Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Superman, the Playboy Club, Decorating Higgins, the Secret Theater and More Strange Tales

Superman 

My first year as Marvel Editor in Chief was a tough one in many ways for everybody on staff.  We all worked our butts off to get caught up, make things better and keep Marvel alive.

I suppose I could look up the date, but I’m pretty sure it was late in the year, during cold weather, anyway, that the long-awaited Superman movie came out.

I figured the editorial and production people deserved a perk.  An early Christmas present, if you will.  No, I’m not going to say “holiday present.”  I’m old.  I get the senior citizen discount.  Give me a PC break.

Anyway…the movie opened strong.  It was a hit.  With a large group, the only sure way to get in without standing in line for hours, at least for the first few weeks after the premiere, was to go to the first show in the morning.  No, I’m not going to say “standing ON line.”  I’m from Pittsburgh where one stands IN line.  I get the Allegheny Plateau discount.  Give me a west-of-the-Hudson break.   

So, I gathered up the troops one morning, all of us, I think, and we marched en masse over to the theater in Times Square to see the 10 AM show.  There were about 30 of us.  I paid for the tickets.

I didn’t make a lot of money back then, but I was happy to shell out for what I felt was a meaningful experience.

I thought the movie, and the implications it bore for our industry as a whole were extremely important.  I thought it could be, and in many respects it was a watershed in the history of our medium—the first serious, successful super-hero movie.  I wanted us to see it all together.

We had a blast.

We talked about it all the way back to 575 Madison and for days afterwards.  The reactions were overwhelmingly positive.  One thing—someone said they spent $44 million making the movie, an astronomical sum at the time.  What they should have done was spend another couple of thousand dollars and hired any one of us to fix up the story a little.  But, it was good.  Great.  Don’t get me wrong. 

When we got back to the office, Stan asked me where everybody went?  He couldn’t figure out why the place was suddenly deserted.  I told him.

He seemed verklempt.  He said he wished he had gotten to go with us.  He wished he had been the one to take the staff to the movie.  He thought it should have been him.

He was like a kid who was the only one not to get ice cream.

I felt bad.  It never occurred to me to ask Stan to come.  I don’t know why.  “Hey, Stan, we’re going to go goof off for a few hours, wanna come?”  Those words did not leap easily to mind. 

He made me promise that if I ever did such a thing again, I’d include him.  A good lesson there.  Stan the Man was, and still is, I suspect, Stan the Fan as well.        


The Playboy Club

A year or so into my tenure as Editor in Chief, Stan told me I should become a member of the Playboy Club on 59th Street, just east of Fifth Avenue, two street blocks and one avenue block away from the office, an easy walk.  Stan told me it would be okay to put the membership on my expense report.

Okay…why?

Stan said that it was a great place to entertain visiting freelancers, especially out-of-town types.

Okay.

So I signed up.  Yes, the place had beautiful women, many dressed in bunny suits, but beyond that, it was a really nice place.  It was a palace.  It had a great restaurant for lunch and an excellent fine dining restaurant on the top floor.  It had a nightclub, which, at that time was a discothèque, of course.  And more amenities.

Stan was right.  It was a great place to take artists, writers and others for business lunches or expense account entertainment.  Artists and writers, locals as well as out-of-towners loved it.  When they visited, the Brits loved it.  Painter Peter Ledger, who was from Australia, who worked on our Weirdworld book loved it. 

I guess for some people I took there, it was a sociology field trip, but no one ever complained.  It was a good lunch place, and if nothing else, it was interesting to see the place where Gloria Steinem once wore ears and a tail.

Other industry people were also members there, including some DC Comics brass.  One of them organized a roast for Marty Pasko (somebody correct me if I have the roastee wrong) and booked the discothèque for the festivities, including dinner, dancing and comedically eviscerating Marty.  Steve Mitchell was the emcee, I think.  The hot new dance at the time was the “Bump.”  

I let the membership lapse when Marvel moved down to 387 Park Avenue South in the early 80’s.  It was too far to go, the place seemed to be in decline, and truthfully, its time had passed. 


Decorating Higgins

I believe that only twice during my time at Marvel did the board of directors visit our offices.  Probably because they were in the city on other business….

The first time was early on in my tenure, late 1978 or 1979, I think.  We had a new guy in the production department, Mike Higgins.

Mike’s art table was the nearest the door in the production department.  The first thing you saw when you opened the door was him.  He was a Grateful Dead fan.  I don’t know if it’s fair to call him a Deadhead, but he dressed like one, for the most part.  Tie-dyed tees.  Deadhead-hip ragamuffin clothes.  Okay by me and everyone else.  Nobody cared what you wore.

One morning, I went to the production department for something, and there was Mike, working away, headphones on, bobbing up and down in time to the music.  For some reason he had a hard hat on.

Oh, well.  Whatever.

Later, I got a call from the receptionist on the ninth floor, the executive floor.  She warned me that the board members were being given a tour by Marvel President Jim Galton, and that they were on their way down to our floor, the sixth floor.

I ran to our reception room and warned Josie the receptionist to be at her professional best, then I started down the hall, spreading the word, office by office, room by room, essentially saying “Bigshots coming through on a tour.  Don’t do anything weird for at least ten minutes.”

The tour group came in.  I was literally preceding them down the hall by a barely safe distance.  I could hear Galton trying to conduct the tour.  He had very seldom been to our floor before, and probably only to Stan’s office, so he was a lousy tour-giver.  I heard him say things like, “Here are some artists drawing Spider-Man,” pointing to three guys doing paste-ups for the British department.  And “What are people working on?” to an editor and his assistant.  Please don’t say “comics” I thought.  “Comics” said the editor.

At the end of the hall was the production room.  I opened the door to sound the intruder alert.  And there was Higgins….

Someone had attached a helium balloon on a string to the top of his hard hat.  Someone had pasted a big thought balloon, beautifully lettered in big, display letters to the balloon that said “What me worry,” or something equally inspired.  Someone had made horns and taped then to the hat.  And more.  You get the drift.  Higgins, his table and his area were thoroughly decorated.  Absolutely oblivious on purpose, Higgins was still bouncing, be-bopping and working, utterly unconcerned.

The tour group was coming around the corner….

If I could have done anything in time, I wouldn’t have.  I hid and watched.

Galton flung open the door and announced that this was the production room.  And saw Higgins.  The whole board did.  Red-faced, Galton quickly pulled the door shut and got very busy showing the group the photostat room, the last stop before the back door beyond which was the mailroom and mercifully, the elevator lobby.

I somehow managed to restrain howling laughter until they were safely gone.

The events of the tour were never spoken about upstairs.


The Secret Theater 

When I was associate editor, I worked on a number of Don McGregor’s scripts.  KillravenPower Man.  What else?  The Black Panther?  Somebody help me.

Anyway, I thought his writing was outstanding.  Really interesting and thoughtful.  A bit too wordy, sometimes.  For instance, on more than one occasion he would write a lengthy caption describing something that appeared in the panel.  Why?  And then he’d place the caption over the thing being described, covering it completely.

Hmm.

Anyway, I had a great deal of respect for his stuff.  He’d come into the office fairly frequently.  I’d go over whatever comments or proposed corrections I had. 

Don took great pride in his work.  He didn’t want me or anyone rewriting his words.  We always worked it out to his satisfaction, I believe.

(ASIDE:  I’m talking about early 1976 here.  I believe Archie Goodwin had to let Don go later that year, shortly after taking over as Editor in Chief.  Don did some fill in work for me a couple of years later, when I was EIC.  That didn’t go quite as well, possibly because they were someone else’s stories he was being asked to dialogue.)  

Don showed me a page of his that Marv Wolfman had rewritten.  It was a splash page.  Don had written a caption or several expressing thoughts about the “nuclear family” in Killraven’s time.  Marv misunderstood the reference and rewrote the captions so they spoke of bombs falling.  The book went to press that way.  With Don’s byline.

I think Don believed that I was actually trying to help.  He thanked me when I caught slip-ups.  He could tell, I think, even when we didn’t agree, that my goal was making the book better.  Like I said, we worked things out.

Anyway, we were friends, or friendly, at least.

One evening, after work, Don asked me to come with him.  He wouldn’t tell me what the destination was, but assured me that it was great.  We walked west.  Way west.  Past Eighth Avenue below 42nd Street.  Maybe past Ninth.  Not the nicest neighborhood in those days.  Old buildings, in various states of decay.  Street people in various states of decay.  A little creepy for a kid from the burbs of Pittsburgh.  Don walked through the Dark Side of Manhattan with ease and confidence.

We arrived at a door to a brick building that had long ago passed the “aging” stage and maybe the “condemned” stage. 

Don knocked on the door.  A secret knock?

A guy slid open a little peephole.  Like a speakeasy, I kid you not.  I restrained myself from saying “swordfish.”

The guy recognized Don.  He was suspicious of me.  Don assured him I was okay.

We were allowed in.  The inside matched the outside.  Don led me down dark hallways to a room in the back.  There were a dozen or so men sitting on mismatched chairs watching the end of a movie.  An old movie.  Black and white.  A western.

So.  A totally illegal underground theater.  Showing old oaters. 

When the film ended, a guy who seemed to be in charge walked over and greeted Don warmly.  He was suspicious of me.  Don assured him I was okay.

He said, words to the effect, “Hey, you’re in luck.  We’ve got a Hoppy coming up next.         

So we watched Hopalong Cassidy.  I’d seen that one before, as a little kid.  It was great seeing it again.


Enough for now.


NEXT:  More Strange Tales and Stuff

30 comments:

Tue Sørensen said...

Sweet anecdotes! :-) Keep'em coming!

(But where do people say "standing ON line"??)

Benoît Leblanc said...

People should stick to "nukular" when talking about bombs, like a certain ex-president. It would avoid confusion!

Great story! Don's revenge is very funny, very much what I'd expect from such an intelligent guy. It's true his comics were somewhat wordy, though. The final page of the long serial "Panther's rage" in Jungle Action is almost obliterated by text, with minuscule figures of T'Challa and a young boy walking away in the bottom corner! Still, books like that were the highlight of the 70s.

One think that takes me aback is the dire financial situation of Marvel Comics when you took over as EIC. It may be common knowledge among people who worked there, but from the outside the place looked like a very healthy and expanding business, what with all those titles and with Stan's hyperbolic messages in the Bullpen Bulletins soapbox.

Thanks for the ever-interesting posts!

- Ben

Patrick Daniel O'Neill said...

Tue:

New Yorkers invariably say "on line"; it's idiomatic.

Jim:

I vividly recall visiting that "theater" a few times with Dave Kaler.

JDAustin said...

Being from California, we never say ON line here. Its always IN line; just like its soda, not pop.

Brunomac said...

But...it's Stan Lee! Didn't he get private screenings of films like Superman?

RE: Playboy: Being somewhat pervy minded I have to ask...did out of towners expect that they were going to get "lucky" when they went to a place like The Playboy club? I know it was just an expensive place to eat and drink with waitresses in silly "cosplay," but many guys from Britain or Japan must have expected there would be more...

Will said...

As a native Southerner, I too can attest that "in line" is the commonly used and understood way to communicate the idea.

On line is something you do with a computer.

Maybe it comes from dancers and theater types to communicate blocking and stage positions.. but in the real world.. It ain't got no meaning to me.

Marc Miyake said...

Dear Jim,

This post was almost like an old issue of Strange Tales before the Human Torch took it over. An anthology with four short stories. All it needs is art by Kirby, Ayers, Ditko, Heck, and Reinman. (What happened to Don Heck at Marvel? He drew three Ghost Rider issues that you scripted -- #23, #24, #25 -- and then disappeared. He didn't return to Marvel until 1988.) I don't know how Stan would feel about Superman being the cover story of your Strange Tales, though. Then again, he did script Superman. Sort of.

I've come to take serious big-budget superhero movies for granted. Thanks for reminding me how special Superman was. The first superhero in the first movie of its kind. Fitting.

Like Tue, I had never heard of standing "on" line. I guess I'll never pass for a New Yorker. Maybe I won't stand on, er, out in Pittsburgh.

The $44 million to $2000 consultation ratio you mentioned is even more staggering when one thinks of the extra profits that "fix[ing] up the story a little" could have generated. I think of how much better the Transformers movies could have been with input from you and Bob Budiansky.

I guess Stan Lee came in later than the rest of the crew. If he had showed up as the team was leaving, I'm sure you would have let him join you.

A photo of Michael Higgins with a thought balloon would have been great for the Fumetti book that came out years later.

Don McGregor watched "old oaters"? I had no idea!

Imagine a world where old movies have gone underground. "Old" meaning anything without CGI or even without (gasp!) color or sound. In the year 2042, in the ruins of Martian-overrun New York, on the Dark Side of Manhattan, hidden within crumbling walls of brick is an old man with an ancient machine that "plays" ... what did he call it? A "deeveed"? Shhh. Ask him later. A man in blue and red appears on a widescreen TV.

You'll believe a man can fly ...

Next: Your journeys into mystery? More amazing adventures on strange worlds? Tales of suspense calculated to astonish us? (A Bat-prize to anyone who spots the Archie Comics reference.)

Will said...

FWIW -Again as a Southerner, All canned caffeinated carbonated beverages are called simply "Coke". You could have a Mountain Dew in hand, and if someone asked you where you went.. "I went to get a Coke" Is an understood and acceptable response.

The uninitiated will look at you as if you've lost your mind..

Tue Sørensen said...

I am not American, but I don't recall ever having heard "standing ON line" - so it's probably an expression that is surgically removed from any movies and writings! And probably a good thing. New Yorkers have a powerful enough presence in pop culture as it is! :-)

JayJayJackson said...

Will, I remember back in Texas as a kid someone would ask "Do you want a Coke?" and the next question would be "What kind?" lol. Of course, that was long before actual Coke actually DID have different kinds. ;)

Chris said...

I grew up on Cape Cod and recently moved to NW Pennsylvania. I've never heard anybody anywhere say "waiting on line," but I have heard just about everyone I've met so far here call soda "pop."

JediJones said...

Superman is still one of the biggest superhero films ever made measured by domestic ticket sales. Only Dark Knight, Spider-Man 1 and 2, and Batman (1989) have sold more. If it had been released in any year since 2000 with the same tickets sold, it would have ranked as the #1 or #2 film in all but two of those years. Competition was tough in 1978 when it ranked #3 behind Grease and Animal House.

Superman is now seen as a benchmark for the superhero genre in film, but in some ways it's even more a product of that era's movies than it is of comic books. While Star Wars provided the template for the big-budget films of the 1980s and beyond, Superman seems like the last great movie epic of the 1960s and 70s. Its action scenes atop the towering Daily Planet and during the earthquake are in the spirit of 1970s disaster films like The Towering Inferno and Earthquake. The Krypton scenes have the deliberate, lingering pace and clean look of science-fiction films like 2001, not the lived-in, matter-of-fact, blink-and-you-miss-it style of Star Wars. Lex Luthor's plot to hijack nuclear missiles is straight out of a James Bond movie, although done in more comedic fashion. Hackman's quick-witted, short-tempered, quirky portrayal of Luthor bears a resemblance to Gene Wilder's take on Willy Wonka. The intended musical number for Superman and Lois' flight (whicb ended up having its lyrics spoken due to Margot Kidder's inability to sing) could have been transplanted out of Disney's Peter Pan (a character referenced by name in the prelude to that very scene). Of course the Smallville scenes hearkened back to the 1950s, another popular thing to do in 1970s films like American Graffiti.

Of course the movie did all that with more style and energy than most similar films of that era. Appropriately enough, Superman himself is the one element in the movie that does seem like he leaped straight off the comic page, both in looks and sensibility. They emphasized the "hero" side of "superhero," capturing the psychologically satisfying myth of the superhero who can leap out of the sky and save you if you just cry "Help!" They also did great justice to the superhero myth with their strong development of the dual identities of Superman and Clark.

For my money, the most enjoyably comic-booky aspect of the Superman films comes in part 2 when Superman has his incredible brawl with the Phantom Zone villains in, under and above the streets of Metropolis. The brawl is a major component of the superhero comic book archetype to which the movies don't always do justice. I still don't think any other movie has done it better. Either they don't go on long enough or they seem too much like plasticized indulgences in special effects.

I'd like to hear what Jim or others would have changed in the script of Superman, especially from the perspective of an audience member in 1978. Obviously now people have different expectations for superhero films and a Superman movie that resembled the original would never be made. I just find it hard to think of very much that needed changing in the original film. I can see at least that without the death and resurrection of Lois at the end, which was actually a very last-minute addition, the story might have seemed like it lacked a strong direction. (Oddly enough, the very similar near-death and resurrection of Indiana Jones' father at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was also a late addition to the plot and, like in Superman, ended up providing the movie's most emotional scene.)

I've always wanted to read Mario Puzo's original screenplay, which ended up being split into Superman 1 and 2. It has not become public. Supposedly his script was serious in tone all the way through, with the movie's comedy added by the later writers. Puzo's contract actually prevented either a comic adaptation or novelization from being made. Either it wasn't allowed or his royalties would've been cost-prohibitive.

Jim said...

I think I was around nineteen or twenty years old and helping a comic book dealer work a show in New York and I had a chance to meet Don McGregor and hang out and talk with him and others in a hallway - must have been 1975 or 1976. He was a great guy, but reading his stuff years later it was overwritten, but I still love his work. In re-reading a lot of silver age stuff, especially DC writers tended to describe what the picture already told you. It almost seem to be a style then or maybe no one trusted the artist to illustrate what one wrote.

What I'm enjoying more and more about your blog is all the memories it brings back for me as a long time fan and former retailer.

czeskleba said...

I love Don McGregor's stuff. Sure, he was often too wordy, but I'll take wordiness over the underwritten "takes you just five minutes to read" comics of today. I think the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction since the 70's. I swear, there was more text on a single page of a McGregor comic than you'll find in an entire issue of most Marvel Comics today.

Dimitris said...

@JediJones: Regarding previous versions of the Superman (1+2) screenplay I have read that they were actually quite campier than the final version. Have you actually read that Puzo's script was serious in tone? I haven't read it but have read later ones, before the final version, where, in the final confrontation with the 3 Kryptonian villains, after they lost their powers, Superman gives Ursa a spanking cause "that's what we do to naughty girls on earth"!
The script got rewritten so many times by different screenwriters that the guy who did the final rewrite, Tom Mankiewicz, couldn't have his name in the credits as a writer because the Screenwriters Guild didn't allow too many credited screenwriters for a film. So he was credited as creative consultant.

Will said...

@JayJay - I hear dat! Always nice to know there's someone else around that I can relate to.

Gary M. Miller said...

Great stories all around, Jim. I particularly enjoyed the tale of Don McGregor, whose work I've really just begun to relish over the last few years. I remembered his stories in Power Man and Killraven (love the Essential editions of all of the above, particularly the latter), and only recently got the excellent Marvel Masterworks volume of his Black Panther work, which is (justifiably) cited as a major influence on Jim Owsley/Christopher Priest's Panther work of more recent vintage. I first saw his stories when I picked up back issues of Vampire Tales, the 1970s Marvel mag with adventures of Morbius the Living Vampire by Don and artists like Rich Buckler and Pablo Marcos. (And those, too, are slowly coming out in collections!) Yes, he may be a little verbose at times, but he was as solid as they came in Marvel's 70s stable of writers. (For my money, right up there with Starlin & Gerber in idiosyncrasies.)

~G.

Xavier said...

Regarding Don Mc Gregor: aside from the obvious Black Panther material, it could also be Moonstone or his only Dr Strange issue (n°31).

TRDouble said...

This was like reading a standalone issue, something I miss these days in the industry.

My father, who would die from cancer a year and a half later, took me to see 'Superman.' I wasn't the biggest Superman fan, but I just had to see this movie. And my father, who was the one to regularly take me to the newsstand (where I bought Spidey and Batman and he bought Beetle Baily and Sad Sack) and to Grant Comics on Hertel Ave in Buffalo, NY, grabbed me one day -- maybe for my ninth birthday? -- and off we went to the movie theater, just the two of us, no sisters allowed... even if the movie sucked, it was great! But it didn't suck; I loved the movie. I don't know what I was more in awe of at the time, seeing 'Superman' on the big screen, or meeting Adam West and Burt Ward at the auto show (where my father had to speak for me!). Those were great times!

And in WESTERN New York, we 'stand IN line' to pay for our 'pop.' :)

J.C. Vaughn said...

Jim -

Thanks for noting the whole "in line"/"on line" thing. To my ear, "on line" is like fingernails on a chalk board, and it's only accurate if there is an actual line on which one is standing. If one is part of forming said line, one is in it, not on it.

JCV

jimshooter said...

Thanks, Mr. Vaughn. As they might say in NYC, "As always, you're in the ball."

ChrisGedrim said...

Thank you! An American who can actually speak his (not-so) native tongue!

Yes: you are IN line, not ON line whilst queuing.
No: you didn't do it ON accident; you did it BY accident.
No: they aren't LEGOs they're LEGO BRICKS, or LEGO SETS but never, ever, LEGOs.

(Okay, so that last one is a really personal pet peeve…)

PS - Jim; thank's for these articles / transcripts / random little stories. It's like listening to the things your Grandfathers got up to; their stories always seem more colourful than your own.

PPS - http://cache.lego.com/downloads/aboutus/LEGO_company_profile_UK.pdf#page=19 - See I told'ya: never, ever, LEGOs.

Pariah said...

Jim i'm confused how was this an "illegal" underground theatre? it sounds like just a handful of old movies being watched, how is that illegal? i'm only 39 but i don't recall VHS or videotapes back then so it was probably from a reel to reel right? nowadays anyone can pop in a movie and invite some friends over.

jensaltmann said...

I'm also baffled by the concept of an "illegal underground theater." Maybe that's fuel for an extra blog post?

jimshooter said...

Fire laws, for one thing. Licenses. Tax, business regulations and other compliance issues. Who knows, maybe even zoning.

JayJayJackson said...

Owning prints of some old films was (is?) illegal. I had a friend who owned a number of 16mm films and one evening (around 1981 or 82) the FBI knocked on his door to confiscate them. Also in 1974 the FBI raided Roddy McDowell's home and seized his collection of films and TV series during an investigation of copyright infringement and movie piracy. The collection consisted of 160 16mm prints and over 1,000 videocassettes.
Quote:
"There was then no aftermarket for films, as the commercial video recorder had not been marketed, and studios routinely destroyed old negatives and prints of classic films they felt had no worth. Film buffs like McDowall had to purchase 16mm prints of films from the studios, or movie prints on the black market, or from other collectors."

Pariah said...

wow thanks for all that info

demoncat said...

nice learning all the history that when on when you ran Marvel Jim. for always heard Don was particular about any one trying to rewrite his work. plus love how Don got a little revenge with the illegal under ground theatre. for when i started reading the story first i though he was leading you to either a drug den or maybe a underground brothel. instead a illegal under ground theatre

Fran said...

Odd. As a Spanish reader, What I´ve heard and read most is "on line". Indeed, it´s the "in line" what sounds weird to me. Maybe too much New York-based pop culture.

Anonymous said...

I've read about Plato's Retreat in NYC during the 70's and early 80's. Ever take anybody there?