I WAS A MARVEL INTERN ZOMBIE!
"Two roads diverged in yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both..." -- Robert Frost
At the end of time I suppose there are some questions that will remain unanswered -- most probably better left that way. Still, there are those thoughts that persist and linger for years in my mind. You wonder what would have happened if you had introduced yourself to that out-of-your-league brunette from ethics class that you fancied during senior year. What if you'd have just gone to film school and alienated your folks with that decision? Will anyone live long enough to hear "Carnival of Light" by The Beatles? Will someone ever tell me how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop? I guess that I'll have to be content with the fact that there are some things that I'll just never know or ever accomplish. But there are those times when we muster enough courage to act on our impulses and go down a road that we normally wouldn't have wandered down. Such was the case when I became a Marvel Intern Zombie!
In January of 1995, I was your basic overextended college student struggling to make ends meet while working almost thirty hours a week in a small investment office in my hometown of Jersey City, writing for the school paper, fulfilling my obligations to my Delta Sigma Pi brothers, volunteering for endless after-school events and letting my parents know that I was still alive. Yet in all of this, I never did lose my head despite having constant nightmares pondering my future after college and the ever-escalating financial debts I was compiling. The worst bit was that I found the experience of working in an office to be an emotionally draining and empty one. At the time, I just couldn't see myself playing those "mind games" for the rest of my life. So I decided that the time was right to take the reins and work in something that I grew up being truly passionate about: Marvel Comics.
With an assist from Dr. Peter Gotlieb (then head of Saint Peter College's Cooperative Education Program), I composed a solid cover letter for Mary McPherran, the person in charge of Marvel Comics' Internship Program at the time. Before the spring semester was over, I was called in for an interview with Ms. McPherran; she had been a fixture at Marvel since the Seventies and the nicest person I would meet at the company. Since I was the first person she interviewed for a fall position, she was nice enough to let me choose which editor I wanted to work for. In my mind, it was between Ralph Macchio or Bob Harras, the current caretaker of my beloved "X-Men" -- I picked Ralph. Although it was close to midday, Ralph wasn't there, so I met his assistant Matt Idelson for a final interview. My late dad had taught me that regardless if I was interviewing for the CEO of a company or a janitorial position that I should always wear a suit; it was the professional thing to do. So I was a little overdressed in comparison to Matt's casual jeans and Doc Martens look. Like Luke Skywalker inspecting droids for Uncle Owen, Matt and I spoke for five minutes about moisture vaporators and the language of Bocce before he welcomed me aboard for the fall.
Although the editorial internship offered no financial pay, I acted like I'd won the lottery and let the folks at the investment firm know that I would be leaving the company in mid-August for Marvel. This was going to be my senior year in college and I wanted to enjoy every single second of school and Marvel. Since the sixth grade, I had been a hardcore Marvel Comics junkie when I discovered a goldmine of wonders during the early Eighties, the prime of Jim Shooter's editorial reign. The stories from that period were more than just entertaining diversions -- they were a mind-opening experience. My absolute favorite Marvel Comics stories were the ones with Ralph Macchio as the editor in the credits box: "Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment," "Daredevil: Born Again," and "Daredevil: Man without Fear." Also, Mr. Macchio was a pretty good writer, too -- read his work on "The Project Pegasus Saga" (with his pal and co-writer, the late Mark Gruenwald) or the finest Marvel short ever written, "...That I be Bound in a Nutshell" from "X-Factor Annual #4." For no other reasons than those did I decide to intern at his office; I wanted to learn from his experience and perspective. And if I liked it and survived my trials, maybe there was hope that I could work there if I wanted to (and they wanted me to). Well, that was the plan.
I remember being really nervous and psyched up for that first day; I made it a point to arrive extra early on that rainy day. I was greeted by the ever-friendly Matt Hicks, who was subbing duties for Mr. Idelson while he was on vacation. When he didn't have more pressing matters, Hicks would unknowingly familiarize me with what I needed to know: be polite, be observant and only speak when spoken to. By midday, I finally met Ralph, who bore no resemblance to his Karate Kid namesake. With his salt-and-pepper hair, the editor came across as someone pretty gracious and likeable as he welcomed me aboard. Among the coolest things of being there was finally giving a face, a third dimension, to the names that I grew up reading: John Romita, Mark Gruenwald, George Roussos, Jack Abel, Flo Steinberg, and so many of the names that I'd often see in the credits or in "Stan's Soapbox."
Adding to the appeal of joining Macchio's office was that all of his main books ("Captain America," "Thor" and "Avengers") were getting major creative makeovers which actually came with some anticipation that these would be pretty good works in an era when Marvel's storytelling had greatly declined. Earlier that year, I had read an interview with Mark Waid (in "Captain America's Collectors Preview") which hinted to the writer's great affection for the character and some of his exciting plans with artistic collaborator Ron Garney. On "Thor," Warren Ellis had agreed to write a four-issue arc, with illustrator Mike Deodato Jr., that would bring sexuality and savagery unto the title before the new permanent series writer, William Messner-Loebs, rejoined Deodato to hopefully bring a whiff of the sales from their successful run on "Wonder Woman." As if Deodato didn't have enough work, he was just hitting his stride providing pencils over which the legendary Tom Palmer would handle the finishes for on "Avengers." Earth's mightiest heroes were in the middle of a big mega-event called "The Crossing" penned by Bob Harras and Terry Kavanagh. "The Crossing" was supposed to be a major push for the classic Marvel heroes in a time when the "X-Men" titles had predominantly ruled the fans' hearts and wallets for more than a decade. Think "Civil War" before "Civil War."
Soon enough, Matt Idelson was back from his holiday and my internship really began. As an intern, I started to understand that my job was more to back up the assistant editor and help him with anything that he needed (or didn't want to do himself). I seemed to remember that immediately on Matt's first day back that he wanted me more to follow him around: That if I learned anything... it would be easier to learn from him doing it than him describing it to me. So I basically became like an unwanted sidekick that would mostly sit in a chair to the left side of his desk awaiting my next command. Like a pixie, I'm pretty sure that during the five months I was in the office that only Matt and Ralph might have known of my existence. Among the things I remember doing was running around getting approvals in all the different levels of Marvel's bureaucracy, assisting the production between the creative teams, letting staffers know Ralph's possible whereabouts in the building, other trivial stuff and photocopying like a madman, so much so that I might have exposed myself to more radiation than Bruce Banner. Sometimes, I was sent to retrieve a bound volume in the archives from its keeper, Peter Sanderson, who'd sometimes look pretty perturbed when a lowly intern interrupted his writing flow.
As a young writer, one of the things that I wanted to see for myself was the creative process and the building of stories. I wanted to be at the traffic control of creativity but sadly didn't see much of that action while I was there. During my first few weeks, I often wondered why I barely heard any discussion about the actual plots or scripts. Later, I found out that during the summer there was an editorial retreat where various editors met at Ralph's house to lay down the groundwork and plots that these books were to follow during the upcoming year. In essence, our job would be trafficking the incoming work and supporting the creative teams with anything they needed to do their jobs properly and on time. Most importantly, it would be our job to stand up for them in-house and handle any emergency or pressing matter -- while looking out for the company's best interest, of course. Although all of that was fine, it did make the job pretty routine sometimes. Frankly, a lot of times the best part of the job was just interacting with the creators and my editors in my efforts to try to please them.
Within a month of me being there, the fruits of our labor would trickle in as people were pleasantly enthusiastic with how fresh and exciting the stories on "Captain America" and "Thor" had become. It was pretty neat to hear reactions to the stories that we'd pieced together mere weeks before. Other staffers and visitors would stick their heads in Ralph's doorway to let him know that they really appreciated what he was doing. To his credit, Ralph took it all in stride. In time, sales on our books would gradually go up, while most Marvel titles were sinking like lead boots. There were some folks that commented that seeing the success of the new team on "Cap" must have been tough on Mark Gruenwald, who had successfully helmed the character's stories for ten straight years. Although Mark's last year on "Cap" was met with little fanfare, he ultimately was responsible for the books that Ralph was putting out as our acting editor-in-chief. To me, he always seemed very gracious about the great reception that character was getting from being brought back its roots. If there was any regret, he kept inside. [Note: Although it lasted less than a year, Marvel had five group editors instead of one proper editor-in-chief at the time: Bob Budiansky (on the Spidey titles), Bobbie Chase (on "Hulk" and other darker titles), Bob Harras (on the X-titles), Mark Gruenwald (on the traditional Marvel heroes) and Carl Potts (on special projects).]
After awhile, being an intern there was exactly like being a zombie, in that you had to leave your ego and opinions at home, you had to be a bit mindless and rely on your hunger for comics to keep coming back to that tenth floor of 387 Park Avenue. As an intern, you needed to know that there would be times when your superiors would have impromptu meetings or private conference calls, so you had to learn to vanish hastily. You also had to learn quickly to read body language and read between the lines to understand what most Marvel staffers were really saying. Learn to not take it personally if some people didn't know how to be cordial or return a greeting, even if it was your favorite X-writer. Also, if the door was locked when you arrived from school, you shouldn't knock, but rather find something to keep you occupied until the door was reopened. Sometimes, I'd see if other editors I had befriended needed help or I'd hang out with the high school interns, who were an even lower form of life in the Marvel food chain. Everyone needs their personal space, and sitting in such close proximity in that cramped office with Matt, if I saw that he needed air or privacy... I'd find something to do outside of the office quickly and quietly. I tried my best not to get in his hair (or Ralph's, for that matter).
Of course, not everything that came out of the office worked. There was this enormous "Avengers: The Crossing" storyline that, though slick on the surface, was way too convoluted and "X-Men"-like for its own good. Perhaps what people really wanted was for "The Avengers" to go back to its roots, like "Cap." With "The Crossing" barely over we had another mini-crossover that ran through a few titles called "First Sign," remember that? Few do. Our one ninety-nine cent book, "Avengers Unplugged," was an abysmal failure; during my internship "Unplugged" appropriately earned only one fan letter, a very nasty one. And when Deodato's artwork wasn't available for the debut of William Messner Loeb's "Thor," that title was unable to maintain its short-term momentum. Fate was also not very kind to The Wasp, who was literally turned into a wasp via Joe Madureira's purple redesign. To add insult to injury, Iron Man died in the pages of "Avengers" #395 and no one shed a single tear. There's nothing worse than dying alone.
The only real compensation that Marvel gave to interns was a weekly bundle of the latest Marvel releases (no trades), the majority of which I left in a box designated for unwanted comics in the only space allotted to interns. (Trust me that stuff wasn't worth hauling back to Jersey.) Thankfully, because I had my credit card and some pitiful savings, I was able to prevail over the New York commute and the daily expenses of eating in the city four days a week. The only money I ever made at Marvel was $45 that Sir Michael Higgins gave me for assisting him on a lettering job -- he didn't have to do that, but it meant a lot to this poor intern and was a gesture that I never forgot whenever I saw him. Heck, when you're sacrificing so much, all you want to feel like is part of team and hope you're doing the right thing by them. It was nice to be invited once in awhile to lunch and just talk about the comics we were producing. Some of my favorite memories were the short chats with Ralph about his past books at Marvel and hearing Matt talk about the joys of Elvis Costello's discography. I was pretty happy to be there -- I wasn't just an intern, I was even a stockholder with 100 shares!
Around November, management decided to do away with the five-group-editor structure and finally named Bob Harras as sole editor-in-chief. In December, the foundation of the building shook when it was announced that Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld would return to Marvel; two of our books would be taken over by the Image twosome with "Thor" seemingly cancelled. Some of the fellow staffers were outraged that Marvel would outsource to two creators that had left the company not so long ago. Really, the attention and sales that the Image boys were bringing to the titles were going to make the miniscule sales advances that our line was having look quite small. I later heard that the talks of Lee and Liefeld's comeback at Marvel took place before even the first issue of Waid and Garney's run started on "Captain America." It was very disheartening to know that all the work coming out of the office was basically for naught. As if all that wasn't bad enough, the issue numberings that harked back to the Silver Age on "Captain America," "Avengers" and "Mighty Thor" would come to an end.
One of the darkest events that I've ever experienced in my life was the day that staffers labeled "Marvelcution" on January 4, 1996. Although people were warned about it the day before, the silence throughout the office that day was deafening. It was pretty sad to see so many familiar folks get called into an office and get their hearts and dreams crushed when they were handed their walking papers. Afterwards, most of the remaining staffers joined their departing friends at a nearby bar that perfectly captured the mood of a wake. While my editors survived the firings, "Heroes Reborn" saw to it that they were both reassigned to different offices. Despite the quiet tension in the room sometimes, I thought they worked very well together in a time when company morale was at an all-time low. Had they remained together, I would have been back for another semester. But even with a chance to have interned for Mark Gruenwald's office that spring, I decided to go back to work for my old firm because they wanted me back -- it's nice to feel needed sometimes.
Ironically, my favorite day of my internship was my last. On that January day, Matt was out but left some instructions for me to prep "Captain America" #451, which needed to go to press the next day. It felt really neat to play "assistant editor," even if it was for one day. The majority of the job involved fixing some minor lettering quibbles in the bullpen, making sure that the issue got proofread, locking down all of our approvals upstairs and downstairs, securing that the color separations and other little things that only our office understood were kosher. With Mark Waid's approval, I was even able to change the placement of Steve Rogers's word balloon in that fourth panel of page 12 that I thought looked odd. The only thing that was missing was the first page of that book, which Matt would quickly composed the next day from some films that had just arrived. I nicely organized everything together and left it prepared for Matt to ship out the next day, with some Post-It notes of the day's events. The day came to a close with me witnessing an awakening meeting that my editor had for his upcoming editorial gig on "Spider-Man" with a writer who'd finally earned some respect after years in the industry. So in mid-January of 1996, my internship came to an end with a short good-bye from Ralph.
I never did get a position at Marvel, nor did I try harder than writing a letter to the vacuum known as Human Resources and one to the Editor-in-Chief after graduation. Perhaps fearing the worst, I never bothered to ask my editors for help in getting a position there. The entire time I was at Marvel, a lot of people would generally discourage one with words about the House of Ideas being on its last legs, or sing the familiar words: "You don't want to work here." I quickly realized that was just talk. Honestly, it's a shame that some people around the comics industry like to make outsiders feel so small with their elitist attitudes -- as if working for the majors was a badge that gave them the right to make fans feel like gnats. Sometimes it feels to me that these folks don't want someone that is really enthusiastic for this art-form near them. If that's truly the case, I think that it is probably better that I didn't get that job after college. I wanted to help make good books, not just stand there and gossip and hang out in bars. Really, how can anything progress when there's so much pessimism and skepticism in the air?
All in all, I'd say the editorial internship was a decent experience. I learned a lot about reading people and seeing what they were really about. My already healthy respect for the creative talent increased tenfold, after witnessing all their sacrifices and knowing all the buearacracy they had to deal with. No matter whether it was the big-time pro or the new guy coming in with less than stellar samples, all of them deserved our time and respect -- because we have to believe that everyone is striving to do their best work. In those days, seeing all the inferior product that was coming out of Marvel made me appreciate the great works in comics even more. There was always hope that things could get better. I'd travel all over Manhattan to the fantastic comic books stores there in search of the inspiration and mentorship that I wasn't finding at Marvel. As for what happened to me, I'm right here talking to you about comic books thirteen years later.