Sunday, September 21, 2008

Team Management and Development (or How the Baseball Farm System Model Worked In the Comicbook Business)

During my time as a line editor at Marvel Comics, I was responsible for the production of five monthly comics along with a variety of one-shots, graphic novels, annuals, limited series, posters and other projects.

Each of the comics titles had a five person creative crew (writer, penciller, inker, letterer and colorist).

If an ongoing monthly title was on schedule, it would have four or five successive issues in various stages of production. While the latest issue was being prepared to go to the printer, the following issue was being inked, the one after that was being scripted and the one after that was being penciled. At the same time, the next issue in the pipeline was being plotted.

In professional baseball, the “big leaguers” play for the major league team (let’s use the NY Mets for an example). Each major league team has three levels of minor league teams: AAA (New Orleans Zephyrs), AA (Binghamton Mets) and A (Brooklyn Cyclones), Each minor league team plays in its own league against other teams at the same level.

As a general rule, as young players improve, they move up the ranks from A league level to AA then AAA and finally to the major leagues. The AAA level is usually where the most advanced minor leaguers play, along with those who have struggled in the major leagues and have been assigned to AAA to hone their skills or get back in shape after an injury.

At Marvel, I viewed those creators working on my monthly titles as my big leaguers. These were the pros who could be counted on to turn out quality work on a regular basis.

The AAA team consisted of talented young creators who had been in training for a while. They produced stories for annuals, fill-in issues, pin-ups and other projects.

The AA crew consisted of creators with raw but obvious talent. They were usually found by going through mounds of unsolicited submissions or during portfolio reviews at comicbook conventions. These artists were paid low rates to work on six-page stories as training exercises. The work they produced was not meant for publication.

Single A level creators were those with very raw talent. It was hard to tell if they would evolve into an employable talent. In addition to a letter outlining the strengths and weaknesses of the submitted work, I often sent these creators Xerox copies of two (then) out-of-print books that contained a wealth of knowledge:*

Successful Drawing by Andrew Loomis (Also released under the title Three-Dimensional Drawing) (Available as a PDF here.)

The Five C's of Cinematography by Joseph V. Mascelli

If the submitting artist had the drive to make it, they would devour the drawing and visual storytelling information they received and send in a new set of much improved samples. Those who did so successfully usually made it to the AA level.

AA talent needed to be trained in three primary areas—
-Visual storytelling

Many of the artists trying to break into comics had never worked at any sort of job. They often drew only when the muse struck them. They didn’t even know what it was like to work on a schedule at the local McDonald’s, much less produce quality art on a periodical schedule.

Waiting for the muse to inspire you before getting your pencil in gear doesn’t work when you’ve committed to producing a 22 quality pages of comicbook art every four weeks!

So, when I handed the plot for the six-page training story**, I asked the AA artists to set their own deadline for the delivery of their storytelling layouts. That date could be days or a month away. However, whatever date they set, they needed to meet that date. If they could not be relied upon to meet their own deadline, how could they be trusted to meet deadlines set by others?

If the layouts came in on time, I’d go over them and sketch out ways to improve the storytelling on overlays. The artist would then set another deadline for when he/she would deliver the finished pencils.

Those who did well creatively and professionally were slated to move up to the AAA team.

Sometimes artists would come along who were good enough to start at the AAA or even the major league level. Jim Lee, June Brigman, Larry Stroman and Jon Bogdanove come to mind.

If a creator working on a monthly title left to take on other projects, or ran into a problem producing on time, I usually had a quality replacement in AAA that could be used to temporarily or permanently replace the departing artist.

In some editorial offices, the loss of a monthly creator initiated a competition with other editors for talent. All too often, talent-hungry editors tried to lure away artists from other editorial offices within their own company.

I had no qualms about trying to lure talent away from another publisher. Starting a tug-of-war within Marvel for talent often caused counterproductive friction.

However, when another Marvel editor needed an artist and there was a good match between the talent and the project, I’d suggest someone from my AAA pool. I’d rather have the AAA artist working for Marvel regularity than remain stuck in my AAA team, or have the artist take on work from other publishers.

A number of artists who began their careers in my office were eventually lured away by the siren call of the X-Men titles. These artists grew up reading and loving the X-Men. That combined with the creator royalties the high-selling X-tiles generated made a call from the X-office hard to resist!

I must admit that I felt some pride when much of the X-line was being created by talent I mentored. Those creators included Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio, Scott Williams, Larry Stroman, Jon Bogdanov, Steve Scroce and Terry Shoemaker.

Would running a comicbook editorial office with this system work these days? Aspects of the farm team system should still hold up.

My biggest concern is that there is little “forgiveness” in today’s comics market.

When Jim Lee started out on Alpha Flight, he was already a very good artist but he was not yet the polished pro he turned into within a few years. In the ‘80s, sales on monthly comics were high enough to support the development of a new artist over the course of a year.

These days, comics sales are lower and the fans expect a high degree of professional polish right out of the gate. If today’s smaller audience stops buying a title because the artist isn’t yet polished, the title will probably be cancelled. If Jim Lee were starting his career right now at the same creative level he had on his first Alpha Flight issue, the book might not survive long enough for him to turn into a star.

There are probably many other businesses where the baseball farm system model, or a variation, would work very well.

* Marvel Publisher Mike Hobson negotiated agreements with the original publishers of these books so that we could make copies for training purposes. The Five Cs… has since been reissued in paperback. (See the Amazon link on this page.)

** The 6 page plot most often used for art training was “Double Vision” written by Tom DeFalco. At one point I had a pile of Double Vision stories drawn by many different artists. I’m not sure what happed to that stack or pages. It would be fun, but probably embarrassing to some of the artists, if all of those try out jobs were published together!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Marvelous Tales: The Secret Origin of the New Universe (A bit of behind-the-scenes Marvel lore, along with a thought on branding.)

Interest in the history of Marvel Comics’ New Universe line of titles seems to be in the air. I’ve recently heard about several people seeking more information on the origins of the line.

As an editor at Marvel during the birth of the New Universe, I can tell you that it was not an easy labor.

Sometime during a 1985 editorial staff meeting, then Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter announced a new publishing event – the New Universe* -- to help celebrate Marvel Comics’ 25th anniversary.

What Shooter proposed at that meeting differed substantially from what eventually emerged.

Here are the conditions he initially established for New Universe projects—
-They needed to be new properties
-They could not have any connection to the Marvel Universe
-They could cover any genre or time period and did not have to share continuity with any other title in the New Universe line.

The editors were informed that any solid concept with commercial potential would have a reasonable chance of being approved.

Celebrating the anniversary of the Marvel Universe with a publishing event that ignored the Marvel Universe seemed rather odd to me! It didn’t seem to bother Shooter.

Around this time, my writer on Doctor Strange, Peter B. Gillis, approached me with his idea for a science fiction series set in the future. It focused on an ever-changing band of short-lived super-human fighters who defended Earth from an alien horde.

I teamed Peter with top artist Brent Anderson and Strikeforce: Morituri was born. The concept was quickly approved by Shooter, becoming what was supposed to be the first title in the New Universe line.**

At that early point, there was no hint that Shooter would take a very heavy editorial and creative hand in the New Universe.

Gillis and Anderson began work on the book and I was very happy with the results.*** After some weeks had passed, I became aware that Shooter was calling New Universe editorial meetings that I was not being invited to.

I visited Shooter’s office to see what was going on. The EIC informed me that he’d decided to alter the concept for the New Universe, making it a group of interrelated titles anchored in a shared universe that had no connection to the Marvel Universe. These books would have a very limited “fantastic” element to them and focus on how the characters responded to that fantastic element.

Shooter was now up to his eyeballs in the development, creative work and production of the New Universe titles. There was also a growing negative mood around the office from many of those working on New Universe. Shooter often overturned the creative decisions of the line editors causing much consternation for the editors and their freelance creators.

So, when I was informed that Strikeforce: Morituri was no longer a part of the New Universe, I was relieved. Although, up to that point, Shooter had not interfered with our work on Strikeforce: Morituri, Gillis and Anderson had heard rumors from other freelance creators about Shooter’s disconcerting involvement with the New Universe. So, the Strikeforce: Morituri creators were as pleased as I was to be back in the “old” Marvel Universe.****

My biggest concern about Strikeforce: Morituri leaving the New Universe was making sure the book got promoted properly. Much of Marvel’s marketing resources for the year were focused on the New Universe, This could shortchange the marketing efforts for non-New Universe tiles coming out during that period.

Bet you wish you had one of these ultra-rare 3D New Universe countertop displays!

The New Universe was previewed for the fans in a dedicated room at the 1986 Chicago Comic Con. The walls were covered with art from the upcoming titles. I watched the reactions of the fans visiting the room. Few seemed impressed. The main bright spot for the fans was John Romita Jr.’s Starbrand art.

So, Strikeforce: Morituri was launched in ’86 under the Marvel Comics imprint and any association with the New Universe was forgotten.

Whether or not Strikeforce: Morituri took place in the Marvel Universe was left somewhat ambiguous.

Strikeforce: Morituri went on to have a decent run from ‘86 to ’90, and, at one point, was optioned for a TV series by Sci Fi Channel.

The eight titles that made up the New Universe also launched on ’86. The line lasted until ’89, almost as long as Strikeforce: Morituri.

When Shooter was fired from Marvel in ‘87, the New Universe line was revamped. Some of the creators involved in the changes truly wanted the line to succeed. Others seemed more interested in getting their kicks by sinking their claws into Shooter’s baby.

If the original concept for the New Universe had gone forward, I wonder how it would have fared. Marvel may have missed a chance to break new ground and establish new genres in a growing marketplace it dominated.*****

What’s old is new again. In 2006, Marvel did celebrate the 20th anniversary of the New Universe by having NU characters appear in a series of “Untold Tales.” Warren Ellis and Salvador Larroca then revamped the NU concept and came out with the sucessful “newunivresal.”

The New Universe name always bothered me. Using the term “New” as part of a title or brand is a bit awkward. While putting “New” in a blurb on a product often helps it get some initial attention, you can’t keep the “New” on the packaging forever. Assuming that you plan for the product to be a success, how do you justify the “New” when you’ve been around for years? If the New Universe had been in continuous publication for two decades, a 20th anniversary for the “New” Universe would have sounded even stranger than it did.

It’s better to use terms like “new” and “improved” in temporarily blurbs on a product instead of incorporating them directly into the brand name. Otherwise, on some level, it seems like there is no expectation that the product will have the longevity needed to outlive its newness.

*Among the staff editors at that time were Archie Goodwin (in charge of the Epic Comics line at that point) Tom DeFalco, Mark Gruenwald, Louise “Weezie” Simonson, Ralph Macchio, Bob Budiansky, Larry Hama and Howard Mackie. (Apologies to anyone I left out.)

**I recall considering another Gillis concept about the medieval Crusades but can’t remember if that project was submitted for consideration as part of the New Universe.

*** Whicle Portacio made his first appearance in a Marvel comic as a penciller in Strikeforce: Morituri #1 where he drew several pages of a comicbook-within-a-comicbook. Up to that point, Whilce’s professional work for Marvel had been as an inker.

****I did eventually end up editing one New Universe title. Kickers, Inc. had the dubious distinction of being the latest title at Marvel. The series creators, Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz, had left the series early on in its run due, at least in part, to Shooter’s heavy-handed involvement. Since the books in my office were on schedule, Shooter told DeFalco to inform me that I was the new editor of Kickers, Inc. and I was to get it on schedule ASAP. Making DeFalco force feed me DeFalco’s own now-corrupted creation was a pretty severe move on Shooter’s part. I felt bad for Tom. I did get the book on schedule just in time for it to be canceled (along with several other New Universe titles).

*****Marvel’s Epic Comics line was doing a lot to expand the genres and subject matter that the company published but Epic didn’t get the promotional attention from the company that the Marvel titles did. Most of Epic’s titles were creator-owned. The company saw little reason to pour marketing resources into titles they didn’t own and fully control. This is a faulty line of reasoning and the subject of a future blog entry.

NOTE: A number of you have sent in great email comments. If you feel comfortable doing so, instead of emailing me directly, post your thoughts in the comments section (link at the end of this post) so others can see the brilliance of your insights.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Frame Formats and Visual Storytelling

Whether you are producing a single illustration or a panel that’s part of a comicbook sequence, the way you format/frame the graphic can dramatically affect your viewer’s response.

The format and size of the frames in a comics sequence can affect a viewer’s perception of mood, time — and the importance of a panel’s content

When a relatively large comics panel is preceded or followed by smaller panels in a sequence, it’s implied that the larger panel contains the most important or more dramatic information.
See below.

We read sideways, left to right. So, long horizontal panels can give the impression of a slow pace due to the relatively long distance between the left and right panel edges. See below.

Thin vertical panels give the impression of a fast/staccato pace due to the relatively short distance between the left and right panel edges. See below.

Of course what the panel contains can dramatically affect the sense of time! See below.

A tree viewed over the course of the four seasons certainly slows down the sense of time, even in thin vertical panels that normally indicate a fast reading clip.

Please add your thoughts on this subject.