Sunday, December 14, 2008

Marvelous Tales: Making Comic Book Editors

The post “Diamonds Always Shine or Reviewing Art Submissions by the Ton” generated some interesting responses.

I’d like to expand a bit on the reply I made to Roy Richardson’s comment. Roy teaches comic art at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Atlanta. He wanted me to expand on how editors at Marvel were hired and why a few of them seemed ill-suited for the job.

Keep in mind that my comments generally refer to the period I was on staff at Marvel (1983 – 1996). The comics market grew substantially during most of that period. The editorial staff expanded accordingly as Marvel increased the number of publications it produced.

During that time, there was also a fair amount of staff turnover. So, the total number of people who were part of the Marvel editorial staff during that period was quite high – many dozens.

Also keep in mind that, despite the problems outlined below, the majority of those who served on Marvel’s editorial staff during my time there were, for the most part, good people doing a good job. There were only a relative few I’d classify as being highly unprofessional. Those relative few either didn’t possess the necessary aptitude or skills or had substantial negative attitude and/or other personality issues.

From the early 80’s on, most of Marvel’s editors were promoted up through the ranks of the editorial department. *

Some assistant editors transferred in from other positions and departments within Marvel. Occasionally, someone on Marvel’s staff would recommend a friend for an open assistant editor position.

Many Marvel editors began as high school or college interns who worked at Marvel for school credit. Ohio’s Antioch College seemed to always have students interning at Marvel. Antioch was the alma mater of Marvel’s president at the time, Jim Galton. Over the years, a number of Antioch interns ended up on Marvel’s editorial staff including Marie Javins, Sara Tuchinsky, Andrew Perry, Kevin Somers and Polly Watson.

The better interns were considered as candidates when assistant editor slots opened up. The best of those assistant editors became associate editors and, eventually, were promoted to become full editors. (Sometime in the early ‘90s, Marvel added the associate editor title as an intermediate step between assistant editor and editor.)

This was, in general, a good system. It meant Marvel’s editorial staff had a nice mix of experienced vets who could oversee the development of new editorial staffers. The new editorial staffers brought new enthusiasm, ideas and aesthetics with them.

In addition to whatever day-to-day hands-on experience the assistant editors acquired in the editorial office they worked in, they attended weekly classes for assistant editors. Executive editor Mark Gruenwald ran those classes. He sometimes had guest speakers present to the class (including Tom DeFalco, Bob Budiansky and me.) When Marvel added the associate editor position, I oversaw the training classes for that position.

Mark’s classes helped a lot of people grasp of the essential skills needed for the job. For those assistant editors assigned to work in offices run by an editor who lacked some of the essential skills, Mark’s classes were a godsend. Despite the training safety net provided by the assistant and associate editor classes, things occasionally went wrong. Here’s how—

-As Marvel and the comics industry in general grew through the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Marvel had to expand its editorial ranks to accommodate the additional publishing workload. A few people were promoted before they were ready due to the need for staff expansion created by the growing market. Some of those who were promoted before they were ready would have made fine editors if they had been allowed to grow and hone their skills at a lower editorial position.

-There was also a mistaken assumption that anyone who made a good assistant editor would automatically evolve into a good editor. People were sometimes promoted beyond their level of ability or comfort. Each position up the editorial chain (Assistant Editor, Associate Editor, Editor, Group Editor, Executive Editor, Editor-in-Chief) had additional creative and management responsibilities attached to it. A good assistant editor didn’t always have the aptitude to climb that ladder successfully.

-There was a period when then EIC Jim Shooter decided that he wanted to bring in some “blank slates”, non-fan boys that he could train to do things his way. This approach yielded disappointing results for Shooter and everyone else. In a somewhat related approach, during the early/mid ‘80s, DC hired some experienced prose novel editors with the idea that they could be trained to become comic book editors. Editing a visual storytelling medium is very different from editing prose (and vice versa). I don’t believe any of those editors lasted very long in the comics field. That doesn’t mean this approach couldn’t work. It just means that the candidates should have been screened for having an aptitude for visual storytelling.

-Most of those who joined the Marvel staff were comics fans, sometimes highly opinionated and naive comics fans. With experience and maturing over time, their love for comics could be combined with best practices and professionalism. Occasionally, someone came on staff with a naive know-it-all attitude and never woke up to the fact that they didn’t know it all.

-Some otherwise great editors had their sense of aesthetics stuck in an earlier time period. There were a lot of people who got into the business during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s who maintained their late ’70s aesthetic sensibilities as the world, and the comics audience, changed around them. Ideally, an editor should be aware that the audience’s aesthetics are changing and ride that fine line between being contemporary without trying to be too trendy.

-Except for the latter part of Shooter’s reign as EIC, it was actually pretty hard to get yourself fired from Marvel's editorial staff. I witnessed one editor repeatedly exhibit gross dereliction of duty. That editor was “taken to the woodshed” by his superior many times over an extended period before finally being fired. I too was reluctant to end anyone’s editorial career, so I have to take the heat for not pulling the trigger quickly in a couple of situations. I had to be pushed hard by one editor’s long series of professional and ethical blunders to finally put that editor on probation, a probation the editor ultimately failed. In another case, an Assistant Editor showed such bad judgment, unethical conduct and insubordination that I should have quickly axed him/her. However, the assistant’s pleas, and the support of that assitant's supervising editor, stayed my hand, allowing the assistant to repeat the offenses.

-Some editors were very strong in certain skill areas and almost useless in others. Someone could be a great plot and dialogue editor but couldn’t give an artist useful feedback on how to execute clear visual storytelling. Or, they might have great creative editing skills but were weak when it came to managing teams, projects and schedules.

Again, I want to make it clear that, out of the many dozens of editorial staffers who worked at Marvel during my time there, there were relatively few who did not do their job well.

Marvel also was blessed with a high number of exceptional editors and I was blessed with the opportunity to work with many of them. Marvel was a fabulous place to work and the vast majority of us working there couldn’t have asked for a better job or, during the latter ‘80s through the early ‘90s - the Hobson/DeFalco era, a better corporate environment to work in. We loved what we did and enjoyed hanging out together during and after work hours.

Marvel editorial and bullpen staffers often hung out outside of the office. In this shot from the late ‘8o’s, a group of us are enjoying an afternoon at Ralph Macchio’s pool. From left to right: Jack Morelli, Ralph Macchio (hidden inside of the inner tube), Eliot R. Brown, Carl Potts, David Wohl, Danny Fingeroth, Belinda G. (Mark G’s wife at the time), Walter Simonson, Mark Gruenwald, Louise "Weezie" Simonson and Bob Budiansky (Also pictured are Ralph’s sister and nephew)

*Shooter hired some editors from “outside” Marvel around 1980. By outside, I mean they did not work their way up Marvels’ editorial ranks. They were hired as full editors. These included Denny O’Neil, Al Milgrom, Louise “Weezie” Simonson, Larry Hama and, in 1983, me. Denny had a long editing and writing resume in the comics business. Al and Larry, both artist/writers, had served short stints as editors at DC. Weezie had been in charge of editorial at Warren Publications (Creep[y, Eerie, Vampirella) I’d spent a lot of time in the advertising biz which, combined with my limited comics creative output and endorsements by several key people, impressed Shooter enough for him to ask me to join the staff. There were also a few cases of former Marvel assistant editors leaving staff to work freelance for a while before returning to become staff editors. Bob Budiansky and Danny Fingeroth come to mind.


Danny Fingeroth said...

I always found it interesting that comics editors, even the best ones, often have a hard time dealing with confronting people, even though much of the job is about having to confront writers and artists about work, money, deadlines, etc. Some editors will do anything to avoid confrontation, others love it too much. Obviously, a balance is needed. The editor's job involves the introvert's strengths (thinking deeply about story, art, and other creative topics), but also the extrovert's strengths of managing people, including directing their work. It's rare to find someone who naturally has both these skill sets from the get-go, although they can be developed over time.

D.G. Chichester said...

The lack of confrontation was almost comical at points. I can't count the number of times I'd hear from certain editors, "Writer X is ruining the book! Artist Y can't draw Heroman, and he's a lousy storyteller, and he's always late!"

And this on books where said editor *was* the editor. And had complete control over Writer X and Artist Y's fate and direction. Or lack thereof. Mind-boggling.

D.G. Chichester said...

Mark's editorial classes are just one example of what was, I think, a pretty laudable commitment toward bringing up new talent. I credit Mark's Solo Avengers -- a showcase to try out new writers and artists -- as a crucial turning point in my career. Not just the title as a venue, but the fact of Mark taking the time to come by and walk me through where my story was of course, and how it could be improved. Even on essentially asinine tales featuring characters like Dr. Druid. It was calm, insightful, non-judgmental stuff. I realized it was pretty unique even then -- and it stands out to me even more so now.

Steve Buccellato said...

Another great post, Carl. These posts and all the "Friends of Old Marvel" stuff happening on Facebook, have been a real joy. The proverbial trip down memory lane. I feel really blessed to have "Grown Up" at Marvel--on staff from '85 to '89, and freelance for many years after. It was like college for me. I learned so much, and had a ball, but sometimes I feel like it didn't really prepare many of us for professional life outside comics. I guess that's why we're all waxing nostalgic on the internet.

Sara Kocher said...

The story at Antioch was that Galton wanted to do something for his old alma mater that didn't involve giving them money (which sounded cheap at the time, but, knowing what I now do about Antioch's finances, was probably just good business sense). So he created the Marvel internship. It was always listed on the "co-op" job sheet and it was a reasonably well-paying job compared to most of them.

And I second Steve's comment about enjoying the reminiscences. He just sent me a link to your blog, which I'm enjoying very much. Plus, I know so much more about bass fishing now than I ever did before.

Prof. Roy Richardson said...

Thanks for the lengthy response to my query, Carl. These things do always seem to turn into nostalgia fests, but I think there's a really good reason for that: things really were a heck of a lot better in the biz back then than they are now. I sometimes feel a bit guilty encouraging my students at SCAD to enter such a diminished field, but I tell myself at least w/ the help of myself & my fellow teachers they'll have a better chance than they would have going at it on their own.

Bill Reinhold said...

That's interesting to hear that editors brought in from other field's of publishing didn't usually work out. Always wondered about that.

I guess there's no reason why someone from intern to editor can't work out as long as you pick the cream of the crop.

Still, though there are exceptions, the best editors seem to be experienced writers or artists.
Or, even better, an artist/writer like you :-).


Marc Siry said...

Assistant Editor School anecdote:

In one class, we were working on how to review a story concept submission. At the beginning of the class, Tom and Mark passed out a single sheet, typewritten submission with no name attached.

The concept was for a new Sub-Mariner series, where Namor would use his access to the riches of the deep to set himself up as a businessman and attempt to combat the surface world in the boardrooms, rather than the battlefield. Tom and Mark invited the assembled assistant editors to review the concept.

Every assistant present panned the idea, tearing it to shreds as an asinine, boring concept- except for me. I commented on how it was an interesting twist, a literal 'fish out of water' story, and that it would present a lot of opportunities for interesting conflict.

The reason for my differing opinion was not because I had a mature or superior sense of story- it was because I recognized the distinctive dropped 'e' from Tom DeFalco's typewritten plots and scripts on the typewritten submission. The concept was indeed his, and did become the basis for the Namor series that John Byrne ended up writing and drawing. I don't know that I ended up any better for praising one of Tom's stories that my comrades panned, but I sure felt a sense of 'near miss' that day in the room.