[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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
--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.
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.
- The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files
-- Tony Isabella
-- Steve Englehart
-- Gerry Conway
-- Mary Skrenes
-- Len Wein