Writer. Creator. Large mammal.

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Here I Go Again

Four years after leaving my career in comics in (I thought) ruins I was making my living writing ad copy freelance and working part-time in a department store. I got a call from Duffy Vohland, an editor at Marvel. He’d gotten my number from a fan, Harry Broertjes, who’d found it somehow. Duffy invited me to come up to New York and talk to the editors at Marvel about getting back into comics, and told me that National, too, would probably be interested again. Mort had left and no one else there held a grudge. Marvel had never had a grudge.

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?

The Impending Death of the Comics Industry

The winter of 1975-76 were grim times for comics, for Marvel and especially for comics creators. Sales were falling industrywide, and even Marvel’s were weakening. The major companies all had been forced into cutbacks of their lines, layoffs and belt-tightening. Pay for creative people was abysmal, benefits were few and morale was poor. Marv and Len spoke frequently about getting out of comics and into animation or TV writing. Everybody talked about the “impending death” of the comics industry except me, Roger Stern and a few others. We were regarded as crazy or blind.

Most frightening was the great and growing hostility the creative people felt toward the companies. Many had entered the business as starry-eyed fans. First they were stunned by the rotten conditions. Then their disappointment turned to anger.

Shortly after I arrived, Stan returned. His attention had been on other aspects of Marvel’s business, but now he decided to turn his full attention back to the comics. During my tenure as Archie Goodwin’s associate editor, Stan had got to know me pretty well and, I think, had a good bit of faith in me. Since I was the one who directly oversaw the plots, scripts and art, Stan had come straight to me with his comments about the books. We began meeting once or twice a week to go over the proofs. Stan would critique each issue line by line, panel by panel, just the way Mort used to critique my work–but less brutally. Through these discussions I got the best how-to-create-comics course imaginable. I was amazed at how similar Mort’s and Stan’s theories were about the fundamentals of writing. Often Stan would explain some point of storytelling in the very same words Mort had used. They differed not at all on the principles of the craft.

How I became Editor in Chief of Marvel

When I showed up at Marvel in January 1976, it was a mess. It was chaos on every level. I showed up at 10:00 AM to be interviewed by Marv Wolfman (as per his request) for an associate editor job, and Marv strolls in at around 11:30. Then he says, “Oh, I forgot; I’ve got to go to lunch now; I’ll be back at 1:30,” and off he goes. I shrugged and went to a coffee shop with the assistants. Meanwhile, the minute I walked in the door–I haven’t got the job, I’m just there to be interviewed–there’s this Bullpen full of people going, “Hey, the new boss is here!” They run over and start handing me stuff to do! I killed time waiting by proofreading a Captain Marvel for them. Once Marv and I finally got together, I got the job. I went home, packed and three days later returned to New York, once again with no idea where I was going to stay that night. So it was back to the “Y.” Sigh.

There was chaos, and everything was late. It was very disorganized, and in fairly short order I’d been to Marvel three times, and had seen three different Editors-In-Chief: Roy, Len, and Marv. As editor in chief, Marv presided over all of us–but the things that seemed to occupy most of his time were arguing and mollifying. That seemed to be the job. On a typical day he might be arguing with an artist who’d “left the pages in a taxi cab” for the third time, mollifying a colorist whose job had been badly separated, arguing with the circulation department about falling sales figures and mollifying the accounting department’s chagrin over a proposed fifty-cent raise for a letterer. 

Hank Pym was Not a Wife-Beater

Back in 1981 I was writing the Avengers. Hank Pym aka Yellowjacket was married to Janet Van Dyne aka The Wasp and things had not been going well for him for a long time.Before I embarked on the storyline that led to the end of Hank Pym and Janet van Dyne’s marriage, I reread every single appearance of both characters.  His history was largely a litany of failure, always changing guises and switching back and forth from research to hero-ing because he wasn’t succeeding at either.  He was never the Avenger who saved the day at the end and usually the first knocked out or captured.  His most notable “achievement” in the lab was creating Ultron.  Meanwhile, his rich, beautiful wife succeeded in everything she tried.  She was also always flitting around his shoulders, flirting, saying things to prop up his ego.

As I was developing the storyline, I discussed the potential pathology of their relationship with a psychologist who happened to be sitting next to me on a five-hour flight.  The story made sense, he thought.  I went ahead with it.  During the time the story was running, I got a great deal of hate mail.  It worried me enough to ask Stan what he thought.  He said he got the same kind of mail in the ‘60’s regarding Peter Parker’s various romantic travails.  He asked me how Avengers sales were doing.  They were in fact, increasing by 10,000 copies per issue.  Stan said that people obviously cared passionately about what was happening to Hank and Janet, as if they were real people.  That’s the key.  And he said, “Don’t worry about the mail.”

The Mystery of the Missing Box of Marvel Artwork

Around about early 1978, Marvel’s warehouse got broken into and ransacked. Other than scattering artwork all over the floor–they apparently hadn’t taken any of it that we could tell–but this warehouse was a dump! It was completely unsafe; anybody could break in there. I went to the people that ran the warehouse and said, “I want that artwork all moved to my office.” So it was. You should’ve seen it. It was me in a little corner, and wall-to-wall files full of art, because my office was the safest place in the building. You had to go through three doors to get to my office: The front door, the door to the editorial suite, and then my door, and I was the only one who had a key. It was safer there than it was in the warehouse.

Then when Marvel moved, around the end of 1979, we got a brand new state-of-the-art safe warehouse, so the stuff was moved from my office to the new warehouse; except for one box, which for some reason was moved to the Marvel lunchroom. When I was made aware of that, I went to get Bernie, the office manager, and said, “That box goes to the warehouse right now!” I went back to my office, then Bernie came in a few minutes later and said he went to get the box and it wasn’t there. Somebody had obviously grabbed the box, went straight out to the freight elevator–which was near there–and was gone. I have no idea what it contained. There was probably Jack Kirby’s stuff in it among other things. To this day I have no idea who took it.

The Jack Kirby Artwork Return Controversy

Before the mid-seventies, no one got artwork returned. Actually, few cared about it. As the collector market grew stronger, and the artwork became valuable, artists started caring.

By the time I became editor in chief at Marvel in 1978 (and therefore was in a position to have a voice in the Marvel management), both Marvel and DC had instituted art return policies. Marvel’s, set up by Roy Thomas, gave writers a share of the pages. Go figure. As soon as I could, I changed that — one reason why a few writers like Moench and Thomas didn’t like me. Tough. I did what I believed was right.

Kirby worked for Marvel during that period and had art returned to him just like everybody else. The dispute arose over the old art, from before the return plan was instituted, which was in a warehouse.

I was on the side of Kirby and all the other old artists. I tried at every opportunity to convince Marvel’s brass to return the old artwork. There were many reasons cited by the corporate counsel, financial officer, etc. why this was a problem — i.e., the art could be considered an asset, and couldn’t be disposed of with no benefit to the stockholders of a publicly traded company, tax issues and lots of other nonsense.

Secrets of the Secret Wars

The road that led to Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars actually began when Kenner Toys licensed the DC Universe for a boys’ action figure line. Their competitor, Mattel, already had their He-Man action figure line, which was doing very well, but wanted to hedge the bet in case comic book character action figures became the rage. So, they came to Marvel to talk about licensing our characters. One thing they demanded of us was an “event,” a special publication or series to help launch the toy line. I offered an idea that was suggested by a dozen or so correspondents — usually younger ones — in the fan mail every day: one big, epic story with all (or many) of the heroes and villains in it. Everyone agreed.

We went through a number of ideas for names for the toy line and series. Mattel’s focus group tests indicated that kids reacted positively to the words “wars” and “secret.” Okay.

Mattel had a number of other requirements. Doctor Doom, they said, looked too medieval. His armor would have to be made more high-tech. So would Iron Man’s, because their focus groups indicated that kids reacted positively…etc. Okay.

They also said there had to be new fortresses, vehicles and weapons because they wanted playsets, higher price point merchandise and additional play value. Okay.

More on the Kirby Controversy

JayJay here. Someone has stated that Kirby never actually filed a lawsuit against Marvel and has made a number of comments about Jim’s recollections. Here is his reply:

You may be correct, possibly the suit was never filed. I was Editor in Chief, not company counsel. Around the office, the matter was routinely referred to as the “Kirby lawsuit.” We certainly received a barrage of letters and demands from Kirby’s attorneys, many of which I saw.

If Jack and Roz had no interest in suing Marvel, you sure couldn’t tell that from Marvel’s POV. Their lawyers came at Marvel pretty aggressively.

I attended a panel at the San Diego Con, misleadingly titled, which turned out to be a Marvel-bash-fest MC’ed by Gary Groth. I don’t remember the year. ’79? ’80? Thereabouts. Groth opened with a diatribe against Marvel and its horrible unfairness to Jack. Then he turned the mic over to Jack. 

The Origin of the Phoenix Saga

Here’s what happened:

Chris, X-Men editor Jim Salicrup and I went to lunch at the Ultimate Lotus, a Chinese restaurant that happened to be in the same building as Marvel (575 Madison Avenue) to discuss a new story arc for the X-Men. Freewheeling, I pointed out that while Marvel had many heroes who started out as villains–the Black Widow, Hawkeye, several others–we’d never had a hero who went bad. I suggested that Chris evolve Phoenix into a villain, permanently and irrevocably, the new “Doctor Doom” for the X-Men.  Salicrup and Chris liked the idea and Chris began work on what eventually became the “Dark Phoenix” saga.

In those days, I had so much to deal with besides the comics–the change in the copyright law, schedule problems, two or three lawsuits against Marvel, domestic licensing, international licensing, fighting with the board of directors re: royalties and incentives, trying to teach the writers to write, the pencilers to tell stories, the inkers to ink, the colorists to color (the letterers were basically okay) that I often didn’t read the comics until they were in the “make-ready” stage. Make-readies were, essentially, printer’s proofs.

Rooting Out Corruption at Marvel – Part One of a Bunch

When I took over as Editor in Chief of Marvel on the first working day of January 1978, I didn’t know it, but the place was rife with corruption.  Most of it was small-time, but some of it wasn’t so small. This is the tale of one of the smaller, but still very damaging instances.First, in my early days as Editor in Chief at Marvel, I went to a lot of conventions, trying to promote the books. I was on the road two or three weekends a month. I paid my own expenses—that is, Marvel paid my expenses. I had an expense account. So, con organizers were glad to have me, a professional guest for free.

In case you don’t know, in those days, comics companies never sent creators or even staffers to conventions, or on any kind of promotional trips.  It just wasn’t done. Con organizers had to pay all expenses to get professional guests to come, unless the pro lived in the neighborhood.  Then, all they had to do was provide a free table.

Anyway, I did a lot of panels talking about, and talking up Marvel projects. These speeches were usually followed by a Q&A.

Inevitably, someone in the audience would complain that they had subscribed to one or more Marvel titles, but no books ever came. Why? Once, in Chicago, I asked the crowd if anyone had subscribed to any Marvel titles and received no books. A dozen hands went up.

I told them that I would look into it.

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