TCJ ARCHIVE

The Steve Gerber Interview

We hear catchphrases like “good storytelling” bandied about everywhere. Could you tell me exactly what good storytelling means?

Yeah, all right. Very simply, it’s the continuity and flow of action from panel to panel, page to page. No, wait — that’s just a definition of “storytelling.” Good storytelling would include the phrase “immediately apprehensible” in there someplace. If the artist has done his job really expertly, anyone should be able to get the gist of the story simply by looking at the unlettered pages — not necessarily the entire story, Lord knows, but the outline of the plot, at least.

I remember that in the Soofi/Anita Bryant satire [Howard #21], Soofi was throwing Howard into a washing machine. In the first panel, Soofi held Howard with her left hand, and in the second panel she threw him in with her right hand, the entire perspective changes before our eyes.

It’s crazier than that. The crown also disappears from Soofi’s head. I’m not positive about this, but I think the door on the washer opens two different ways. It’s weird. It looks like one of Mort Weisinger’s April Fool stories. That’s bad storytelling. Strangely, throughout the rest of that issue, Carmine [Infantino], who is generally a very good storyteller, did a very good job. The flow from panel to panel and page to page in that story is generally excellent — with the exception of that single page, and those come under the category of annoyances, not atrocities. I should have spotted them myself, and they should have been corrected by the inker at my instruction. I’m writing the stuff now from Xeroxes rather than from the original art — one less chance for something getting lost or delayed in the mail between New York and Los Angeles. Dependent upon how many books they have to get out of the office in a given day, whether the notes I make on the Xeroxes are ever carried out into action — art changes, coloring done the way I ask — it’s always unpredictable. Anyway, the Soofi would be one example of very obvious bad storytelling. Another kind would be an entire page, for example, consisting of long shots for no reason, or an entire page consisting of essentially the same medium shot of two characters, for no reason. These are mechanical things, they’re craft, and they have to be learned.

I was just looking at one of the Marvel classic adaptations the other day. I don’t remember which one it was, whether it was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court — it was some Mark Twain story. The cover copy was straight out of The Incredible Hulk or Thor — “Thou wilt not do this, varlet! So swears” — whoever it was — Huckleberry Finn. [Laughter.] That kind of thing appalls me. There are some stories comics are not suited to tell, because they seem ridiculous when reduced to the shorthand. Hamlet may be one. You certainly couldn’t tell it in Shakespeare’s terms, and I wouldn’t want to be the one who took on the task of editing Will to make him conform to Marvel’s house style.

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Fear the Soofi! Panel from Howard the Duck #21, ©1978 Marvel Comics Group.


 

I was involved in interviewing Denny O’Neil several years ago, and he said this about adapting classic works like Hamlet: “I think the combination of poetry, the spoken word and an actor’s resources measure up to more than the combination of word and pictures, which is all we’ve got to work with. Ditto movies.”

Ditto movies? What does he mean by that?

Let me quote a little more. “Ditto movies. I think movies are potentially the most complete art form, because they can combine an actor’s presence, an actor’s skill, a writer’s skill, painting, and music, and they can make a single entity of it. So, potentially, movies are the best art form ever until we maybe find a way to plug directly into somebody’s brain with telepathy and create experiences with no middleman at all.”

Whew. Again, I agree and disagree. The problem with movies and television — some of the same criticism applies to both — is that they do not require the participation on the part of the audience that a novel does, for example. Movies and television are a much more intimate form of storytelling. I think that’s true. But, as Gil [Kane] pointed out, you can’t turn back to a previous scene in a movie to check out the nuance as you can with a novel, or even a comic book, because there’s no way to turn back the “pages” of a movie to see what you missed, or if you missed anything, or reread a scene to savor it without going to see the entire film again. You’re at the mercy of the technology. So I think each one of those media has its own distinctive advantages and disadvantages. I tend to agree with Denny, though, that films and, potentially, television, are two of the most powerful that we have, and both of them are more powerful than comics. Although each has its own individual peculiarities.

There are certain things about the comics medium that will not change, that cannot change. However they’re arranged on the page, you’re still limited to words and pictures; in combination, hopefully; in harmony, hopefully. Or in interesting discord, for that matter. But movies — when you consider the size of the screen, the fact that the actors move and talk, the fact that you have a choice between color and black and white, an open-ended length, no enforced limitation on the amount of dialogue, the addition of music, sound and optical effects — movies are just much less limited than comics. It’s true. On the other hand, someone who has told a story in a comic book that has moved you, or pricked your brain, to the extent that a movie can, may have done a much more difficult job than the screenwriter’s, because of all the obstacles he has had to overcome.

When is a comic book not a comic book? Can you put too many words on a page?

No, no, I don’t want to think about it in those terms. There are no strict rules. There are too many words on a page when you can’t see what’s going on in the pictures. But that’s the only rule I would like to impose. The copy shouldn’t dominate the page, force the artwork into the background by its sheer weight.

When does it become an illustrated story? Take Chandler, for instance…

The thing that Steranko did?

Yeah. I think anyone would be hard-pressed to call it a comic book. The illustrations were juxtaposed with the copy.

I don’t think that’s a comic book. That is an illustrated story. It may have more illustrations that your typical story. It strikes me — and I’m going to get fried for this — as the B-movie, pulp equivalent of a Little Golden Book. A novel shouldn’t need pictures.

These forms may be interesting in and of themselves, they may be valid, but they’re not comics. They’re something else, whatever else they are. That’s not meant in a pejorative sense.

Do you think the comics form is capable of producing work on the same level as a novel or a film?

I can only say that I’ve never seen it attempted. It’s certainly not been done. But, wait, before we even say that — the term “novel” is rather all-encompassing. Robert E. Howard wrote novels. Unquestionably, to me, what Roy Thomas, John Buscema and Barry Smith have done with Conan is so far superior to the stuff that Howard turned out… so I suppose a certain kind of novel very definitely can be done in comics.

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The nation reacts to Howard’s run for president. Page from Howard the Duck #8, ©1976 Marvel Comics Group.


 

What about mainstream novels, or SF novels that contain the best aspects of mainstream literature?

I don’t know. I think comic books are most adaptable or amenable to the kind of story that relies very heavily on plot, and not on characters or inner dialogue — this despite the fact that I have been accused of ignoring plot entirely to concentrate on character on virtually every strip I’ve ever done. But there is no question that, because of the current format in comics, meaning the physical format, the amount of space for story and art in each issue, one element — plot or character — always suffers as a result of emphasis on the other. There is not time to linger over a character bit in a comic book. Although, ideally, the two elements should work together. They should not be in conflict. The definition of plot, in fact, is characters action; the interaction of character traits is the plot, and for that reason the two should never have to come into conflict. With comics they do because of the types story we have traditionally tried to tell — in which character traits are reduced to “good person” and “bad person,” hero and villain — or because of the emphasis on lat one editor used to call “density of incident” — a lot of things happening in as pages as possible.

Could you expand on the advantages of film over comics?

Given a company of really fine actors, an excellent screenplay, a good cameraman,, a good director, a cooperative studio head, and a lot of money, movies can virtually outdo comics at anything. Almost anything. Compare the Star Wars movie to the Star Wars comic book, just to take an extremely obvious example. The same sense of wonder is not and cannot be created in the comic book as in the film. In the film, you’re actually seeing it happen. It’s a well-known fact that an artist can draw anything. To see a man flying through the air in a comic book is no big deal any more. I would suspect that the effect of the same action on the screen, when they release theSuperman movie, if they’ve done it right, is going to be breathtaking. But flying has become almost a casual thing in comics. Hawkman, I think, failed for that reason. That’s all he did! He just flew around. On film, that character would probably scare the shit out of an audience. It’s an extremely powerful image. But you have to stretch the element of the fantastic to the point of absurdity before it really engages anyone’s imagination in a comic book.

I thought a very good example of that was Marvel’s Close Encounters adaptation, which lost so much in translation.

I haven’t looked at that closely. There are a lot of problems with it. The fact that the UFOs in the film were all done in lighting effects, basically — they were not solid objects — to try to convey that in a comic book panel is next to impossible. I think what Walt [Simonson] did with it is amazing under the circumstances. Also, none of the things that happened in the movie, in terms of comic books, are very fantastic at all.

Can you imagine what it would cost to construct Jack Kirby’s version of the Kree Empire for a movie set? Comics have already, in certain ways, so surpassed films in terms of sheer spectacle that a movie like Close Encounters becomes very dry, very dull reading on the comic-book page, a pallid imitation of what the comics themselves excel at.

It looks to me like comics may be moving out of the production ghetto they’ve been in with the slicker magazines from Marvel.

Yeah, but they’re making mistakes there, too. The idea of dropping the black-­and-white format and going to these color books is a very, very good one. But, unfortunately, again they’ve made the mistake of trying to concoct an instant line of books rather than to focus the necessary attention on one magazine. The one magazine could eventually be expanded upon, but the whole scattershot technique of comic book publishing and distribution have come into play again, and they’re not working on one magazine, but five. So we’re going to get the same old stuff again — there’s going to be a horror book, there’s going to be a Western, there’s going to be a science-fiction book, there’s going to be a barbarian book, there’s going to be a duck book, y’know… [Laughter.] My God, we’ve glutted the market already, and haven’t even got one book on the press!

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It all comes down to money. Page from Giant Size Man-Thing #4, ©1975 Marvel Comics Group.


 

What would you suggest?

I would suggest Marvel’s answer to Heavy Metal, a book that could contain all of those genres and sell for $1.50, and be able to maintain itself well enough by demanding high enough advertising revenue so that it could continue to print quality stuff, and a lot of it, without having to raise its cover price for a long, long time. A book that fairly reeks prestige, uniqueness.

None of the comics companies — and this astounds me, that they haven’t seen this to this day; we’re not talking about Marvel exclusively here, it’s all of them — none of the comics companies has ever been able to sustain itself on the strength of one publication. The reason for that is that none of the books has ever become a “class” advertising vehicle. National Lampoon has, Rolling Stone has, and Heavy Metal is well on its way. The can command more dollars for a page of advertising at this point in some cases that Marvel dares ask for a page in its entire four-color comics line — 40 publications, a readership of a couple million per month!

Maybe those advertisers don’t make enough money from their x-ray specs…?

That’s part of it. If Marvel or DC were able to charge $25,000 per page per book, each book would instantly become a gigantic moneymaker. The one problem has been — you used the term “ghetto” a moment ago, and I think it’s apropos — they’ve been a literary and commercial ghetto for a long time. The demographics on the books — sorry, we have to haul these in — indicate that they are not an advertiser’s route to his prime market. Both Heavy Metal and National Lampooncertainly are. So they get the Seiko ads, and we get Count Dante.

What you’re saying is that comic books don’t operate on the same principle that the entire magazine publishing industry does.

Only because it’s never been tried. Only because no attempt has ever been made to reach that audience. Only because they never believed it was possible until Heavy Metal and the Kiss magazine. What Marvel discovered with the Kiss book is that it is possible, even for them. We sold out damn near a half-million copies of that magazine. It was a virtual sell-out. The sales figures must be somewhere near 80 percent. It actually went back to press for a second printing after the initial quarter-million sold out. There has not been a sale on a comic book like that in recent history, and that’s including the so-called “phenomena” like Howard #1. Percentages of that kind have been non-existent in comics since the 1940s. Initially, no one at Marvel believed we could price a magazine — other than the tabloid size — at $1.50 and sell it. It was felt that comics had no business dealing with rock ‘n’ roll personalities. It was felt that the most efficient way to promote comic books was to advertise them in other comic books — house ads.

All of those theories were proven wrong by that Kiss book. There were a number of reasons why it succeeded: First and foremost, the fact that a group who sold seven or eight million records had its logo reproduced on the cover. In addition, we traded off for advertising space in three or four of the major rock magazines. Aucoin Management bought a full-page color ad in Circus magazine to promote the book. We did a lot of advance publicity on it. Kiss’s public relations people were turning out copy on it. The Bob Greene article, I suspect, helped. [Laughter.] In general, the product was marketed in an entirely different way from anything comics have ever done before. It is of interest to note that because of the Bob Greene article, not one ad for the Kiss magazine ever appeared in the Marvel line of color comics. They were so panicked and so afraid of what it would do to the “Marvel image” that they dropped the ads from the comics.

Who do you mean by “they”?

By “they,” I mean the powers-that-be, the editorial people, Stan, whoever was in the editor’s chair at that time, and I assume, Jim Galton, the president of Cadence Publishing. They thought it would reflect badly on Marvel. So this comic book sold with just one squib in the Bullpen Bulletins and four or five ads in various rock magazines, and on the strength of the Kiss logo and the popularity of the group. The mail came in enormous quantities. For a while, they had one drawer for Kiss mail, and another drawer for all the fan mail on all the other Marvel books, at the office.

This indicates something to me, not just about the viability of these rock ‘n’ roll crossovers, but about the means of promoting a magazine. Incidentally… the trade-off ads were my idea, I was the prime advocate of doing the book, and Sol Brodsky and I virtually invented the physical format, even to picking the paper stock. I personally supervised everything from writing and editing to the selection of the typography — which was a bad choice; my mistake; I learned something … and the layout of the text pages and the selection of the photos. I even wrote that “Welcome to the Marvel Universe” ad, the first bit of sophisticated ad copy for itself that the company has ever put before the public. I’m not boasting here.

Dave Kraft put the Beatles book together the same way — and all of the new color magazines should be receiving that kind of attention, every one, every issue. It’s necessary to produce a classy book. That’s my point. Someone has to do a little thinking. You can just set the production line in motion as they do on the 35-cent comics.

Do you think the Kiss magazine sold because of its quality or on the strength of Kiss?

Oh, no, it sold primarily on the popularity of the group. But a crappy-looking book might not have sold as well. The fact that it was a classier publication in terms of paper stock and printing and so on certainly helped it. People could look at it and say, “This is worth $1.50. I’m going to plink down that much money and take it home with me.” From that standpoint, obviously, it couldn’t sell on the strength of the story or the artwork, because people would not have that much time to look at it before buying it. A magazine that sells on the basis of its quality has built that reputation over time. A second Kiss book may sell even better than the first, because all the care and time and work that went into the first issue managed to show through. That, and the better printing process. I’m not going to try and defend the content of the book in terms of the art or this particular story that was written for it. There were good things about it; there were bad things about it. In a strange way, given the nature of the project, it’s probably some of the straightest superhero material I’ve written for Marvel in the past three years. What was important, paramount, to me about the Kiss book was the concept of doing a book in that format with that marketing strategy. If it could be duplicated with other publications, not necessarily movie adaptation s or presentations of rock’ n’ roll groups, I think Marvel- or whichever publisher is smart enough — might eventually be able to abandon the 35-cent books almost entirely in favor of a small line of magazines — say six different magazines — that would make more money for them while producing better quality material.

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2 Responses to The Steve Gerber Interview

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