Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner
It’s a rainy day outside Grand Central Station when Jim Shooter emerges, wearing a black suit and towering over the other umbrella-wielding New Yorkers.
Shooter is easily one of the most controversial figures in comic book history: first cutting his teeth as a teenage comic book writer for DC Comics, he rose to become Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics in 1978 and renovated the so-called House of Ideas, overhauling the entire comics line and organization, revitalizing Marvel into a changing force in comics in the 1980s. To some, he was a visionary who pushed comics to grow in the early '80s, while to others, he was a difficult Editor-in-Chief. But right now, he's a man enjoying a cup of coffee.
Shooter’s start in comics came, indirectly, through a minor surgery and stay in the hospital in 1963.
“I was 12. I hadn’t read comics in years, I think since I was eight years old,” Jim recalls in a nearby café, stretching his long legs out, crossing them at the ankles. “There were a lot of comics in the kids’ ward. There were DC comics, and I read them. They were the same as when I’d stopped reading them. Then there were these other comics, all kind of ratty and dog-eared because they’d been read so much, these new-fangled Marvel Comics. I read them and went ‘Holy cow, these are good!’ At that moment, I got the idea that if I learned to write like this Stan Lee guy, I could write for these other turkeys, DC, because they sure needed the help.
“I spent about a year reading, studying comics, trying to figure out what I liked and what I didn’t like – I read both DC and Marvel – and tried to figure out what Stan was doing. When I thought I was ready, in the summer of 1965 and I was thirteen years old, I wrote and drew a comic book story for The Legion of Superheroes. I thought that was the one comic I could make the biggest difference with. I made a cover for it, which I also colored, and everything. I didn’t know what a script looked like, so I made it look like a comic book and drew the panels and wrote the word balloons. I sent it in to DC Comics, and got a letter back that said ‘Hey, we think you may be able to draw features for DC Comics!’”
After writing a two-part story and sending it in to DC, the young Jim Shooter received a phone call from a legendary old comic book editor. He even remembers the fateful date: February 10, 1966.
“Sometime in the evening I got a phone call from a guy who said his name was Mort Weisinger and he wanted to buy the stories I’d sent. He commissioned me to write a Supergirl story,” Jim says before going into an aside. “People have occasionally said ‘Mort really plotted everything.’ No, my instructions on Supergirl were ‘Supergirl, twelve pages’. Most of them were like that, and I’m not saying we never had story conferences. I sent in the Supergirl, and he liked it and said ‘Send me a Superman, twenty-two pages.’ I sent him ‘The Origin of The Parasite’ and then I was back on Legion again. When he told me he wanted me to do Legion regularly, that was the phone call – I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and all of this was over the phone – and he said ‘I want you to come up to New York and spend a couple of days in the office.’
I said ‘Okay,’ but I was hesitating.
He said ‘How old are you?’
I said ‘Well, sir, I just turned fourteen.’
‘Put your mother on the phone.’ I believe he thought I was a college student. So the business trip had to wait until school let out, and I had to take my mother with me. It’s really embarrassing to have to take your mother on a business trip.”
The scripts that Jim wrote for Weisinger helped keep his family afloat, and were all done as a budding writer. The trip to New York cemented Weisinger’s decision to cultivate Jim’s writing talents.
“My family needed the money,” Shooter recalls. “I was doing this to save the house; my father had a beat-up old car and the engine died – this is before I started working for DC – and that first check bought a rebuilt engine for his car so he didn’t have to walk to work anymore. I was doing this because I had to, working my way through high school to help keep my family alive.”
To say Weisinger was a tough editor would be generous: he became infamous as one of the meanest, most abusive editors in all of comics history. Starting in fandom in the 1930s, Mort started working in pulp magazines and soon made his way to an editorial position at DC Comics. By the 1960s, Mort had inherited the Superman line of comic books, and had started to create a mythology and supporting cast. Rather than Superman just being a Metropolis resident, Superman now had an extended family of his cousin Supergirl, dog Krypto, and pals from the future the Legion of Superheroes (who he went on adventures with as Superboy). The honeymoon ended for Shooter when the editor decided to take him on as a regular freelancer.
“After he decided I should be a regular, after he got off the phone with my mother, he said ‘Even though you’re only fourteen, I’m going to treat you like I treat every other writer.’… What I didn’t know was that the way he treated every other writer was to be abusive, and he was to me. After that, we had a regularly scheduled phone call every Thursday night, right after the Batman TV show. He would call me any other time he needed to, of course, but that was our weekly scheduled call. He’d call me up, and that’s when he started going over the stories more and talking about what I’d sent in, maybe even talking about new ideas...
“So, when he was going over the material I had sent in earlier that week, he’d go over it panel by panel, word by word, page by page, he would start spewing ‘You idiot!’ He was just screaming at me about what a ‘retard, fucking moron I was, and how stupid I was every time he saw a spelling error or any kind of mistake. I was still doing rough sketches for every panel – I always did – and he also criticized my drawing: ‘What’s this guy holding? Is that supposed to be a gun? It looks like a carrot! You fucking moron!’ That’s a quote: that really happened.
“He really got nasty, and he’d scream at me for misspelling a word. It got to the point where every phone call would end with me saying ‘Look, maybe I’m not good enough to do this, and maybe you should get somebody else.’
“His line then was ‘No, I’ll give you one more chance. I know your family would starve without you. You’re my charity case.’ It got to the point where, if I was anywhere and heard a phone ring, I’d get white-knuckled. I would be at school, and if a phone rang within earshot, I would freeze up. It was horrible, and it wasn’t just with me, he’d do that with everybody.
Anyway, he was like that a lot, apparently with everybody and a lot with me. It took a couple of years, and then I started thinking ‘You know what? If I really sucked, they wouldn’t keep sending me checks.’”
Shooter, even at such a young age, didn’t suck as a writer: his Legion stories are inspired, fun, and a bit darker than the previous writers had been. When he took over with Adventure Comics #346, he gave the Legion new characters like Karate Kid and Ferro Lad, and enemies such as The Fatal Five. Shooter even killed off the helmeted Ferro Lad, who gave his life to spare Superboy from sacrificing himself. They became more than just stodgy and boring DC characters with wacky names that ended in Lad or Lass: they became almost cool enough to be Marvel characters. Linking the teenage Shooter with the teenage super-team was a smart call on Weisinger’s behalf.
“Whatever else you might say about Mort, he knew what he was doing and was good at it,” Jim admits. “He tended to preach formulas: always do this, never do that. But I just didn’t accept the formula; I thought about why the formula worked. How come Stan Lee can write a story that doesn’t follow this formula, and how did that work? There was some lower bedrock underlying all of this. I did some research on story and storytelling – Aristotle, Mark Twain and others, and I realized that Mort was taking the easy way out by telling you stuff that always worked. That way he didn’t have to explain things. The fact is that you could go far beyond what he preached, and I started to a little bit, even while working for Mort. He never said ‘Hey, you didn’t follow formula.’ If it worked, it worked.
“After my first visit to New York at age 14, they let me come up there by myself. In these days, they’d arrest the parents if you let a 14 year-old kid go up to new York for a few days and stay in a hotel, but back in those days it was a different era: the policeman was your friend, any adult would help any child. When I would go to Mort’s office, I have a memory of him sitting me down with George Klein – I think it was George Klein - and having him teach me about inking. I remember sitting down with the head of production, Jack Adler, and him teaching me about production and printing – separations, paper, everything. And coloring. I think I even met Tatjana Wood, who taught me some things about coloring. It was the same thing with visual storytelling: Curt Swan used to write me letters on sheets of vellum, all neatly lettered with illustrations.”
Shooter’s trips to New York as a teenager prepared him for more than just writing comics, as Weisinger prepared his new protégé:
“When I would go up on business trips, Mort would sit me down and teach me storytelling: establishing shots, setting the stage, introducing the characters, establishing characters – all of this stuff. Mort would also lecture me about the business, explain to me about licensing and international publishing. He had done a lot of that. He was responsible for getting Superman on Broadway, and also for a lot of other media and merchandise licensing – TV, radio, toys and more. He told me about the business and how it worked, including the economics of it, and gave me Publishing 101, in between his telling me what an idiot I was. Nelson believed he was grooming me to be his successor.
“I have no idea if that was true or not, but I know he taught me a lot about the business. He was extremely knowledgeable, and not just about comics, but also about the business, as well as the production. I learned an awful lot from him.”
Shooter continued to write for DC through his high school years, with an NYU scholarship waiting for him after graduation. With the added pressures of college, the 17 year-old Shooter decided his side career as a writer would need to change:
“I didn’t know how I could devote the brainpower to writing comics and going to college,” Jim notes. “I asked Mort ‘Is there something easier I can do while at college? Can I work in the office, do editorial work, or even color? Anything.’
“He said ‘No, I need you as a writer.’
“I’m thinking ‘But I’m the retard. Why do you need the retard?’
“He said ‘I need you as a writer, so keep on writing.’
“I was really pissed off (and this will show you that I actually was a retard, and I admit it). I flew from Pittsburgh to New York – then I called Stan Lee from a pay phone to ask if I could come and meet with him…
“Here’s a succession of miracles: I call Stan. The receptionist puts me through! Nobody got through to Stan back then. I must’ve sounded important or desperate. ‘Hi, this is Stan!’ It’s Stan Lee on the phone.
“I said ‘Stan, I’m a writer, and I’m currently writing for DC Comics. I want a change.’
“He said ‘We don’t like the writing for DC Comics.’
“I said ‘I don’t either. I got the job at DC because I learned from your stuff. They call me their ‘Marvel writer’ and mean it as an insult.’
“He says ‘I’ll give you fifteen minutes.’
“I went up to his office, and three hours later I had a job. We were discussing our theories of comics, and they were the same. Of course. I learned it from him.”
Unfortunately, Shooter was faced with a dilemma: take the Marvel job and make a real go at a career in comics, or pursue a higher education at NYU?
“It was a nine-to-five-or-whenever editorial position. No way to do both. I decided to take the job. I just said ‘Yes,’ and took it. This was on a Thursday, and they wanted me to start on Monday. Here I am, seventeen years old, I’ve got no money, no place to live, and I’m moving to New York on Monday. I arrive in the office with my suitcase, and no idea where I was going to sleep that night. I worked all day and, sometime around 6:30 or 7:00, I walked around the city trying to find a place to stay. I ended up at the Y.
“I worked at Marvel for about three weeks, and was trying to stick it out. The money they were paying me might have been good in Pittsburgh, but not in New York. I was looking at the price of apartments, and not eating (because I couldn’t afford to eat, and went a long time without food), so finally with great regret I quit the job and went back to Pittsburgh.
“At that point I figured I’d burned both of my bridges, because I didn’t feel like I could call Marvel again – they didn’t need writers, especially out-of-towners.”
There is a post-script to Shooter’s first tenure at Marvel, involving his final encounter with Weisinger:
“The first day I worked at Marvel, word got to Mort and he called me to scream at me one last time. ‘You ingrate, fucking retard.’ He called me at my desk at Marvel Comics to scream at me about what an ungrateful bastard I was. At that point, I was just like ‘Okay.’
“I met Cary Bates for the first time, years after we’d worked for Mort,” Shooter adds. “The first words out of his mouth were ‘I used to hate you…Every Wednesday night, Mort would call me up and say ‘Why can’t you write like Shooter? His stuff is good, and yours reads like the Manhattan directory, you fucking retard.’
“I said ‘Cary, he said that to me. He’d say ‘Bates always has great cover ideas, he always has clever trick endings. Why are you so dumb, you fucking retard?’
“I think that’s what he did. At that same time, Nelson Bridwell, who had been Mort’s assistant the years I’d worked for him, told me ‘Mort bragged about you. He would take your work around and show it to the other editors and say ‘Look at my discovery.’ He would brag about how he never had a rewrite or to change a thing, because he could give you any story or any character and you would turn in something that was ready to go, and ready to print. He was so proud of you.’
“I said ‘He might’ve let me know, it’d have been nice.’ But that’s how things were back then: if you were an editor, your job was to crush writers under your heel and keep them from asking for a raise.
Jim Shooter wound up back in Pittsburgh; after his stillborn career at Marvel, he took whatever odd jobs he could find. Luckily, his experience as a writer and assistant editor served as his next meal ticket.
“I did a whole bunch of unglamorous things,” Jim counts off. “I polished cars, worked in a department store, worked in a lumber yard, chemical plant, I washed dishes and was also a security guard. However, very soon after I moved back to Pittsburgh, I got a call from an advertising agency:
“‘Are you the kid who does comics?’
Shooter landed a gig creating cartoon ads and copy for U.S. Steel, through the Lando-Bishopric agency. A couple wound up as television commercials for the “U.S. Steel: We’re Involved” campaign. His past with the Legion of Superheroes caught up to him through the emergence of the new comic book fandom.
“A couple of years after that, a guy called me up to interview me,” Shooter recalls. “His name was Harry Broertjes. He was a journalism student who published a fanzine called The Legion Outpost. P.S., these days he’s a big time editor for the Miami Herald. He did an interview with me and, after the interview, he asked ‘Why don’t you work in comics any more?’
“I said ‘If they want me, they know where I am.’
“He called his friend Duffy Vohland, who was an assistant editor in the British department at Marvel, and said ‘I was just talking to Jim Shooter. Here’s his number.’ Duffy called me and represented himself as an editor at Marvel, and asked if I could fly up and talk to him and some people about working at Marvel. I went ‘I guess they’re not holding a grudge.’
“The next day was my day off, and I said I’d come up then. All Duffy did was walk me in to see Roy Thomas. Roy said ‘We’ll hire you, I remember your work.’ He gave me Man-Wolf. I’d never heard of Man-Wolf, but okay.”
Thomas, incidentally, had started in comics through the fan magazine Alter/Ego and, after writing a few comics, landed a job as Mort Weisinger’s assistant. He lasted two weeks before jumping ship to work at Marvel.
“Anyway, he offered me Man-Wolf. I go out to lunch with some of the people there, and they said ‘Since you’re here, why don’t you go over to DC?’
“I said ‘I got a job here.’
“‘Nobody cares, you can work both sides of the street. It’s okay.’
“‘Wow, things have changed.’ So, I went over to DC, and Nelson Bridwell came out to meet me in the reception area, took me to see Carmine Infantino, who was the Publisher. Carmine walked me in to see Murray Boltinoff and said ‘This is Jim Shooter, give him some work.’
“Murray was sitting there with Cary Bates, and it was the first time I met Cary. Cary said ‘Give him the Legion, I hate it.’ So, they did, and he walked me in to see Julie Schwartz and said ‘This is Jim Shooter, let him write Superman.’
“Julie said ‘Anyone who was good enough to work for Mort is good enough for me.’
“So, I had Superman and Legion at DC and Man-Wolf at Marvel. At least I knew who the characters were at DC, so I decided to pass on Man-Wolf. I would have had to do a lot of research just to get up to speed with Man-Wolf.
“I started working at DC, and did a few freelance stints here and there for Marvel. I got back into comics.”
Shooter got his another taste of politics in comics while at DC, caught between editor Schwartz and publisher Infantino, two members of the old school at DC who had risen in the ranks.
“First of all, what I didn’t realize was that Julie hated Carmine,” Jim notes. “He really resented having me foisted on him. So, he spent all of his time trying to get rid of me. Hazing me. I couldn’t figure out then what I was doing wrong.
“Murray was nice, and I mean no disrespect to Murray at all, he was a very good man who taught me things; but he was losing his memory and he was a little fuzzy about things. He was very hands-on and loved to plot everything together. I had to fly to New York to plot stories with Murray, and I wanted to plot as many as I could at one time, because by then it was costing $100 round-trip. He would make me fly to New York, and I’d plot three hundred dollars worth of story, and he’d say ‘That’s enough for now.’ It cost me a hundred dollars to get there. The worst was that I got up to New York, and I called him, and he said ‘I can’t see you until tomorrow.’”
“Then when Marv Wolfman called me at the end of 1975 and said he was looking for an Editor [at Marvel], I said ‘I’m your man.’ I flew up and, once again, arrived on a Monday with my suitcase, but I had money now. I wasn’t missing any meals.”
Marvel had changed in the past seven years: the old guard of artists and writers had been joined by the first wave of comics fans turned professionals: such as Thomas, Len Wein, Gerry Conway, and Marv Wolfman.
“When I worked there in ’69, there was Stan who did most of the writing, Sol Brodsky who was technically Production Manager, who did everything Stan didn’t want to do (legal, technical, complicated, or financial) and production work,” Jim recalls. “There was a secretary, but I don’t think it was Flo. There was a receptionist. There was me, I think Marie Severin was there, maybe Herb Trimpe. That might have been it. There was some other guy, who was an assistant, his name was Alan Brodsky (no relation to Sol).
“When I came back on the first working day of 1976, Marvel’s creative department occupied a whole floor of a building and the executive offices another. And there were lots of people. The atmosphere when I first went up there was very laid-back and nobody wore a coat and tie. This was a contrast, because at DC, until 1977, they would not allow you to enter unless you had a jacket and a tie! You weren’t allowed in. In 1977, Cary Bates and Marty Pasko, on a bet or dare, went to the office with sports coats and open collar shirts, and they got in. It was the talk of the industry. The DC dress code started to break down after that.
“[Marvel] was casual and laid-back. There was somebody sleeping under a desk. There was a giant papier mache figure of Thor made by fans that was hanging from the ceiling. People came to work dressed to paint a house. Nobody cared. It was home: very casual, and very laid-back. Sleeping under a desk? Why didn’t I think about that the first time?
“I worked there for two years. They called me Associate Editor, but essentially what I was doing was be the editor on all the color comics: forty-five comics.
“Editing others opens your eyes a lot: you see things that make you go ‘Oh my God, that is so wrong – and I do it too! But I couldn’t see it in my work.’”
It seems that one of Marvel’s biggest problems was to run the company as if it were the smaller company of Stan Lee’s reign as Editor-in-Chief, instead of as the much larger company it had become. With the inmates inheriting the asylum, for want of a better term, the day-to-day operations of Marvel were far from fluid.
“There was no organization,” Jim notes. “The organization under Stan had been that Stan did all the writing and was the editor, and made all the creative decisions. After he left (to become President, then Publisher – during which time he was largely occupied traveling and speaking on the lecture circuit), Marvel became bigger, because the company was bought by Cadence, which owned Curtis Circulation, and all of a sudden Marvel had no restrictions on how many titles they could publish (the company had its number of titles limited when it was distributed by Independent News, which was owned by DC Comics’ parent company, National Periodical Publications). All of a sudden, Marvel went from twelve titles a month to forty-five color comics and eight black and white magazines.
“Anyway, there was no existing organization, so what happened was that whoever was the Editor-in-Chief became more or less the head writer. He didn’t do much in the way of editing, and wasn’t much involved in most of the books because he was too busy writing his own. The only time he got involved was if somebody screwed up really badly. There wasn’t much of an organization under him.
“Besides the Editor-in-Chief, the other people that they had in the office were so-called ‘proofreaders’; there were four or five of them. The way that it would work is this: A writer would be assigned to a book, like Steve Englehart on The Avengers. Steve Englehart would write a plot, send it directly to the artist. The artist would pencil the story (it was all done Marvel Style, of course, art first, dialogue added later), and send the penciled pages back to Steve. Steve would write the dialogue, indicate the balloon placement and send his copy and the art to the letterer. The letterer would letter the pages, and send them to the inker, who would ink the book. So, the first time the issue was seen, the first time anybody in the office had any clue what it was about, was when it arrived finished, all but colored.
“So then the proofreaders look at this stuff and say ‘Oh my God, you can’t do this! This guy’s dead! The costumes are wrong! There are disastrous continuity problems! This won’t pass the Code! Etc.’ They’d lose their marbles, then rush down to the Production department, having panels redrawn, having dialogue rewritten (and of course the writer is screaming ‘How dare you touch my dialogue!’).”
Jim Shooter describes the Marvel of then as “a snakepit”, as factions and cliques formed around the editors, past and present.
“During the era before my first two years, it started getting political at Marvel;” Jim notes. “There was the Len and Marv faction (we used to call them LenMarv, as if they were one person), the Roy Thomas faction, and then there was the Gerry Conway faction. Gerry Conway’s faction was a subset of the Roy faction.
“When Roy was EIC, he had his favorite people and he took care of them. I’m sure he’d say they were his favorites for good reasons, but whatever. I’m not saying he wasn’t fair, but when Roy decided to crack down on somebody, he’d crack down on them. He took no prisoners. So, it was good to be in his good graces. He was a tough guy. While he wasn’t as hands-on with the books as I was, he made his demands of the creative people known and enforced them. When he left, even though he wasn’t Editor-in-Chief anymore, he still had a lot of clout and Stan’s ear, so all of his friends, his favorites, were still protected under his ‘nuclear umbrella.’ He had his group of people loyal to him.
“Subtly – not overtly – opposing the Roy/Gerry faction was the LenMarv faction. Len and Marv were very close friends, and had their people that they were protecting. On occasion, there would be friction between the Roy Thomas friends and the LenMarv friends.”
“During the time Marv was EIC, he came up with a revolutionary idea: ‘Why don’t we have someone who checks the plots, and the scripts, and the pencils?’ He thought this was a brilliant innovation. Chris Claremont was the first guy he put in the position, though Chris’s title was ‘Pre-Proofer.’
“When Chris went freelance and Marv interviewed me for the job, he explained ‘I want you to read the plots before the artists draw them, look at the pencils when the artists turn them in. look at the dialogue when the writers turn it in, so that when it’s lettered and inked, there won’t be so many last-minute changes.’
“I said ‘So you want me to be the Editor?’
“‘I’m the Editor.’
“‘No, you’re the Editor-in-Chief. You’re asking me to edit these books. That’s normal.’
“‘Really? Not around here.’
“I told him ‘I’m not going to be Pre-proofreader. You can call me Editor.’
“‘How about Associate Editor?’
“Anyway, so, that was my job. When I came in, I started doing it. As I said, before me, and briefly Chris, they’d only had “proofreaders.” I actually started to edit the plots, art and scripts.
“Everybody hated me. They weren’t sure what to do with me. After years of anarchy, all of a sudden there’s a guy calling up ‘You know, Doug Moench, I’m reading this plot, and there’s one section that doesn’t make any sense. I want to talk about it.’
“Some guys go ‘Oh, sure, I’ll fix it.’ Other guys: ‘Sure, if you don’t like it change it.’ Other guys just screamed at me. I didn’t have any authority to fire anybody, so when Bill Mantlo found out that I didn’t have the power to fire him his attitude was ‘If you don’t like it, fix it yourself. I’m busy writing the next one and making more money.’”
At that time, writer Chris Claremont was running strong on Uncanny X-Men; formerly a canceled book, Claremont and artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne (respectively) turned the revamped title into a success.
“Anyway, the one guy that had the most integrity of anybody was Chris Claremont,” Jim admits. “When his first script came in and I saw something wrong, I made a note in the margin: ‘This looks wrong, maybe it should be this.’ – and suggested some dialogue.
“Chris was furious. He said ‘My words only. I don’t want anybody’s words but mine in the script. Don’t rewrite anything. Don’t suggest anything. Just put an X, tell me what’s wrong, and I’ll fix it.’ Then, after that, he’d come in (and he came in almost every day) see an X and go ‘What’s wrong with this!?’
“‘You might want to mention the character’s name, turkey.’
“He’d growl something horrible, then go find a typewriter and fix whatever it was.
“We argued like cats and dogs, but he had integrity. They had to be his words. I remember one time I wrote down a note. It just slipped. He only had a tiny space to say something, and it seemed to me that there was only one way to do it. I shouldn’t have written anything down, but I did. Chris came in he said ‘What’s this?’
“‘You need some explanation here. I jotted down a line. Sorry.’ He stormed away, tried to think of a few words to explain the point he had to make in words different from mine, and came back defeated.
“‘I can’t. We’ll have to use your words. I hate you.’
“I really respect him…I’m sorry I screwed up that one time…
“P.S. There were other guys who were adamant about their words, including Stan and me. Archie Goodwin, too, but he never made any mistakes, so it never came up. Roy, also, was a stickler.”
“When I was Associate Editor, I learned a lot from Stan,” Shooter mentions. “Technically, Stan wasn’t involved in the comics at all. He wasn’t even on the organizational chart. He was off on his own little island. He had no real responsibility other than trying to sell Marvel properties to Hollywood. But, he was Stan, and he was important - he was the creative guru.
“During my two years as Associate Editor, every week Stan would get the printers’ proofs of the books (as everyone in editorial did) and look them over. Stan wanted to sit down with Archie and go over them. Archie didn’t need any Comics 101 lectures, and Archie was also really busy, so he said ‘You know, Stan, its Jim who does the hands-on editing, so you should go over this stuff with him.’ So, for two years, I’d sit with Stan, and he’d go over things word by word and panel by panel: ‘Now this shot should’ve been this. Tell him to use short, straight pointers. What the hell is this?’ Little things, story and storytelling pointers. Pointing out mistakes. Much of it I already knew – there are only so many things you can fix when you’re editing 45 titles a month - but I still learned a lot from him.”
Marvel went through a series of Editors-in-Chief throughout the ‘70s: Marv Wolfman lasted for about two months, Gerry Conway a matter of weeks, and then Archie Goodwin, who kept the position for about a year and a half.
“After Gerry’s three-week stint, Marvel hired Archie Goodwin a EIC, and he lasted nineteen months,” Shooter notes. “That totals about two years during which I was second-in-command, the guy doing the hands-on editing under Marv, then Gerry, then Archie. When Archie left, they’d run out of warm bodies, so they gave the job to me. I was there as EIC for almost ten years.”
Two years into his stint as Assistant Editor, a few years shy of 30, Jim Shooter found himself Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics. He opted to make several changes for the creators and editorial.
“I was actually hired by the President of the company,” Shooter points out. “As I said, Stan was pretty much a figurehead at that point, not even on the T.O. When Galton and I were talking about the job, I said ‘This job is a nightmare, which is why you’ve only had an Editor-in-Chief last about six months here. There are a couple of things that, if you can promise me I can do, I’ll try it.’
“He said ‘Like what?’
“I said ‘I want to pay royalties.’
“He said ‘You mean we don’t!?’ He’d come out of real world publishing, and hadn’t paid attention to the details of comics publishing. He honestly didn’t know we didn’t pay royalties.
“‘No. I want to set up a system that rewards creators. If you write something that sells a million copies, you’d get more of a paycheck than the guy who writes Ghost Rider this month would get.’
“‘That sounds all right, okay.’
“I also said ‘I want to publish some creator-owned comics, like in the book world.’
“He says ‘I can’t believe we don’t do this.’
“‘I want to publish creator-owned comics, graphic novels, and this magazine called Epic Illustrated, which will feature creator-owned comics.’
“He said ‘Look, the comics are a side business. You can do anything you want, as long as it doesn’t cost us a lot of money. Your job is to keep us alive doing comics until I can get us into other business: animation and children’s books.’ This was the end of ’77.
“‘Okay, but I think you’re wrong. I think this thing – Marvel - could be bigger than Disney, and that comics can compete. I guarantee you that, whatever I do, I’ll tell up front how it’s going to be profitable.’
“He hired me.
“So, I could do anything that was self-liquidating. I started right away to build this royalty system. I sat down with the financial officer, trying to work out a fair system. He kept complicating it. For one thing, he said ‘It should only be for an increase in sales, and shouldn’t be that whoever’s on Spider-Man now gets more than who’s on Ghost Rider.’
“I said, ‘No, that’s okay. What’s going to happen is that the better guys will do Spider-Man, and we’re going to get a star-driven business.’ We argued about that, and then two things happened: Kirby threatened to sue us. The word ‘royalty’ implies ownership, and it put us in an awkward position that could be used against us in court. The same with the artwork returns: the way his lawyers phrased his demands, that ‘Kirby wanted his artwork’ back. To give it back, would have been tacit admission that he owned it and had all the rights. Kirby single-handedly held up the return of artwork and the royalty system for a while. Gerber helped when he sued us over Howard the Duck.”
Both lawsuits are key in the history of the comics creator’s rights that were emerging in the late ‘70s: Kirby was suing for the return of his artwork from Marvel (in the end, he got a fraction back), while Gerber over ownership of Howard the Duck (he lost the suit).
“So, lacking a royalty system, I needed an incentive for these guys, and I set up the ‘continuity bonus’: You do three issues in a row, and you get $500 bonus; you do six issues, and you get $1,000. You get $500 every three issues you put out. I did it to keep the same guy on the books. That worked. It was the first incentive system in mainstream comics.”
“Also, I introduced life insurance: If you earned $7,500 a year at Marvel, freelance, you got a $10,000 life insurance policy automatically. Health insurance: if you earned $7,500 a year at Marvel, freelance, you were covered by our major medical. Most guys could do that in a couple of months and were covered.
“I also found out that the squeakier wheels who had creator contracts had the best benefits. [Longtime Marvel artist and inker] Joe Sinnott had worse benefits than [other inker] Mike Esposito. I said ‘No, no, no. Standardize. Make the contracts exactly the same for everyone.’ The same, in fact, as staff people.
“I fixed a lot of things, but my greatest frustrations were the royalties and artwork return, which were delayed by lawsuits.
“I also increased rates, doubling them, and then doubling them again, because we started to make more money. I also straightened out some gross negligence; Don Perlin, who had been there forever, had the lowest pencil rate. I gave him a raise, and quickly another raise. He thought I wanted to date him, or something like that. He was like ‘Wow! Why are you doing this?’ Because it’s right.
“I tried to standardize and boost the rates up. Superstars like Frank Miller? He got paid like the old guys, because he’s Frank Miller. I did respect the creative contributions like the age and seniority of the guys. I made sure guys who’d been there for twenty years weren’t getting the minimum. I also respected genius.”
Read Part Two of Jim Shooter's Secret Origin, where he recalls his further and final days at Marvel.