oswald: why i never discuss spider-man
It was one of my favorite covers. And, for a couple of reasons: first, it was John Byrne at his peak. Second, it found a way to make Otto Octavious actually seem threatening. Months before I had dressed Octavious, the villainous Dr. Octopus, in the moral equivalent of a dentist's smock. A costume design so wrongheaded, so utterly dumb, I'm not sure how I got away with it. WEB OF SPIDER-MAN artists Greg LaRocque and Jim Mooney were complaining about each other, and they both had valid points. So I got the genius notion of swapping out Greg, a contemporary new kid who was pencilling the book, with Mooney, the solid veteran draftsman who was inking him. It was an absolutely horrible idea, but the thought was to get both men to see what each other's strengths and weaknesses were, and also to see how they were driving one another insane.
The big surprise was that it worked. Of course, I knew Mooney could draw, he'd been drawing comics for decades before I was finally promoted to his boss in 1984. The big surprise, for me, was that Greg could ink. And ink like Bob Layton, the standard at that time for hotshot inkers. As a penciller, Greg's main selling point was he was fast and dynamic. As an inker, he was a superior artist, and, for awhile, I tried to convince him to pursue the inking. He had a great line, and the team looked way better, drawing Doc Ock: Deadly Dentist, with their roles reversed. But, alas, it was merely an experiment, and they went back to their normal roles, and normal complaints, soon thereafter. But, for a brief, shining moment, they made the dentist outfit work. I was so very impressed.
Byrne, however, could barely stop chuckling at my stupid design choice long enough to hold his pencil still. He delivered a cover for WEB OF SPIDER-MAN #4 that was... hilarious. Spider-Man battling a paunchy dentist. The cover just didn't work, and I was afraid that if I rejected the cover, Byrne would go postal and I'd lose WEB's strongest selling point: its fabulous covers by the top artist of the day. In the end, I sucked it up and called him, and John barely blinked. Sure, he'll take another run at it, but what do you want? First, I don't want Ock on the cover. Ock looks stupid, with or without the dentist costume. Second, I want Spidey under siege by those metallic tentacles of Ock's. Traditionally depicted as lumbering and slow-moving, my vision was for these things to not only be attacking Spider-Man, but moving so fast and striking with such ferocity that we, the reader, can feel threatened by this guy. Just keep the guy off-camera.
As I talked to Byrne on the phone, I was acting this out, posing as Spider-Man, arms defensively in front of me, back to the wall that is being shattered by the whiplash of these powerful tentacles. And I realized, this was me. This was my life at Marvel, and this was the miasma I'd fallen into when, at age 22, I became the first African American editor in comics, the youngest editor in comics, and the youngest and least experienced guy to take the reins of Marvel's signature franchise.
Jim was very good at being the boss. He certainly knew his stuff and he knew how to move projects from "A" to "Z." Moreover, he didn't care whether people liked him so much as he cared whether they liked Marvel. Coming from the Mort Weisinger school of Screw 'Em If They Can't Stand The Heat, Shooter was a kinder, gentler, smarter, more touchy-feely version of his mentor, the legendary DC Editor who kicked ass and took names and built a solid reputation for making the trains run on time. Jim made deals and threw money at people who couldn't stand him. He routinely bought big-ticket Christmas presents for staffers he knew were plotting behind his back. He didn't care about being the heavy: somebody had to be the heavy. But, for Marvel to survive and grow, the kids would have to grow up. And Shooter became the avatar of our painful adolescence.
Shooter hired me as an intern from the journalism program of The New York School of Media Arts in 1978. I was awed to be at Marvel and be in his presence, so much so that I started calling myself "Jim," so I could be more like him (no one had ever called me "Jim" before Marvel). I so embraced his teachings, so religiously processed his philosophy, that, in many ways, I became a shorter, blacker version of the guy. I was absolutely in Shooter's inner circle, along with Vinnie Colletta, Bob Layton, and others. Jim spent a lot of time tutoring and encouraging me. He made me believe in me, and all of this kind of took me outside of the mainstream of office life at Marvel. Larry Hama, my immediate superior on CRAZY Magazine and later CONAN, was an outsider as well, preferring the company of artists from National Lampoon and Mad. Larry was friendly to Marvel staffers, but we, Larry and I, were just not in the clique. And my loyalty to Shooter didn't help matters any.
Jim Shooter was not a villain. People like to paint him as a villain, but that speaks more to the "good versus evil" mindset of people in our business. Shooter was and is a genius. It is difficult to dispute that. The man has a brilliant mind and, ultimately, the heart of a Boy Scout. If people got hurt by Jim, it was largely because Jim's greatest flaw is his inability to communicate with us non-genius types. Jim is a guy who's always been several laps around the track ahead of us, and, like most truly gifted folk, his People Skills sucked. He was ambitious and driven in those days and, while he unquestionably revolutionized this business and turned it from a niche hobby to a powerful industry, he is largely dismissed and not liked among a great many pros working in those days.
Jim loved the business. He idolized Stan Lee. He loved Marvel and, I truly believe, he loved all of us. Whatever other shortcomings the guy had, he fought for us and threw himself on the corporate railroad tracks in front of speeding locos for us time and again. We are, all of us, making more money now than we would have had it not been for people like Shooter, Neal Adams, Paul Levitz and others who fought to change the way this business works and the way it treats the talent.
Jim wanted to be one of the guys. We wouldn't let him. If there's any place where he could have been accused of being naive, it was here, in the realm of office politics. For instance, I had a really crappy office chair, so Jim said, "Go pick out a new one." Well, I picked out a really nice faux-leather executive chair that drove many staffers absolutely nuts. Who does this guy think he is with his fancy chair?!? Jim should have told me, "Jim— if I buy you a new chair, the books will suffer because people will be more angry about the chair and how you got it than they will be concerned about editing comic books." The NBC sitcom Newsradio was so similar to Marvel in those days it seemed plagiarized. There was this episode where one of the characters got a new desk, and it derailed the entire operation because now everybody wanted a new desk. Marvel was peopled by colorful and eccentric personality types, a broad group of voices and experiences and sensibilities, and Shooter was the keeper of the asylum.
What most staffers didn't realize was, rather than grouse about it, they could have asked Dad for their own damned chair. It wasn't so much that I was his protégé or his favorite son, it was that I knew him maybe a little more and, ultimately, a little less than others did. But many staffers actively disliked Jim, not for any specific thing he'd done, but because he approved my new chair. They disliked him because he was tall., They disliked him because he went from assistant editor to chief editor. They disliked him because he fired Alan Dulles and Henry Cabel (Jim moved a lot of sacred cows out). But, most of all, they disliked him because that was the thing to do in those days, dislike the EIC. Jim wanted to change that. He naively figured improving our work situation, making more money for everybody, would earn him our trust and our respect (and, yes, we all got raises and bonuses and, gasp, royalties— true profit sharing on the books we edited, unprecedented before that time). Jim figured those gains would offset the animus he inured simply by being the boss. In the history of the world, no one has ever been more wrong.
Jim wanted to be one of the guys. We wouldn't let him. My photo, circa 1987.
The rapid and massive expansion and explosion in sales and profits at Marvel under Editor In Chief Tom DeFalco were unquestionably the fruits of Shooter's labor and the harvest of the hard work and bloodletting of Shooter's tumultuous turn as Marvel EIC. Which is to take nothing away from Tom, who was savvy enough to know how to move with the market and not cut off his own nose to spite Shooter's face, but made the deals that needed to be made and made the calls that maximized Marvel's advantage. To DeFalco's credit, he didn't step on Marvel's (and the industry's) chances to expand the market (by a modest guess of at least five fold— it was a huge expansion in those days) just to play office politics and distance himself from his predecessor. Tom saw the harvest of Shooter's seeding and, rather than get lost in resentment for Jim, he did what was best for Marvel. Which takes nothing away from Tom while also pointing out the enormous gains Marvel as a company reaped as a result of Jim's EIC tenure.
Within days of my promotion, Shooter called a meeting to divvy up the Marvel line and figure out what I would be doing. The new kid on the block usually gets licensed books, like The Transformers and The Dazzler and so forth. But nobody wanted Spider-Man. Everyone was happy doing their thing: The X-people wanted to stay X-people, Roger Stern was happy with the Avengers (Tom Brevoort) slot, Mike Carlin had Fantastic Four and, yes, The Dazzler among other things. Nobody wanted Spider-Man.
Under previous editor Danny Fingeroth, the Spider books had seen enormous growth with the introduction of the symbiotic black costume, a gorgeous bit of design work by Mike Zeck and ingenious marketing ploy by Shooter, who was selling a fairly mediocre maxi-series called Secret Wars by the truckload. Head writer Tom DeFalco was paired with Ron Frenz, a huge Spidey fan, who was doing a hip Ditko-meets-Romita style under Joe Rubinstein's expressive inks. It was a solid franchise, about to birth its third book, a new title called WEB OF SPIDER-MAN. As the new kid, I absolutely should not have been given Spider-Man, the corporate high-profile franchise, but Shooter ultimately found himself in the position of either having to force somebody to take the line, or give it to the new kid.
I am told the thinking was that I couldn't do any harm,. The books were all being written by veteran Marvel staffers: Executive Editor DeFalco on AMAZING Editor Al Milgrom on SPECTACULAR and X-Men Editor Louise Jones (now Simonson) on WEB, soon to be replaced by exiting Spider-Man editor Fingeroth. With these pros solidly in place, all I had to do was play traffic cop. And, had I done that, I'd probably still be at Marvel today, instead of out here in Colorado, shooing away moths. Giving me the Spider-Man line was an incredibly bad call. Saddling me with several beloved staffers as creative talent on books that constituted over two million dollars of Marvel's bottom line was a very bad idea. And it was criminally stupid to have a 22 year-old neophyte editor edit his own boss (DeFalco).
Shooter worked very closely with me on the Spider books, reading every script and every finished book, and regularly berating me for sub-par work. He encouraged me to turn the screws on the talent the way he did. The problem, though, was Shooter was the EIC. He could get away with being a bastard because he held the keys to the kingdom. All I held was the key to the men's room. The pattern was, I'd get my head handed to me by Shooter, and would in turn make changes and annoy the talent, talent who assumed, who were told, that I was just there to be a traffic cop.
One of the first things I did was evaluate the three Spider titles. I told Shooter, if we have three monthlies, they each need to have their own deal; their own toys in the box and their own reasons for existing. And they all need to be good. The DeFalco/Frenz run on AMAZING was the crown jewel, a book I thoroughly enjoyed. Frenz was passionate about Spider-Man, verging on fanatical, and nobody knew Spider-Man better than former Spider-editor DeFalco.
In fact, about the only thing I didn't like about AMAZING was Peter Parker's head was too flat. I mean it, it was like he was Hammerhead Jr. or something. I called Ron and said, "Please stop making Peter's head flat." The next day, DeFalco stopped in my office to offer fatherly advice. He was a fatherly advice kind of guy in those days, patiently and gently leading me through the curves. He explained to me, you never leave a message like that on a freelancer's answering machine because it'll freak him out.
But, all I said was, "Please stop making Peter's head so flat." Tom explained to me, a freelancer sitting out in Oshkosh somewhere is very vulnerable and nearly always paranoid. I said, "Please stop making Peter's head flat," but Ron likely heard, "I hate you and I hate what you do."
It was an important lesson. As much triage as I attempted on my relationship with Ron, it never got chummy. Tom and I even flew out to Pittsburgh and took Ron to strip clubs and spent the night laughing and acting silly on Marvel's expense account, but the relationship continued to spiral. I have little but regret about how I handled a lot of issues between Tom, Ron and myself. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN truly earned the title in those days. All I ever wanted was for them to keep it going, but between Tom's increasing staff workload as Executive Editor, and my poor communications skills with Ron, the whole deal kind of got away from us, to the point where, today, we are politely not in one another's lives anymore.
Incidentally, one day I found copies of some old Frenz pencils and saw Peter's head was perfectly round. Frenz had never flattened out Peter's head to begin with, that was a style choice by inker Joe Rubinstein. Joe and I had a much more familial relationship (his self portrait hangs in my office to this day). I called Joe and said, "Hey— stop making Peter's head flat." Joe said, "Okay," and, voila! Round Parker head.
Shooter was asking for heads on a plate, and I tried not to give them to him. To that end, I made a project out of Danny Fingeroth on WEB, refusing to hand him over to Pontius Pilate, but hammering him in Shooter Emulation Mode. In retrospect, I went too far and humiliated and tortured this really nice, really friendly guy, and he quit in frustration. I could feel the loathing from one end of the hall to the other as Danny was a beloved Ritchie Cunningham at Marvel in those days. I'd tortured and humiliated Ritchie Cunningham, and most assumed I was trying to run him off the book. Quite the opposite, I was refusing Shooter's repeated demands for Danny's head, and I was determined to get his writing up to the point where Jim would agree with me that he should stay on.
I didn't much care for the whimsical tone of SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN, and tried to nudge writer Al Milgrom out of the seat in favor of the brilliant newcomer Peter David. I handled that in equally clumsy manner, alienating Al, who had been a friend and mentor.
At twenty-three years old, I was the office pariah. I had alienated just about everybody but Shooter, who encouraged me to move Spidey towards excellence. To which end I put Peter David and Rich Buckler on SPECTACULAR, focusing on stories with a serious, "grown-up" tone and more complex themes that happened primarily at night and wherein Spider-Man wore, primarily, his BLACK uniform. One of my comics writing idols, David Michelinie, came onboard WEB along with artists Marc Silvestri and Kyle Baker, and I left the DeFalco/Frenz team undisturbed on AMAZING, other than to emphasize that they were the head team: that we took our cues from them and followed their lead.
The New Deal: Mark Beachum and Peter David completely
re-envisioned Felicia Hardy, The Black Cat,
Only, Shooter disliked Peter's work intensely. I had to run interference between Shooter and Peter, and took enormous, relentless grief over every thing Peter did. Peter was one of the most brilliant new writers to come along in years, a truly gifted young man of vision and great wit, who could kill you with incredibly funny stories (like The Commuter Commeth, where PAD sends Spider-Man to Scarsdale, Long Island), only to shock us (and the Comics Code Authority) into stunned silence with the cliffhanger shot-gun blast of The Death of Jean DeWolff— a cliffhanger so intense, in fact, that we briefly considered pulling it. It scared the crap out of me, and I was 23. I was imagining soccer moms buying SPECTACULAR for their kids by rote, not realizing Sin-Eater was blowing away Betty Brant Leeds inside.
The office politics surrounding Peter were too stupid to imagine. He was disliked largely on the strength that he worked for the late Carol Kalish, a very smart woman in charge of the sales department who clashed with Shooter on occasion. There was an incredibly stupid "us" and "them" mentality, and I came under great pressure from nearly everyone in Marvel Editorial to dump David. I mean it, editors were furious with me for using him (ironically, nearly all of those staffers pursued Peter after I left staff, helping make him the A-List comics writer he is today).
As a result, I hammered Peter relentlessly, much worse than anything I ever gave Danny. I have never seen a man get raked over and beat up and rewritten and smacked around the way I tortured poor Peter. But he dutifully did as he was asked and he hung in there, perhaps realizing this too shall pass.
The cost overruns happened, but that was what Shooter taught me. If he wasn't happy with a book, sometimes he'd "burn" it, ordering new pages or new script. If a book was late, he'd call folks in and put them up in hotels, but he'd get the job done. This was the example set for me and this was what was expected of me.
Over time, I became increasingly isolated from Marvel staff, many of whom knew more about me via reputation than actually talking to me. We never went to lunch with the in-crowd, and few staffers stopped by my office because I was always working. I wasn't a chatter, I was a get-it-done-today-so-you-won't-have-to-think-about-it guy.
Over time, between the relentless deadlines and the relentless Shooter, I started to feel like I was drowning. Jim was never satisfied. Nothing we did pleased him. He disliked Peter's work, he disliked Michelinie's work. He totally thought Silvestri would never amount to anything, and I was "nuts" to have him on the book. Kyle Baker was not an inker, he said, he had no clue what he was doing.
Eventually I felt like an insane rodent, banging my head into maze walls, driving everyone around me crazy. Stressed out and dazed, we sent out an issue of Michelinie's WEB that dealt with the IRA and the politics of Ireland that got us both national attention and a bomb threat. I returned from lunch to find everyone in the building standing on the street while the bomb squad combed the building for explosives (there were none, it was a hoax). But it provided the ammunition for a move to get me out of Marvel.
Also, around that time, Stan decided that Peter and Mary Jane would get married in the Spider-Man syndicated newspaper strip. I thought, and still think, it was the worst creative move the company could have made. Spider-Man, by definition, is "The Hero Who Could Be You." Once he marries a supermodel and becomes domesticated, he moves beyond the realm of wish fulfillment of most adolescents. I mean, sure they'd like to give Mary Jane a toss, but marriage? What teenage boy dreams of marriage?
It was creative suicide, it could not be tolerated. I told Jim and Tom that Spider-Man would get married in the comics series, and this is a quote, "Over my dead body."
Less than six months later, Spider-Man was married and I was gone. The bomb scare had given Marvel's shadow cabinet ammo to get the wheels in motion, but the catalyst for my demise was my firing Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz off of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN.
Finally, I came up with an idea: Sensational Spider-Man by DeFalco/Frenz. This would, likely, have been a quarterly special, like Spider-Man Unlimited or some such. Tom and Ron could do as much Spider-Man as they wanted and were capable of doing, and we'd be off the hook for the monthly deadline. Tom and Ron continue to do the work they love, I get out of Shooter's line of fire. I told Jim I was taking Tom off of AMAZING, and creating this other animal for him and Ron. Jim said, fine.
Tom took the news very hard. It ended our friendship, and, I am told, Tom saw Jim's hand n this and threatened to quit. A stunned Shooter appeared at my door the next day, and I knew I was about to be fired. He asked me, and I quote, "Why'd you do that? [fire Tom]" I just stared at him as he stammered and stared at the floor and shook his head and exhaled, and I felt like I was in The Godfather II, the victim of some macabre Corleone plot. What the blessed hell was this man talking about?!? I cleared this all with him before I did it. More to the point, for months he'd been after me to do something about Tom.
I said, "Because you told me to. We talked about this beforehand." To which Jim replied, and I'll never forget this, "Yeah— but I never thought you'd actually do it."
Not wanting to hide behind Tom, I called Ron myself and gave him the bad news. Ron took it even harder than Tom, so much so that I worried about him being alone, and went back to see Tom, who absolutely did not want to see me— ever— and Tom got Ron on the phone and kind of talked him down off the ledge.
I went back to my office and tried to process what on earth I'd done to myself and my professional career. The horror of it was I'd alienated Shooter, my mentor, and alienated DeFalco, one of my best friends in the business. Over the years I'd moved so far away from the rest of the staff, I had no sure allies there. And now I had no idea who was telling me the truth and who was lying and what was what. All I knew was, suddenly, I was Oswald. The most hated man in comics.
Jim sent Tom to Europe to chill him out. Jim moved along with his plans for The New Universe, and I seated David Michelinie and John Romita, Jr. on AMAZING. Meanwhile, the X-Men were wooing Marc Silvestri, who was turning in five pages every two weeks on WEB. I let him go, telling him X-MEN would be far more lucrative and far better for his career. I haven't seen or spoken to Marc since bumping into him in Chicago maybe a year after the firing. In Chicago he was friendly and congenial, his career having finally taken off. But my last few attempts to reach him have been unsuccessful and lead me to suspect my close— we were actual friends— relationship with Marc is another casualty of this idiocy from sixteen years ago.
Ultimately, Tom returned from Marvel UK and, I was told, delivered an ultimatum to Shooter: either I go or Tom quits [I have since learned this was not true]. Marvel offered me a lucrative exclusive contract that paid me more money to stay home than I made coming into the office. Nobody said, "You're fired." Nobody had to. The very next day Jim Salicrup was sitting behind my glass desk, without the keys to the handcuffs that held Adam Blaustein's and my .45 automatic pistol replicas chained to the table struts.
Suddenly, the three books that I had worked for years to give unique identities to were homogenized into a blur of Spider Sameness: same logo style, same basic look, indistinguishable from one another. Oh, and suddenly, Ned Leeds was the Hobgoblin, a move that infuriated Roger Stern, but one that I had absolutely nothing to do with.
I went home and wrote Conan and scripted over Tom's plot to the Gang War story arc in AMAZING. Life went on.
Less than a year later, Jim Shooter was under fire from his own staff and the powers that be were now thinking the unthinkable: removing the most brilliant mind in comics. Ousting the man who had cleaned up the snake pit and made Marvel THE giant of the business, controlling a whopping 70% of the market in those pre-Image Comics days. I came in and talked to Jim and suggested I write a letter of support, explaining that not everybody hated Jim (I didn't. I don't). Jim agreed every good gesture was a worthwhile one at this point. He had the same geese-in-the-rifle-sight anxious pallor that I did in the days before I knew Jim was going to can me. It's an easy emotion to recognize. Before I could write the letter, Jim was removed as Editor In Chief of Marvel Comics.
I quit WEB OF SPIDER-MAN because someone was meddling with my plots every month after my WEB editor approved them (I assumed this was Tom, but, by then, I never knew what to believe. Tom has recently assured me it wasn't him). I stayed on CONAN until I was fired with issue #213, and with the demise of CONAN THE KING at #55, I was officially out of Marvel and out of favor with everyone there.
I didn't work there again for ten years. I haven't set foot in Marvel's offices in more than a decade.
good for the soul
Of course, Marvel is a much different place these days. A lot of what went on in the 80's simply could not happen now, and a lot of the political shenanigans would be instantly exposed thanks to the immediacy of the Internet. In addition, we have evolved, over the past decade, into an extremely litigious nation. Jim Shooter (or, for that matter, Jim Owsley) of the early 1980's could not function, would not be tolerated, even for a moment, at Marvel today. Which is both good and bad. His was a singular voice and a potent vision, something we in the funnybook game can never have too much of.
I rarely bump into Jim these days, our last contact being an odd exchange during the Unity 2000 event at Acclaim. But, I'm sure, wherever he is, he remains several laps around the track ahead of me. Nothing here is intended to paint Jim as the Bad Guy, though I realize that will likely be the net impression. I'm less interested in pointing the finger at Shooter than I am in taking responsibility for Owsley. I never thought Shooter was a bad guy, then or now, and I remain deeply indebted to him for his investment in my future. I'm sure a lot of this is stuff nobody needs to know and stuff we all probably need to forget. Maybe this page will vanish from my site, replaced once again with a "Coming Soon" blank. But, for now, for the record, this is the chimp's confession.
Christopher J. Priest
Priest's adventures in the comics trade continue in:
In The Funnybook Game
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