Book Excerpt: Gentleman Jim Mooney: The 1970s - Spider-Man & The Marvel Method

(Spider-Man by Jim Mooney and Bob Almond, created especially for the Mooney biography)

In this second part of the on-going excepts of the as yet unpublished Jim Mooney biography, Jim talks about how he adapted to the so called 'Marvel Method' of creating comic books. You can read more about Mooney at Marvel here.

(A strapping Jim Mooney, 1950s, posing as an artists life model)

One of the by products of the ‘new’ Marvel was the ‘Marvel Method’ of producing comic books. Unlike other comic book companies of the time – in particular DC – the ‘Marvel Method’ was simply a method of production in which there is no script. In this method, a writer and an artist meet to talk about the story, both brainstorming and coming up with ideas, though the writer hypothetically had the final say. The writer would describe a paragraph summary of the forthcoming issue to his artist. The artist then went and drew it, elaborating, constructing the setting and people involved, depicting the specific motions, without any further input from the writer. This style of writing was established by Stan Lee in the early days of Marvel’s resurgence to enable him to write and edit more. It also gave the artist a sense of responsibility and sharing. Artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko would frequently change the plot to suit the flow of the story without consulting the writer. The drawn pages were then sent back to the writer, who’d script the page over the artwork. This was a wonderfully collaborative method, but it did have its flaws and some artists of the calibre of Don Heck, Gene Colan and Ross Andru found it difficult to work from a synopsis as opposed to a full script. Colan often found he ran out of space and would have to cram as much as he could into the final two pages of some stories.

(Before Mooney crossed over to Marvel, Stan Lee had him reproduce the Steve Ditko cover art to Amazing Spider-Man #21. Mooney did this on vellum as a blue line preliminary and finally lightboxed and finished the art in 2004)

Mooney easily adapted to the Marvel Method of working, finding it a refreshing change from the often large, full scripts that he’d worked from at DC. “I actually became quite enthusiastic about a lot of things I was doing there and that had never occurred when I was working at DC,” said Jim. “I kind of enjoyed getting a good House of Mystery script or something like that, and some of the "Tommy Tomorrow" scripts were pleasant to do, but I always had the feeling like "This is a job, accept it as a job, do the best you can, get your pay check, and go home." At Marvel, I had a feeling of being involved, and being a part of it, particularly when I was pencilling and worked with the outline script Stan provided and some of the others, because you did contribute something. You broke it down the way you wanted to. You could use any number of panels per page, as long as you still told the story.

“As far as the ‘Marvel Method’ was concerned I liked it. A lot of people may of objected to it, it took a little more time maybe. But instead of getting a DC script, where if you had to follow it as it was, you had a tremendous degree of autonomy at Marvel.

“The script is sometimes sort of kicked around by your writer and layout artist, and sometimes by your finalizing artist. The layout artist will take sort of a rough plot that the writer gives him, a general idea and break it down. Then it goes back to the writer. The writer will put in the captions and the balloons but the artist is actually directing the actions, facial expressions, and the general continuity of the strip, panel by panel. DC is an example, when I worked there; you got a script just like a movie script. They would tell you what characters are coming in from left to right, so and so speaks; this one speaks first, that one does this and this one does that. So it was pretty well prearranged and set up. Frankly, I preferred working the way Marvel worked and that was with a little bit more of a responsibility, being the artist, to establish the plot.”

“For twenty years I wrote the entire script, the descriptions, everything,” said Stan Lee. “When we started with Marvel, I found I was writing 12, 15, almost 20 magazines a month. I’d be writing one magazine - let's say I was doing one for Jack (Kirby), a story for Jack, and (Steve) Ditko had nothing to draw. I couldn't stop writing Jack's story, but yet I couldn't let Ditko stand around with nothing to do so I'd say, "Look Steve, let me tell you what the plot is in a few words, then you go ahead and draw it. Draw it in 20 pages; whatever you want to draw, just so long as you tell this general story, and I'll put in the copy later." So in that way I could be writing for Jack and Steve was still busy; then Don Heck needed a story and I would give him a plot. And after a while I found l was keeping half a dozen or a dozen artists busy that way at one time. And it was more fun for me because I would get the work all illustrated. It was like doing a crossword puzzle. I would try to figure out what illustrations meant and then I would put in the dialogue and' captions.

“Very often I would put in dialogue and captions that didn't even allude to what the artist had in mind, because I would come up with a different angle. And I enjoyed doing that and I found that you get better stories that way because you are getting the very best of the artist's thinking, because he's not hampered by a script. And it's so much easier; to do the dialogue when you see the expression on the character's face rather than looking at a blank sheet of paper and a typewriter. So I felt the stories actually came out better working that way and what had started as a shortcut a method became a better way to do stories.”*

Not all artists found themselves to be suited to the Marvel Method. Artist John Romita, who’d also spent time at DC working from full scripts found it to be a “physical shock. I felt like I was being executed. It was terrible. I was scared stiff. In the long run it became good. That whole thing that Stan and Jack started was strictly for expediency because he didn’t have the scripts ready. That’s the reason. It was not done out of any stroke of genius, it was out of expedience. Jack would call up and say, “Stan, I didn’t get the story yet, or the script” and Stan would say, “Ok, what I’m going to do is describe the first five or six pages in action for you, do them without words and when you send them in I’ll put the words in” That’s how it grew into the Marvel method of art first and script second. It was like sunlight had come into the room because this was a visual medium that had become a verbal medium for fifty ears, and suddenly it was the visual medium that it had intended to be in the first place. I think that the biggest thing Stan and Jack contributed to the industry was that. Visual first was a huge step forward; it was like a quantum leap.”

Others found ways around the method. For Gene Colan the solution was a simple one. “I would tape record it over the phone because I didn’t have to come in. Stan would just speak to me for a few minutes, tell me the beginning, the middle and the end and not much else, maybe four or five paragraphs and then he’d tell me to make an 18 page story out of it. He really handed it, and dumped it into my lap and the only way he could write all these titles was to have the artist basically lay it out for him. He’d have the artist lay out the story and then Stan would just put in the dialogue after he’d got the finished artwork in. As long as it was the story that he wanted to tell. He was very free and easy. He would leave a lot of that up to the artist. Things are not like that now. The writer has an awful lot to say about how he wants the story to progress along and maybe even too much because then it leaves nothing for the artist to create. It’s all mapped out for him; it’s all blueprinted out for him. But where does the artist himself come in? There has to be a marriage between the writer and the artist in some way, and that often does happen, you come together. Sometimes you butt heads because you don’t agree with the writer or he doesn’t agree with your interpretation – you can’t have that problem – but I suppose in business that’s the natural, normal things that do develop.”

Mike Esposito, who’d go on to ink a lot of Jim’s pencils during the 1970s and into the 1980s at Marvel reflected, “Stan created the new approach to writing comics. He decided to forget scripts.

“Stan would have the penciller lay out the story and then he would write the word balloons in the panels in pencil. By doing this, he gave the creative juices to the penciller to enable him to do his own pacing, to do his own story line. He would get a thin story line, like one page of type, and it would simply say, ‘Spider-Man and Green Goblin, in the battle scene they’re going to do this and do that’. The artist gets it and he paces it his own way, any amount of panels on a page, you want four panels on a page, you want ten panels, you do it. Then it goes back to Stan to finish writing it. Along the border of the page the penciller would also make little indications of what he intended this to be, what he intended that to be and then after the lettering went in and the pencils tightened, it would go to the inker and he would embellish it another step. The genius of the penciller, he becomes the movie director. He becomes a storyteller. Where in the old days he’d just do the drawings dictated by the writer in the script. He was held back.

“By doing this Stan got speed, it was like an assembly line, like Ford Motors in 1910. He gave the artist the freedom to be his own storyteller. So Stan did something that was never done in comics and I give him credit for that. “

Esposito’s partner, artist Ross Andru was another who at first couldn’t adapt to the new style of working. “I had never worked that way before. I was amazed. You see this very tall, cool gentleman. You know, a businessman. He’s got a lot of class about him. He’s relaxed. He’s talking through a story and all of a sudden he gets animated. At one point he jumps up on the desk! He’s living out a part of the story.

“I was completely floored. I was so busy watching Stan acting out these scenes that… I never expected to see this guy, this top editor, so caught up in a story conference.”**

Stan Lee was looking for someone to assist John Romita on the best selling book, The Amazing Spider-Man, and asked Jim if he’d be interested in the book. “When Stan offered me a chance to work on Spider man, I jumped at it,” said Jim. “It was a good opportunity. Incidentally, on Spider-man, I did some inking for John Romita, but, primarily what I was doing there is what is called finalizing. Finalizing really consists of developing more completely the pages that John Romita would lay out, sometimes roughly, some times rather completely. In other words they had to be tightened up in pencil. I might have just a fairly rough drawing from John and I'd have to make it into a complete drawing before I could ink it.

“Other times, John would draw it very, very completely. Especially on the girls, he loved to draw those; Gwen and Mary Jane, and Peter Parker, too. He'd draw these in a very finished way because he wanted them just so.

“This was not truly inking, this was finalising, In fact, if you look at some of the issues of Thor that I worked on with John Buscema you’ll see that was finalising too. You'll see that I got credit on that for finished art. I did finalizing on Sub-mariner and Iron Man and a few others but it wasn't always mentioned in the credits.”

As well as ‘finalising’, Jim was given the chance to both pencil and ink. “I did some issues of Spider-Man with Jim Mooney when he pencilled it,” inker Mike Esposito recalls, “he had his own look, a little softer than some realistic pencillers. It was a little animated. I liked inking his stuff because it wasn’t that intricate or overly detailed. They were more of the comic book look of that period.”

(In the early 1980s, Mooney found time to draw himself into an issue of The Spectacular Spider-Man )

Jim found inking to be, at times, more pleasurable than actually pencilling a book. Each artist brought a new challenge. “Sometimes some of the guys who were not really that tight or careful in delineation were almost more fun to ink because you could adlib more and put more of yourself into it, “said Jim. “Sometimes the guys who are very tight - Sal Buscema is a good example - he puts everything in there. You appreciate it - you realize how much work he’s gone to, but it's almost like tracing. It leaves you with little leeway to experiment a little bit with your inking.”

Jim’s own pencils didn't come easily by his own admission. “I didn't draw directly; I worked on tracing paper first. Then I transferred with a light box to the finished board. Otherwise, my pencilling would have been pretty messy and difficult to ink, because I had a tendency to work it out the hard way, and I think an awful lot of other guys did too. I have inked some artists, who shall be nameless, whose work looked like they had a rough time. The page looked like a battlefield. Not that this was always bad, but you can't help but admire the virtuosity of someone who draws so effortlessly.”

In 1974 Jim and his second wife, Annie, decided that it was time to move once more, this time the move would be a permanent one. This time he chose to move to Florida. “We had taken several vacations and a few sabbaticals to Key West, which we loved dearly. We toured the entire state and finally found the little place that we live in now at Port Salerno. At that time it was a little fishing village, but today it’s built up like so many other places. I obviously feel it’s been spoilt by the influx of too many people who had pretty much the same idea as we did. My daughter, Noel, was born in 1974 and Annie was obviously pretty much pre-occupied with being a mother, which was fine, and I was getting pretty close to retirement anyway.’

Once Jim Mooney settled into Port Salerno it didn’t take him long to become part of the local scene. Realising that they had a celebrity of sorts in their midst, the local newspapers ran stories about Mooney. One such mention came on October 25th 1978.

In the Palm Beach Times Jim got his photo on page ten as he presented a page of original Spider-Man art to 10 year old Jeffrey Uhl. Jeffrey had been suffering from epileptic type seizures and his family had been raising both awareness and funds to send him to Canada for brain surgery. Mooney found himself touched by Jeffrey’s plight and visited the youngster in hospital to present him with the page and the newspaper was at hand to record the meeting.

Fifteen years later Jim was in the news once again. This time The Stuart News reported on the life and career of Jim Mooney on October the 14th, 1993. An interesting article for many reasons, notably for Jim’s revelation that DC only paid him $5 per page for his Batman work.

* Interview with Stan Lee, Daily Variety
** Ross Andru; Comics Scene Spectacular 1991


Anonymous said…
Man, that is how Spider-Man is supposed to look. Great selection of art Danny. Gentleman Jim was one of the best.

George "The Stooges"

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