Thursday, March 24, 2011

Here I Go Again

Four years after leaving my career in comics in (I thought) ruins I was making my living writing ad copy freelance and working part-time in a department store. I got a call from Duffy Vohland, an editor at Marvel. He’d gotten my number from a fan, Harry Broertjes, who’d found it somehow. Duffy invited me to come up to New York and talk to the editors at Marvel about getting back into comics, and told me that National, too, would probably be interested again. Mort had left and no one else there held a grudge. Marvel had never had a grudge.

The next day I flew to New York and presented myself at Marvel. Marvel had moved to larger quarters, but they looked even more cluttered and used than the previous ones. There was a huge paper maché figure of Thor, donated by some fans, suspended on wires from the ceiling in the production area. There were piles of stuff everywhere–old comics, envelopes, books, trash. Two people were sword fighting with yardsticks in the hall. There seemed to be a lot more people, most of them young, strange-looking and dressed for playing frisbee in the park or painting a house, maybe. My tour guide, Duffy, pointed out a few corners where there were sleeping bags where a few otherwise homeless staffers spent their nights. Now, why hadn’t I thought of that four years ago?

Stan, it seemed, was no longer involved editorially. I was briefly introduced to Roy Thomas, the editor in chief, then to Dave Kraft, who, with Roy’s consent, offered me a job writing a feature called “Manwolf.” He showed me some back issues and some books in progress. Suddenly, I had doubts.

Having believed I was out of comics forever four years earlier, I hadn’t read any since. Marvel Comics had moved on without me. I was as lost reading those Manwolf stories as I’d be in a Swedish movie with no subtitles. And yet, that seemed to be what they wanted. I wondered what Stan thought about that. If he knew. Wherever he was.

Later that day, I stopped by National. Not much had changed there. The place was still an insurance office in spirit, though several of the young-but-well-established freelancers like Cary Bates and Marty Pasko were now wearing sportcoats and open shirts with no ties! The characters and stories hadn’t changed either. Oh, apparently they’d tried to do a major revamping of Superman around 1972, but it had failed dismally to revive interest. The changes had been forgotten, except for a few cosmetic touches. Without doing any research I knew I could sit down and write a Superman story. I wasn’t sure I could ever write a Manwolf story.

National offered me Superman and The Legion of Super Heroes, which was back in it’s own title again. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to be a Marvel writer at Marvel, but once again that didn’t seem possible, and National seemed to need me most.

That evening, I went back over to Marvel with several of the National staffers. Everyone in comics hung out at Marvel–at least all the younger guys. A bunch of us–Roger Slifer, Steve Gerber, Dave Kraft and a few others–went out to dinner together at a nearby Brew and Burger and, of course, talked comics. What I heard reinforced the impression I’d gotten of National, that they were as stodgy and starched as ever. The guys also reinforced my opinion of Marvel–that without Stan a sort of creative anarchy had developed and chaos ensued. Energy pervaded the place, and yet there was also a sense of turmoil. Pain. Anger. I wondered about that...

Back home I sat down and read a batch of recent Marvels. Many of them had a furious intensity, but few showed much craft. The secret, or half of it anyway, was in short supply. Not only that, but I sensed it wasn’t much wanted at Marvel anymore. At least at National I figured I’d be able to earn a living pretty easily. So, somewhat reluctantly, I took them up on their offer.

Soon, I regretted it. The editors I worked with were easier to endure than Mort was, but even more formula-oriented. Every Superman story had to have Clark make a clever escape from Lois or Lana in order to change into Superman, had to have a joke played on Clark by Steve Lombard and had to have Clark’s surreptitious revenge using his super powers, etc.

Taking a try at Marvel, no matter how chaotic it was, seemed like a better and better idea. I wrote to then editor in chief Len Wein, who said he’d send me a job to script–but cutbacks in the Marvel line prevented that. Later Len’s successor, Marv Wolfman hired me to write an issue of Super-Villain Team-Up, which I did, but once again, cutbacks in the line prevented me from getting any series assignments.

Finally in December 1975, Marv called me and asked if I’d be interested in a staff job as “associate editor,”  the position second in command to the editor in chief. I was to replace a fellow named Chris Claremont who was leaving to become a freelance writer. I was very interested. I thought I might be good at it. Maybe I could make a difference. Help alleviate the chaos.

Note: Perhaps I should explain the secret. It really is no secret. The way to succeed as a storyteller hasn’t changed since thousands of years before Homer, and very likely won’t change for eons to come–tell a good story and tell it well. The “telling it well” part can be learned–it’s a craft based on the principles of our language, the principles of the words and pictures interplay peculiar to comics and the principles of logic which are the foundations of western culture. The “telling a good story” part is tougher. Most people can be taught what a story is, but in order to make a good story one must have something to say. An idea. An insight. An observation on the human condition. Meaning. That’s the hard part. Leaving the reader with something more than he started with. Stan and company left me–and millions of others–with quite a bit back in Marvel’s glorious sixties. I’d like to thank him and the best way to do that is to carry on the tradition. Believe me, I’m giving it my best shot.

Note from JayJay:
We are working on adapting Jim's "How to Create Comics" seminar into a series for the blog.

22 comments:

Marc Miyake said...

When I tried to read Marvel comics in the mid-70s, I too "was as lost [...] as I'd be in a Swedish movie with no subtitles." And DCs, though easier to understand, didn't do much for me either. Then I discovered reprints of 60s Marvel and your Legion. I didn't know the secret then, but I certainly felt the difference that Stan Lee and you made.

Thanks for revealing the secret at last! It shouldn't be a secret, but apparently it is a secret to many writers. It doesn't help that some people define "good story" differently. They want "good" characters, props, etc. - but they forget the second half of that phrase. The most important part. A cast is not a story, no matter how many stars are in it. Neither is a movie set, no matter how impressive it is. People focus on the means (characters and props) and neglect the end (story).

I've read the transcript of the writing section of your seminar at JayJay's comicbookwritersguide.com site many times. I look forward to seeing your whole seminar on this blog. Spread the secret so it's no longer a secret.

JayJayJackson said...

Jim's been under deadline pressure this week, but we are trying to edit the seminar transcript, clarify some things, add to it and decide on illustrations to go with it. We plan to do all parts of the seminar and a bit more - writing, penciling, inking, coloring and lettering. Jim wants to pass on the things he has learned in his time in the business. I've been telling him he should do a book!

Marc Miyake said...

JayJay, no rush. It's easy to wait knowing that there are cool comics in the pipeline.

Glad to hear that the online version of the seminar will have material that will be new to both former attendees and the rest of us.

I'd like to read two books by Jim. One telling his life story. Another on how to tell stories. The human and the technical.

Bosch Fawstin said...

I second that, Marc.

niederklopfer said...

I was going to comment, but Marc Miyake pretty much said it all.

KlausNordby said...

I'm with everybody, really, in expressing my great interest in both Jim's life story in the world of comics -- and of what he has learned and could teach the world. And hell yes, I'm quite willing to pay for all this -- you shouldn't give it all away for free on a website! So please don't be shy about commercializing your experiences and knowledge -- you've earned it, Jim.

JayJayJackson said...

I know Jim is incredibly busy right now, trying to write 4 different comic books, but I've been telling him that when things ease up a bit he might think of writing a couple of books. He had a book deal at one time, but was unable to finish it because of circumstances. He probably could get a book deal from some publisher, but nowadays there are many other ways to publish. We do have some plans to epublish some of his previously unpublished work in the future at least.

uncannyderek.com said...

Where does Jim do his seminars? I'd love to attend one. That, and I'd love a book.

The more and more I read this, the more I am fueled to get work done. This blogs are an inspiration to me more than I probably even realize.

Piperson said...

Thanks Jim for another compelling blog post! I'm not one to sit on the computer and read long passages but I feel that what you are saying is important and worth the effort.

JayJayJackson said...

Jim did a bunch of these seminars around 1994 when we were at his company, Defiant. I'm hoping very much that he will start doing them again, maybe for colleges. I think he would be willing, but no one has asked him to do one in a few years.

uncannyderek.com said...

Well dammit. Does he still attend comic conventions? I'd say that would be a pretty excellent start to get the ball rolling.

Joseph Tages said...

The Secret is the reason why I made mine Marvel over DC when I first began reading comics. There was twice the amount of story told in those 50 to 75 cent books that there are in today's $3.99 trade paperback installments. Marvel's early to mid-80's output easily matched the initial 60's material, and to my generation, it remains the company's heyday.

PC said...

Get Jim to write his autobiography. I guarantee international sales. Well, one, at least. :-)

Pastrami said...

Professor Shooter? That would be awesome!

M McDermott said...

Interesting comment about Marvel's output in the early 70's. I was recently re-reading the run of Spider-Man from that time, and really couldn't see anything that reminded me of their first golden era: mostly Spidey fighting the villain of the day, no change in his personal life, just treading water. I suspect that started to change when "X-Men" caught fire a few years later, bringing back continuing storylines and evolving relationships. Certainly when you arrived later on and demanded more stability at marvel, that was reflected in the books, too. I said something to that effect when I interviewed you in Ithaca 30 years ago. Of course you don't remember.

Flying Tiger Comics said...

I am not going to advert to this again and I am not going to be the bitter ghoul on the blog, but I am moved to say, Jim Shooter compares favourably to Joe Quesada in every conceivable way. The Shooter spirit is good and healthy for comics, and close to the zen of comics. The antidote for rudderless Marvel in the Disney hegemony era is a return to the "somebody has to be the bastard. pleased to meet you" Shooter approach- provided, like Shooter, whomever receives the top job has Shooter's heart of gold.

Blackpaco said...

Oh, God, please, please, yes! I'm begging you, please, post that seminars. I'd love to learn what Mr. Shooter has to say about making comics. I'll be eagerly waiting.

Patricio said...

Well i just found this blog and it is quite interesting. I would like to compliment Jim on his work as a writer, his Korvac Saga is easily among the best five Avengers stories of all time. I would also compliment your work as Editor for Marvel Comics, during the late 70 and most of the eighties. It can be no coincidence, that Frank Miller s Daredevil, John Byrne s Fantastic Four, Walt Simonson s Thor, to name few were produced while you edited at Marvel.

Erik Bruhwiler said...

Ahhh, the secret! Thanks for sharing it, Jim. (of course that's the secret!)

It's a secret in that if you don't look at it (i.e. focus on it) it will not be present in the work. You have to re-find it it, disclose it to yourself, reveal it over and over, every time you deal with comics, or any other storytelling medium.

Thanks for sharing it.

Leslie said...

Word of advice, instead of writing these long rambling blog entries and feuding with former Marvel co-workers why don't write the books you were hired to do for Dark Horse so they can be released on time?

Doing Work = Getting Paid

See wasn't that simple?

Gorillamydreamz said...

Jim, would you consider coming to Toronto and doing a seminar with the Toronto Cartoonist Workshop?

Perhaps we can work out a way to share costs with a convention to do this up right.

I do think Joe Quesada has his hand on the rudder at Marvel and is doing what he feels is right. Despite many problems with the Marvel line right now, they are trying to do stories that are about something, stories that matter to the character.

jimshooter said...

I'd love to, but I can't for the foreseeable. Sorry.

Joe Q is a smart guy.