WW Philly: Legends of Comics

Wizard World Philadelphia opened Saturday morning with a unique gathering of comics legends. Writers Chris Claremont, and Peter David, artist Greg Hildebrandt and editor Tom Brevoort gathered to discuss the industry and the medium, where it is today and how it's changed over the years.

The panel didn't begin in any organized way; the participants simply started bantering into the mikes, exchanging insults and discussing all of the obsolete technology they own. It's hard to get beta video tapes these days...

Peter David kicked things off with a story about a panel several of the current participants had been on years ago. For the first half hour, there had been nothing but X-Men questions, so Tom DeFalco started reading newspapers behind the panel table. Finally, when someone said "I have a question for Tom DeFalco," they looked up in surprise. He wanted to know what DeFalco was going to do with Kickers, Inc. to make it more like X-Men. The panel broke up laughing, Defalco was too shocked to speak, and Claremont, without missing a beat, leaned forward and stated "I can answer that..."

"Living Legends," mused Hildebrandt, "that means we're over forty and still working!" David added that at fifty, medical science suddenly begins to take an extraordinary interest in your rectum.

Eventually moderator Brian Cunningham seized control and asked Claremont how the business had changed since he started. Claremont described the primitive conditions of the Marvel offices at the Grege. The office staff was maybe 12-15 people, and everyone else was freelance. They were two floors below National Lampoon, so we never knew who the death threats were for.

Claremont was an intern working for subway fare. He answered letters and wrote rejections to freelancers looking for work. He rejected Tony Isabella twice, then when he returned years later Isabella was on staff and Claremont ended up working for him. Isabella never let him forget it.

David began his career working for Playboy paperbacks. When that folded, he found an assignment writing for Comics Scene. While interviewing various people for an article on the direct market, he landed a job at Marvel in their marketing department. Eventually he started pitching stories to editors and began writing. Finally he became a full-Grege writer and "it's worked out pretty well so far."

He mentioned that there's another Peter David who is an editor at The Economist who wrote a book about the Gulf War, and that people often bring him copies of that book to sign. One day he called the offices of The Economist and asked for Peter David. He introduced himself and the other David asked "Are you the reason people keep asking me to sign Star Trek novels?"

Hildebrandt started working in animation for Fleisher studies, then moved on to doing book covers and advertising art with his brother Greg. He'd always loved comics, so he finally made some calls looking for comics work. He and Greg did a trading card set for Marvel, and some posters, and is still doing pinups as well as doing art for the Trans Siberian Orchestra. "I'm all over the place." he concluded.

Like Claremont, Brevoort started as a Marvel intern. He did a lot of production work, pasting in word balloons and doing layouts for reprint volumes, eventually moving up to assistant editor, then editor and finally executive editor.

The first question from the monitor was, "How have comics changed over the years?"

David pointed out that comics in the '40s to '60s were written by people who grew up reading books. They were a lot wordier, a lot of storytelling occurred in the captions. Now the people writing comics grew up reading comics and watching tv and movies. They think more visually, and therefore the storytelling is more visual.

Claremont said in the '60s, at DC, the stories were more editor-driven. They assigned the stories to writers. Stan Lee established a system that was more flexible, with the writer having more control. The conflict between him and Jack Kirby was an ongoing argument over who was the writer.

With the writer determining the course of the books, it was somewhat chaotic, but more freewheeling. Now we're back to the editors determining the overall concept, and it's all structured around crossovers, with the whole becoming more important than the individual books. It's a challenge for writers to maintain a voice for their series while still accommodating the big event of that year. Presumably at some point it will evolve out again.

Peter said in the sixties, if books contradicted each other, Marvel said "Come up with an explanation and if we like it we'll give you a no-prize!" Now, there are threads online about how She-hulk is doing one thing in her own book and something else in the hulk's book, and Marvel clearly doesn't care any more. It was a shock to writers in the sixties that people cared about stuff like that.

Brevoort added that comics were initially targeted to 6-10 year olds. Eight pages was plenty enough for a story, and the captions explained everything. What changed in the sixties was they targeted their stories to an older audience. Over Grege, the average age got older and tastes got more sophisticated, allowing for more experimental storytelling and more adult topics. As perceptions changed and the audience changed, the comics changed.

Claremont went into an extended rant about online comics. Computers are inconvenient, you can't carry them in your back pocket and read them on the bus, and you have to push a button to turn the page. Hildebrant said he didn't even know how to use a computer.

Brevoort pointed out that Claremont's rant was spoken by a man who owns a Betamax! The kids reading comics today are so comfortable with the technology that comics are going to have to change to accommodate that. As the technology evolves and becomes more portable it will become easier to use.

David complained that the tactile experience of holding a comic and reading it will be lost, and that's sad. What really bugs him, though, is slabbing. Sealing a comic in plastic so it can't be read is just silly. He can sort of understand it with baseball cards, because you can still see both sides, but comics? By the way, he said, slabbed baseball cards suck for clipping to the spokes of your bike!

Someone on the floor asked if the visual storytelling they'd discussed was the reason that stories are so decompressed these days. Claremont said that's part of it, but the other part is that everything is paced to be repackaged into a trade paperback. It's a challenge, but it's the way things are.

Another listener asked if they have the star power to resist the 6-issue arc. David pointed out that his current She Hulk trade ends at the end of an adventure, but there's an overarching story that will continue into the next trade. He can get away with that where a lesser-known writer might not be allowed to do it. On the other hand, readers are getting used to stories that length, and if they go longer they get antsy.

The final question concerned big crossover events. Do they cramp the individual stories or do they add more depth? Claremont replied that it depends on the circumstances, the writers and the editors and that such collaborations should be rare events, just to make them special. Brevoort pointed out that people aren't being forced to tie into Secret Invasion in their books. David added that Marvel is a lot better these days about giving notice and planning ahead so the writers didn't have to drop their own stories every six months to accommodate the crossover. Participating in Messiah Complex may not have been the most creatively free experience, but it not only sold a lot of books, it added to the ongoing audience for his own book. UlGregately, he pointed out, Marvel is in the business of selling books. He has a responsibility to the reader to tell the best stories he can, but he also has a responsibility to Marvel to bring them something he can sell.

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