The notes and various artifacts that should accompany this post are in one of the boxes yet to be liberated from the storage space and sorted. I think the story is worth telling anyway. I’ll provide some exhibits later, as soon as I can.
A Real Mickey Mouse Operation
Sometime in late 1988 I got a call from a man named Michael Lynton who said he worked for the Walt Disney Company and was interested in possibly hiring me as a consultant.
1988 had been a lean year. I’d spent most of it in an attempt to buy the Marvel Entertainment Group from New World Entertainment, and that is an epic tale for later. My team, the Marvel Acquisition Partners, along with financial adviser/debt provider Chase N.A. and equity partner Shenkman Capital actually won the auction and for one glorious week, we thought we owned Marvel. But, Ronald O. Perelman, who was an insider at New World, managed to snake it out from under us. All that effort, all that time for naught.
There is an unbelievable amount of work involved in attempting such an acquisition. During the many months our attempt took I wasn’t able to fit in much paying work. Didn’t matter. Nobody was offering me work in those days anyway. I think I made $18,000 that year.
I needed a gig.
I met Michael Lynton for lunch somewhere near the Disney offices, which were just off of Park Avenue in the fifties. It was an interview, more or less.
Lynton was the head of marketing for Disney’s consumer products division (the other two being the film and parks divisions). I don’t recall his exact title, but he was a major cheese in the House of the Mouse.
Turned out that Lynton, too, had been interested in acquiring Marvel. He’d tried to talk Disney’s upper management into it, and when that proved to be a no-go, he’d considered making an attempt on his own.
Lynton’s Plan B was starting a comic book publishing division at Disney. Disney Comics were being published under license by Gladstone Publishing at that time. Lynton meant to terminate their license and bring Disney’s comic book publishing in-house. My job would be to help create Disney’s in-house comic book company.
I guess I aced the interview. Lynton arranged for me to fly out to L.A. and meet again with him and his boss, Steve McBeth. That proved to be another interview, and I guess I aced that one, too. They hired me as a consultant, 20 hours a week for a flat, monthly rate. The money wasn’t huge, but enough to keep me alive, reasonably comfortably. McBeth said flat out that Disney generally didn’t pay top dollar because they didn’t have to, being Disney. People were willing to accept less just to have Disney on their resume.
He was right, it proved to be a good thing. For years afterwards, every time I ever had to show a resume, the first thing that people noticed was Disney. “You worked for Disney? Impressive.”
For the next ten months or so, I worked with Lynton to develop the business plan, publishing plan, staffing plan and build the foundations. While I was at it, Lynton asked me to do some development work on a few animated series. More about all that later.
Early on, apparently impressed by my efforts, Lynton offered me the job of Publisher and Editor in Chief of Disney Comics. An executive position. For real money. With benefits and perks.
He told me I’d have to remain a freelance consultant until we were closer to the launch, however. But, in the meantime, I’d be laying the groundwork for my job-to-come. Sure, fine.
At that time, the Dick Tracy movie was in production. Lynton wanted to do a publishing program around the movie (in addition to the novelization, with which I wasn’t involved) and asked me for a proposal.
I read the screenplay. It started with crime already rampant in the city and Tracy already the mobsters’ number one enemy.
I proposed that we do three graphic novels: a prequel, the adaptation and one showing the continuing adventures of Tracy.
The prequel was intended to establish the rise of the mobsters’ reign of terror and the city’s growing despair; also Tracy’s rise to prominence, his first victories over the mobsters and why the criminals all hated and feared him. As I recall, the plot ended with the police commissioner lamenting the city’s plight, the corruption rife in the force, and saying something like, “If only there was one man I could trust!” Cue Dick Tracy….
I know I still have that plot. I’ll post it when I dig it out.
Dick Tracy was a very big deal at Disney. I wonder if Snow White got the scrutiny my Tracy prequel story did. Before I wrote the final plot, I was asked to pitch it from my beat outline not only to Lynton, but to Steve McBeth.
McBeth is scary-smart, as is Lynton. McBeth, however, is one of those rare people who always speaks in precise, complete sentences, all perfectly composed. That freaks me out.
So, I pitched my plot. Those of you who have read the stuff I’ve posted here know I’m pretty thoughtful and thorough when it comes to the nuts and bolts of stories. Some people like them, some don’t, but I think most people would agree that they’re carefully wrought. Anyway, I thought my Tracy prequel was pretty tight and solid.
McBeth pointed out several of flaws and holes. Things I overlooked.
Freaked me out.
Well, that motivated me. I apologized and swore the thing would be bulletproof when I wrote the first complete draft.
As it turned out there was no time for another review of the plot before it had to be presented. Presented to whom, you might wonder. I wish I could give you the list of names. Maybe, if I find my notes….
Anyway, it was a big conference room full of people. The guy, whose name I forget, who was the head cheese of the consumer products division, one step down from Eisner, was there. Other big shot execs. Other consultants, called in to evaluate the work of the consultant. Jeez, Louise…!
But I was loaded for bear. You betcha I had buttoned that thing up tighter than Uncle Scrooge’s Money Bin. Every detail, as Mark Twain might say, “…fined down to exactly the right shade….”
There were no criticisms. A question or two and applause. Nailed it.
My moment of triumph.
Then it all went to hell.
Throughout the ten months or more I worked as a consultant, whenever I had to be in L.A. at the Burbank offices and studios for a meeting, Lynton’s secretary would book me into a great hotel, the Hilton in Universal City, I think. She’d send my airline tickets—always first class. She’d reserve a luxury car for me.
Disney, apparently, wasn’t cheap about the T&E.
It was getting near to launch time. On the same visit to L.A. when I’d made the plot pitch to the Devil’s Jury, Lynton talked to me about coming on staff as publisher and EIC “in a few weeks.”
I was told that a Big Meeting had been scheduled with another select committee of Disney Cheeses to give a final review to the plan to launch the new publishing division. At this Big Meeting, I would be introduced as the person who was going to run the division.
Lynton’s secretary called me about two weeks before the Big Meeting and said that Lynton would like to meet with me at the Disney offices in New York prior to the Big Meeting in L.A. Sure.
Lynton did a lot of traveling around the world. He had more demands on his time than you can believe. His secretary called me several times to reschedule the NY meeting. It just didn’t work out. Lynton just couldn’t manage to fit in a trip to New York and a meeting with me.
Then my airline tickets, hotel information and car reservation for the big-meeting trip to L.A. arrived.
They were coach class tickets. I was booked into a motel. It was an economy car. Hmm.
So, I went to L.A., slept at the motel and went in the little, tiny car to Burbank the next morning. I walked into the meeting room a few minutes early—I’m almost always early. Many people were already there. Disney meetings start on time.
A nice-looking guy I didn’t recognize walked up to me and said, “Hi, I’m Randy Achee. I’m the publisher of Disney Comics.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Jim Shooter. Consultant.”
I saw Lynton entering and looking more than a little apprehensive.
The meeting started. The big shots grilled Lynton a little, but especially Achee.
Achee’s background was in controlled circulation magazines. Controlled circulation magazines are magazines that are provided free to a select consumer base—dentists, for instance. They make money by selling ad space to people who want to sell equipment, supplies, etc. to dentists.
I think he’d been a publisher of one or more controlled circ mags, but he didn’t know anything about comics publishing. He wasn’t conversant with the creative process, the art production process, the print production process, distribution, the marketing or anything else to do with comics. He didn’t even know commercial, for-sale-to-the-public magazines and he sure didn’t know comics. Maybe he could have walked in and taken charge of Contemporary Oral Hygiene with no problems, but comics? Nah.
So, I did my job. I was a consultant.
I fed Randy his lines and picked up the slack.
“Excuse me, sir, Randy asked me to look into selective binding. Randy, do you want me to tell them what I came up with, or…? Okay, sure. These are the figures R.R. Donnelley quoted….”
Covered his ass.
“Well, Randy’s referring to direct marketing in the more common sense, direct mail, but I think what you’re asking is about the comics shop distribution, right? I’ve got the numbers you asked me for right here, Randy. I should have given them to you earlier. Sorry.
Talked him up.
“Randy brings a whole new perspective to comics publishing. I think the Disney Adventures project we’ve been developing will benefit from his insights.”
Simulated dialogue, but trust me, something like that. Etc.
The cheeses bought it. Everybody was happy. Well, almost everybody.
As we were filing out, Lynton shook my hand and thanked me profusely. He said he’d be in New York next week and would really like to meet. Sure. I’m a consultant. I’m on the clock.
Randy asked me if I was free for dinner. Sure. I’m a consultant. I’m on the clock.
So, Randy took me out to dinner that evening. He wanted to thank me, he said, for leaping into the breach and helping him. No problem, said I. I’m a consultant, etc. It’s my job.
He said, words to the effect, “I’d heard you were a real dick, but you seem all right.”
So, the next morning I drove my little Yugo or whatever from the motel back to LAX, flew home and went back to work on my other project, raising money for a new company. I didn’t have a name for “Comics Newco” then, but it eventually became VALIANT.
The next week, I met with Michael Lynton in his office in New York.
Lynton apologized for my being blindsided at the Big Meeting. He said that he was going to hire me as publisher, but when he did his due diligence and contacted several big name creators in the comic book business to get a reference, they told him I was a monster. That if I were put in charge of Disney Comics that no creator worth spit would ever work for the company. I think you can guess as well as I can who he spoke with.
Lynton said that during the time we’d worked together, he’d found me to be the smartest, most creative, most reasonable, easiest-to-get-along-with person he’d ever dealt with.
Maybe the people who condemned me were wrong, he said, or maybe I’d changed. Whatever. Disney couldn’t afford to take a chance.
I offered no argument—nothing I said would have done any good at that point—but I did say, words to the effect, “Michael, someday, somewhere, I’ll be sitting behind a desk hiring creators again and the line will go out the door and all the way to the street.”
I also told him that I was happy to remain a consultant for the nonce. I had to eat after all.
Later, Lynton called me to ask me my opinion of a guy they were considering for the Editor in Chief position, Len Wein. Did I know him?
Yep. I gave Len a very positive reference, with the caveat that he might not be good at showing up on time for meetings or anything else, which seemed to be of great importance at Disney. Lynton hired Len, largely on the strength of my recommendation, said Lynton.
On one of my last trips to the Disney offices in L.A., Lynton wanted to talk about artists for the Dick Tracy prequel. He told me what he had in mind regarding payment—a ridiculously small rate—and asked if I thought Howard Chaykin would be a good candidate. I told him that Howard would never accept that rate—I didn’t use the words “chump change” but I thought them.
While I was in his office, Lynton called Chaykin and asked him about illustrating Tracy.
The end of the conversation I could hear, Lynton’s words, went something like this:
“I didn’t mean to…
Then Lynton pulled the phone away from his ear, stared at it and said, “He hung up on me. He cursed me out and then he hung up on me.”
Then Lynton said, “I’m going to call him back!”
The net result was that, while Chaykin had no interest whatsoever in the project, he talked Lynton into hiring John Francis Moore to write the script. I didn’t think he was up to it, but whatever. I was a lame duck consultant on my way out. Who cared what I thought?
After I had resigned as a consultant to work full time on developing VALIANT, periodically Lynton would call me and ask me questions. After Moore had finished the script for the Tracy prequel, and after it was already largely drawn by Kyle Baker, Lynton started having cold feet about the way it was going and asked me if, as a favor, I’d look over the script and give him my opinion.
Moore had obviously tossed the plot I’d written out the window, the plot that had been so carefully vetted and approved by Lynton, McBeth and the Exalted Committee, and written whatever he wanted.
Sorry, Moore, but it wasn’t good. Way too many tiny panels, gratuitous sex and violence, inappropriate language…. Bad. I told Lynton so, but I think it was too late to do anything about the mess.
Of course, Kyle made it look better than it deserved.
Later, when Disney Comics was spectacularly failing and my little, cruelly undercapitalized start-up, VALIANT was just beginning to take off, Michael Lynton called me again. He said that after being as immersed in the comic book business for a while, he’d come to realize that my critics were the problem, not me. He said, “If you ever start another company, I’d like to invest in it and I would like to be on the board of directors.”
Michael Lynton was an investor in Enlightened Entertainment Partners, publishers of DEFIANT, and served on the board.
I’m sorry I failed him and everyone else. I gave it my best.
WEDNESDAY: Chris Claremont Face Down in His Mashed Potatoes