Remember the TV series, “Mission Impossible?” Remember how it opened with the leader receiving a secret recording which said something like, “Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to rescue a kidnapped dinosaur who’s trapped in a flying saucer hidden in a locked dungeon within the belly of the Sphinx.” Or some such.
Well, I feel like part of that show whenever I get my monthly missive from Steve Saffel. “Your Soapbox topic, should you choose to accept it, is to tell how it was to write most of Marvel’s lineup years ago, while striving to maintain the quality.”
Of course, I could answer very simply and truthfully in just three words, and then take the rest of the day off. “It was tough!” But, I fear eagle-eyed Steve might notice that it wouldn’t be enough to fill this page.
I’ll start by letting you in on a little secret. It’s common knowledge that Marvel was the first comic book company to feature continued stories. Readers gave us credit for being fearless enough to take chances with such a radical innovation.
Now here’s where the secret part comes in. Continued stories had nothing to do with courage. They were just a necessary short cut for me. As you can imagine, every time you write a new story, you have to come up with a new plot, a new villain and a new set of circumstances to grab the reader,. Pretend you’re me back there in the sixties, having to write about a dozen mags a month, including SPIDER-MAN, FANTASTIC FOUR, X-MEN, THOR, DR. STRANGE, THE HULK, IRON MAN, SILVER SURFER, AVENGERS, DAREDEVIL, NICK FURY, etc. Each story needed a new plot. That meant a new villain and all the rest of that jazz. If you’ve ever tried your hand at writing, you know how long it takes to come up with a good plot. Just suppose you had to invent a dozen each month! It would hardly leave you the time to write the stories themselves.
That’s where the short cut comes in. I saved a ton of time by taking one plot and stretching it over many issues. Instead of spending so much time making up different plots, I could be spending that time completing the stories. It was one of the ways that made it possible to keep juggling so many script-balls in the air, if you’ll excuse the horribly mangled metaphor.
Of course, what started out as a time-saving device turned out to be a good idea, quality-wise. We found that the continued stories, being longer, gave us more room for character development, and the addition of sub-plots helped round out the stories so they read more like mini-motion pictures.
Another time-saving device was the practice of discussing the plot with the artist, then letting him “break it down” any way he wished. Allowing the artist to determine what he would draw in each panel, rather than telling him what to draw in a detailed script, also saved a lot of time. Even more important, the artists were able to do what they did best with no interference from the writer. So once again, it was not only a great time saver, but it gave us strips that were a perfect blending of story and art, which is what a comic-strip is ideally meant to be.
The third and most important time saver was the fact that I was the editor as well as the writer. Since I’ve always been a big fan of mine, I loved everything I wrote so I never had to waste time telling myself to change it! (Only kidding, of course, but hey! – maybe there’s more truth to that than I suspect!)
Now that you know all my secrets, I hope you won’t spill the beans to our competitors! Though, if you do, I can always console myself with the thought that “Exceptio probat regulam!”