Writer. Creator. Large mammal.

The Secret Origin of Jim Shooter, Editor in Chief – Part 3

Apocalypse Now

On my first official day as Editor in Chief, Tuesday, January 3rd, 1978, I arrived at the office extra early. Normal for me was between seven and eight AM. I think I was in my chair behind my desk at five.  And I had a one hour commute in those days.

I had worked all weekend editing scripts and plots and still had more to go. There wasn’t anyone to replace me as associate editor, so for the time being, I had to do my old job as well as my new one. 

Shortly after nine, my phone rang. The caller identified herself as Alice Donenfeld, our in-house counsel and V.P. of Business Affairs.  I hadn’t had much to do with the brass upstairs previously, so I was aware only from the interoffice phone list that there was such a person.

Alice confirmed that she had the right extension, that she was talking to the EIC, and said, “What have you done about the Copyright Law of 1976?”

Me:  “What?”

Alice:  “The Copyright Law of 1976. It went into effect January first (of 1978). It has new rules for work-for-hire.  We need paperwork from every single writer and artist. Don’t tell me you haven’t done anything about this.”

Me:  “I’ve been Editor in Chief for fifteen minutes. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I soon found out.

All creative work at Marvel Comics was done work-for-hire, or more accurately, as referenced in the Copyright Law, “work made for hire.” Most people just say work-for-hire, abbreviated “W4H.” There were a very few exceptions to W4H before 1978. 

Before 1978, almost work done in the domestic comic book industry was done W4H, again with rare exceptions.

The new law didn’t really change work-for-hire status significantly except that it clarified some points and required that in order for a creative work to be considered W4H, the person doing the job had to agree to that in writing in advance

The new copyright law had been enacted in 1976, but took effect in 1978, giving publishers TWO YEARS to prepare. Marvel, of course, had done NOTHING. 

By contrast, DC had already incorporated W4H language into their vouchers and had entered seamlessly into the Brave New World of the 1976 law with, as Uncle Scrooge would say, “no fuss, no muss and no rough stuff.” How’s that for mixing Huxley and Barks? And DC?

Oh, and by the way, Alice was fairly new at Marvel, too. It wasn’t as if she’d let this slide and suddenly sprung it on me at the last minute.


Marvel Comics was in chaos. We had books in house that should have gone to the separators six months earlier and been on sale four months earlier. EVERYTHING was late. We had disorganization, major misunderstandings, tumult and near-rebellions—and that was just in the bullpen. We had voucher fraud and the fallout from same. Paranoia ran rampant among freelancers. We had gaping holes in the editorial staff. The books, by and large, sucked. I got letters and calls frequently from Roy, none of them of the chirpy, happy variety. Marv was deeply suspicious of me. Archie gave me the cold shoulder. 

We also had the worst month of weather in history, I think—a record number of below zero days in New York, floods in the Midwest, killer frosts in Florida, mudslides on the West Coast, six feet of snow in Boston and twelve feet in Buffalo. Single-digit newsstand sales figures. It’s hard to visit your local drugstore and pick up your comics if you’re buried in snow, under water or out late every night firing up the smudge pots trying to save the oranges. The entire magazine industry—make that the entire publishing industry—was suffering.

That wasn’t nearly the end of the trouble, but you get the drift.

All that, and they just had to go and change the copyright law on me. Yes, it was done two years earlier, but….

It was the last thing I needed. 

We kept publishing, or trying to, but every job that was done without an agreement with the creators was potentially in dispute, ownership-wise.

By the way, that concern didn’t extend to the contract creators’ work. Because our contracts were, in fact, employment agreements, and those creators were therefore on staff though they didn’t work in the office, their work was all automatically W4H. So, whatever was done by the Buscemas, Roy, Marv, Kirby, Sinnott, Esposito, Archie, Gene Colan and many others was covered. That still left a lot of exposure. 

I spent the first month madly rushing to the hottest fire every day. Somewhere during that time, Alice arranged for me to take a three-day seminar on Copyright Law so I’d understand the issues better. As if I had three days to spare. But I did it, took my work home with me, stayed up late and slept little. 

Finally, our outside counsel, Kenyon, Kenyon, Riley, Carr & Odom, came up with a W4H document which had provisions in it that covered the “exposed” work. It was three or four pages long. It was full of arcane legalese and words of art.  More “Whereas/Now, therefore,” “party of the first/second part,” irrevocable this and in perpetuity that than I had ever seen in one place.

I was instructed to have EVERYONE sign them.

They were delivered to me at the end of a particularly bad day. Though it was after five, there were a lot of creators around the office for some reason. I dutifully started passing the documents out. 

At a glance, everyone was appalled at the thing. Upset. Angry. And loudly so. And of course, the copyright law wasn’t to blame, Marvel Comics wasn’t to blame, it was MY fault. I was the reason they were faced with this terrifying and evil document. As I said to Alice when all this started, “What?”

Some tore the documents up and threw them on the floor. Some refused to take a copy. A few must have left the building intact, because…

…the next morning, when I came to work, the outside of 575 Madison was papered with copies of the document. The elevator lobby was papered…the elevators…the walls of the sixth floor lobby…the doors. And on each of those copies, in big red letters were the words “SIGN THIS DOCUMENT AND YOU’RE SIGNING YOUR LIFE AWAY.” That, and an invitation to join the COMIC BOOK CREATORS GUILD.

Neal Adams had started a guild. I heard that day that they were talking about going on strike against Marvel. Just Marvel. DC’s W4H, apparently was okay, or maybe the plan was to pick us off one at a time.

That was a discouraging moment, maybe the most discouraging moment I’d faced.

But not for long. Things got worse.

NEXT:  The Guild, and Steve Ditko’s Declaration


Ten More Comics’ Creators’ Quips and Quotes


The Secret Origin of Jim Shooter, Editor in Chief – Part 4


  1. Thanks, Jim! It would have been sweet to see an Adams drawn X-Men GN but I never actually believed it was going to happen back then. We did get some great ones though.

  2. AHA! It comes back to me now! Yes, we hired Neal to design a look for the graphic novel line. Yes, he was going to draw the X-Men novel — however, because it involved Marvel characters (unlike Star Slammers, for instance), there was work for hire language in the contract. Neal wanted it changed to an Independent Contractor format. I argued that the contract, albeit W4H, specified every right and benefit that there would be in an Independent Contractor agreement — royalties and participations in perpetuity, etc. There was no practical difference, and by the way, it was a VERY rich deal for the creators. However, the Marvel lawyers were immovable on the W4H language and Neal was adamantly opposed to it. The Marvel lawyers (I'm not talking about Alice Donenfeld here, by the way, who was wise and reasonable), sensitized to the W4H issue by the whole ruckus precipitated by the general W4H form, were irrationally wed to the W4H format for GN's involving Marvel characters, and honestly, how could Neal, outspoken enemy of W4H, possibly sign a W4H document without looking like a traitor to the cause?

  3. Right guys. He drew some pages and then there was something he didn't like about the contract I guess. I also seem to recall Neal saying he helped Marvel come up with how the Marvel Graphic Novel were to look back when they were firsttalking about diving in to them, some design work. I thought the GNs were great and I'm glad Marvel published them. I'm pretty sure I bought all of them!

  4. Here's a post on Neal Adams being the original artist for the X-Men graphic novel, God Loves Man Kills, along with a few of his penciled pages from it. Scroll a little down the page and you'll find it all. http://bit.ly/khKhIq

  5. I think FrankS is refering to the God Loves Man kills GN. I think Neal Adams was supposed to draw it (I remember seeing pages of it in Comic Book Artist Collection vol.1).

  6. Dear FrankS,

    I don't remember Neal being supposed to draw an X-Men graphic novel, though I don't doubt it. I don't think he had anything to do with the start of Marvel's graphic novel line. I remember the Marvel Universe concept, but I don't recall a connection to Fanfare. However, if anybody has any bits and pieces that might jog my memory about these things….

    Chris would know chapter and verse about the Neal/X-Men GN. Or Neal. Al Milgrom might remember things I don't about the origins of Fanfare.

    Walt and Starlin would probably remember things about the beginnings of the graphic novel line, since they did the first two (Elric had been independently produced by Mike Friedrich). I can tell you most of it confidently.
    As Mike Hobson used to say, "For the love of God, man, throw me a rope!"

  7. Re: "Considering that EiC wasn't even an executive position until you came along"

    The EIC position was a "director" level position which was the lowest rank of the executive staff. Before and after I was EIC.

  8. Dear PC,

    See my answer to Zoran.

  9. Dear Zoran,

    Marvel, the comics part, wasn't successful back then. It was breakeven and falling.

    In truth, I was not aware that the copyright law had been changed. I never heard a whisper about it before. As near as I could tell, pretty much no one among the comics people knew about it, or at least, no one said anything in earshot.

    Upstairs management was mostly brand new. New President, company counsel, financial officer, more. And they didn't bother much with the comics. Obviously, Alice knew about the new law.

    Marvel didn't have a board. The Board I have occasionally referred to was the board of parent-conglomerate Cadence. They wouldn't have discussed the issue. They almost certainly didn't know there was an issue. In any case, it would have been something to be addressed at Marvel, not Cadence.

    "The board would have asked Legal to prepare a report on how the changes would impact the business and someone – the President or the Publisher or whoever was in charge of Business Affairs – would have taken charge of implementing any necessary changes. Or, at least, they would have delegated someone to do so."

    Hoo-hah! You are really picturing something much more IBM-ish than the half-assed, disorganized mess Marvel was. The bosses upstairs were not engaged with downstairs happenings. Disaffected is not a strong enough word. Things improved a bit with Galton, but not much. It took a crisis to get his attention.

    There was no publisher. Stan's title was publisher, but that was ceremonial, not functional. I was the de facto publisher until Mike Hobson was brought in. I did the day to day publisher functions.

    It was all thrust upon me. The wisdom offered from upstairs was "fix it." The comics were my area and my problem. Other than from Alice, I got no help. That's the way it was at Marvel.

    No stockholder derivative suits likely. People owned stock in Cadence, not Marvel. Marvel was a division and not SEC-reported separately. We were buried. On purpose,as it turned out later.

    The other companies besides DC were NOT buttoned up. They did A) nothing, B) foolishly relied on the back-of-the-check stamp as they always had, or C) soon went out of business. I'm telling you, with the exception of DC to some extent, it was an amateurish, half-assed, dying industry.

    Leon Harvey, who ran Harvey (and was very old), called me up once about nothing, chatted with me for a while, then scolded me for calling him because he didn't have time for these chats. Get my drift?

    More about Marvel's upper management, how things cahnged and how they didn't, coming up.

  10. PC

    Jim, Zoran is right. Considering that EiC wasn't even an executive position until you came along, I don't understand why the actual executives would want you to do it right off the bat… or Archie, as would have been case if you hadn't taken the job.

  11. Hey Jim, since Neal Adams name has come up, can you talk about the X-Men Graphic Novel he was supposed to draw and what he had to do with regarding the start of the Marvel Graphic Novel line….. and whatever happened to the proposed Marvel Universe magazine that I guess became Marvel Fanfare?

  12. jimshooter said: I think you may be picturing a scenario that’s more like a modern, reasonably organized, reasonably adult, professional office.

    Partially. I’m also trying to understand the chaos by contrasting it with a professional office. I really wonder how a company so disorganised could be so successful.

    Also, I think I misinterpreted what you may have meant by “I’ve been Editor in Chief for fifteen minutes. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” That suggested that you didn’t know anything about the Copyright Act of 1976 before becoming EiC. And if you – having been Archie Goodwin’s assistant and at the heart of the Marvel offices – didn’t know, it seemed reasonable to assume that other creators wouldn’t be aware of it either. Even though it had come into effect two days before you started as EiC.

    Was that response more of a “What have I done? I didn’t know it was my job to do something about it.” rather than a “What’s the Copyright Law of 1976?”?

    If your response was more “I didn’t know it was my job”, I can see where you would have been coming from. Because the question that occurs to me is: Where was management during all this?

    Perhaps I’m picturing a reasonably organised professional office again, but I imagine that the subject of the changes to the Copyright Act would have come up at a board meeting sometime in 1976. The board would have asked Legal to prepare a report on how the changes would impact the business and someone – the President or the Publisher or whoever was in charge of Business Affairs – would have taken charge of implementing any necessary changes. Or, at least, they would have delegated someone to do so.

    While I can see that whoever was Editor-in-Chief would have been brought into the process, I don’t see that it would have been entirely the EiC’s responsibility. When you started as EiC you should have inherited whatever plan had been prepared.

    However, from what you say, there was no plan. That literally nothing had been done by anyone anywhere in the organization. That it all just got dropped in your lap.

    If that’s the case, then: Wow. That goes seriously beyond Romper Room on crystal meth and into genuine dereliction of duty. The sort of thing shareholders sue over.

    DC managed to roll out the necessary changes with no fuss and I assume that Archie, Harvey, Warren, Gold Key, Charlton and whoever else was publishing comics at the time also managed to do so. I certainly can’t find any mention of those companies having W4H issues.

    So what was going on with Marvel’s management? You’ve mentioned some of the issues and hinted at some problems, but I must admit I’m really looking forward to finding out what the story there was. It sounds like the Mother of all… ummmm… foul-ups.

  13. went through a similar situation when I was hired as a Human Resource manager by a company with 200 employees out on Long Island, NY.
    After two months of going through tons of employee files, I found out that 80 employees were missing the I-9 form.
    The I-9 form is one page document that verifies your citizenship in the United States of America.
    It's required by employment laws and enforced by the Department of Labor.

    40 out of the 80 employees( 20 of which were managers ) refused to fill out the form, were insulted and a few of them handed a blank form back to me and dismissed me.
    I was lucky to convince a senior member of that 40 bunch to help me out.

    Since DC had employees sign off on the "W4H" law, i'm sure most Marvel employees knew about it.
    The problem was that DC did it 2 years earlier, so time went by and Marvel employees thought they were privileged not to sign into it.
    But when you take that privilege away, chaos ensues. Tough job Jim!!

  14. Dear Zoran,

    Yes, I gave creators plenty of warning. I didn't just spring the document on them.

    The seminar I went to was for lawyers and law students. No creator I know would have sat through ten minutes of it. It never occurred to me to have some sort of class/seminar for creators, but no one would have come anyway. No letter was sent, and none was needed. The industry was suddenly abuzz with talk of copyright issues. I explained it a thousand times.

    No one was unaware of W4H and what it meant, even before 1/1/78. All that changed, essentially, was the need to sign a paper acknowledging the situation.

    Stay tuned. You'll see.

    I think you may be picturing a scenario that's more like a modern, reasonably organized, reasonably adult, professional office. When I said chaos, I meant it. The comics business in general, and especially Marvel, was Romper Room on crystal meth.

  15. I met Neal for the first time at Dragon Con in Atlanta last year. I've exchanged a few emails with him over non-comic subjects and I have perhaps the most complete collection of Continuity imprint comics online with obscure stuff the price guides weren't even listing.

    I would call him very down to Earth and shrewd with a good business sense. I had him do a sketch for me and I was stunned at the number of modern professionals at the show that looked at the sketch and scoffed at the price even though he gave me $150.00 discount over his normal rate. At some point when you reach Neal's level of accomplishment, you aren't paying the rate for the sketch, you are paying for the time he could have been doing something more profitable and lucrative. I think Neal's son Josh has inherited a lot of his sensibilities.

  16. Mr. Shooter,

    Was any attempt made to inform the creators about the issues before they were presented with the four page document? You say Alice Donenfeld arranged for you to attend a three day seminar, but were seminars (perhaps not as detailed and only running one day or half a day) organised for the creators? Was a letter sent to everyone concerned explaining the change in copyright law and why the new agreement was required?

    Because, if not, then the four-page document would have come as bolt from the blue and I can fully understand why people reacted as they did.

  17. Dear jcoville,

    If Neal said that, it's true. It was his show at the time I'm talking about.

  18. Dear czeskleba,

    I had forgotten about the ACBA. Thanks for the reminder and the clarification that it was separate from the guild.

    Michael Netzer has resurrected the Comic Book Creators' Guild online.

  19. The organization that Neal Adams says was started by Jim Warren was the Academy of Comic Book Arts, started in 1970. That was a completely different group than the guild of which Shooter speaks above.

    There was disagreement about the purpose of the ACBA… some viewed it as sort of like the Motion Picture Academy, a professional organization that would give out awards and such. Others (like Adams) felt it should be more like a trade union and lobby for creators' rights. The ACBA had gradually faded out by the late 70's.

    Around that time Adams and others attempted to start a guild that would be entirely a professional union. From what I've read, they were not successful at attracting enough big names to make the thing viable. A column by Joe Brancatelli back then noted that some creators were reluctant to sign up because they were suspicious of Adams.

  20. Dear Dale,

    Last month, Jim posted that Neal was "a righter of wrongs, a bringer of change, a leader." Can't wait to learn how Jim dealt with the work-for-hire situation. I've heard the story before, but I look forward to new details like "Ditko's Declaration" and more about Alice Donenfeld.

    Dear Jamie,

    I didn't know Jim Warren started the Guild. I've reread your Jim Shooter interview over the years but I just found your Neal Adams interview. I'll read the latter tonight. I thank you for the former, as it was a rare glimpse at DARING Comics.

  21. I met Neal a couple of weeks ago at the HerosCon in Charlotte.

    Seemed very genuinely pleasant, and generally happy to be there meeting folks. Engaging stories and anecdotes…

    Somehow smells came up… I told him that I missed the old style newsprint smell… He said "We called that stuff toilet paper"…

    So I explained that I was raised in Durham NC, where they used to manufacture cigarettes.

    FWIW – Curing tobacco smells nothing like the smoke. It has a sticky sweet musky smell that rides on the humidity and seeps into your pores.

    Neal was like "No wonder… you cant smell anything.." Funny stuff. Seemed like a happy, nice guy.

    As I stood in line I meant to ask him if he had read your blog, but I was too excited to get my GL 76 signed and fergot.

  22. Neal told me it was Jim/James Warren that started the Creators Guild. He eventually took it over though.

  23. Please withhold judgment regarding Neal… he's a good guy. You'll see.

  24. You arrived at your desk at 5 and she didn't call till 9, what on earth were you doing that whole time? Just kidding.

    Gotta agree with Bosch and say that I've been enjoying the cliffhanger endings too.

  25. Jim, the way you run this blog, the quality of your posts, your interactions with us readers…. It says a lot about you. And now you're giving us regular cliffhanger blog posts. Any other blog does that? I don't know, but I cannot Wait to read about Ditko's Declaration, etc….

  26. I know it's 30-plus years to late, but poor Mr.Shooter! Man am I sorry you had to go through all that, and then the creators treated you like crap for despite that whole mess not being your fault? The hell with them for acting like that. I didn't know Neal Adams was such a shit-stirrer. I think he probably started off with good intentions, but he clearly didn't get the whole story from you, or even consult with you.

    Can't wait for what you have to say regarding Steve Ditko; that sounds really promising!

  27. Jim, you are obviously better off w/o the alcohol. I love a good Grapefruit juice too.

    But Gee whiz if THAT situation didn't drive you to drink, what on earth did?

  28. Jesus. That sound CRAZY!

  29. More about Alice Donenfeld coming up.

  30. First:
    I'm amazed you remember the freezes in Florida from 78'. I was a 14 year old kid living in Winter Haven,Fl (35 miles south of "Disney World", 10 miles west from "Cypress Gardens"),and it was the first time in my life that I had experienced any kind of snowfall. There wasn't that much that snow, however it's an experience that will live with me forever.

    I can see how you earned a reputation as a "bad guy". As soon as you become EIC, you're stuck with a responsibility to implement an order from a "Higher up" that should have been in place 2 years earlier. Once the "troops" have a perception in their heads where they think you're just a power hungry "dick" implementing "new" procedures on a whim just for the hell of of it, you're always gonna be fighting a uphill battle.

  31. Dear uncannyderek,

    There were plenty of problems left to address when I left Marvel. The job was far from done.

    I don't doubt that there are prevalent issues there today. Not like the ones I faced though, somewhat less dramatic I suspect.

    Problems resolved since I left? Can't think of any off the top of my head, which doesn't mean there aren't any. Problems today? I'd say the biggest problem facing them today is editorial and creative. Making good comics.

  32. Dear Will,

    Back then I drank nothing stronger than grapefruit juice, a habit I returned to some time ago.

  33. So THAT's what "baptism by fire" means. Good god.

  34. Dear Jim,

    Do you know how Alice Donenfeld came to work for Marvel? It's as if Larry Lieber had gone to work for … the other guys. And Stan … oh, wait.

    I second Davis' remark about the behind-the-scenes drama. I'd like to reread Bullpen Bulletins from this period and contrast them with the apocalypse … which ultimately worked out.

    You'd face even more adversity over the years, but was this moment particularly "discouraging" because this was your first management job? I'm assuming experience breeds confidence: e.g., "I was EIC of Marvel for 9 years. I founded VALIANT and made it a success. I'll rise again."

  35. Wow! As a comic book fan for 20+ years, who knew there was so much drama behind the scenes?

    Keep 'em coming Mr. S.


  36. Jeez, Jim! This is a gut-wrenching story!

    I wonder if EiC's, or even Marvel still has prevalent issues like these today. I'm sure when you left Marvel there was a lot to still be sorted out and fixed.

    Was there anything you were aware of that you believe to have been resolved since you left? Are there problems still with Marvel that you see today?

  37. So Jim what was the average Alcohol tab those 1st weeks as EiC?

    Sounds like cirrhosis might be a justified risk.

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