The blog for The Solitaire Rose Experience. Yes, the blog revolution is utterly and completely over. However, I haven't figured that out yet, so I'll be listing articles, ideas, links, and other internet debris. Now, you can join in! And be mocked mercilessly!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

More room at the table

One of the things that happens if you watch politics enough is that you can agree with people you used to disagree with, without even changing your mind. It happened over the War in Iraq, as you had the old school Bushies (from his dad’s time) and the hard right isolationists saying that the war was a bad idea because it proposed an unworkable doctrine.

I am on record (if you dig through the archive here…and I keep meaning to finally update the main page, but I barely have time to blog any more…but I digress) as saying that the biggest problem with the Bush Doctrine is that it doesn’t make plans for “After the big touchdown.”

So, as I’ve watched Andrew Sullivan’s posts show his turn from Bushie to Independent conservative, it’s fascinating to watch how he has come around to the view many of us Liberal Libertarians have had for a long time: The convergence of Religion and Politics is wrong for both.

The money quote:

The problem with Christianity for those who seek earthly power is that Jesus explicitly renounced such power. Socialism and left-liberalism and "compassionate conservative" are really devices with which the state assumes the moral obligations of the individual - and increasingly robs the individual of the resources to be charitable herself. Christianism - of both left and right - is not just a variation of Christianity. It's an attempt to coopt Christianity to empower the political leader. That's why the politicians like it: it gives them the moral highground, and more money, and eventually more power. All of which leads to less freedom and less genuine faith.

Nice to see you at the table Andrew. Too bad you weren’t there 8 years ago when many of us were pointing out Bush’s “My favorite philosopher is Jesus” statement was putting chills up our spines.

BTW, us Liberal Libertarians have often held that a Government program to help people isn't charity, it's protect against the Capitalism system, which is as flawed as most any other system. I, of course, learned it at a young age playing Monopoly, but some people have trouble understanding the lesson that without Government Controls, in a capitalist system, money inevitably flows upward, creating a permanent underclass, which undermines our society. I also remember hearing about it in Sunday School, but I didn't go to Republican Free Market Church like the ones that seem to be springing up like Football stadiums.

And since I'm starting to wander all over the place, I'll just stop and try to come up with a good way to put my thoughts on this into a coherent form.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Solitaire Rose History of comics II

The days of Jim Shooter at Marvel

Now, A Solitaire Rose History of comics isn’t meant to be an encyclopedia or news account. It’s a history that I remember, and if I have facts wrong, I’ll gladly change them…however, opinions will run wild in one of these and opinions can’t be fact checked. As I get factual corrections, I’ll fix things, so please, fact-check away…my memory isn’t the best, but I don’t think I have Mad Cow yet.

With Valiant supposedly coming back (I’ll believe it when I see it. I still have the ads that were taken out for “Shooter! Liefeld! Youngblood! 1994 is THE YEAR!”), it might be a good idea to look back at Jim Shooter and why he’s considered one of the most controversial editors in comics history.

Marvel in the 70’s was very strange place. Stan Lee stepped down as Editor in Chief, a job he’d held since the 40’s, and became Marvel’s voice out in the rest of the world. He gave lectures at college campuses, checked in on Marvel from time to time and spent a LOT of time out in Hollywood pitching Marvel to TV and movie companies, starting up the animation arm and such. Roy Thomas was the logical choice as next EiC, but stepped down after a couple of years. At the time, he said it was because he preferred to write, but when you look at all of the business changes going on at Marvel, it could also be that the job was just too big for one person.

Marvel was competing with Warren on his black and white mags, MAD with their Crazy mag, and trying to squeeze other publishers off the shelves because the new owners felt that because Marvel was finally #1 in sales, they could dominate the distribution market. On top of that were paper shortages, an energy crisis, and slowly declining newsstand sales.

After Roy Thomas, Len Wein was EiC for a year, Marv Wolfman for a year, Gerry Conway for a couple of months (which has got to have an odd story behind it, since he still had work coming out from DC at the time, and he took over writing The Avengers, The Defenders, Iron Man, Captain Marvel and started Spectacular Spider-Man and Ms. Marvel all in the same month, in some cases in the middle of storylines, only to drop off all of those books a couple of months later), and Archie Goodwin for about a year.

Then came Jim Shooter.

Most Marvel fans knew little of Jim Shooter, as he hadn’t been at Marvel very long, and had only written a few stories. He was mostly a DC guy, and had started with them at 13, but left the business when he finished high school, but came back to work on the Legion, then drifted to Marvel for an office job.

Shooter’s tenure came after a long period of Marvel being insanely creative, but horribly unbusinesslike. Books often had reprints and fill-ins, creators would be late, and some books would go through a creative team every few months. There had also been a HUGE culling of titles in the Archie Goodwin era. I’ve read some people who say that it was because Marvel had driven Atlas off the shelves, Gold Key into department stores, and DC into implosion that they radically cut back their output; some people have written that sales were plummeting and they had to retrench; others have written that Shooter wanted to get “back to the basics” and got rid of most reprints and newer concepts. All I know for sure is that in 1976, Marvel had over 150 series (some of which were Giant Size quarterlies and 50’s monster reprints) and by the end of Shooter’s first year, they were down to less than 40.

The “fill in” situation was so bad that Avengers #150 was a reprint of #16. Could you imagine a comic book company doing that today?

As a fan at the time, I wasn’t a DC reader. I was a dyer in the wool Marvel Zombie, and didn’t even LOOK at DC books, but I noticed that a lot of the creators I liked were leaving books and not showing up anywhere else at Marvel. I was used to seeing a writer or artist leaving a comic and showing up on something else that month (as I would look at the credits before buying a comic). People like Steven Englehart, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Steve Gerber, George Perez, Jim Starlin and Jack Kirby just vanished from Marvel books.

What I have since learned is that when Shooter took over, he changed just about everything about how Marvel put comics together. Under Stan, it had pretty much been a “get the stuff in on time and have a lot of fun” type company, which continued after he left. The stories of Stan acting out the stories for the artists are legendary, and editorial supervision was nearly non-existent. When Shooter came in, he eliminated the ability for writers to edit themselves, imposed storytelling conventions on artists (stick to panel grids, nothing was to break the panel borders, etc…), and editors would approve stories before they were put into production. Sounds like business as usual now, but back then, it was too much for some people who had had free reign.

Shooter has said that when he came in, Marvel was “bleeding money”, and would have gone out of business if not for him. While a lot of comics creators from that time period have said that they saw that comics sales were trending downward and they felt comics would be gone in a few years, I haven’t read ANYTHING that collaborates Shooter’s contention that Marvel was on the verge of shutting down.

Marvel’s stories changed over the first year of his tenure as well. Marvel had a creativity in the early to mid 70’s that allowed for books like “Howard The Duck”, “Man Thing” and “Warlock” to blow open the idea of what a mainstream comic publisher could put on the stands. “Tomb of Dracula” was winning award after award, and while the Big Books like Spider-Man and Thor were standard super-hero soap opera fare, you had stabs at brilliance from The Defenders and Starlin’s Captain Marvel.

All of that went away. Quickly. Marvel’s book lost that edge and all of their books took on a sameness that I hadn’t encountered before. A few talents and books started popping up at the edges, like Claremont and Byrne on X-Men, and Miller on Daredevil, but more often than not, you’d pick up a book and it would be drawn by Sal Buscema and inked by Vinnie Colletta. Solid, competent, but not as exciting as the books from a few years before, and they would retread the stuff I’d seen reprinted. In some ways, it was “back to the basics”, which is usually a good thing, but in others, it “froze” the Marvel characters and got away from the growth and change that had marked the 70’s.

In 1981, I saw a Batman comic with a Gene Colon cover, and it said it was written by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway RIGHT ON THE COVER, so I bought it and loved it. It was like going home to the Marvel I knew and loved. Then, I saw New Teen Titans on the stand, and found out that THAT is where Marv Wolfman and George Perez had gone…and I started buying DC books. I later read about how the talent relations between Shooter and the people who had gone to DC was so bad there was an article in the New York Times about it.

By the early 80’s, Shooter’s style was that for the entire line. With very few exceptions, Marvel books were aimed at young teenage boys quite clearly, and I started losing interest. By the time I discovered the direct Market, I’d dropped all but 5 Marvel books. I don’t know if I was an indication of a trend, but it was around this time that Marvel started up the EPIC line (spinning out of their Heavy Metal rip-off EPIC Magazine) and it was edited by Archie Goodwin. Some of the creators I’d loved came back, and some of Marvel’s other books like Thor and Fantastic Four got “hot” creators who told stories that were more than just treading water, so I didn’t completely drift away from Marvel.

But, it was pretty clear that I’d stay away from Shooter’s stuff. His Avengers after #200 was a painfully bad run, with adult concepts being shoved into stories written for kids in a way that just read as an embarrassment. I’d also read Shooter’s painfully embarrassing “Gay people will rape you at the YMCA story in the Hulk magazine, and knew that this was a guy who couldn’t write a story I’d want to read.

I’d also discovered the fan press around that time, and read Doug Moench’s departure interviews where he said that Shooter was telling writers to dumb down their stories, was pushing to replace Thor, Captain America and Iron Man with new people in the costumes. Shooter said it was all lies, and soon, Thor, Iron Man and Captain America had been replaced with new people in the costumes. He told about how Shooter had wanted him to kill off Shang-Chi and replace him with a ninja because “ninjas sell”. He talked about how editor were becoming the writes on books, and he encouraged editors to place other editors on books so that they could make sure they controlled the stories and got everything done “the right way.”

The story came out about how Shooter demanded that Jean Gray die in X-Men 137 after the original story had been approved AND DRAWN by the book’s editor and Shooter. Other stories started coming out about Shooter demanding changes to preapproved stories and storylines. More creators left and ended up at DC, Eclipse and First.

Then came Secret Wars.

I know there are a lot of people who have a nostalgic feeling for that story. I know people on the board love it.

It’s a bad, bad comic. The story doesn’t hold together (as the latest issue of The Illuminanti shows). There are issues where nothing happens but fights that don’t change anything. Three separate issue end with some pointing away and saying “Look! On noes!” and it wouldn’t even be followed up on in the next issue. Galactus is there to eat the planet, but is there a reason he can’t leave? Spider-Man beats the X-Men, but Professor X wipes his memory, while in the main X-Men book he talks about how when he used to erase people’s memories it was wrong. Each issue left a bad taste in my mouth, and the people I knew would mock each issue as it came out.

When it and its sequel were done, the Marvel line took a HUGE nosedive in quality. Miller left, Byrne left, more people left. Writers began giving interviews that when Shooter would berate them for a bad script, he would tell them that they need to write a story like “Secret Wars.”

DC, on the other hand, had Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Wolfman and Perez on Crisis, Miller’s Ronin, Moench and Colon on Batman. Oh, and Kirby was finishing up The New Gods.

It was clear where the sales momentum was moving. In 1986, Marvel’s 25th Anniversary (well…it was the 25th anniversary of FF #1), Shooter promised The Best Thing Ever, and we got:

The New Universe.

Creators on the books were such heavy hitters as: Tom DeFalco, Eliot R. Brown, John Morelli, Mark Gruenwald, Archie Goodwin, and Michael Higgins. Even the solid creators on the books were not known for their ability to create new and exciting concepts. The books looked rushed, the art was the same bland Marvel house style that had taken hold under Shooter, and none of the books did well. It quickly became a dumping ground for new, untried talent. I love Peter David as much as the next fanboy, but when he was given two of the New Universe books, he still hadn’t moved sales number on Hulk very much.

It was during this period that Shooter got a LOT of heat for the Jack Kirby situation. I never blamed Shooter for that, since it was an upper management thing, but Shooter didn’t do any favors to himself by claiming he was “The defender of all things in Marvel’s Silver Age”, including telling stories about how much Stan loved him at every opportunity, and then talking about how No artist had a “right” to their art, but that Marvel was giving it back as a goodwill gesture…and only to people who were currently in Marvel’s good graces.

It was a massive shit-storm and he handled it about as poorly as a person could. It didn’t help thngs that Shooter had an antagonistic relationship with the fan press, and would often send people out to pull practical jokes on them (like the infamous Spider-Man Mirror issue), so that when he was trying to use the press to help him, they weren’t predisposed to do more than trash him and rip apart his statements on the issue.

Shooter also would say in interviews that he was the sole person in charge of the company (with Stan’s blessing) and that ALL decisions were made by him. I’m sure that didn’t go well with the people above him and the corporate people at Candace Industries, who’d bought Marvel from Martin Goodman in the 70’s.

Marvel had new owners in 1986, New World Pictures, who were looking to leverage and licence Marvel characters for TV and movies, only to find out that Stan Lee had already sold most fo the rights for TV, movies and video (deals that would delay the Spider-Man movie for overr a decade). They also inherited a EiC who they felt was doing a poor job, but since sales were solid, they waited to see what would happen.

By 1987, the writing was on the wall. In the previous two years, had stumbled and was not doing well comparatively. DC was outselling them and many of their big creators were people who had left Marvel because of Shooter, and they were vocal about it at one point or another. Marvel skewed young, VERY young, and was losing out to DC in a lot of areas. Marvel sold, but was seeing constant slow attrition while DC was adding readers at a furious pace. I read in this month’s “Back Issue” that from 1986 to 1990, Detectve went from sales of 75,000 to 675,000, while from 1984 – 1988, Uncanny X-Men went from 400,000 to around 250,000 if the stats I read were right.

Shooter was against a number of books that editors felt would do well. The Punisher mini-series had been a huge success, and Shooter vetoed the idea of an on-going series as he felt it would be giving a series to a villain. Wolverine was nixed. Other books were dismissed by Shooter as not fitting Marvel’s image.

Shooter also had developed a reputation for being a poor manager. The stories of his tirades and outbursts had become legendary. He was allowing expenses to grow without a corresponding growth in sales. Most of Marvel’s books were written by their editors, and freelancers were going elsewhere for work, creating new characters and gaining market share for their publishers. Shooter also got hit with the Comics Journal printing his testimony in a trial involving Michael Fliesher vs Harlan Ellison and the Comics Journal for defamation where Shooter put Marvel in a bad light, disseminated about how the comics business works and generally made Marvel look bad.

Normally, these wouldn’t be enough to get you fired on their own. But with new owners who didn’t feel he was doing what they expected, his increasing bizarre behavior (according to interviews with Marvel staffers), they let him go.

In Shooter’s subsequent interviews, he has always said that he was fighting for the creator against the “suits”, but there is little evidence of that. Marvel’s royalty rate came after DC’s, their creator owned line came after Heavy Metal and Pacific had already put it in place, and Marvel’s art return policy was handled in a capricious manner.

He presided over Marvel’s least innovative period that still plagues the comics industy when you realize that ther aren’t any characters created since 1974 that have been abel to carry a long-term successful series. He was behind the largest exodus of talent in modern comics history. Marvel’s art went from an innovating Kirby styel of action to the bland sameness of Vince Colletta inks…and yes, I know all about the Vince Colletta controversy, and my feeling has always been that he makes everything publishable. He can make horrible pencils average, but he does the same thing to great pencils…he makes them average.

Shooter’s leaving was taken as good news by most, and a lot of creators who left because of Shooter came back and did great work. Shooter himself laid low for a while and has said that he worked to buy Marvel during it’s Corporate Raider days. His other forays into comics have been brief, usually ending with him getting fired or the company going under, and every once in a while there’s a rumor that he’ll be writing at either Marvel of DC, but nothing seems to come of it.

As Marvels’ Essential books start reprinting the books from that era, I’m shocked by just how bland and formula driven they are. Marvel’s freewheeling sense of anything could happen, dynamic art and sheer inventiveness from the 60’s and 70’s is missing, and Marvel books under his tenure read like they were edited by Mort Weisinger, gimmick laden, promising a lot but delivering little. I can still read Marvel’s lesser books from the 60’s (like the Human Torch or Ant-Man) and get a lot of fun out of it, but reading Dazzler, Spider-Man from #206 to whenever Roger Stern took over, the Ghost Rider stuff after #21 or Shooter’s Avengers run after #200 is just impossible, they are bad, bad comics that have no heart, no soul and no reason to exist other than to service a copyright.

At least, that’s how I remember it.