Over the course of the 70-plus year history of comics, there have been many hundreds of writers toiling in the four-color medium, with many who were just punching the clock waiting for that great American novel to hit the bestseller lists or for Hollywood to come calling. It wasn’t until fans began to replace professionals in the early 1970s that comics writing began to be considered as a career in itself.
Not that comics writing lacked craft. Before the revolution in comics scripting begun by Stan Lee, writing for comics was far more labor intensive than it later became. Before the dawn of the Marvel Age of Comics, the writer, generally speaking, was the guiding force in the creation of a typical comic book. Oh, sure, the editor had a big role to play in the early stages of a script, conferencing with the writer, working through a plot (if not coming up with the story idea himself), and approving the story. But outside the guiding role, the writer took over: putting words to paper (and before the Marvel Age, there were plenty of words… just take a look at any EC Comic to find out), orchestrating the action, describing to the artist exactly what he was to depict in every single panel of the story. Written in the style of a movie script, there was little left out of a comics script for an artist to exercise his own imagination.
That changed when Stan Lee, long time editor for Marvel Comics, found himself with little time to write all the books in his fledgeling line of super-hero titles. To do it, while also finding the time to fulfill his editorial and art director duties, he began giving his artists synopses of stories, leaving much of the decision making in how the stories unfolded to the artists. When the completed art was returned, Lee would write the dialogue. To be known ever afterward as the Marvel Method, the formula saved much time, divided creative responsibilities between the writer and artist, and made for a less intense work experience for the scripter.
That said, for much of comics history, the medium was considered kiddie fare, the bottom rung of the pop media ladder. For that reason, with few exceptions such as the aforementioned EC Comics, not much energy was expended by writers to create sophisticated fare, at least until the dawn of the Marvel Age. Some might argue that the establishment of the Comics Code was a setback to the acceptance of comics as entertainment for adults but that is a canard. With the end of the Comics Code in the 1990s, the medium has shown little improvement compared to what came before. In fact, an argument can be made that the medium has devolved in that time.
In any case, the foregoing is by way of helping to better tease out the greatest comic book writers of all time from the hundreds who have worked in the field. To make even finer distinctions, the best writers would have to possess longevity, have worked in a wide array of different genres, and display a high level of craft peculiar to the comics medium, not only in coming up with original story ideas but telling those stories in an understandable manner critical to clear and concise storytelling.
10) Alan Moore
A Johnny-come-lately compared to others on this list, Moore was recruited from the British comics scene by DC execs and made an immediate splash with his inventive take on the sluggish Swamp Thing feature. There, the writer immediately challenged Comics Code rules and regs writing entertaining stories with a touch of brilliance. Due to the uncompromising nature of much of his work, DC decided to create a new line of “mature” comics rather than tone down Moore’s work under the Code. Moore went on to many more off-Code projects including The Killing Joke and Watchmen before striking out on his own with such titles as League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell. Over a long career beginning in 1978, Moore’s popularity among fans grew but his own dark interests in pornography, violence, and paganism undercut his reputation as one of the best comics writers of later years.
9) Al Feldstein
Al Feldstein began his career as an artist but when he was hired by EC Comics in 1948, he ended up writing, drawing, and editing for publisher Bill Gaines. But the pace was such that he soon dropped the art and concentrated on editing and scripting which he did for all of EC’s pace-setting books covering every genre from science fiction to crime. When EC dropped its color line of books following the establishment of the Comics Code, Feldstein moved over to Mad Magazine and edited it for 29 years.
8) Jim Shooter
A teenaged whiz kid, Shooter began writing stories for DC Comics in 1965 when he was only 13 years old. Taking tips from what Stan Lee was doing at Marvel Comics, he applied them to his work on Legion of Super-Heroes which he wrote for years before moving from DC to Marvel. As assistant to Lee, Shooter wrote many different books including memorable runs on Daredevil and Avengers. After he became the company’s editor-in-chief, he continued taking on writing projects including the immensely successful Marvel Secret Wars and the less successful but more interesting Star Brand. Fired from his job, he helped form Valiant Comics where he succeeded again writing new and clever takes on Solar and Magnus Robot Fighter, the company’s major titles. After being forced out of Valiant, Shooter re-entered comics from time to time revisiting Solar and Magnus in 2009 for Black Horse Comics.
7) Gardner Fox
Over the course of Gardner Fox’s career, it is estimated that he wrote over 4,000 comics stories covering every genre imaginable. Beginning his writing career as a science fiction writer, Fox was in at the very dawn of the comics industry when he was hired by DC Comics in 1937 and had his first story appear in Detective Comics #4. Over the ensuing decades, the writer would script stories for many of the company’s top characters and became the main writer on Adam Strange. He was a key man in DC’s great super-hero revival of the silver age, ending his career in 1968 over a dispute involving the company refusing to pay health insurance to its freelancers.
6) John Byrne
Breaking in to comics at Charlton in 1974 and at Marvel in 1975, John Byrne began his career as an artist before teaming with writer Chris Claremont on the X-Men where he shared in the plotting of stories. Steeped in Marvel lore and eager to both write and draw comics, Byrne left the X-Men to take over the Fantastic Four as one of the industry’s first post-Code writer/artists. There, Byrne quickly proved that he didn’t lack for story ideas bringing a fresh excitement to a strip that had grown moribund over the years. His success on the FF made Byrne one of the industry’s first superstars. In the mid-80s he was hired by DC and given carte blanche to revamp Superman whose adventures he guided for several years before returning to Marvel. In between, the writer/artist joined others with their own publishing imprint called Legend and continued to work for various independent publishers.
5) Joe Gill
Industry legend Joe Gill began his career writing comics before World War II. After the war, he found himself at loose ends when comics sales took a downturn and ended up at low-paying Charlton Comics. To make ends meet, Gill had to be prolific, and he was, pounding out well over 100 pages of script each week for 30 years, writing tight but competent stories in every genre imaginable. Gill was still at it in 1975 when he teamed with newcomer John Byrne on Doomsday +1 and in the 1980s when did work for DC Comics.
4) Edmond Hamilton
By the time Hamilton went to work for DC Comics in 1946 he already had decades of experience under his belt as a science fiction writer having penned many classic entries in that genre including juvenile series character Captain Future. But as the era of pulp magazines began to fade, Hamilton needed to find other work and so began a 20-year career writing stories for DC’s Superman and Batman among others. Perhaps Hamilton’s most noted feature at DC was Legion of Super-Heroes which he wrote for many years bringing his large scale space operatic vision to a new generation of readers.
3) Otto Binder
Otto Binder was another graduate of the science fiction pulp mill who often wrote in tandem with brother Earl as Eando Binder with the team’s greatest claim to fame being their Adam Link stories. Binder followed a third brother, Jack, into the comics field and quickly settled down at Fawcett Comics. There, he wrote for various strips until becoming the main writer for the company’s biggest star, Captain Marvel, turning out a body of work full of whimsy and imagination. After writing almost a thousand stories for the Marvel family of titles, Binder moved to DC in 1948 picking up with the Superman family where he left off with Captain Marvel’s. He continued to write steadily for decades until retiring from comics in 1969.
2) Roy Thomas
Weaned on golden age comics, Thomas was active in fan publications before breaking into the industry as a professional in 1965. He worked under tyrannical editor Mort Weisinger at DC Comics for about a week before quitting to go to work for Marvel as Stan Lee’s understudy. There, he learned the basics of comics scripting and, working with the Marvel method, began taking over from Lee some of the company’s top books including Avengers, Daredevil, and X-Men. There, his innate sense of the larger picture compelled him to take the foundation that Lee had established and build upon it, tightening Marvel’s continuity into a vast universe of interconnected cogs and wheels.
In 1970, after convincing management to buy the rights to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, he wrote the resulting comic book of the same name for over 120 issues. He took over from Lee as editor-in-chief in 1972 while continuing to write many of the company’s titles. He left Marvel in 1981 and migrated to DC where he launched such new titles as All Star Squadron and Arak: Son of Thunder while also writing numerous other features. Eventually, Thomas returned to Marvel for a time before devoting himself mostly to independent work as well as a revival of his old fan magazine Alter Ego.
1) Stan Lee
The greatest comics writer of all time, Stan Lee’s career spanned almost the entire history of the medium. Hired by Timely Comics in 1939 as an office boy, Stanley Lieber learned the basics of comics storytelling from then editor Joe Simon and top artist Jack Kirby. When the two quit, young Stanley was placed temporarily in charge. However, as time went on, the position became a permanent one and finding himself busy writing for almost all of the company’s many titles, the young editor adopted the pseudonym of Stan Lee. Except for a short break for military service, Lee stayed on the job as editor-in-chief, art director, and head writer through the 1950s and a radical downsizing of the company. Throughout, he honed his writing skills developing an efficient, often tongue-in-cheek style that nevertheless captured the personalities of his subjects. When the market seemed to bounce back some, he re-hired Jack Kirby and fellow artist Steve Ditko and with them, began turning out a new group of super-heroes who would revolutionize the industry and save Marvel from looming failure. Lee’s secret ingredient, keeping his heroes grounded in reality with real life problems while featuring them in free form near endless storylines, gave his characters endurance enough so that they not only remained in regular titles for decades, but became the foundation of a multi-billion dollar entertainment empire.