LETTERS, WE’VE GOT LETTERS

From: Rupert Griffin <griffin_rupert_@hotmail.com>

My question is: who, in a comic book company, determines the creative and editorial direction?

Comic books in the nineties and the 2000s are radically different from the comics of the prior Golden, Silver and Bronze Ages. For instance. Comics, before 1991 (the end of the Bronze Age) had a reader-friendly editor who would patiently explain to every reader what had happened in the last issue; who all the characters were; what their origins, powers were; what had happened the last time that super-villain had appeared, and so on. Stories were self-contained and easy to follow. Covers were eye-catching and festooned with lurid captions, and weren't mere graphics, as they are now.

Despite the mammoth continuity that existed in, for instance, the Superman books, the new reader could pick up on the essentials of Superman lore quickly. That was because the editor would drum into the reader's head, ad nauseam, the difference between the various kinds of kryptonites, the facts regarding the Phantom Zone, and so on. (It didn't take me long, after I started to learn to read, to become an expert on the history of Superman, Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, Batman, etc).

All this ensured that comics were accessible and marketable. It constituted a set of rules which everyone working in a senior position in the industry knew and adhered to. Mort Weisinger knew it, so did Julie Schwartz, and so on, and so on. But after the nineties, comics changed. It's virtually impossible, for instance, to pick up an issue of any superhero book and work out what happened in the last issue.

So what I want to know is: did some coup occur around the early nineties? What happened exactly in the industry which led to these changes, and why? You don't have to name names; I just thought, as you were there, and as you've been working in the industry for such a long time, you could fill us in on the history of what occurred, and why you think it occurred.

Great question and I’m sure there are as many answers as there are professionals and fans who want to answer it. In fact, to generate more mail, send in your responses to the address above (not the message board) and I’ll print them in an up-coming column. In the meantime, I’ll take my stab at this.

Unless you are dealing with really good writers and you leave them alone to spin their tales, and only come down on them when something goes wrong, Editors usually determine the editorial direction of a comic and the Editor-in-Chief approves or disapproves such directions. But editors back in the 30s to the late 80s were usually older than the writers and often had more knowledge or at least training on how stories worked that the talent did, at least at first.

Although I actually believe it is very different today, and the quality of so many comics reflects the change, I believe in the 90s, the editors, usually fairly young, were brought in seemingly from nowhere (friends of friends, roommates, etc.) and often had little writing or editing experience before coming to comics. Of course some really good people accidentally found their way into comics, but as your question implies, that was the aberration, not the rule. The problem with many of these editors is that they were fans who never became professionals. Now, I was a fan (still am) but I was forced to go through a pretty lengthy process before I became an editorial assistant, let alone an assistant editor which finally led to me becoming an editor – of reprint comics. It took awhile longer before I was deemed good enough to actually edit real comics, and that was only after I had proved myself as a writer.

Being a fan always means you have an opinion. When I’m in fan mode you’ll never believe the idiocy that spews out of my mouth like pea soup from Linda Blair, when talking about Farscape or Buffy or whatever (is it just me or is Principal Wood Buffy’s direct steal of…I mean homage version of Blade; a black vampire hunter who seeks out the main vampire because he killed his mom and now swears revenge. Wood? Blade? Nah. It must just be me.). Fans do have opinions, God bless ‘em, but when you turn professional you discover that sometimes a lot of what you take for granted is not always what it seems, and all those sweeping changes you wanted to make as a fan…not such a good idea anymore.

When I came into comics, we were taught over and over again that we were temporary custodians of the comics. We could move things forward, play with the characters, but we didn’t own them or have the right to make wholesale changes just on whim. We protected the characters. That meant we didn’t do stories that simply pleased our fannish whims, but we looked at the bigger picture. We looked at the game of dominos and asked if we do this here how will it affect things there. As a fan most of us wanted to see Aunt May become shishkabob. Stupid old biddy with heart attacks more frequent than Old Faithful’s eruptions. As a pro we learned why she couldn’t die. We could fix her annoying traits, sure, but we learned why she was there and why she worked as a character. Later on, in the 90s, they did kill her for real, only to have to turn that death turned into a plotline to bring her back. If they had either been taught properly or spent the time figure it out, they would have realized May served a purpose. She grounds Spider-Man in reality.

If you don’t play dominos you don’t think about the future. You see you can do something glitzy and cool and boost sales, but believe me in all the cases where that happened, sales dropped afterward. The 90s is proof of that. Sales went into the toilet and then were flushed away. Fans like change, but they instinctively realize when the change is wrong. And, if they’re slapped in the face enough with bad changes, they eventually stop being fans and flee for the hills.

Because I try to see the effects my decisions might have down the line, I probably wouldn’t have had Spidey get married, either – a totally stupid idea, I might add. Peter was and is a shlub who needs to push himself ahead just to stay on step behind. Read every interview Stan Lee ever gave about Spidey and all he ever talked about was Peter being the average Joe. Lousy with women. Pimples. Problems at work and home, but then he puts on his Spidey suit and all is well. Sorta. Cause even when he’s Spidey, he’s still hapless Peter Parker. So, here we are in the 90s and the editors then who were fans and not professionals decide they’ll make things good for Peter because they like Peter so much they want to help him feel better.1. Make him well liked. 2. Make him not scrawny and ugly. 3. Have him marry a super-model. WHAT? Three strikes! You’re out!

This guy’s supposed to be Joe Average. How can we empathize with a guy who is married to a super model/actress who has to make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year?

Unfortunately, as Peter David once said, no matter what you do to Spidey now, he was still married. And with a kid. Let’s not forget a kid. Adding insult to injury. Bet Marvel wishes they could have a Crisis and just forget that storyline.

Marrying him off, marrying Superman off (equally wrong, but fortunately no kid), killing Aunt May, doing this or that, are all fannish whims that actually don’t work if you spend more than a minute thinking about it. The editorial system throughout the nineties seemed to be based on change, change and change, whether or not the change is for the good.

I do take some responsibility for this. Crisis on Infinite Earths, set to accomplish two very specific goals, opened the door for all the “Let’s blow up everything that preceded us” copycats who had no goal other than let’s blow up everything that preceded us. I’m sorry. I take it back. Now, can we have good comics again?

Another problem; during the ‘90s the companies willingly plunged deep into the shallow end of star system pool where the star were the creators and not the characters. I shouldn’t say this, being a creator, but guys in charge; I know when we’re really big we yell and talk like we always know what we’re doing, and for awhile sales seem to reflect that, but somebody’s gotta decide if it’s good for posterity. Good for the property. You don’t want to sink the ship just because of a single paint job. Don’t publish something because you need it out Tuesday. Publish it because you really believe it is the right solution to your problems.

During the 90s I got the sense that it was more important to publish quantity than quality. But in the long run, nothing stinks more than large piles of garbage. And people tend to stay away from things that stink.

If sales are at all getting better today it’s because it takes years of trying to do interesting, well written stories to even begin to counter the crap we that was shoveled at us for so long. I may not like everything that’s coming out, but there is a real attempt now to fix those mistakes. Finger’s crossed that it’s not too late.

Now, I’m probably the last person who should be saying this because whatever stardom I achieved on Titans let me push through Crisis, but since that book has withstood the test of time ($100.00 hardcover, expensive trade paperback constantly in print, voted 2nd best story of the 20th century, etc.) and since the Crisis helped DC sales and good will for a very long time, I feel justified that I did the right thing, even when it Bizarroed on itself. But I’d also like to believe I was a responsible writer and editor, looking out for the company’s interests as opposed to my specific needs (damn, knew I shoulda asked for more money!).

In the 90s, the companies, so afraid they’d lose a creator who was mystically bringing in sales in those troubled times, totally abrogated their responsibility as the owners of the characters. They were more interested in fast money than in the fact they are slowly destroying their characters and equity. And because the editors weren’t trained to see beyond the cool factor of a story, they couldn’t even guess how those bad decisions would slowly erode their sales. By the time sales were scrubbing the bottom of the toilet bowl, it was too late and they gotta send in Tony Soprano to whack Peter and MJ’s kid.

Predicting how the dominoes fall, trying to see the snags that may lie ahead, may not solve all editorial problems; you’ll probably make just as many, but one hopes the decisions made today won’t be nearly as destructive as the collective decisions made in the 90s. So far I’m encouraged. There’s more well done books published today than in many years. Only not enough by me.

By the way, I don’t equate, say, the Death of Superman to Peter Parker’s marriage. One was a great story concept that lead to a number of other equally interesting stories before they returned to the status quo. The other was permanent. Again, even if Peter and MJ eventually divorce he still will have been married. With a damn kid, too.

Moving along… back then we were taught Rule One of comics: every issue is someone’s first issue. That meant that you did recaps, we made the stories accessible to new readers, we carefully explained who the characters were, etc. We tried to be clever about it so long-time readers weren’t bored reading what they’d read a few weeks before, but we never forgot that we were, one hoped, attracting new readers, too.

To attract new readers we also kept our stories shorter. Yes, we did multiple part stories, but each short arc was fairly self-contained, and when the story went on for a long time – my issues of Tomb of Dracula, for instance – the individual issues had to have a full story in them even as they moved the main story ahead. We also remembered to actually name the character somewhere in a story. I used to read comics where the character’s name was never mentioned. If I didn’t follow the book regularly, I’d be lost. Not on the title character, of course, but on the secondary and incidental characters. Most of us tried to get the names in within a page or so.

Now, I could go on and on. We could talk about distribution, package, price, etc. and not even scratch the surface, but here’s where the fans do come in. Let’s hear your thoughts on Rupert’s letter.

Thanks for sending in letters, even if I didn’t know you had, but please don’t let up. This was one of the more fun columns I’ve done in awhile. Also, don’t forget to come over to my website, www.marvwolfman.com. I’ve just added a page where I’m selling old scripts and plots, etc.

See you in seven.
Marv

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