Jim Shooter Interview – Discussing The Comic Book Industry, Storytelling, and Career
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Note to our readers: This is an interview originally updated to our Animated Apparel Company website, we’ve included it here for everyone to enjoy! – Russell Crooms, Founder, Nergenic.com
“You participate, to the extent you wish, in the experience, seeing the implied in-betweens, hearing the soundtrack if you add it, and embellishing the action. Still, pictures/frozen moments offer ease of entry for vicarious involvement. That all adds up to an intense communion between the reader and the content. What’s not to love?”
Very few people in the comic book industry have the experience and knowledge of the medium that Jim Shooter has. He started writing comics for DC back in the early 60s at the incredible age of 13 years old and went on to have a long and successful career as both a writer and an editor. His work developing the Legion of Super-Heroes at DC Comics and writing stories such as the Avengers’ The Korvac Saga or the Secret Wars event at Marvel Comics rank among his most known writing contributions, but his work at VALIANT and DEFIANT, companies he started, are equally remarkable.
He is mostly known for his tenure as Marvel Comics’ Editor-in-chief in the late 70s and early 80s, establishing arguably the best period of the company’s existence since the days of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby leading the way in the 60s. Walt Simonson’s Thor, Chris Claremont’s X-Men, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America… some of the best runs in comics were done during Shooter’s tenure and, despite a lot of controversies regarding his methods of editing, he helped Marvel to rise from near-bankruptcy to incredible artistic and commercial success.
An absolute veteran of the medium and, like it or not, an extremely important figure in the history of comics, I had the opportunity of doing an interview with Mr. Shooter and he was kind enough to answer my questions about his career, storytelling, the current state of affairs of the industry and a lot more.
I hope you enjoy it and share it with any fan of the medium as it is definitely worth the time to read it.
Kevin: “Thank you so much for taking the time to do this, Mr. Shooter. First and foremost, how are things going with you during this pandemic? Is everything alright?“
Jim: “So far, so good. I had my second Pfizer vaccination a little over a week ago. I think I’ll make it.”
“Has the pandemic taken a toll on your work or have you managed to maintain a steady flow of work?“
“I’d been doing a lot of appearances before the pandemic—cons, stores, and lectures. All that shut down, of course. However, there were a few signings that weren’t open to the public and I had plenty of writing to do. For instance, I wrote a screen treatment that paid well and has good prospects. It’s super-hero-ish, can’t say more due to an NDA. Between those things and Social Security, I did okay. Busy every minute.”
“Obviously, a lot of readers are familiar with your work, mainly on DC, Marvel, VALIANT and DEFIANT. But for those that perhaps have lost a bit of track, what are you working on these days?“
“Right now, I’m writing copy for Illustrated Media Group’s website. That will be finished soon. After that, I’m writing a book on how to create comics that will be published by Image Comics next spring. Image has become, in my opinion, the gold standard for quality and creativity. It’s run by Eric Stephenson, a great guy—super smart, creative, knows his stuff. Have you read Saga? Nowhere Men? I’ve seen proofs of a new series, Frontiersman, that’s terrific. Coming soon, I believe. Anyway, maybe I’ll be doing other projects with Image as well. I have a bunch of properties waiting for a good home.”
“You have been working as a writer and editor since the early 60s. What keeps you motivated at this point of your career, after having accomplished so many things?“
“It’s fun. There is nothing as rewarding as creative work. I’ll do it till I drop.”
“This might be a very broad question, but, how do you think you have changed as a writer throughout your career?“
“I’ve gotten better. I got to work with some of the greatest of all-time—Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Mort Weisinger, Wally Wood, Gil Kane, John Romita, Neal Adams, Archie Goodwin, and many more. I got to know Will Eisner pretty well. I knew Alex Toth. Joe Kubert. Jean Giraud. Bernie Loomis. Stan Weston. Harvey Kurtzman. Bill Gaines. I know Jim Steranko. Mike de Luca. Larry Niven. Many, many, many more. I listened to every word they said. I studied the craft. I read like crazy. I got to try, failing sometimes but learning from each mistake, and sometimes I got it right. You can live the same day again and again or you can learn and evolve. I recommend evolution.”
“Focusing now on more detailed questions. You have always been a firm believer that storytelling should follow a clear structure and it should have a series of elements to fully work. You have discussed it in several interviews, seminars, and on your website. How did you learn about that structure?“
“See above, but it has nothing to do with any particular structure. There are no rules. A story is a complete journey, not necessarily a physical one. The fact that there is a definition of a story should never limit you. Every unit of language has a definition. A word is the smallest unit that independently carries meaning. A sentence is a complete thought. A paragraph is a group of sentences about the same subject. The fact that these things have definitions did not in any way limit Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Hemingway, Salinger, J.K. Rowling, the writers of Laverne and Shirley, or anyone else. ‘Life’ has a definition, too, but its variations are endless.”
There are infinite journeys to be traveled. There is no series of elements, no formula that must be followed.
That’s not me talking. That’s the wisdom of the ancients, starting with Aristotle, who figured out what a story is and wrote it down in his book, Poetics. He didn’t invent it, he didn’t decide it—he observed it. He realized that it’s part of language. His, ours, pretty much all western languages. Horace expanded on Aristotle’s observations in his book, Ars Poetica, and since then, many have contributed thoughts on the subject. Stan, for one.”
“So you are of the belief that storytelling has universal elements that resonate with all of us?“
“It’s hardwired into your brain. If you speak a western language, the operating system of your brain requires cause and effect. If you leave an essential part of the journey out, it’s at best confusing. Tell the tale of your journey well. Get the audience there with no flat tires, no dead ends, and no pointless meanderings. Navigate with excellence and arrive in style.”
“You are a very unique case in the comic book industry because you managed to learn from the likes of DC’s Mort Weisinger and Marvel’s Stan Lee. Would you agree that a general problem with comic book writers (and arguably writers as a whole) is the lack of proper education in the field?
“Focusing on your time as Editor-in-Chief at Marvel, one thing that I have noticed in past interviews of yours is that you mention how there were some artists and writers like Chris Claremont or Walt Simonson that didn’t need a lot of instructions or intense editing work. What did they have those other writers didn’t?“
“Proper education in the craft.”
“There is a certain part of the industry that has described your time as Editor-in-Chief using terms as “tyrannical”, “fascistic” or “dictatorial”. I personally disagree with that assessment, but I’m curious to know why you think you were viewed that way.“
“I did my job. The people who were doing theirs had no problem with me. The complainers and people on the outside who choose to believe them don’t trouble me.”
“And those that have followed the industry, especially at Marvel and DC, can see how there is a clear lack of discipline in terms of editorial. You don’t see the kind of editing that Weisinger, Stan, or you provided back in the day. Or any kind of editing, if we are truly honest.“
“What do you think are the differences between the education of a writer and the education of an editor?“
“Writers need to learn their craft, including understanding the allied disciplines. Editors need to learn the writer’s craft and all other applicable disciplines, be able to discern successes or failures of craft in others’ work, be able to teach the craft and be responsible for the practical matters of creative work and publishing.
An editor, in my day, was like the producer and director of a film. He or she had to manage certain business aspects of publishing as well as provide creative direction. That said, as you noted above, Walt Simonson, Frank Miller, Trina Robbins, Roy Thomas, Max (Christie) Scheele, Roger Stern, Tom Orzechowski, and other top-tier people didn’t need much direction.”
“A criticism that you see in comics lately is people arguing that the characters’ stories never end. It keeps going without a clear end in sight. I actually think Alan Moore was one of the first to mention that. But you managed to reignite interest at Marvel when those characters were over 15 years old. How do you handle a character in those circumstances?“
“A character’s life may not end, but stories within his, her, or its life end. Rocky’s fight against Apollo Creed ended, but his life went on through many sequels. The Battle of the Bulge ended, but WWII went on. I doubt that Alan Moore meant that we should all write soap operas that plod on endlessly with ‘slight conflicts,’ in the literary sense of the term, that come only to occasional bump stops. He never does that, as far as I know.
Some creators use the soap opera argument to justify lazy writing. It’s easier to plod to nowhere than navigate to the destination at the end of a journey. People want a story. Ask Aristotle. As for reigniting interest in characters that have been around a while, well, first of all, what lazy writer allowed interest to fade? Who allowed that to happen? There’s no excuse. You and I could spend an afternoon and come up with a year’s worth of good stories for Tarzan or Sherlock Holmes or even older characters. Walt (Simonson) didn’t scrap Thor and start over, he just made it good. Tell good stories. Tell them well.”
“Change is important in a character to keep interest, but you don’t want to stray away too much from his or her core values. So how do you balance making Peter Parker grow without doing any shock value gimmicks like, say, killing Aunt May or Mary Jane?“
“Characters can develop inward as well as forward. You don’t have to kill Aunt May to make a story meaningful. Does Spider-Man learn something? Feel something? Make a friend, make an enemy? Does the story offer any insight into the human condition? I’m not talking about morality plays or parables. I mean, what’s going on with the character, what are they doing and how do they feel about it? Maybe we know how they feel, or maybe we’ve never felt that way, and now we understand it better. Make it mean something.”
“A very interesting point you addressed in the Conversations book of 2016 is where you tell the story of you running into Marvel’s Terry Stewart in 1990 in Frankfurt and you told him, give or take, that they were running the company into the ground because they were just making derivative content: a new version of Spider-Man, a new version of X-Men, etc. Would you care to elaborate on that?“
“I think creators should actually do some creating. Permutations and reiterations get tedious fast. When Terry told me their Big Creative Idea coming along soon was ‘Marvel 2099’ I laughed. The title says everything you need to know—a recycled version of Marvel set in the future. It sounded dull. And it was.”
“I took that part of the book to heart because it is a running issue in the industry today: All you see as new characters nowadays are alternate takes on the established ones. Why do you think is so complicated for comic book creators to, well, create?
“A) There don’t seem to be any visionaries at the top of the two big (or formerly big) companies providing inspiration and impetus. The next Stan Lee doesn’t seem to be out there. B) Many of the current crop of creators haven’t had much training. Some are talented. Some can write glib dialogue or clever scenes but wouldn’t know a story if it bit them on the tail. Some can draw wonderfully well but couldn’t tell a story if their lives depended on it. C) There doesn’t seem to be a lot of guidance coming from the editors. Most seem to be expediters who just process the stuff through. They aren’t teaching anybody anything because they can’t.
The result of all that is that creators who should be invested in a creative vision aren’t, they don’t seem to grasp what the job is, no one is training them, and no one is even attempting to make them do their jobs well. The result is self-indulgent work. Anarchy. No ideas or bad ones. Captain America is and always was a Nazi? Sure, expedite that down the pipe. Jack, Stan, and Joe Simon are rolling in their graves.
On top of that, the big two have long forgotten what business they’re in—entertainment. No one wants to read propaganda, even if you happen to agree with it. No one wants to read self-indulgent, masturbatory crap, however well drawn or sprinkled with snappy dialogue and cool scenes. In some of the comics published, you can’t even follow the narrative. Read it all day and you still don’t know who the characters are or exactly what’s going on.”
“What is your process to create a new character? And what do you think are the main elements that should be addressed for the character to resonate with readers?“
“Genesis, analysis, and synthesis.
Once in a long time, an inspiration for something new just comes to you. Genesis. It happened to me when I came up with the Parasite. I’d never heard of anything like that before.
Usually, you start somewhere. Think of something remotely in the same vein and break it down. Analysis.
Keep aspects that work for you, add and subtract aspects till what you have is nothing like what you started with, and serves your needs perfectly. Synthesis.
I once taught a class of grade-schoolers at the local library. We needed a villain for the story we were creating. Somebody said they liked a character called Quicksand. Okay, we started there. What we eventually arrived at was a character called the Ameba, created by an evil scientist who rode along and controlled it from inside one of its vacuoles. Lots of small instances of genesis went into that. The Ameba was vastly different from our starting point. This was all the kids’ work, nothing from me. Pretty good, I thought.
Resonate with readers? Hard to figure. I try to make the character suit me, or suit my story. I think, think, and rethink it through, trying to make it make sense. I roleplay, I try to imagine ‘what would really happen, here.’ What would this being really be like, what would they do, and how would they feel? Get yourself into their skin.
“Your biggest accomplishments in comics were at Marvel and VALIANT, but you started your career at DC Comics. How would you describe DC as a company during your time in the business?“
“Stodgy. Clueless, often. Individuals there cared, and some were great, but the company might as well have been selling insurance. Until 1977, DC Comics would not allow you to enter their premises unless you were wearing a jacket and a tie. One day, Marty Pasko and Carey Bates tried going to DC wearing sports coats with open collar shirts, no ties, and were allowed in! Phones started ringing all over the industry. It was the buzz of the biz.
Meanwhile, at Marvel, you could dress however you wanted, and the place was pretty crazy like a comic book company should be.”
“An issue we see with DC on a regular basis is that they tend to sell a lot of different Batman comics because he is the big seller, but other characters end up neglected. How do you deal with a situation where other characters (big characters like Superman, Flash, or Green Lantern) fail to sell? I would like your thoughts as an Editor-in-Chief.“
“Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash are iconic characters. Green Lantern ought to be. Other DC characters too. To paraphrase Churchill, one cannot make something sell, one can only deserve it. Forget all that reboot crap, Crisis, Countdown, New 52, blah, blah, blah. Think about the essence of those classic characters. Ask 1,000 civilians what they know about each character. Take Superman, for example. Keep what most people know—Clark Kent, Daily Planet, Lois Lane, you can guess. Forget Mr. Mxyzptlk. Anything the 1,000 don’t mention is fair game. Keep what’s good, lose what isn’t, and create new, good elements. Get an excellent writer who writes good stories and an excellent artist who tells the story well. Deserve it and the book will sell. Almost without exception.”
“Much has been discussed about the future of comics and how they are on the way out. A lot of people argue that they are no longer as viable as they once were and that Marvel and DC are invariably on the way out as comic book publishers. As an industry veteran, where do you think comics are at this point in time, and what could be done to make it a viable business again?
“Comic books are failing because they’re pretty lame, for the most part. Not enough good ones. People said the same sort of things when comics were dying in the late seventies—comics aren’t viable, comics are obsolete, comics are on the way out. However, we turned it around. Told good stories, told them well and deserved success. This is the fourth time in my career that the comics industry has been on the brink of death. Will Eisner said it was eight times in his career. Each time, good work and sometimes new ways to reach the audience saved the biz. It could be done again.”
“Perhaps a factor that wasn’t as influential back in your day was the TV and movie adaptations. Now superhero films are bigger than ever. How do you think that affects the industry’s current state of affairs?“
“Many of the movies are pretty good. But if a movie-goer is inspired to check out the comics, they find that the comics are very little like the movies, bad, hard to read, expensive, decompressed, and not entertaining. Thor is a woman? Spider-Man is Miles Morales? Captain America…you know. The movies and TV should drive the sales of the comics like Star Wars and the Hulk TV show did, but preachy propaganda and self-indulgent nonsense won’t sell at gunpoint. Every time we put off a potential new reader, we die a little more.”
“On the other hand, indie comics have become a lot more proactive in recent years. You see a lot of comic book professionals and fans making their own comics and selling them either through indie publishers or crowdfunding. What are your thoughts on this movement, especially on crowdfunding?“
“I’m no expert on crowdfunding. I guess that’s a way to go.
When Marvel turned its death spiral around in the late 1970s, the Direct Market was also taking off. Marvel helped the Direct Market grow by supplying them with better books, and they helped Marvel grow by selling more. DC and other companies started doing better, too.
One of the side effects was that a booming Direct Market provided a venue for small publishers. Many started out and prospered. Properties like Cerebus, Elfquest, Ninja Turtles, A Distant Soil, and Bone flourished. I’m sure you can name more than I can. However, without the big companies thriving and sustaining the venue for the small press, I think it’s much harder to succeed. I’m glad some creators are doing work and getting it out there to some extent anyway.”
“One question I wanted to ask you was about the style of storytelling in recent years in the industry, which is commonly known as “writing for the trade”. Decompressed storytelling where you need a lot of issues to get the whole thing. What are your thoughts on that becoming the default approach to comics these days?“
“It’s self-destructive. Make each unit of entertainment as good and compelling as it can be.
Four or more related, compelling stories that form a larger whole are far better than four issues of one slow-moving watered-down, decompressed story. My Magnus Robot Fighter series, “Steel Nation,” for example.
Can you do a four-or-more-part continued story? Of course, and I can tell you how to do that so each chapter deserves to be its own unit of entertainment prior to the trade. My Doctor Solar Man of the Atom story “Troublemaker,” for example.
Lots of other people did it right back when, but I cited the examples above because it was easier than looking other ones up.”
“Another issue is comics having a more cynical take on characters. You often see a lot of death, a lot of morally questionable decisions, and an often dour mood in the comics. I know quality storytelling comes in all shapes and forms, but do you think this approach has had a negative impact in the industry?“
“I think that’s just lazy or incompetent writers relying on gimmicky ‘shock’ events that no longer shock anyone; or taking the easy way out to trump up ‘drama’ that has long ago ceased being dramatic.
The building burns, the baby dies, the hero fails, gets his back broken, and the villain gets away cackling. Are you shocked? I’m no longer shocked, except that the writer is that lame.
Or, the hero is petty, angry, vengeful, violent, and cruel (and completely out of character) to justify some false drama that the writer imagines will trigger your emotions. It works. It’s disgusting.”
“Regardless of the company you worked on, you always put a lot of emphasis on continuity and tried to make it as consistent and coherent as possible. As someone who was always watching over so many books, how did you manage to maintain such a tight continuity?“
“I’m a firm believer that you cannot be in a career for so many decades without having love for what you do. What do you find so appealing about comics?“
“The comics medium has vast potential. It’s the only visual/verbal medium that’s input through the eyes only. You take it at your own pace, input is not fed to you. Every image can have iconic power. Every word can conjure images. No voice sounds wrong, no clinkers need be seen.
You participate, to the extent you wish, in the experience, seeing the implied in-betweens, hearing the soundtrack if you add it, and embellishing the action. Still pictures/frozen moments offer ease of entry for vicarious involvement. That all adds up to an intense communion between the reader and the content. What’s not to love?”
“Looking back on your career, what do you consider your biggest achievement?“
“Improving things for creators. Money, rights, benefits, participation, and opportunity. I don’t know how it is now, but it was good for a while.”
“If you were offered a chance to make changes at Marvel or DC, would you take it?“
“Depends. What’s the position? What are the terms? Would I have a free hand?”
“Thank you so much for this opportunity, Mr. Shooter. I thank you for taking the time to do it. Any last words for our readers?“
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