As I’ve mentioned before, I have long been associated with the world of comic book media tie-in writing, or what the layman calls “novelizations.” I wrote my first one in 1978, at a time when, as reading some of the material today might suggest, I had no business writing a grocery list, much less 50,000 words of story. But that’s neither here nor there, because in the very same series in which my novels appeared, there were nine other titles, some of which were pretty good.
Published between 1978 and 1979 by Pocket Books, these 11 books are known, collectively, as the Marvel Novel Series, beginning with the Spider-Man novel MAYHEM IN MANHATTAN by Marv Wolfman and Len Wein, and ending with my own effort, SPIDER-MAN AND THE HULK: MURDERMOON — an effort to read, that is … and that officially ends the self-deprecating humor.
I did another one in there, too: SPIDER-MAN: CRIME CAMPAIGN, number 8 in the series. Marv also wrote, as a solo effort, THE FANTASTIC FOUR: DOOMSDAY (#5), but it was strictly as a team that he and Len packaged the entire series. These books featured some lovely covers, by the way, many by the talented Bob Larkin (three out of the four featured herein are his, the exception being DOOMSDAY, which is a Pete Ledger painting over a John Buscema illustration.
Marv was one of the new wave of talent that swept into comics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, along with a host of other writers, including Wein, Denny O’Neil, Gerry Conway, Mike Friedrich, Gary Friedrich (no relation) and others. He’s written every major character from Superman to Spider-Man, and has served as editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics and Warren. He created The New Teen Titans, Deathstroke the Terminator, Vigilante, Blade and many other characters, and has also written animation, TV, kids’ books and big-boy books, including novelizations of his classic 1985 comic series CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS (in 2005 and on which, in a case of the shoes being on the other feet, I was editor this time) and the 2006 movie SUPERMAN RETURNS. He currently writes VIGILANTE for DC. You can check out more of Marv’s stuff at marvwolfman.com.
I e-mailed him a while back to ask him to think back to the thrilling days of yesteryear and the Marvel Novel Series, as well as some insight into his current writing. Here’s what he had to say.
BOOKGASM: How were you and Len chosen to package the Marvel novels, and who picked the lineup of characters?
WOLFMAN: I don’t remember how we were chosen, but Pocket Books asked us to write the first Spider-Man novel in something like 30 days. If I recall, I wrote the first draft and Len the second, which was the only way it was possible to do. After we finished, we were asked if we’d like to write all 12 books. We wanted to, but the money was awful, so we turned it down. They hired another writer to do the second book, but after they got it, they called us and said they’d meet our price if we took it over.
Paul Levitz, who was then an assistant at DC Comics — he’s publisher and president today — played cards with us and, though much younger than us, a better businessman. He said we should package the novels and not necessarily write them if we didn’t want to. Writing them ourselves, the schedule would have been brutal, so we took Paul’s advice, told Pocket we’d package the books instead and they agreed. We had eight days for the next book, so I wrote that while we assigned the rest, all based on what we knew to be Marvel’s top characters at the time.
BOOKGASM: What were your prose credentials prior to these books? Did you have ambitions to write prose, or was this one of those “Why not?” projects that writers fall into every so often that reveal a new skill or comfort level?
WOLFMAN: I had written one novel before, for Byron Preiss (WEIRD HEROES #5: DOC PHOENIX: THE OZ ENCOUNTER, with Ted White, 1977). Len had not written any. I didn’t have a great ambition then to write prose, because I didn’t think I’d be good at it. I was essentially a dialogue writer — comics are mostly dialogue, at least the part the reader is aware of — and was intimidated by prose because I was a reader of Bradbury and others who were so brilliant. But we were young and foolish and agreed to do it so there would be good superhero novels. We hadn’t read any good ones before.
BOOKGASM: Did you have a goal in mind for the series as a whole or, knowing the business as I do, was it just a nonstop treadmill getting these things produced and out the door?
WOLFMAN: Your question answers it. With FANTASTIC FOUR: DOOMSDAY, I had eight days to write it. After that, a book had to be done every 30 days. For beginners like us, it was a treadmill set to warp speed.
BOOKGASM: How did you guys decide which books to write yourselves and how was the workload divvied up on the collaborations?
WOLFMAN: Len wasn’t that interested, if I recall, in writing a book himself. But we sat down and made the decisions together — then, once I was done with FF, we split the editing. We did have to pitch in and write about a third of one of the books because, I think, it hadn’t worked out.
BOOKGASM: How do you approach writing a novel vs. writing a comic book or long story arc?
WOLFMAN: It was interesting. With the FF, the one I did on my own, I started the book with the origin of the FF, wrote about 30 pages, decided their origin made no logical sense and trashed all the pages, then went back and sluffed off their origin in a few lines and spent the time concentrating on Dr. Doom. I realized what worked with pictures didn’t work with prose, and therefore, had to aim the novel toward what I thought could work that way and their origin couldn’t, or at least I didn’t have the skill to pull it off satisfactorily.
I also realized you couldn’t concentrate on action as you did in all Marvel comics of
the time. You had to write the characters. It was a real learning process, even as I was rushing through it, hoping I wasn’t mangling the entire English language as I did it. There was no time for rewrites, and because of the deadline, I made up the entire plot as I was going along, so I wasn’t always sure if it was coherent.
Len was making corrections, but for some reason, they didn’t use them, which might explain why I’ve never read the printed book. Working on a computer like I do today, it would have been much easier and I could have corrected lines as I wrote them, but I didn’t have time to do that while typing as fast as I could. I needed the backup corrections to take what was being vomited out of my typewriter and turn them into real sentences. Alas, that never happened.
But I learned a lot. You really did have to see comics and novels differently, and as I wrote, I think I may have gotten fractionally better at that. But at the end, I swore that I would never write another book unless I had the time and the talent to do it well. I didn’t write another novel for 26 years, because I felt my prose writing would pale in comparison to everything else being published. Every time I thought about it, I backed away in fear, until I was assigned a novel and realized I had to face that fear.
Also, not every comic character should be done in prose. One can do a great Spider-Man novel, for example, but it could almost never be as good as a great Spider-Man comic. Spidey is one of those characters who is so visual in his core concept that prose doesn’t enhance him. The Fantastic Four would be the same. Some comic characters cry out for original prose novels, however. Batman would be great, because you could really write dark noir. A few of the characters I’ve created would also work well in prose, but not all of them. Most of the Teen Titans characters wouldn’t be enhanced in prose, for example. Raven might be the one exception.
BOOKGASM: Ron Goulart used a pen name, Joseph Silva, on CAPTAIN AMERICA: HOLOCAUST FOR HIRE. Any special reason for that?
WOLFMAN: I really don’t remember any of the stories; we were working too fast. I believe several writers used pseudonyms because they had other contracts or that they also had to write so fast, they didn’t want the work held against them. I actually think all the books were fine, and some were really excellent.
BOOKGASM: Eleven is an odd number. Was there supposed to be a 12th?
WOLFMAN: There was one novel more novel, written by the late science-fiction author, cartoonist, photographer, etc. Wiliam Rotsler, that was never published. He wrote a Silver Surfer novel, and it was excellent, but it was decided that nobody but Stan Lee could write the Surfer, and the book never was published. But Bill had done a great job, so it’s a real shame.
BOOKGASM: What comic book prose have you done since? If you could write any novel featuring any comic book character, what and who would it be?
WOLFMAN: I’ve written a few more novels, including the novelization of SUPERMAN RETURNS and a novel based on my series, CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. It’s not strictly a novelization; it’s 75% an original story. I was absolutely thrilled when SUPERMAN RETURNS won the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers Scribe award for best novelization, because it made me realize that maybe my prose didn’t suck as much as I feared it would.
It’s such a daunting field to work in, because so many of the writers I absolutely admire are brilliant, and I feel that I’m only just beginning. But now, instead of running from writing prose, I’m truly loving doing it and want to do a lot more.
As for what character would I love doing? I’d love to do a original story of Superman. I’d also love to do novels on some of my own characters, like Deathstroke, Vigilante and Blade. I think they would work wonderfully in prose.
Next time: Veee. —Paul Kupperberg