SDCC: That 70s Panel

During this summer's Comic-Con International, Writer and comics historian Mark Evanier moderated "That 70's Panel," where he discussed the atmosphere of DC Comics in the 1970s with Martin Pasko, Tony Isabella, Val Mayerik, Elliott S! Maggin and George Perez. The audience listened with rapt attention as the panelists shared stories of their experiences and how differently things were done compared to today.

The panelists all agreed that their generation was very different from the previous crop of writers and artists. Not only were they all notably younger, but they had grown up as fans of the DC characters and many still read comics. Traditionally, comic book creators had not considered to be professional if they actually followed comic books regularly, as the target audience was children and it was expected that the average reader only stayed with a book or character for two to three years. What's more, the standard practice had been that editors steered writers and artists along a basic path for the stories rather than taking their own roads. But in the 1970s, the new generation of creators not only wanted to guide the stories more directly, they wanted to appeal to an older audience who might continue to read comics into their college years. The letters that came in response to this new approach indicated that the readership was indeed changing as well. The panel also spoke about how different the industry was in the 60s and 70s, with some professional writers still being in high school, such as Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino and Jim Shooter.

"The guys preceding us saw it as a job." Mayerick said. "I kind of had a sense things were changing, because just prior to us getting into the business, there was Jim Steranko and Neal Adams coming in with a new approach... I think, coming from the generation we did -- where we were just completely imbued with the notion of change, change, change -- I think we just, without even really reflecting on it too deeply, thought, wow, we can really take this and run with it and make it really cool."

Pasko pointed out that their generation of writers were comic fans recruited "out of necessity." When several writers at DC Comics collectively asked for a healthcare program for freelancers, they were asked to leave, leaving many positions available. "People like [editor] Julie Schwartz were finding their next generation of readers literally in the letter columns... And there was this sense, at least at DC, that the world was changing and we're not keeping up."

Evanier asked if anyone had a reluctance to join the comic book industry during an age when publishers claimed they couldn't pay royalties or return original art ,and when many knew of how many creators had not been able to profit fully from famous creations. Pasko said that when he was an editorial assistant in the 70s, he met a "haggard" looking man who was "shaking" and wearing a "thread-bare sweater with holes in the elbow." This older man told Pasko, "It's important to get the credit. Because you'll need it later. Get the credit, get the money." At this point, another person summoned the man, and Pasko realized he'd been speaking to Batman co-creator Bill Finger. The story caused a few gasps and sad murmurings from the audience.

On the other end of things, Maggin shared a story that inspired laughter and cheers, recalling one time while he was still in school, he had decided to write a paper for class in the form of a Green Arrow script. When he only got a B, he asked the teacher why and was told, "I thought you were also going to draw it." Maggin then sent the story to DC editor Julius Schwartz and asked if the story could be drawn. Schwartz was impressed with the work and wrote back, "Drop it from twenty pages to thirteen, and I'll buy it." Maggin did so and the story was illustrated by Neal Adams, leading to the young writer getting a job at DC Comics. Other writers on the panel said Maggin's experience was widely talked about.

"It was legendary in the business," Pasko said. "The thing about DC was there were no sales from submissions. It just didn't happen. You had to know somebody, you had to camp out on their doorstep... [Schwartz] would give you an assignment, but you didn't just write a spec script and have it bought, much less published, much less drawn by Neal friggin' Adams... It certainly did not hurt that it was a beautifully crafted story."

The panelists spoke with pride about how each other's work had inspired them all in some way, whether it was admiring the complex artwork and intense work ethic of Perez or seeing Mayerick's original design sketch for Howard the Duck. They spoke of how they had pushed themselves to do more work than many creators and fans today might consider reasonable. Perez, for example, spent time working on three books on a monthly basis. 

Another major difference in the industry of the 1970s compared to today was that artists needed to come into the office to give their work directly, whereas scanners and e-mail have made this unnecessary. Evanier spoke of how strange it was when FedEx began service, making it possible to ship things quickly. Suddenly, artists didn't have to live in New York City. The panelists laughed at how artists and comic book creators would sometimes run into each other because all would rush into a FedEx office just before closing time in order to make last minute deliveries, afterwards going off to a bar or strip club together.

Asked about the evolving presence of women in comics during the 1970s, Pasko said, "Some women had been in the business for quite some time and gotten in during... World War II, but...  It was not just a boys club, it was a very sexist boys club... There was a very, very talented young woman writer -- the general assumption was that only reason that she was getting any work at all was because she was sleeping with the artist. People like Jenette [Khan] were instrumental in changing that... It did change, but it didn't really change in the 70's. And it's kind of strange since the women's movement actually kicked off that decade."

"There are more women in the industry, but there aren't nearly enough," Maggin added. "There are more women showing up here [at Comic-Con]."

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