Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner
According to Jim Shooter, his promotion to Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics "scared" a lot of people, as he geared up to turn Marvel into a more efficient company than it had been.
“I tried to continue to not be on anybody’s side. I thought it was my job to make the comics good, and I was on their side.
“First of all, I hired several editors to do the job I’d been doing alone. I got assistants for each of them, and slowly started to give governance over things. I got great editors. I got Roger Stern, Louise Simonson (Louise Jones at the time), Larry Hama – and some really great people.
“One false start was Rick Marshall, who was hired to edit the magazines. The President of the company, Jim Galton, ordered me to fire him after he made a series of expensive mistakes – the final one costing Marvel $60,000. Then we got Archie Goodwin to replace him, which was a coup. I used to work under Archie, and now he was going to work for me? I told Stan ‘Let’s trick him. I don’t need to teach Archie anything, so let’s hire him, and tell him that he’s reporting to you. Just tell him.’
“For the first year, we pretended that Archie was on my level, and why not? It’s not like I’d ever have to tell him anything, and he knew at least as much about the creative side as I did. I secretly did the business side stuff for him – stuff he wasn’t good at and didn’t care about - the paperwork, like his budgets, on the sly.
“After the first year, we got a new publisher, Mike Hobson. Stan was never really the publisher, though that was his title for a while. Stan was less interested in the boring business stuff and paperwork than Archie, if that’s possible. I was, more or less the publisher for the first year or so I was EIC, but having somebody to share the burden of the business/financial stuff was a godsend. Mike was very helpful in a number of ways, as it turned out.
“When Mike came on, though, he wasn’t willing to continue the charade with Archie. He said ‘Goodwin works for you, according to the organizational chart, but everyone treats him like he’s his own department.’
“I said ‘Yeah, I used to work for him, and it would be uncomfortable for him to have me over him.’
“So Mike calls Goodwin in and says ‘You know you’ve been working for Jim, right?’
“Goodwin goes ‘Yeah, I know.’ He figured it out. But, by then, he was cool with it. All I did was pave the road for him, take care of the biz crap so he could do what only he could do.”
“He was just remarkable,” Shooter continues about the late Goodwin, who many still consider the best editor in comics. “He was brilliant, and everybody loved him, anybody that worked for him. We have a Frazetta cover on the first issue of Epic Illustrated. Ellie Frazetta would not take my call, but she would take Archie’s.
“Everybody loved Archie, and for good reason: he helped so many people, he taught so many people. I think that early on he was more firebrand-like, like me, and he got burned out. By that time, though, he’d gotten all those great people like Walt Simonson to respect and love him. They all wanted to work for him. Archie was great.”
IRVING: Looking back, do you feel there were times when you were too strict?
SHOOTER: No, not at all. I always tried to say ‘yes,’ and sometimes I would have to say ‘Yes, but…’ I tried to keep out of people’s way and I tried to be as positive as I could. The trouble is, in dealing with creative people, that you occasionally have to say ‘no’…
According to Jim Shooter, when he came in, Marvel was an organizational disaster. Beyond that, many of the ‘70s comics were written by fans-turned-pros who often bogged pages down with too many words and, creatively, fell into a rut. After two years of working in that maelstrom as Assistant Editor, he decided the House of Ideas needed some remodeling.
“When I arrived as Editor-in-Chief, I’d been creatively trained in the business by Mort, trained creatively in general at DC, had two years of Stan’s coaching, so when I came in – you’d mentioned earlier how some of those ‘70s comics were unreadable— that’s what I found,” Jim tells me. “Also, the first month I took over, January, 1978 we were supposed to ship forty-five comics and we only shipped twenty-six. It took me until April to get us shipping the right number of comics. It took me until the end of that year to get the whole company on time. I have a letter from World Color Press, that says ‘Congratulations. For the first time in its history, Marvel Comics is on time.’
“During that year, while I was having meetings with writers and artists, I didn’t even look at the books, because if I looked, I would not let many of them go to print. They were pretty bad.
“Once we were on time, I started reviewing the books. Every time before a book would go out, I had to sign off on it. It went through the editor, the production manager, the traffic manager, and then to me. I started looking at the books, and then I started trying to teach/coach the creators. I sat down with writers to explain story structure to them. Sat down with artists to explain visual storytelling. Tried to teach colorists and inkers about creating the illusion of depth. I wasn’t preaching any style, but was preaching what I thought were fundamentals. Kicking and screaming, I dragged them a little more in my direction.
“In my first meeting with the writers, I asked them to please mention the character’s name somewhere in each issue. Whole issues were going by without the lead character’s name being mentioned! In the next meeting, I told the writers ‘In each issue, something has to happen.’ There were whole issues where you could throw that issue out, read the previous and subsequent issues, and it’s seamless. You wouldn’t know that you missed anything – because you didn’t!
“So, I started checking the comics before they went to press, started teaching story mechanics and structure. Started teaching storytelling, inking and coloring. Like I said, I made them come my way, albeit kicking and screaming. That was a significant thing, because we started selling like crazy.
About this time, the Direct Market, or comic book specialty stores, began to emerge as a point of expansion for comics. Shooter was E-I-C at the right time.
“Marvel had about 30%of the market when I started, and then the market started to grow because of the Direct Market. We were growing so much faster than everybody else that, in the early ‘80s, we were 70% of the market and DC was 18%. We had more than doubled our share in a rising market! That’s remarkable. Our circulation guy used to say ‘DC has way better production values than us, they out-promote us and out-advertise us. They beat us in every way they could beat us, except between the covers.’
“That’s right, because between the covers were Walt, Byrne, Miller, Sienkiewicz with his weirdo style. I love that guy. Brilliant. And pretty much everybody you’d want. A Who’s Who of creators. We attracted the cream of the crop…
“We had so many good people, and they were doing such good stuff. I tried to use common sense. If it was someone like a Bill Sienkiewicz or a Walt Simonson, to keep the hell out of their way and let them do their thing.”
Marvel gained a dynamic new breed of creators, such as Walter Simonson on Thor, Frank Miller on Daredevil, or Bill Sienkiewicz on New Mutants. The radical approach of these new Marvel artists provided a greater contrast to competitor DC Comics’ generally more vanilla visual approach.
Former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Roy Thomas helped save Marvel shortly before Shooter’s tenure, when the plucky and strong-willed Thomas insisted they take a license on the upcoming science-fiction film Star Wars.
“Roy practically had to hold his breath till he turned blue and stomp his feet to force that to happen,” Shooter says. “He willed it to happen. Nobody else wanted to do it. This was before I was Editor-in-Chief; I hope I would’ve had the sense to listen to him.
“Anyway, Star Wars was a tremendous hit and kept the company alive during a very tough time. That book kept the company going. The bad thing is that the people upstairs thought ‘All we have to do now is license movies,’ and took every stupid thing that came down the pike. I’m pushing these things away with both hands, but occasionally I’d have to give in because somebody upstairs had their life bet on it. So, many licensed things sucked. A few things were okay; obviously Raiders of the Lost Ark was fine.
“But there were a lot of things, stupid things. Nobody wanted to do U.S.1, but I think a lot of those toy things was because we would do a license of theirs and then hope they would make some of our things into toys. A few licensed things we took lemons and made lemonade, like Rom. Rom was the dumbest thing in the world. Yet, Mantlo did it, and I think it was the best thing he ever did. Ditko worked on it, and that was cool.”
Despite a batch of lousy licensed comics, about everything from truck drivers with metal cranial plates that received CB transmissions to Space Knights, Marvel hit gold when they teamed up with toy company Hasbro for their G.I. Joe license. Marvel did all of the character and creative development for this new line of action figures, and Hasbro offered cross advertising with Marvel. With a lukewarm reception at a distributor’s meeting, Marvel was faced with a compromise to retailers, one that actually benefited the comics company:
“Marvel had to offer the first issue of G.I. Joe to the direct market on a returnable basis (direct market sales are usually firm sales), and we still only sold 100,000 [pre-orders]. Compare Dazzler #1 which sold 428,000 copies. G.I. Joe #1 sold out in the first ten minutes and we then had to go back to press.”
Writer Larry Hama crafted a comic book espionage book with cool villains and likeable heroes. Tied in with an after-school cartoon special and an action figure line, G.I. Joe recruited an entire generation of new readers in comics. It sparked a new comics collaboration with Hasbro, on a new toy robot line they’d cobbled together.
“The response to G.I. Joe surprised everyone but Mike Hobson, Larry Hama and me…Once G.I. Joe was going, it became its own little industry and did very well. We were so successful with it, we were doing backflips. Also with Hasbro, we did Transformers, which I did myself. At first I hired [writer and editor] Denny O’Neil to do it. He wanted to do it, he wanted the money – doing a toy development paid pretty well – but he really just wasn’t into it. His disdain for a toy property was palpable [Editor's Note: O'Neil was a long-running editor of G.I. Joe]. I fed him his lines – basically told him what to write. He typed a half-hearted attempt that was just pathetic. I threw it away. I paid him, but threw it away.
“I wrote Transformers back story and bible myself – for free, having already paid O’Neil the money in the budget. The characters are named after my relatives. I came up with the origin of the war between the Autobots and Decepticons, planet Cybertron and everything else. The only thing I kept of Denny’s was the name of the ship, 'Auntie,' at least in the first treatment.
“Transformers succeeded so well that then we got lots of other less significant development deals as a result - Starriors, Inhumanoids and all this other crap. Crystar, for Christ’s sake!” Jim comically shrugs. “We soldiered on the best we could, and we sold a lot of comics.”
IRVING: Do you feel the writers and editors knew the type of bullshit you had to deal with?
SHOOTER: No. I had to go to the Board of Directors because I was told they’d heard about the royalty program and didn’t like it. On the way there (West Caldwell, New Jersey), Galton said I was the only Editor-in-Chief he’d introduced to the board. I asked why, and Galton said ‘Because you’re the only one who dresses well. I’ve had a series of guys who wear jeans and sneakers and look like kids.’
So, we got up there, and they said ‘If your plan goes into effect today, and sales don’t change, that takes three-quarters of a million dollars off of our bottom line.’
I said ‘Sales will change, and the plan will cost two million dollars in the first year, but the bottom line’s going to be four million dollars bigger.’ I sold it to them. I had my numbers and I was prepared (with help from Kaplan). Other editors-in-chief didn’t have a business background, they just whined about how things weren’t fair. I came in there loaded and I got my way.
On the flip-side of licensed books like G.I. Joe and A-Team was Epic, a creator-owned line edited by Goodwin.
“Things had been going well, and Sergio Aragones walks into my office and says ‘I want to do something for you,’” Shooter says of the Mad Magazine cartoonist and comics staple.
“I said ‘Great, what do you want?’
“‘The only thing is, I know that everything is work-for-hire, and I understand that’s the rules, but I’d like to have some incentive like reprint rights.’
“‘We already have programs in place for the reprint, and working on royalties. But you can own it, if you create something new.’
“‘Really? How’s that work?’
“‘We’ll pay you in advance, and you own it, like a normal book publisher. I have the authority to do that.’
“We had a handshake agreement, and Sergio said he’d be in touch in a week or so to sort out details.
“The next thing I know, Groo comes out from Pacific Comics.
“The next thing that happened, after Sergio disappointed me, was that I got Miller, Simonson, and Starlin walking into my office. They said ‘We want to do some comics, but we want to own them.’
“‘Great, let’s go see the publisher.’ We go to see Mike Hobson, and I said ‘These guys want to create something and have ownership like a real book publishing deal.’
“He says ‘Fine, let’s draw up the contracts.’
“At the same time, Jenette Kahn had been courting Frank Miller, and he decided to go with DC for Ronin. She had experience in real world publishing because she’d worked with a book publisher. I guess Frank was impressed. However, Frank actually got a worse deal from her than he would’ve gotten from us and he’d tell you that.
“Meanwhile, Starlin did Death of Captain Marvel, a graphic novel for us, and Walt did Star Slammers. Star Slammers was created by Walt, so he owned that. Jim wanted to do Captain Marvel, which Marvel owned, but he got a good deal on it. In The Death of Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel dies of cancer. A super hero dying of cancer? Remarkable. Brilliant. Jim’s father was dying of cancer when he wrote that book. I told him ‘You can’t own it, but we’ll do a book-like contract so you’ll get royalties.’ We did a deal there where he made a bunch of money on it. He later came knocking on Epic’s door.
“I go to Archie, and go ‘Archie, I have a great idea: Epic Comics. Comic book series, but owned by the creators.’
“He goes ‘You’re out of your mind! I’ve got too much stuff already, get the hell out of my office!’
“I went to Al Milgrom and said ‘I have this idea for creator-owned comics, and Archie doesn’t want to do it.’
“He went ‘I’ll do it.’ Now, Jim Starlin first wanted to do his original idea, Dreadstar, as a graphic novel but I wanted him to make it a comic book series. He agreed and went off and running.
“Archie comes in my office the next day, furious: ‘How could you give Epic Comics to Milgrom?’
“I went ‘You yelled at me! You chased me outta your office!’
“‘It’s EPIC Comics and it’s mine! I don’t want to give it up.’ I surrendered. You’ll notice on the first issue of Dreadstar Archie and Milgrom have joint editorship credit. I mean no insult to Archie, but I think it’s so funny, because one day, he’s chasing me out because he had too much work, and then the next day he’s mad because I gave it to somebody else.
“What I did was tell him I’d get him another assistant.
“So, now we’re doing all that, and then DC announces that they’re going to do a royalty program. I got a hold of their program, and took it up to Barry Kaplan, our Senior Financial Officer. It was simple: if you sell over 100,000, you would get so much percent divided amongst the people. By that time, Marvel had cleared the legal hurdles, and Kaplan said –to his everlasting credit - ‘I don’t want to do that. I’ll do better than that.’
“DC paid a 4% royalty. We had a sliding scale up to 8%: every 75,000 copies more that you sold and got to the next threshold, you’d get an extra percentage. So, Claremont’s getting an 8% off of X-Men. That’s a lot, but he was selling three-quarters of a million copies.
“By that time [around 1980], there were only three or four DC Comics that had cleared the 100,000 threshold: Warlord, Teen Titans, Legion, and I think Superman was right at the edge there.
“Every single Marvel book was above the royalty threshold. Dazzler outsold Superman by 40,000 copies at that time. That’s how well we were doing. You should’ve seen me trying to sell the idea of this royalty program to the Board of Directors. But I did.”
“Right about then...Things were good and people were making money. Yes, they thought I was too strict and demanding that they tell the story properly.”
“I don’t think that I was too strict and, like I said, the year of my thirtieth birthday, I’d think they would have elected me Pope,” Shooter recalls. “Everybody was making money. You should have seen my thirtieth birthday party. It wasn’t artificial, at all. They gave me presents and cards. Starlin gave me this beautifully drawn dark doorway with Death waving his finger saying ‘One year closer…’ Sienkiewicz painted a portrait of me that was that tall, but the funny thing was that it was at Sienkiewicz point of view poster, so it ends at chin level. I have it hanging on my wall. They were really nice to me, and we were doing well.”
But things were about to change: typical in business, when a company begins to over perform, the upper brass are more anxious to unload it for a profit:
“After that was when Marvel was going on the auction block. When the people upstairs were trying to sell the company, what it means is that someone in my position was the highest-ranking guy other than the owners. So either I would become an accomplice and help them sell everybody down the river, or I become a labor leader. By that, I mean that they started to do incredible things to save money for the bottom line: they cashed out the pension fund, they changed the whole health care to a cheaper thing where people had to pay more, they wanted to cut out all of these benefits, they wanted to retroactively eliminate the royalty program.
“I said ‘No, no, no, there will be a class action suit against you, and I will file it. You can’t have people doing ten months’ worth of work with the understanding that they’re getting royalties and then stiff them…’
“They said ‘We’ve decided, as of today, that we’re not paying any royalties on anything.’ That argument ended on the executive floor, in the intersection of the hallways leading to the offices of the financial officer, the executive vice president, the president, and the house counsel, all in this key section, and with me standing in the crossroads, screaming my head off and threatening a class action suit. I won that battle, but then I lost a lot of other ones.
“But meanwhile, now that I’ve become the enemy, no one I like gets a raise. Anyone who says anything bad about me gets a raise. They bring in this girl, Carol Kalish, because the Vice President told me ‘We have no clue who could replace you. You’re the only one who could tell us.’ So they bring in this girl, Carol Kalish, who seems to be knowledgeable about comics, so they figured they would have her to replace my knowledge of the industry, and could get rid of me. In case it hasn’t been made clear, no one above my rank at Marvel at that time had ever so much as opened a comic book. And they were proud of it!
“So, we went through a couple of bad years there, and they did eventually sell the company. It got uglier and uglier, and they were making me into a pariah. It’s also when the Kirby lawsuit reached its peak. They said ‘Hang him out to dry. Let people believe Jim won’t let Kirby have his artwork back,’ as if I had a vote. I wasn’t the CEO, the lawyer or on the board. Also, I was the public face of Marvel, so if anything went wrong it was my fault. Nobody knew Galton or Chairman Shelly Feinberg. They knew me.
“Basically, I got the shaft in a major way, and by the time they finally got rid of me, nobody cared. If you saw the day of my thirtieth birthday party and then a few years later when they got rid of me. I won the fight about paying royalties, but they had actually stopped paying international royalties, hoping that no one would notice. Walt noticed, and said ‘Somebody sent me this Star Slammers from France. Where’s my royalty check?’ So here’s my thing: I can say to Walt ‘It’s those bastards upstairs, Walt. They’re screwing you,’ so Walt quits, and then Shooter has scared another creator away. Or, I can say ‘Walt, there must be some mistake or problem. I’ll do my best to fix it.’ I go off and rant at the villains upstairs, and it does no good, so then Walt goes ‘I thought you were going to fix this,’ and then he quits anyway.
“I remember that when they finally fired me, I felt I owed Walt an explanation. So, I called up Walt, and said ‘You know, Walt, when I went up stairs and told you about not getting your royalty check, they said they were deliberately not paying anybody, but would pay if you showed up with a lawyer.’ He was real cold to me on the phone, like ‘Go away, I don’t believe you,’ as if I was just trying to drum up sympathy. What can I do?
“They did a good job, and got rid of me. I was blackballed, literally blackballed.
“Am I the worst writer in the world? Could it be that nobody could use me? My phone would never ring, because nobody wanted me.”
Shooter made plans to buy Marvel outright, but he and his investors lost out to Ron Perelman, a junk bondsman who drove Marvel to bankruptcy by the late ‘90s.
“If I’d bought it, we had plans to include Kirby and Ditko and all those other founding fathers in the ongoing royalty,” Shooter reveals. “We couldn’t do retroactive back to the ‘60s, but if we were giving incentives to John Byrne on Alpha Flight, why couldn’t we do the same for Ditko from the same starting point? Why is it a problem? Because he did it so long ago? Fine, if you can’t grandfather it all the way back there, start it now. Start it from the same moment you gave it to John Byrne.
“We had a business plan to bring it all in. We were going to liquidate Marvel Studios and Marvel Books. I could drop twelve million dollars to the bottom line like that, because those operations were losing a fortune – and comics publishing, my area, was making a fortune. Comics were making hand over fist money. The British publishing did okay, and I would’ve left them alone for a while. Licensing was a train wreck, and I would’ve improved that. Anyway, we had a good plan, and we would’ve tried to bring them all home.
“Perelman had an inside track. He owned 20% of the selling company! He was an insider, because he owned 20% of New World Entertainment. Legally, he needed an “arm’s length bid” to be allowed to buy Marvel, and we provided that, unwittingly – a stalking horse. It was a totally corrupt deal, but as Chase, my financial advisors said, M&A, mergers and acquisitions is a cowboy business. No real rules. Perelman would’ve beat anything we’d offered. So, my buying Marvel didn’t happen, which is why I had to start VALIANT.”
In his own words, Jim Shooter casually notes “No one would hire me, so I had to hire myself.” With the creation of VALIANT, Jim Shooter experienced another success as Editor-in-Chief with his nascent start-up company. The VALIANT line was built around three characters licensed from a defunct comics imprint, Gold Key: Doctor Solar, Turok, and Magnus, Robot Fighter. After the end of the VALIANT line, Shooter came in and out of comics (including two stillborn attempts at new companies).
Now he’s back, revamping the Gold Key characters at Dark Horse Comics. Doctor Solar has just premiered, with a new Magnus, Robot Fighter hot on its heels, and followed by the newest Turok. When he came to Marvel, he took advantage of the emergent Direct Market; his arrival at Dark Horse is during another pivotal moment in the comics industry.
"I think that Marvel being bought by Disney, and DC being taken over by Warner and refitted to become a robust marketing company, is going to have a radical impact," Jim observes. "It’ll change the distribution and the playing field. In some ways, it’ll help a lot because it will raise our profiles. In other ways, it’ll hurt, because it could squelch the creative process."