Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Secret Marvels/Marvel's Secret

I became established as a regular writer for National Comics, working through the mail and over the phone with Mort Weisinger on virtually all of his titles--Superman, Action Comics, Adventure Comics, World’s Finest Comics, Jimmy Olsen, Superboy and Captain Action. As the “kid who wrote Superman,” I became a mini-celebrity. This Week magazine ran a short feature about me, as did the Pittsburgh papers and TV news shows. I was asked for autographs! Quickly, I learned to sign “Shooter” with a Superman “S.”

Still, I haunted the newsstands to buy the latest Marvel Comics. Though Mort, an excellent, if harsh, teacher, taught me much about writing comics and writing in general, Stan Lee was still my greatest influence. I felt guilty, vaguely traitorous, but I continued to study every Marvel Comic I could lay hands upon. I comforted myself with the knowledge that Mort himself read all the Marvels. I’d seen stacks of them around his office the first time I’d visited New York. The simple truth was that little-but-growing Marvel Comics had become the leader in the comics field and the the other companies, including huge-but-declining National Comics, scared. Time after time, Mort tried to respond to the rising Marvel threat. He tried using odd panel shapes, as some Marvel artists did, to “make the page layout more exciting.” He tried running bright colors in the panel gutters to make the pages gaudier and, in theory, more exciting. He tried imitating the wisecracking humor, both in the dialog and in the editor’s notes, the extreme action, the gutsier characterization and every other superficially apparent quality of Marvel Comics. Nothing worked. The secret of Marvel’s success remained a mystery to him.

During all this, an odd dichotomy emerged. Mort, and everyone else at National it seemed, resented the idea that Stan and Marvel had something which they didn’t and couldn’t have. Marvel was a dirty word. Even while struggling to imitate the Marvel books, Mort and company would pooh-pooh the notion that Marvel’s success was any more than a fluke, a short-lived freakish phenomenon which would vanish like hula hoops. The “Marvel Style” was an object of derision and scorn at National--which put me in an interesting position, since my stuff was so clearly influenced by Stan’s. My ability to write stuff “like Marvel’s" was all at once my main strength, the reason I was hired in the first place, and also my greatest liability. Mort told me that around National’s offices I was referred to as their “Marvel writer,” and that he, Mort, was frequently criticized for using someone who wrote “like Stan Lee.”  Wow.

Once Mort even went so far as to command me not to read any more Marvel Comics because he feared their “bad influence” on my slowly developing skills. I remember that in the same conversation he made reference to an issue of The Fantastic Four and spoke at length about how the dialog was natural and unforced. I kept reading Marvels.

Worse still, when Stan started his Marvel fan club, the “Merry Marvel Marching Society,” I couldn’t resist joining to see what came in the membership kit. Stupidly, I used my own name. Later, when Stan announced that he was going to print the name of every single M.M.M.S. member in the comics, for months I lived in fear that Mort would spot my name and fire me.

It’s interesting, come to think of it, that in all of my conversations with Mort Weisinger, with all of the speculating he did about the “secret” of Marvel Comics, that he never asked me, his “Marvel writer,” what I thought it was. Mort was not the easygoing kind of guy to whom you might casually volunteer your opinion about anything. My end of the conversation was generally restricted to “yes, sir,” and the like--but I wonder, if he had asked, and if I had answered, would it have made any difference?

Probably not.

12 comments:

Marc Miyake said...

A generation of Marvel readers - myself included - recognize your signature from Bullpen Bulletins. I'd love to see your Superman-S signature!

So many ironies in this posting. And a big mystery - one that even Mort Weisinger, editor of so many puzzle-oriented stories, couldn't solve! I hope you reveal the answer in tomorrow's posting. I've seen many explanations for Marvel's success, including those Weisinger mentioned and more, but I'd like to see yours.

I'm guessing that Weisinger couldn't ask you what the secret was because he wanted to figure out the answer himself.

Weisinger praised Stan Lee's dialogue? Wow. Who knew?

Erik Bruhwiler said...

Jim,

Can you tell us what you think the 'Marvel secret' is/was?

-Erik

jimshooter said...

The Marvel Secret? Well, that's the punchline of this stroll down memory lane, but it's not exactly a shocking revelation. The last installment of this introductory piece will be next Tuesday or Wednesday.

niederklopfer said...

I have my own thought/opinion about what the Marvel secret is/was, but I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on the subject Mr. Shooter.

Piperson said...

Great piece Jim! I find your reminisces so fascinating, and I often end up laughing out loud at the absurdity of it. I love the part about you living in fear of Mort finding out you belonged to the MMMS! That's wonderful!
I went back and read an interview you did of this time at DC,
http://www.wtv-zone.com/silverager/sasar9/archive194.shtml
and love to hear your view of Marvel comics. I grew up in the late 70's with Marvel comics. I never knew anything different so the Marvel way was the only way for me (although I never wasted my time with DC books). So it's fascinating hear what someone who first discovered them in the early 60's thought of them. It's also interesting how comics age. Stan's comics today don't have the same impact that they had then.
Actually it was your Avengers #177 (the last part of the Kovacs/Michael saga the had that effect on me. To this day I still consider it a milestone in comics history. You can't imagine the impact it had on a 10 year old mind to see all these strange and wonderful characters (the team must have been 20 strong!)fighting and dying! And the villain was no villain! That was the issue that made me a life long comic reader!

uncannyderek.com said...

I am absolutely astounded by all of these entries, Jim.

Thanks for making these interesting stories shed light on things. I love them.

PC said...

Ultimately, I don't think it's important to know Marvel's "secret." By the time I was born, Marvel style had already permeated everything, including DC.

Alejandro said...

Such a pleasure reading these blog installments Mr. Shooter! I'm glad you have so much of these writings saved, it's a really good time to share them alongside your new launch. Are there any plans to get some letter responses from you in the Dark-Key books? I really enjoyed all your writings in the Pre-Unity Valiant era.

Kris Brownlow said...

Jim there's an old story that there was an editorial meeting at DC and someone said that the secret to Marvel's success was "bad art". In an Alter-Ego article George Kashdan didn't recall such an event but said he might have agreed with such a statement. Your recollection here would seem to validate the idea that the Marvel material was looked down upon by the old timers.

I would like to ask you about the supposed blacklisting of Jack Kirby, I say "supposed" because as I have looked further into the matter, it seems that none of the other editors besides Jack Schiff were hiring Kirby -before- he was fired by Schiff, and there seems to be no record of Kirby even trying to seek work from any other DC editors -after- Schiff canned him. Kashdan also claimed that "people" including Irwin Donenfeld were "angry" at Schiff for letting Kirby get away. To me, this does not sound like a company-wide blacklist, but more like an instance where Kirby burned his only bridge into DC.

Defiant1 said...

I started reading comics in the early 70's. The first time I picked up an issue of Hulk and it had him battling the Rhino, I was awe struck. I knew the Rhino because of the Spider-Man cartoon series on television. I was stunned that Spider-Man's villain might actually interact with another character in another series. Around the same time or shortly after, I had picked up a Marvel Team-up with Spider-Man fighting alongside the vision. I finished reading the Marvel Team-up issue and immediately picked up an Avengers issue and the Vision walks through a wall talking about his adventure with Spider-man. I immediately thought "Cool". I knew exactly what he was talking about because I'd just read the story. These stories gave the Marvel universe a connected feeling. Everything mattered because the events of one character's life had a ripple effect into the whole Marvel universe. It's a realness that I'd never gotten reading a DC comic. The soap opera style of storytelling pulled me in as a reader. DC offered stand-alone stories where nothing mattered.

As I look back on things, it dawned upon me that DC gave readers a stopping point at the end of every issue. You could stop reading a title at any point and it didn't matter. Marvel hooked me as a reader and compelled me to want the next issue. Whether it be a cliff hanger ending with the hero in dire circumstances or a subplot with mystery and intrigue, I wanted to know what was going to happen next. Even more so, I wanted to know what had happened before. I was lured into being not only a reader, but a collector. I'm proud to say I was a Marvel zombie. I think Marvel had the right approach to lure readers in, make them care, and make them collect. Even though I was collecting, I never really considered my boxes a collection until I saw the Mile High Comic ads selling X-Men #94 for an escalated price. That was when I realized comics have value to not only me, but faces all over the country. I started taking better care of my comics because they were something that might actually be worth more than I paid for them some day.

If I was so inclined, I could write a book on things comics are doing wrong. Covers no longer provide enticement or insight into what a comic has within. Many covers are static images, or generic portrait shots that have no connection to the contents inside. Heroes stand on the cover poking their chest out or as one collector said "Flying in formation like the Blue Angels". When I take a photo of people, I don't know anyone who pokes their chest out. It doesn't entice me to buy a comic, it makes me wonder about the character's personality defect.

Comics that are written with story arcs in mind are making the same mistake that DC did in the 70's. They are giving readers a stopping point. The only difference is that it occurs after six issues instead of every issue. Trade paperbacks come out so frequently that you don't need to buy back issues. Hell, many readers just skip buying new comics altogether, because the trade paperbacks are a better value. Comic shops get stuck with those 200 regular comics in order to appease that one collector who wanted that rare variant. It results in comics being worth a dime on the wholesale market within a year. Comic shops break even or lose money as collectors reward themselves for waiting until the value drops. Either that or they decide against buying new comics altogether. After all, it doesn't matter. In six issues the story will be over and a new creative team will steer the character in a completely unrelated direction anyway. The retailer just ties more and more money into back issues that are lost revenue.

Just imagine how much retailer money could be redirected into ordering aggressively on new comics if the back issues retained their value like they did when I started collecting.

Kid said...

I used to earn my living as a letterer on various British comics. One comic I worked on was - and still is - a cult comic in Britain. I was known for doing good display lettering, like sound effects and logos, etc.

One day, a "new" editor (he'd been transferred from a discontinued comic) asked me to stop doing my sound-effects (Wham!, Smash!, Pow!, etc.) in the manner I was doing them. "It makes the strips you work on look like a Marvel Comic!", he said. You see, the traditional British way had been just to do basic, black lettering to signify a sound - serviceable, but uninspired - often looking like it had been stuck over the artwork rather than being a part of it.

I had tried to make the effects look as if they were part of the artwork, with the kind of outline and detail that suggested the sounds they were trying to convey. Art Simek and Sam Rosen had their own styles, sure - but they didn't so much letter comics the "Marvel Way" as letter them the best and most effective way they could be done. That's what I tried to do. The editor just didn't get it - he'd rather I lettered in a bland, non-spectacular way as opposed to the best way to do it, simply because he didn't want the comic to look like a Marvel comic - even 'though Marvel comics looked better.

The point of my reminiscence? Seems to me that editor would have fit right in at DC Comics back in the '60s.

Onion3000 said...

Kid - "Wham! Smash! Pow!" Fantastic! Terrific! (I am British too, and I am old. For everyone else's benefit, these were the 5 titles which first showcased early Marvel and DC material in the UK in the late sixties.)
Loving the blog Mr Shooter! For the record, your Sun-eater/Fatal Five comic is among ny earliest comic-reading memories. Sigh.