Jim Shooter’s name carries with it many stigmas.
These are probably the most associated descriptions of the tall man who became a household name among comic book fans in the late 70s and most of the 80s. Whether they’re deserved is really about who you talk to.
Shooter started out as a bright shining star, at the tender age of 13, writing for DC Comics — most notably on Legion of Superheroes. His run there, the majority of it during his teens, is still referenced by writers today (see the recent interview with Mark Waid in Warren Ellis’ Come In Alone on this very Web site). He moved up through the ranks, writing regularly for LSH and Superman.
He wandered over to Marvel in the early 70s, first as a writer and then an editor. In 1978, he was offered what some would consider a prestigious job: Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics. He spent the next decade or so building up the run-down mess it had become to a juggernaut that commanded close to 70 percent of the comic book market at its peak. Not bad for someone in his mid-20s when he took over at Marvel.
What goes up must come down. The details of Jim Shooter’s fall from grace in the late 80s at Marvel have as many sides to them as Sybill had personalities. Everybody has submitted their two-cent stories as to why Shooter was canned.
“Oh, it was Kirby not getting his art back.”
“Shooter was a megalomaniac.”
“Shooter was a dictator and fired me for no good reason.”
But with anything you read on CBR, in the fanzines, or any comic book press, consider the source. Shooter’s has never changed or had addendums to it and, more often than not, backs up his side of the stories with paperwork.
The way Shooter ran Marvel — not “letting writers just hack” as he’s said and telling creative people “no” when they came up with hairbrain ideas — it wasn’t going to win him any long-time friends. But being the boss doesn’t mean you’re there to be everybody’s friend.
Regardless of the whys, the end result was, Shooter was not only fired from Marvel but his reputation besmirched with tales of horror and degradation from those he had allegedly wronged.
So after two failed attempts at buying his former employer and not being able to get any writing work from any comic book publisher, Shooter put together his own comic book company called Valiant. You might have heard about it.
Three years into the venture in the spring of 1992, Valiant had just gotten noticed by the fan press, posted record sales, and was making some good money. Not long after he received a lifetime achievement award from Diamond that summer — alongside Stan Lee and Bob Overstreet no less — Shooter was fired from his own company. A reverseful of fortune, indeed.
So he’s created a few more universes, buried them and lived to tell about it all. He even briefly returned to Acclaim who bought his creations to write Unity 2000. It has been anything but a good reunion, as he will describe.
What follows really is a cautionary tale about money, comic books and the existence of the Golden Rule as it applies in the world of business.
Many people have quoted Shooter about many things, erroneously or not. But if there are two things that you should learn from this candid interview with Jim Shooter, it should be these two things: If it’s not your money, it’s not your company and watch your back.
In the first part of this two-part interview, Shooter talks about his years at Marvel, the rise up, the adventure along the way and the eventual fall from grace.
MICHAEL DAVID THOMAS: What did you see as your job description when you became Editor-in-chief at Marvel in 1978?
JIM SHOOTER: …It wasn’t what I thought. I was hired by the president of the company with a fairly clear understanding of what the mission was. I took that job… I was offered the job and turned it down and was talked into it by Stan [Lee] and by Jim Galton, the president of the company. I took it on the conditions that I could make changes and among them, things like royalties, artwork returned to old artists, things like that. The president of the company was not even aware that we didn’t pay royalties. He’d come out of real-world book publishing. When I said, “I want to pay our writers and artists royalties,” he said, “We don’t?” That’s a quote.
I had a nice discussion about what needed to be accomplished. At that time, Marvel was losing several millions of dollars a year. He had two schools of thought. One was that he didn’t understand why you have 45 titles a month and have each of them sell a fairly small number. He thought, “Why don’t you publish one and have it sell a bigger number?” … I said that’s probably not going to work. He wanted to cut down on the number of titles and see if we had passed the point where they were cannibalizing each other. I’ll admit it, I think we had some titles that cannibalized each other, but I didn’t think that was the main problem. The other thing he thought was that the comic book business was dying. …No one could do anything about it. And, therefore, Marvel would try to get into children’s books, animation… anything but comics and so one of the things he said is your job may be to preside over the demise of this business… [K]eep us from losing too much money so we can segueway into these other businesses.
And I told him in that same meeting that, “No, I thought in the comics market that we could be bigger than Disney, that the comics could be hugely successful and what I thought was wrong was that the comics sucked.” That they weren’t very good. And that’s why they weren’t selling. And that’s why I said, we need incentives for artists, we need the talent to make this happen. He was philosophically on board with everything I was saying. He just didn’t want to be spending a whole lot of money.
Basically the deal was I could do anything I wanted that was self-liquidating or didn’t cost much. That’s exactly what I did.
MDT: He saw what seems to be dollar signs and you saw a creative company that could still make money.
Shooter: Absolutely. We had been losing money for several years in the publishing. And y’know, actually a lot of credit should go to Roy Thomas, who — kicking and screaming — had dragged Marvel into doing Star Wars. If we hadn’t done Star Wars — what was that, ’77 —
JS: — well, we would have gone out of business. Star Wars single-handedly saved Marvel… And that kept us alive. Y’know, when I came in as editor-in-chief, I started finding ways to get people more money, find better creative people and hold onto them. Cause the problem with these fees is that you get a good artist and they started to get good, he couldn’t make enough money in comics, so he’d go off into the advertising business. Go work for Neal [Adams at Continuity Studios] doing storyboards, something like that. And you’d lose them. We put in the first incentives in comics. The very first. That helped. And eventually DC came back with their royalty program. I had been working on a royalty program for about a year and a half by the time DC installed their royalty program. It kept being shot down by the financial officer. He kept saying, “It’d be too complicated to administrate. We’d have to hire six more people.” I don’t know why he was dragging his feet, but he was resisting…
MDT: And… royalties on, not creator-owned titles, but titles that Marvel owned.
JS: On sales of the comics. Right. P.S. At the same time, I was working on creator incentives and so forth. I used to tell people, don’t create anything. Use the old villains. People like Claremont and like that, you just can’t hold them back. They’re going to create stuff anyway. And there was a guy named Bill Mantlo, wasn’t a terribly good writer. The way he saw it, he could make himself more valuable creating characters. And there were people who did it anyway. I always did it because I figured I was the company’s hired gun. It’s my job. [We] finally did get those… As soon as DC put their royalty plan [in place], I threw a fit with the board of directors. With the president, we went to the board of directors, I got everything jammed through. That was tough, because see when DC installed their royalty program, only two of their books sold enough to make royalties and one was about even. The two were Warlord and Teen Titans. Superman was selling about 100,000. Basically , they could install this royalty program and unless they got results, they’d be paying out pocket change. So it wouldn’t cost them anything. That was at a time when Dazzler — DAZZLER! — was selling 160,000; 60,000 more copies than Superman.
There was no Marvel comic selling under 100,000 copies per issue (the royalty threshold). DC had only three titles selling above 100,000, Titans (about 175,000), Warlord (about 120,000) and Superman (about 101,000). All Marvel titles would have paid royalties. Almost no DC titles would have paid royalties unless sales skyrocketed.
That meant that DC’s institutingthe plan cost them virtually nothing, but to match them, Marvel had to commit to taking three quarters of a million dollars (in royalties paid) off the bottom line. That meant if they instituted the plan and sales didn’t go up, they would be handing over about three-quarter of a million dollars, for no increase in sales.
I talked them into it. And, in fact, we ended up that first year paying out over $2 million in royalties cause sales did go up. They were happy to pay out that money, because sales did go up so much that they were actually making more than they were before. Y’know, that was all a big adventure. They [DC] beat us. We beat them. That’s the way the business should be. Competing to get the talent.
MDT: That segues nicely into what I wanted to talk about next, how Epic magazine came about and the comics line, too.
JS: Epic magazine, before the publication of Heavy Metal, Metal Hurlant came to Marvel seeking an American publisher. And after they did their presentation, we had a talk and Stan [Lee] thought that the stuff was too violent, too sexy and that good ol’ sanitized Marvel couldn’t do that. We thought he was crazy. But he was afraid that Marvel would get bad headlines, too violent, all that.
So it turned out that the people who published National Lampoon ended up with the American version of Metal Hurlant, which was Heavy Metal. And was phenomenally successful. Which made us grumpy.
So I went to Stan, and said, “You don’t want to do sex, you don’t want to do violence, you’re willing to do something with a little more adult content, let’s create our own. …We went through a lot of names. We finally came up with the name Epic. …Had an editor… named Rick Marshall, who started working on it, who frankly wasn’t very good. The president of the company said, “Fire him” after he’d made a mistake that cost the company $60,000-$70,000. So finally I fired him.
I told Stan, “There’s one guy who could do this. I don’t know if we can get him.” He said, “Who’s that?” “Archie Goodwin.” The reason I didn’t think we could get him is because he used to be my boss and I didn’t know how he’d feel about coming back and me being his boss.
MDT: Was that the time that Archie was working at DC?
JS: No, he left as EIC at the beginning of 1978 and was a contract writer for Marvel. The trouble with Archie was that he was a great writer, but he wasn’t very fast and couldn’t make a lot of money writing. I thought he’d be a great editor and he should be back on staff. It would’ve been awkward for him to tell me that he’d work for me as an editor. I told Stan, tell him that he works for you, make a whole separate department. Stan said, no, that he didn’t want any responsibility, but that he’d pretend that that was the case. We pretended that Archie reported to Stan. In fact, I was doing all the paperwork and all the employee reviews and the budgets. And then later when [Marvel president] Mike Hobson came in, he took Archie aside and said, “Y’know, you know you work for Jim.” He said, “I know.”
MDT: It was just a working illusion.
JS: Everything was OK. Everything was cool. Frankly I just stayed out of his way. I didn’t bother him much. Every once in a while, I’d go and say, “Let’s do this.” He’d yell at me.
He didn’t want to do Moonshadow. I talked him into that.
And he didn’t want to do Elektra: Assassin. And I talked him into that. He didn’t want to. The reason he didn’t want to was… he said, “We’re supposed to be the one that’s not Marvel.” I said, it’s more of an adult version and I said, besides, Arch, you need a hit. None of the other Epic books were setting the world on fire. And Elektra: Assassin was selling something like a quarter of a million copies and sort of kept Epic alive.
As far as the Epic comics go, as soon as we started publishing the Epic magazine, which the creators owned their own copyrights, it was the first time you could bring a property to Marvel and we’d publish it without any kind of special arrangement. Now we had a vehicle for that kind of thing.
Well, one day, Frank Miller, Walt Simonson and Jim Starlin come in together and they said, “We want to publish a comic book that we would do and Marvel would publish, but we’ll own it. And we’re all big names, so it’ll sell like crazy. We’ll get a percentage of the sales and Marvel will make a lot of money. What do you think?”
I said, “Sounds good to me.” Shortly before that, Sergio Aragones had come to me and he’d asked if he could do the same thing and the answer was yes, we will do that with you. So he went back to California and he’d be in touch with us as soon as he got home. And he was going to get us a proposal, blah, blah, blah.
We never heard from him. P.S. Sometime later, Pacific Comics published Groo. So what happened is he got stolen from us. So in the meantime, guys come into my office, I said, great, we’ll do it. And we started working on contracts because we basically had to invent this publishing program. We had to work out all the papers and stuff. We didn’t have anything lying around. It’s during that time that Frank started being courted by DC Comics. Jeanette [Kahn] was taking him out to dinner. And eventually he fell out of the fold. He said, the book I was going to do for you, I’m going to do for DC Comics.
MDT: Did that turn out to be Ronin?
JS: Yeah. In the meantime, we had Walt and Jim still interested. And each of them decided that what they wanted to do was a graphic novel. By that time, I had worked out how to do creator-owned graphic novels. So they thought, we’ll start with graphic novels. Jim did Dreadstar. Walt did Star Slammers.
By that time, we were ready to start publishing comics. I remember walking into Archie’s office and said, “Archie, I’ve got a great idea. Do a line of comics. Epic Comics. What do you think?” And he starts yelling at me. He says, “I’m overworked! Are you out of your mind?” He’s on my case. I backed out of there with my tail between my legs. I didn’t know what to do.
So I called Al Milgrom and said, “Do you want to do them?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, sure!” So he wanted to do them. Next thing I know Archie Goodwin is in my office yelling at me, “How dare you give away Epic Comics! It’s mine.” Yelling at me for giving it to Milgrom. So if you look at the first issue of Dreadstar, you’ll find that both Archie Goodwin and Al Milgrom both have editor credits. Once Milgrom had it, he didn’t want to give it up. …[W]ell, they worked it out. Milgrom finally grew up and let it go. We got him another assistant and he started doing Epic Comics.
MDT: And eventually, you got Groo back to Epic…
JS: Eventually. The other company dried up and blew away and Sergio came back. The only thing that offended me was… Archie didn’t know the backstory that Sergio had come to me and asked if he could do an Epic comic. And it would have been the first and then had wondered off and sweettalked by the Pacific Comics guy. O
By this time, Sergio was working with Evanier and so the first page of the first Groo talk about how Sergio couldn’t work for Marvel because Marvel wanted to own everything, and now Marvel has come to its senses. And I’m thinking, “Wait a minute, guy. You asked and I said ‘yes’. What do you mean, Marvel wouldn’t?” I was really offended.
I confronted him about it and he said he wasn’t talking about the ancient days before mine. But maybe Evanier and the others weren’t privy to the fact that Sergio had come to me first. They were more pointed about [their views]. It was wrong, it was erroneous. but it got into print. I didn’t check Archie’s stuff and he didn’t know.
MDT: I talked to Jim Starlin and he said that a lot of people who would never work for Marvel would work for Archie. That seems to be a pretty good testament to the way he ran Epic as an editor.
JS: First and foremost, everyone loved Archie. Archie had a manner about him that you just couldn’t not like him. While he was tough as nails, and he was probably the best that passed through this business, he managed to do it without offending anyone. He managed to be respected and remain friends with everyone and do his job.
Me on the other hand… People walk on the other side of the street from me, they’re so offended. I don’t have that grace and talent, number one, there’s some people who wouldn’t work for me because if you worked on the Marvel characters, you still did work for hire. I installed all these incentives and some of these guys were literally making $1 million a year. OK, Todd McFarlane became a millionaire working off of my incentive plan. So, I’m not saying it was a bad deal, but it was work-for-hire. You didn’t own the fundamental underlying rights to the characters.
There were some people, as a matter of principle, who simply would not do that. They would only work for Archie at Epic Comics, not knowing probably that they were still working for me. The other thing is, there were some people that would work for Archie just because he’s such a great guy.
…There were people who were afraid to work for me. But they’d work for Archie, not knowing that he was probably tougher on them than I would have been. But he always managed to keep it from getting too intense. I also think there was a certain amount of respect level.
MDT: You took over in 78. That would have put you in your 30s?
JS: Mid-20s. So when I’m sitting there telling these guys who have been in the business for a while and they’re ten years older than me and I’m telling them what to do, it didn’t sit well. P.S., [compared to] most of these guys, I’d been in the business longer. I one time had a big argument with Sal Buscema, who’s saying some nasty things to me. Y’know, sort of like, “Who are you to tell me anything?” Some time later, somebody told him I started working in the business in 1965, 2 years before he did. He came to me and apologized. He said, “I’m sorry, I thought you were some young punk telling me what to do.”
MDT: He equated age with experience…
JS: One of the people at Marvel said I worked with your father when he was at DC. I said, “My father was a steelworker, baby.” That couldn’t have been, they said. You’re in your mid-20s. I was 13, that was me, I said.
MDT: How daunting was it to start Epic and the comics line? You blazed the trail for corporate entities to do creator-owned books.
JS: It wasn’t hard at all. As I said, the president of the company — I could say good things about him and bad things — but the good thing about him was that if you presented something that made sense, they’d do it.
So when I went there, I had a plan. I put together a business plan for Epic Magazine and the comic line that made sense. I was supported by having knowledge of international licensees and gotten expressions of interest from them. I made it look like it was a real business. We did it without adding tons of staff people. And we did it at a reasonable cost and it worked.
If what I had gone in there with didn’t make sense, it wouldn’t have flown. Anything I went in there with, I learned pretty quick what I had to do to get my way around there… [It] was to show that [whatever I proposed] made money soon and didn’t cost too much in the meantime. And then I could do anything I wanted. I did some amazing engineering. Here’s the funniest one, if you got time…
|Chris Claremont in 1999|
JS: Chris Claremont, who had started with X-Men and it had taken off, had come back from a grueling convention place in the mid-west. The same day he came back all bedraggled — P.S. Chris was always going to conventions, he loved this stuff — but the same afternoon some guys who had been to Palm Beach came back — the Avengers guys — and Chris comes into my office and says, “How come these guys get to go to Palm Beach and I had to go to East Mud, Illinois?”
I said, “I think you picked it.”
“We’re doing the X-Men, we should get to go to somewhere nice.”
I said, “Alright, turkey, where do you want to go?”
He said, “Paris.”
I said, “You got it.” I went upstairs and I got onto a Telex, worked with the international license people and talked to our foreign publishers. I said, I was going to send the X-Men crew there on a little international tour and I asked them what could they do for me? They said, we’ll get them on television, on radio, we’ll publish a special book.
Between the guarantee for the special book and the projected increase of royalties we’d receive because of the trip, it paid for the trip. So I go to Galton, I said, I have a problem. He said, what’s that? I said, Well, you know, I have an offer to do this promotion and send the X-Men crew over to Paris. With the royalties and the special book, we’ll make about $11,000 in revenues. But I don’t know, these guys’ll lose a couple of days of time and he said, “Send ’em!” OK, you’re the boss.
We actually made money on it. Claremont was astonished to find himself in Paris. When he was there, he made a whole tour of Europe. He was in London, he was in Paris, he was in Barcelona. Once he was there, word spread through the European publishers and they were asking, “Can he come here?” International licensing people were thrilled. And it was great.
The entire X-Men crew went, Chris stayed a little longer, but the whole crew went. And I remember it was time for the [American Booksellers Association] in San Francisco and Chris came in all jet-lagged. That evening, he went practically face down in his mashed potatoes.
MDT: He probably never expected to go to Europe.
JS: I tell you, I think he had a ball. He was exhausted, we really wrung him dry.
MDT: Where did you see yourself in the food chain while you were at Marvel as editor-in-chief?
JS: I think you could argue that I was either somewhere in the top five of officers.
The president of the company, obviously, number one.
There was a fellow named Joe Calamari who was executive vice-president. He came in the middle there. He wasn’t there at first, came in because Cadence was going through changes and he was cleaning house at other companies to sell them. When they didn’t have a job for him doing that anymore, they stuck him at Marvel.
You could make an argument that the financial officer was ahead of me in the food chain. He used to complain that I got paid more than he did.
First year or so I was there Stan was entitled the publisher, but he never really had any authority. And he really didn’t do anything. He was a creative guru. That was his real job. If he was sitting right here beside me, and I said, “Stan doesn’t have any business skills.” He’d say, “Yep, that’s right, I don’t” He was not a business man and he certainly was not a publisher. …[H]e was still the guiding light. What he did mostly was try to sell things to Hollywood. That was his real job. He was there for a little while… [and] would help me with questions all the time. Then he went off to California to sell things to the West Coast.
For a time, I was the publisher and the editor. I was doing all the business of it as well. Then they brought in this guy, Mike Hobson. I could not believe it, because I’d done really well. I’d turned this ship around.
So Galton took me out to lunch. He said, “He doesn’t have anything to do with you. I brought him in because we’re going to start a children’s book division and I need to have a publisher for the children’s book division. But I have no authority to hire a publisher because I don’t have my children’s book division approved by the board yet. So I’m hiding him in the comics. I’m hiring the guy because I want this guy. I call him the publisher of comics because I can do that and no one will bat an eye. But his main job is going to be the other books.”
As it turned out, it was great. We got along terrifically. I didn’t have the kind of business education he did and he taught me a lot. He did serve as the publisher of the comics as well in the sense that he was head businessman. I was happy to have to turn stuff over to him. I would say something like we need contracts for this and HE would have to go wrangle with the lawyers.
You could argue that those four people were ahead of me in the food chain, but I had a voice. I was a vice president and I sat in all the staff meetings. I spoke and I was heard. I had a lot of influence. I used it as well as I could and failed miserably sometimes.
MDT: It sounds like that food chain was malleable depending on your standing and your reputation and whose star was brightest at the time.
JS: My star was brightest at the time. We had really started… When I started, we were losing money hand over fist. A few years later, we were making a pre-tax profit of $18 million. During those years, I was the fair-haired boy. I got away with a lot of stuff because I was so successful.
Then when Marvel was being bought and sold, all the owners — the really upstairs management — became shortsighted. All they were interested in was getting some money in their pockets and getting the hell out. They’re not thinking about the future.
Meanwhile, people like me, the artists, everybody downstairs, this is our future. So the people who owned the company, were selling us down the river. For instance, they were doing anything to put a few more pennies on the bottom line for their multiple when they sold the company. Doing things like canceling our health insurance plan — we had a nice one before — getting this cheap useless thing with a high deductible. So they got rid of our retirement plan, our pension plan. Anything to save a couple bucks.
I was sort of the highest-ranking officer who was not an owner and — I owned some shares of stocks, but I was not an owner — the board of directors took Cadence private. I’d owned some stock up to that point, but these seven guys were looking out for themselves and screw everyone else. Galton was one of them. They’re doing things that damaged things for people who stayed there, for whom this was a career.
So I started getting in fights with these people. I went from the faired-haired boy to being at war with them. They kept telling me, shut up, play along, do what you’re told and help us rape these people. And you’ll be rich. Not those exact words, but that’s what they were saying. Be a good executive, make your loyalty to us and not these smelly artists, then you’re going to do fine. Why do you keep resisting?
I’d go upstairs and get into these screaming fits with them, jumping up and down, literally. They wanted to retroactively eliminate the royalty program. I said, what? They’ll be a class-action suit like you won’t believe. I’ll leave here and straight to my lawyer and you’re going to get your ass sued. We got into that kind of fighting. I was no longer the fair-haired boy. I had no more authority around there than the janitor did.
They did everything to undercut and screw me over. By the time I was done there, my own people hated me. I tell you what, I walked around there about a week before I left. I had been spending all my time fighting with the upstairs people and going through this hell. I’m walking around my floor, had about 75 people working under me and I kept seeing me people saying to myself, “I don’t know who that is. I don’t know that guy’s name.” …I was a ghost.
[People] had quickly learned if you were on my side, you wouldn’t get a raise. If you said bad things about me, everybody loves you. And by the time they got rid of me, the staff had thrown a party.
MDT: Your reputation in the comics industry is something you’ve had to deal with during and post-Marvel. How much of that reputation do you feel is deserved?
JS: None. …When I was at Marvel, I inherited a train wreck. I inherited a company that was going out of business and losing money. I turned it around. In order to turn it around, I had to do things like tighten the ship. Creative people who have lived in anarchy do not like to be suddenly told no.
It’s funny now, talk to people like Claremont. When I first sat down and talked to people like Claremont, and I’m saying story structure, identify your characters. Introduce your characters and concepts. Stuff he knew. Thing is, it’s so easy when you’re a creative person, and the check will keep coming, to just jerk off and do a sloppy job.
For instance, there were writer/editors who were hacking. I got rid of the writer/editor thing. I made sure that everybody who wrote had to have an Archie Goodwin who made sure they had the stuff. Things like this don’t make you wonderfully popular. That’s one thing. The other thing, everything was late when I came in. So I had to do things like fill-ins. Which irritated people. I occasionally had to change writers or artists on a project and that doesn’t make you popular. I have a letter somewhere around here from World Color Press saying “Congratulations! For the first time in history, from the beginning, Marvel is on time.”
For the first year, I didn’t read any books. I just wanted them to be on time. I was afraid that if I read them, I wouldn’t allow them to be published. I couldn’t read it.
…Then I worked on getting them better… I sat everybody down and said, “Guys, we’re going to take this a piece at a time. Number one, every issue, make sure the character’s name is mentioned somewhere. You look at comics from Marvel written in the mid-70s, 1974, 75, you’ll find comics — whole books — go by where the character’s name is never mentioned. No character’s name is ever mentioned.
Or like Chris, he’ll have Storm walk out, one guy calls her Windrider, the next person calls her Ororo, you know what I mean. If you’re a new reader, who the hell is this broad? I kept trying to say, guys, we have new readers, they don’t know all the answers, we are telling them the stories, ya see?
Trying to teach artists the establishing shot. They grumbled. Talk to Chris. When he went back to Marvel recently, he found himself giving my lectures to these kids. And acknowledged it. “Shooter used to tell me these things and piss me off. But it’s really true.” I was doing things like that, which were necessary.
Well, guess what? The books started to sell, I got these incentive plans in there, people started to make big money, Claremont makes big royalties, buys his mother an airplane and so they were happier with me. They started to realize the value.
Even guys like Roy Thomas, who I wouldn’t let be a writer/editor, which infuriated him, even he would say things like, “Well, he is very fair with the money.” I sort of had a grudging respect from those who didn’t like me. That would’ve been 80, 81.
Then the company went through the process of being bought and sold. And I became less and less effective at being able to solve people’s problems and more and more of my time spent being away. During that time, the upstairs management was doing everything they could [to undermine me]… See they were terrified.
In 1981 or 82, if I had walked out the door, everyone would have gone with me. I could have called a general strike. That’s how much people were behind me. By the time, ’86 or ’87 came around, I was a pariah. people had learned, if you get close to this guy, you get fired… bad things will happen.
…Joe Calamari told me, “The problem with you is that no one above you knows anything about comics. We couldn’t replace you because you’re the only guy who could tell who could replace you.” What they realized was their vulnerability. There was this gal in the sales department named Carol Kalish. They said, she knows comics. I don’t think she did. She became the alternative source. Carol was being invited to these meetings. She sang stuff and I’m thinking, I see, I’m being eased out.
So during that time, conveniently, there was all this hassle with Jack Kirby and his artwork. I was the editor-in-chief; I wasn’t a lawyer. I wasn’t on the board of directors. I wasn’t in the legal department. OK, I was the EIC. I was the person all the people knew. No one knew Jim Galton.
So, you read in the fan press, “Jim Shooter won’t give Jack Kirby his artwork back.” Well, Jim Shooter had tried to give Jack Kirby and every other artist their artwork back since I started. If you think that’s wrong, then ask Joe Sinnott. The company was thrilled. “It’s being blamed on him. Great!” Same time, Gerber was suing. Every contention that came along became my fault.
P.S. When I first signed on at Marvel [as EIC] the copyright law had changed. I was sitting at my little editor-in-chief desk on my first day in 1978, thinking this was cool. The phone rings.
The VP of Business Affairs Corporate counsel. She says, “What have you done about the copyright law of 1976?”
I said, “Lady, I been here 15 minutes.” She said, “You haven’t done anything about it, effective January 1, 1978?”
“No.” So basically, Marvel, basically, had allowed the copyright law to change and hadn’t taken any steps. DC had already instituted their contract on the back of the voucher thing seamlessly, no one batted an eye. Marvel, we had to go through this whole thing, where you had to sign an extra piece of paper, this work-for-hire agreement.
Why? Because people before me had screwed up. That’s when Neal Adams started the guild. “Sign this and you’re signing your life away. Strike against Marvel.”
I need this. This is my first week. I’m already under attack. …To this day, you’ll see on fanzines, on the internet, “Jim Shooter said that company is the author of the work. That son of a bitch!” Well, it is. It’s work-for-hire, ya see? I’m not declaring for the bastards to own your work. I’m explaining what the law means.
Right away, I’m at war with everybody. I’m trying to get everybody to get everybody to sign these work for hire agreements. Nobody wants to sign anything. The fact is, they been working that way forever. And I kept saying, give me a chance, I’m going to put in royalties, give me a chance. What happened is that no one would give a chance.
A few of the contract guys, like Wolfman and Buscema would. Or a few people who were trying to curry favor, like Mantlo, who would suck up to the management, they signed. The big guys, they wouldn’t sign. I was in this position, where well, what’s going to happen? As long as they didn’t sign, Marvel was buying first North American rights to their work. And of course, the pile of work we didn’t own is getting bigger and bigger.
Of course, that’s OK with me, I don’t give a rat’s ass. But the problem was, we were losing money at that point. It would’ve been so easy for Marvel to say we’re not going to publish comics anymore and put these people out of work. I’m walking this tightrope. on one hand, I’m a creator, too, and I would like to own my work, on the other hand, I would like to have a place to work tomorrow. I’m trying to figure out what to do. Well, then the gods came to the rescue because DC had what they called their DC implosion of 1978. Do you remember this?
In one day, DC cancelled about 40 percent of their line. In those days, the big promotion DC was doing was the DC Explosion. So that day became known as the DC implosion.
The next morning, I had a line outside the door from my desk, down the hall, around the corner, down the hall to the back door, a line of creators ready to sign.
All the Marvel guys thought, uh-oh, all these DC are going to come and take our jobs. And these DC guys were thinking if I go over and sign that work for hire, I can take those guys’ jobs.
The sudden surge of unemployed cartoonists put an end to the guild and to the problem. People signed the work-for-hire. And soon they were happy. I quadrupled their rates. I got all these incentives in place. These guys started making a lot of money. Yeah, it’s work-for-hire, and work sucks, but it pays well.
And P.S., three are these other opportunities for you to work on to do your own thing. I wasn’t done trying to make things better. We did introduce plans that paid you for new creations. You kept a piece of anything new that you created. I tried to get it retroactively for Kirby and [Steve] Ditko. Fat chance! I tried to get it retroactive even for people like Dave Cockrum on the X-Men but I was lucky to get from current day forward.
I wasn’t through trying to make things better. I thought we were about halfway there. P.S. Little things nobody ever thinks about. Up until then, creators bought their own materials. No, work for hire we buy everything. We buy your pen points, we buy your erasers, we buy everything.
To this day, I still get attacked. Steven Grant and the Warren Ellises of the world say he’s said he’s the author of the work. That’s what work-for-hire means. That sucks, but that’s the definition. … My theory is, if it has to be work for hire, it ought to pay well and have benefits. We’re going to buy all the materials. Introduce all these benefits and incentives. Health insurance, life insurance. Pay for you to go to college.
And we got that done. I was really trying to make it so that you can work on these Marvel things and guarantee you can make a good bit of money or, hey, creator-owned publishing. If you got Spawns in you somewhere, do it here.
I thought we were halfway to creating a decent arrangement for creators. The way I look at it is that I was working hard for these guys. Because of the DC implosion, I finally did get a chance to make things betters. That’s the trouble, it was one damn thing after another.
First, it’s this work-for-hire stuff. Then the contentions over that. There are people who were ignorant enough about that, to this day, they’re making me out as like the greatest [enemy] to creator rights simply because they don’t understand what the words mean. Like Steven Grant, talks authoritatively about what I was like, what it was like at Marvel when I was there, what I was thinking when I did this. He wasn’t there. How the hell would he know? He was a freelancer. He wasn’t in the office all that often. He certainly wasn’t privy to any of the meetings or the discussions or decisions that were made. He basically knows what he’s read in the fanzines. But he’ll happily pontificate about what I was doing or why I was doing it.
But the point was, we got through that, we made some good times. Trouble is with the comic book business, it seems that every time things look like they’re going to look good, then the owners of the company up selling it and it falls into the hands of the philistines and you’ve got to start all over again.
MDT: It’s your longview view of working there that clashed with their short-term view of making money.
JS: At first, they were happy at me turning it around and making money. Then they said, think of the multiple we could get if we sold this. Anytime a company is on the block, they’re not going to make any investments. It’s very tough, all the management above are thinking short-term. They will not make any investment that will pay off five years later. Why? Because they’re not going to be there.
So you have that problem. Each time we got close to really taking off, we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
MDT: You felt like you dealt with the artists/creators pretty fairly. You had some tough standards. Some of the stories of how you dealt with them are false…?
JS: Creative people don’t like to be told “no.” And if a guy is talented and he’s hacking, you know it and you call him on it, he doesn’t like that. There’s a lot of guys who call me a son of a bitch. When you get right down to it, they were doing a bad job and I was complaining about it. I can think of a couple guys who started to be big and successful and I think I used to confound a lot of people. … I had the same standards whether you were John Byrne or somebody new. I was not going to put up with hacking.
They’d say, “But I’m John Byrne.” Right, OK, do a good job. To me it was about the books. I don’t think they got that. That a lot of people didn’t get that, that it had to be about something else. That I was a megalomaniac. It had to be that I had some secret hidden agenda. My agenda was to do my damn job, better than anyone else before.
You also encounter this kind of thing. Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Chris really got John in there. Chris was great. We fought like cats and dogs, and I’m sure he hated me. But I do give him credit. He’s the one who built the X-Men franchise. He recruited artists when they needed artists. In order to keep the best colorists and letterers, he paid people out of his own pocket to Glynis Oliver and Tom Orzechowski. He really poured his heart into that.
If you edited something, don’t touch his copy. Make a note in the margin, he’ll fix the problem in his own words. He didn’t want your words, he wanted his words. And I respected that. But I didn’t have a problem telling him what I thought was wrong.
And he had good editors, Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson. They beat him up pretty regularly. You have to respect the integrity. So we fought all the time.
He was the one who brought John Byrne in there. They had a falling out. And so John Byrne goes on to do Alpha Flight and other things. Chris gets other artists and marches on with X-Men. In the various other books he was doing, FF, Alpha Flight, whatever, John would do these stories… like if Chris was using Doctor Doom in an X-Men story, then John would do a story that proved that the Doctor Doom Chris had used was a robot. [Author’s note: The stories Shooter refers to are X-Men #145-147, in which Doctor Doom and Arcade pair up against the mutant team. In the course of the story, Arcade strikes a match against Doom’s armor to light a cigar. In Fantastic Four #259, as Doom surveys his Doombots, he notices the supposed robot from aforementioned storyline with a scratch from the match, noting that no one would dare strike his personage in such a disrespectful manner and the robot subsequently self-destructed]
And he would have snotty comments, like you think I would have said something as stupid as what this robot said. This would happen a lot.
Then Chris would want to fire back. But Chris had better editors who were more on the ball. John, I think would seek out editors with whom he could get away with that type of stuff. Weezi or Ann would say something like, no, Chris, you can’t do this. So he’d get frustrated and come scream at me and say, “This son of a bitch did this and you won’t let me fire back.” I said, “Chris, think of these as somebody else’s comics. They’re not yours and you can’t fire back.”
And I’d go yell at John. And he’d get mad at me. Here I was refereeing between these guys who were sniping at each other in the comics I was responsible for. C’mon, guys, Jesus.
There’s that going on all the time.
Then Bill Mantlo walks into my office one time and he’s having a major war with whoever was his editor at the time. He’s insisting he wants to do this story where Spider-Man fathers an illegitimate child and I said, no. Tell you what, do that same story, call him Arachnid Man, do it for Epic. And everybody will really know that it’s Spider-Man. He said, “Why not?” I said, “Look, we have licensed Spider-Man for Underroos. We have things in the contract that say we won’t do things like that.” I said, “Can you imagine, on a slow news day, the president of Union underwear wakes up and there on CNN, they’re talking about Spider-Man fathering an illegitimate child. All over the Bible Belt, Underroos are being pulled off the shelves. … The people who own this company have put me here in order to keep you from doing that. Do that in the adult line for Epic. These just aren’t our characters and we can’t just mess around with them like that. We do have obligations. I didn’t carve them, but they’re there.”
He was out of his mind, he threw a fit. Does an interview about how I was denying him his creative freedom. You know what. Yes, I did. And I would do it every time. … I always tried to make the best judgment at the time I made them. I never made one in self-interest.
If people get thinking I had some agenda, what did I get? You can’t find an incident where I did something to John Byrne and benefited from it.
There was no payoff. The payoff was being yelled at it. There was no instance.
The only goodies, the plum I ever took for myself, was Secret Wars. You know why? It had all the characters in it and I thought about getting someone else. But no matter who I picked, they would’ve screamed. Because they’d say, “You’re going to let John Byrne or Chris Claremont write my characters? Blah, blah, blah!”
Basically, I needed a neutral party or someone they hated already. So I said, I have to do this. I’m the only one who had the authority to do this. “Chris, you may think the X-Men are your babies, but the fact is, the owners of the company have given them to me. I respect you and I’ll do my best to ghost it. By definition, what I’m doing is proper and help me if you will or yell at me if you want, but at least this way, I won’t have another war between you and [David] Michelinie or you and Byrne. At least, it’ll be the decision-maker making the decisions.”
I managed to get through that without anybody getting too angry with me. And pretty soon, they saw the sales of their books go up and more money in their pockets. And they said, Hmmm.
MDT: Shut up real quick.
JS: I’ll grant you, I made a couple of bucks on that. But I don’t know how else I would have done it.
MDT: I can only think of three things that you wrote while you were editor in chief. The two Secret Wars series and then the Avengers. When you took a hand in doing that, was that a way to show others how to write quality stuff and sell books at the same time.
JS: Most of the time when I wrote something, it was because there was no one else. When I took the job, I had been writing Ghost Rider, Daredevil and the Avengers. The editors in chiefs before me saw themselves as more like head writers. Generally speaking, they had the pick of the crop as far as the letterers, the colorists, the artists … so they were going to have Joe Rosen letter their damn books.
Denise Wohl lettered everything I wrote because no one else wanted Denise. She lettered kinda big. Since I wrote less copy than most guys, I thought, well, I’ll use Denise. I wasn’t going to fire her. I thought she was a reasonable letterer, she just lettered a little big. Artists, I took whoever there was. If somebody needs work, then they’d do my book.
Gene Colan, God bless him, a great artist… When he worked for me, there were some problems. Gene had to produce a certain amount of work a day for economic reasons and sometimes he’d cheat a little. He used to love it if there was an explosion in a story. No matter what, a tiny explosion would become a full page. Quick page, so he’d make some money.
He did some brilliant work by the way in his career. Dracula. I think he was getting a little tired when I was there. I think we finally cancelled Dracula, it started to fade and he needed work. And the fact is, he worked on a couple different things, with a couple different writers, he just couldn’t…. he had to do everything really fast. He wasn’t good about doing the reference, he wouldn’t pay attention to the story.
I remember Bill Mantlo came in and I had made him rewrite this plot three or four times. He comes in and says, “I have to rewrite this plot three or four times and [Gene] ignores it. That’s just not right.” I said, “You’ve got a point, Bill. I put you through hell getting this plot right and here Gene just ignores whatever parts are hard to draw.”
Got to the point where Bill wouldn’t work with him. Roger Stern wouldn’t work with him. Claremont wouldn’t… No one would work with him. So guess what he does, he works with me on he Avengers.
I made a deal with him, I said, “Gene, you gotta start doing what you can do. You’ve gotta do better stuff. I’m gonna make you redraw when you don’t. At first, I will repay you to redraw it, but it has to be right. So if you have to redraw something, don’t worry, you’re not going to lose a day’s work. I’ll pay you for it. You’re going to find that it’s better to do it right the first time. And if you do it right, I’ll get you more money. You’ll be on the Avengers, nice royalties.” That went for a couple months.
That’s when Wolfman had gone over to DC, thinking fondly of the Dracula days, got him to come over there. And that was better for everybody I think. Doing stuff that was more up his alley. He wasn’t really a superhero guy. That’s all we had at that point to offer him. He ended up at DC. Just one of those things that didn’t work out.
MDT: I’m sure this is one you get all time: the New Universe. How did that start and why did it ultimately become a comics casualty?
JS: Well, the way it started, about 2 1/2 years before our 25th anniversary, we had a staff meeting of all the vice presidents to talk about what we were going to do for it. Some ideas were bandied around.
So somebody said, “Look, this is an anniversary of a publishing event.” “Well,” I said, “there are two possibilities. You could start everything over from number one, like the Marvel universe reborn. Like the anniversary in May or June, all the titles wrap up the month before and start again the next month. Sort of like Marvel, 2nd edition, do it right and really make that spectacular.” … We were selling incredibly well so it wouldn’t be a good idea to derail the train.
So I said, “Then let’s celebrate the birth of a universe with the birth of another universe.”
I walked out of there with a development budget of about $120,000 and I’d create eight titles. It was money to spend on research, sketches, things like that.
…[Tom] DeFalco came to me — he was sort of my head editor, my assistant you might say — he said let this be mine. This’ll be my chance, he said. He said, I’ll be like Archie, I’ll have my own group of books. I said, you think you can handle this, here’s your budget.
Months go by. Many months go by. I kept telling Tom, I want reports. I want to know what you have. I want to know what it’s about. It was like almost a year and he had almost nothing. He’d come up with a couple of fairly lame characters… There was no point of difference. They were Marvel, but worse.
He hadn’t spent much of the money, so we still had the money. I got together with him and Eliot Brown and we spent the day [pitching ideas]. I said, you know, the original Marvel Universe — Stan’s conception of it — instead of doing something Superman or Green Lantern, he was really trying to do science fiction. The Fantastic Four didn’t have costumes in the first issue. He was trying to be down to Earth.
The problem is Stan doesn’t have any science background and the minute you start working with Kirby, you’re going to get Atlantis under the ocean, the Blue Area on the Moon, a repulsor ray. It’s like Kirby does fantasy, period. He wasn’t a science guy either. I said, so Stan’s concept was why don’t we do this more realistic? … [W]hat if we went back to that moment in time where Stan said, let’s do this more realistic. We have some science background. Let’s do a science fiction comic book universe, where things are based more on real science, try to make it more real. We don’t have Atlantis under the ocean and the Blue Area of the Moon.
I wrote a page and presented it to the staff VPs. To Stan. This is hailed as the greatest genius since sliced bread. Stan just marveled at it. Thought it was wonderful.
Right after that, this is about the time the company had been taken private and put on the block to be sold. I’m called up to Galton’s office and he says “What’s your budget for the New Universe?” I said, “$120,000.” He said, “How much of it have you spent?” I said, “Not much, we just got started really.” He said, “We have to cut your budget.” I said, “What? We have to create these titles out of thin air.” He said, “You’ll have to do it with $80,000.” Son of a bitch!
I get a call and he says “We’re cutting your budget to $40,000.” I said, “What?”
The next day, he calls up and said “How much have you spent?” I said, “About $20,000.” He said, “Don’t spend any more.”
So if you will check, the New Universe books were done volunteer by assistant editors, practically every book in that line was done by me, Archie Goodwin and an assistant editor. For free. Because we didn’t have any money.
…One of the things in my business plan is that we were going to guarantee royalties or pay higher rates in order to get the big name artists to do this stuff. What artist is going to leave Iron Man to go do Potato Man unless he knows he’s going to make good money to do Potato Man?
All that stuff got scrubbed. I was told, you can pay people their page rate, that’s it. … So basically, if you check the New Universe, the artists you’ll find were people who couldn’t get any other work. There were exceptions. Some of these guys who grew up to be contenders, like Mark Texeira and Whilce Portacio. But they were brand new. They didn’t know what they doing. These kids came along and needed work.
The two people who were contenders [at the time] were John Romita, Jr. and Al Williamson, both of whom worked with me on Star Brand. They volunteered. They came to me and said, we want to work with you.
Other than that, it was me, Archie, assistant editors and anyone who couldn’t get work. So, that stuff was awful. It was horrible. They didn’t spend any money on promotion. I don’t blame them. There was nothing to promote. The stuff was shit. Ask Stan. “Oh, I always thought it was a bad idea.” He loved it, raved about it. But when the wheels came off, it was all Jim Shooter’s fault.
And it probably was. If I was smarter, I probably wouldn’t have gotten myself into that mess. In any case, it was a disaster, but I had help. A couple of the ideas were pretty good. A couple of the issues of Star Brand were pretty good. It was kind of a shame. It could have worked. In essence, we did the same thing with the Valiant universe. I took that same idea and did it there.
MDT: A single universe, a single event, coming together…
JS: The Valiant universe had one conceit that was not normal. There were powers of the mind that were released. Everything about that universe was powers of the mind. Nobody had any horns or wings while I was there. There was no Atlantis under the sea. It was all this world, this planet. You could go to the streets where these people lived. And done well, it worked.
MDT: And you had a little more of a budget….
JS: Actually, we didn’t. If you look at that, we were working with kids out of the Kubert school.
MDT: That’s right. I’ve read interviews where you call them “knobs”…
JS: That was what Bob [Layton] used to call them. Basically, the comic book industry was booming at the time and nobody was going to leave Iron Man to come work on Harbinger. Virtually, everyone was some kid who had just come out the Kubert school or some old dude who couldn’t get any work. Some of them were pretty good. John Dixon was pretty damn good. He couldn’t get work. Except me. Stan Drake, my God, I had Stan Drake. But he was desperate for work. And couldn’t get work from anybody in the comic book business. Can you imagine. And Don Perlin, who nobody ever respected and I gave him a shot. and he did some brilliant stuff. I loved working with him. He’s good. He wasn’t flashy so he was popular. But, man, all the little things he did. All the little details he contributed to everything he did. And the stuff.. he told a story, it was great. Look at his characters. Most of these comic book artists, they can draw one male body and one female body. Don, he’d say, I want this woman to be a little dumpy, there she is. And [David] Lapham, 19 year old punk kid who dressed badly, who became this genius. Just such beauty and subtlety. Maybe not the most brilliant draftsman, but, my God, he’d do things that… I’d say things like if you were flying, you wouldn’t fly in a Superman pose, you’d stay more or less upright. Lean forward a little bit, because of the wind. He’d grasp that immediately, and not only would he grasp that, but he would follow through with the logic of the thinking. What would that really look like? What would this really look like? Some of these kids grew up, but God… Bob’s joke used to be, we’d have to teach them which end of the brush to hold. These kids didn’t know anything. You think they learned anything in the Kubert school? Wrong.
MDT: Are you saying that Joe Kubert was just cashing their checks?
JS: Joe, of course, is one of the all-time greats. He is brilliant. I don’t think all of his teachers are necessarily brilliant. Some of these courses were not right on target for being a comic book inker. They’d take a cartooning course and learn all kinds of things. But it wasn’t what we needed. And some of it was a little out of date. Some of them were better than others. The one thing I can say in favor of everybody who came out of the Kubert school is that they all came out with a good, solid professional attitude. You can really tell. Someone would start showing you samples, they would listen to what you were telling them. And they would say, yes, I can do that. Yes, sir, I’ll try. And they did. They showed up to work. They did what you told them. They tried to learn from you. They did learn which end of the brush to hold. Kubert gave them a good professional attitude. These other guys who come in with their portfolios, saying, I’m a genius, how dare you tell me anything attitude, they came from Eisner’s school. Will was a genius. Here are these kids who were taught by a genius, saying I was taught by a genius, who the hell are you? Will also, because he’s a genius, he’s teaching them stuff they’re not capable of handling, they all walk out of there thinking they’re geniuses. I say, no, we’re going to tell a story straightforward. When you get to be Will Eisner, you can screw around with the panel shapes. Not yet. They’d go, philistine, moron, I’ll do it the right way. No, you’ll do it my way. I guess I am Mussolini.
MDT: I was thinking of the shake-up that happened at Marvel recently with Joe Quesada and Bob Harras. What misconceptions about the job should be fling out the door?
JS: First of all, the job is probably far, far different than when I was there. When I was there, the previous editors-in-chief had been like head writers and really hadn’t had any corporate position. They weren’t officers of the company. They were these strange people down on the ninth floor who did God knows what and smelled bad.
The people upstairs had never opened a comic book and didn’t know what it was. It was a mystery to them. When I took the job, in my interviews with Galton, I told him I was not going to stay under my rock downstairs. I wanted to make some changes. I showed up for work my first day, wearing a coat and a tie.
Galton once took me to a board meeting and as we’re driving out to New Jersey, he said you’re the only editor-in-chief I’ve introduced to the board. I said, why’s that? He said, “You’re the only one that’s presentable. And you’re well-spoken and you know what you’re talking about.” I said, “No, I don’t. But I listen and I find out. I don’t have any business school education, but I learned.” I became an officer of the company and I had a corporate responsibility.
After I left, they didn’t give DeFalco that opportunity. In the Perelman organization, they had layers and layers and layers of executives between the top brass and the editorial people. I had a unique position. I was the voice of the creative people among the brass. And I got to go down and explain what the bosses wanted to the creative people. I was the bridge. That ended with me. I don’t know what the situation is. I suspect that Joe Quesada is not an officer of the company and does not sit in the executive staff meetings. I could stroll in Galton’s office anytime. I could call Shelley Feinberg [Chairman of the Board of Cadence Industries, Inc., Marvel’s parent company].
But I don’t think Joe has that kind of situation.
Given that, it’s a different job and working with entirely different people whom I don’t know, it’d be hard for me to advise him. Except if I were him, I would make some big changes. I would do some serious reworking. It’s really funny, talk to people in the business and they say it’s… cyclical.
No, it’s not cyclical. They sell when the comics are good, they don’t when the comics are bad. People who give you that excuse, don’t know what they’re talking about.
Take a look at the books. Are they good? Are they interesting? Are they readable? Can a civilian read them? I think that’s what Joe has to do and take a hard look at this stuff and make whatever tough changes he has to get it back from where they are.
It’s really strange, to me, if you have 100 fans, OK, you can do anything to do whatever you want to make Marvel good again. They’d all come with the same thing. Get Frank Miller back on Daredevil. Chris and Byrne and Terry on the X-Men. And do stories like they did in the early 80s. What they’d be saying is get the best people and do good comics. That’s not rocket science. 100 fans would come up with the same answer.
But the people who run the company don’t get it. Because to them, who have never opened a comic book, a comic book is a bunch of garish colors, words they don’t understand, some sell, some don’t; they don’t know why. They can’t tell the difference between an Archie and an X-Men. They tell themselves, it’s a cyclical business. Wrong. Everybody in the world knows what to do except the people who have the power to make the decisions.
MDT: I think you’d likened it to somebody who was hired to work at Marvel and thought of comics as toothbrushes.
JS: The president of Marvel came from Black & Decker and has never worked in comics or entertainment in his life. Peter Cuneo comes from Black and Decker and other hard goods like that. Peter’s specialty is — I think this is about to happen — is a man who has a reputation for cleaning up companies and selling them.
I think that’s what they’re waiting to do at Marvel. I think they waited until after the X-men movie, which was a significant hit and was a good move to wait. And I think now the big brass is in negotiations with MCA/Universal or Sony or somebody trying to unload the thing at a good price.
Why? Because it’s been ugly. They were in bankruptcy for two years. They emerged from bankruptcy. They borrowed a ton of money, like $200 million dollars, that’s running out. They’ve been losing money ever since. …They just can’t make it work. They should ask me.
So Joe might just be there as window dressing. … They might just be dressing it up to sell it. Making the kind of cosmetic changes you’d make to sell it.
MDT: So if they were going to sell it, would you take another crack at it?
JS: Too old, too tired.
MDT: At this point, no go?
JS: Here’s the deal. The first time I tried to buy it, I put together a little partnership. We raised money from Chase, from a little venture company… all through a nightmarish year. [I]t’s a full-time job buying a company.
We did put in a bid: $81 million. We thought we won. We signed a letter. Then at the last minute, they sold it behind our backs to [Ron] Perelman. He was an insider, by the way. He owned 20 percent of the selling company. We were a stalking horse. The whole thing was a scam. Perelman drove it into bankruptcy and between him and [Carl] Icahn, it was languishing in bankruptcy.
The one trustee they had was a milquetoast and wouldn’t do anything. He was replaced by another trustee. The new trustee got aggressive and said, “Out, both of you. I’m going to find a buyer or a solution.” He dumped both. He invalidated the claims of both Perelman and Icahn. For one glorious moment, it was up for bid.
I went to this investment bank, people I know and we found an equity player, Perry Capital, who specializes in distressed companies, a $3 billion company, so they had the dough. The trouble was, that, it’s one thing to raise $81 million. Marvel at that time was probably worth about half a billion dollars. No one in their right mind is going to give me half a billion dollars with a grade school education. I needed to have a partner who had that sort of clout.
We found that guy. This guy who was a former executive at Capital Cities/ABC who had run billion dollar companies. We made a partnership and I still had my relationships at Chase. It was funny, we talking about running a billion dollar company and we wondered who would put up the debt for this acquisition. I said, how about Chase? He knew someone at Chase, someone in middle management. “I know Tom Reifenheiser.” “You know Tom Reisenheimer?” “Yeah, the head of media & entertainment [at Chase].” “Will he take your call?” “I don’t know, call him.” Took my call. “Yes, fine just come to us when you’re ready.”
So off we go and do our due diligence. What we found was that it was such a rat’s nest of contingent liabilities and law suits that it couldn’t be done. There was so much legal warfare going on between Perelman, Icon and Toy Biz and Marvel that … you couldn’t untangle it.
I suggested, what if we bought the whole thing? What if we buy Toy Biz as well? Buy it all and that takes care of your lawsuits. They said, yeah, but can you run a toy company. I said, no, but I know someone who can. I called Jill Barad from Mattel.
She sent her business affairs guys out and we all looked at it. The Mattel people were key. If we had them, we could buy the whole thing. Without them, nothing would happen. They backed away. The reason they backed away, was they said, “Look, this thing is in bankruptcy, it doesn’t look like it has any chance of coming out of it. Let it collapse, lose all their money and pick up the pieces.”
That was the end of that. It was kind of fun rooting around in their document rooms. Uncovering all of their dirty secrets. Chuck Rozanski was part of that group also. He was sort of the marketing arm.
MDT: Pretty much that has burned you out from taking another crack?
JS: I would have to devote another year of my life to it and I’d have to find a partner who had enough media and management credentials to run a company that’s millions of dollars in debt.
… If it involved buying Toy Biz, well, I certainly couldn’t run the toy part of the business. If you bought all of that, you would have to clean house. I think they’re people who know the toy biz, but you’d have to go in there and really be prepared to rebuild it. I think editorially that could be done. 100 fans would tell you real easy just get the good people back, pay them enough and make a good situation there and make some good comics again. For the rest of it, it would be a lot. And frankly, right now, I don’t have a year of my life to give.
MDT: When do you think you’ll be forgiven for your transgressions: real, imagined or manufactured?
JS: I don’t care. I think there will always be assholes. I don’t care. I’ve never really cared. I can’t say it hasn’t affected me.
My phone never rings. Nobody ever calls me. Am I such a bad writer? Am I the worst writer in comics that no one can use me? In fact, a while back, I was looking for some work.
I called Paul Levitz and I said, “Paul, I got one Legion story left in me. Call it Jim Shooter’s last legion story. Do like Watchmen, do it like a series, 8 books, whatever and bind it in a book.” Because I know the only thing they’re making money on is the trade paperbacks. I said, “Look, it won’t interfere with anybody, it’ll be set back in the time when I wrote the Legion. Won’t interfere with continuity. It’ll be Jim Shooter’s last legion story, I think I got some good ideas.” He said, “I can’t wait to read it.”
He was in San Francisco. He said, “Look I’ll be in the office Friday, I’ll call you. Put together a list of the reference you’ll need, I know you don’t have any comics at your house. And think about what artists you’d like to have. We’ll talk Friday and get going on this.”
The last thing I said is, “Y’know, Paul, you have some people working for you that don’t like me and this will piss them off. Are you sure that’s not going to be a problem?” He said, “They’ll go to their corners and sulk for a little while, but it’ll be fine. I’ll take care of it.”
Didn’t get a call Friday, didn’t get a call Monday. Called him Tuesday. “The scars are deeper than I thought. It would be too much hassle. They would make things difficult. You don’t need that and I don’t need that.” I said, “Ok, that’s fine.”
… One time when I went to raise money to start one of my companies, this venture capital place, they did their due diligence on you, as they always do. So they come back to me, “We checked you out, everybody hates you. We’re worried because a lot of these people have said bad things.” I said, “I can tell you who the people are and I can tell you why. You don’t have to tell me, I’ll tell you what they said and why. What you’ll find is that no one has a real grievance. It’s John Byrne saying I wouldn’t let him hack. It’s someone else saying where I wouldn’t let Spider-Man father an illegitimate child. that’s really what it is. [If] you find someone who I ripped off and did something evil to, it’s news to me.
“Tell you what, give us 100 positive references from notable people in the industry.”
Well, I did. I’m talking about the Steve Geppis, the Eisners and Frank Miller… I got 100 people. Talk about having to jump through a hoop. If I wasn’t the pariah of comics, I wouldn’t have to do this. I did it and basically it made it clear, that it was whiny creators who had their differences.
I was supposed to be the president of Disney’s publishing division. I was hired as a consultant and going to be the president of the publishing division and they reneged on that.
When they did the due diligence, they found there were some people who didn’t like me. So they backed out of it and hired a guy named Randy.
I remember the guy that did that was named Michael. And later, he apologized profusely. He said, “Look, my impression of you is that your a brilliant creative person and you’re the easiest creative person I’ve ever worked with. I don’t know why they say these things about you. Maybe you’ve changed. Maybe you’ve reformed, but we can’t take a chance. We’re Disney, we can’t take a chance.”
So I went out and started Valiant. Disney crashed and burned.
A year later, Michael Lynton called me up and said, “I was so wrong. I have found out who these people are now that I’ve found out about the comic book business. They’re idiots. They’re people who are like children, having their little snits. I bet that if I were standing there beside them, I would’ve done everything you did. I ‘m sorry it didn’t work out with us. If you ever start another venture, come to me.”
Some years later, when I started another company, he invested in it and served on my board. He realized that he had allowed me to be damaged by these people.
P.S. Michael Lynton went from Disney to be the president of Hollywood Pictures. From there to the CEO of Viking/Penguin and now he’s the president of AOL international.
MDT: Not bad to have people like that in high places…
JS: The funny thing is, these people in high places are such honorable people that they would never use their authority to do anything… Michael Lynton would probably be with me if we had some sort of legitimate business in common. He isn’t the type of guy who would do anything to favor his cronies.
Neither am I. Which has gotten me in a lot of trouble. Got guys who say, “Hey, I’ve been on your side. It’s time for you to reward me.” “No, it’s about the work.” Do good work, get rewarded. That has not probably won me a lot of awards either.
MDT: Is there anything that you would have done differently at Marvel?
JS: I would have done a lot of things differently. I made some incredibly stupid judgements and some incredibly pathetic mistakes. I don’t think I made any failures of honor. I’m not aware I did. I think I did do the right thing in every case. I think if you’ll go to the videotape, you’ll find that you can’t find an incident where I did something in self-interest to the detriment of someone else. It didn’t happen. Everything I did for the books, I did it for the company, I did it because it was my job. … I did it because I thought that’s how you succeeded. Play fair, try hard and you win? Well, not always.
I’d be a lot smarter. I think that… when I was an associate editor at Marvel, I didn’t feel I had enough power. I could make my books good, but I couldn’t choose who did them . I was held accountable if there were problems, but I was editing five titles a month. It was an impossible situation. When I became editor-in-chief, I tried to give my editors a lot of room.
Far from being the Mussolini. Those guys were autonomous. I tried to be a referee between them. The trouble was, that was a bad idea. Some of those guys were not as capable as I was. What happened was that people who were not confident enough or capable enough of being a referee to a John Byrne or a Chris Claremont, whom they were in charge of. They couldn’t win those arguments. You’d get these bad situations where I should have been more of a support to them. I should have been approving more things, taken more of the heat for them. Maybe things might have gone smoother.
Another thing, I wasn’t making decision based on this is my crony. But a lot of them were. They’d be there to help their buddies. And sort of the quality of the book would come in a distant third. Look at some of that stuff that was coming in. Think about, if Terry Austin was available, why did he pick this guy? when you’re reading this book. They were scratching each other’s backs.
When I left Marvel, it really got ridiculous. I never liked the idea of editors writing anyway. But after I left Marvel, if you check, every book is written by an editor whose working another editor. The Avengers guy gives Daredevil to some other editor. That editor gives the Avengers to the other guy and they’re writing each other’s books. They’re not going to cross each other because they’re both happy to be getting the royalties deal.
That’s about the time that sales dropped off. It was all very incestuous, very crummy, very bad. And it just created this downward spiral, driving away all the Image guys. P.S. After I left, they almost systematically got rid of the writers. Roger Stern, Michelinie, Chris Claremont for Christ’s sake.
MDT: They all went over to DC.
JS: DeMatteis, Louise Simonson. It’s like they got rid of the writers one at a time, so the artists were writing the book. P.S. That didn’t get any press. Nobody cares when the writers get squashed.
I ran into Terry Stewart in Frankfurt a couple of years later. He was a little smug because they had done Spider-Man #1 and it had sold a million copies and then the next year they had done X-Force and X-Men #1. And he said to me, “You’re the comics guru, I feel like I won the lottery two year in a row. What do I do now?” I said, “Well, Terry, now you’re going to have to create something. You’ve pulled all the easy triggers, now you have to really create something. And you don’t have the horses.”
He took me to heart. They took me to heart. The 2099 line of books. A bunch of derivative crap. Let’s do the same ting, but call it the future. Spider-Man in the future.
It was pathetic. They didn’t have the horsepower. There wasn’t a Spawn in the bunch. Was that the best they can do?
It didn’t even have a good idea at its foundation like the New Universe and they had all the money in the world to spend on it. They had top talent. They had Stan writing a book.
At the time when they needed some creative horsepower, they didn’t have any. I’m not saying there weren’t any talented people, they just didn’t have anyone driving the books. No one steering the boat. What talent was there was largely squandered as a result.
… They blew their chance. Any 100 fans would tell them what they were doing wrong and they still wouldn’t get it.
MDT: With all the work you’ve done with movie studios, have you thought of selling your story as a movie?
JS: I’m writing a book actually. I was offered a chance to write a book about it. Which I’m doing right now, which is called Supervillains. The main thrust about it is about the way Karl Icon and Ron Perelman raped and pillaged the comic book industry and ultimately destroyed it. It’s a shadow of what it oughtta be.
MDT: Your story, there’s such a great narrative to it…
JS: I tell you, sometimes I think about it [and I say] I made that up (laughs).
MDT: If you saw this as a movie, you would say that would never happen to somebody, but it did…
JS: It took the right combination of ingredients. It took a certain naivete on my part.
I arrived at Marvel that thinking that people who ran companies wanted the companies to succeed. No. The officer of the company is hoping that they are going to get very rich. If they see an opportunity to take the company private and sell it and walk away with millions of dollars, who cares about the people who thought this was their career? Who thought they’d be here 20 years from now, collecting their pension? That’s the reality.
Stupid me, I’d be in these meeting and I couldn’t understand why these people were resisting something so obviously good for the company.
MDT: Because it wasn’t good for what they wanted to get out of it short-term.
JS: Y’know, finally, a little light bulb came on. But I kept encountering these things. It never occurred to me that if I have was honorable every time, tried to make the right decision and decide things fair… tried to decide things according what was good for the books, the company and in my job to do.
What never occurred to me was that I had a reputation for being a megalomaniacal person with secret agendas. You don’t even get credit. You do that stuff and you don’t get acknowledged that you did any of the good stuff. I might as well have pillaged the place because you get the reputation anyway.
The people who don’t like you will say you’re evil even if you’re not. and so, you don’t even get the benefit of a good reputation even if do the right thing. You say, you know what, I’m doing it anyway. Then you’ve crossed the rubicon, and I think you can live with yourself. The truth is, you can’t.
I always thought, you play fair, try hard and it’d be OK. No. If I did it again, I’d be a little smarter, try to do the right thing, but watch my back a little better.
MDT: With all the good female editors at Marvel, like Louise Simonson, Mary Jo Duffy, Bobbie Chase, Ann Nocenti, why there was never a female editor in chief?
JS: Well, there hasn’t been that many editors-in-chief since the beginning. I think I was the seventh one if you count Stan. And even by the time I got into it, there were really weren’t that many women in comics, period.
If you looked around the office, it was all guys. You went to conventions, it was all guys. To this day, the demographics are 90% male readership. There just weren’t that many women writers and artists. Similarly, there were few women in management.
Not that I made a special move to do so, but when women showed up that were talented and capable, I was more than happy to have them there. I thought it sort of broadened our point of view. Some of them were pretty good. Some of them weren’t. I think the outstanding ones like Louise or Ann Nocenti, really made a mark.
MDT: A matter of numbers more than exclusion?
JS: The industry as a whole was excluding women. I sure wasn’t. One of my theories at Marvel, was that… comics had become this cult thing.
When I started writing comics, Superman was selling something like 1,000,000 copies a month to individual readers. People weren’t buying them by the case and putting them up in boxes and plastic bags. Comics were really a mass market entertainment.
A few good things happened, they had gotten more sophisticated, but they were more and more cult oriented, more collector oriented. So by the mid-70s, the audience was way smaller, very few new readers coming in, very few young readers coming in. It was almost like it had become the fan’s medium, like us just talking to ourselves.
And so, I had a very determined goal to try to broaden the reach of comics. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with reaching the hardcore fan — I felt like I was in that group — but I wanted to have comics for everybody. We tried to reach older with Epic Comics, we tried to reach younger with Star Comics, and in general, tried to make the comics more readable, more acceptable so they could be read by everybody. And I also tried to broaden the point of view. I encouraged people to take a point of view.
When I walked in there, I had people tell me things like, well, you can’t really have much story, because you have to have 3 fights an issue. Who tells you this crap? Where did you get that? …They didn’t get them from me.
One time I actually challenged Doug Moench. I said, write a Master of Kung-Fu with no fight, just make it a great story. And he did, it was one of his better issues. It was pretty good. I was trying to expand the horizons. I lucked out and got some really talented people there. And I think the female point of view was partly successful why the X-Men was so successful. Louise and Ann — Chris will tell you — they were great contributors to the X-Men.
Thanks to the Word Baloon for research material used in preparation for this interview.
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