RCL Exclusive

That Time This Comic Book Geek Got to Write for Marvel

RCL editor lives childhood dream with 'Secret Empire' issue out this week.

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Stuff me in the locker if you heard this one before, but ever since I was a young boy I have dreamed of writing a comic book.

On Wednesday, with the release of Marvel’s Secret Empire: Brave New World #3, that dream will officially come true.

Sure, it’s just an eight-page story in the third issue of an anthology spin-off of a much larger event series. And true, it’s about the intrepid newspapers reporters at fictional newspaper the Daily Bugle—minus the most marquee former employee, Peter Parker. But there’s my name on the same title page as the legendary chairman emeritus, Stan Lee.

So, for those of you who will never have the thrill of putting eight pages worth of words in J. Jonah Jameson’s mouth, this is what it’s like:

I had covered the comic book industry for the New York Daily News over the past 16 years, and had once broken the scoop of Captain America’s death in 2007, which got picked up by more than 4,000 outlets around the world at the time. (Fortunately, the hero made a full recovery.) So people inside Marvel knew me as “that guy” and had some interest in having me tell a story about the reporters at a newspaper in the midst of a major crisis, their upcoming Secret Empire event series.

By now, fans who know their Thor from their Thanos have read deep enough into Secret Empire to know the general plot involves an “evil” Captain America leading the forces of Hydra to take over the Earth as a byproduct of the Cosmic Cube rewriting his history according to the whims of the Red Skull. As part of his plan, he has a sorcerer trap the heroes of New York City inside a dark dimension.

The only problem is that in January the story was still in its top-secret phase, so I bumbled my way through a first draft like the proverbial blind man feeling the tail of an elephant and trying to visualize the whole animal. The result was a horror story that was truly terrifying for all the wrong reasons. Fortunately, I got a second chance.

Given my lack of experience writing comics, I spent a lot of time researching. I knew I could handle the details of life in a newsroom, since I spent most of my waking hours in one for two decades. But I poured into every back issue I could find that featured the Daily Bugle in the last 20 years.

I knew I wanted to bring in a new, younger character, since the news business is tilting towards millennial reporters—and I found a perfect one: Jenny Sheldon, whose entire history came in a handful of panels in a miniseries called, Eye of the Camera. She was the then-teenage daughter of a famous photojournalist in the Marvel Universe named Phil Sheldon, the protagonist of the iconic miniseries, Marvels. Given that my story would be set a few years later, I figured she would be in her early twenties, the perfect age for a cub reporter eager to follow the same career path as her father.

And Jonah, a former colleague of Phil Sheldon who’d been fresh off his own family tragedy and isolated from The Bugle where he once was publisher, would make the perfect father figure for a young reporter finding her way. That helped me find the spine of the story—which I broke down in pencil on index cards representing each panel. There were a lot of eraser marks.

Comic book scripts are a little different than movie scripts: There needs to be a little more instruction so the artist can visualize the crazy thoughts in your head. For example, here’s an excerpt from my script for the panel at the top of this page:

Panel 6. A would-be mugger stops her. We see him from over her shoulder.

MUGGER:
Hey, why the hurry with such an expensive-looking camera?

MUGGER:
Don’t you see it’s not safe for you to be out on the street?

Panel 7. Spider-Woman appears suddenly, a veritable blur, but recognizable enough to spot her. She punches out the mugger.

SPIDER-WOMAN:
Not so safe for you to be out here either!

Originally, 10 pages were budgeted for the story, which eventually was whittled down to eight. Writing an eight-page script is tough. It’s like haiku. There are no wasted words or scenes. That led to some cuts: I wanted to have Jenny fire a flare to get the attention of a hero. It was important, since she didn’t have superpowers herself, to perform an action that still saved the day. And originally I had her find the flare gun in an overturned emergency vehicle, but that took too many panels, which meant I had to opt for a lamer but more efficient explanation.

The editors sent my script back with very detailed and smart notes that pointed me in the right direction. The villainous Rhino, for example, originally appeared in a scene just to knock down a wall for his fellow evildoer, Kraven the Hunter. And then he more or less disappeared. On the advice of an editor, he disappeared completely.

A few weeks after my next draft was approved, I was CCed on an email with sketches and breakdowns from the artist, Marco Lorenzana, who did a lot of amazing work for Aspen Comics. (Memorize how to spell the name, because Lorenzana is going to big.) Even though the art was far from finished, I felt numb with excitement. This was the first time I saw the story in my head more or less replicated on the page. After a couple of notes from myself and our editor, Charles Beacham, the artist sent a new PDF a few hours later.

Just as exciting was the next email I received about a month later: the lettering proof. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a version of the comic with nearly finished art and the word balloons filled in with glorious dialogue … that needed another round of editing. After that process was complete, I received a PDF of the color pages, which brought on another set of gasps.

Finally, Charles met me in a Starbucks a few weeks later, with three copies of my comic in his hand. My first Marvel comic! And who knows? It could be my last.

But for one Wednesday, at least, my name will be on the same title page as Stan Lee.