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Comic book legend Michael Golden shares his secrets for successful storytelling

Comic book legend Michael Golden shares his secrets for successful storytelling

This past Saturday, a group of fans and aspiring creatives of all kinds gathered together in the basement level of Silicon Valley Comic Con. Outside this room, the convention bustles noisily with costumed characters, video games, and the murmur of human voices. Inside it is a rather drab and gray setting for one of the most prolific and influential creators in the comic book industry, who incidentally, is running just a few minutes late.

Michael Golden is probably best known for creating the X-men character “Rogue” while at Marvel, but his comic works also include “The ‘Nam,” “Micronauts”, “G.I. Joe Yearbook”, “Dr. Strange”, and much more. His diverse commercial portfolio ranges from Nascar to Nasa, to Universal and Warner Brothers. In a few moments, the man himself approaches the stage. I suddenly recall that a wizard is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to.

“Rule number one is: people are stupid,” Golden says in his deep voice that is both gravel and soft butter all at once. This is not a man that wastes a lot of time in coming to his point. He is older, gray-bearded with glasses, and firmly clutching a Starbucks cup in his right hand. He smiles knowing that he has hooked us with surprise and continues, “Whoever you are trying to sell is ignorant of your story, and it’s up to you to give them the information. Make it dramatic, concise, involving, and understandable. People get bored easily, and they don’t come back.” There are only two explicit rules for success, apparently, and the second is a rule of no rules. “You hook them by sticking to who, what, when, where, why, how.”

At the age of 65, with a career spanning over 40 years, Golden’s longevity in this industry is unusual. “This industry will chew you up and spit you out,” he says. He credits his ability to stay ahead of the twenty-somethings to his discipline to keep learning and stay productive. “With commercial work, you no longer have the option to be in the mood.” A typical work day starts at 4:00 AM and ends at 8:00 PM. Golden forces himself to restrict creative work to the early part of the day. “By around 2:00 I really start to slow down. By 8:00 PM I am done, tired, wasted, and needing a drink.” He used to take Saturday and Sunday off without fail, but thanks to the Internet, Golden now works seven days a week.

When asked how he learns and draws inspiration, Golden says that he learns by doing, but he admonishes the audience to do as he says and not as he does. “Learn everything you can, go to school. Learn design, learn layouts, and learn color theory. There will be plenty of time later for Photoshop and Illustrator. Technology is just a tool; it can’t make you great.”

Although he does not say this, I start to realize there is something else going on here too. It is evident to me that, from his full work schedule to his penchant for learning and problem-solving, Golden is immersed in his work. You begin to get the sense that his favorite part of the day is in the pure flow of the creative process. This seems like it could be the real secret — being in love with your work — even after years and years.

Of course, being uniquely talented and globally recognized probably helps in the love-your-work department, and it may even account for some of Golden’s lack of burnout. But you can hear the underlying truth tinged everywhere in Golden’s story. Talent is only part of the equation. Success came after a lot of sweat, dedication, discipline, hard work, and long hours. “There is no formula!”, says Golden