The earliest known proof of the Marvel method in print is Stan's plot synopsis for Fantastic Four # 1. Evidence points to Lee working this way earlier, most likely with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (and possibly earlier with artists such as Joe Maneely). Kirby had done a few earlier stories for Lee in 1956 and 1957, but began working steadily in late 1958 on war, romance, western and fantasy stories, all short stories in anthology titles. The stories were likely plotted by Lee and written by Larry Lieber, although some may have been written by Kirby (more on this on an upcoming Blog post).
The first ongoing character Lee worked on with Kirby was the revamped Rawhide Kid, beginning with issue # 17 (Aug 1960). While largely overshadowed by the popularity of Rawhide Kid, Lee also teamed with Kirby on another long-running western hero, Two-Gun Kid (replacing John Severin), for two issues of his title (Two-Gun Kid # 58 & 59, Feb & Apr 1961) as well as concurrent stories in Gunsmoke Western. The title was cancelled based on earlier sales figures, but a revamped Two-Gun would return a year later, again by Lee and Kirby. Lee probably began providing plots for Kirby around this time period, as he was quite aware of Kirby's talents and experience. Another reason this makes sense is because Steve Ditko, who began working for Marvel in 1959 on a regular basis, has noted that he never received a full script from Lee, and worked from a synopsis on the 5 page fantasy stories. If Lee trusted the younger Ditko to work in this manner early on, would he not do the same for Kirby, whose track record went back two decades?
As early as 1964 Lee discussed his working method in an interview in the fanzine Crusader:
"The way I do it now, I write the story in synopsis form, and then give it to
the artist. He pencils the drawings, and I get it back again. Then, I write the words above the panels, and these are eventually lettered in."
The next question is: when did Lee initiate his other artists to the Marvel method, and here there are some interesting roads that point to its development and growth. Lee's two main artists in the early 1960s besides Kirby and Ditko were Dick Ayers and Don Heck. Heck, unfortunately is no longer with us, although we do have some interviews to give us a clue. Dick Ayers is an invaluable resource, as he has kept records of his work. Ayers recalls that he first worked Marvel method on a Two Gun Kid story, "The Bronc Buster" which appeared in Two-Gun Kid # 63, May 1963 cover date.
"The Bronc Buster!" Two-Gun Kid # 63, May 1963 Job # X-143- Ayers' first story drawn from Lee's plot synopsis.
Ayers explained in a 1991 interview in Comic Book Marketplace:
"The first one I had came on the Two-Gun Kid, a story called 'The Bronc Buster' or something, where this guy's at a rodeo. It was a little short story. He said "here, try this", and he gave me a paragraph for a synopsis. Bingo, it worked great!"
Connecting the dots, this points to another method that Lee was using. TGK # 63 happened to be the first issue Ayers drew, taking over the job from Kirby. Since Lee was likely plotting the Two-Gun Kid stories with Kirby, he must have figured it was important for Ayers to learn as well, since Lee was increasing his writing output, taking over the hero strips in the anthology titles from writers Robert Bernstein, Ernie Hart. Jerry Siegel and Larry Lieber.
It is not know if Lee fired Bernstein and Hart (Lieber was moved to writing and drawing short stories), but it is possible Lee may have been disappointed with the results, even though he supplied plots to the writers. Fan were increasingly voicing their enjoyment of the stories Lee was writing with Kirby and Ditko. Fanzines were also taking notice, and it is possible sales were weaker on the anthology titles featuring Thor, Ant-Man, Human Torch and Iron-Man (very likely on Ant-Man and Iron-Man, judging by the cosmetic changes to both characters. In a short period of time Lee took over the writing of all the anthology hero features, but he would not have been able to double his output without providing all his artist with a plot synopsis instead of a full script.
Don Heck's initiation is speculative, but judging from the published books, it appears that Lee thought the best way for Heck to learn the dynamics and pacing of storytelling was to have him first ink Kirby's pencils. He did this in Journey into Mystery # 97. In the next issue Heck pencilled and inked the Thor feature, with script by Lee (Nov 63).
"The Human Cobra!" Don Heck's first Thor story, Journey into Mystery # 98 Nov 1963
This occured five months after Ayers initiation. It also appeared the same month that Lee gave the Human Torch assignment to Ayers, taking over from Kirby (who he had been inking on the strip).
"The Sandman Strikes!" Ayers first Human Torch story with Stan Lee, Strange Tales # 115, Dec 1963
It makes sense that Lee had both men take over around the same time. Concurrently, Steve Ditko filled in on Iron-Man, revamping that character, designing a new sleeker outfit. Whether Heck was moved over to Thor temporarily, or if Ditko was meant to continue on Iron-Man is unknown, but, as we shall see, it appears that Lee was positioning his artists to work on the increasingly important hero strips.
Heck had some very interesting comments about the changes in a Comics Scene interview:
“What happened was....Stan got rid of a bunch of writers. I know whyhe got rid of one of them. I was doing an Iron Man story, and in the first 10 pages, Iron Man wasn’t even in the story! Stan was a little upset, and I can’t
blame him. Because Iron Man wasn’t in there, I had to draw him in a few panels as a thought balloon, so at least the character would be shown.”
Heck was not originally enamored of Lee’s about working from a synopsis, I said, ‘You’re crazy!’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, you can do it.’ I took Lee’s plots over the phone, tape recording them for later playback. “I would put the whole thing together with all the pictures and send it in,” Heck explains. “When I got it back and read it, I said, ‘Gee, it works fine. It’s great.’ “
In another interview with Rich Howell Heck was more specific:
In another interview with Rich Howell Heck was more specific:
HOWELL:: When did Stan start the synopsis system with you?
Heck: I don't think he started with me as early as some of the others up there. I believe about 1862. It could have been 1963. I'm sure Kirby was doing stuff from a synopsis a lot earlier than that.
Heck's 1963 date coincides with the Thor story, which would have appeared on stands around Sept 1963, and drawn up a few months earlier.
Ayers took over Giant-Man from Kirby beginning in Tales to Astonish # 52 (Feb 1964), the same month that Heck returned to Iron-Man in Tales of Suspense # 50. Coincidence? Lee knew he was going to need Ayers and Heck to work on strips Kirby was unable to, and this is the month that it appears to have solidified.
"The Black Knight Strikes!" Ayers first Giant-Man, Tales to Astonish # 52, Feb 1964. Job # X-553 (job numbers are important as they give an idea when the stories were in production. While there is no number on the Iron-Man story that appeared the same month, the back-up stories do have #'s: X-526 and X-535 - very close to the G-M job number.
"In The Hands of The Mandarin" Possibly Don Heck's first Iron-Man story with Lee, Marvel Method. Tales of Suspense # 50, Feb 1964.
As Lee's workload grew in late 1963, including new titles such as the Avengers and X-Men, everyone was probably initiated into the method, including Jack Keller, Stan Goldberg and Al Hartley (around this time the teen humor comics, including Millie, Patsy Walker, Modeling with Millie and Patsy and Hedy were revamped, focusing on more dramatic stories).
Stan Goldberg had this to say to Jim Amash in Alter Ego:
"..things started exploding at Marvel, and Stan needed to cut some corners at his end so he could come up with new ideas. That’s when he developed the “Marvel Style” of writing stories, where the artist did most of the plotting and he did the dialogue. He didn’t trust too many other writers, and this
was a good way to keep control of the stories."
With all the artists working from a plot synopsis, Lee was able to dialogue every title, a prolific output which pretty much continued until Roy Thomas was able to relieve the strain late in 1965. While the Marvel method took time to grow and develop, it enabled an amazing array of stories commandered by Lee. While some artists did not adapt as well as Kirby and Ditko - born storytellers - (including some very talented artists such as Bob Powell) those who did, including Gene Colan, John Romita and John Buscema, crafted an array of imaginative comics that have made their mark in the industry.