If you're a comic book reader, fan, creator, or affiliate, chances are the name, "Jim Shooter" means something to you that's different from what anyone else thinks. As a good friend of mine lauds Secret Wars as "a masterpiece" and as someone who read many works under Mr. Shooter's reign as Marvel Editor-in-Chief, I sought out Mr. Shooter to ask some questions. Some questions are new, some old, some fun, but it was an absolute pleasure to catch up on a most important name from comics' past.
Tim Hartnett: So, Jim Shooter, what are you up to these days?
Jim Shooter: My main occupation is working for a company called TGS, Inc. developing entertainment content for an Internet site. It's not yet publicly available, but will be later this year, I think. It's an ambitious and exciting project---the most fun I've had in years. Also I've been doing some advertising/custom comics work for Illustrated Media Group and a bit of film development work. I've recently been offered video game development work by a well-known company, too, but I can't talk about that yet. If it sounds like I'm working three jobs, going on four, that's about right. It's a great life if you don't weaken. Or Sleep.
TH: Onto comics. Let's start from the top and refresh everyone's memory. How did you acquire your fascination with the medium?
JS: I read comics as a kid in the fifties. Got bored with them around age eight. When I was about 12, I discovered the then-new Marvel Comics, and got very much interested again. Those early Marvels started what has become a lifetime passion.
TH: You entered the industry at a rather early age. How did this come about?
JS: I had the crazy idea that if I could learn to write like Stan Lee, I could sell comics scripts to DC since their comics, I thought, weren't nearly as good as the Marvels of the time. So, I spent a year literally studying comics trying to suss out what I liked, what I didn't, and why. Then, when I thought I was ready, at age 13, I wrote a Legion of Super-Heroes script with rough layouts (because I had no idea what the proper format for a comics script was) and sent it to DC Comics. Editor Mort Weisinger wrote back and asked me to send him another story. I sent a two-parter. The he called, bought all three, and gave me an assignment to write a Supergirl story. I never lacked for work from DC for the next five years. I worked my way though high school.
TH: During your run on Legion of Super-Heroes, you wanted to introduce one of the first Black superheroes but the idea was shot down?
JS: Ferro Lad (who was masked, remember) was supposed to be black. My plan was that when this was revealed, no one would bat an eye---it would be a total non-issue as one might expect in the enlightened future. Mort vetoed it on the grounds that if we had a black character ID wholesaler distributors in the South would refuse to carry DC Comics. Hmf.
TH: What about the Legion being the first comic to have a "drug" story?
JS: I believe it was. The "Lotus Fruit" story starring Timber Wolf I think was rejected by the Comics Code. We had to eviscerate the ending and way downplay the obvious drug reference to get it into print. Stan ran his Spider-man drug story, which I think -- not sure -- came soon after without the Code Seal, a risky thing to do in those days.
TH: While at DC, you worked on some pretty hefty properties. Superman comes to mind in the '70s. What did you get from your time at DC that later helped you in your tenure as EIC of Marvel? Why did you decide to leave DC? Did DC have an "A-list writers get A-list books, B-list writers get B-list books" system similar to the one you scrapped when you first came to Marvel?
JS: The first script I submitted was a Legion of Super Heroes script. Legion of Superheroes and all "Superman family" books were under Mort's purview and as a writer in his stable that's what I wrote. There was no such thing as A-list or B-list. You were competent or you weren't. The point which I carried with me to Marvel was to find the writer best suited for each book. I demonstrated to Mort I guess that I could write any Superman family book. Mort not only taught me a lot about the creative side of comics, but also about the business -- managing a creative organization, art production, separations, printing, licensing, merchandising, media, advertising, and more. I think he was grooming for editorial/management work someday. All of what I learned from his and others at DC was useful to me at Marvel.
TH: Why do you think there's such a negative consensus of books that were written during the '70s?
JS: Most of them sucked. There was a lot of talent around, but precious few people had gotten any training besides having read 10,000 comic books. No one was doing much about it. A lot of the old guys who knew the craft had retired or died by the seventies. The industry was awash with relative beginners. The pay was terrible. People who had training, experience, and skill -- Archie Goodwin, Roy Thomas, Denny O'Neil, and survive to do much teaching, even if they were in a position one might think would require that.
There is also an attitude endemic to the comics business that I've never seen anywhere else -- it often seems that the newer and less skilled a creator is, the more he or she resists being taught anything or told anything. There is a profoundly arrogant how-dare-anyone-tell-me-anything syndrome rife among the creators in comics. A feeling that any wisdom of the ancients passed on to them is somehow an attempt to control them, or deny them their "creative freedom." It's bizarre.
Therefore, a lot of bad work is/was done due to ignorance. Three guys who come to mind who didn't have that attitude by the way, who eagerly soaked up every piece of information available then went on to be innovators are Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz and David Lapham. No surprise to me that they did so well.
TH: Any truth to the rumour that you "padded" your resume at Marvel?
JS: First time I've ever heard that one. I was hired as Associate Editor of Marvel by Marv Wolfman in 1976. No resume was asked for and none given. Everybody pretty much knew that I had written for DC, and that was pretty much all there was to say. In 1978, I was promoted to Editor-in-Chief based on my performance as Associate Editor, and as plotter of the Spider-Man syndicated strip for Stan. Again, no resume was asked for or given.
TH: In the first few years of your Marvel career, there were some notable stylistic experiments with the books. Two that come to mind are Bill Sienkiewicz' New Mutants covers and Frank Miller's storytelling techniques---very unconventional in the early 80s. Was this because readers were becoming "tired" of the "older" techniques or the simple need to try something new?
JS: I required creators to learn the craft and be solid fundamental storytellers. Readers, in my experience, never become "tired" of good stories well told. Most of the revered and popular comics of all time are tales told with straightforward, clear, powerful storytelling. Check out Watchmen, or Love and Rockets or anything of Kirby's, Ditko's, Kubert's…and the list goes on. Some of the greatest creators preferred to do their innovating in the story rather than in the storytelling. Miller and Sienkiewicz learned their craft and mastered storytelling. They became so good, so talented, that I allowed, even encouraged them (and a few others -- only those who wanted to and I thought capable) to experiment and expand the envelope -- as did people like Steranko, Eisner, Simonson et al. My theory was that if mighty Marvel Comics couldn't afford to experiment, who could?
TH: There were quite a few licensed properties at Marvel in the '80s i.e. Transformers and G.I. Joe. Do you think securing the rights to producing comics of external properties is essential to the existence of a comic book company?
JS: Those comics brought people into comic shops who otherwise never would have entered one. So did Star Wars. Is publishing licensed comics essential to the existence of a comic book company no? No. Did the cited examples give the whole industry a boost? Yes.
TH: In addition, do you think that creator owned work such as EPIC is essential to the health of a comic book company?
JS: Absolutely. Some creators want the sure-thing, guaranteed good living benefits, and prestige of doing a Spider-Man or Hulk. Some prefer doing riskier, usually less profitable, but potentially more rewarding creator-owned work and some like the opportunity to do both. Offering both opportunities just makes sense.
TH: What was your role in the fight for creators' rights and royalties in the 70s?
JS: My plan from the get-go as Editor-in-Chief was to introduce royalties, creator-owned publications, sales and creator incentives and benefits for all creators. In fact, those were among my conditions for taking the job, cheerfully agreed to by upper management, believe it or not. The flap over the Copyright Law of 1976, which took effect the first of January 1978 (which required creators to agree in writing to what had always been the de facto case before any absent documentation), the Kirby legal challenge to Marvel's ownership of properties he'd created work-for-hire, the legal wrangling over artwork return, and the Gerber lawsuit over Howard the Duck all actually served to delay the implementation of programs to benefit creators. Marvel's legal people kept telling me that changes in our policies toward creators might be construed by the courts as a tacit admissions that the cases of Kirby et al had merit. Despite such insanity and insanity, eventually, we got most of the programs installed. I'd say we made the situation much better, about halfway to where it should have been.
TH: I found a Newswatch excerpt from 1981 where you say, "[Gene Colan]'s a very nice man. I like him very much, he's a hell of an artist - but that does not meet my requirements." What was this in reference to?
JS: I don't know. I don't remember saying that, but this is probably what it's about:
Gene is a nice man. I do like him and he's one of the all-time greats. However, during the end of his tenure at Marvel, he was becoming unpopular with the writers because he simply would not follow their plots. He took shortcuts, left out difficult-to-draw scenes, etc., all to save time, because in those days, before royalties, artists got paid so much per page and no more. The only way to make money was to crank out more pages and Gene, for personal reasons, needed to make more money i.e. draw more pages a day -- hence the shortcuts. It got to the point that Claremont, Stern, and even Mantlo refused to work with Gene. The only guy Gene worked well with was Wolfman, largely because Gene loved drawing Dracula -- but Marv had gone over to DC. Finally, I put Gene on the Avengers -- my book -- because there was no other book available that had a writer willing to work with him. But, I insisted that he actually draw the stories as plotted. When he took story-killing shortcuts, I made him do redraws. I paid him to do those redraws, by the way, not because I was obligated to, but because he was an is one of the all-time greats, who had earned some consideration and respect. Bottom line: Gene couldn't do the job right and draw enough pages a day to make the money he needed. I understood that, but my first obligation was to the books.
Gene went over my head to the President of the company, and demanded that I be fired and that his contract be amended so that Marvel had to accept his work as delivered, no changes, no corrections. The President called me and asked who Gene Colan was. He had no idea. I told him. He really wasn't interested, but said, stick to my guns, more or less. The publisher, Mike Hobson, and I met with Gene to try to reason with that, but that was a non-started. We really wanted to keep him, and offered him all we could at the time, but Gene opted to take an offer from DC. We released him from his contract. Gene was a victim of economics, in my opinion. If the royalty plan had been in place at that time, I doubt there would have been a problem.
TH: What were some of the changes in production values at Marvel while you were there? Were there more things you could do (i.e. better colouring, etc.) in '87 than in '78?
JS: During the time I was Editor in Chief at Marvel, the industry went through a long, slow segue away from hand-separations and crude letterpress printing to the current norm, computer-colored and separated high quality offset printing. There were many steps along the way. Sometimes we were followers, sometimes leaders. We insisted the transition to computer separations, for instance. We also developed what I called the "photo-tinting" technique for colorizing black and white/halftoned film. Technology had hugely increased production (and therefore artistic) options.
TH: Describe the whole "Jim Shooter" will not give Jack Kirby back his art" debacle.
JS: Jack's last contract with Marvel expired in June of 1978, during my first years as EIC. Jack immediately began taking legal steps to assert claims on the rights to characters he'd created or co-created. Among the legal maneuvers his lawyers attempted was to demand the return of "Jack's" artwork. This was a legal trap. Returning artwork then would have been a tacit admission that he owned the artwork (i.e. it was not work for hire -- under W4H, the company is the "author" and owner), and therefore that his claim to the rights to the characters was valid.
At that time, all current artwork, including Jack's, was already being returned according to current policy, and I had already gotten permission from the management and board to allow me to return all of the old ('60s and early '70s) artwork to the artists! However, Marvel's lawyers intervened, saying that returning any old artwork to anyone as long as Jack's claims were outstanding might weaken Marvel's case. I argue for many months that Jack's claims shouldn't keep me from giving Sinnott, Ditko, et al, their pages back.
Finally, I was allowed to return all but Jack's pages. Jack pursued his claim -- but when it finally came to discovery, Marvel produced a stack of contracts nearly a foot tall, all documents signed by Jack confirming his W4H status and Marvel's ownership of the work. Apparently, Jack hadn't mentioned these agreements to his lawyers. We received an apology from Jack's lawyers!
After some wrangling about credits, Jack finally signed the standard release and got his pages back. It wasn't up to me, being a legal matter, to be decided upon by the board. Al of the fans didn't know that, apparently, and assumed that I could have simply given Jack what he wanted. No way. I did what I could to influence the brass to do the right thing.
By the way, throughout, and to the end, Jack was always wonderful to me, He knew I wasn't the problem.
TH: Why and how did the Secret Wars books come about? Have you read the current non-related "Secret War" by Brian Bendis?
JS: Kenner had licensed the DC Heroes. Mattel had He-Man, but wanted to hedge in case Super Heroes became the next big fad. They were interested in Marvel's characters, but only if we staged a publishing event that would get a lot of attention, and they could build a theme around. Fans, especially young fans often suggested to me "one big story with all the heroes and all the villains in it", so I proposed that. It flew.
Mattel thought that kids responded so well to the word, "secret" so after a couple of working names bit the dust, we called the story Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars. I didn't need the hassle of writing it, but if I'd given it to any of the regulars, say Claremont, Byrne, or Michelinie, there would have been a lot of carping and complaining by the others. Pretty much every writer had a jealous, protective, almost proprietary feeling about "his" or "her" characters -- a good thing, in a way -- and I figured that the surest way to start a brawl in the bullpen was to give one writer a years' worth of opportunities just to piss off the rest. So, I wrote it.
I figured that they were all usually mad at me anyway…and I was the boss, the man designated by Marvel to be responsible for the characters -- so nobody could really argue with what I did. Let me rephrase that -- they could argue, and I'd listen, and sometimes agree with their points and make adjustments, but it was my call in the end. Besides, I was too big for any of them to take a swing at me. Secret Wars sold something like a million copies of month. To this day, people bring me issues to sign and tell me it was what started them reading comics.
I don't know about any new iterations.
Be sure to return next week for Part Two of Tim’s discussion with Jim Shooter!