On Learning the Marvel Method

marvel-comic-logoLast summer I got an email from a friend who works in the video game field. She wanted to know if I’d be interested in talking to her boss about writing something. I said “sure,” and then this crazy adventure began.

Now, to be fair, this wasn’t the first time she’d contacted me about something like this nor the first time I’d said yes. The last time it happened we tried to make it work and, for a variety of reasons, it didn’t. No hard feelings, just wasn’t a good fit. Still, it was nice to be thought of again. So I sent her boss an email with all my bona fides and awaited his reply.

And waited.

After a few check-ins with my friend, I was assured that the email had been received and he would get back to me eventually. They just needed to finalize the project he had wanted to talk to me about.

Eventually, he did. And we started the discussion about what it was he was looking for and could I do it? I agreed I probably could and again, time went by before we actually got started. And just this weekend, I’ve finished and handed everything in (some minor rewrites left to go, but that’s okay) but it all got me thinking about something else, namely, the “Marvel Method” of writing comics.

The much argued about Marvel Method was a system put into place by Stan Lee in the early 60s during the start of the “Marvel Age of Comics.” The basic idea is this: The writer and artist plot out the issue, the artists goes and draws it and then gives it back to the writer, who puts in the dialogue*. At times, the artists and writers poked a little fun at the whole process. If you wanted to be a Marvel comic writer in those days, you were given a couple of sheets of art and told to start filling in the word balloons. You had to look at what you were given and surmise a story that made sense within the confines and limitations you had. So what does this all have to do with me writing a video game?

Because this is exactly what this situation turned out to be.

I was handed a pre-made situation, with characters and situations already in place, and was told to create a slight plot and write the dialogue for these characters to speak. All I had to go on were the names and brief character descriptions of the heroes and on the villain side, only their names. To say this was a challenge is to sell it short.

I was given a demo build of the game itself and played a bit of it, so I at least understood the mechanics of the action and how the dialogues would be represented. I was also told which scenes and sequences needed added words and which were going to just be straight forward game play. Beyond that, though, I was on my own. Okay, I could do this. Sure it was going to take a bit of time and effort, but still manageable…until the deadline was mentioned. By the time we got all the details sorted, I had a little less than 2 weeks to get it all done, fitting it in between my regular teaching load and a couple of other projects I was already committed to.

I honestly wasn’t sure I could do it, particularly to the standards I wanted, with all of those hurdles in my way. Rasa was more than encouraging, whether I chose to move forward or not, I knew she was in my corner and supportive. Now I just had to decide.

I chose to give it a try.

I now understand a bit more the idea of how defined limitations can, at times, increase creativity. My poet friends explain that part of the fun of writing a sonnet or haiku or sestina or what have you, is in the form itself. Knowing you have to fit it into specific parameters frees you from having to consider that aspect of its creation, freeing you to pour your creative soul into the art itself.

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say what I did was art, but it was certainly fun. I didn’t have to create the characters, all I did was give them voice, based on what I was told about them. Now, those words will get incorporated into the game play and these characters will take on a new life because I was up to the challenge. Sure, I’m just a small cog in the much larger machine, but I like to think I’ll have made a difference to the players, made their journey across all these levels a bit more fun.

Also, just maybe, I might have been able to pass the writer test for Marvel comics in the early 60s (before I was actually born, mind you) and that thought makes me smile.

*There are all sorts of debates and what not about how this worked, as well as the ethical and moral implications of who did what, but for our purposes, the general idea is what’s important.

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