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!


Prof. Roy Richardson said...

I'd like to take this opportunity to give Carl a (very) belated thanks for giving my wife June Brigman and I some of our earliest jobs at Marvel, an act of kindness he probably came to regret. Although we looked and acted more mature than we were (early 20's), and had good portfolios, we weren't quite ready for prime time, which we demonstrated by screwing up everything he gave us, one way or another. Ultimately the on-the-job training paid off, but only after driving poor Carl half crazy. Hope we aren't responsible for too many of those gray hairs, Mr. Potts!

~P~ said...

I was one of those crazy hopefuls who sent in submissions and one day received a HUGE packet of those photocopied books.

I STILL have them!

I spent some very good time analyzing the books, making test studies and practicing what I saw inside.

However, my passion to break in was somewhat negated by my not wanting to "be a pest" and so my submissions sort of dwindled, while I worked on other projects.

I'd submit something, then go and work on a book cover for a small publisher, or pencil a small indie book (which usually never made it to press or for which I was never paid).

Some other editors (not from marvel, per se) would offer encouragement (Mike Freidrich being one, after Norm Breyfogle saw my work when I had a table in "artist alley" at a con, and told me to send stuff to Mike).

Alas, with the exception of a few indie comics, some other cool projects in other media, and other art gigs, I never got in to Marvel.

ALMOST... One time, I was nearly an Art Director for the marketing dept, but that is another tale.

Still, I ALWAYS wanted to thank you for the obvious care that you gave to me and the encouragement it provided.

If only I wasn't so darned mild-mannered (my mother says "WELL mannered"). To the BOLD the spoils, I guess.

Thank you, Mr Potts!