Thursday, March 31, 2011

Reminiscing About Jack Kirby

Back when Jack Kirby was doing the monster books in the 1950s. I thought they were great. I’d see these books, and the Kirby ones stood out. I’d never seen comics like that before. It made an impression on me. Jack’s, and Steve Ditko’s stuff, just made a tremendous impression.

Jack’s work had become somewhat unpopular when I started at Marvel in the mid 70’s. On the one hand, Jack was revered by a lot of the Marvel people; Len and Marv would just marvel at the pages. Basically, the fan in everyone who was old enough to have read FF #1 had this awe of his work and loved it. On the other hand, there was a lot of stuff that just wasn’t quite right about it, and it wasn’t selling. It was a disaster; we had single-digit sales figures for Captain America, and at that time the Marvel line average was up near 50%. Jack’s popularity had declined to amazingly low levels in terms of the new generation of comic book readers. Newsstand readers had a lot of turnover, and new readers coming in weren’t buying it.

The San Diego Comic Con used to do this thing where artists would do drawings on stage, and then auction them off to raise money for the con. I remember Jack Katz had set a minimum bid on his of $200, and somebody actually paid $200 for it. Then the auctioneer gets this wonderful, huge drawing of Captain America that Jack had been drawing live on stage, and the auctioneer looks at it and says, “Am I bid $5?” I was so offended; it just cut me like a knife. He, like a lot of fans, didn’t like Jack’s work at that point, and that was his honest assessment of what somebody might pay for this. I offered him $200; I wasn’t a wealthy guy in those days, but I thought, “No way is this selling for less than what Jack Katz sold for.” This auctioneer got so excited that when other people started bidding against me, he wouldn’t let them! So I bought it for $200, and Jack wrote a really nice inscription to me, and I still have it. It’s a fond possession.

In 1986, again at San Diego Comic Con, I met with Jack. After that meeting -- both Jack and Roz were there -- I said, “Y’know Jack, we’re having our 25th anniversary party tonight. It would mean a lot to me if you would come.” He said he’d see, and Roz didn’t look too happy about that idea. Anyway, the party’s in full swing in this huge hall in the U.S. Grant hotel. Stan and I are standing way in the back, fairly near the doors. All of a sudden I look up, and in the door come Jack and Roz. I ran over to them and shook his hand and escorted them over to where Stan was standing. I have to tell you, it was Stan Lee’s finest hour. Just a moment before they arrived--you know how Stan does the big gesture sweeping his hands around? He had a glass of wine in his hand, and he whacked it against a pillar, and the glass broke, and his hand was slashed; he was bleeding buckets. So here’s Stan; he’s got his handkerchief pressed over his right hand, bleeding, probably going into shock, and I walk Jack over. Jack sticks out his hand, and this panic goes over Stan’s eyes. He sticks out his hand, and Jack shakes his hand -- and then Stan has to wipe the blood off of Jack’s hand with his handkerchief. He’s clutching this handkerchief in his right hand, having this conversation with Jack, and it was a really cool moment.

Obviously these guys hadn’t had a real chat for a long time, and I felt privileged to witness it. He invited Jack to come up to his house, and Jack said, “Why don’t you come down?” It was really cool; I felt like they were becoming friends again after a very long estrangement. Then Stan says, “Just once more -- I don’t care who owns it or gets credit -- I’d like to do a story with you sometime. It doesn’t even have to be Marvel; you can publish it.” And Jack said he’d like that--and Roz said, “Bite your tongue.” Then she kind of led Jack away, and that was the end of that.

I at least felt good that Jack had come to the 25th anniversary party. He was mobbed; people just swarmed him. That was very nice.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Mystery of the Missing Box of Marvel Artwork

Around about early 1978, Marvel’s warehouse got broken into and ransacked. Other than scattering artwork all over the floor--they apparently hadn’t taken any of it that we could tell--but this warehouse was a dump! It was completely unsafe; anybody could break in there. I went to the people that ran the warehouse and said, “I want that artwork all moved to my office.” So it was. You should’ve seen it. It was me in a little corner, and wall-to-wall files full of art, because my office was the safest place in the building. You had to go through three doors to get to my office: The front door, the door to the editorial suite, and then my door, and I was the only one who had a key. It was safer there than it was in the warehouse.

Then when Marvel moved, around the end of 1979, we got a brand new state-of-the-art safe warehouse, so the stuff was moved from my office to the new warehouse; except for one box, which for some reason was moved to the Marvel lunchroom. When I was made aware of that, I went to get Bernie, the office manager, and said, “That box goes to the warehouse right now!” I went back to my office, then Bernie came in a few minutes later and said he went to get the box and it wasn’t there. Somebody had obviously grabbed the box, went straight out to the freight elevator--which was near there--and was gone. I have no idea what it contained. There was probably Jack Kirby’s stuff in it among other things. To this day I have no idea who took it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hank Pym was Not a Wife-Beater

Back in 1981 I was writing the Avengers. Hank Pym aka Yellowjacket was married to Janet Van Dyne aka The Wasp and things had not been going well for him for a long time.

Before I embarked on the storyline that led to the end of Hank Pym and Janet van Dyne’s marriage, I reread every single appearance of both characters.  His history was largely a litany of failure, always changing guises and switching back and forth from research to hero-ing because he wasn’t succeeding at either.  He was never the Avenger who saved the day at the end and usually the first knocked out or captured.  His most notable “achievement” in the lab was creating Ultron.  Meanwhile, his rich, beautiful wife succeeded in everything she tried.  She was also always flitting around his shoulders, flirting, saying things to prop up his ego. 

As I was developing the storyline, I discussed the potential pathology of their relationship with a psychologist who happened to be sitting next to me on a five-hour flight.  The story made sense, he thought.  I went ahead with it.  During the time the story was running, I got a great deal of hate mail.  It worried me enough to ask Stan what he thought.  He said he got the same kind of mail in the ‘60’s regarding Peter Parker’s various romantic travails.  He asked me how Avengers sales were doing.  They were in fact, increasing by 10,000 copies per issue.  Stan said that people obviously cared passionately about what was happening to Hank and Janet, as if they were real people.  That’s the key.  And he said, “Don’t worry about the mail.”

In that story (issue 213, I think), there is a scene in which Hank is supposed to have accidentally struck Jan while throwing his hands up in despair and frustration—making a sort of “get away from me” gesture while not looking at her.  Bob Hall, who had been taught by John Buscema to always go for the most extreme action, turned that into a right cross!  There was no time to have it redrawn, which, to this day has caused the tragic story of Hank Pym to be known as the “wife-beater” story.

When that issue came out, Bill Sienkiewicz came to me upset that I hadn’t asked him to draw it!  He saw the intent right through Hall’s mistake, and was moved enough by the story to wish he’d had the chance to do it properly.

By the way, I was too busy to finish the story, so Roger Stern took over two-thirds of the way through.  I thought he did a great job.  He’s an excellent writer who doesn’t get enough credit.

Monday, March 28, 2011

How I became Editor in Chief of Marvel

When I showed up at Marvel in January 1976, it was a mess. It was chaos on every level. I showed up at 10:00 AM to be interviewed by Marv Wolfman (as per his request) for an associate editor job, and Marv strolls in at around 11:30. Then he says, “Oh, I forgot; I’ve got to go to lunch now; I’ll be back at 1:30,” and off he goes. I shrugged and went to a coffee shop with the assistants. Meanwhile, the minute I walked in the door--I haven’t got the job, I’m just there to be interviewed--there’s this Bullpen full of people going, “Hey, the new boss is here!” They run over and start handing me stuff to do! I killed time waiting by proofreading a Captain Marvel for them. Once Marv and I finally got together, I got the job. I went home, packed and three days later returned to New York, once again with no idea where I was going to stay that night. So it was back to the “Y.” Sigh.

There was chaos, and everything was late. It was very disorganized, and in fairly short order I’d been to Marvel three times, and had seen three different Editors-In-Chief: Roy, Len, and Marv. As editor in chief, Marv presided over all of us–but the things that seemed to occupy most of his time were arguing and mollifying. That seemed to be the job. On a typical day he might be arguing with an artist who’d “left the pages in a taxi cab” for the third time, mollifying a colorist whose job had been badly separated, arguing with the circulation department about falling sales figures and mollifying the accounting department’s chagrin over a proposed fifty-cent raise for a letterer. 

Marv hired me, and within a couple of months he was gone. The plan was for Roy Thomas to return to become editor in chief for a second time.At the last minute, however, Roy changed his mind and opted to remain a writer-editor. Then Stan offered the job to Gerry Conway, who was there three weeks and quit. Then they gave the job to Archie Goodwin, and he endured about nineteen months, and it got to him.

Mort Weisinger trained me about more than just writing. He taught me about running a creative organization, and professionalism, and making order out of chaos. It seemed like there was tremendous talent and energy at Marvel, and no organization. I was the line editor, going over 45 books a month. I had this little crew of guys, but the way it was organized was pretty idiotic. When Stan and Sol were this little two-man tag team, and the company was eight books, it worked. When it was 45 books, it didn’t work. Nobody had bothered to install an organization. I thought, “I can fix this.” I was hoping I’d get a chance; I was pretty much last on everybody’s list, but eventually they’d used up everybody else, so I got my chance. But I was the second-in-command, and I got overlooked three times. Since there were no other remotely qualified candidates available at that point, Stan hired me and I took over as editor in chief on January 2, 1978. At that time Marvel also had a new president, Jim Galton.

When I was first offered the job as editor in chief, I turned it down, because I wasn’t convinced I would have the power to make the changes that needed to be made. After a number of discussions, Jim Galton was pretty comfortable with what I wanted to do. Having been a freelancer for a long time, I knew the kind of things that needed to be done. I wanted to start paying royalties, I wanted to have creator-owned material. I knew they weren’t going to go along with somebody owning a piece of Spider-Man, but he had no problem with new things being created, which the creators owned a piece of. Basically, I took the job on the grounds that I could make a lot of changes like that.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Impending Death of the Comics Industry

The winter of 1975-76 were grim times for comics, for Marvel and especially for comics creators. Sales were falling industrywide, and even Marvel’s were weakening. The major companies all had been forced into cutbacks of their lines, layoffs and belt-tightening. Pay for creative people was abysmal, benefits were few and morale was poor. Marv and Len spoke frequently about getting out of comics and into animation or TV writing. Everybody talked about the “impending death” of the comics industry except me, Roger Stern and a few others. We were regarded as crazy or blind.

Most frightening was the great and growing hostility the creative people felt toward the companies. Many had entered the business as starry-eyed fans. First they were stunned by the rotten conditions. Then their disappointment turned to anger.

Shortly after I arrived, Stan returned. His attention had been on other aspects of Marvel’s business, but now he decided to turn his full attention back to the comics. During my tenure as Archie Goodwin’s associate editor, Stan had got to know me pretty well and, I think, had a good bit of faith in me. Since I was the one who directly oversaw the plots, scripts and art, Stan had come straight to me with his comments about the books. We began meeting once or twice a week to go over the proofs. Stan would critique each issue line by line, panel by panel, just the way Mort used to critique my work--but less brutally. Through these discussions I got the best how-to-create-comics course imaginable. I was amazed at how similar Mort’s and Stan’s theories were about the fundamentals of writing. Often Stan would explain some point of storytelling in the very same words Mort had used. They differed not at all on the principles of the craft.

I also worked closely with Stan as his assistant on the Spider-Man newspaper strip. I’d plot and layout the stories which he’d script and John Romita would draw.

A month and a half after being promoted to editor in chief, I asked for and received approval for an incentive plan for artists and writers based on sales of the comics and a profit-sharing incentive plan to encourage the creation of new characters. Unfortunately, a lawsuit caused a legal logjam which delayed the implementation of the new character revenue sharing plan for years, though eventually it did become a reality. As for the sales incentive, while the concept was approved, coming up with a fair, workable plan proved more difficult than I’d imagined. It took time. But in the meantime, I obtained rate increases for the creators, which drove up rates at other companies as well. In addition to raises, I asked for improvements in benefits such as adding life insurance and major medical coverage for regular freelancers. We improved reprint payments, began to cover business expenses for creators and to provide all materials.

With the improvements, we accomplished a major change in the previously hostile relations between the creators and the company. As it became possible to earn a decent living as a creator at Marvel, tensions eased and creators who had left began returning. Sales of Marvel Comics turned around and began to climb.

By this time I was out of the “Y” and living in a nice apartment.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Here I Go Again

Four years after leaving my career in comics in (I thought) ruins I was making my living writing ad copy freelance and working part-time in a department store. I got a call from Duffy Vohland, an editor at Marvel. He’d gotten my number from a fan, Harry Broertjes, who’d found it somehow. Duffy invited me to come up to New York and talk to the editors at Marvel about getting back into comics, and told me that National, too, would probably be interested again. Mort had left and no one else there held a grudge. Marvel had never had a grudge.

The next day I flew to New York and presented myself at Marvel. Marvel had moved to larger quarters, but they looked even more cluttered and used than the previous ones. There was a huge paper maché figure of Thor, donated by some fans, suspended on wires from the ceiling in the production area. There were piles of stuff everywhere–old comics, envelopes, books, trash. Two people were sword fighting with yardsticks in the hall. There seemed to be a lot more people, most of them young, strange-looking and dressed for playing frisbee in the park or painting a house, maybe. My tour guide, Duffy, pointed out a few corners where there were sleeping bags where a few otherwise homeless staffers spent their nights. Now, why hadn’t I thought of that four years ago?

Stan, it seemed, was no longer involved editorially. I was briefly introduced to Roy Thomas, the editor in chief, then to Dave Kraft, who, with Roy’s consent, offered me a job writing a feature called “Manwolf.” He showed me some back issues and some books in progress. Suddenly, I had doubts.

Having believed I was out of comics forever four years earlier, I hadn’t read any since. Marvel Comics had moved on without me. I was as lost reading those Manwolf stories as I’d be in a Swedish movie with no subtitles. And yet, that seemed to be what they wanted. I wondered what Stan thought about that. If he knew. Wherever he was.

Later that day, I stopped by National. Not much had changed there. The place was still an insurance office in spirit, though several of the young-but-well-established freelancers like Cary Bates and Marty Pasko were now wearing sportcoats and open shirts with no ties! The characters and stories hadn’t changed either. Oh, apparently they’d tried to do a major revamping of Superman around 1972, but it had failed dismally to revive interest. The changes had been forgotten, except for a few cosmetic touches. Without doing any research I knew I could sit down and write a Superman story. I wasn’t sure I could ever write a Manwolf story.

National offered me Superman and The Legion of Super Heroes, which was back in it’s own title again. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to be a Marvel writer at Marvel, but once again that didn’t seem possible, and National seemed to need me most.

That evening, I went back over to Marvel with several of the National staffers. Everyone in comics hung out at Marvel–at least all the younger guys. A bunch of us–Roger Slifer, Steve Gerber, Dave Kraft and a few others–went out to dinner together at a nearby Brew and Burger and, of course, talked comics. What I heard reinforced the impression I’d gotten of National, that they were as stodgy and starched as ever. The guys also reinforced my opinion of Marvel–that without Stan a sort of creative anarchy had developed and chaos ensued. Energy pervaded the place, and yet there was also a sense of turmoil. Pain. Anger. I wondered about that...

Back home I sat down and read a batch of recent Marvels. Many of them had a furious intensity, but few showed much craft. The secret, or half of it anyway, was in short supply. Not only that, but I sensed it wasn’t much wanted at Marvel anymore. At least at National I figured I’d be able to earn a living pretty easily. So, somewhat reluctantly, I took them up on their offer.

Soon, I regretted it. The editors I worked with were easier to endure than Mort was, but even more formula-oriented. Every Superman story had to have Clark make a clever escape from Lois or Lana in order to change into Superman, had to have a joke played on Clark by Steve Lombard and had to have Clark’s surreptitious revenge using his super powers, etc.

Taking a try at Marvel, no matter how chaotic it was, seemed like a better and better idea. I wrote to then editor in chief Len Wein, who said he’d send me a job to script–but cutbacks in the Marvel line prevented that. Later Len’s successor, Marv Wolfman hired me to write an issue of Super-Villain Team-Up, which I did, but once again, cutbacks in the line prevented me from getting any series assignments.

Finally in December 1975, Marv called me and asked if I’d be interested in a staff job as “associate editor,”  the position second in command to the editor in chief. I was to replace a fellow named Chris Claremont who was leaving to become a freelance writer. I was very interested. I thought I might be good at it. Maybe I could make a difference. Help alleviate the chaos.

Note: Perhaps I should explain the secret. It really is no secret. The way to succeed as a storyteller hasn’t changed since thousands of years before Homer, and very likely won’t change for eons to come–tell a good story and tell it well. The “telling it well” part can be learned–it’s a craft based on the principles of our language, the principles of the words and pictures interplay peculiar to comics and the principles of logic which are the foundations of western culture. The “telling a good story” part is tougher. Most people can be taught what a story is, but in order to make a good story one must have something to say. An idea. An insight. An observation on the human condition. Meaning. That’s the hard part. Leaving the reader with something more than he started with. Stan and company left me–and millions of others–with quite a bit back in Marvel’s glorious sixties. I’d like to thank him and the best way to do that is to carry on the tradition. Believe me, I’m giving it my best shot.

Note from JayJay:
We are working on adapting Jim's "How to Create Comics" seminar into a series for the blog.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

We interrupt this regularly scheduled blogcast...

From blog facilitator JayJay:
Deadline pressure has gotten to Jim and he’s started in with the funny late night emails to me.

See what I have to put up with?  He's mad as a loon.

Jim wrote this to me in the middle of the night, making me laugh, while I’m trying to paint the fires of hell for a heavy metal album cover, harshing my whole evil vibe! Argh! 

Posting it is my revenge.

"Dear Prunella Oddpot,

Inbreeniation has lept...leapted...jumped upon me, and I have become drunc...drunnch...tipsy.

I will continue working, as I am much better when I am...you know.

Sometimes, as I fall asleep, in my head I write better than Shakesphere...Shakespeer...that writer dude from prehistoric England.  But, at those particular moments, I cannot tipe...typpe...make any of those little marks...letters? on the paper.  Or remember wher you put the paper into the coputer...computter...laptop.

I shall press on regardless.

Insincerely,

Wilburforce Q. Noodlewit

P.S.  Just kidding. For your amusement only. Tweet or post this and I will hunt you down and yank out the earring you wear in your eyebrow."

Oooo, just you try it, Shooter! I'll give you such a zetz (as Jack Abel used to say).

Monday, March 21, 2011

My Short-Lived Inking Career

I worked at Marvel for a short time back in late 1969. Stan hired me as a "staff writer," but I never actually got to write anything. There weren't very many staff people, there was a lot of work and most of it needed to be done in a hurry -- all hands on deck! So, I ended up helping out with whatever the crisis of the moment was, doing a little of everything -- editing, proofreading, paste-ups, lettering corrections and sometimes even minor art corrections.  Sometimes, Stan would gather everyone, and I mean everyone in his office -- the only space where, as few as we were, we'd all fit -- and we'd brainstorm plots for whichever books were next in the queue. He'd ask "Where did we leave Iron Man." Someone would remember. People would voice ideas. Stan, it must be said, did most of the heavy lifting. With all of the above going on, things got frantic sometimes, but I loved it.

Anyway....

I wanted to make more money. No, make that I needed to make more money. New York was and is a far more expensive place to live than hometown Pittsburgh. I asked about freelance work. There wasn't any freelance writing available. At DC, I'd been taught to color, but coloring at Marvel paid very little -- my rate would have been under a dollar a page. I knew I couldn't color fast enough to make the money I needed. Lettering? No. Making a small correction is one thing, but lettering a whole book...? I don't know. I think I could have done it, but it would have taken a lot of practice time even to get ready to try out. Penciling? I'd always done layouts for the stories I wrote for DC, and in fact, in his very first letter to me, my DC editor, Mort Weisinger suggested that I might want to someday "draw features for DC." But there's a long way between sketchy layouts and finished pencils. The only finished drawings I'd done up until that time were in art school in a very non-comics style. Again, it would take lots of practice, at minimum, to even make a credible try. 

That left inking.

I'd done a lot of pen and brushwork in my art classes at Carnegie Mellon. I had a steady hand. I'd been taught a lot about inking by experts at DC. It seemed worth a try.

I asked Stan about trying out and he sent me to Sol Brodsky's office. Sol was the production manager. He handled production and basically, anything else Stan didn't want to deal with.  Sol had this stack of rejected, or for some reason, unused, penciled pages -- it looked like a ream's worth -- on a shelf. He also had several large stacks of finished pages from already-printed books, pages that had been returned to Marvel by Chemical Color Plate, the separator. They'd pile up for a while, then eventually he'd take them to the warehouse. Occasionally, when a visitor came to the office, Sol or Stan would give them a finished page or an unused penciled page as a souvenir. No one thought twice about it in those days. 

At any rate, Sol cheerfully paged through the ream of rejects, looking for some good ones for me to try inking. A lot of the pages, I'd say the majority, were Jack Kirby pencils. That was, I think, due to the fact that Jack simply did so many more pages than anyone else. Sol picked out a Fantastic Four splash page by Jack and a Daredevil splash page by Gene Colan for me.

I took them "home." I think at that time I was sleeping on the floor at a small, fifth-floor walk-up apartment shared by four guys, one of whom was an assistant at Marvel. Sitting on the floor, with a crowquill, a lettering pen and a borrowed, well-worn brush -- the only tools at my disposal -- I inked those pages.

A lot of would-be comics artists think, "Inking! I could be an inker. That looks easy."

It's not.

I showed the pages to Marie Severin first. She was very sweet and encouraging.  Especially about the Kirby page. Colan, who did all that fuzzy, side-of-the-pencil shading, was tougher. Maybe if I'd had some Zip-A-Tone....

Then I showed the Kirby page to Sol. He said, "This page was rejected because it was cluttered and hard to read. It's still cluttered and hard to read." In other words, I didn't fix it. Nobody told me to fix it. And the idea of "fixing" Jack's work frankly never occurred to me.

So, no inking work was offered me. 

I might have tried again, but I left Marvel shortly thereafter -- just couldn't make ends meet in NYC -- and got involved in other things back in the 'Burgh. Mostly advertising and custom comics.  Some of which I inked, by the way. 

Maybe things would have gone differently if I had uncluttered that Kirby page. Who knows?


RE:  Kirby Spider-Man pages: I saw, and held in my hand, exactly one such page. It was a page of design drawings. I remember that his version of Spider-Man had a "Web-Gun" and wore trunks, I think, like Captain America's. He was far bigger and bulkier than Ditko's version. There were no similarities to Ditko's Spider-Man costume. I think he had boots with flaps. There were notes in he margin that described the character, again, nothing like the Ditko version. I think there was something about him being related to, or having some connection with a police official, which was how he'd find out about trouble going on.  It was a long time ago, I can't swear to that last item, but I can swear to the fact that it wasn't similar to the Ditko version. I remember thinking, "This isn't at all like Ditko's."

P.S.  I must have seen that page when I was in Sol's office and he was going through the rejects stack looking for pages for me to try inking.  I don't think I ever got to look through those pages again.

P.P.S.  Years later, 1986, I had occasion to talk with Jack at the San Diego Con. He insisted that he created Spider-Man. I told him that I'd spoken to Steve Ditko, Sol, and other people who were there at the time, including Stan, obviously, and that they all agreed that Steve's version was the one that was used, though Jack did his version first. I reported everything I'd seen and heard. We talked about the costume -- the bib and belt combo, the stripes down the arms, the mask, the symbols, a very Ditko-esque design. Jack was having some problems with his memory by then, but he thought about it for a minute, then said that maybe Steve should get the credit. He'd be okay with that. A little later, he was onstage and clearly had forgotten our conversation. He and Roz did, however, come to Marvel's 25th Anniversary Party that evening, which made me very happy. There's a story about that, too, but it will wait for another time.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Washed up at Eighteen

In 1969 on my first day of work at Marvel Comics they found me a small table and chair in a corner. Literally. Marvel in those days had only two real offices, Stan’s and Sol Brodsky’s. Sol was the production manager, which meant he handled anything Stan didn’t want to, which meant anything technical, administrative or financial. Sol’s office looked like a combination production office/storeroom. Beside Stan’s and Sol’s office office there was a reception area and two small partitioned areas. Mimi Gold was the receptionist. Near the reception room, a fellow named Allyn Brodsky (no relation to Sol) read and answered fan mail. One partitioned area was occupied by John Romita, Marie Severin and Tony Mortellaro, all slaving away at art boards. The other area had Morrie Kuramoto doing virtually all the production work by himself, John Verpoorten coloring and somewhere in the back, Stu Schwartzberg running the stat machine. And, oh yes, in a dim corner, me.

The whole place had a cluttered, used look and feel–as opposed to DC’s offices, which were opulent and huge by comparison, populated by an army of dignified people tiptoeing around, speaking in solemn tones, as though they were discussing insurance, or some other “real” business. And at DC they wouldn’t let you in without a jacket and tie. In fact, the first time I went to New York to discuss business in 1966, Mort met me at my hotel to make certain I was properly dressed before allowing me to go up to the offices. He wanted to make sure I wouldn’t embarrass him by showing up in a tee-shirt or something. At Marvel, nobody cared what you wore.

I spent the first day helping Morrie do paste-ups, art corrections and lettering corrections. I also proofread an issue of Millie the Model and gathered along with everyone else in Stan’s office to gang-plot several issues of various titles. I wondered when the “writer” part of the staff writer job would begin. Morrie, it seemed, would slap a lettering pen into any open hand, and point at correx to be done. Everybody did everything. Loudly. Unabashedly. Frantically. Delivery boys were asked their opinions of covers, and how to spell boutonniere (I knew!). It’s amazing they weren’t given brushes and asked to ink backgrounds on The Incredible Hulk.

I loved it.

Three weeks later I quit. I still loved it, but I had to quit. I was staying at the 34th Street YMCA -- not a pretty place -- and failing dramatically to make ends meet on my $125.00 per week, which would have been good money in Pittsburgh, but meant starvation for a kid all alone in the Big Apple. Reluctantly, I headed home to western Pennsylvania, certain that my comics days were over. I knew that when I left (“betrayed”) Mort that the doors were closed forever at National. And, I assumed that leaving Marvel after only three weeks meant no hope of returning. So, while all my friends were just getting started on their careers, at eighteen I was already washed up.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Leap of Fate

Some time around the summer of 1969, I was taken off of Adventure Comics, my one regular title, because the Legion of Super Heroes, my regular feature, was reduced to a second feature in Action Comics. That move made no sense to me. While other National titles had fallen precipitously, Adventure had remained fairly constant during my tenure, according to the statements of ownership printed in one of my first issues and in my last (the way I figured it, the ol’ “Marvel writer” had come through) -- but Mort explained that falling sales on Superboy had prompted the shuffling. Supergirl would be put into Adventure, and presumably would hold the half million readers buying the title, while as a back-up, the Legion (which starred Superboy) would no longer “dilute” the sales of Superboy. And, it might shore up declining sales of Action. Meanwhile, I would be given Jimmy Olsen as a regular assignment along with the Legion back-up to fill my schedule.

Since Jimmy Olsen was not one of my favorite characters, I was somewhat disappointed by all of this. I was also very tired of working for Mort. He was a great man who taught me a great deal, but by his own admission he was not an easy person to work for.

Finally, at age eighteen, thanks in large measure to Mort’s teaching, and in spite of his frequent, brutal, often cruel criticism, I felt fairly confident in my ability -- confident enough to dare approach Marvel.

I called Stan Lee. Miraculously, I got him on the phone, even though he’d never heard of me. Even more miraculously, I got him to agree to see me. He told me he’d give me ten minutes.

I flew to New York, and at the appointed time walked into his office and spread dozens of the comics I’d written out on his coffee table. He wasn’t impressed. “You see,” he said patiently, “we don’t really like the kind of stuff they do at National.” I told him I didn’t either -- including my own stuff, insofar as it was constrained by the givens and rules imposed by Mort. Then I told him what I thought the secret was.

“Yes!” he shrieked, and he jumped up onto his chair. Hmm.

We talked about what comics should be for two and a half hours, after which he hired me as a staff writer for a cool $125.00 per week. Big bucks in 1969. The “Marvel writer” had come home at last. There was a catch. I’d always been able to work through the mail for National. The job at Marvel meant moving to New York City. Uh-oh.

Whatever. I showed up for work on the appointed starting day fresh off the seven A.M. plane from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with no idea where I was going to stay that night.

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.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Growing up with The Legion of Super Heroes

My rather young debut as Legion scripter created a unique situation: I was about the same age as my characters. I was also about the same age as my audience. Better still, my friends, who were also my audience, were the same age as my characters, so my friends became my characters who were my audience, who... You get the drift.

We all aged together, characters, friends/audience and me. I’m sure working with a teen-aged writer aged Mort a few zillion years, too, but the point is that the Legion grew up with me from early 1966 to early 1970. That may not mean much to anyone else, but to my point of view, it made those characters very special, and good, bad or indifferent, I feel responsible for the characters of the Legionnaires I wrote in that period.

With Mort's blessing I struggled to find raison d'etre for a character called Bouncing Boy, who previously had been offered up at face value, and played straight and serious. I found my Bouncing Boy among my Bethel Park Senior High classmates, in the person of a friend whose initials, T.K., and slightly rotund body had earned him the nickname "Teakettle." Going through high school coping with a weight problem and the name Teakettle is not a whole lot different, I think, than being Bouncing Boy in the Legion of Super-Heroes. Thus, in my mind, they became one, and BB grew into a bright-but-insecure, self-effacing, lovable guy who was resigned to the role of comic relief and once described himself as the Legion's "...self-appointed chief of morale." I found similar models for the other Legionnaires. It was easy. Everyone is a character in high school, because no one has learned to hide it yet.

Naturally, the high school "character" I knew best was the tall skinny kid with the armload of science books who was renowned for "drawing cartoons," so there was quite a bit of me scattered among my 20-odd Legionnaire charges. When Karate Kid did something impulsive and got himself in trouble, believe me, I knew just how he felt.

So we all progressed - my friends/audience/characters/self thundered toward adulthood together. Together, we abandoned the shy, uncertainty of our first dates and slowly learned about love. In my first Legion script ever (Adventure Comics #348, "Target - 21 Legionnaires") Duo Damsel girlishly flirts with Superboy, eager to hold hands with the "most powerful" Legionnaire, eager to be seen with the Legion's equivalent of the Big Man On Campus. Didn't all freshman girls want to hang out with the football stars? Her crush on Superboy grew as issues passed, while he noticed her less and less. The tension built to the kind of cataclysmic heartbreak that only a sophomore girl, shattered by unrequited love, can know.

Just like the classmate she was modeled after, Duo Damsel went on to discover that just as her love had gone unnoticed by Superboy, someone else's love for her had gone unnoticed. He was a bright-but-insecure, self-effacing, lovable guy, more than a bit on the plump side, but that was okay. She had learned, and grown, and was able to find in Bouncing Boy things that mattered, things that made him special to her. Their relationship blossomed...they were seniors at the Sweethearts Ball, truly in love.

I've been thinking about Duo Damsel and Bouncing Boy being married now. For a time, I didn't like the idea, but I've changed my mind. I figure Teakettle would like it that way.

Monday, March 14, 2011

I Aimed to be Better Than the Worst

Note from JayJay: This is part of a piece Jim wrote some years back, and he says he had to condense the events slightly due to space considerations. He has plans to write an expanded version when he has more time, but in the interest of continuity, I’m posting these segments in mostly chronological order. Mostly.


At age thirteen, I was ready to write a comic book. I had desperately sought copies of Marvel Comics--borrowed, traded for, or managed to scrape up twelve cents to buy. I studied them. Analyzed them. Read till I knew them by heart. So, I wrote and drew, as best I could, a story of the Legion of Super-Heroes starring Superboy, for National’s Adventure Comics and sent it off.

I picked the Legion because I judged it to be the worst comic book National Published, and therefore, it seemed, the one where they needed me most. I waited, alternating between confidence and despair. Months passed. Finally an encouraging letter came! Essentially it said “send us another one.”

In almost no time, I sent them two more. I waited. Months passed. On February 10, 1966, the suspense ended with a phone call from Mort Weisinger, Vice President of National Comics and editor of the Superman family of titles, which included Adventure Comics. He was a little worried over my age, fourteen by then, but, nonetheless bought the first three stories I’d sent him and commissioned others. The money from those stories couldn’t have come at a better time for my family.

I’d like to thank Stan Lee who wrote those Marvel comics in which I found the inspiration to write as well as a how-to course. Also I’d like to thank my mother, who believed in her son (as mothers are wont to do) enough to encourage me to try.

I’d also like to apologize to the people who wrote the Legion of Super-Heroes in Adventure Comics back in the early sixties, Otto Binder and Edmond Hamilton. I say I chose Adventure Comics as my target because I felt it was National’s worst comic. Perhaps it was in some ways, but since then I have learned to appreciate those works. The writers were talented, skillful gentlemen, indeed, though perhaps not quite fully in touch with the desires of the audience at that point.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Regrets?

Yesterday’s blog got this comment:

“Sounds like you have some regrets about missing out on youth, Jim.”

My response:

Yes.  It was tough sometimes.  The guys would pass by my house on their way to play basketball or whatever the sport of the season was.  They'd yell "Hey, Jimbo," my invitation to play.  Couldn't do it most of the time.  Deadlines.  Had to sit there -- the left end of the couch was my spot -- sketch the pictures and write the words.

I wore out that end of the couch.  Upholstery rubbed bare.  Armrest frayed.

No choice.  First of all, my family needed the money.  Badly.  Second, my editor, Mort Weisinger, mean as a snake at his nicest, would have screamed at me more than usual if I was ever late.

Mort would call me every Thursday night, right after the Batman TV show to go over whatever I'd delivered that week.  He'd call me other times, too, whenever, but Thursday night was our regularly scheduled call.  The calls mostly consisted of him bellowing at me.  "You fucking moron!  Learn to spell!  What the hell is this character holding?  Is that supposed to be  a gun?  It looks like a carrot!  These layouts have to be clear, retard!"  When you're 14 and the big, important man upon whom your family's survival depends calls you up to tell you you're an imbecile, it makes an impression....

It got to the point where any time I'd hear a phone ring I'd clench up, white knuckled.  Very Pavlovian.  Even in school, or some other place that was ostensibly safe, a ringing phone jolted me.

Mort used to tell me I was his "charity case."  He said that the only reason he kept me on was because my family would starve otherwise.

By the way, Mort did call me at school once.  They sent somebody down from the Principal's office to bring me to the phone.  Some question about a cover design....

The net effect of Mort's honking at me was slowing me down.  I'd sit there for hours, immobilized, useless, unproductive, because I was sure that anything I put on the paper would be wrong and therefore, Mort would scream at me.  My mother would occasionally plead with me.  She'd say, "We really need a check."  I started working in my room, sitting on my bed to keep my lack of production more private.  Every once in a while she'd come upstairs, look at the blank page on my lap board and start crying.  That was tough.  She meant no harm.  But that was tough.

At some point, my fear of delivering work that Mort would rip me to shreds over was eclipsed by the fear of failing to deliver, or delivering late, which would be worse.  Then the stuff would flow...!  I could go like the wind!

There was no FedEx back then.  The fastest way was airmail special delivery.  Fifty-five cents!  An outrage.  Still, many a night, I went on the streetcar to downtown Pittsburgh where the main Post Office was -- open 24/7 -- to mail pages that absolutely, positively had to be there ASAP.  Usually overnight, believe it or not.

Sometimes, airmail special delivery wasn't fast enough.  I had to get on a plane, fly to New York and hand the envelope to the National Periodicals (DC) receptionist, escape before Mort knew I was in screaming range and fly back home.  Round trip airfare, student standby, was $25.  That hurt, but, again, no choice.  I did it often enough that TWA gave me a special ID card to speed up check-in.

Net, net, net I spent a lot of time not being a kid.  I don't recommend it.

I made up for it a little bit in my senior year.  Just took some time for me.  Went to a couple of football games.  Went to a couple of parties.  Went to a couple of dances.  It was my last chance to be a kid and I wanted a taste.

Couldn't take time from work, so I sort of sacrificed school time.  I already had a National Merit Scholarship and full scholarship offers from a bunch of schools, including MIT and NYU, so no worries.  I was absent or late 90 days.  Suspended 3 days.  At our Senior Class Banquet I received the "Best Attendance Award" -- yes, a joke.

P.S.  By then, I sussed out that DC wouldn't keep sending me checks if I wasn't any good.  I learned to ignore Mort's abuse, let it run off my back.

Years later, I found out he used to brag about me to other DC editors.  I was his "discovery," a "prodigy," to whom he could give any assignment, any book, any character, and always get good material, never a rewrite needed.  I was the young hotshot he was grooming for big things.  Not bad for a fucking moron/retard, I guess. 

More response than you wanted, I suppose, but there it is.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

How I Spent My Summer Vacation - 1965

Everyone who's ever attended grammar school has had to write at least one composition entitled "How I Spent My Summer Vacation." Most of my friends suffered through the ordeal, begrudging every word that flowed like molasses from their Eberhard Faber # 2's. I, on the other hand, rather enjoyed writing my composition. I thought it was easy. It occurred to me, at a rather tender age, that if one could somehow get paid for this sort of thing, one had, indeed, discovered a legal racket. Thus were the seeds of my writing career sown.

In 1965 I sold a script for a Legion of Super-Heroes story to the late, great Mort Weisinger, who edited the exploits of that august group back then, thereby fulfilling my childhood dream of raking in big bucks just for putting words on paper.

I wrote that first script in the summer of 1965, laboring long and hard up in my hot, stuffy little room while other 13-year-old kids were out playing baseball, swimming, hanging around and otherwise enjoying their vacations. Ergo, the origin of Jim Shooter, Professional Writer and Legion Scripter Emeritus is precisely How I Spent My Summer Vacation in 1965.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Problems with Marvel Comics

In 1962, my ten-year-old self discovered a copy of Fantastic Four no. 4 in a barbershop.  I was stunned. This had been going on for four issues without me?!

Some years before I had begun to get bored with comics as I started to notice a certain sameness to the stories. I remember realizing that the adventures my friends and I made up as we played Superman in the backyard were more exciting than those in the comics. Two things prevented me from getting back into comics up to my earlobes right then--first, my family, always in hard times, had fallen into even harder times, and there simply was no money for such things, and second, those whatchacall’ems--Marvel Comics? They were impossible to find around Bethel Park, Pennsylvania in those early days. How Bruno’s Barbershop acquired one remains a mystery.

During the summer of 1964, I spent a week in Pittsburgh’s Mercy Hospital where I had minor surgery and a major revelation. There were lots of comic books lying around in that kids’ ward, and I had lots of time to read. There were Archies, Harveys, Dells, Charltons, Nationals--and Marvels! All of the Marvel Comics were ratty and dog-eared--read to death, it seemed. Their wretched condition plus some childish loyalty compelled me to read one of the relatively pristine Superman comics first. I hoped that perhaps all comics had gotten better since I’d stopped reading them back when I was an eight-year-old kid. I was twelve, then. An eternity had passed. Anything was possible.

No such luck. Superman was right where I left him, worrying about Lois Lane discovering his secret identity and seemingly avoiding doing anything exciting with his powers--! Oh, well...

I turned to the Marvels. The Amazing Spider-Man no. 2. I was blown away. It was so... credible. When the villain, the Vulture, took to the air, people were shocked at the sight of a flying man. Just like I would be. No one ever seemed to notice--or care--when Superman flew. Everyone in Spider-Man seemed real--at least, in comparison to the cardboard cutouts that populated Superman. Not only did Spider-Man use his powers the way I imagined that I would, but he, and his civilian self, Peter Parker, seemed a lot like me in many ways. In and out of costume, Pete made mistakes. He had problems. One problem in particular hit home. Pete was broke. His number one problem was lack of money.

Wow.

It seemed that all my life lack of money had oppressed my family. We always seemed to be on the brink of financial oblivion. Struggling. Hanging by a thread. Wolves at the door.

Just like Pete and Aunt May.

Pete was a good boy. Again, just like me. He wanted to do good with his powers. he meant well. But there was the small matter of keeping body and soul together. He and May had to eat. So Pete had to use his powers, as honorably as possible, of course, to make some money, first and foremost. If he hadn’t been bitten by that radioactive spider, he probably would have had to drop out of school and get a job at the supermarket.

For me, at twelve, getting a job at the supermarket, or any other job beyond delivering newspapers seemed even less likely than gaining spider powers. Nonetheless, The Amazing Spider-Man no. 2 clearly indicated a solution to my family’s money troubles simply by the fact of it’s vast superiority over any issue of Superman. Somebody, I reasoned, must get paid for making the comics. All I had to do was figure out why Spider-Man comics were better, learn how to do that, make some Superman comics that were as good as Marvels, and sell them to National. Simple.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Diller, a Dollar, a Donald Duck scholar

On a November day in 1957 I found myself standing in front of Miss Grosier’s first grade class in Hillcrest Elementary School in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, trying to think of a really good word. She had us play this game in which each kid had to offer up a word to the class, and for every classmate who couldn’t spell your word, you got a point--provided, of course, that you could spell the word. Whoever got the most points received the coveted gold star.
“Bouillabaisse,” said I, finally.
“You don’t even know what that is,” Miss Grosier scolded.
“It’s fish soup.”
“You can’t spell that!”
“Can too.”
“Come here. Write it.” She demanded.
I wrote it. She looked it up and admitted that I was, indeed, correct.

Easiest gold star I ever won. And I would like to thank, albeit somewhat belatedly, whoever wrote the Donald Duck comic book in which I found the word bouillabaisse. Also, I’d like to thank my mother who read me that comic book and so many others when I was four and five. She read slowly, pointing at the words. She explained what “new” words meant (she, too, had to look up bouillabaisse). She patiently answered my questions about the stories.

And so I learned to read from those sessions long before I started school. While most of my classmates were struggling with See Spot Run, I was reading Superman. I knew what indestructible meant, could spell it, and would have cold-bloodedly used it to win another gold star if I hadn’t been banned from competition after bouillabaisse. Oh, the agony–denied the glorious victories I might have won with teletype, vacuum and prestidigitation–darn that old Miss Grosier, anyway.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Welcome

Welcome. I’m a writer. I’ve been in and around the comic book business for a long time.

Currently, I’m redeveloping some of the classic Dell/Gold Key characters, including Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom, Magnus Robot Fighter, Turok Son of Stone, the Mighty Samson and more for Dark Horse Comics.

Here you’ll find some new stuff and some old stuff I’ve written—scripts, plots, critiques, commentaries, ramblings, and the wisdom of the ancients I was taught when the world was new.  I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.


Note: Hi. I'm JayJay, facilitator of this blog, since Jim is a bit web-illiterate. I'll do my best to present, piece by piece, the mountains of material he's given me, as well as his occasional outbursts.