Moderator Mark Evanier opened the ’70s-focused panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego with the sad announcement that Paul Levitz couldn’t attend because his mother had recently passed away. Evanier shared Levitz’s regret at not being able to attend, especially because the longtime writer wanted to be there to honor the other creators on the panel.
Another artist, Herb Trimpe, was also scheduled to attend, but decided to pass because he needed to finish a commission for a fan.
The remaining artist on the panel was Trevor Von Eeden, joined by legendary comics writers Steve Skeates, Steve Englehart, Elliot S! Maggin and Marv Wolfman. Before stating the hour-long discussion with them, however, Evanier introduced Gary Sassaman, Director of Print and Publications for Comic-Con International.
“Everyone on this panel is eminently honorable,” Sassaman said, “but I’m here today to honor one person who — to my knowledge — has never made an appearance at Comic-Con before. It’s my great honor, on behalf of Comic-Con International, to bestow upon Trevor Von Eeden our Inkpot Award for Excellence in Comic Art.”
Von Eeden was obviously moved. “Completely unexpected,” he said. “Completely appreciated. Thank you so very much. It’s nice to be remembered.”
The presentation finished, Evanier opened the discussion with an anecdote of how he horrified Wolfman at WonderCon by pointing out that of the 40,000 people at that convention, the three who’d been in comics the longest were Wolfman, Evanier and Len Wein.
“I’m still horrified,” Wolfman admitted. “It’s hard for us to believe, because — whether anyone out there can believe it or not — we all still think of ourselves as new. In our heads, we’re still the guys who are trying to come in and be the next John Broome or be the next Gardner Fox or something like that, and haven’t yet reached it.”
For his part, Evanier admitted that the Silver Age ended “the day I got into comics” and observed that there was a big influx of creators in the ’70s, including, of course, the panelists. He then asked each creator to share his first professional comics job as well as the job that made him feel like a professional for the first time.
Skeates’ first comics job was as Stan Lee’s assistant editor for two weeks in the ’60s. Roy Thomas quickly took over, because Skeates was a terrible proofreader. “That was a major part of the job, which I had no idea when I accepted it.” After that, he became a freelancer for Tower Comics, writing “Undersea Agent” and other things.
Englehart got his start in ’71 as an assistant to Neal Adams and went on to work as part of the staff at Marvel, but didn’t feel like a professional until he started writing “Captain America,” his second series as a freelancer.
Von Eeden began in 1977 at the age of 16 when he sent some work to DC and received a form letter response, with a handwritten note: “If you’re ever in the neighborhood, drop by.” He did, and when DC learned that he was African American, they offered him the chance to draw their first Black super hero, Black Lightning. Since part of the reason he got the job was because of the color of his skin, he didn’t feel like a true professional until he worked on “Batman Annual” #8, where he got to draw what — at the time — was the single longest story of Batman’s existence as well as bringing colorist Lynn Varley to the comics industry.
“I decided to just dedicate myself to becoming an artist,” Von Eeden explained. “The Batman annual was the result of that. Every single page that I did, I just knew that I’d get fired. I decided that I’m gonna do what I want to do, period. So I did all 42 pages, handed them in real quick, went home and waited for my pink slip. And they ended up publishing it. So that job is my most personally gratifying job and was the first time I felt like a professional artist, because I’d actually worked to become an artist rather than just taking a job that was given to me.”
Maggin’s first story was a Green Arrow tale in 1971, but he first felt like a professional writer a year later with a Superman story called “Man of Molten Steel” based on a Neal Adams cover. “It was a sucky story,” Maggin admitted, “but I got lots of great mail on it, because the cover was so good. So it made me feel like I belonged there.”
Wolfman’s first sale was in December 1967 for a “Blackhawk” spec script he’d sent in the year before, but had been lost in someone’s desk. He left comics for a year to teach and didn’t feel like a professional until he came back to work for Joe Kubert as an editorial assistant, working five days a week in a comics office.
Evanier’s next question was about the generation before the panel’s and how the panelists felt about that generation. Von Eeden said he never really thought of comics in terms of generations or even “eras.” “I don’t break comics into Golden Age, Silver Age. It’s just what I like or I don’t.”
The other panelists agreed about the lack of borders. Englehart said that if you were in New York working on comics at that time, you were part of a club where age didn’t matter. Skeates talked about having editors who were ten years younger than him and how that never even occurred to him until much later because they were all in the same boat.
Wolfman told a cool story about entering the DC offices and seeing an old guy sitting in the lobby. Wolfman didn’t recognize due to his bad memory for faces. “He went, ‘Hi, Marv, how are you?’ and I’m looking at him and trying to figure out who it is. It was Gardner Fox, who I grew up reading and loving his work, and he remembered me.” Wolfman took that as evidence that he wasn’t just some young kid to Fox, but another comics professional.
Evanier shared a story of his own about his first day at the DC offices in July 1970. “In the hallway there was a short, older man yelling at a young, skinny kid. And he’s cussing, ‘You guys aren’t writers; you don’t read Dostoevsky!’ And the kid’s saying, ‘I’ve read Dostoevsky.’ He said, ‘You’ve never read “The Brothers Karamazov!”‘ ‘I’ve read “The Brothers Karamazov.”‘ And he’s just berating him and berating him. Standing there watching this, I figured out by playing detective that the skinny kid was Marv and the other writer was…?”
“Kanigher?” guessed Maggin.
Wolfman suggested that Kaniger was unique, though. For him, people like Fox, John Broome and Alfred Bester were the better examples of his experience with that generation.
Evanier mentioned Bob Haney as another Silver Age writer who thought that the young, new guys were being brought in to make it more difficult for older creators to leverage better money and treatment, but Wolfman continued to say that he didn’t hear that much grumbling. “They didn’t come up to us to complain, but guys like Gardner did come up to say, ‘Hi.'”
Since Wolfman had brought up Alfred Bester, Maggin shared an embarrassing story about trying to introduce Julius Schwartz to the works of the great science fiction author (and creator of the Green Lantern oath), complete with voice impressions of Schwartz and Carmine Infantino. Not only was Schwartz enough of a science fiction aficionado to know Bester’s work, he knew Bester personally and it was Bester who got Schwartz his job at DC.
Evanier then gave an overview of Skeates’ career before asking him to talk about his time with Charlton Comics. Not only did they buy everything he did, “I never did an initial plot and get it approved. I just sat down, wrote the stories and turned them in, and they would buy them.” He also talked about “what we called the ‘mystery’ books; the watered-down horror books” that had three stories he’d write over a weekend for a hundred bucks.
Evanier asked Skeates to talk in particular about the Prince Valiant knock-off series he did called “Thane of Bagarth” and what happened when Skeates was taken off the book. “Oh!” Skeates said, “When I killed the main character?”
The story goes that Skeates killed off Thane when he heard he was being removed from the series as writer, but either the rumor turned out not to be true or the next guy changed his mind about taking over. Either way, Skeates was still on the series and forced to deal with his own mess. “So it came back to me and…I did the main character’s adventures in Hell.”
Evanier then asked Skeates about the disharmonious relationship he’d had with Steve Ditko on “Hawk and Dove,” but Skeates pointed out that Ditko hadn’t gotten along with Denny O’Neil either, and that the big fights were actually between the two of them.
Continuing his focus on Skeates, Evanier asked what work from that period the writer is most proud of. Skeates replied that he was pleased with the experimentation he’d started doing on the last four issues of “Aquaman” and talked a little about the unofficial Aquaman/Sub-Mariner crossover he’d been allowed to write for Marvel. Since “Aquaman” had been cancelled abruptly on a cliffhanger, Roy Thomas let Skeates wrap up the story in a fill-in issue of “Sub-Mariner.”
Coming back to the rest of the panel and his earlier question about the older generation, Evanier asked the panelists to talk about their reaction to that generation. Did they want to be like those guys? Did they try to learn from the business mistakes those creators made?
That prompted Englehart to request that Skeates eventually share the story of how he sold the same tale three times, but he also had an answer to the question and talked about how he got into comics right after Jack Kirby left Marvel for DC without any royalties. “I remember saying, ‘I’m not going to end up in a situation like that where I’m not getting paid for the stuff that I created.’ As it turned out, I didn’t listen to myself.”
Maggin joked that he only wanted to stay in comics for about ten minutes and was looking at law school and journalism as alternative career paths. He ended up skipping classes to work in comics.
Von Eeden said that there’s no one in comics that he doesn’t want to be like, except Steve Ditko. “Not because of his work, but because of his attitude towards humanity. I’ve never met the man and I reluctantly bring him up in a negative light, but you fans are the reason we’re still here. I don’t care who you are; if you don’t appreciate your fans, you’re someone I don’t want to be like.”
Maggin talked more about his staying in the industry beyond his expectations. “If you’re going to work for a big company, you’re going to be exploited,” he said. Despite that, he feels lucky, “because the work was so much fun.”
Maggin’s comment prompted Evanier to ask what assignments were the most fun for the panelists to work on. Von Eeden said it was still “Batman Annual” #8, because he got to do exactly what he wanted to do. He offered the following advice to young artists: “Only draw what you want to draw. Only draw what’s fun for you. Comics are an expression on paper of how you think. Art, by definition, is an internal reality made external. Don’t be constrained by what you’re expected to do. Do what you enjoy, because that’s comics. Comics is fun. Once you start drawing what you want to draw or writing what you want to write, your future is assured as a happy person.”
Building on that, Evanier told a story about Steve Gerber, who once had a chance to pitch stories to “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Gerber had been asked to bring in three story ideas, but only had two good stories and a horrible one. He called Evanier for advice and Evanier recommended that he only take in the good ones. “If you bring in two you love and one you hate,”they’re going to end up liking the one you hate ,” Evanier advised. Wanting to be professional and sure that no one could possibly love the third story, Gerber had taken all three. He called Evanier after, saying, “Guess what?”
Wolfman’s most fun assignment was “Tomb of Dracula,” partly because he got to work with Gene Colan whom he described as being both talented and sweet, but also because it was a great learning experience. He got to try some things on the page and see them work. Colan was responsible for a lot of that, and because Colan’s artwork was so human, it taught Wolfman how to write characters in a way that he didn’t know how before.
Von Eeden asked what Wolfman meant by Colan’s art being “human” and Wolfman explained that Colan drew faces in a way where you could feel all of the character’s emotion behind the eyes.
Maggin’s most fun project was “Superman” #400, an anthology issue that he pretty much got to edit because Julie Schwartz was busy helping his wife through an illness.
Englehart said that all of his assignments have been fun because he’s writing to entertain himself. Von Eeden agreed. “Once you have that attitude,” he said, “I thought I’d stay in this business forever. Once you create something, no matter if it’s written or drawn, that you said, ‘Oh, that’s me. That I can stand behind.’ That’s something you can do the rest of your life.”
Skeates’ most fun was writing “Underdog” because it involved creating 4-5 page superhero stories that rhymed. In fact, it was so much fun that Steve Gerber was jealous and created a rhyming character for “Howard the Duck” just so he could have same fun.
Before the panel closed, Evanier asked Skeates to tell the story about how he sold the same tale three times. Skeates explained that it first appeared in “The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves” and was called “The Girl in the Red Dress.” He liked the plot so much that he sold it three times before Tony Isabella noticed and busted him on it in a column. So Skeates said, “Oh, yeah?” and tried to sell it ten times.
“I did sell it nine,” he said, then corrected himself. “I did sell it ten times, but one of them wasn’t published so it doesn’t really count. And one was in ‘Tweety and Sylvester.'”