During my time at Marvel the people that held the position of Art Director were John Romita, Sr., Marie Severin (briefly), and John Romita, Sr. again. Dave Cockrum shared duties with John Romita for a while, as did Don Perlin toward the end of my tenure.
First of all, the title “Art Director” at Marvel during the 70’s and 80’s is completely misleading. It was a staff artist position. Of course, it made sense to have a really outstanding artist on staff. Things came up constantly for which a quality piece of art was needed, for presentations, PR, whatever, and if you had to track down a freelancer each time, it would be a nightmare. Stan trumped up the title “Art Director” so he could pay outstanding, versatile artist John Romita more money. The brass above Stan would never have agreed to pay a “staff artist” as much, but an “Art Director?” Sure.
Fortunately, the brass was completely ignorant of what went on in the comics creative department, so they were easily fooled. Seriously—most of the upstairs execs and the brass of parent company Cadence Industries had never opened a comic book, and they were proud to say that. Few had ever even ventured onto the floor we occupied. We scared them, I think.
The “Art Director” didn’t really direct the art. First Stan, then, as Stan became less involved, the Editor in Chief was the de facto art director.
Before I became Editor in Chief, John Romita spent a most of his time working with the current EIC creating cover sketches; occasionally working with the EIC to design a character or other item, if it was being created “in house” for some reason; or doing art corrections requested by the “proofreaders.”
By art corrections I mean fixing costume details that some artist had screwed up, correcting other art blunders, extending art when panels had to be shot down or moved, etc. Of course, everything was so late that there was never time to get the artist who screwed it up to make the correction. If that sounds like using an elephant gun to kill gnats, you are correct.
It was tremendously helpful to have an artist of John Romita’s caliber “on tap” in case the EIC, or occasionally Stan, wanted something drawn. For instance, some spot art, a trademark illo, or in Stan’s case, a pitch piece to a film or animation company.
The layout of non-story pages, the design of house ads, the arrangement of elements for any posters, ads, whatever—jobs that anywhere but Marvel one might associate with the title “Art Director”—were not done by or supervised by our Art Director. They were done by “designers” who worked in the production department. Those people reported to the production manager, who reported to the EIC. Again, the EIC was the final say, in charge of all creative work.
The reason for the above is that Marvel had started as a very small shop in which Stan, the boss, did all the writing and presided over all things creative, with the help of a “production manager,” Sol Brodsky, who handled anything that Stan didn’t want to deal with, i.e., anything technical, legal, financial or complicated. There were a few production/administrative people on staff who did the grunt work and freelancers did all the art under Stan’s direction. By the 70’s, Marvel had gotten vastly bigger, but no real organization had evolved. It was still the EIC, in Stan’s place, with a production manager, John Verpoorten, and really, very little delegation/organization below that.
So. While I was Marvel EIC, the Art Director reported to me. I often worked with John and/or the co-pilots on various things. We all seemed to work well together. I had the final say. I don’t remember anytime ever, though, that we didn’t arrive at a solution to whatever the problem was collegially. Think about the talent represented by that list of names at the beginning. How could you go wrong?
I spent a great deal of time and effort trying to change the role of the Art Director, because I thought it was insane to have John Romita sitting there ruling lines in a background on a panel that was being extended. The best thing I did was institute the “Romita’s Raiders” intern program. We hired a group of young, wannabe comics artists, picked from their samples out of the slush pile to do all the line-ruling and grunt art/production/corrections work. They signed on for six-month hitches. They were paid not much over minimum wage—but they got to work under the supervision of John Romita, one of the all-time greats. They sat in the Marvel Bullpen, where, say, a Walt Simonson or a Bill Sienkiewicz might stroll by. They could glom onto such stars, force them to look at their work, extract tips and pointers from them etc. And, by the way, to a person, every artist who came to the office was great with the interns. What this accomplished, aside from giving would-be artists with great potential a chance to learn from stars, was freeing John from the line-ruling. Actually, he ended up spending a lot of time teaching the Raiders instead, which was a much better use of his time. Aside from that, I tried to involve John more in the high-end stuff; designing, drawing important-nobody-else-can-do-it stuff, working more closely with the editors under me to improve the art in their books.
P.S. A number of Romita’s Raiders went on to become successful artists and creators.
By the way, Dave Cockrum was brought on staff to design covers, working with the EIC (me). That relieved John’s burden somewhat, and also the need to use freelancers for cover design (though we continued to use some freelancers—Byrne and Simonson come to mind—to design the covers of their own books). Dave was great at covers. He pitched in on anything else that was needed, too, because that’s the kind of trouper he was.
Don Perlin was brought on staff to relieve John Romita of the Raiders! For a while, they were “Perlin’s Pirates.” Don was responsible for running that program, training them and overseeing their work—thereby freeing John to do more high-end work. Don was terrific working with the newbies, and also at managing the interface with the production department. He was a Godsend.
Later on at VALIANT I was the “Art Director” even more so than at Marvel, because there were only a few of us and it was a smaller operation. I was involved in and had final say on everything—creative, business, everything—until the white collar criminals managed to steal it from me, and I left. I tried to give the line a distinctive look and feel. I wanted buyers to be able to pick out a VALIANT cover from across the room.
All the title logos were boxed, for instance. I wanted every VALIANT book to have a similar feel to the story and storytelling, just as Marvel Comics did in the very early 60’s. We had a “house style”—mine. In these days of rampant creative anarchy, that’s regarded as evil, but I loved Marvel’s house style in the early 60’s, and our readers loved ours in the early 90’s. Don’t forget, VALIANT was a tiny, undercapitalized start-up. We couldn’t afford the Jim Lees of the world. We had to make do with kids right out of the Kubert school, guys nobody else wanted, a few, like Windsor-Smith and Layton who had burned all their bridges elsewhere, and a few guys who chipped in because they were friends who were willing to help me out—Frank Miller and Walt Simonson, for instance. Mostly, what I had to fight with was the quality of the writing—and I wrote or heavily rewrote almost everything during my time there—and my vision of what might appeal to readers, that is, our house style, which was very straightforward storytelling, rectilinear panels, clear art and high concept. It worked.
I was fortunate to have JayJay Jackson aboard. She’s a wonderfully talented designer (and Renaissance woman, who contributed in myriad ways). Working with her, giving her ideas to develop, accepting suggestions of hers and occasionally making her do it my way when she wanted to deviate from the vision I had, we gave VALIANT its style. The VALIANT logo is a perfect example. I gave JayJay a rough, scribbly sketch and she drew up the logo as if she were reading my mind. The name VALIANT, by the way, was her suggestion. Everybody thought up possible names. I picked VALIANT off of her list.