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Were old school comic writers paid by the word? Why were they so wordy?

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  • Were old school comic writers paid by the word? Why were they so wordy?

    Whenever I go back and read classic comics, I find the wordiness really off-putting. It really comes down to two things:

    1) they seem to use dialogue and captions to ensure the audience knows what's being depicted, even though their script is being drawn by the greatest comic book artists who ever lived and could most definitely convey someone getting punched in the face or jumping over a car. They will literally fill the panels with words describing the thing we can see happening just so their is no chance whatsoever that we don't know what's going on.

    2) they convey information that hasn't been drawn and might have been added as an afterthought for clarity. We've all seen these panels. Imagine Wolverine standing over a shredded robot and the caption says, "The X-Men return to their fabled jet, ready to return home. The Hulk is already gone, leaping into the air with his mighty legs. They must all grapple with the way this dread decision will sit on their consciences!"

    I always assumed it was just a stylistic choice as the comic book form evolved, but someone recently told me the original comic book writers were paid by the word (a convention carried over from pulp fiction). Is that true? I can't find any articles confirming this. Smitty ? You'd probably know all about this. Also, do you have any opinions about how they never seemed to trust the greatest artists in comic book history to tell the story without words? That is one thing I really love about modern comics.

  • #2
    Had they paid writers by the word, they'd have paid artists by the line. Creators were paid by the page or the job.

    You haven’t defined “classic” comics so I don’t know to which ones you’re referring. My best stab would be full script vs Marvel Method (in the hands of a true storyteller. In the hands of a non-storyteller it’s disaster). Full scripts are digital. Disparate, unconnected, bits of information that have nothing to do with one another other than appearing on the same page. Marvel Method is analog. A continuous, uninterrupted, flow of information. The story in a full script is in the words like radio. The story in Marvel Method is in the art like a silent movie.

    Why would editors hamstring the artist? Most editors were writers. They understood words. Visual storytelling not so much. DC explained you to death, you never got to experience anything. Marvel dropped you at ground zero and pulled the pin. The story HAPPENED to you. You didn't need it explained because you lived it.

    There’s an analogy that comics are the telling of stories about the tribal fire. I guarantee you, not once in the history of mankind has any tribal elder stood before the fire and started a story with the immortal words, “Page one, panel one, three-quarter downshot, exterior view.” EC was the most egregious example of full script. Artists weren’t given scripts, they were given art boards pre-lettered and pre-bordered in ink and were left to fill-in-the-blanks with drawings. When Bernie Krigstein received “Master Race” in that format he cut out the text, threw out the pre bordered pages, reformatted the story from 6 pages to 8, cut up and pasted text to fit and delivered what is widely considered the finest story in EC history.

    On the other hand, Len Wein was once approached by a fan about a particular two-part story. The fan felt the first part had Len’s best writing while the second had his worst. What happened? Having written so many stories, Len couldn’t call this one to mind, he had to go home and look it up. What he found was that the first part was drawn by some young punk du jour. The pages were beautiful but 100% story free. Len had to write a virtual novel to make sense of it. The other part was drawn by Steve Ditko. Because the story was all in the art, Len only wrote what was necessary which was right next door to nothing at all.
    PaulMartinSmith

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    • #3
      Not a helpful comment, but at least some of the worder 70s comics took more than 5 mins to read.
      i personally hate paying my money on any book that i can flip through in 5 mins.
      at least the old savage sword of conan, punishers etc had some content.

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      • #4
        Are you talking about the actual pages, like how over descriptive and wordy Stan Lee was? ​(Ditko art)
        Or are you talking Chris Claremont's love for dialogue on his X-men run? (Silvestri art)
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        • #5
          I always found that Chris Claremont approched X-Men as if it was a novel, and used dialogue to convey a lot of characterization that went beyond the art. I would take one of his comics over the ones with less dialogue any day of the week.
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          • #6
            The Ditko one is great. Imagine the same panels without the narrative text - the first three as drawn would be pretty timid. You wouldn't know that the "Spider signal" was an awesome beam, shining through the darkness. It's not drawn very "shining" and there's not a lot of darkness. It's a cool panel and it works just fine for me - but it needs the text to be dramatic. That sort of writing sets the mood, it's not over descriptive. I miss comics like this. Not prize-winning prose, but classic adventure type stuff.

            The dialogue in both examples is less than striking - both seem very dated and could be spoken by pretty much anyone. But imagine no dialogue in the Claremont/Silvestri page... I'd have no idea what was going on in the first three panels. To me, most comics need pictures and words.

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            • #7
              Originally posted by Smitty View Post
              Had they paid writers by the word, they'd have paid artists by the line. Creators were paid by the page or the job.

              You haven’t defined “classic” comics so I don’t know to which ones you’re referring. My best stab would be full script vs Marvel Method (in the hands of a true storyteller. In the hands of a non-storyteller it’s disaster). Full scripts are digital. Disparate, unconnected, bits of information that have nothing to do with one another other than appearing on the same page. Marvel Method is analog. A continuous, uninterrupted, flow of information. The story in a full script is in the words like radio. The story in Marvel Method is in the art like a silent movie.

              Why would editors hamstring the artist? Most editors were writers. They understood words. Visual storytelling not so much. DC explained you to death, you never got to experience anything. Marvel dropped you at ground zero and pulled the pin. The story HAPPENED to you. You didn't need it explained because you lived it.

              There’s an analogy that comics are the telling of stories about the tribal fire. I guarantee you, not once in the history of mankind has any tribal elder stood before the fire and started a story with the immortal words, “Page one, panel one, three-quarter downshot, exterior view.” EC was the most egregious example of full script. Artists weren’t given scripts, they were given art boards pre-lettered and pre-bordered in ink and were left to fill-in-the-blanks with drawings. When Bernie Krigstein received “Master Race” in that format he cut out the text, threw out the pre bordered pages, reformatted the story from 6 pages to 8, cut up and pasted text to fit and delivered what is widely considered the finest story in EC history.

              On the other hand, Len Wein was once approached by a fan about a particular two-part story. The fan felt the first part had Len’s best writing while the second had his worst. What happened? Having written so many stories, Len couldn’t call this one to mind, he had to go home and look it up. What he found was that the first part was drawn by some young punk du jour. The pages were beautiful but 100% story free. Len had to write a virtual novel to make sense of it. The other part was drawn by Steve Ditko. Because the story was all in the art, Len only wrote what was necessary which was right next door to nothing at all.
              Thank you! That answers a lot of my questions. That Len Wein story is hilarious, but it makes sense that proper visual storytelling would eliminate the need for descriptive text.

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              • #8
                Originally posted by amadarwin View Post
                Are you talking about the actual pages, like how over descriptive and wordy Stan Lee was? ​(Ditko art)
                Or are you talking Chris Claremont's love for dialogue on his X-men run? (Silvestri art)
                I meant the Stan Lee / Steve Ditko style, thought I'm also unhappy with the Claremont page for other reasons. (It pulls me out of the story to see characters in battle exchanging dialogue like they're having tea. IMO, it should be loud, chaotic, with characters unable to hear each other, and any communication that actually lands has to be short, loud, high-adrenaline shouting.)

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by shaw View Post
                  The Ditko one is great. Imagine the same panels without the narrative text - the first three as drawn would be pretty timid. You wouldn't know that the "Spider signal" was an awesome beam, shining through the darkness. It's not drawn very "shining" and there's not a lot of darkness. It's a cool panel and it works just fine for me - but it needs the text to be dramatic. That sort of writing sets the mood, it's not over descriptive. I miss comics like this. Not prize-winning prose, but classic adventure type stuff.

                  The dialogue in both examples is less than striking - both seem very dated and could be spoken by pretty much anyone. But imagine no dialogue in the Claremont/Silvestri page... I'd have no idea what was going on in the first three panels. To me, most comics need pictures and words.
                  This is an example of how people can completely disagree, I guess. I really dislike the narrative text and would rather they use a few panels to show the hoods blinded by a bright light like you would see in modern comics, but the story is so narratively compressed there is absolutely no room for the art to convey atmosphere or tension. What a waste of a great artist, but I guess that's how comics were made back then.

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