Thursday, June 30, 2016

Short Take: Cat People (1942)

Cat People may be the most artful horror/monster picture of Hollywood's Golden Age. Simone Simon plays a fashion illustrator who has recently come to New York from Serbia. She meets and falls in love with a boating engineer (Kent Smith), and the two are married shortly thereafter. But she refuses to consummate the marriage or even kiss him. She believes she is a descendant of a mountain tribe that embraced the occult, and who become panthers while in the grip of desire, jealousy, or even anger at an unwanted pass. Her husband, believing this a superstition borne of insecurity, tolerates her reticence for a time. But he ultimately demands she see a psychiatrist (Tom Conway), and she begins to feel her marriage is challenged from all sides: her upset at disappointing her husband; her suspicion of his relationship with a co-worker (Jane Randolph); and her having to contend with the psychiatrist, who may be taking an unprofessional interest in her. Mysterious events ensue, and with them the question of whether her beliefs aren't superstition. Producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur couldn't afford the special effects and other production trappings of King Kong and the Universal Studios monster features, but they more than compensated with an extraordinarily sophisticated use of horror and suspense tropes. Most of the film's thrills are built around ambiguity and portent, and the restraint makes the overt violence, when it finally comes, stunningly effective. The film's power owes far more to imagination than blatancy, and it's exhilarating. The screenplay is credited to DeWitt Bodean, and is based on Lewton's 1930 short story "The Bagheeta." Nicholas Musuraca provided the beautifully composed black-and-white cinematography. A remake of the film, directed by Paul Schrader, was released in 1982.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Short Take: Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet (1986) is part small-town crime thriller and part coming-of-age story, all shaped by the unique vision of writer-director David Lynch. A college student (Kyle McLachlan) returns to his North Carolina hometown after his father suffers a stroke. Walking through a field on his way home from the hospital, he discovers a rotting human ear. After turning it over to the police, a detective's teenage daughter (Laura Dern) tells him there may be a connection between the ear and a local bar singer (Isabella Rossellini). With the daughter's help, the young man plots to covertly search the singer's apartment. Once inside, he discovers more than he ever wanted to know--about the singer, his hometown, and the darkest sides of his own personality. Lynch has a remarkable imagination: unbridled conceptually, but strikingly disciplined in terms of execution. One can tell one is in the hands of a great filmmaker right from the first frames, where the brightly idyllic images of small-town life give way to the brutal interactions of insects beneath the perfectly cultivated lawns. It's a brilliantly succinct allegory for the film's main theme: the ugliness found beneath genteel surfaces. Lynch builds the drama around the taboos of voyeurism, fetishism, and sadomasochistic desire, and he makes the story's key scenes, while only mildly violent in surface terms, among the most shocking ever filmed. He also gives free rein to whimsy, and the trippy moments range from oddball humor to reaches into the uncanny. The most brilliant is a hallucinatory set piece in which an effete thug (Dean Stockwell) mimes a performance of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams." But Lynch's wild card is his villain: a local crime boss played with ferocious intensity by Dennis Hopper. The character is the personification of depravity--the human analogue of the brutal insects hiding in the grass, and the symbol of the dark impulses the young hero fears within himself. It's a tribute to both Lynch and Hopper that the crime boss carries this allegorical freight while being nothing less than terrifying. Lynch's other collaborators, including the rest of the cast and the behind-the-scenes artisans, are remarkable as well. The most noteworthy are Frederick Elmes, who provided the gorgeous cinematography, and Alan Splet, who was responsible for the eerily detailed sound design. The film's score, which ranges from jazz to lush strings to romantic synthesizer pop, is by Angelo Badalamenti.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Short Take: The Lady Vanishes

On the surface, The Lady Vanishes (1938) is one of the conspiracy thrillers director Alfred Hitchcock is famous for. A young British woman (Margaret Lockwood) befriends an elderly governess (Dame May Whitty) while riding on a cross-continental train. After the younger woman awakens from a nap, she finds the governess has disappeared, and no one on the train has any recollection of her. Was the older woman kidnapped, and are the other passengers part of a conspiracy to cover it up? Or is the younger woman hallucinating from a concussion suffered before she boarded the train? Most Hitchcock thrillers have a sense of humor about their teasing suspense tropes. But this picture goes far beyond wry self-awareness. Its tongue is as firmly in cheek as a Mad magazine parody. It's not an immersive piece of storytelling; one either enjoys it for the mocking treatment of the story conventions, or one doesn't. Hitchcock's direction is marvelous. The staging is remarkably sophisticated, and the expert pacing keeps the movie hurtling forward. His filmmaking virtuosity is thrilling in its own right. The script, credited to Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, is erratic. It does a witty job of sustaining the genre satire once it gets going, but it is hobbled by a largely extraneous first act, and the jokes, while amusing, aren't especially memorable. The cast also includes Michael Redgrave as the leading man who is not a love interest, Paul Lukas as the sinister psychiatrist, and the comedy duo of Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as Caldicott and Childers, the cricket enthusiasts who are also passengers on the train. The source novel is The Wheel Spins, by Ethel Lina White. The film is the last one from Hitchcock's British period. After it was released, he moved to the United States and began making films through the Hollywood studios.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Short Take: The Gay Divorcee

The Gay Divorcee (1934) was the first starring vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (They first appeared together as supporting players in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio.) But the film clearly wasn’t put together as a showcase for the duo’s magic on the dance floor. It’s just a musical in which they happen to play the leads. They don’t dance together until the “Night and Day” scene, which doesn’t come until midway through. It is a bit of a letdown besides. The dancing is beautiful, but it doesn’t start until the number is half over, and it doesn’t do much to enhance the scene’s drama. One doesn’t feel, as in Top Hat’s “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain),” that he’s winning her heart through the dance. Instead, she goes immediately from trying to get away from him to the full swoon of being in love. The dance is all climax and no build-up. Astaire and Rogers are also rather incidental to the film’s showpiece production number, the 17-minute “The Continental.” They take center stage at a couple of points, but the scene belongs to director Mark Sandrich and ensemble choreographer Dave Gould. It tries to outdo the kaleidoscopic spectacle of Busby Berkeley’s dance set pieces, and it’s a pretty fair attempt. The stars’ best moment is the film’s closing scene, where they dance across the furniture while making their way out the door. The film has one other notable scene, although it doesn’t feature Astaire or Rogers. It’s the amusing “Let’s K-nock K-nees” number, performed by Betty Grable, Edward Everett Horton, and the film’s chorus. The rest of the picture is a trite mistaken-identity romantic farce. The cast also includes Alice Brady, Eric Blore, and, as the odiously caricatured Italian, Erik Rhodes. The script, credited to George Marion, Jr., Dorothy Yost, and Edward Kaufman, is based on the play Gay Divorce, by Dwight Taylor.

Reviews of other Astaire & Rogers films:

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files: Steve Englehart

This essay is adapted from a longer article that appeared at The Hooded Utilitarian on October 23, 2013.

For the introduction to "The Jim Shooter 'Victim' Files" series, click here.

Jim Shooter and Steve Englehart, at the 1982 San Diego Comicon

Born in 1947, Steve Englehart broke into the comics business in late 1970. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology from Wesleyan University in 1969. He also served for a time in the U. S. Army. He started as a freelance artist for various publishers, but quickly shifted to scriptwriting. Long runs on Marvel’s Captain America and The Avengers made him one of the field's most admired scriptwriters before he left for DC in 1976.

Before getting into the specific circumstances of Englehart’s departure from Marvel, I would like to discuss at length how Englehart’s situation has been exploited to attack Jim Shooter. It’s a good study in the tactics Gary Groth and Sean Howe, Shooter’s most conspicuous detractors, have used in efforts to defame him.

Given the prominent role Groth and The Comics Journal have in shaping perceptions of comics history, his portrayal of Shooter's dealings with various comics personnel will be discussed in each instance. For the same reason, Sean Howe's treatments in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story will be examined as well.

In Groth’s 1987 editorial about Jim Shooter’s termination as Marvel editor-in-chief, he included Englehart in a list of “the vast number of creators fired or otherwise driven to leave Marvel by Shooter” (TCJ #117, p. 6). This reference should have struck a discordant note with any knowledgeable reader.

The most immediate reason was that, at the time of Shooter’s firing in April 1987, Englehart was working for Marvel. He was the regular scriptwriter on three ongoing company-owned titles: Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, and West Coast Avengers. He had been writing at least two titles a month for the company’s various imprints for the previous two years. He began regularly publishing new work through Marvel again in February of 1983, when the first issue of his creator-owned series Coyote shipped to retailers.

Beyond that, it was well known in comics circles that Englehart quit Marvel in 1976 because of conflicts with Gerry Conway, who was then the company’s editor-in-chief. One reason it was known was an interview with Englehart in The Comics Journal #63 that Groth helped conduct. Englehart discussed his problems with Conway at length. His statements gained additional notoriety when Conway responded with a letter, published in The Comics Journal #68, that may well be the single most intemperate, vituperative, and outright nasty piece of writing the magazine has ever published.

However, Groth and the Journal never printed a correction of the Englehart reference in the editorial.

But Groth apparently recognized the statement was erroneous at some point. In his 1994 anti-Shooter screed, “Jim Shooter, Our Nixon” (reprinted at in 2011), he changed his tune somewhat on Englehart’s departure. The reader is still presented with an inaccurate view of the situation; Groth just didn't shoehorn Englehart into his attack to the same degree. Englehart is described in the essay as a creator “who also left under Shooter’s regime at Marvel” (TCJ #174, p. 18).

By itself, that reference may seem pretty benign. But it's a very slick bit of rhetorical spin. In the context of the essay, it’s very effective in falsely casting Englehart in the role of one of Shooter’s alleged victims.

First, note the falsehood of the word “regime.” An honest observer in command of the facts would say that Englehart left during Gerry Conway’s “regime,” not Shooter’s. Shooter was Marvel’s associate editor and Conway’s subordinate. But characterizing this period of Shooter’s employment as part of his “regime at Marvel” leads the reader to assume that Groth is speaking of Shooter’s tenure as editor-in-chief. This completely deflects attention from Conway and his exclusive role in Englehart's departure.

Second, note the presence of the word “also." This falsely identifies Englehart with the creators and staffers whom Groth describes at various points in the essay as “fired, driven off, fucked over, or otherwise insulted by Shooter”; whom Shooter “was routinely violating the professional dignity of” and “imprudently alienating”; whom “Marvel lost […] often because of an unresolvable dispute between the creator and Shooter”; and who “occasionally went on the record stating his unequivocal disdain for Shooter’s ethics and professionalism.” (TCJ #174, pp. 17 and 18)

What Groth is doing here is what I call “plausible deniability” writing. It’s a sleazy, manipulative rhetorical method that eschews direct statement in favor of juxtaposition and other forms of associative construction to make its points. In short, it implies its smears rather than states them. (Richard Nixon was fond of this deceitful rhetorical technique when it came to attacking his political opponents. Groth's "Our Nixon" title seems quite ironic.) One benefit of “plausible deniability” writing is the protection it would likely give Groth if, say, Shooter had sued him for libel over the essay. In this instance (and it's just one of the piece's numerous misrepresentations), Groth’s lawyer would probably just point out that Groth never directly said Englehart left Marvel because of Shooter’s allegedly shabby treatment. All he specifically wrote was that Englehart left Marvel “under Shooter’s regime.” Everything else was ambiguous at most. If readers wrongly inferred that Englehart left Marvel because of conflicts with Shooter, well, that’s the stupid readers’ fault, not Groth’s. He would probably say he is not responsible for erroneous interpretations of ambiguous statements or context. And that claim, in a court of law, is likely correct. He would likely prevail in a libel case because the individual statements technically aren’t false for the most part, and where they are false, they’re not specifically defamatory. Keep in mind that I'm not an attorney, but from what I know, this is what I'd expect.

Oh, and this probably goes without saying, but in the “Our Nixon” essay, Groth again made no mention of the fact that Englehart was working for Marvel at the time of Shooter’s termination, much less that he’d been regularly publishing new work through Marvel for the previous four years.

Note: Steve Englehart was sent a draft of the account that follows. He wrote back to say he had no corrections, and that he stands by what he has said over the years. Gerry Conway could not be reached.

With Shooter’s dealings with Englehart during his time as associate editor, two minor disputes are known.

The first was with the origin of The Shroud character that was published in Super-Villain Team-Up #7. Englehart deliberately appropriated the origin of Batman for the character. In Shooter’s testimony in the Marv Wolfman v. Marvel trial (click here), he recounted what came next:

It was plagiarism. And I thought that was a very bad idea. Steve Englehart was a very important writer. So I called him, and I said, "Steve, you seem to be doing the origin of Batman here." And he said, "Yes, I am." And I said, "You can't do that." And he said, "Yes, I can." That conversation was getting nowhere. I thought, let me talk to Marv about this. I went to Marv and I showed it to him. And he asked me to change it as little as possible because we wanted to not offend Steve any more than absolutely necessary but to make it so it wasn't plagiarism. So I did the best I could to alter it to, you know, to meet that standard.

As near as I can determine, Englehart has never publicly complained about the revisions to the story.

The origin of Batman.. or The Shroud? From Super-Villain Team-Up #7. Script by Steve Englehart (with unspecified revisions by Jim Shooter). Penciled by Herb Trimpe and inked by Pablo Marcos.

The second dispute occurred after Gerry Conway replaced Marv Wolfman as editor-in-chief. It related to the erroneous flagging of a story inconsistency in Super-Villain Team-Up #8. Judging from Conway and Englehart’s accounts, the dispute appears to have been far more with Conway than Shooter. But in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe characterized it as a “blow-up” solely between Shooter and Englehart (p. 185). The incident is used as the principal support for a tendentious narrative that effectively blames Shooter for turning the editorial environment of Conway’s tenure, which lasted less than a month, “inescapably toxic.” Apparently towards that goal, Howe omits Conway from the dispute. The source or sources for Howe’s treatment are not included in the book’s endnotes, but it appears to be derived from Englehart’s interview in The Comics Journal #63 and Conway’s letter responding in TCJ #68.

Here’s what Englehart said happened:

In the same three-week period, when Conway was the editor, [...] a lot of people went out at that time. It had gotten to the point where a lot of people just didn't feel it was what they had signed on for. [...] It was a strange three weeks [...] the first week Conway and Shooter--his Assistant Editor, or the right-hand man--called me up and said, “We really don’t like the Super-Villain Team-Up you just wrote because you said the Sub-Mariner’s father did or didn’t do something.” It’s on page two of issue six or seven or something. I don’t even know what it is now. But they said, “You did this.” I said, “No, I really didn’t.” And they said, “We know you did, because we were told by whoever proofread that you did it.” I said, “I’ve got the script right here, and I didn’t say that.” And it was like, “Yes, you did, and you’re gonna pay for it. You’re really in trouble for doing this kind of stuff.” So I took my Xerox copy of the script and I Xeroxed off the page and I sent it to them.

The second week I got a call from Conway saying, “We’re really sorry. We were misinformed. I see your script, you’re right. I went back and looked at it, everything you said was true, hey look, no hard feelings, huh, I’m just getting started and I don’t really know how to do all this shit and let’s just let bygones be bygones.” (TCJ #63, p. 270)

Here’s what Conway had to say in his response:

When I became editor[-in-chief] at Marvel, I expected some problems with, among other people, Steve Englehart [...] Steve was well-known at Marvel as a balloon-headed egotist with a short fuse. [...] He states rightly, that I called him up concerned about an error in his script--not a minor error as he asserts, but a major continuity error. He told me it wasn’t his doing; on the information I had, I thought he was lying. (This may come as a shock to those of you fresh from the egg, but yes, Steve has been known to bend the truth just a tad now and then.) He did indeed send me a Xerox of his script, though of course this proved nothing since scripts can be retyped; but I checked it out, found out I was wrong, and as Steve tells you in his interview--I called him and apologized, admitting my mistake. (TCJ #68, pp. 23-25)

Sean Howe, though, erroneously portrays the dispute as if it was only with Shooter. As can be seen, in Englehart’s statements, which were part of a larger attack on Conway, he says the specific dispute was with both Conway and Shooter, although it is not clear that he and Shooter ever spoke directly about it. Conway, in his response, describes the dispute as only between Englehart and himself. Shooter isn’t mentioned.

One also notes that Englehart deeply resented Conway due to this and other disputes during Conway's tenure. With Shooter, he held no grudge.

Howe apparently believes that if a conflict occurs in Jim Shooter's vicinity, it is automatically Jim Shooter's fault, and only Jim Shooter's fault. This is regardless of how the others involved see the situation. It is one example among many of Howe's nasty bias against Shooter, and the defamatory treatment of him in Howe's book.

As for Englehart’s departure from Marvel, he left after Conway took away a scripting assignment for The Avengers. Englehart said that Conway removed him from the series, and further claimed Conway said he wanted the assignment for himself (TCJ #63, p. 270). Conway said the removal was just for the story in that year’s The Avengers Annual, not the monthly series. The reason was because of Englehart’s missed deadlines, and not because he wanted to take over as the series’ scriptwriter. (TCJ 68, p. 23). Jim Shooter, in a 2011 blog comment (click here), more or less confirmed Conway’s account.

As for Englehart's career afterward, he immediately moved over to DC, where his most notable effort was a Batman run in Detective Comics with artist Marshall Rogers. He worked at DC on various titles before quitting over a payment dispute in late 1978 or early 1979. He left the field for three years, reemerging in 1982 with his author-owned feature Coyote. It was originally published by Eclipse, and Englehart took it to Marvel’s Epic imprint a few months later. He resumed working on company-owned titles for both Marvel and DC in 1985. He stayed at DC through 1987, and was removed from his Marvel assignments in 1989 after conflicts with Tom DeFalco, Jim Shooter’s successor as editor-in-chief. In 1992, he worked on the X-O Manowar and Shadowman titles under Shooter at Valiant, but left after a few months due to differences with Shooter about editorial direction. Englehart says the parting was amicable (click here). Shooter says otherwise (click here), although he still holds Englehart’s ability in high regard (click here). Englehart spent the next several years doing scriptwriting work for various publishers, including Marvel and DC. He left the comics field for good in 2006.

Related posts:
  • The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files
           -- Introduction
           -- Tony Isabella
           -- Gerry Conway
           -- Mary Skrenes
           -- Len Wein

Friday, June 24, 2016

Short Take: Wonder Boys

In Wonder Boys (2000), Michael Douglas stars as a middle-aged creative writing professor at a Pittsburgh-area university. He is beset by crises from all directions. There are the romantic troubles: His wife has just left him, he's on the cusp of an affair with the pretty coed (Katie Holmes) who rents his house's spare room, and his department chair's wife (Frances McDormand) is pregnant with his child. There are the professional problems: in addition to the looming contretemps with the boss he's cuckolding, he's on the hot seat with his editor (Robert Downey, Jr.) over his inability to complete his current novel. To top it all off, his most talented student (Tobey Maguire) appears on the verge of a breakdown. Everything comes to a head during a weekend literary festival at the school. This rich character comedy is based on Michael Chabon's 1995 novel, and it was beautifully adapted by screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Curtis Hanson. Few authors will ever see their books so well-realized on screen. The film captures the atmosphere of contemporary academic life better than any other, and it leaves the viewer rooting for every single one of its characters, who all get a happy ending. The cast, from Douglas and Maguire on down, is terrific. The graceful editing is by Dede Allen.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Short Take: 45 Years

Charlotte Rampling has a scene in 45 Years that is as good as film acting gets. Rampling's character dances with her husband (Tom Courtenay) at their 45th anniversary party. The past week has given them perhaps the roughest patch their marriage has known, but they've resolved to put it behind them and start fresh. The husband has happily done so. It's obvious he is enjoying the party, the music, and the dance, and is eager to share his joy with her. But one can tell by her movements that she's not giving over to either the music or to him. As the dance goes on, one can see her face go from distraction to sadness to a barely contained anguish. Not a word is spoken. She's surrounded by loved ones celebrating her marriage, but she's clearly never felt so alone. It's a powerful "we shall never again be as we were" moment, and its eloquence comes from Rampling's expressive gravitas. One wishes the rest of the film had been half as compelling. Overall, it is a dreary piece of lit-fic cinema: aggressively mundane, sluggishly paced, and a showcase for homely epiphanies. The story begins a week before the couple's anniversary. The husband receives new word about an old girlfriend who died fifty years earlier. He becomes completely preoccupied with her, and the wife discovers that he has built their marriage around his grief over her death. His silent devotion to his lost love is why they've never had children, or even have photographs from their time over the years. The film is skillfully written, handsomely produced, and very well acted, but apart from the one scene, it feels completely inert. Director Andrew Haigh is credited with the screenplay, which is based on the prose story "In Another Country," by David Constantine. The cinematography, by Lol Crawley, makes attractive use of the Norfolk, England locations.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Short Take: Carrie, Stephen King

Carrie (1974), was Stephen King's first published novel, and while not his best (or even biggest-selling) effort, it's probably entered the cultural consciousness more than anything else he has written. It's a contemporary Gothic, set in a small New England town, and its title character is the high-school misfit. Carrie's home life is miserable; her father is dead, and her mother is an unstable, abusive religious fanatic. School, where she's a constant target for pranks and bullying, is no better. After a traumatic, humiliating incident in the girls' locker room, things change. A popular girl at school, ashamed at how Carrie's been treated, arranges for her boyfriend to take Carrie to the prom in her stead. But another classmate, furious at the disciplinary action that followed the locker-room episode, sees Carrie's presence at the dance as an opportunity for payback. The wild card is that Carrie has telekinetic powers, and the vicious prank at the dance has horrifying consequences for the entire town. The anti-bullying revenge melodrama--it's a Grand Guignol variation on Cinderella--is what gives the story its staying power. The hook, though, is King's exploitation of the taboos surrounding menstruation. The imagery of menstrual blood, feminine-hygiene products, and the embarrassment they inspire dominate an early scene, and it's shockingly indelible. King extends the dynamic of revulsion to a fascination with the teenage girls' bodies, and while he's hardly prurient, it gives the book an icky erotic edge. He was lucky to be tapped into such potent material, because in terms of craftsmanship, the book is a haphazardly constructed mess. The narrative technique is best described as modernist hodgepodge. Scenes written from the perspectives of the various characters, often in a stream-of-consciousness manner, are mixed up with journalistic accounts, memoir passages, and assorted government reports from after the story's events. The cross-temporal collage-style storytelling does nothing to enrich the material, and it's quite distracting. A less complicated approach would have definitely been more effective. But for all the criticisms one can make of the book, there's no denying how compelling it is.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Short Take: Creed

Creed, the seventh picture in the Rocky franchise, is easily the most compelling since the original 1976 film. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) isn't the central character this time out. The story instead focuses on the illegitimate son (Michael B. Jordan) of Rocky's boxing nemesis and best friend Apollo Creed. The son was raised by Creed's widow (Phylicia Rashad) from adolescence on, and she's done everything possible to steer him away from a prizefighter's life. But he cannot resolve his feelings towards the father he never knew. Determined to claim his father's legacy for himself, he relocates to Rocky's hometown of Philadelphia, and convinces the long-retired boxer to train him. Director Ryan Coogler, working from a script credited to him and Aaron Covington, follows the traditional outline of sports genre pictures: the story is about the against-the-odds rise of a champion. That said, the familiar scenes are freshly imagined and played. While the story may be largely on autopilot, the director and the actors aren't. Coogler gives the boxing matches an intense, kinetic urgency, and he maintains a relaxed, engaging rhythm in the scenes outside the ring. Michael B. Jordan strikes a finely nuanced balance between his character's obsessive drive and the tender rapports he develops with both Rocky and a singer girlfriend (Tessa Thompson). Stallone gives a dry poignance to his signature role. He takes a viewer right inside the resigned loneliness of the character's twilight days, and the reticence at embracing the younger man's dreams. Maryse Alberti provided the vibrant cinematography. Her atmospheric treatment of the Philadelphia locations is especially striking.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Short Take: Mulholland Dr.

Mulholland Dr. (2001), writer-director David Lynch's Hollywood noir, begins with a glamorously beautiful woman (Laura Elena Harring) fleeing a car accident with no memory of who she is. The story follows her in her efforts to solve the mystery of her identity, with Lynch piling on absurdist scenes, narrative red herrings, and inexplicable moments of pure weirdness. The film lurches further and further into the uncanny, until it finally turns itself inside out. The earlier scenes are revealed as an allegory for the later ones (or perhaps it's the other way around), and the mystery story ultimately devolves into a character portrait of a failed actress (Naomi Watts). The film is perhaps Lynch's wittiest and most compelling effort--in short, his masterpiece. Watts' breakthrough role is an acting tour de force. She renders her character's two sides--one sunny and optimistic, the other defeated and bitter--with such distinctive, note-perfect aplomb that one may have to remind oneself that one is watching the same actress. Her finest moment is a razzle-dazzle audition scene, which she plays with a startling erotic bravura. It all adds up to one of the greatest performances in contemporary film. The other cast members include Justin Theroux, Ann Miller, Chad Everett, and Robert Forster. The cinematography is by Peter Deming. Angelo Badalamenti provided the score. The film was originally shot as a pilot episode for a proposed TV series. Lynch reworked it as a stand-alone feature.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files: Tony Isabella

This essay is adapted from a longer article that appeared at The Hooded Utilitarian on October 23, 2013.

For the introduction to "The Jim Shooter 'Victim' Files" series, click here.

Tony Isabella (born in 1951) entered the comics business in 1972 as an editorial assistant at Marvel. In 1973, he began writing stories for titles in Marvel’s black-and-white magazine line. He spent a few months in 1974 editing titles for the line as well. He got his start writing for the company’s color comics in 1973 with fill-in issues of Captain America, Hero for Hire, and The Incredible Hulk. His first regular color-comic series assignment was the "It! The Living Colossus" feature in Astonishing Tales, which he began with the February 1974 issue. He took over writing the company’s Ghost Rider series a few months later.

Jim Shooter joined Marvel’s staff as associate editor in January 1976. Almost immediately after starting, he flagged a Ghost Rider story Isabella had scripted. It was the culmination of a two-year storyline in which a bearded “friend” had repeatedly saved the motorcycle-riding demon-hero in his battles with Satan. In the climactic episode, Isabella intended to reveal the “friend” as Jesus Christ. Shooter, in a 2011 comment on his blog (click here), recalled that Isabella's story granted Ghost Rider “the continuation of his powers, thereafter Divine, not demonic.” Isabella says (click here) Ghost Rider “accepted Jesus as his savior and freed himself from Satan’s power forever.” Shooter ended up rescripting the episode, and artist Frank Robbins drew several new pages in accord with the rewrite. In the revised version, the Jesus figure was revealed as an illusion cast by the devil and written out of the series. Isabella then quit the feature and left Marvel. He considers the revisions among “the most arrogant and wrongheaded actions I've ever seen from an editor.”

According to Isabella in a September 2011 blog posting (click here), Marv Wolfman, Marvel’s then-editor-in-chief (and Shooter’s supervisor) had approved the storyline. He claims to be skeptical of any claim that Wolfman authorized the revisions. He says, “[U]ntil Marv himself tells me otherwise, Shooter gets the blame for undoing a two-year storyline in another writer’s book.”

Shooter and Wolfman both addressed the incident under oath in November 1999 at the trial in Wolfman v. Marvel Characters, Inc. (This was Wolfman’s suit against Marvel claiming ownership of Blade and other company characters he was involved with creating.) Here is Shooter’s account of what happened:

Tony had introduced some religious references into the story that I thought were inappropriate. He had Jesus Christ appearing as a character. I didn’t think that was a good idea. So, as was my usual custom, I called Tony and I tried to work it out with him. You know, it’s always better if you can get the writer to make his own corrections. He was adamant. He just absolutely refused to be cooperative about making any changes. And so it was a big enough deal that I went to Marv and I asked him, you know, what he thought should be done. And he asked me, was I, did I have time and could I make the changes? And I said, yes, I could. […] And I changed the course of the story so that it no longer had the religious references. The reason that was significant is because I think Tony Isabella quit over that, actually.

In his trial testimony, Wolfman repeatedly identified Shooter as an assistant editor during this time. When Marvel attorney David Fleischer asked Wolfman if an assistant editor would be assigned to supervise a scriptwriter in lieu of himself, he replied:

No, the assistant editors didn’t serve in that capacity at that particular time […] They would have, if it was a major problem or something they would have come to me […] their job was to find if there were any errors, correct small things, syntax, correct minor problems. (TCJ #236, p. 79)

Shortly after this, Wolfman specifically discussed the Ghost Rider incident:

FLEISCHER: Do you recall Mr. Shooter ever coming to you and telling you that he thought some religious content that he read in one of the stories that he was responsible for editing was inappropriate?

WOLFMAN: Well, again, editing would be the wrong word. He wasn’t an editor. He was an assistant editor, which meant he assisted the editor. No, I don’t recall it.

FLEISCHER: Do you recall that in the
Ghost Writer [sic], Mr. Shooter called to your attention that there was a reference to Jesus Christ?

WOLFMAN: No, I don’t recall it.

FLEISCHER: Who wrote
Ghost Writer [sic]?

WOLFMAN: Dozens of people at one time period.

FLEISCHER: Was Tony Isabella one of the writers?

WOLFMAN: Yes, Tony was a writer that did
Ghost Writer [sic].

FLEISCHER: And hearing Mr. Isabella’s name, does that refresh your recollection about this incident?

WOLFMAN: No, it’s really a minor thing.

FLEISCHER: Do you recall that Mr. Shooter came to you and told you that he discussed with Mr. Isabella the fact that he thought the reference to Jesus Christ in the book was inappropriate and that Mr. Isabella refused to change it?

WOLFMAN: I don’t remember the incident at all. As I say, this is a very minor type of thing.

FLEISCHER: It’s very minor, but you don’t remember it?

WOLFMAN: It’s very minor, therefore I don’t remember it.

FLEISCHER: Would you regard as minor a situation where the editor in chief has to dictate to a writer against the writer’s will the content of a book?

WOLFMAN: If the case is the words of Jesus Christ, that is not dictating the contents, that’s dictating a possible standard or a possible other problem. It’s a very very incredibly minor thing that I would have made a decision in about an eighth of a second or gone to Stan [Marvel publisher Stan Lee] if it was a problem like the other one [a situation with Doug Moench that did not involve Shooter]. It’s not something I would ever remember.
(TCJ #236, p. 79)

When Fleischer asked Wolfman about three other instances when Shooter allegedly came to him with concerns, he responded, “No, I don’t remember. Mr. Shooter was a major complainer so it could have been.” (TCJ #236, p. 80)

In Wolfman’s correspondence with me, he contradicted his sworn testimony. He said that Shooter had the authority to order the changes without consulting him. He also stated that he thought he didn’t remember the incident because Shooter didn’t come to him about it. Essentially, he denied all responsibility for what happened.

Shooter wrote the following in the aforementioned 2011 blog comment (click here):

At that time I had no authority to make massive changes like that to a book unless the EIC commanded that it be done.

Isabella does not appear to have ever discussed the matter with Wolfman. But responsibility for that, at least at the time, seems to have been Wolfman’s. He has said he had a policy as editor-in-chief of systematically calling everyone who worked for Marvel at least once a month (Sean Howe, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, p. 181). It would appear there was no such call made to Isabella after the incident. And Wolfman was all but certainly aware that Isabella had quit the feature, as Wolfman scripted the following issue.

For my part, I think Shooter averted a problem that had been enabled by the laissez-faire editorial environment that existed under Wolfman and his predecessors Len Wein and Roy Thomas. Any media depiction of Jesus Christ is potentially controversial. One that is not a straightforward adaptation of New Testament narratives is all but certain to be. Portraying Jesus as a character in a contemporary fictional setting, as well as giving sanction to the actions of another fictional character, is blasphemous. This sort of depiction is addressed in Revelation 22:18-19. It expressly forbids any portrayal of the return of Christ that differs with the Revelation prophecies. Publishing the story was an invitation for complaints and possibly even a boycott campaign. As such, Isabella’s storyline should have never made it through the editorial process without the knowledge and approval of Marvel publisher Stan Lee and company president James Galton. It’s not clear Wolfman even knew about it before Shooter brought it to his attention.

Ghost Rider teams up with... Jesus Christ?!?. From Ghost Rider #9 (December 1974). Scripted by Tony Isabella, penciled by Jim Mooney, and inked by Sal Trapani.

As for what happened after Shooter flagged the story, I believe him when he says he brought his concerns to Wolfman, and that Wolfman authorized the changes. It is highly unlikely that a new editor with next to no prior experience would have the authority to order new pages drawn without supervisor approval. According to Wolfman's sworn account, he didn't.

Additionally, I note Shooter apparently was not shy about raising concerns. Wolfman’s characterization of Shooter as a “major complainer” during this time refers to his experience as editor-in-chief with Shooter. That was approximately three months.

In short, I believe the sworn statements given by both Wolfman and Shooter on the matter, which are not at odds.

Shortly after the Ghost Rider dust-up, Tony Isabella began writing for DC Comics, where he co-created the original Black Lightning series with artist Trevor von Eeden. He left DC in 1978. During Shooter’s tenure as editor-in-chief, he returned to Marvel, scripting a handful of stories for various titles in 1979 and 1980. He was briefly the scriptwriter for Marvel's Moon Knight series in 1983. There were no reported conflicts with Shooter or any other Marvel editor during that time. His highest-profile assignment in the field since then was probably as the regular scriptwriter for DC’s Hawkman character in the mid-1980s. He has done occasional scriptwriting work for DC and other publishers since then.

Note: Tony Isabella and Marv Wolfman were asked to comment on an early draft of the above article. Isabella and Wolfman, who each have long-time grudges against Shooter, were both hostile in their responses. Isabella called the draft of the account “inaccurate” but did not provide any specifics. Wolfman initially discussed things in detail before writing back with the demand that I not use his response. He did not want to be seen as participating with the article. As such, I paraphrased his statements instead of quoting them. If Wolfman asks for the quotes to be published, I will be happy to do so.

Related Posts
  • The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files
           -- Introduction
           -- Steve Englehart
           -- Gerry Conway
           -- Mary Skrenes
           -- Len Wein

Friday, June 17, 2016

Short Take: Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain (2005), director Ang Lee's adaptation of Annie Proulx's celebrated 1997 short story, is so fully realized it almost overflows the movie's frames. The film begins in 1963, when two shiftless young men (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) are hired to herd sheep for the summer in Wyoming. The two, both avowedly heterosexual, become lovers as the weeks go by. They go their separate ways when the season ends, and both take wives and have children. But neither can put the other behind him, and they resume their affair during occasional fishing trips over the years. They love each other, but the anxieties and complications of their lives will forever stand in the way of a fulfilling relationship. The richness and precision of detail--in setting, dramatic nuance, and every incidental element--is comparable to that of David Lean's 1940s films, and as with that period of the English director's work, the detail provides a powerful stage for a tremendously affecting story. The cast, which also includes Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, and Randy Quaid, is uniformly excellent. The standout is Heath Ledger, who delivers one of the most indelible characterizations in contemporary film. His performance dramatizes the dark underside of the strong, silent masculine ideal; he suggests the character is so emotionally bottled up that it's painful to even talk, much less reach out to others. In the end his happiness is only with love's totems, rather than love itself. Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry are credited with the finely tuned screenplay. Rodrigo Prieto provided the beautiful cinematography. The visuals are most impressive in the outdoor scenes featuring the Rocky Mountain locations. They do justice to the awesome landscape while keeping the intimacy of the character drama center stage.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Short Take: The Past

Writer-director Asghar Farhadi has a genius for intricate, richly nuanced domestic melodrama. His 2013 film The Past, his first made outside his native Iran, shows him in potent form. The setting is Sevran, a working-class suburb of Paris. An Iranian man (Ali Mosaffa) arrives from Tehran to finalize his divorce from his French wife (Bérénice Bejo). Four years earlier, his personal problems drove him to desert her and his two step-daughters (Pauline Burlet and Jeanne Jestin). He returns to find himself the only grounded presence in his former family's life. His wife is determined to make a fresh start with a new fiancé (Tahar Rahim), and the man and his young son (Elyes Aguis) now live with her and her daughters. But for all the efforts to build a stable new home, the wife's relationship has only stirred up turmoil with the children. She aggravates things further by manipulating the circumstances to fluster both her fiancé and her soon-to-be ex-husband. Jealousies, resentments, and anger at perceived betrayals are the undercurrent of almost all the characters' relationships. The plotting gets a bit too soapy in the film's latter sections, but overall Farhadi builds the assorted conflicts to eloquent dramatic crescendoes. He is aided in no small part by the fine cast. Pauline Burlet, who plays the older daughter, is especially impressive. She looks like a teenage Marion Cotillard, and she has a similar haunted expressiveness. And one has to mention Elyes Aguis, who is heartbreaking as the fiancé's angry, willful little boy. The film lacks the depth of cultural observation that marks Farhadi's Iranian films, but his directing has taken a significant leap forward. His staging, camerawork, and editing have never before been so assured. The film has the dramatic tautness of a first-rate thriller. The handsome cinematography is by Mahmoud Kalari. Claude Lenoir was the production designer. The clutter he gives the wife's house is particularly inspired.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Inchoate Thoughts on Asterios Polyp

This is a revised version of an essay that originally appeared on The Hooded Utilitarian on June 6, 2010.

What's startling about Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli’s decade-in-the-making graphic novel, is the degree he appears to glory in his command of artifice. Mazzucchelli’s previous efforts, for all the shifts in styles and genres over the years, had been exemplars of dramatic naturalism. In Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, his 1980s collaborations with scriptwriter Frank Miller, the gaudy trappings of the superhero genre--the fanciful costumes and violent spectacle--seemed like impositions on the stories. The material comes most to life when it focuses on the mundane dramas of the characters’ lives. Born Again rarely features the hero in costume, and while he’s always central, he is just one character among many in the book’s large ensemble cast. In Batman: Year One, the title character was effectively reduced to a supporting role; the true protagonist was the future police commissioner James Gordon, and the story was driven by his efforts to navigate the city’s corruption. The emphasis on the mundane continued in Mazzucchelli’s major 1990s efforts, such as the comics adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass, and his short pieces in Rubber Blanket, Drawn & Quarterly, and other anthologies. Character drama seemed like it was everything to him, and with his command of dramatic nuance, his ability to set scenes, and his capacity for remarkably observant depictions of story locales, he had a uniquely potent arsenal for realizing any story to which he applied himself.

In Asterios Polyp, Mazzucchelli turns his back on virtually everything that defined his previous work. The title character is an academic--an architecture professor--who chucks it all to take up a working-class, small-town existence. The “simple life” (cue the Elton John song) helps him get in touch with his true self and come to terms with his relationship with his ex-wife, with whom he reconciles at the book’s end. The story is glib, trite, and populated with hackneyed characters. There is nothing naturalistic or observed in how they are written. Some characters exist to expound narratives and theses at each other. Others embody some abstract quality or behave in some contrivedly absurd way, such as speaking in malapropisms or spouting Leninist cant. The drawing often looks like it was processed though a computer, with its ersatz quality emphasized by the arbitrary color scheme and the emphasis on yellow and purple hues. The book largely seems to exist as a platform to show off effects. Here’s how lettering and balloon shapes can be used to inflect characterizations. Here’s how color and line can be used to render shifts in emotional tone. Here’s how compositional repetitions can be used to illustrate a character’s mindset. And so on. Mazzucchelli has been teaching comics at the School of Visual Arts for several years now, and one wonders to what extent Asterios Polyp was intended as a textbook in his classes. A reader looking for substance may end up hating the book from one end of its piss-elegant jacket design to the other.

But one can’t entirely dismiss it. Upon reflection, Asterios Polyp is not quite a radical break from the work Mazzucchelli has done before, and it’s hardly an artistic Tourette’s outburst. One can see the book as an expansion on parts of his earlier efforts. The sections given to discussions of binary concepts and other intellectual matters certainly have their roots in the abstract monologues in City of Glass. Those sequences--the most celebrated in the book--were pointedly not attributed to Mazzucchelli. He did the final rendering, but the visual conception and breakdowns were handled by his collaborator, Paul Karasik. It’s only natural to expect him to try his hand at similar scenes of his own. And the conspicuously artificial quality of Asterios Polyp, specifically its use of stock characters, contrived repetitions, and absurdist touches, harkens back to the “The Death of Monsieur Absurde,” the last story in the third (and final) issue of Mazzucchelli’s self-published anthology series, Rubber Blanket. Before reading Asterios Polyp, I considered “Monsieur Absurde” tangential to Mazzucchelli’s œuvre. It may end up deserving reconsideration as one of the most important things he’s done, at least relative to his development. Asterios Polyp, if nothing else, throws an entirely new light on Mazzucchelli’s previous work.

I’m also being unfair when I describe Mazzucchelli’s art in Asterios Polyp as having an ersatz quality to it. I have an instinctive revulsion to computer-generated repetitions in comics, and I can’t help but grit my teeth at the use of Photoshop to change the color of Mazzucchelli’s line and brushwork. However, none of that changes the fact that he is one of the finest draftsmen in the field, and Asterios Polyp may be his best-drawn work to date. The character renderings are packed with nuance. Mazzucchelli’s love of observed detail in settings is also very much on display in his depiction of the characters’ apartments and other interiors. The composer’s apartment in particular is just astounding; Mazzucchelli captures the extreme clutter while keeping the compositions entirely lucid. On top of that, the page design and pacing is nothing less than impeccable throughout—the book is a fast, breezy read. Once one gets used to the color effects, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Asterios Polyp may be an unsurpassed piece of comics eye-candy.

And maybe that’s enough to justify thinking of it as one of the better comics of recent years. Those who love comics extend that sentiment to a lot of lowbrow or children’s material--work that we can’t recommend (or defend) to the less obsessed without a lot of caveats and apologies. At present, I’m pretty fixated on Alex Toth’s Zorro stories and Frank Frazetta’s romance comics, neither of which I could begin to recommend in the way I can with From Hell or Fun Home. One is either entertained by Toth or Frazetta’s consummate visual craftsmanship or one isn’t; the story material certainly isn’t worth bothering with on its own. That’s a generosity that we should consider extending to shallow “literary” comics like Asterios Polyp. It is, after all, one I certainly give to stylistically brilliant highbrow banality like Antonioni’s films after L’avventura or Updike’s fiction outside of the Rabbit novels. There should be no class distinctions in the arts, not even with entertainingly artful junk.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Short Take: Top Hat

"Heaven, I'm in Heaven..." That's the famous opening line of the song "Cheek to Cheek" from Top Hat (1935). Fred Astaire sings it at the beginning of the romantic dance number that's the film's centerpiece. But one may think of it when recalling any of the dances by Astaire and co-star Ginger Rogers. Watching them, divine is the only word that seems fitting. There's the "Isn't It a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)" number, in which romantic tentativeness blossoms into the flush of love's delight. "The Piccolina," the closing routine, begins as a Busby Berkeley-style ensemble, but then shifts to a celebration-themed duet for the two leads. And of course, there's "Cheek to Cheek," in which the graceful choreographic lines, the flowing diffuseness of Rogers' ostrich-feather dress, and the astonishing climactic backbends come together in a beautiful whole. The scene is perhaps the most elegant rendering of romantic abandon in all of film. Astaire's numbers without Rogers--the bravura tap solos "No Strings (I'm Fancy Free)" and "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails"--are also outstanding. It's all given the grandest of stages: the magnificent Art Deco sets created by production designer Van Nest Polglase. His elaborate treatment of Venice, complete with canal, bridges, and piazza, may be the most gorgeous movie set ever. The silliness of the film's story, a mistaken-identity romantic comedy, all but seems beside the point. One can also forgive the one conspicuous misstep: the Rogers character's benefactor, an Italian dressmaker played by Erik Rhodes, is a painfully unfunny ethnic caricature. The other cast members include Edward Everett Horton, Helen Broderick, and Eric Blore. Lucille Ball has a small role as a flower-store clerk. The screenplay is credited to Allan Scott, Dwight Taylor, Ben Holmes, and Ralph Spence. The music is by Irving Berlin (songs) and Max Steiner (score). Hermes Pan is credited with the choreography, although by all accounts he just assisted Astaire. Mark Sandrich directed.

Reviews of other Astaire & Rogers films:

Monday, June 13, 2016

Short Take: Novel on Yellow Paper, Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper (1936) is a charming, freewheeling portrait of life as a twentysomething middle-class woman in 1930s London. The apparently autobiographical protagonist works as a magazine publisher's secretary, and her experiences are used as a whimsical springboard for a variety of meditations on life, society, and writing. It's refreshing to get a piece like this from a woman's perspective. Most writers who work in this mode are men, such as Henry Miller and the Beats. But Smith has what it takes to make it work, namely an engaging personality and a good sense of humor. She describes the book at one point as "a foot-off-the-ground novel," and that "if you are a foot-on-the-ground person, this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation." A reader can have both reactions. The pleasures of the book are its spontaneity and tone, which can leave one unconcerned about structure to a certain extent. That said, the occasional flights of run-on sentences are tiresome, and the book is best read in short bursts. Reading it is like drinking spirits. Too much in a short time may leave one cranky, worn-out, and hung over, but a little bit here and there can brighten the days as one makes one's way through the bottle.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files: Introduction

This essay is adapted from a longer article that appeared at The Hooded Utilitarian on October 23, 2013.

The essay is an introduction to an ongoing series, "The Jim Shooter 'Victim' Files." It outlines the point-of-view that will guide the series' posts.

The series will cover Shooter's real and alleged conflicts with Marvel's creative and editorial personnel. Each post will discuss the circumstances surrounding a particular creator or staffer. A list of links to those posts will be appearing at the bottom of this introduction as the posts are completed.

If one feels compelled to comment on the post here, I ask that one restrict remarks to the general issues covered. I will deal with the specifics of a given creator's or staffer's circumstances in its own post. Comments on particular situations or personnel should wait until then. If one wishes to discuss, for example, Gene Colan's 1981 parting of ways with Marvel, those comments belong on the forthcoming Gene Colan post. They do not belong here. The comments are moderated, and I will not approve publication of any comment on the present post that deals with specific personnel.

My essay "Jim Shooter: A Second Opinion" (click here) discussed the one-time Marvel editor-in-chief's tenure in terms of its publishing history. It also covered the general business policies regarding the creative personnel. I would hope it was a resounding rebuttal to the characterization of Shooter’s Marvel as “a wasteland of formulaic self-imitation” (Tom Spurgeon and Jordan Raphael, Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, p. 204). I would also hope that it largely refuted the characterization of Shooter as “the enemy of creators” (Gary Groth, The Comics Journal #174, p. 17).

Groth’s characterization, which many have echoed, has nothing to do with Shooter’s extraordinarily progressive strides with regard to publishing opportunities and compensation practices at Marvel. It primarily has to do with anecdotal issues Shooter or Marvel had with individual creators and staffers.

The reason I state “or Marvel” is to highlight that in some instances the conflicts were not with Shooter himself. Many were with company policies that would have existed no matter who was editor-in-chief. These policies include the mandatory signing of a blanket work-made-for-hire contract in order to work on company-owned properties. Other conflicts were the result of decisions made by Marvel executives such as president James Galton. An example of that is the company’s dealings with Jack Kirby during the controversy over the return of Kirby’s 1960s original art. But since Shooter was the face of the company to the comics community, he ended up shouldering the responsibility for these conflicts in the community’s eyes.

There are also the several creators and staffers who left Marvel without conflict during Shooter’s tenure. However, by accident or design, commentators have included their departures in discussions of the people who actually did leave because of problems with Shooter. In these instances, Shooter has been made the villain in situations where there was no villain to be had.

Additionally, certain individuals left Marvel because of conflicts with editorial staffers other than Shooter, but these conflicts were erroneously attributed to Shooter later on.

With the people who did leave because of conflicts with Shooter, they tend to fall into three categories. The biggest group is made up of creators who resented editorial supervision of their work on company-owned properties. The second group is staffers who resented policy changes that accompanied Shooter’s restructuring of the editorial department’s operations. This was mostly during his first three years as company editor-in-chief. And, of course, there are others who left for reasons that were unique to their personal circumstances. Shooter ran Marvel’s editorial operations for over nine years, and was an editor there for two years before that. In his last year at the company, the office staff numbered over 60, and the freelancer pool included over 300. It’s inconceivable that any supervisor wouldn’t have had at least some conflicts given the amount of time and number of people involved.

One should also consider the emotional maturity of many of the staffers and freelancers. The late Kim Thompson, who actively covered the business during the period as an editor and reporter for The Comics Journal and Amazing Heroes, once characterized the professional comics community of the time as “shambolic and inbred and full of resentments and unprofessionalism of every stripe.” (Click here.) Gerry Conway, one of Shooter’s predecessors as Marvel editor-in-chief, has described the company environment as “a cesspool of politics and personality issues” (Sean Howe, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, p. 185), and “like the worst high school dysfunctional mishegoss” (Untold Story, p. 187). Shooter, in a comment on his website, wrote, “The comics business in general, and especially Marvel, was Romper Room on crystal meth.” It’s hard to imagine how an editor-in-chief at Marvel could be an effective administrator without having occasional conflicts.

For my part, I generally don’t have much sympathy for creators who resent or otherwise disregard editorial supervision on company-owned material. With an author-owned project, the creator should of course be the final arbiter of what’s appropriate for it. All the editor and publisher have are the rights to offer input, and then to publish or not publish. But with company-owned projects, the company and its editorial representatives have every right to order changes or demand that material be produced within specified content and style parameters. A creator in that instance is hired to do a job. There is an obligation to accept and adhere to supervisory direction as a condition of the assignment. This is perhaps the first rule of professional conduct. If the creator on a company-owned project does not follow such direction, the creator is in the wrong. As much as it may rankle the creator’s fans, this is true regardless of any assessment of the aesthetic strength of the creator’s efforts. It's a matter of ethics.

When it comes to the staffers who resented the policy changes that accompanied Shooter’s editorial reorganization, some hostile reaction is to be expected in any such situation. I’ve been through workplace restructurings a few times myself. There were always people who were comfortable under the previous set-up and objected to the changes. Some objected so much that they ended up leaving. They also insisted on demonizing those responsible for the changes afterward. The changes at Marvel editorial in the late 1970s were Shooter’s prerogative, done with the support of the company's executives, and there was nothing unusual about the reaction from some of the staff. Incidentally, Marvel has more or less maintained the structure he put in place ever since.

Apart from an obtuse claim from Gerry Conway, and a highly dubious one from John Byrne, I have not been able to find a single instance of a creator who has ever accused Jim Shooter of cheating him or her monetarily or otherwise ripping them off in business dealings. The problems all appear to be over editorial disputes, disagreements with policy, and personality conflicts.

Related posts
  • The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files
           -- Tony Isabella
           -- Steve Englehart
           -- Gerry Conway
           -- Mary Skrenes
           -- Len Wein

Friday, June 10, 2016

Short Take: Ballet mécanique

Ballet mécanique (1924) is a marvelous non-narrative short film. (The running time is eleven minutes.) It's one of the high points of 1920s experimental filmmaking. Directed by the painter Fernand Léger in collaboration with the U. S. filmmaker Dudley Murphy, it explores shape and movement in all its myriad forms. The film opens with an animated Cubist-style cartoon figure of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp. It then shifts to a shot of a woman riding in a swing. A face is reduced to a lipsticked mouth breaking into a grin, and kohled eyes open and close as if keeping a beat. There are shifting patterns of two dimensional shapes, rotating spheres, and engine gears in operation. Machines have life, and living things move in mechanized patterns. Léger's paintings from the period interpret people and the trappings of life as mechanical forms; they're very much of a piece with the film's style and themes. The most remarkable aspect of the picture is its immersive quality. The movement within the frames combine with the editing in ways that evoke melody and rhythm. One cannot help but be carried along by the dancing visuals, and one may feel one is experiencing music in the form of imagery. Man Ray was reportedly a consultant on the film.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Short Take: Tootsie

Tootsie (1982) is perhaps the finest comedy ever produced in Hollywood. Several traditional elements are there--the false/mistaken identity, the cross-dressing, the ambitious fool of a protagonist--and they're perfectly realized in terms of the story. The setting is the New York acting world. Dustin Hoffman stars as a rigidly perfectionist actor whom no producer can stand. Unable to find work, he creates a female alter ego to audition for a TV soap opera, and gets hired. The gender-confusion humor finds rich veins to mine in every aspect of the actor's life, including his relationship with his girlfriend (Teri Garr), dealings with his playwright roommate (Bill Murray), and just about everything to do with the TV show. There he encounters hilarious challenges with the show's actresses, its aging-lothario leading man (George Gaynes), and its obnoxiously sexist director (Dabney Coleman). Things get especially complicated when he falls in love with a co-star (Jessica Lange), only to find that her father (Charles Durning) has fallen in love with his alter ego. Director Sydney Pollack keeps the terrific script (by Larry Gelbert, Murray Schisgal, Don McGuire, and an uncredited Elaine May) crackling along. Dustin Hoffman gives a masterful performance. His timing is dazzling, and he gives the actor and his female alter ego distinct comic personalities. The supporting cast, which also includes Pollack as the actor's agent, is nothing less than outstanding. The film was a career peak for nearly everyone involved.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Short Take: Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth, a dark-toned fantasy picture written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, is set in Spain a few years after the country's civil war. A young girl (Ivana Baquero) goes to live with her mother (Ariadna Gil) and stepfather (Sergi López) at a military outpost in the Spanish countryside. The stepfather commands a unit charged with rooting out resistance fighters in the nearby mountains. The girl is unhappy. Her mother is pregnant, and her stepfather takes no interest in her. One night, an insect fairy takes the girl to meet the Faun, who tells her she is the reincarnation of Princess Moanna of the Underground Realm. He gives her three tasks to complete. If she succeeds, she can return to the fantasy kingdom where she lived in her previous life. The film has the makings of a children's story, and the imagery is as magical as has ever been seen in movies. But it is not for kids. Del Toro clearly intends the film as a fairy tale for adults, and it is a dark, complex allegory of the conflict between authority and independence. The climactic scenes are both horrifically violent and terrifyingly beautiful. The film is just gorgeously realized, both in terms of visual design and dramatic intensity. It is certainly among the greatest fantasy films ever made. The masterful cinematography is by Guillermo Navarro.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Short Take: Ménilmontant

Ménilmontant, Dimitri Kirsanoff's 1926 silent-film masterpiece, is heartbreakingly beautiful. A couple is murdered in rural France. Their daughters (Nadia Sibirskaïa and Yolande Beaulieu) move to the working-class Paris neighborhood of the film's title. They share everything: a room, food, and the same employer--both work in a sweatshop putting together artificial flowers. But a young man (Guy Belmont) seduces one sister, and then the other. Their feelings of jealousy and betrayal drive them apart. Both end up destitute. The younger sister (Sibiriskaïa) is left with a baby to care for, and the older one (Bealieu) turns to prostitution. The film's style is unique. There are no intertitles; the story is presented entirely in visuals. Kirsanoff appeared inspired by the Futurist aesthetic. The jagged camera movements, rapid editing, and canny use of superimposition give the picture an immediacy that makes it perhaps the most modern in feeling of all silent pictures. He also displays a hauntingly expressive feeling for locations. When the younger sister carries her newborn through the streets, every element--the buildings, the pavement, the sight of the Seine--takes the viewer inside her desperation. The loveliest moment is one of hope and generosity: an old man shares his food with her on a park bench. It's almost matched by the scene of the sisters' reconciliation. Kirsanoff was blessed to have Nadia Sibirskaïa as his leading lady. (She was also his wife.) Her clear-eyed beauty and emotional transparency are a good part of what makes the picture so memorable. The great movie critic Pauline Kael considered the film her all-time favorite. Seeing it, there's little wonder why.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Short Take: Unfaithfully Yours

The 1948 film Unfaithfully Yours, written and directed by Preston Sturges, is a delightful slapstick comedy. Sturges' screenplay is ingenious. An egotistical, world-famous conductor (Rex Harrison) suspects that his beautiful young wife (Linda Darnell) is having an affair with his social secretary (Kurt Kreuger). He takes the stage to conduct selections from Rossini, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky, and imagines how he will handle the situation afterward. His fantasies are in tune with the music. The Rossini piece inspires a blackly farcical revenge plot in which he frames the secretary for his wife's murder. The melancholy passage by Wagner has him behaving with the utmost magnanimity. The Tchaikovsky music prompts a duel scenario in which he demonstrates his superiority to his wife and the secretary in both courage and honor. After the concert ends, he tries to act out his fantasies, and bungles his efforts at all three. Preston Sturges directs with timing so perfect it crackles, and Rex Harrison matches him every step of the way. The post-concert scene of the conductor haplessly wrecking his apartment is one of the great movie gag sequences. The comic high point is probably his bewilderment at trying to operate an allegedly easy-to-use home recording device. There are also some great incidental bits, such as a harpist doing her nails at rehearsal, and a percussionist going for broke with bigger and better cymbals. The good parts of the film are so strong that its flaws--the padded first act; the miscasting of the bland Kurt Kreuger as the secretary; Lionel Stander's annoying faux-Russian accent as the conductor's manager--are all but completely out of mind by the film's end. The cast also includes Rudy Vallee as the conductor's insufferable brother-in-law, Barbara Lawrence as the wife's sister, and Edgar Kennedy as a music-loving private detective.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Jim Shooter: A Second Opinion

This is a revised and expanded version of an article that was originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian on January 7, 2013.

[Jim Shooter] does the best job he can, takes great pride in his work, and is genuinely dedicated to publishing the highest-quality Marvel Comics ever.
--Gary Groth, The Comics Journal 60, p. 56

Jim Shooter, the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics between 1978 and 1987, is a key figure in the history of North American comics publishing. He may also be the most disparaged. Tom Spurgeon and Jordan Raphael, in their 2004 book Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, describe Marvel under his tenure as “a wasteland of formulaic self-imitation” (p. 204). Shooter himself is characterized as “the most reviled figure in comics” and “a pariah in the comics industry to this day” (also p. 204). Several creators and staffers who worked at Marvel during his tenure routinely denounce him in blogs, interviews, and message boards. Gary Groth, the publisher of The Comics Journal, is probably Shooter’s harshest detractor. At various times, he has compared Shooter to an antebellum slaveowner (TCJ 115, p. 98) and a Nazi collaborator in the concentration camps (TCJ Library: Jack Kirby, p. 114). His most well known broadside against the former Marvel editor is probably the 1994 essay “Jim Shooter, Our Nixon” (TCJ 174, p. 17-21; click here), in which he compared Shooter to the disgraced U. S. President. Among other things, Shooter is described as “the human face, such as it was, of corporate thuggishness and intractability” and “the enemy of creators” (p. 17). The Journal, which keeps almost all back-issue material behind a subscription wall, posted the piece online for all readers in 2011. More recently, Sean Howe, in his book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, has presented a negatively skewed and at times factually inaccurate portrait of Shooter. The ridiculously absurd low point is when Howe claims, through an obtuse analysis of Shooter's comic-book writing, that Shooter identifies with megalomaniacal mass-murderers (p. 214).

A close examination of the historical record shows much of the criticism of Jim Shooter to be grossly misplaced. A good deal of it crosses the line into defamation. From an aesthetic standpoint, the Shooter era at Marvel is easily the most vibrant time in the company’s history apart from the heyday of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko in the 1960s. And unlike that seminal 1960s period, the creative harvest wasn’t an accident. It was very carefully cultivated. In terms of business dealings with comics talent, Shooter engineered the most favorable environment the company has offered before or since. Shooter’s openhandedness also extended beyond Marvel’s editorial operations and internal business arrangements. There’s a history of support for outside creators and even small publishers. Additionally, there’s considerable anecdotal evidence of his generosity with up-and-coming talent. Veteran adventure cartoonist Jim Starlin once told me, “As editor-in-chief Jim rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Because of this he has been unfairly uncredited with all the benefits he had a hand in gaining for artists while he was at the helm. He did a lot more good than ill while he was the boss.” Or, as X-Men scriptwriter Chris Claremont put it after Marvel let Shooter go in 1987, “Things that were better [at Marvel] were better [because of] him” (TCJ 116, p. 14).

Jim Shooter had been working off and on in comics for several years when he became Marvel’s editor-in-chief in January 1978. His career as a comic-book scriptwriter began in 1966, when DC Comics editor Mort Weisinger started commissioning scripts from him for the company’s Superman titles. He was 14 years old. Shooter was a regular scriptwriter for Weisinger until after graduating high school in 1969. After a brief stint as a Marvel editorial assistant that fall, he left the field for a few years. He reemerged as a scriptwriter for DC in early 1975. He became the associate editor at Marvel in January 1976. The editor-in-chief who hired him was Marv Wolfman. Shooter continued in the position under Wolfman’s successors Gerry Conway and Archie Goodwin. When Goodwin resigned in late 1977, Shooter was promoted to editor-in-chief.

By all accounts, Marvel’s editorial operations were an organizational disaster area when Shooter took over. The line had exploded over the previous decade. With titles cover-dated 1966, at the height of the Lee-Kirby-Ditko era, the company, under Lee’s editorship, put out 216 publications. In 1972, Lee became publisher, and Roy Thomas became editor-in-chief. During 1973--Thomas’ first full year in the job--the company turned out 563 publications. Its output stayed at roughly that number through 1977. But for all the company’s growth, the size and structure of the editorial staff hadn’t changed much. There was an editor-in-chief and an associate editor (or their equivalent), along with a few editorial assistants who handled proofreading and other minor duties. There had been some efforts over the years to relieve the increasing strain on the two-person editorial set-up. One was the creation in 1974 of a separate editor for the black-and-white magazine line. The other was the establishment in 1974 of the writer-editor position for outgoing editors-in-chief and a couple of others. (The writer-editors were responsible for the editorial work on the titles they scripted.) It wasn’t anywhere near enough. There was next to no oversight on the line. In mostly bad ways, a laissez-faire editorial atmosphere reigned. While some of the material was strikingly imaginative, much of it was poorly crafted. With a number of titles, the stories had become inaccessible due to convoluted storylines and flashy though opaque art. But production demands meant not much could be done. Material was being sent to the printer almost immediately after arriving in the office. Worse, printing deadlines were being missed left and right, at considerable expense. The comics themselves had been losing money for years. Had it not been for the success of the Star Wars movie adaptation and a licensed comic featuring the band Kiss, the comics publishing operation might very well have been shuttered by the end of 1977. The pressures of the editor-in-chief position were overwhelming, and it had become a revolving door. When Shooter began in the job in 1978, he was the sixth editor-in-chief in less than four years.

Shooter conquered the logistical and editorial challenges. By the end of 1978, Marvel, for the first time ever, was on schedule with its printer. During his first three years, Shooter gradually overhauled the structure of the comics editorial operations. The writer-editor position had always been a bad idea--it’s a maxim of the publishing world that no one should be their own editor--and by the end of 1980, it was history. In early 1981, Shooter had the structure he wanted fully in place. Instead of an editor-in-chief, an associate editor, and a handful of editorial assistants, the traditional comics line was managed by five group editors—each with an assistant editor—who worked under Shooter’s supervision. At the time, each of the group editors oversaw approximately 75 new comics a year. It was a far more manageable number, and it allowed them to take a greater interest in the creative direction and execution of the titles they supervised. Scripts and art were given far more scrutiny. There was a much greater emphasis given to crafting individual issues into satisfying reads. Distracting visual flash was discouraged in favor of clear narrative cartooning. Shooter took it upon himself to train new writers and artists in the principles of comics storytelling. The “Little Miss Muffet” nursery rhyme was his favorite tool for explicating story structure, and his preferred text for demonstrating the basics of visual storytelling was a 1963 Human Torch story drawn by Jack Kirby. The company’s output became considerably more accessible.

Sales turned around in the summer of 1979. According to Mile High Comics proprietor Chuck Rozanski, Marvel president James Galton told him in a May meeting that Marvel's publishing operations were in serious jeopardy. (Click here.) Those concerns ended with that summer's numbers. In a news report in The Comics Journal, Shooter characterized the season's sales as "nothing short of spectacular" (TCJ 52, p. 7). It wasn't promotional bluster, either. Shooter also announced several new publishing initiatives, including expansions of the color-comics offerings, and a new paperback book line that would use the European album format. There's nothing that demonstrates commercial success better than expansion and diversification. The summer's success was no fluke. Its momentum continued. By 1981, no newsstand-distributed title sold below 100,000 copies per issue, and several had sell-through rates in excess of 50 percent. (Traditional newsstand distribution is done on a returnable basis, and 30 percent sell-through is generally required to break even.) Under Shooter, the company was enjoying the best sales it had seen since the 1960s.

Shooter also took it upon himself to improve the compensation of creators. His attitude was probably best summed up by these statements at the 1981 San Diego Comicon:
I feel that you don’t pay artists and writers, you invest money; and the more you invest, the happier people are, the more secure they are, and the more able they are to devote themselves entirely to [their work] […] in my position I can go and I can fight and I can get money for them. So that’s what I’m going to do. (TCJ 68, p.63)

It has not been reported by exactly how much, but it’s accepted that shortly after he took over Shooter substantially increased page rates for creative talent. He stated under oath in 1986 that up-front scriptwriting rates at Marvel had tripled during his tenure (TCJ 115, p. 81). In August of 1979, he instituted a bonus system based on the number of consecutive issues completed on a series assignment (click here). By the end of the year, he had developed a character-creation plan that gave the talent an ongoing financial interest in any new character or property they created for the company (TCJ 54, p. 13). (The plan was approved in 1980, but a lawsuit filed that August by Howard the Duck co-creator Steve Gerber prevented its implementation for two years. The new policy would have increased Marvel's contractual obligations to Gerber, and Marvel's attorneys advised against that until the suit was resolved. It was settled in September of 1982.)

Shooter's most important initiative in creator compensation was the establishment of a codified sales-bonus plan for scriptwriters, penciler/cartoonists, and inkers. In the first half of 1981, Shooter, cartoonist Jim Starlin, and Marvel's de facto publisher Michael Hobson finalized the contract for The Death of Captain Marvel, the first book in Marvel's Euro-album "graphic novel" line. The contract included a royalty clause for copies sold. It was the first contract for a Marvel publication featuring company-owned characters to include such a provision. That November, Marvel's chief competitor DC Comics upped the ante by announcing a sales-royalty arrangement for their periodical comics line. The following month, Shooter established a similar plan for all Marvel newsstand comics selling in excess of 100,000 copies (TCJ 70, pp. 10-12). Since all the company's newsstand titles were selling in those numbers, every scriptwriter, penciler, and inker at Marvel would see the equivalent of royalties for their work. Daredevil was Marvel’s top-selling title for the first month of the program, and writer-penciler Frank Miller received a $6000 sales bonus for that month’s issue. A sliding scale was later introduced, and under it, John Byrne received a $30,000 sales bonus for writing, penciling, and inking the first issue of Alpha Flight in 1983. Several Marvel writers and artists began to enjoy affluent income levels. Shooter testified under oath in 1986 that scriptwriters Chris Claremont and Bill Mantlo respectively earned $230,000 and $120,000 from Marvel in 1985 (TCJ 115, p. 104). Long-time comics artist Bernie Wrightson summed up the improved business situation in a 1982 interview: “[Marvel has] gotten a hell of a lot more reasonable in recent years. In fact, I don’t know if you’ve heard about the new contracts that Marvel is offering, but these things are just dreamy” (TCJ 76, p. 109).

Several of Shooter’s detractors note the sales royalty plan had already been established at DC Comics before Marvel instituted it. However, belittling Shooter’s achievement in setting up the policy displays an obtuse ignorance of business realities. Gary Groth, for one, has acknowledged that in 1980 Marvel’s sales were as much as every other U. S. comics publisher combined (TCJ 60, p. 63). No business in that position is going to play follow the leader with a competitor unless it is already inclined to institute the policy. The plan could have easily cost Marvel hundreds of thousands if not millions a year up front. Shooter has claimed he designed it and gotten it approved in principle shortly after becoming editor-in-chief in 1978 (TCJ 70, p. 10). The chronology of the Euro-album contracts supports this, as does knowledge of the general business environment. At the time, Marvel was a division of a publicly traded company. There is no way a policy of that sort could be designed and approved within a month in that scenario. Again, every Marvel newsstand title had high enough sales for creators to be eligible for the royalty plan. Less than a quarter of DC’s line was eligible for theirs, and people at Marvel knew it. This was going to have a far greater impact on Marvel’s short-term bottom line than it would on DC’s. It seems a miracle that Shooter was ever able to put it in place.

Shooter also took advantage of changes in the publishing environment to diversify Marvel’s output.

In 1978, revisions to the copyright law took effect that made creator ownership of publishing properties a more workable option. The copyright law had previously contained what was known as the indivisibility doctrine. It held that all rights inherent in copyright were indivisible and could not be individually assigned to a publisher to either license or protect from infringement. Only the copyright owner could authorize individual licenses to, for example, foreign publishers, film producers, or toy manufacturers. Diversified licensing programs had always been a key part of comics publishing. With the most successful properties it was where most of the money was made, and it has traditionally allowed for comics to be published at a loss. As such, it is undesirable (and in many instances untenable) for a publisher not to acquire the licensing rights to a property. Before 1978, the only way to do this was for the publisher to own the property outright. But the new copyright law allowed the author or authors to retain the copyright while assigning the licensing rights to the publisher. Shooter and Marvel immediately took advantage of the change to develop and publish Epic Illustrated magazine, which debuted in 1980. It was a slick, high-production-value anthology that was all but entirely made up of author-owned material. It was just the first step in this direction.

According to Rick Marschall, the magazine's initial editor, Epic Illustrated came about because Marvel president James Galton wanted to expand the company’s color-magazine offerings (TCJ 49, p. 9). (For those not immersed in comics-format lingo, these were publications with the traditional magazine trim-size. They were distinct from the standard comics, known as floppies, which had smaller dimensions.) Galton wanted to build on the success of the company’s licensed Kiss book and the Marvel Super Special movie adaptations. Shooter and Marschall, who edited the company's magazine titles, proposed a continuing anthology magazine modeled after Heavy Metal and Star*Reach. Galton had vetoed Marvel acquiring Heavy Metal when the original French publisher first shopped it around--he felt the content was too extreme in terms of sex and violence--but he was willing to publish a similar magazine with milder material. Shooter, who as editor-in-chief was Marvel’s de facto publisher, put together the contributor contracts and the rest of the business infrastructure. Once the board of directors of Cadence Industries, Marvel’s parent company, approved the project--the proposed budget was more than Galton could authorize--Marschall began acquiring material. After a couple of name changes, Epic Illustrated was announced in the summer of 1979. Marvel let Marschall go in October (TCJ 51, p. 5). Archie Goodwin was immediately announced as his replacement. Goodwin edited the magazine until its cancellation in 1985.

By 1981, the comics-store fan market, which offered non-returnable distribution terms, had grown to the point where sales in it alone could be enough to make a publication profitable. With the losses from returns out of the equation, the sales threshold for profitability was significantly lowered. Shooter and Marvel took advantage of this on many fronts. There was considerable experimentation with non-traditional publications, including ones with higher production values, author-owned material, and unusual creative directions. Creatively idiosyncratic company-owned titles that were losing money in the newsstand market were moved to exclusive comics-store distribution. The Euro-album graphic-novel line, which was launched in January of 1982, was also exclusive to the comics stores. It was divided evenly between company- and author-owned titles. Handsomely produced serialized reprints of the company’s high points from the 1960s and ‘70s also began publication in 1982. September saw the debut of the Epic Comics line, which focused on author-owned comics series. The Epic contracts were perhaps the most author-friendly in the field during the 1980s. Among other things, they were fixed-term agreements, rather than, for lack of a better description, the conditional-perpetuity ones used by Fantagraphics and others. (A fixed-term contract is one in which the publishing license exists for a predetermined amount of time. A conditional-perpetuity contract is one in which the publisher keeps the license for as long as the material remains in print or otherwise generates income.) There was an effort to start a high-quality illustrated book line in 1983. In 1984, Shooter and Marvel became the first to collect and reprint popular comics storylines as stand-alone trade paperbacks. The first two titles were X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga and Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle. The practice is now the foundation of comics publishing in North America. (Material from comic-book series had of course been collected in book format before this, but only as anthologies that either compiled the series from the beginning or featured arbitrarily selected material. Book collections of distinct storylines had no precedent.) Marvel under Shooter exploited the opportunities the non-returnable marketplace offered to its fullest. The result was one of the most striking diversifications of a publishing line ever seen.

Jim Shooter set the stage, and the results were impressive. Six projects--Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Elektra: Assassin and Daredevil: Love and War, Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again, Bernie Wrightson’s The Illustrated Frankenstein, J. M. DeMatteis and Jon J Muth’s Moonshadow, and a graphic-novel series collecting the work of the French cartoonist Moebius--were the most impressive the company had published since Kirby and Ditko's peak efforts with Stan Lee in the 1960s. There are over a dozen other offerings that can easily hold their own with the best of everything else from the ‘60s and ‘70s. These efforts, in roughly chronological order, include Bob Layton, David Michelinie, and John Romita, Jr.'s Iron Man, Miller and Klaus Janson’s Daredevil, Sienkiewicz and Doug Moench’s Moon Knight, Bruce Jones and Brent Anderson’s Ka-Zar the Savage, John Byrne’s The Fantastic Four, Roger Stern's Doctor Strange, with art by Marshall Rogers, Paul Smith, and others, Miller and Chris Claremont’s Wolverine, Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar, Walt Simonson’s Thor, Rick Veitch’s Heartburst, Elaine Lee and Michael Kaluta’s Starstruck, Louise Simonson and June Brigman’s Power Pack, Claremont and Sienkiewicz’s The New Mutants, Sergio Aragonés’ Groo the Wanderer, Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest, Claremont and John Bolton’s “Vignettes” series in Classic X-Men, and Doug Murray and Michael Golden’s The ‘Nam. Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men run is technically a carryover from Archie Goodwin’s tenure, but it belongs on this list as well. This is all “a wasteland of formulaic self-imitation”? Please.

Shooter’s publishing achievements at Marvel were considerable, but that doesn’t stop his detractors from trying to discredit them. The diversification of Marvel’s publishing line is disparaged by highlighting that other publishers broke the ground for the new formats before Marvel. Epic Illustrated was simply following the lead of National Lampoon’s Heavy Metal. Eclipse Comics was the first U. S. publisher to produce European-style albums. Pacific Comics was the first post-1978 publisher to offer full-color author-owned adventure-comics series. The response to this, again, is to remember that Marvel’s market share was at least as much as all its competitors put together. Again, they were not going to play follow the leader with any competitor unless they were inclined to do these things regardless. And none of these efforts from other publishers were successful enough to prompt copycat efforts as a matter of course. Just look at DC, by far Marvel's biggest rival. There was no attempt to do anything comparable to Epic Illustrated. The company's ventures into European-style comics albums were half-hearted at best. Their alleged efforts with author-owned comics projects were a sham.

Sean Howe, in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, effectively states that the Epic Comics imprint was started in response to DC Comics’ acquisition of Frank Miller’s Ronin, which was announced in February of 1982:

But Frank Miller’s deal with DC had made waves. At Marvel’s monthly press conference in May [of 1982], Jim Shooter announced that a newly formed division of the company, called Epic Comics, would allow for artists and writers to retain not just a percentage of the sales, but also ownership of their creations. Jim Starlin, who hadn’t drawn a regular series since Warlock, was the first to sign up. (p. 248)

One of Howe's major flaws, apart from a gross inability to keep his biases in check, is his weakness for glib "after this, therefore because of this" narrative constructions. This description of the creation of the Epic Comics line is not accurate. Ronin did play a role in the creation of the Epic line, but not in the way Howe presents it. According to Shooter (click here), the idea for the Epic imprint came when Starlin, Miller, and Walt Simonson came to him as a group and proposed that each do an author-owned comic-book series for Marvel. Starlin would do Dreadstar, Miller would do Ronin, and Simonson would do Star Slammers. Starlin told me Epic Illustrated editor Archie Goodwin "was a major force in those discussions." And though Starlin doesn't recall Miller and Ronin being part of the talks, Miller was definitely in negotiations to do Ronin through Epic. As Miller said in a 1985 interview, Ronin "almost accompanied Dreadstar as one of the first Epic comics" (TCJ 101, p. 71). It's just that before negotiations were completed, DC publisher Jenette Kahn apparently offered a more lucrative advance, thereby convincing him to bring it to DC.

Howe also constructs that paragraph in a way that suggests Marvel acquired the Dreadstar series after announcing the new imprint. The Dreadstar acquisition and the establishment of the Epic imprint were announced at the same time (TCJ 74, p. 14). Epic wasn't like DC's Piranha Press, where the imprint was announced and projects to be published through it were sought afterward. Not only was Epic set up in part to specifically publish the Dreadstar series, Starlin actually signed with Marvel long before the May announcement. Steve Englehart makes reference to the deal in his introduction to the Dreadstar graphic album, published in June. Given publisher and printer lead times, the introduction could not have been written later than February, and was likely written before then.

More importantly, the Ronin deal was significantly different than the ones for author-owned titles at Epic. Creators at Epic retained far more rights. The late Dick Giordano was at the time DC’s executive editor, which was roughly the equivalent of Shooter’s editor-in-chief position. In 1987, he publicly discussed the specifics of the Ronin contract (TCJ 119, p. 84). Judging from his statements, it wasn’t, like at Epic, a fixed-term agreement. It wasn’t even a conditional-perpetuity agreement. There is no reversion clause in the Ronin contract, although Miller may have been offered one retroactively. (Giordano believed Miller chose not to sign it.) Miller technically owns the copyright, but that’s it. As Giordano said, “No, the copyright [for Ronin] doesn’t mean anything […] it’s 100% cosmetic.” DC has the rights to Ronin in perpetuity. The company is even able to employ other creators to produce spin-off comics if Miller isn’t interested. At Epic, the creators were free to take the property elsewhere after the publishing term expired. (The one for Dreadstar was at most four years.) The contracts also did not allow Epic to do Before Watchmen-type projects over those creators’ objections. For all practical purposes, DC Comics owns Ronin. Miller's copyright is just a fig leaf. With Starlin and the other creators of author-copyrighted material at Epic, their ownership was the real thing.

Gary Groth has argued against the publishing achievement of the best projects Marvel put out under Shooter:

One way of measuring a publisher’s commitment to furthering comics as art—and his parallel commitment to the dignity and intelligence of his constituency--is to determine roughly what percentage of his publishing activity reflects such a commitment versus the percentage that reflects his need to satisfy his accountant […] One would have to be particularly naïve to see a couple--or a handful--of titles buried under a standard of mediocrity as representing anything other than sheer dumb luck. (TCJ 117, p. 6)

Figuring percentages may be a “way of measuring” career achievements in the arts, but it’s not a method that carries much weight--nor should it. Artists, authors, and publishers are ultimately judged by the quality of their best efforts, not by the ratio of good work to bad. As an example, let me point to none other than Gary Groth himself. Personally, I think Fantagraphics, which Groth co-owns, has a pretty fair claim to being the best comics publisher in North America over the last thirty years. This is despite the fact that a substantial portion of Fantagraphics’ output has been the money-grubbing pornographic sludge published through its Eros imprint. Fantagraphics even partnered with a phone-sex service under the Eros brand. There's also the considerable volume of amateurish to mediocre material Fantagraphics has published outside of Eros. Does all this discredit Fantagraphics’ achievement in publishing work by Charles Schulz, Chris Ware, Jacques Tardi, Daniel Clowes, Jaime Hernandez, Carl Barks, Robert Crumb, and so many other accomplished cartoonists? Hardly. It’s beside the point. Fantagraphics is considered a good publisher on the basis of the good work it has published, not the ratio of good work to bad.

Groth also overlooks that Shooter was functioning in a preexisting situation, and one prone by its nature to complacency and preserving the status quo. Marvel was (and is) a corporate entity where the people with the most authority tend to have little or no time for aesthetic considerations, and, as it was part of a publicly traded company, bottom-line considerations were an overriding factor as a matter of course. Shooter did not have the ability to unilaterally authorize an acquisition or cancellation. He had a great deal of clout, but the final decisions were made by Marvel president James Galton and, later on, vice-president in charge of publishing Michael Hobson. At its core, Marvel is a publisher of pulp-adventure comics, and that’s not going to change no matter who is at its editorial helm.

What matters in such a situation is the editor-in-chief’s capacity to successfully deviate from the path of least resistance. To determine that, one should consider how Shooter’s tenure compares to those of the editors-in-chief who preceded and followed him. Consider the list of material above. Marvel under Shooter was not only more vital aesthetically than it was under any other editor-in-chief from Roy Thomas through Tom Brevoort, it was probably more vital than under all those editors-in-chief combined. However, if Groth (or anyone else) wants to argue that Marvel was a more impressive publisher under, say, Marv Wolfman or Bob Harras, I’ll be more than happy to hear the case made.

As for the “sheer dumb luck” claim, I note that unlike, say, the Lee, Kirby, and Ditko collaborations at Marvel in the ‘60s, the very best material under Shooter by and large isn’t stuff that just happened to show up in a decades-old newsprint line. Five of the six best projects named above were the result of contracts and publishing formats that were set up for the purpose of cultivating and supporting that sort of work. The projects couldn’t have been published otherwise.

Moving on to Jim Shooter’s individual generosity with creators and smaller publishers, here are a few examples:

--For a token fee, Shooter granted Gary Groth and Fantagraphics a license to print as much material as they wanted from the X-Men comic-book series for use in a two-volume interview collection called The X-Men Companion. Shooter also directed Marvel’s production staff to shoot all the photostats from the comics that Fantagraphics requested. These were provided free of charge. It was no small amount of art, either. About half the space in the two 100+ page books was taken up with reprinted panels. It was way beyond what would be permitted under fair use.

--Shooter also hired Groth and Fantagraphics to typeset the complete Mary Shelley text for Bernie Wrightson’s The Illustrated Frankenstein. This was despite Fantagraphics having no experience with typesetting projects for other companies. Marvel was also perfectly capable of doing the job in-house.

--Howard Cruse had contributed a series of Barefootz stories to Marvel’s short-lived Comix Book magazine in the mid-1970s. Marvel, though, had kept the copyrights. According to Cruse, Shooter “cleared the way for me to regain the rights to the stories I had drawn.” (Click here.) Thanks to Shooter, Cruse was able to publish the stories through Renegade Press in 1986. Shooter even granted the use of Marvel’s trademarked Comix Book logo for the cover.

--Shooter did a similar favor for Chris Claremont and John Bolton with Marada the She-Wolf. Their initial story originally featured the Red Sonja character, but when a rights question arose with the Robert E. Howard licensor, they came up with Marada, a new character, to replace her. The story was done as work-made-for-hire, and Marvel owned all rights. Shooter allowed the two to buy back the story, and he gave them the rights to the Marada character along with it. Claremont publicly thanked Shooter for, in the words of The Comics Journal’s reporter, his “fair-mindedness and magnanimity” (TCJ 67, p. 17). It was the first comics character in which Claremont had an ownership stake. Claremont and Bolton went on to publish a series of Marada stories in Epic Illustrated. These were later collected in a Marvel Graphic Novel edition.

--Shooter was occasionally able to grant greater rights retroactively with the company-owned characters writers and artists had created. To pick one example, John Byrne had created the Alpha Flight characters before Marvel’s character-creation participation plan was introduced. In 1983, in conjunction with the debut of a monthly Alpha Flight series, Shooter arranged for the Alpha Flight characters to be retroactively covered by the plan. Byrne retains a financial interest in Alpha Flight to this day.

--When Marvel’s Epic imprint published Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest, Shooter agreed to let the license be for specific material and not the property as a whole. The Pinis were allowed to concurrently publish a competing Elfquest series, Siege at Blue Mountain, through Apple Comics. Further, they were allowed to promote the competing series in the pages of the Epic title.

--After Marvel’s lawyers sent cartoonist/publisher Dave Sim a cease-and-desist letter for cover-featuring a Wolverine parody on three successive Cerebus issues, Shooter arranged to license the character to Sim for one dollar. This cleared the way for Sim to reprint the issues as part of the Church & State, Volume One Cerebus collection. Shooter also helped promote Cerebus by authorizing a series of new, full-color Cerebus stories by Sim and his collaborator Gerhard in Epic Illustrated.

Shooter is well known for being generous with his time when it comes to novice creators. Frank Miller had this to say about his dealings with Shooter when starting out:

Because [Shooter] liked my work, he spent hours with me, on job after job, never bending his point of view an inch. It was, for me, the first time I had ever heard the word “storytelling” used to mean the use of words and pictures to convey information. Until then, I had heard it used primarily to describe visual tricks […] from this I gained a firm grasp of certain essentials of story structure and storytelling. It gave me a logical base from which I was able to build and develop less traditional works […] his contribution to my work is undeniable […] (TCJ 101, p. 70)

Chester Brown, the celebrated author of the graphic novels I Never Liked You and Louis Riel, was a wannabe adventure-comics artist in the late 1970s. In 1990, he gave this account of his 1979 experience with Shooter:

I went back down [to New York a second time], and this time the Marvel method had changed of looking at portfolios. I left my portfolio there and I figured it was going to be the same thing again — you left your portfolio overnight. Only the next day, when I went in, they didn’t hand it back and say, “No.” Jim Shooter came out with the portfolio and went through the portfolio with me, telling me what he thought of the different things […] He was at that point editor-in-chief. So the top guy in the company came out and spent his time with some unknown artist who had just come in. That kind of surprised me and impressed me. He was very nice. (TCJ 135, pp. 75-76)

Both accounts are typical of what one hears about Shooter from aspiring talent or established creators describing their tyro experiences.

To review, Jim Shooter vastly improved the business situation for creators who worked on Marvel’s company-owned properties. He set up publishing venues at Marvel for author-owned material, and the contracts for those were the most author-friendly in the field. Formats with higher production values were introduced, which helped expand the range of what creators could do. He did business favors for creators regardless of whether they worked for Marvel or not. He also did favors for smaller publishers. And he has a history of going out of his way to help beginning talent with learning their craft. Shooter was far from “the enemy of creators.” He did more positive things for them than any other editor or publisher of the time. Those efforts paved the way for some of the most accomplished material put out by a North American comics publisher during his tenure. His status as an industry pariah seems deeply unjust.

Related posts
  • The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files
           -- Introduction
           -- Tony Isabella
           -- Steve Englehart
           -- Gerry Conway
           -- Mary Skrenes
           -- Len Wein