Friday, March 01, 2002

A LITTLE COMIC BOOK HISTORY: Sorry, warbloggers -- we're going to take a little side trip into an alternate universe -- the Marvel Comics universe, to be precise. If this topic seems too far astray for your tastes, consider this a scroll alert and check out one of the many other fine writers in the "Link Ghetto" at your immediate right:

Regarding my nominations for People Who Should Blog. Justin Slotman says: Jim Shooter, Jay? You're kidding. Insert New Universe joke here. I mean, he'd never blog unless he thought he could make money off of it.

Justin, my friend, you've bought into a myth. The New Universe is yet another case in point where Shooter was vilified unmercifully for a disaster that was beyond his control. He has told this story at some length himself, elsewhere -- but in a nutshell, it boils down to this:

The New Marvel Universe was conceived as a 25th Anniversary tribute to the original Spider-Man / Fantastic Four Universe -- the idea being to create a new imprint for a set of eight wildly original new series, set in their own continuity, separate and apart from the "old" universe. It was supposed to be sort of a "second coming" of Marvel.

Initially, Shooter made a presentation and secured a suitable big budget to develop, launch and promote the New Universe imprint. Said budget was originally to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Based on the assurance of big bucks, he was able secure some correspondingly big-name talent, and the titles were solicited to distributors accordingly.

But after those commitments were made, some nameless Marvel Vice President In Charge Of Justifying His Own Job decided, arbitrarily, to cut back the New Universe budget to a few tens of thousands of dollars. Needless to say, when the money dried up, most of the talent bailed. And it only got worse. By the time the first issues were due, the budget had been pared back to a few thousand dollars, so that the books had to be written and drawn largely by unskilled neophytes or otherwise unemployable hacks -- and when the money ran out, the rest of it was Jim and a few loyal staffers filling in the gaps, working more-or-less for free.

Of course it was crap. Shooter's feet were cut out from under him. Management ruined the project almost before it got started. Not Jim's fault! But Shooter takes the lumps for what seemed like an ill-conceived disaster, because his name was at the top of the masthead at the time.

Beyond that debacle, Shooter was much maligned because he had a vision of how to run a professional publishing company, and he forced that vision on a whole lot of prima-donna artists and writers who were accustomed to getting their own way. By comparison, his immediate predecessors were pushovers. Not to speak ill of the dead, but when he held the Editor-In-Chief position right before Shooter, Archie Goodwin was in way over his head. He could not impose deadlines and make them stick. His first, second and third priorities were to be well-liked. If the books shipped on time, all the better -- but they had to pull a reprint due to missed deadlines, what the hell.

Which is not to say that Shooter made no errors in judgment along the way. He'll be the first to 'fess up to the ones which were legitimately his. But a lot of the crap that's been attributed to him is simply unfair. John Byrne and Chris Claremont still run around screaming to this day that Shooter screwed them a dozens way to Sunday. Maybe so -- I certainly wasn't privvy to their creative battles. But understand that Byrne and Claremont would always take their huge egos crying to the fan press every time they didn't get their way, while Jim Shooter would quietly take his lumps and just do his job -- which was, mostly, to run interference between the talent and suits, try to make the books as good as they could be, and above all, get them out on time.

Here's a story you never heard about in the fan press -- but I know it to be factual, firsthand, because my better half was Marvel's in-house letter column typesetter for several years -- and in fact, I used to do a little freelancing there myself: When he couldn't secure Christmas bonuses for Marvel's underpaid production staff, Jim took the cash out of his own pocket to make their holidays a little more joyous. Another thing you never heard about was how Shooter fought to keep their medical benefits package intact, when the suits wanted to eviscerate it. You never heard about these things because Shooter didn't take his petty administrative battles to the fan press. It didn't matter to him whether he was liked or excoriated regularly. He took his job seriously, and he did what had to be done.

It's been about 15 years since I last spoke to Jim Shooter. I've followed his post-Marvel career only peripherally -- mostly, it seems to have been a series of sad stories about raising investment capital to start one new comic book company after another, only to be betrayed by crooks and frauds. Shooter's an interesting guy, a prodigy with incredible talent and vision, but cursed with an Orson Welles-like "failed genius" life story of crushing disappointments, of projects gone horribly awry. It's probably pointless to hope -- but maybe some parts of that amazing life story would finally trickle into the public record if only Jim had a Blog of his own, where he could set the record straight, on his own terms.

So hey, Jim -- (if you're Googling your own name out there) -- why not jump in? The water's fine.

UPDATE: Actually, Jim did try to set much of the record straight in this interview.

Gone and Forgotten hilariously chronicles another overbloated Marvel masterpiece gone sour, Secret Wars II.


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