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.