Thursday, June 16, 2011

When Is an Art Director Not an Art Director?

(NOTE:  I wrote this a long time ago, but it’s germane to the tales of old Marvel I’ve been telling.) 

During my time at Marvel the people that held the position of Art Director were John Romita, Sr., Marie Severin (briefly), and John Romita, Sr. again.  Dave Cockrum shared duties with John Romita for a while, as did Don Perlin toward the end of my tenure.

First of all, the title “Art Director” at Marvel during the 70’s and 80’s is completely misleading.  It was a staff artist position.  Of course, it made sense to have a really outstanding artist on staff.  Things came up constantly for which a quality piece of art was needed, for presentations, PR, whatever, and if you had to track down a freelancer each time, it would be a nightmare.  Stan trumped up the title “Art Director” so he could pay outstanding, versatile artist John Romita more money.  The brass above Stan would never have agreed to pay a “staff artist” as much, but an “Art Director?”  Sure.

Fortunately, the brass was completely ignorant of what went on in the comics creative department, so they were easily fooled.  Seriously—most of the upstairs execs and the brass of parent company Cadence Industries had never opened a comic book, and they were proud to say that.  Few had ever even ventured onto the floor we occupied.  We scared them, I think.

The “Art Director” didn’t really direct the art.  First Stan, then, as Stan became less involved, the Editor in Chief was the de facto art director. 

Before I became Editor in Chief, John Romita spent a most of his time working with the current EIC creating cover sketches; occasionally working with the EIC to design a character or other item, if it was being created “in house” for some reason; or doing art corrections requested by the “proofreaders.” 

By art corrections I mean fixing costume details that some artist had screwed up, correcting other art blunders, extending art when panels had to be shot down or moved, etc.  Of course, everything was so late that there was never time to get the artist who screwed it up to make the correction.  If that sounds like using an elephant gun to kill gnats, you are correct.

It was tremendously helpful to have an artist of John Romita’s caliber “on tap” in case the EIC, or occasionally Stan, wanted something drawn.  For instance, some spot art, a trademark illo, or in Stan’s case, a pitch piece to a film or animation company. 

The layout of non-story pages, the design of house ads, the arrangement of elements for any posters, ads, whatever—jobs that anywhere but Marvel one might associate with the title “Art Director”—were not done by or supervised by our Art Director.  They were done by “designers” who worked in the production department.  Those people reported to the production manager, who reported to the EIC.  Again, the EIC was the final say, in charge of all creative work.

The reason for the above is that Marvel had started as a very small shop in which Stan, the boss, did all the writing and presided over all things creative, with the help of a “production manager,” Sol Brodsky, who handled anything that Stan didn’t want to deal with, i.e., anything technical, legal, financial or complicated.  There were a few production/administrative people on staff who did the grunt work and freelancers did all the art under Stan’s direction.  By the 70’s, Marvel had gotten vastly bigger, but no real organization had evolved.  It was still the EIC, in Stan’s place, with a production manager, John Verpoorten, and really, very little delegation/organization below that.

So.  While I was Marvel EIC, the Art Director reported to me.  I often worked with John and/or the co-pilots on various things.  We all seemed to work well together.  I had the final say.  I don’t remember anytime ever, though, that we didn’t arrive at a solution to whatever the problem was collegially.  Think about the talent represented by that list of names at the beginning.  How could you go wrong?

I spent a great deal of time and effort trying to change the role of the Art Director, because I thought it was insane to have John Romita sitting there ruling lines in a background on a panel that was being extended.  The best thing I did was institute the “Romita’s Raiders” intern program.  We hired a group of young, wannabe comics artists, picked from their samples out of the slush pile to do all the line-ruling and grunt art/production/corrections work.  They signed on for six-month hitches.  They were paid not much over minimum wage—but they got to work under the supervision of John Romita, one of the all-time greats.  They sat in the Marvel Bullpen, where, say, a Walt Simonson or a Bill Sienkiewicz might stroll by.  They could glom onto such stars, force them to look at their work, extract tips and pointers from them etc.  And, by the way, to a person, every artist who came to the office was great with the interns.  What this accomplished, aside from giving would-be artists with great potential a chance to learn from stars, was freeing John from the line-ruling.  Actually, he ended up spending a lot of time teaching the Raiders instead, which was a much better use of his time.  Aside from that, I tried to involve John more in the high-end stuff; designing, drawing important-nobody-else-can-do-it stuff, working more closely with the editors under me to improve the art in their books. 

P.S. A number of Romita’s Raiders went on to become successful artists and creators.  

By the way, Dave Cockrum was brought on staff to design covers, working with the EIC (me).  That relieved John’s burden somewhat, and also the need to use freelancers for cover design (though we continued to use some freelancers—Byrne and Simonson come to mind—to design the covers of their own books).  Dave was great at covers.  He pitched in on anything else that was needed, too, because that’s the kind of trouper he was.

Don Perlin was brought on staff to relieve John Romita of the Raiders!  For a while, they were “Perlin’s Pirates.”  Don was responsible for running that program, training them and overseeing their work—thereby freeing John to do more high-end work.  Don was terrific working with the newbies, and also at managing the interface with the production department.  He was a Godsend.

Later on at VALIANT I was the “Art Director” even more so than at Marvel, because there were only a few of us and it was a smaller operation.  I was involved in and had final say on everything—creative, business, everything—until the white collar criminals managed to steal it from me, and I left.  I tried to give the line a distinctive look and feel.  I wanted buyers to be able to pick out a VALIANT cover from across the room. 

All the title logos were boxed, for instance.  I wanted every VALIANT book to have a similar feel to the story and storytelling, just as Marvel Comics did in the very early 60’s.  We had a “house style”—mine.  In these days of rampant creative anarchy, that’s regarded as evil, but I loved Marvel’s house style in the early 60’s, and our readers loved ours in the early 90’s.  Don’t forget, VALIANT was a tiny, undercapitalized start-up.  We couldn’t afford the Jim Lees of the world.  We had to make do with kids right out of the Kubert school, guys nobody else wanted, a few, like Windsor-Smith and Layton who had burned all their bridges elsewhere, and a few guys who chipped in because they were friends who were willing to help me out—Frank Miller and Walt Simonson, for instance.  Mostly, what I had to fight with was the quality of the writing—and I wrote or heavily rewrote almost everything during my time there—and my vision of what might appeal to readers, that is, our house style, which was very straightforward storytelling, rectilinear panels, clear art and high concept.  It worked.

I was fortunate to have JayJay Jackson aboard.  She’s a wonderfully talented designer (and Renaissance woman, who contributed in myriad ways).  Working with her, giving her ideas to develop, accepting suggestions of hers and occasionally making her do it my way when she wanted to deviate from the vision I had, we gave VALIANT its style.  The VALIANT logo is a perfect example.  I gave JayJay a rough, scribbly sketch and she drew up the logo as if she were reading my mind.  The name VALIANT, by the way, was her suggestion.  Everybody thought up possible names.  I picked VALIANT off of her list.

14 comments:

Marc Miyake said...

Dear Jim,

I've always loved origin stories. This post has several! They're not just for superheroes ...

I assume Don Perlin's experience as the captain of his Pirates prepared him for mentoring Knob Row at VALIANT.

Piperson said...

Great post Jim! It's so fascinating to hear about all the inner workings of the company that produced all those great comics that I love and still read today! I had no idea Perlin was such a big-wig at Marvel. I only know him as the artist of the 80's Defenders comics.
One of my favorite works of Romita's art director days is his design and cover of Hero for Hire #1. I love that comic and the cover is one of my all time favorites!
Thanks Jim!

Defiant1 said...

I was curious where the name Valiant originated. Early Harbinger took place in Tucker, Ga of course and I've lived near Tucker all of my life. One day while sitting on the expressway I looked over and saw a sign which read "Valiant Steel". I'd never seen the sign before and it struck me as odd. It was on the edge of Tucker, so I now know that was a coincidence.

Jim, I know you have visited Tucker, because Linda, the sister of Herb (a distributor), told me you'd visited with her brother. I used to hang out at the store Herb co-owned with Dragon Con founder Pat Henry. Herbs sister was managing the store at the time. Seaborn Adamson who later became Valiant's archivist shopped there also. I've always wondered if you chose a place like Tucker because you knew there was a distributor located there. If so, I think it was a brilliant idea. If you chose Tucker by throwing a dart at a map, that would be okay. I was just wondering what inspired some of the locations. I know you've had a history of using the names of real people as your characters. I've never had any insight into what inspired the locations.

Getting back on topic though, I liked the way Valiant used scenes from within the comics. It's very reminiscent of what Marvel did in the 60's, especially on some old Tales To Astonish issues I was reading and collecting at the time.

Alejandro said...

Great Read as always! Never knew JayJay came up with the Valiant name & final look of the logo, bet she's proud of that! Hope you turn all this into a book sometime soon Mr. Shooter, always a pleasure. The most insightful look into the comic creating world I've ever read.

Alejandro said...

Thanks for the script PDF's BTW, I revel in the behind the scenes stuff!

jimshooter said...

After I got "Comics Newco" funded, I asked everyone who was aboard early on, all four or five of us, to make a list of potential names. Winston Fowlkes, our financial officer, offered "Compass Communications," and "Compass Comics," with a compass rose for a logo. I liked the compass rose, but there were already too many companies in communications related fields with the name compass. On JayJay's list, among many suggestions, VALIANT leaped out at me. I worked a "V" into the compass rose, JayJay executed the logo and away we went.

I might have picked Tucker, Georgia, because I'd been there. I don't remember. I never saw the Valiant Steel sign, or paid it no mind.

I try to use real locations and base chracters on real people if I can. It lends verisimilitude.

I remember an early issue of the FF in which, somehow, the Thing was thrown through the air. He caught on to the spire of a building to stop himself. Though I lived in Pittsburgh, I recognized the building as the Chrysler Building. That really made the scene more exciting for me.

Rick Olney said...

Fascinating read, Jim. Thanks for sharing.

Pastrami said...

The use of real places was one of my favorite parts of VALIANT comics. I especially liked that it wasn't always the biggest cities, but some smaller lesser-known places. There's something endearing about it.

Don Hudson said...

John and the 'Raiders' gave me my start and I'm happy to have worked at Valiant. Thanks for everything Jim.

Marc Miyake said...

Dear Jim,

I've heard of the "Compass" proposal from an earlier interview of yours, but I didn't know "Comics Newco" was the placeholder name for your company. "Compass" sounds like the name of an educational company whose products are meant to guide the user toward enlightenment. Good for a company that would lead the way, but "VALIANT" is even better. VALIANT describes heroes. Perfect for a superhero comics company. Did you already license the Gold Key characters at that point? I'm wondering if JayJay came up with the name VALIANT thinking you'd be doing superheroes instead of the Nintendo and WWF comics that you actually did at first.

Adding to what Pastrami said, the appeal of "smaller lesser-known places" lies in the implication that exciting things could happen outside New York City. Setting Marvel stories in New York City was revolutionary in the early 60s; setting stories for VALIANT and other companies in Tucker or, more recently, Kerhonkson, Boerne, and Jerz is the next step. If Solar and Samson are in real places, then maybe Magnus is too.

jimshooter said...

The story of the origin of VALIANT is coming soon.

Magnus is set in the Chicago area.

Defiant1 said...

I would sometimes walk out of the comic book store looking at trees across the street and think how much the setting in the comic actually looked like Tucker. I would look up and ponder what I'd do if I saw kids flying across the sky. In all my years of collecting, I'd never had another comic evoke such thoughts. I remember the scene where Torgue first appears in the comic and it reminded me of a place I'd once lived. I'd lived in old construction office in Decatur. It had a garage that had been used to build race cars. At the end of Harbinger #2 was a hospital in Decatur. My mom worked at "the" hospital in Decatur.

At the time I had no reason to drive through Norcross. Occasionally, I do drive through there now and I still ponder how much the Norcross setting in Harbinger looks like homes in the real Norcross. I'm sure it's mostly coincidence. I doubt David Lapham had ever been here. Regardless, it was an added touch of reality that I really appreciated.

Scott Koblish said...

As with Don H., I too was a Romita Raider. Having that position taught me a tremendous amount in a very short period of time, gave me an insight into the workings of the offices, and I certainly wouldn't have made it into the business, and stayed as long as I have, if I hadn't had that shot. Absolutely invaluable.

The collegiality of the Bullpen, and Marvel in general, stays with me to this day - thanks for creating the program that gave me my start, Jim. I appreciate it.

JediJones said...

I read the tale of how Jim and JayJay came up with Valiant's unique coloring process before reading this entry. I had been wondering if the coloring might be why the Valiant covers stood out from the other companies' titles on the racks. I definitely agree that they could easily be picked out compared to a DC or Marvel issue.

I think in addition to the elements Jim mentions, the coloring was probably part of it. Whether it was the process itself or just the artistic style chosen, the Valiant covers had a pretty unique digitally painted look, in the pre-digital era no less, thanks perhaps in part to a heavy use of color fading effects.

Another difference when comparing side-by-side to Marvels from the same time period is that the Valiant drawing style is more realistic, as if the image could have been snapped on a camera by a character in the story. They usually show a natural-looking scene that appears lifted right out of some dramatic event in the comic. I don't see much forced perspective on these covers, I don't see bunches of characters crammed into an impossible collage, nor do I see the characters posing for obvious pin-up pictures. The Valiant covers were selling the plot and story, not just the characters. The covers also avoided playful, comic-booky touches like captions or a little inset panel of a guest-star character.

The coloring, on the other hand, contrasts with covers' other realism, especially the backgrounds. They tend to have a bright, warm, almost pastel look. You might see a grassy field colored in blue, a purple mountain or an orange sky. The color choices seem to suggest to the reader that they're still in a comic book universe. Despite the realism, this book is still meant to be fun, entertaining escapism that's appropriate for kids and isn't too "grim and gritty."

There's no question in my mind that this house style was brilliant from a marketing perspective. It made it harder for people to pick and choose which Valiant title they might read. The whole universe seemed so cohesive even on first glance that you felt like you were missing something if you didn't get them all. It also put the focus in everybody's mind on the stories, because the art wasn't trying to "wow" you with eye candy all the time.

Perhaps over time the titles could have evolved more individualized artistic styles without suffering in quality. We can all remember a time when an artist did a classic run on a series and gave it a distinctive look all his own. If there's an argument against a house style, that would be it. If the writing remained solid, the art style wouldn't matter much anyway. If Image Comics taught us one thing, it's that great art without a story is a pretty boring thing (to paraphrase the George Lucas of the 1980s). But I think a great story can survive even bad art. Perhaps it can even benefit from art that isn't so pretty that it becomes distracting.