Today is Sal Buscema's birthday—so let's celebrate an extraordinary artist, a wonderful collaborator, and a truly good guy. Happy Birthday, Sal!
In Mr. B's honor, here's an essay I wrote, back in 2013, celebrating the joys of working with one of the true Marvel greats. Enjoy!
There are two basic ways that comic books are written. The first is full script (that’s where the writer lays out the whole story page by page, panel by panel, including camera-angles, captions and dialogue) and the other is plot-first (the writer creates a detailed plot outline which then goes to the artist.
When the writer gets the pencilled pages back, he then adds the dialogue and captions). Both approaches have their strengths and I enjoy working either way. The challenge of a full script is that every element of the story is in your hands. You're in full control of the material. The challenge of plot-first, of course, is that you’re often surprised by what your artist does—and your scripting is directly influenced by it. Sometimes that’s a wonderful thing, sometimes not. There are some artists who can draw very well but have yet to master the art of visual storytelling—and it can be difficult (to say the least) trying to make up for their shortcomings via dialogue and captions. But when “Marvel style”—another popular name for the plot-first method—works, it’s magical.
One of the most magical experiences I had was back in the 90’s when I was collaborating with the great Sal Buscema on Spectacular Spider-Man. Sal and I hit it off from the first panel of our first story and my admiration for him remains boundless. He can draw beautifully, he’s an impeccable visual storyteller and a total professional. Add to that the fact that Sal is a truly good person—I’d go so far as to use an old-fashioned word and call him a gentleman—and you can understand why I loved working with him.
My plots were usually very tight—page by page, panel by panel, crammed with camera angles, psychological shading and rough-draft dialogue—but whatever was on the page, Sal was always able to take it to another level and do things that many other artists couldn’t. Case in point: Spectacular Spider-Man #200, which featured the death of Harry Osborn (who was then making no end of trouble as the Green Goblin).
There was a sequence at the end of that story (perhaps my favorite out of all the Spider-Man tales I’ve written) where Harry, realizing that he loved Peter Parker too much to let him die, saves a drugged, weak Spidey from a death-trap. Peter, his wife Mary Jane and Harry’s son, Norman, all stand by, shocked and heartbroken, as Harry then collapses, overcome by the toxic Goblin formula.
On the final two pages, Spidey accompanies Harry into an ambulance, they drive off and Harry passes away, leaving Peter Parker to his grief and memories. When the ambulance arrives at the hospital, it falls to Spider-Man to tell Mary Jane and Norman that Harry’s gone. They react, we cut to a photo of Peter and Harry in happier days...and the story ends. The sequence was small, quiet, but, on an emotional level, it was massive.
I did everything I could to communicate the power of those last pages to Sal in the plot—along with my thoughts on how the sequence would be handled in the final script. My intention was to verbally milk the pages for all they were worth, wringing out every last drop of emotion; going big and melodramatic via captions, inner monologues from Peter or dialogue between the characters. (Another benefit of "Marvel style": I didn't have to decide then, I could make up my mind when the art was done.)
Then Sal’s pages came in: It was one of his finest hours. The panel to panel flow was cinematic and crystal clear, the characters dramatic and achingly human. And those final two pages? Perfection! At first—locked into my original vision—I began writing captions and dialogue for the end-sequence, but it quickly became clear that everything I wanted to say had already been said, and better, by Sal. It was all there in the pictures. He had translated my plot so expertly that words would have capsized the sequence and destroyed the emotional power of the moment. So I shut my big mouth and let Harry Osborn die in silence, with his best friend by his side.
That, too, is part of a writer’s work—especially in comics: deciding when to speak and when to shut up. Deciding whether to go for a barrage of machine-gun dialogue, a series of powerful captions or to surrender to equally-powerful silence. Whether we’re working full-script of plot-first, we make those decisions on every panel of every page.
And it certainly helps the process when you’ve got an artist like Sal Buscema bringing your story to life. Take a look at the images below and you'll see what I mean.
©copyright 2020 J.M. DeMatteis