Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files: Gerry Conway

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.

Note: Gerry Conway could not be reached for comment on this article.

Gerry Conway, born in 1952, broke into comics as a scriptwriter at DC in 1968. He was 16. In 1970, after two years of writing for horror anthology titles for DC and Marvel, he took over as the regular scriptwriter for Marvel’s Daredevil series. Within a year, he had also become the regular scriptwriter for Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, and the "Inhumans" series in Amazing Adventures. In 1972, the 19-year-old Conway became Stan Lee’s successor as regular scriptwriter for The Amazing Spider-Man, the company's flagship title. While on the series, he scripted the issues featuring the deaths of Gwen Stacy and the Norman Osborn Green Goblin, as well as the story introducing the Punisher. In 1975, unhappy over the successive promotions of Len Wein and Marv Wolfman to Marvel editor-in-chief, he moved over to DC to work as an editor and scriptwriter. Conway returned to Marvel as editor-in-chief in March 1976, but stepped down less than a month later to become a writer-editor with the company. Before the end of the year, he had gone back to DC, where he worked for the next decade. In 1986, he returned to Marvel to script the launch of Spitfire and the Troubleshooters for the New Universe imprint. At the time of Shooter’s termination as editor-in-chief in April 1987, Conway was writing the Thundercats series for Marvel’s Star Comics line, as well as the New Universe title Justice.

Conway had been working regularly for Marvel for a year when Shooter was let go, so, as with Steve Englehart, knowledgeable readers would have again looked askance at Gary Groth’s inclusion of Conway in his 1987 editorial’s list of “the vast number of creators fired or otherwise driven to leave Marvel by Shooter” (TCJ #117, p. 6). As with Steve Englehart, Groth made no mention of Conway’s employment at Marvel at the time of Shooter’s firing.

Another reason readers might have looked askance was because when Conway left Marvel in 1976, the editor-in-chief was his immediate successor, Archie Goodwin. Shooter was still the company’s associate editor at the time. And Conway didn’t report to either Goodwin or Shooter. The writer-editor contract specified that he reported directly to Marvel publisher Stan Lee.

There was no correction printed with regard to that editorial, and in the 1994 “Our Nixon” essay, Groth also included Conway in the specific list of people whom Groth stated that “under Shooter 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, p.18). Groth again made no mention that when Shooter left Marvel, Conway was regularly working for the company.

As he did with Steve Englehart, Groth misleadingly extended the Marvel-under-Shooter description to mean when Shooter was associate editor as well as editor-in-chief. As for the basis for Conway’s inclusion, it appears to be the following statement from the 1981 feature-length interview with Conway in The Comics Journal #69.

Jim [Shooter] was my assistant at Marvel for about a month, and that’s really been the extent of our relationship. When I worked there as a writer-editor, I really didn’t have anything to do with Jim. When I left, however, Archie Goodwin was on vacation during the week that I left Marvel. It wasn’t my intention to make a sudden break, one day I’d be working for Marvel, the next day I wouldn’t. It was my intention to give them the option of letting me segue out over a period of a month, to complete the work that I’d already been assigned and paid for on the basis of an advance loan. But Jim, who was Archie’s assistant and the person in charge of the office at the time, had Stan’s ear and said to Stan, “Well, gee, Stan, do we really want to have a writer who’s already decided to leave us working for us over the next few weeks possibly turning out work on an inferior level because he’s so disinterested? Let’s get that work away from him.” That cost me almost $4000. […] Now I wouldn’t want to say Jim did that out of maliciousness or a feeling of ambition, but I do know that several of the stories that were taken away from me were later written by Jim. (TCJ #69, p. 82)

Even if one takes this at face value, it does not support Groth's claim that Conway "was fired or otherwise driven to leave Marvel by Shooter." Although Conway does not specify his reasons for his decision to leave Marvel, it's clear that problems with Shooter weren't among them. As he said, "When I worked there as a writer-editor, I really didn’t have anything to do with Jim." All Conway is alleging is that, after he announced his departure, Shooter took steps that hastened that exit. It's far from the same thing. Groth again appears to be playing fast and loose with what allegedly happened.

Getting back to Conway, there is nothing indicating his account of Shooter’s conduct is anything but speculation, and reckless speculation at that. How did Conway know what Shooter said or didn't say to Lee? And isn't Lee responsible for his own actions? He'd been a publishing professional for over 35 years at this point. It's hard to imagine him being influenced in this way by a junior staffer.

If I had to guess what’s going on here, I would say that Conway was looking to absolve Lee of responsibility for Lee's treatment of him. Further, he was looking to blame another person--here, Shooter--for Lee’s actions, and then treat that person, not Lee, as the enemy.

This appears to be a pattern of behavior on Conway’s part. When Conway was passed over for the editor-in-chief position in favor of Len Wein in 1974, and again passed over for it in 1975 when Marv Wolfman replaced Wein, he has said it “cluttered up my relationship with Marv and Len, when they were put in over me” (TCJ #69, p. 72). The implication of this was that he blamed them for Lee’s decision to hire them, rather than Lee himself. In a 2011 blog post (click here), Shooter says Conway told him that “Marv and Len had lobbied against his being hired and prevailed.” Shooter also told Sean Howe that Conway said he intended to drive Len Wein to quit because “[t]he bastard screwed me, and I want rid of him." [emphasis in the original] (Untold Story, p. 184). As can be seen, there’s first the shifting of responsibility away from Lee, and then the demonization of the person blamed instead.

Roy Thomas, who was perhaps Conway’s closest friend in the comics field, as well as the Marvel veteran who knew Lee best, said in 1980 that he considered Lee specifically responsible for what happened to Conway.

Marvel has had a tendency in recent years to be very vindictive toward people who leave it to work for the competition. They go far beyond any kind of professional reaction. Stan generally has reasonably good and humane instincts, but once in a while he’ll just decide that if somebody does something, he’s never going to work for Marvel again. He did this with Len, and with Gerry […] (TCJ #61, p. 85)

It appears Lee, at least in practice, had a policy when it came to the scriptwriters who had served as editor-in-chief and, upon stepping down, were granted writer-editor contracts. If they quit to work for DC, Lee did not want them working for Marvel from that moment forward. The first person to be confronted with this was Len Wein. In 1977, Wein left Marvel for DC. According to Kim Thompson, in a news report he wrote for The Comics Journal, Wein told him “Lee angrily assured him [Wein] that he would never work for the company again” (TCJ #56, p. 12). When Marv Wolfman announced he was leaving Marvel for DC in 1979, Lee ordered that Wolfman’s outstanding contractual assignments be rescinded, and that Wolfman was to receive his remaining vacation and sick pay instead of the salary he would have been due for that work (TCJ #52, p. 8). Conway appears to have been treated the same as Wein and Wolfman, and for the the same reason.

Beyond that, it’s my view that Stan Lee had plenty of reason to be angry over Conway’s decision to leave for DC. Conway was hired for the editor-in-chief position after lobbying for it through Roy Thomas, who then recommended Conway for the job (Untold Story, p.183). Lee took a sizable chance on hiring a largely untested 23-year-old, and Conway essentially threw the opportunity back in Lee's face: he resigned from the job after less than a month. He then immediately played on Lee's goodwill again and negotiated an astonishingly expansive writer-editor contract. It required Marvel to give him eight ongoing scriptwriting assignments, twice as much as that of any other writer at the company. Now, five of those assignments weren’t a problem. Conway took over two titles that were left open by Englehart's departure, one from Tony Isabella’s, one that Archie Goodwin left when Goodwin succeeded Conway as editor-in-chief, and one that Marv Wolfman had vacated to take over another series. However, Steve Gerber, one of the company’s most valued scriptwriters, had to be removed from one of his books to accommodate Conway, and the company also had to launch two new titles to fill out the balance of Conway’s quota. The contract was for three years. After Lee had gone to these lengths on Conway’s behalf, including potentially alienating Gerber, Conway threw it all back in Lee’s face again. He decided after about six months to break the contract and return to DC. If I had been Stan Lee, I probably would have been scooting Conway out the door as quickly as I could, too.

I also note that Shooter has stated he did not have a positive working relationship with Lee until the two began collaborating on the writing of the Spider-Man newspaper strip (click here). This would have been in 1977, after Conway left the company. If what Shooter says is accurate, he did not seem to have "Stan's ear" at the time.

Conway observes that, after he left, Shooter took over some of his scriptwriting assignments. That's correct, as did Goodwin, Roger Slifer, David Anthony Kraft, Bill Mantlo, and Chris Claremont. Goodwin was the editor-in-chief, Slifer and Kraft were both editorial staffers, Mantlo was possibly still on staff at this time, and Claremont was known to regularly hang out in the Marvel offices. Pardon my sarcasm, but perhaps it wasn’t just Shooter who might have influenced Lee to give Conway the early boot. It could have been a conspiracy the entire office was in on.

Now let’s discuss the money that Shooter’s alleged influencing of Lee cost Conway.

In the 1981 quote, Conway describes this as “an advance loan” for assigned work. Conway was actually benefitting from a secret, massive (and benevolently intended) pre-payment accounting scam being run by Marvel production manager John Verpoorten. (Sean Howe describes the scam on page 201 of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.) According to Shooter (click here), when Conway went over to DC, he informed them that he owed Marvel the money. DC cut Marvel a check for the amount and arranged an internal payment plan with Conway to cover the balance. If this is accurate, Conway just ended up repaying the money in a different manner than he intended. If he lost money, it was because he wasn’t able to repay the money by working for Marvel and DC simultaneously, and there's no indication that Marvel would have ever allowed him to do that.

What Shooter says happened next doesn’t really reflect on Conway, but I’d like to include it, just to give an idea of how disorganized things were at Marvel at the time:

DC’s check was delivered to Marvel’s accounting department. [Marvel's chief financial officer] Barry Kaplan had no clue, at that point (before the scam came to light) what it was for, assumed it was a mistake and sent it back! DC then sent the check to John Verpoorten, probably at Gerry’s suggestion. The five figure [sic] check was found in Verpoorten’s drawer after he died.

Gerry Conway continued to work for Marvel after Shooter’s departure. His efforts included extended runs as scriptwriter for Spectacular Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man, and Conan the Barbarian. He also did occasional work for DC during this time. He left the field in the early 1990s to work as a writer and producer in series television. His most notable TV credit is the rerun perennial Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which he worked on as a producer for four seasons. He wrote or co-wrote 12 episodes. He returned to work for DC in 2009 and 2010, and did some new scriptwriting for Marvel in 2015.

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

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