An interview with legendary Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter at Rhode Island Comic Con 2017.
The name Jim Shooter is synonymous with one of the most iconic periods of Marvel Comics history. The shocking conclusion to the Dark Phoenix Saga in Uncanny X-Men, Frank Miller’s character-defining contributions to Daredevil, Walt Simonson’s epic Thor run, the original Secret Wars event series, the introduction of the New Universe imprint and so much more all occurred during Shooter’s nine-year tenure as Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief (1978-1987). Following his time at Marvel, Shooter went on to found Valiant Comics and his comic book contributions continue through the custom comics company Illustrated Media.
As Shooter was a guest at Rhode Island Comic Con 2017, from November 10-12, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pick the brain of this comics visionary who had a hand in crafting so many of my favorite stories. What followed was an in-depth discussion about the current state of Marvel, as well as Shooter’s reflections on his work at the House of Ideas.AiPT!: Jim, you served as the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics for nine years. I’m not sure if you keep up with Marvel, but if so, what are your thoughts on the current state of the publisher and the wider comic book industry?
Jim Shooter: I think they forgot what business they’re in. I think there’s some brilliant talent out there–if you just flip through the books, the pictures are incredible. Sometimes they don’t tell the story as well as they should, sometimes they’re actually designing pages to sell in places like this [a comic convention], and not really thinking about the best way to tell a story. The writing, I cannot account for much of the writing. You have brilliant guys like Mark Waid who will do something and it’s great, but so much of the stuff is what they call decompressed storytelling…
AiPT: Right. Writing for the trade paperbacks.
Shooter: It takes forever to tell a story. What Stan [Lee] would put in six pages–it takes six months. So you look at the sales–Marvel comics are now $4 apiece, and they’re thrilled if the sales are over 30,000. When I was at Marvel, the whole world was different. We didn’t have a single title–we had 75 titles–we didn’t have a single one that sold below 100,000. We had the X-Men approaching three quarters of a million. And that’s not some special No. 1, or somebody dies, or changes costumes, or someone gets married–it was every time. A lot of it was single-copy readers. People weren’t running around buying cases of it because it had a foil-embossed cover. It was every issue.
AiPT!: Speaking of special covers, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but after years of relaunches, Marvel is returning its series to their original numbering with the “Marvel Legacy” initiative. We seem to be caught in a loop of endless sales gimmicks. Did you ever find yourself relying on those during your time at the company?
Shooter: Well, no. I mean, once I did it by accident. I did a variant cover on the Spider-Man wedding because we couldn’t decide whether to have the civilians in the background or the heroes and villains in the background, so we did one of each. We didn’t even know the name “variant” then. It just never occurred to us that was a marketing ploy. Now there are lots of variants and lots of gimmicks and they’re really taking their eye off the ball. People say, “What do you advise?” Tell a good story and tell it well.
AiPT!: I know you did a lot for creators while you were Editor-in-Chief. I’ve noticed in recent years that a lot of Marvel’s top talent has left the House of Ideas to work on creator-owned projects. Do you think there’s a lot more Marvel can do in terms of creator rights?
Shooter: Yeah. When I came in at Marvel–I had been trained by Mort Weisinger at DC, not only about the business, the editorial part, but also the business of the business. And what I realized is everything gets a lot better if you sell a lot of comics. One of the first things I did was get the books on time. We had books that were six months late–six months. I’ll give you an example. In January 1978, my first month, we were supposed to ship 45 colored comics–we shipped 26. What does that tell you? It took me until April to ship the correct number of comics. By the end of that year, we were on time and we stayed on time for 10 years. If a book was supposed to come out in July, it came out in July.
Once the books are on time, once you get that under control, you can worry about what’s going to make them better or how you get better people. Well, how you get better people is with incentives. You pay them better. I quadrupled the rates and offered all kinds of incentives. If you create characters, you own 20 percent of the character you created–which is coming in real handy for the family of Bill Mantlo because he created Rocket Raccoon. If you created a title, you got 1 percent on that title for an eternity, even if you’re not working on it anymore. We bought all of your art supplies, paid your transportation, paid your phone bill–we tried to make it such a good situation that it was worth it. If you’re making half a million bucks a year, that’s not so bad.
Then we tried to offer an opportunity for creator-owned if you wanted to–all the Epic stuff was creator-owned, which comes in real handy for Jim Starlin now that he’s got a movie deal pending for Dreadstar. So if you’ve got better people, sales go up and there’s more money to play with. You don’t even have to get better people. If word gets out you can make money at Marvel, they just show up. We had some of the greatest talent. I don’t think there’s ever been a group of talent like that ever assembled, just in editorial. You had Archie Goodwin, maybe the best of all time. Larry Hama, Louise Simonson, Ann Nocenti–terrific and scary smart–just terrific people. We had great editorial. And you’d look up and down the hall and there’s Michael Golden, there’s Bill Sienkiewicz and Chris Claremont and J.M. DeMatteis. It was who’s who in comics. One time we tried to figure out who we didn’t have and we came up with two names: George Perez and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez–two guys we wanted but couldn’t get because George was really happy at DC and so was Lopez. We just got great people and the ones that knew what they were doing, I got out of their way and tried to help the younger guys, and make sure it’s on time and preach story, story, story. Before me, everything was like a soap opera and just went on forever and, occasionally, there’d be some resolution, but it’s just never-ending stuff. I said, people buy this unit of entertainment. There better be a story here. Nobody had to tell Walt Simonson that, but the young guys all wanted to do soap opera stuff.
AiPT!: The soap opera storytelling makes me think of Claremont’s X-Men…
Shooter: Even Chris, he did have a lot of continuity in his stuff, but there are episodes and things do finish sometimes. So I got them kind of up to speed and the sales just took off–surprise surprise. It’s on time, it’s there when you expect it to be and its pretty good. It’s Walt Simonson’s Thor. And we’d experiment–Bill Sienkiewicz is a genius artist. Chris wanted to do the New Mutants together. Bill said, “I really want to go experimental, I know you want everything clear, but I want to try some stuff.” I thought Sienkiewicz was a genius, Claremont–he’ll pull it together. I said go for it, swing for the fences, you’ll never hear from me that it’s not clear enough, and boy did they swing for the fences.
AiPT!: And now there’s a New Mutants movie coming out.
Shooter: Yeah and the stuff was fantastic. On the newstands where the readers tended to be younger–they didn’t get it at all. But this market, they loved it, sales shot up. We love this stuff, so we’re very forgiving. You can do the damndest things and we’ll say, well it’ll probably be better next issue or this will be explained later or this is a setup issue. What setup issues? No, every issue should have a good story in it.
AiPT!: You mention the audience. I recently read a back issue of Uncanny X-Men that came out after Jean Grey died, which I know you had a role in…
Shooter: Yeah.AiPT!: And on the letter page, one reader was so angry the creative team killed Jean. It made me think of the outrage you see these days online among certain comic fans. Do you ever think about what life would have been like at Marvel if social media was around back then?
Shooter: Honestly, I don’t think it would have changed a thing for me. Let me give you an example. When I started, there was a story–well-researched, very well considered, and I had a friend who was psychologist run through the whole thing to make sure we got the psychology right. Yellowjacket ends up having a mental breakdown and gets divorced from Jan. And there’s a mistake in that story where the artist drew Yellowjacket hitting her–he was supposed to accidentally hit her with his hand not punch her, so it became the wife-beater story. But the story was all worked out so people could see where it was going, this guy’s heading in a bad direction, and I started getting this hate mail and death threats, all kinds of stuff. So I went to Stan and said, “I’ve never seen mail like this before, Stan.” He looked at it and said, “That’s the kind of mail I used to get in the original days of Spider-Man–why can’t Peter Parker be happy? Why can’t he have a girlfriend?” And I said, “Yeah, but this is pretty intense.” And he said, “Well, how are the sales?” I said well they’re going up about 10,000 copies a month. He said, “I think you’re doing all right.” So if they’re talking about you, at least you’re doing that right, and if the foundation is good, let them rant. At least they care–give me people who care.
AiPT!: The recent Hydra Captain America controversy comes to mind…
Shooter: Eh, they shouldn’t… Captain America a Nazi? Are you kidding me? Jack [Kirby] is rolling in his grave. Joe Simon is going to rise up out of his grave and kill those people. That was so wrong because that was not anything like the original intent of the creators.
Comics is completely unlike magazine publishing. It’s unlike book publishing. Comics have more in common with single malt scotch than they do with other kinds of publishing because it’s a relationship. It’s a relationship marketing business. When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to see what happened to Spider-Man next month. I didn’t give a damn if the cover was foil-embossed–because it wasn’t. It’s all about them loving Spider-Man, the character of Spider-Man, wanting to know what’s going on with Spider-Man. If they miss an issue and they don’t care, you lost. So you have to understand, you’re building a relationship. Stan took it a step farther and created a relationship between the creators. Everyone felt Stan was their friend. Kids would send him childish confessions. “Am I a bad person because I did this or that.” When they’re involved, you win. When they’re not, I don’t care how many foil-embossed covers there are.
People upstairs used to tell me, well, on the titles that don’t sell so much, why don’t you make the price lower and charge more for the X-Men? So, No. 1, if it isn’t rocking the world, you cant give it away–there’s no price low enough that’ll make people interested. And if you raise the price on the X-Men, people will feel betrayed and it will be awful. I actually won that fight.
I just saw the Wonder Woman movie–it was good, I liked it. And I heard people say, “Well. it’s not the original Wonder Woman.” Here’s the deal. If you go out and ask 1,000 people to tell you everything they know about Superman, you’ll hear the same things–Daily Planet, Lois Lane, Clark Kent, blah blah. You’ll never hear about Mister Mxyzptlk or even the Fortress of Solitude. Anything the 1,000 people say–keep that, don’t mess with that. Anything that 1,000 don’t say, you get a little flexibility. Wonder Woman was created during the war, so she has the red, white and blue with stars, you know? No one cares about that. When you ask people about Wonder Woman, you’re lucky if they come up with Amazons. So they made some graceful changes and it was fine. It doesn’t have to be a red white and blue suit. So to me, people are just caviler about ignoring the intentions of the original creators–ignoring the equity that was built up over the years. It’s, “I’m in charge now so I’ll do anything I damn well please,” and that’s almost always a mistake. When Walt did Thor, he didn’t reboot it or throw away the past. He just made it good.
AiPT!: Is there anything you’re proud of from your time at Marvel that you wish had received more attention?
Shooter: Lots of things, there were lots of things we did because we ought to. I mean, Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein was 44 incredibly beautiful illustrations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and they were like woodcuts–gorgeous. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was public domain, so I talked him into doing it and it’s a beautiful, beautiful book, and it didn’t do all that well. However, it sold copies every year and it just kept going and going and going and, ultimately, I’m sure it made Bernie quite a bit of money. It wasn’t the slam-dunk success it should have been, partially because it was published by us. If Simon & Schuster published it, it would have done better. There are lots of things like that. Moon Shadow should have done better, should have been a bigger hit. It was a hit, it did OK, but it should have rocked the world and gotten a lot more attention.
AiPT!: Finally, I was wondering if you could talk about the work you’re currently doing for Illustrated Media.
Shooter: Look, I’m 66 years old–I’m not doing all that much. But what I do is–we’ll get these little commercial jobs. I’m the freelance go-to guy. I’ll either write it or supervise it. It’s good and we’re looking to do some development stuff, which lead me to some guys that I know–good guys. They came up with this project. It’s a 10-issue project and they asked me to write four stories for it. The guy who came up with the idea’s name is Sam Wood. He’s the main writer. What they also asked me to do is be the coach. They call me consulting editor. Basically what happens is they send me everything and I go over it and I give them my opinion and give them all the same lectures I gave at Marvel, and they listen. So this thing is getting really good, we have some pretty good artists involved and they asked me who I’d like to work with on my stories. I ran into Neal Adams a few months ago, and Neal and I did a lot of covers together–I do the sketch, he’d do the cover and it’d look great. I was talking to him and he said, “You know, we’ve never done an interior together.” So I said I have these four stories that could be done by different artists, and he said he’d do one. So my first story has art by Neal Adams and you can’t do much better than that. I talked to some people, the usual suspects, but I think we’re going to have some really great art on this. The name of the project is Slow City Blues. The character’s nickname is Slow, it’s his city. It’s fantastic stuff, it sounds like a detective story, and to an extent it is, but it’s way over-the-top, fantastic stuff. This guy Sam Wood is a talented guy.
AiPT!: Thank you for taking the time to talk, Jim, and thank you for all your contributions to comics.