Friday, August 14, 2009

Marvel's Greatest Writers

Rest assured this is not a list I undertook lightly. While I have read hundreds upon hundreds of Marvel comics, there are still MANY, including MANY written by the writers I am about to list here, that I haven't read. However, my criteria isn't solely based on my opinions on what I have read, I've also taken into account historical evidence regarding each writer's impact on Marvel as a company and the Marvel Universe at large. Some might balk at my decision not to include legend, Jack Kirby, especially at the expense of more recent writers but I feel his contributions as a writer weren't actually that amazing; it's his art that really was significant. Hell, in a list of Marvel's greatest artists he might make number one. And I make no apologies in my lists. Not even for this one's exorbitant length.

5. Ed Brubaker (2004 - ?)
Having spent the majority of his career writing almost exclusively for chief rival, DC Comics, Brubaker came onto the Marvel scene somewhat recently in 2004. This may lead some to believe that his contributions surely cannot be considered significant enough to garner him consideration for this list but just trust me on this one and read on.

Having made his mark in comics through a gritty, noirish style first applied to various crime fiction titles on the Vertigo imprint, Brubaker eventually made his way to Batman which was a perfect marriage. He then created the Gotham Central series (focusing on Gotham City police officers and using Batman as a rarely seen secondary character). Irrelevant for the purposes of this list, I know. But I wanted to mention some of his background because when he began at Marvel, his first assignment was Captain America - something very far indeed from his usual realm. But he really managed to breathe new life into the character by bringing in a darker and grittier tone, mostly through the decision to return the long dead Bucky Barnes to life as the Winter Soldier.

One could argue a darker, grittier tone doesn't just magically make everything better no matter what a noir fan like myself will tell you. However, it's indisputable that by this decade Captain America was in desperate need of some sort of change in direction. And whether or not it was the absolute best way to go, Brubaker stepped in and fearlessly provided it.

But he was far from finished with revamping major facets of the Marvel Universe. He wrote a series that expanded on Dr. Doom's origin (Books of Doom), bringing new depth to an already deep character as well as working in a (in my opinion) crazy but absolutely cool retcon to the first mission of the second team of X-Men (X-Men: Deadly Genesis - which also saw the introduction of the third Summers brother, Vulcan).

A run on Daredevil was inevitable and it's easily the best since Frank Miller's seminal work on the character in the early eighties. Although colleague Brian Michael Bendis also deserves some credit for this (speaking only in terms of writing). Much like his work on Batman, Brubaker's style was tailor-made for a street-level hero like The Man Without Fear. A masterstroke was the decision to have Murdock's secret identity compromised thus landing him in Ryker's Island Prison for a period (The Devil Inside and Out). This decision was actually arrived at in tandem with Bendis but it was Brubaker who did the actual writing for these arcs.

More recently, Brubaker has helped launch the current Iron Fist series (which I am following) and returned to Captain America to kill him off (gasp!) and bring him back (sigh). Perhaps my naming a guy who has only been writing regularly for Marvel for about five years may seem premature but I won't back down.

4. Len Wein (1971 - 1979)

A talent eventually lost to DC, it's interesting to imagine what more he could have accomplished within Marvel had he stayed. Because even if his time there was relatively short, his contributions were major to say the least.

Of course he's inexorably tied to the creation of the character Wolverine (you may have heard of him) but there is more to Wein than that. In addition to writing, he also edited various titles and eventually became editor in chief at Marvel in 1974. He only held this post for a little over a year, stepping down to hand the reins to good friend Marv Wolfman. Free of these duties, Wein began to write even more titles, many of them major such as Spider-Man, Thor and Fantastic Four.

But most notable was his revival of X-Men, a series that had started with great promise but fizzled after several years. In 1975, he launched Giant Sized X-Men (Uncanny X-Men), introducing a brand new team that included his creation, Wolverine. The first issue remains one of the most significant and sought-after comics of all time. He didn't remain writing the title for long but it never would have started without him. Also the tone and direction he established were major reasons for the success and quality of the title as it went on.

He would leave Marvel for good at the end of the decade and go on to great success at DC. But in many ways, he laid the groundwork for the direction Marvel would take going into the eighties.

3. Stan Lee (1941 - ?)
Firstly, I left a question mark in the field for Lee's time as a writer with Marvel only because he has been known to contribute the odd stand-alone story from time to time although he hasn't been an actual writer for the company for decades now (sometimes even working himself into the story as a character). Since he would go on to take on a plethora of different duties and capacities from editor in chief to other various positions as a figurehead for the company, he obviously could not continue to fulfill the role of a regular writer. But he always remained active as a consultant at the very least, giving various ideas and proposals the final go-ahead if he was called upon to do so.

Obviously I couldn't make this list without including Stan The Man. If it wasn't focused completely on contributions from writing, then he would be the clear-cut number one, head and shoulders above the rest.

The inescapable fact is that he created and co-created an absolute slew of amazing characters who to this day are some of the most popular and celebrated in all comicdom. This lands him here along with being a pioneer in the realm of superhero characterization. It's a tired old story now but it still bears repeating that before Lee graced the scene, comic heroes were mostly one-dimensional and hardly ever flawed. They were just blank faces of good who always managed to save the day. Lee introduced more fully-formed characters who dealt with many of the same problems as his reading audience, Spider-Man of course easily being the most relatable character as Peter Parker was a shy and awkward teenager struggling to cope with his strange dual life. But Lee could also make things challenging for himself, such as when he created Iron Man's alter ego, Tony Stark. He took a billionaire industrialist who'd made his fortune through weapons manufacturing during a period of strong anti-war and anti-establishment sentiment in the US and still managed to make him likeable as a character and the book hugely popular.

You know, I hate lists that give too much credit to parties who simply started a genre or style - I can't stand when people name Black Sabbath as the best metal band of all time simply because "without them, there would BE no metal, man." Statements such as this are lazy and untrue. So I don't mind admitting that if Lee hadn't been there to make superheroes more flawed and real, someone else surely would have come along and done so. However, as I've already stated, Lee's creations are classic to say the least and while it's possible, even likely, that someone else could have given us characters with more depth, they would not have been THESE characters and that has to count for a lot.

Ideas such as making the superhero group the Fantastic Four a family or the X-Men social misfits and outcasts were completely new territory that further cemented Marvel characters as edgy and interesting. By comparison, DC's Justice League looked like a troop of smiling boy scouts who were always shaking hands with the president and rescuing kittens from trees.

The Silver Age of Comics of course was a huge movement that came about because of the contributions of dozens of artists, writers and editors. But if one had to point out the individuals most responsible, it would have to be Lee and Steve Ditko (take THAT, Kirby!), who took the medium to another level in such dynamic fashion that their styles are emulated to this day. Lee even invented a technique that would be known as the Marvel Method which became the dictum for superhero stories throughout the sixties. Inkers and letterers weren't even credited on the opening page before Lee started doing it. He also introduced the Bullpen Bulletins page which informed readers of upcoming events in the Marvel Universe. This, along with the letters pages, was closely moderated by Lee and everything was presented in a laid back, casual style, treating the readers like friends instead of customers.

Into the seventies, Lee still wasn't finished innovating the medium and he was at the forefront of those pushing the boundaries of what a comic could include. This led to more edgy and serious topics making their way into Marvel stories such as drug addiction, racism and domestic abuse. He even defied the mighty Comic Code Authority to publish stories with strong social and political commentary as well as the elements mentioned above. He also stressed using a wide and sophisticated vocabulary to tell his stories as well as encouraging other Marvel writers to do so. Lee understood that the comic reading audience was not to be condescended and pandered to and that the most important thing was telling great stories in the best way possible.

2. Brian Michael Bendis (2001 - ?)
I know old-school fans are probably shuddering at this but allow me to make my case. Right now, this guy is the writer holding the framework of the Marvel Universe together (and that's not counting the Ultimate Marvel U either). And I do not make this statement as some sort of jab at other other current scribes, far from it in fact. No, what I mean is that as Bendis has written SO FUCKING MUCH and continues to involve himself in tons of current titles that it's almost impossible to reach a corner of the Marvel U that doesn't have his fingerprints on it. But it's quality that should count here and not just quantity so let's get into it.

Let's start with the biggest stuff. In 2004, Bendis oversaw the final issues of one of Marvel's longest running flagship titles, The Avengers. This was the (in)famous Avengers Disassembled story arc that saw the dismantling of the team and the end of one of Marvel's longest running and most successful titles. A lot of people...were pissed. But it got me interested. This was followed up with the birth of New Avengers, which has just recently passed the fifty issue mark with Bendis writing every single one. While I haven't been in love with everything he's brought to the title - such as bringing along annoying creation, Jessica Jones (Alias, The Pulse) - the fact is I never had anything beyond a passing interest in the Avengers before New Avengers and I think it's fair to say this was the case for many other readers as well.

His first gig at Marvel was taking over the Marvel Knights issues of Daredevil and that run has been critically acclaimed and also set up the run I already mentioned by Brubaker. Bendis didn't really do anything groundbreaking with the title; mostly what he did was bring back the elements that made DD a cool character in the first place but someone had to do it. The nineties (a bad time for Marvel in general, really) had not been kind to Daredevil as a title and Bendis's work helped make the character popular again.

Bendis's tenacious work on Ultimate Spider-Man (another title where he's written every single issue) is really most responsible for making the Ultimate Marvel Universe more than simply a noble experiment. And while I'm sometimes critical of his dialogue in that at points the back and forth between characters comes across as just a little too clever (and he has too many characters swearing too often if you ask me) I can't deny the man mostly has a great sense of how people really talk. I'm mentioning it here because it's really best applied to Ultimate Spider-Man where many major characters are teenagers and Bendis displays a great understanding of how kids talk in these times. Ultimate Spider-Man regularly outsold the other Spider-Man titles and its success is what led directly to the addition of other titles to the Ultimate line. Simply put, it's highly likely the Ultimate Universe would have been a complete failure without his involvement as one of its major architects (Mark Millar probably being the other). He's also written two major events in the Ultimate Universe, Ultimate Six and Ultimate Origins (both six issues long).

Besides his flair for realistic and pleasing dialogue I would have to say Bendis's greatest strength as a writer is his ability to conceive elaborate storylines and lay the groundwork for them far in advance - for any major event he's written you can find clues leading up to it stretching remarkably far back beforehand. Still holding down his New Avengers position (oh, and he writes Mighty Avengers too - splitting the team in two after the events of Civil War) and with events House of M, Secret War, Secret Invasion and Dark Reign all on his resume, Bendis has to be considered the go-to writer at Marvel and there have been no indications of this changing any time soon.

1. Chris Claremont (1974 - 1991/ 1998 - ?)
What can I say about this guy? After writing some early issues of the first Iron Fist series in the early seventies Len Wein handed him the writing duties of Uncanny X-Men. And from then on comics would never be the same.

Claremont would be the title's main writer for the next seventeen years. Over this time, Uncanny X-Men would be consistently more popular than Marvel's other team books such as Avengers and Fantastic Four. Working mostly with artist John Byrne, the tandem would become legendary. Claremont is responsible for creating or co-creating some of Marvel's most enduring and engaging characters, including many females. It was his decision to set Storm up as the new leader of the X-Men after Cyclops. Wein had created Storm, the first prominent black super heroine in Marvel, but it was Claremont who truly shaped and developed her as writing females as dynamic and strong characters was a hallmark of his story telling style. Rogue, Psylocke, Mystique and Emma Frost are all his creations. (to say nothing of his male creations like Mr. Sinister and Gambit)

Another major decision pertaining to female characters was Claremont's revamping of Jean Grey as Phoenix. The space opera involving the Shi'ar Empire and the X-Men was all this doing as well as the Dark Phoenix Saga. He was also the architect of the celebrated Days of Future Past storyline, the Mutant Massacre and Fall Of The Mutants - all major events in Marvel Universe continuity. The graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, one of Marvel's earliest (1982), was penned by Claremont as well. This partially inspired the second X-Men film and I must say, they did a pretty shitty job of it, mostly by trying to make everything about Wolverine for some reason.

Speaking of Wolverine, Claremont helped launch the first Wolverine series as well as other X-Men spinoff books New Mutants, X-Factor Excaliber and eventually, the second X-Men title, X-Men. He wrote the first three issues of this series until a dispute with editor Bob Harras led to his departure from Marvel in 1991. It's fair to say that without Claremont's amazing contributions there would be no line of X Books to compliment Uncanny X-Men - his work with Byrne and others caused the X-Men to be just that popular. Also speaking of Wolverine, it is Claremont who is largely responsible for giving him the voice that writers use to this day. This includes coming up with Wolvie's famous line, "I'm the best there is at what I do". ("And what I do isn't very nice") which is as integral a part of the character as his claws.

These days I don't find myself following any current X Books as none have been able to really hold my interest. But I continue to buy up trade paperback after trade paperback of X-Men and X-related stories written by Claremont. While his style included the annoying unnecessary exposition used by most writers of his day, with characters overexplaining their actions either through giant thought bubbles or even saying things out loud no one ever would bother to, it was also a dynamic and dramatic style that worked perfectly for the X-Men. He's actually been criticized for an overly dramatic and "soapy" voice but if you ask me, it's really been overblown. The fact is that Cyclops having some monologues of self-loathing or Nightcrawler moaning that he'll never be accepted actually fit the tone of Marvel comics just fine. In fact, if anything, it added needed depth to characters whose problems were often extremely dramatic and far from "normal."

Throughout all this, Claremont simply told brilliantly entertaining stories, all the while weaving in various metaphors and social commentaries that never seemed oversimplified or out of place. I boldly declare him the greatest writer Marvel has had so far and the guy never even wrote Spider-Man for Christ's sake.


al481 said...

awesome list!


Cole D'Arc said...

aw. you didnt have to do that. thanks.

Shane Patenaude said...

As much as I like comics, I honestly could only name a handful of them (if that). But you sir, seem to have done your homework and then some.

I like how the list touches on all the finer qualities a comic writer should have; like innovation, fitting dialogue, and plots with planning and purpose. I think that last one is the most important since comics (Marvel in particular) love to stack crazy on top of insane on top of "No you di'n't!!" But if there's no foreshadowing of major events, or and underlying connection, than the whole thing can feel weak.

I think if a writer can make you want to immediately read something again - and make it worth your time - then that is comic gravy.

RyHo said...

I don't think I need to say much more than this is an amazing list. Fine work, kind sir!

Cole D'Arc said...

thanks a lot. this list nearly killed me but i had to match bruce! lol

Bruce Burns said...

Wow. I can honestly say that the only name I was familiar with on this list (other than Stan of course) was Claremont. And apparently I wasn't even aware of most of the man's achievements.

I especially like your reasoning in regards to Stan's placement on the list. I also dislike the whole "originators are the best by default" logic and that nearly prevented me from including Phil Spector on my producers list. Rather than take the easy way out, you actually made a case for his skills that didn't amount to "But he's STAN LEE man!"

However, I find Ed Brubaker the most intriguing entry. I never knew about him but the idea of Gotham Central sounds awesome. I'll definitely have to check out his DC stuff. And I can see how a gritty feel could bring a lot to a semi-military comic book figure like Cap. Conceptually I imagine something like Metal Gear Solid: an over-the-top, military thriller series.

Cole D'Arc said...

Bruce> thanks. i'm pretty sure we've actually had discussions on music where we touched on that.
Brubaker's star only continues to rise - in another ten years he could be a lot higher on this list.