Thursday, July 7, 2011

Righting the Ship

Early 1978.  Dark days for Marvel Comics.  Bad sales, late books, bad books, waste, corruption, contentions over the new copyright law, general unrest, chaos in the ranks…. 

Stormy seas.  The ship was sinking.  I was the captain.  It was my job to right the ship.

One big problem was that some of the sailors didn’t know I was the captain.

A little back story.  If you’ve been following along, you know most of this:

Stan was the publisher, but only ceremonially.  He had no business responsibilities, no day-to-day management role.  His job was being Stan.  He was the resident creative guru, the face of Marvel, number one pitch man and ambassador.

I’m not saying Stan was powerless.  If he chose to weigh in on something, people listened.  I was hired on his recommendation.  But, it was the President of the company, Jim Galton, who hired me, and he was the one to whom I reported.  Stan’s authority came from being Stan, not by virtue of his title.          

Sol Brodsky was “V.P. of Operations.”  That was a phony baloney job.  When his friend Sol was out of work, Stan invented that job and convinced Cadence that it was necessary and important.  Mostly what Sol did was serve as Stan’s assistant.  If Stan needed presentation boards for a pitch, Sol had them made.  If Stan wanted books for reference, Sol acquired them.  Etc.

Sol also constantly ferreted out things to do, things he could take charge of.  Anything.  If a door lock needed changing, Sol had it taken care of.  If a light bulb was burned out you might see Sol on a ladder.  The warehouse?  He took charge.  No one was doing much in the way of facilities management, so Sol scooped up those duties.  Anything to justify his employment.

Any vacuum of authority, Sol rushed in to fill. 

Sol acted as though he had a role in the comics publishing and so he did.  I don’t know about Roy or Len, but Marv, Gerry and Archie seemed to believe that Sol was the boss, or at least in charge of some areas.  If Marv wanted to give a freelancer a raise, he went to Sol and asked for a raise for said person, and was happy if Sol “approved” the raise.

What?

So…Sol had somehow wheedled his way into a de facto position similar to the one he had legitimately while working with Stan in the sixties.  Just like Stan used to, the EIC would bring to Sol anything financial or legal and he would handle it. 

As associate editor, I observed this and wondered why.  All Sol did was pass any financial or legal issues on to the financial officer or counsel upstairs.  Why the EIC didn’t do that himself, I couldn’t fathom.

Anyway….

During the three weeks or so before I took office as EIC, while Archie was playing out the string on his tenure, Production Manager John Verpoorten died and Art Director John Romita left staff.

Sol hired Len Grow to replace John Verpoorten and Marie Severin to replace John Romita.  He also hired his son in law as assistant production manager.  He had no authority to do any of that.  But upstairs bosses either didn’t know that, or assumed that Sol was acting with Archie’s or my consent.  No.  Sol was just further reinforcing his de facto status as the business half of a two-headed publishing operation.

When I was in the discussions that led to my being hired, I found out that Sol was not only not in charge of anything to do with publishing, but he wasn’t even on the table of organization.  He was a footnote.

I could have objected then to Len and Marie being hired without my consent but 1) I had enough to worry about already, and 2) Len had been a good assistant production manager.  I might have hired him anyway.  And Marie Severin is a genius-National Treasure-Hall-of-Famer, so….

When I started as EIC, I started making changes in procedures, most notably the vouchering procedure.  Len Grow seemed annoyed.  Resentful.  He had this “who-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are?” attitude.  Every time I went to the production department to have something done, I got that same attitude.  They did what I said, but grudgingly, it seemed. 

Meanwhile, Marie Severin was taking the “Art Director” title literally, and was directing the art!  If you read this post (link to the “When Is an Art Director….” post) you know that the Marvel Art Director’s job, at least as constituted when I arrived, didn’t involve any direction of the comic book art.

Marie had asserted control over assigning coloring and had stopped giving work to certain people whose coloring she didn’t like, and assigned it to people she thought were better.  Trouble was, we had obligations to a couple of the people she cut out.  And, while generally unhappy with the coloring at the time, I didn’t think they were worse than the others.

I tried to talk to Marie and got that “who-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are?” attitude. 

Later Walt came in enraged.  Marie had seized one of his books that was in production and was making “art corrections.”  Walt doesn’t take well to having his work redrawn.  He assumed that it was being done on my orders, so his rage was directed at me.

I told Marie to stop and took the pages.  I think Walt fixed them back the way they were.  Now Marie, one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, was furious and seething at me. 

Lenny took me aside and told me off.  Who the hell did I think I was?  How dare I interfere with Marie and him?  He muttered something about going to Sol about this.

So, finally, the little light bulb came on.  This guy didn’t know he reported to me.  Okay, I should have known, I’m as dumb as an oyster.  But, hey, I had a lot on my mind then. 

I went to my office, got the publishing Table of Organization Barry Kaplan had given me and showed it to Lenny.  Me at the top.  Director level.  Little lines connecting to Lenny and Marie, below.  Manager level.  No Sol.

P.S. Yes, Art “Director” was a manager-level job.  Go figure.

Len apologized.  I went back to my room.  A minute later, Marie showed up.  Len had told her.  She apologized. 

Sol had given them to understand that he was in charge, and that we three, Marie, Len and me, were a triumvirate of equal rank under him.  Which is what he hoped to engineer.

They didn’t know.  No harm, no foul.  All okay.  Start over.

I was told that later Marie gave Sol a piece of her mind.

At least, then, aboard our sinking ship, there wasn’t a misinformed mutiny going on.

IMPORTANT NOTE!  As Production Manager and Stan’s right-hand man, Sol Brodsky was an important part of Marvel Comics during its break-out years in the 1960’s.  I mean in no way to diminish his contributions from that time, or to impugn him as a man.  But during the mid-to-late seventies, for a while, he was a man without a real job.  He was struggling to hang in and survive.  As were we all.  Those years weren’t his finest, in my opinion, but stay tuned.  He wasn’t finished making significant contributions.

NEXT:  Reinforcements arrive. And NO GREEN BACKGROUNDS!

18 comments:

uncannyderek.com said...

What an interesting read! I mean, how do you get hired as "THE" boss, and have no one know? That seems very strange. If everyone went to Sol with questions, who did they think he would speak to? Or rather, did they just assume he could make those decisions immediately?

Also, do you have a copy of the "Table of Organization"? I'd think it would be very interesting to see.

And as always, thanks for the excellent reads, Jim. You have no idea how well a lot of these stories have gotten my creativity jumping off the walls.

Tony said...

It sounds to me like, regardless of job titles or official duties, people like Len Wein and Marv Wolfman (their generation) deferred to Sol because he was the "grown-up." The "kids" had taken over the shop, but "Uncle Solly" was still around, so they asked his permission on things and generally treated him like he was in charge even if he wasn't really. I think that's an understandable mindset. Maybe Sol took advantage of that.

Steve Hooker said...

Jim, I'm impressed with your candor. I was reading comics when you arrived at Marvel. You've always, to my mind, had such a bad press.

It's interesting to hear your side. Looking back at the things you tried to introduce and the negative feedback you got, from fans (what do we know) and artists and writers, with hindsight, I begin to see that you were right and time has proved that.

I'll be reading your blog from now on, the history of the comic book interests me more than the comics (okay, that's slightly over the top but the way the industry worked/works/is still working.....certainly gets my attention.

Your views are very welcome.

My thanks to you,

Steve Hooker

blacjack said...

Around the late 70's to early 80's Marvel books went from around 17 pages of story to the now standard 22 pages of story. What was the reason for the change?

jimshooter said...

Dear Tony,

Very insightful. Also, Sol was a good blame-catcher, as in "I wanted to give you a raise, but Sol said no."

Robbie Morales said...

Great article Jim. How I wish you were running Marvel or DC today.
This movement towards photo realism kills it for me. Jack kirby could not get a job today. Unbelievable. Something John Buscema said strikes a cord with me "If it looks real I'm not interested. You might as well take a picture." Everything that made comics fun is no longer there. If you were 12 or 30 the same book could be read. Not now. A shame.

Marc Miyake said...

Dear Jim,

I first learned of Sol Brodsky in Marvel Age #22. Haven't read it in 36 years. Wish I could get my copy out of storage. I assume you were one of the contributors. I've picked up more info about Brodsky over the years, but this is the biggest revelation of all. You briefly referred it in a previous post. Thank you for telling the whole story.

As I see it, there are no true villains here. Although I don't know Wein, Wolfman, or Brodsky, Tony's theory sounds plausible to me. You made me aware of the generation gap in comics, a field where young and talented people found themselves in power early in their careers. In the 60s, editors were older men like Weisinger and Boltinoff; in the 70s, they included younger men like Wein, Wolfman, and Conway. Brodsky was an elder from the early Marvel Age. A desire to defer to him would be understandable.

I look forward to reading about Brodsky's later contributions to Marvel.

Like Steve Hooker, "I'm impressed with your candor." No sugar-coating. No demonizing. Your recollections bring the past to life. More, please!

Dear Robbie,

"If you were 12 or 30 the same book could be read."

It's fun to reread at 30 what I read at 12. Nowadays I find that I can't read "mainstream" DC or Marvel comics at all. I try and I get lost ... and I'm an adult with 35+ years of reading under my belt. Even a long-time pro like Jim can get lost:

Nowadays you pick up two dozen comic books at random off the shelves at the local comic book shop and you're lucky if you can find one that you can make any sense out of. I'm not even talking about if it's any good. I'm talking about being able to actually follow it. And you know something? If I have trouble, and I've been doing this for a long time, what if some new kid picked up one of these?

The upcoming DC relaunch is supposed to rectify this situation, but it won't if some previous continuity is maintained and mixed with new origins.

And what is the deal with the rise of photorealism? Is it adult fans who equate realism with maturity?

Despite what I just said, I don't think the situation is entirely bleak. There's still fun in comics. You just have to look outside the "mainstream."

Steve Miller, Writer of Stuff said...

Another great article about the behind-the-scenes activity in an entertainment company.

When I was starting out, I was the assistant to a program director who suddenly quit. I was told by the general manager to maintain what had been going on until a replacement had been found--or until I got promoted to fill the spot (which is how I ended up in the job I was holding).

Weeks went by. Nothing happened. Staff started coming to me with questions, scheduling issues. I got no response from the GM when I asked for direction, so I just went ahead and made decisions and made assignments as if I was the program director.

Within days, there was a reaction. It was fast and it was furious. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was NOT to take on responsibilities that were not mine and not to make decisions that I didn't have the power to make. The Org Chart and job responsibilities were there for a reason.

At the time, I was irked because I thought I was just doing what needed to be done. I've since realized how wrong I was... and your article today drives home why.

JC said...

This brings up a very interesting aspect of office politics, how managers are often oblivious of the undocumented power structure of their underlings. At my workplace, one particular co-worker always rushes to get any loading dock shipments, that way he can intercept any projects and set them aside for himself, often without anyone else knowing. This same co-worker also takes credit for others' work. One day this worker 'T' came in early and thought he was the only person in the office, he was on the phone taking credit for worker 'D's completed work. We have very high cubicles and worker 'D' just so happened to be a few feet away in the next cube that morning.
Worker 'T' realized mid conversation that he was not alone and then suddenly he started to state that both 'T' and 'D' worked on the project together. 'T' once told me, 'What goes on back here on the office floor, stays here.' He did not want the boss knowing what was going on under his nose.

jimshooter said...

Dear blacjack,

The books had been cut back to 17 pages of story as an cost-cutting measure. I hated that. There was even a time (before my time) when artists were asked to draw a double page spread in every issue, but to do it on ONE ART BOARD turned sideways! Therefore, the artist was paid for only ONE page, but Marvel got TWO printed pages out of it.

Back in the sixties, when I started, page counts of 23 and 24 pages weren't unusual.

Pj Perez said...

I know some people find your rawness abrasive, but I call it refreshing. Thanks for sharing so much (without making people buy a memoir ... which, admittedly, I'd read anyway).

blacjack said...

Having mentioned Bill Sienkiewicz's run on New Mutants made me want to go back and flip through them. Those stories & artwork are timeless.
I also noticed the Statement of Ownership said that a little more then a half million copies where selling....WOW! What does Marvel need nowadays to sell a half million copies? 10 titles combined?
Something else I noticed in the back of issue #36 is an ad for an upcoming series called "The Misfits". It's got Sunspot & Warlock in the foreground & 5 people in shadow in the background. Is that the series that eventually became Fallen Angels?

Matt Adler said...

"Sol also constantly ferreted out things to do, things he could take charge of. Anything. If a door lock needed changing, Sol had it taken care of. If a light bulb was burned out you might see Sol on a ladder. The warehouse? He took charge. No one was doing much in the way of facilities management, so Sol scooped up those duties. Anything to justify his employment."

A lot of people would have just laid low and collected a paycheck. Speaks to his sense of pride and work ethic, if nothing else.

bchat said...

"This same co-worker also takes credit for others' work."

This happened to me once, except the guy taking credit was higher-up the ladder than me. I can't remember the details anymore, since it happened at least 10 years ago, and it wasn't all that important to me, personally, even back then. Basically, a co-worker & I were talking to a manager about some idea I had to make something work-related run more smoothly and possibly save the company money. Later in the day, the manager was talking to a group of managers, including my boss, and tried passing-off what I'd said as if it were his own original idea ... with me standing right there. "Um, that's MY idea", I said. I received the "Oh my God, I didn't realize you were standing right in front of me" look, which is funny, because I'm like 6'7" and kind of hard to miss, even in a crowd, let alone a small group of people.

jimshooter said...

Dear Matt,

Excellent observation.

Marc Miyake said...

Dear blacjack,

Ten top Marvel titles would add up to a half million. Fewer than ten, if an "event" comic is added to the mix. Nowadays there are "No Titles Over 100K." I wonder how many copies are actually being read. How many are doubles? Fated for the back-issue boxes, trapped in bags until the end of time?

Dear Matt,

You described why I don't see Brodsky as a bad guy. Wrong, yes, bad, no. He was working -- actively looking for things to do -- and that can only be good in my book.

kintounkal said...

blacjack,

You're correct. Misfits is the same project that eventually became Fallen Angels. Jeph York has hinted that ad will be included in the upcoming X-Men: Fallen Angels Premiere hardcover.

The title was probably changed to avoid confusion with the "Misfits of Science" TV series starring Courtney Cox. That show began airing on October 4th, 1985 while New Mutants #36 hit the stands on October 22nd, 1985.

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