Friday, March 25, 2011

The Impending Death of the Comics Industry

The winter of 1975-76 were grim times for comics, for Marvel and especially for comics creators. Sales were falling industrywide, and even Marvel’s were weakening. The major companies all had been forced into cutbacks of their lines, layoffs and belt-tightening. Pay for creative people was abysmal, benefits were few and morale was poor. Marv and Len spoke frequently about getting out of comics and into animation or TV writing. Everybody talked about the “impending death” of the comics industry except me, Roger Stern and a few others. We were regarded as crazy or blind.

Most frightening was the great and growing hostility the creative people felt toward the companies. Many had entered the business as starry-eyed fans. First they were stunned by the rotten conditions. Then their disappointment turned to anger.

Shortly after I arrived, Stan returned. His attention had been on other aspects of Marvel’s business, but now he decided to turn his full attention back to the comics. During my tenure as Archie Goodwin’s associate editor, Stan had got to know me pretty well and, I think, had a good bit of faith in me. Since I was the one who directly oversaw the plots, scripts and art, Stan had come straight to me with his comments about the books. We began meeting once or twice a week to go over the proofs. Stan would critique each issue line by line, panel by panel, just the way Mort used to critique my work--but less brutally. Through these discussions I got the best how-to-create-comics course imaginable. I was amazed at how similar Mort’s and Stan’s theories were about the fundamentals of writing. Often Stan would explain some point of storytelling in the very same words Mort had used. They differed not at all on the principles of the craft.

I also worked closely with Stan as his assistant on the Spider-Man newspaper strip. I’d plot and layout the stories which he’d script and John Romita would draw.

A month and a half after being promoted to editor in chief, I asked for and received approval for an incentive plan for artists and writers based on sales of the comics and a profit-sharing incentive plan to encourage the creation of new characters. Unfortunately, a lawsuit caused a legal logjam which delayed the implementation of the new character revenue sharing plan for years, though eventually it did become a reality. As for the sales incentive, while the concept was approved, coming up with a fair, workable plan proved more difficult than I’d imagined. It took time. But in the meantime, I obtained rate increases for the creators, which drove up rates at other companies as well. In addition to raises, I asked for improvements in benefits such as adding life insurance and major medical coverage for regular freelancers. We improved reprint payments, began to cover business expenses for creators and to provide all materials.

With the improvements, we accomplished a major change in the previously hostile relations between the creators and the company. As it became possible to earn a decent living as a creator at Marvel, tensions eased and creators who had left began returning. Sales of Marvel Comics turned around and began to climb.

By this time I was out of the “Y” and living in a nice apartment.

8 comments:

Marc Miyake said...

Jim,

I initially thought "The Impending Death of the Comics Industry" referred to the present! Oops. Not that I was disappointed by the latest installment of your autobiography. I first tried reading superhero comics during this period, didn't like what I saw, and stuck with Archies and Harveys. I only started seriously reading Marvels after you became editor-in-chief.

The overlap between Mort and Stan's views underscores how universal the basics are. You learned from Stan. How do you think Stan learned "the principles of the craft"? Like you, Stan also began his career at a young age and rose through the ranks quickly without formal training. Was he self-taught?

I hope to read about how you brought craft back to Marvel as EIC.

JayJayJackson said...

Stan Lee was deposed for the Kirby lawsuit and he mentions a bit of his history in the transcript here:
http://ohdannyboy.blogspot.com/2011/03/marvel-worldwide-inc-et-al-v-kirby-et.html

Stan mentions that he worked for Joe Simon and Jack Kirby at Timely and later for Matin Goodman after they left.

Marc Miyake said...

Thanks for the link, JayJay. There's a ton of material in the Kirby depositions and I haven't had time to even glance at them yet.

I asked about Stan because as far as I remember from reading his autobiography, Goodman's creative input was limited (relative to Mort and Stan's) and Simon and Kirby didn't overtly teach Stan anything. As Stan said in that deposition,

"I went down, and I got them their lunch sandwiches for them [Simon and Kirby], and I filled their -- in those days they dipped the brushes in ink and used pencil sharpeners. And I sharpened the pencils. I erased the pages after they were finished. And I did whatever an assistant or an office boy would do."

My guess is that Stan was very observant to begin with and that he learned even more quickly under pressure.

uncannyderek.com said...

" Unfortunately, a lawsuit caused a legal logjam which delayed the implementation of the new character revenue sharing plan for years, though eventually it did become a reality."

I would love to know what that would have been.

Joseph Tages said...

I always felt that Stan and yourself were kindred spirits went it came to comics, and most importantly, to keeping Marvel number one in the publishing business. Your output during your EIC tenure validates this notion.

Bill said...

Always find it interesting to read insights on the comics industry in the period in which I began reading comics as a kid.

Alejandro said...

These blog installments just keep getting better! Great hold over for the dark-key books!

bacci40 said...

this is cool. finding it hard to tell your readers what the lawsuit was about...even 34 years later?

jim shooter...hero of creator rights