When I was young and I first realized that one guy -Stan Lee- was writing seven or eight comic books every month, I was staggered. Who in the world could think up that many stories so quickly and regularly-- two a week! I'd been writing and drawing my own comics since I could hold a crayon, and I was hard-put to come up with even one story every two months. For practice, I'd sometimes try to think up two stories a week, even if I didn't have a chance to work them all out, and whew! did they stink. I know now some of the "secrets" behind Stan's productivity, but I'm not about to reveal it here -Stan has his own column on page 15- ask him. And I myself am more prolific than some of my writing compatriots, doing two books a month in addition to my "day job". (I sometimes wonder if I'd have the ability to write four books a month if I gave up my day job as executive editor- I'm not anxious to find out.) Anyway, for me, ideas for stories came into my head as they are needed, and they are needed to the tune of two a month (actually three since I'm doing a back-up feature in one of the books I write).
Every once in a while, usually when it's late and I'm up against a deadline and can't afford any "down time", I start questioning the value and meaning of my work. Are my ideas really any good or am I fooling myself? What are my stories saying? Anything? Is writing comics truly a worthwhile pursuit for a grown man? Am I ever going to write anything groundbreaking or am I doomed to tread water in the mainstream till the end of my career? Heavy stuff to lay on one's self, huh? But if one doesn't examine one's own lifework now and then, why should anyone else ever bother to?
Whenever I sit down to write a story, it is my foremost intent that the story I'm about to write will be different from any other story I've written and any other comic story I've read. I've only written some 200 comics but I must have read 200,000 by now (someone please check my calculations- I could be off by a 0). While it's been said that there are maybe only seven different plots in all of literature (someone again check my calculations), there are probably fewer than that in comics literature. I mean, aren't they all some variation on "Hero meets villain, hero fights villain, hero beats villain"? So what I mean by a "different" story is one where there's something novel about it, something that's never been seen in the context of the book I'm writing. Just as an example, I recently had Captain America's long time sparring partner Batroc the Leaper, risk his own neck to help Cap out of a predicament with a hungry shark. That bit made the story for me; I prided myself on that little tidbit of originality. But how original is it? In all the annals of comic literature, has a villain ever helped a hero before? Well, yes. Has any villain ever helped Cap before? Probably, though I can't recall who. Has Batroc ever shown his admiration for his old enemy like this? Nope and that's why I consider this bit and the story woven around it "different" from every other comic I've read. You can see by this example that when striving for something new and different in every story, one must settle for small newnesses and differences.
I try to do other things in my stories besides just making them different. I'm something of a structuralist. I try as much as possible to make all the parts of a given story have some connection to the whole. This, as you know, is not a concern of most comic writers, who have no compunctions about inserting sub-plot sequences that have absolutely no connection to the story in which they're embedded. A structuralist has a hard time putting in these foreshadowings of future storylines that have no payoff in the present. So whenever I construct a story with no structural defects, I feel like I've accomplished something. It's something I do just for me and my sense of craftsmanship. To judge by the fact that I've never received a single fan letter complimenting me on my story structure, I'd say that it's something my readers are not in the least concerned with.
There are other things I try for every time I set out to do a story that I do hope my readers notice and respond to. Namely, I hope that every story I do will have something in it to make the reader laugh, cry, become excited, pique his/her curiosity, be a positive human experience, or affect him/her in some way or another. I believe that much of what passes for entertainment is just contentless, emotionless, souless pablum. I don't think all entertainment has to be profound (I know my stories aren't), but I expect my entertainment to have something in it so it's something more than a complete waste of time.
Writers (and artists) who don't care about the content and quality of their work are called hacks. I desperately do not want to be thought of as a hack, but in my darker hours I wonder if it's possible to become a hack without even knowing it. You think you care about your work either as much as you used to or as much as the job warrants it, but you're only deluing yourself! Here's my rationale: I must care about my work because if I didn't care I'd find a way to make producing it less painful, less stressful, less work. But what if the pain, stress, and hard work of coming up with a story is simply just the only way I know how to go about it? What if these are not idicators of my striving for "quality", but are just plain old ineptitudes? Or what if the pain, stress, and hard work I go through for every story is just not enough and I only think it is? What if the great writers go through a whole lot more of that than I do, and I'm actually just doing the amount that average hacks go through?
I have never set out to write a bad story but if you produce stories on a regular basis, some fall way short of one's personal standards. Was it that the initial idea was less than great? Sometimes. You think you've got a good kernel of an idea to construct a story around, but when you actually work it out, it turns out not to be all that hot. Frequently there's no time to scrap it altogether- particuarly if the meagerness of your initial idea doesn't strike you until say part three of a three-part story. Other times, the initial idea is sound, but you just lack of the time or ability or insight to work it out as well as it could have been worked out.
So here I am toiling away for over ten years now producing comic book tales, trying to make well structured, impactful stories with original flourishes, and telling myself I'm not a hack. So are my efforts worthwhile? Am I producing anything of lasting value? I sure hope so. I get a letter now and then from someone who's been hit where they live by something I've done, but I don't get them that often. Have I ever written something classic, a masterpiece of the medium? No, not yet. Have I at least done some stories that have come closer to expressing what I wanted to say about life, heroism, the human condition? At times I feel I have (write me for a free list). Sometimes I wonder if I'm capable of greatness as greatness is defined in terms of our humble medium, the illustrated sequential image with minimal prose storyform. I fear I'm not. But if I ever became dead certain that I'm incapable of greatness, I'd have to quit writing comics then and there. I make myself go on because I think somewhere in me is something good, maybe great, trying to get itself expressed.
So, he said, trying to end this depressing diatribe on an upbeat note, I'm going to keep on writing comics until I finally get it right, and maybe even a little after, to make sure that the first time I got it right wasn't just a fluke. Thanks for letting me share this dark look into one writer's soul with you. I guess writing comics is not all fun and games, huh?
-- Mark Gruenwald