no problem with your characterizations or motivations of Spider-Man, Paladin, Trapster, or the Flag-Smasher (a character near and dear to my heart, since he’s one of my babies). Furthermore, your story structure was pretty straightforward and free of any superfluous elements.

The only real problem with it is this: you’ve got too much story for five pages. To get all your story into five pages, an artist would probably have to resort to ten-panel pages or leave a lot out. As a matter of fact folks, Jean-Jacques sent in pencil samples of this self-same plot to demonstrate his penciling prowess and to fit it in himself he had to use 8 to 13 panel pages. This is way too crowded, pal. The penciler half of you would curse the writer half for making you have to do so much work just to fit all the stuff in; the writer half of you would curse the artist half for leaving you absolutely no room to write copy (word balloons and captions). I’m tempted to just say “Okay, you can have two more pages to give the plot some breathing room,” but since your assignment was to fit a 5-page slot, to give you special dispensation like that would be counterproductive. Professionals do their work according to the specifications provided by their editor, and aspiring professionals should learn to do likewise.

So you have to cut something from the story to give it elbow room. But what? Let’s see if it’s possible to simplify the plot itself. What you have in a nutshell is this: A hostage situation at an embassy apparently instigated by the Trapster, Spider-Man intervenes, nails the Trapster but gets captured by the true instigator, Flag-Smasher, is rescued by Paladin, the two of them resolve the hostage situation by smashing Flag-Smasher. Even boiled down like this it sounds like a lot for 5 pages. Know why? You’ve got four major story characters (two protagonists, two antagonists) to deal with in a mere 5 pages. That’s a page and a change apiece. That alone is not impossible to deal with. The latest 5-pager I did for CAPTAIN AMERICA has three protagonists and three antagonists – six in 5 pages. What I didn’t have that your story had to contend with is separate introduction scenes for two of the four characters, In my three-on-three tussle, we were introduced to the three antagonists and two protagonists in the first few panels, and a third protagonist merits a separate introductory passage a page or so later. In yours, a protagonist (Spider-Man) and antagonist (Trapster) are introduced in the first few panels, but it takes two separate scenes, full of exposition, to introduce the remaining two characters. That may be a bit more exposition than a 5-pager can bear.

What I would do to decongest the story then is dump somebody, one of the characters. My suggestion would be one of the protagonists (Spider-Man or Paladin) because 1) If the villains outnumber the heroes, it makes the hero’s struggle to win seem a bit more heroic, and 2) You tease the reader with something you resolve with a bit of a cheat. When Spider-Man is thrown in with the hostages, I think “Uh-oh, Spidey’s in bad trouble. How the heck is he going to get out of this one?” The answer to that question the reader in me posed to you was: He doesn’t. He doesn’t get out using any of his wits or powers. He’s rescued – by someone we didn’t even know was in the story until the point at which he was needed to rescue Spider-Man from a situation apparently he could not have gotten out of himself. It’s a bit of a cheat to set up an interesting situation which causes the reader to try to figure out how he’d get out of it were he Spider-Man then rob the reader of seeing how closely his solution matched the one Spider-Man uses by having someone come in out of the blue and rescue Spider-Man. So am I saying, kick Paladin out of there, and let’s see Spider-Man resolve the whole situation on his own? You could, or you could kick Spider-Man out and let’s see Paladin, a guy with less power than Spider-Man, do the same. Either way, we’d have a lot more challenging story and one that might fit into 5 pages more easily.

So, Jean-Jacques, take another pass through “Smashing Party” and eliminate one of the protagonists (your choice) and resubmit for my next critique. Hey, we’ll get onto the next phase, the penciling stage, yet! And to whet all your appetites, illustrating this column is work by aspiring artist, Gerald Teon Walker, the guy we’ve randomly chosen to illustrate Jean-Jacques tale once we whip it into drawable shape. Some nice looking stuff, Gerald, but we’ve yet to see how you can tell a story. You’ll get your turn, pal.

–Mark Gruenwald