STRAIGHT SHOOTER: Part 1
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MDT: You felt like you dealt with the artists/creators pretty fairly. You had some tough standards. Some of the stories of how you dealt with them are false...?
JS: Creative people don't like to be told "no." And if a guy is talented and he's hacking, you know it and you call him on it, he doesn't like that. There's a lot of guys who call me a son of a bitch. When you get right down to it, they were doing a bad job and I was complaining about it. I can think of a couple guys who started to be big and successful and I think I used to confound a lot of people. ... I had the same standards whether you were John Byrne or somebody new. I was not going to put up with hacking.
They'd say, "But I'm John Byrne." Right, OK, do a good job. To me it was about the books. I don't think they got that. That a lot of people didn't get that, that it had to be about something else. That I was a megalomaniac. It had to be that I had some secret hidden agenda. My agenda was to do my damn job, better than anyone else before.
You also encounter this kind of thing. Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Chris really got John in there. Chris was great. We fought like cats and dogs, and I'm sure he hated me. But I do give him credit. He's the one who built the X-Men franchise. He recruited artists when they needed artists. In order to keep the best colorists and letterers, he paid people out of his own pocket to Glynis Oliver and Tom Orzechowski. He really poured his heart into that.
If you edited something, don't touch his copy. Make a note in the margin, he'll fix the problem in his own words. He didn't want your words, he wanted his words. And I respected that. But I didn't have a problem telling him what I thought was wrong.
And he had good editors, Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson. They beat him up pretty regularly. You have to respect the integrity. So we fought all the time.
He was the one who brought John Byrne in there. They had a falling out. And so John Byrne goes on to do Alpha Flight and other things. Chris gets other artists and marches on with X-Men. In the various other books he was doing, FF, Alpha Flight, whatever, John would do these stories... like if Chris was using Doctor Doom in an X-Men story, then John would do a story that proved that the Doctor Doom Chris had used was a robot. [Author's note: The stories Shooter refers to are X-Men #145-147, in which Doctor Doom and Arcade pair up against the mutant team. In the course of the story, Arcade strikes a match against Doom's armor to light a cigar. In Fantastic Four #259, as Doom surveys his Doombots, he notices the supposed robot from aforementioned storyline with a scratch from the match, noting that no one would dare strike his personage in such a disrespectful manner and the robot subsequently self-destructed]
And he would have snotty comments, like you think I would have said something as stupid as what this robot said. This would happen a lot.
Then Chris would want to fire back. But Chris had better editors who were more on the ball. John, I think would seek out editors with whom he could get away with that type of stuff. Weezi or Ann would say something like, no, Chris, you can't do this. So he'd get frustrated and come scream at me and say, "This son of a bitch did this and you won't let me fire back." I said, "Chris, think of these as somebody else's comics. They're not yours and you can't fire back."
And I'd go yell at John. And he'd get mad at me. Here I was refereeing between these guys who were sniping at each other in the comics I was responsible for. C'mon, guys, Jesus.
There's that going on all the time.
Then Bill Mantlo walks into my office one time and he's having a major war with whoever was his editor at the time. He's insisting he wants to do this story where Spider-Man fathers an illegitimate child and I said, no. Tell you what, do that same story, call him Arachnid Man, do it for Epic. And everybody will really know that it's Spider-Man. He said, "Why not?" I said, "Look, we have licensed Spider-Man for Underroos. We have things in the contract that say we won't do things like that." I said, "Can you imagine, on a slow news day, the president of Union underwear wakes up and there on CNN, they're talking about Spider-Man fathering an illegitimate child. All over the Bible Belt, Underroos are being pulled off the shelves. ... The people who own this company have put me here in order to keep you from doing that. Do that in the adult line for Epic. These just aren't our characters and we can't just mess around with them like that. We do have obligations. I didn't carve them, but they're there."
He was out of his mind, he threw a fit. Does an interview about how I was denying him his creative freedom. You know what. Yes, I did. And I would do it every time. ... I always tried to make the best judgment at the time I made them. I never made one in self-interest.
If people get thinking I had some agenda, what did I get? You can't find an incident where I did something to John Byrne and benefited from it.
There was no payoff. The payoff was being yelled at it. There was no instance.
The only goodies, the plum I ever took for myself, was Secret Wars. You know why? It had all the characters in it and I thought about getting someone else. But no matter who I picked, they would've screamed. Because they'd say, "You're going to let John Byrne or Chris Claremont write my characters? Blah, blah, blah!"
Basically, I needed a neutral party or someone they hated already. So I said, I have to do this. I'm the only one who had the authority to do this. "Chris, you may think the X-Men are your babies, but the fact is, the owners of the company have given them to me. I respect you and I'll do my best to ghost it. By definition, what I'm doing is proper and help me if you will or yell at me if you want, but at least this way, I won't have another war between you and [David] Michelinie or you and Byrne. At least, it'll be the decision-maker making the decisions."
I managed to get through that without anybody getting too angry with me. And pretty soon, they saw the sales of their books go up and more money in their pockets. And they said, Hmmm.
MDT: Shut up real quick.
JS: I'll grant you, I made a couple of bucks on that. But I don't know how else I would have done it.
MDT: I can only think of three things that you wrote while you were editor in chief. The two Secret Wars series and then the Avengers. When you took a hand in doing that, was that a way to show others how to write quality stuff and sell books at the same time.
JS: Most of the time when I wrote something, it was because there was no one else. When I took the job, I had been writing Ghost Rider, Daredevil and the Avengers. The editors in chiefs before me saw themselves as more like head writers. Generally speaking, they had the pick of the crop as far as the letterers, the colorists, the artists ... so they were going to have Joe Rosen letter their damn books.
Denise Wohl lettered everything I wrote because no one else wanted Denise. She lettered kinda big. Since I wrote less copy than most guys, I thought, well, I'll use Denise. I wasn't going to fire her. I thought she was a reasonable letterer, she just lettered a little big. Artists, I took whoever there was. If somebody needs work, then they'd do my book.
Gene Colan, God bless him, a great artist... When he worked for me, there were some problems. Gene had to produce a certain amount of work a day for economic reasons and sometimes he'd cheat a little. He used to love it if there was an explosion in a story. No matter what, a tiny explosion would become a full page. Quick page, so he'd make some money.
He did some brilliant work by the way in his career. Dracula. I think he was getting a little tired when I was there. I think we finally cancelled Dracula, it started to fade and he needed work. And the fact is, he worked on a couple different things, with a couple different writers, he just couldn't.... he had to do everything really fast. He wasn't good about doing the reference, he wouldn't pay attention to the story.
I remember Bill Mantlo came in and I had made him rewrite this plot three or four times. He comes in and says, "I have to rewrite this plot three or four times and [Gene] ignores it. That's just not right." I said, "You've got a point, Bill. I put you through hell getting this plot right and here Gene just ignores whatever parts are hard to draw."
Got to the point where Bill wouldn't work with him. Roger Stern wouldn't work with him. Claremont wouldn't... No one would work with him. So guess what he does, he works with me on he Avengers.
I made a deal with him, I said, "Gene, you gotta start doing what you can do. You've gotta do better stuff. I'm gonna make you redraw when you don't. At first, I will repay you to redraw it, but it has to be right. So if you have to redraw something, don't worry, you're not going to lose a day's work. I'll pay you for it. You're going to find that it's better to do it right the first time. And if you do it right, I'll get you more money. You'll be on the Avengers, nice royalties." That went for a couple months.
That's when Wolfman had gone over to DC, thinking fondly of the Dracula days, got him to come over there. And that was better for everybody I think. Doing stuff that was more up his alley. He wasn't really a superhero guy. That's all we had at that point to offer him. He ended up at DC. Just one of those things that didn't work out.
MDT: I'm sure this is one you get all time: the New Universe. How did that start and why did it ultimately become a comics casualty?
JS: Well, the way it started, about 2 1/2 years before our 25th anniversary, we had a staff meeting of all the vice presidents to talk about what we were going to do for it. Some ideas were bandied around.
So somebody said, "Look, this is an anniversary of a publishing event." "Well," I said, "there are two possibilities. You could start everything over from number one, like the Marvel universe reborn. Like the anniversary in May or June, all the titles wrap up the month before and start again the next month. Sort of like Marvel, 2nd edition, do it right and really make that spectacular." ... We were selling incredibly well so it wouldn't be a good idea to derail the train.
So I said, "Then let's celebrate the birth of a universe with the birth of another universe."
I walked out of there with a development budget of about $120,000 and I'd create eight titles. It was money to spend on research, sketches, things like that.
...[Tom] DeFalco came to me -- he was sort of my head editor, my assistant you might say -- he said let this be mine. This'll be my chance, he said. He said, I'll be like Archie, I'll have my own group of books. I said, you think you can handle this, here's your budget.
Months go by. Many months go by. I kept telling Tom, I want reports. I want to know what you have. I want to know what it's about. It was like almost a year and he had almost nothing. He'd come up with a couple of fairly lame characters... There was no point of difference. They were Marvel, but worse.
He hadn't spent much of the money, so we still had the money. I got together with him and Eliot Brown and we spent the day [pitching ideas]. I said, you know, the original Marvel Universe -- Stan's conception of it -- instead of doing something Superman or Green Lantern, he was really trying to do science fiction. The Fantastic Four didn't have costumes in the first issue. He was trying to be down to Earth.
The problem is Stan doesn't have any science background and the minute you start working with Kirby, you're going to get Atlantis under the ocean, the Blue Area on the Moon, a repulsor ray. It's like Kirby does fantasy, period. He wasn't a science guy either. I said, so Stan's concept was why don't we do this more realistic? ... [W]hat if we went back to that moment in time where Stan said, let's do this more realistic. We have some science background. Let's do a science fiction comic book universe, where things are based more on real science, try to make it more real. We don't have Atlantis under the ocean and the Blue Area of the Moon.
I wrote a page and presented it to the staff VPs. To Stan. This is hailed as the greatest genius since sliced bread. Stan just marveled at it. Thought it was wonderful.
Right after that, this is about the time the company had been taken private and put on the block to be sold. I'm called up to Galton's office and he says "What's your budget for the New Universe?" I said, "$120,000." He said, "How much of it have you spent?" I said, "Not much, we just got started really." He said, "We have to cut your budget." I said, "What? We have to create these titles out of thin air." He said, "You'll have to do it with $80,000." Son of a bitch!
I get a call and he says "We're cutting your budget to $40,000." I said, "What?"
The next day, he calls up and said "How much have you spent?" I said, "About $20,000." He said, "Don't spend any more."
So if you will check, the New Universe books were done volunteer by assistant editors, practically every book in that line was done by me, Archie Goodwin and an assistant editor. For free. Because we didn't have any money.
...One of the things in my business plan is that we were going to guarantee royalties or pay higher rates in order to get the big name artists to do this stuff. What artist is going to leave Iron Man to go do Potato Man unless he knows he's going to make good money to do Potato Man?
All that stuff got scrubbed. I was told, you can pay people their page rate, that's it. ... So basically, if you check the New Universe, the artists you'll find were people who couldn't get any other work. There were exceptions. Some of these guys who grew up to be contenders, like Mark Texeira and Whilce Portacio. But they were brand new. They didn't know what they doing. These kids came along and needed work.
The two people who were contenders [at the time] were John Romita, Jr. and Al Williamson, both of whom worked with me on Star Brand. They volunteered. They came to me and said, we want to work with you.
Other than that, it was me, Archie, assistant editors and anyone who couldn't get work. So, that stuff was awful. It was horrible. They didn't spend any money on promotion. I don't blame them. There was nothing to promote. The stuff was shit. Ask Stan. "Oh, I always thought it was a bad idea." He loved it, raved about it. But when the wheels came off, it was all Jim Shooter's fault.
And it probably was. If I was smarter, I probably wouldn't have gotten myself into that mess. In any case, it was a disaster, but I had help. A couple of the ideas were pretty good. A couple of the issues of Star Brand were pretty good. It was kind of a shame. It could have worked. In essence, we did the same thing with the Valiant universe. I took that same idea and did it there.
MDT: A single universe, a single event, coming together...
JS: The Valiant universe had one conceit that was not normal. There were powers of the mind that were released. Everything about that universe was powers of the mind. Nobody had any horns or wings while I was there. There was no Atlantis under the sea. It was all this world, this planet. You could go to the streets where these people lived. And done well, it worked.
MDT: And you had a little more of a budget....
JS: Actually, we didn't. If you look at that, we were working with kids out of the Kubert school.
MDT: That's right. I've read interviews where you call them "knobs"...
JS: That was what Bob [Layton] used to call them. Basically, the comic book industry was booming at the time and nobody was going to leave Iron Man to come work on Harbinger. Virtually, everyone was some kid who had just come out the Kubert school or some old dude who couldn't get any work. Some of them were pretty good. John Dixon was pretty damn good. He couldn't get work. Except me. Stan Drake, my God, I had Stan Drake. But he was desperate for work. And couldn't get work from anybody in the comic book business. Can you imagine. And Don Perlin, who nobody ever respected and I gave him a shot. and he did some brilliant stuff. I loved working with him. He's good. He wasn't flashy so he was popular. But, man, all the little things he did. All the little details he contributed to everything he did. And the stuff.. he told a story, it was great. Look at his characters. Most of these comic book artists, they can draw one male body and one female body. Don, he'd say, I want this woman to be a little dumpy, there she is. And [David] Lapham, 19 year old punk kid who dressed badly, who became this genius. Just such beauty and subtlety. Maybe not the most brilliant draftsman, but, my God, he'd do things that... I'd say things like if you were flying, you wouldn't fly in a Superman pose, you'd stay more or less upright. Lean forward a little bit, because of the wind. He'd grasp that immediately, and not only would he grasp that, but he would follow through with the logic of the thinking. What would that really look like? What would this really look like? Some of these kids grew up, but God... Bob's joke used to be, we'd have to teach them which end of the brush to hold. These kids didn't know anything. You think they learned anything in the Kubert school? Wrong.
MDT: Are you saying that Joe Kubert was just cashing their checks?
JS: Joe, of course, is one of the all-time greats. He is brilliant. I don't think all of his teachers are necessarily brilliant. Some of these courses were not right on target for being a comic book inker. They'd take a cartooning course and learn all kinds of things. But it wasn't what we needed. And some of it was a little out of date. Some of them were better than others. The one thing I can say in favor of everybody who came out of the Kubert school is that they all came out with a good, solid professional attitude. You can really tell. Someone would start showing you samples, they would listen to what you were telling them. And they would say, yes, I can do that. Yes, sir, I'll try. And they did. They showed up to work. They did what you told them. They tried to learn from you. They did learn which end of the brush to hold. Kubert gave them a good professional attitude. These other guys who come in with their portfolios, saying, I'm a genius, how dare you tell me anything attitude, they came from Eisner's school. Will was a genius. Here are these kids who were taught by a genius, saying I was taught by a genius, who the hell are you? Will also, because he's a genius, he's teaching them stuff they're not capable of handling, they all walk out of there thinking they're geniuses. I say, no, we're going to tell a story straightforward. When you get to be Will Eisner, you can screw around with the panel shapes. Not yet. They'd go, philistine, moron, I'll do it the right way. No, you'll do it my way. I guess I am Mussolini.