I'm making this up as I go along. A few months back I described to you in painful detail what it's like to be a freelance writer who does two regular monthly books for Marvel as well as hold down a day job as an editor. In other words, what it's like to be me. This time out I'm going to take you step by step, inch by inch, through an actual comic I'm plotting, so you might see one writer's way to coax a comic book story into existence.
A note before we begin. I've tried to avoid using this column as a hype box for my freelance projects-that strikes me as a conflict of interests-but it is going to be darn near impossible to talk concretely about how I work on a given story without plugging that story in virtually every sentence. I beg your indulgence. I won't do this often.
Okay, the comic I'm currently plotting is QUASAR #11. On a new book like QUASAR, I tend to map out in advance a rough idea of the book's direction-a rough timetable of what I what to accomplish and by when. On a book I've been working on for a long time, like CAPTAIN AMERICA (yikes -a second book plugged!), my directional outline is a lot looser. Unless I have certain landmarks locked in to plot around-such as extra-length anniversary issues, bi-weekly series-within-a-series, or crossovers-I keep the direction real loose and flexible to accommodate whatever character and plot tangents that may occur to me and my artist as we go along. But a new book has to be mapped out, I feel, so you can get its groundwork laid solidly.
With QUASAR, I worked out a rough outline of what has to be accomplished within the series' first year, and while I was at it, an even rougher outline of what the groundwork of the first year would develop into in the second year. This doesn't mean I know which villains Quaze is going to fight issue by issue up till issue #24 (though I do have a rough idea), but I do know the basic developments in store for his personal and professional life. Issue #11, the story at hand, is almost at the end of Quay's first year, the year that establishes everything you need to know about his status quo: his origin, his powers and how they work, how he makes a living, who his friends are, what his mission is, how he goes about his mission (modus operandi, for all you latin buffs), and so on.
So to cold start my mental gears, I consult my Overview, which I'm constantly revising and updating, and see that I slated to accomplish two things this ish: introduce two members of the supporting cast, one in his civilian professional life, one in his super-heroic life, and get closer to wrapplng up his first year mission: surveying all the extraterrestrials currently on Earth. How I came up with the two cast additions is a long process that took place months back, but my reasoning, in a nutshell, was this. For his professional life, I wanted to introduce another woman into the book, one whose assertive no-frills personality would contrast with his secretary Kayla Balantine's trend-following, Cosmo-girl approach to life. I also wanted Q to have a super-powered buddy with a personality that would play off his, someone with a lighter outlook on life than his. After examining numerous candidates (including some concoctions of my own), I chose Makkari the Eternal. I had verbally foreshadowed the new female's arrival last issue. Mak the Ete would be coming onstage cold.
The other thing I planned to do was to have Quaze check out at least one of the extraterrestrials on Earth he hasn't gotten to yet. According to my list, the Blood Brothers, Tamara, Phoenix, and possibly Comet Man (if he's still here) are unaccounted for.
You'll notice I don't know who Q is going to fight yet this issue. I've had him go up against some of the more belligerent e.t.'s he's checked out in past issues. I've also had him fight persons who have nothing to do with his mission on Earth (to secure the planet against some unknown cosmic evil that will first threaten his mentor Eon) for variety's sake. I'm a firm believer in variety-in not pitting my hero against the same kind of opponent two issues in a row. When I started the book, I began a list of potential vlllains he could fight broken down by type: altered humans, aliens, omnipotents, scientists, monsters, etc. Besides keeping track of all these distinctions, I try to rotate in an all-new villain every thlrd issue or so, and try to throw in an occasional female villain for variety's sake as well. Last issue, I featured three villains: all three aliens, two "old" (appeared before) females, one all-new male. It's definitely time for a non-alien opponent, probably male, possibly a veteran.
Consulting my villains list, I come up with three possible candidates, a new Basilisk, Tutinax the Deviant, and Modred the Mystic. I eliminate the Basilisk because his origin involves a Kree power-object and I just used a different one of them last issue. I then eliminate Tutinax, because it's too predictable to have an Eternals villain in the first issue that introduces an Eternals supporting character. That leaves Modred. One of the things I'd hoped to establish in Quasar's first twelve issues is the limitations to his quantum-bands' power. I've shown that he has no control over energy outside the conventional electromagnetic spectrum, but I haven't addressed the notion of magic yet. Modred would certainly allow for that. Okay, next step, figure out what set of circumstances would put Mody and Quaze at odds. The obvious thing would be to have Mody want Quaze's power-bands, but I just had somebody after them the last two issues, and it's time for something different. Hmmm, I'm stumped. Time to ask my editor, Howard Mackie, for acivice.
I run the problem by him the next day, and while he doesn't actually hand me the solution gift-wrapped, the discussion yields fruit. Always thinking to hedge a new book's bets commercially, he advises me to go for a high-profile guest star. I think about it, mentally listing who I've already used, and try to figure out who fits logically into the book's premise. I come up with Phoenix from EXCALIBUR. She's currently the host of an alien power-organism, and thus on my Aliens on Earth list. Furthermore, she gives me my Modred solution. How? Well, in Modred's last appearance five years back, he went up against Captain America and Captain Britain. Cap Brit is Phoenix's teammate in Excalibur. What if . . . to get back at Cap Brit, Modred finds a way to use Phoenix? Howard likes the solution, and I quickly secure permission from EXCALIBUR editor Terry Kavanagh to use Phoenix.
Okay, I've got my springboard to the story. Now to start working it out scene by scene, page by page. I like to start at the beginning. I often skip around, writing other scenes out of order, but I try to nail down my opening first. When I first thought of introducing Makkari, I had an idea of how he and Q would meet. Though it wouldn't have a lot to do with the story that follows, it might make for a reasonably exciting opening. And for all I know, I can make it thematically relevant. If not, well, who expects perfection in a monthly comic? Okay, what next? A secret identity interlude or introduce the villain? I choose the villain, structuring the scene so it introduces Excalibur at the same time. Whenever a scene can serve double duty-huzzah!
Time for his civilian life sequence. As quickly as possible, I introduce H.D. Steckley, the woman who wants to join his firm, establish her haughty self-assuredness, and set up her situation to be resolved next month. I then move Quasar into his office to check on his alien supporting character and mentor, Eon the cosmic couch potato. Critics of super hero comics often complain that stories are formulaic, that a hack writer takes items from Columns A, B, C, and D, jams them together in a typical set-up/build-up/pay-off fashion, and produces the derivative story of the month. Well, this may be the case for some writers, but for me it's a matter of selecting elements that I feel a satisfying story about Quasar should have and juggling them about for maximum possible dramatic impact. If I could ever figure out this magic formula writers allegedly use, boy, would it make my monthly struggle easier. Not that I'd use it as a template for putting stories together, but as a jumping off point to do something unexpected at each predictable story point. But I digress.
I put in an Eon scene because he's got a big part to play in defining what Quasar is, he's an interesting character and visual-a supporting cast member like no other book has, and also so I can develop his relationship with Q a tad further. I also decide to make this sequence end with Quasar getting the piece of information that something strange is going on with Phoenix, which will propel us into the next scene. Uh, another digression here. I like to structure every scene in a story to end on some intriguing note, whether it's an exclamation point or a question mark, making the reader want to read on to see what's going on. I hate scenes that don't pay off-that lie there with all the interest of a gum wrapper on a sidewalk.
So I cut to Phoenix on a rampage, trying to shake Modred's mental/magical control over her. This will serve to establish that she doesn't take mind control lying down and give some indication of her power level. I stop to reread Phoenix's MARVEL UNIVERSE entry and scan her major appearances in X-MEN to get a better handle on her power. At the end of the sequence, I have her now enthralled by Modred and forced to join her power with his in order to bring him to Earth from the dimensional plane upon which he was last seen trapped. It feels like enough time has elapsed to have Quasar show up. He does and when Modred senses that Q is there to oppose them, he sends her into a one-on-one battle with him. Aha-I have my cover scene.
Though Phoenix is potentially one of Earth's most powerful energy-manipulators, Quasar's ability to tap into any power source in the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes the cosmic energy she utilizes, enables him to hold his own against her. When it looks like Quasar may be on the verge of winning, I have Modred get involved, using his magic on the guy. Magic is definitely outside the electromagnetic spectrum so Quaze is totally helpless against it. Modred leaves him entangled in a spell that will slowly kill him.
Okay. I'm at a crossroads. Where should I go from here? Have Quasar get out of his trap? Check in on Excalibur? Or follow Modred to the next step in his villainous scheme? Wait, I haven't figured out what Modred's next step should be yet. Originally, I figured he'd want revenge on Captain Britain for his role in Mody's last defeat, but after reviewing CAP #306 again, I reason why would Modred concern himself with the "underling" of his enemy, when it is his enemy he really wants revenge upon? This enemy is Merlin, or at least one of the many entities in the Marvel mythos who've gone by that name. So how would he get back at Merlin himself? He tried coopting Captain Britain's identity last time and that didn't work. What could he have Phoenix do that he couldn't do on his own? I strike upon the idea that he'll now enlist Phoenix's aid to liberate his own master, the arch-demon Chthon, in the interest of pitting his master against Captain Britain's master, Merlin. All right . . .! So I send Mody and Phoenix to Europe where the dimensional doorway to Chthon's prison is. Now back to Quasar, who doesn't have much time left before he succumbs to Modred's magic. Ordinarily I believe that heroes should find their own ways to save themselves rather than have to be rescued by "the cavalry." But my editor recently told me that Quasar seems to be coping with his incredible responsibilities a bit too well so he'd like to me to emphasize Quasar's insecurities about his job. This fits in well with what I was trying to do: show that Quasar is out of his element dealing with magic. So I decide to have Excalibur show up to save him rather than having him extricate himself. As a bone to throw in the direction of self-reliance, I have Q working on a plan that just might have enabled him to free himself had Excalibur not intervened. After all that I have Quasar and Excalibur combine forces to defeat Modred in as clever a manner as I can muster, and I'm all out of room.
I wanted to get back to Makkari, but there's no space. I do end the story with Quasar out over the ocean, so at least I've managed to repeat the visual motif of water from the opening sequence.
After handing in the plot to my able-minded editor and his trusty assistant, they read it and tell me to condense the opening sequence since as I just mentioned it has no real bearing on the rest of the story. The space I save, they say, can better be used in the final fight sequence/resolution. Further, they've learned Kitty Pryde won't be in Excalibur at the time so I have to delete all references to her. As a professional writer, my motto is "No story's done till my editor likes it," so I went home that night and revised it according to my editor's suggestions. The revision takes barely an hour, and makes at least a ten per cent improvement in the story. (I'm not paid for revisions, of course-why should I get paid for not getting it right the first time?)
When I hand in the second draft, it gets past Howard's needle-sharp scrutiny. Ta-daa! Another plot down-time to think about the next one.
You'll notice I didn't know exactly what the ending was when I sat down to begin. I worked toward it, groping along in the dark. If I came up with something great that needed a setup earlier on, I would have gone back into the story and set up just that element. I didn't in this case, though. As you can see, working on a plot is in certain ways like putting together a big jigsaw puzzle, except you don't have anything more than a rough idea what the final picture will look like. One final jot of information about this particular story. I started it on Sunday, September 10, 1989, right after finishing the plot before, did the first six pages that day, and for various reasons didn't get a chance to work on it again till October 3 when I got midway through page 11. Then, due to being shanghaied to Germany and Wisconsin for the better part of the next three weeks, I didn't resume working on it until Saturday, November 4. At that point I finished the last 11 pages in two sessions, from 10 till 12 in the morning and from 10-12 at night. It is unusual for me to have such long work stoppages in the midst on a single story, but since it happened in the midst of this plot I have chosen to dissect, I figured I should let it be known for the record.
-- Mark Gruenwald