The guy who was EIC for Marvel during 1977-87 was interviewed by Adventures in Poor Taste at the Rhode Island comicon, and he had some pretty harsh words about how they’re handling things now, including the padded-out storytelling approach they’ve used for a long time, though there are a few weaknesses in his statements I’d like to point out as well. First, here’s what he says about the decompressed tales, which Brian Bendis was notorious for:
AiPT!: Jim, you served as the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics for nine years. I’m not sure if you keep up with Marvel, but if so, what are your thoughts on the current state of the publisher and the wider comic book industry?
Jim Shooter: I think they forgot what business they’re in. I think there’s some brilliant talent out there–if you just flip through the books, the pictures are incredible. Sometimes they don’t tell the story as well as they should, sometimes they’re actually designing pages to sell in places like this [a comic convention], and not really thinking about the best way to tell a story. The writing, I cannot account for much of the writing. You have brilliant guys like Mark Waid who will do something and it’s great, but so much of the stuff is what they call decompressed storytelling…
AiPT: Right. Writing for the trade paperbacks.
Shooter: It takes forever to tell a story. What Stan [Lee] would put in six pages–it takes six months. So you look at the sales–Marvel comics are now $4 apiece, and they’re thrilled if the sales are over 30,000. When I was at Marvel, the whole world was different. We didn’t have a single title–we had 75 titles–we didn’t have a single one that sold below 100,000. We had the X-Men approaching three quarters of a million. And that’s not some special No. 1, or somebody dies, or changes costumes, or someone gets married–it was every time. A lot of it was single-copy readers. People weren’t running around buying cases of it because it had a foil-embossed cover. It was every issue.
And all for the stories within. I don’t think it was based merely on who was writing it at the time either, so long as the script was entertaining and absorbing, though it could be argued that, thanks to political correctness, some writers still in the business today have lost their edge, including Mark Waid, who’s recently returned to Twitter and gone downhill yet again in politics; exactly why I have to disagree with Shooter on that matter. But, he’s got a good point about sales figures: 30,000 is nothing to crow over. On the contrary, it’s a major disappointment business-wise, no matter the quality of the story.
That said, Shooter’s note about few or no titles selling below 100,000 still seems to confirm something I’d noticed several years ago when I tried doing research on what sales were like decades before, and saw that already in the mid-70s, there were some titles that were starting to sell below a million. Can that be considered a true success? Obviously not, and today’s publishers who pretend otherwise are making a sad case of themselves.
Now, after they start talking about the Phoenix saga, here’s where something questionable comes up:
AiPT!: And on the letter page, one reader was so angry the creative team killed Jean. It made me think of the outrage you see these days online among certain comic fans. Do you ever think about what life would have been like at Marvel if social media was around back then?
Shooter: Honestly, I don’t think it would have changed a thing for me. Let me give you an example. When I started, there was a story–well-researched, very well considered, and I had a friend who was psychologist run through the whole thing to make sure we got the psychology right. Yellowjacket ends up having a mental breakdown and gets divorced from Jan. And there’s a mistake in that story where the artist drew Yellowjacket hitting her–he was supposed to accidentally hit her with his hand not punch her, so it became the wife-beater story. But the story was all worked out so people could see where it was going, this guy’s heading in a bad direction, and I started getting this hate mail and death threats, all kinds of stuff. So I went to Stan and said, “I’ve never seen mail like this before, Stan.” He looked at it and said, “That’s the kind of mail I used to get in the original days of Spider-Man–why can’t Peter Parker be happy? Why can’t he have a girlfriend?” And I said, “Yeah, but this is pretty intense.” And he said, “Well, how are the sales?” I said we’re going about 10,000 copies a month. He said, “I think you’re doing all right.” So if they’re talking about you, at least you’re doing that right, and if the foundation is good, let them rant. At least they care–give me people who care.
That doesn’t mean the story in issue #213 was something ideal to begin with, seeing how it all spiraled out of control over the years. But it’s beside the point. I remember when Shooter first argued a number of years ago that it wasn’t his fault for the finished product, and he said Yellowjacket struck Wasp with his right hand when it was actually his left. Now, he implies Hank Pym punched, when the finished art shows Hank roundhoused her with a backhand smack. Even the interviewing site has the infamous page drawn by Bob Hall. Hank’s fingers on the attacking hand are not closed into a fist, if anything, and the script’s tone implies he didn’t see anything wrong with smacking her down at the time. Why is Shooter still trying to claim he had no fault here? If he did conceive the mess as read around issue #213, then it does no good to act like it’s everyone’s fault but his. He could at least have criticized Brian Bendis for blaming a fictional character, but that would mean taking responsibility as a writer (the story is one of a few to which Shooter’s got credit in the early 80s), and he apparently doesn’t have what it takes to do that. Which, quite naturally, is a shame. If we don’t own up for our faults in scriptwriting, we won’t solve these problems in the future.
That said, I hope it’s just a typo that they were doing ten thousand copies a month, because otherwise, he’s contradicted his claim they weren’t selling below one hundred thousand during the Bronze/Iron Age.
The interview does have its important parts, including where Shooter panned the Cap-as-nazi story that was only done for shock value and spiting the fans deliberately. But it’s a shame if he won’t admit he went too far with turning a superhero even slightly abusive towards his spouse, or that, if it’s not something you’d want to see Spider-Man, Mr. Fantastic and Captain America doing, then why should you want to see even a minor third-tier doing it either? That’s what bothers me about the Hank Pym debacle from 1981 – it has the reek of exploiting a minor character all over it. If they had to do a story about spousal abuse, they should’ve done it with civilian guest characters, and not risk tainting Hank with an idea that would come boomeranging back via writers who seem to think the most questionable stories are the most classic, and worse, do whatever they can to make a mockery out of efforts to repair said mistakes later.