Comic Book Improvisation

The Defenders: From the Vault - improvised comic book making (Marvel Comics)

This is something I’d like to explore more. As you might’ve noticed, I do a lot of performing with an improv comedy group called the Magic Meathands. We do shows with no script. We just make it up as we go.

And it turns out, sometimes in creating comic books, creators also have to make it up without a script.

A little back story: Monthly comic books tend to have regular creative teams but sometimes those teams fall behind schedule and the book can’t come out every month. So comics publishers will occasionally hire other creators to produce an inventory story for just in case. It’s basically filler material, but they can be fun stories and it buys the regular creative team more time. It’s a bit of a gamble because sometimes they end up paying for a story that never gets used.

And that’s exactly what happened in 2001. Marvel Comics was publishing a superhero comic called The Defenders. It reunited the Incredible Hulk, the Silver Surfer, Dr. Strange and Namor the Sub-Mariner (right), misfits all who had originally assembled under that name in the early 1970s. This new comic book series was written by Kurt Busiek (Astro City, Avengers/JLA) and Erik Larsen (Savage Dragon, Amazing Spider-Man) and drawn by Larsen and Klaus Janson (Daredevil, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns). Their editor Tom Brevoort (now Senior Vice President of Publishing) hired writer Fabian Nicieza (X-Men, New Warriors) and artist Mark Bagley (Ultimate Spider-Man, New Warriors) to create an inventory story. The two did so, collected their checks, and went on with their lives. It turns out the story was never needed, so the finished art pages were filed away.

Flash forward to today where Marvel is going through old desk drawers and publishing whatever looks ready, and up pops this lost Defenders story. Only problem is it was never scripted, which means the pages have no words on them. And apparently no one saved a copy of Fabian’s original plot outline or script. Well, surely Fabian wouldn’t mind scripting the pages now. He would surely do it except he’s under an exclusive contract with DC Comics. So, Marvel decided to hire another writer to do the scripting.

(Re-)enter: Kurt Busiek. Since the two know each other, Kurt asked Fabian for his original files to help in scripting. Bad news: Fabian lost everything in a computer crash years ago and has no idea what the story was originally about. Kurt also checked with Mark to see if he could remember anything. No such luck.

So Kurt is left with 22 pages of characters silently running around, talking, fighting, flying, leaping, punching, surfing, magicking, swimming, and who knows what else with no idea of why.

What to do? What else? Improvise.

From Kurt’s website:

So I look over the art, and Mark Bagley did indeed do a very nice job. And he’s a good enough storyteller that I can piece together an outline of what the story must be, at least in the basics. But the bits where explanations happen, where the texture and detail go that make it more than just a simple structure?

Haven’t a clue.

So I have to come up with a story to fit the art. A new story. One that might bear some resemblance to what Fabian intended, at least at the big structural moments, but other than that, it’s wide open.

And as I keep looking through the art, I get an idea. A pretty demented idea, really, based on one cryptic panel late in the book (You’ll know it when you see it. The script for that panel is “HTNN–!”). But it’s an idea that, demented as it is, won’t go away. And actually, I’m thinking, it could be kinda fun…

I tell Fabian the idea, mostly as a joke. But he laughs, and says that it sounds like a hoot, and it might even be better than whatever his original story was.

Like with live improv theater, Kurt has to accept what has been presented to him by his “scene partner” Mark Bagley. He has to say “Yes, everything here is happening, and…”. Nothing can be ignored, dropped or explained away. Then he has to build up from there, filling out the world Mark has drawn, adding details like location, plot revelations, opinions and reactions from the characters, and more. And as he goes through the pages, he’ll find a rhythm with Mark’s artwork where his new plot will seem to set up what happens in the art and vice versa. Of course, what makes it even more tricky is that Kurt is working with a very stubborn scene partner. Mark’s art is already set in stone. It’s like a stubborn scene partner determined to get their idea and agenda on the stage regardless of what else is going on. And the only thing Kurt can do is to stay open, “listen” for the smallest clue, take everything as a gift, embrace each visual idea with gusto and see where that takes him. If Kurt stays open, all of the pieces should come together to create something brand new that would never have existed in any other situation.

I’m looking forward to seeing how it comes out. The Defenders: From the Marvel Vault #1 will be released by Marvel Comics this summer, July 13.

DEFENDERS: FROM THE MARVEL VAULT #1

Written by FABIAN NICIEZA & KURT BUSIEK
Pencils & Cover by MARK BAGLEY

A Marvel Masterpiece from deep inside the treasure vaults can now be told! The original team of Doctor Strange, The Hulk, Silver Surfer and Namor are together again for a hidden adventure! But why was this tale lost? What happens in other dimensions stays in other dimensions, so what unspeakable secrets of the The Defenders are to be revealed? Find out at last in these pages with the illustrious words of Kurt Busiek (THE DEFENDERS, MARVELS) and the incomparable artwork of artist Mark Bagley (ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN)!

32 PGS./Rated T+ …$2.99

(Via Robot 6)

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