THE Jim Shooter Interview
July 22, 1998 By Joe Petrilak
This interview is property and copyright Jim Shooter/Joe Petrilak and absolutely may not be distributed without written permission.
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Well, I don't want to bore you with too much history, but you need the backstory to paint the picture. Things got ugly between Marvel and me in 1987. If you listen to what's around in the fan press and such, you'll see "Jim Shooter is a monster and was being horrible to Jack Kirby..." and other alleged atrocities for which I was fired. It had nothing to do with any of that. I had no control and very little influence on the dealings with Kirby. I was only editor in chief (and therefore the only Marvel management person known to the average fan). The decisions made regarding Kirby v. Marvel were made by the board of directors of Cadence Industries, Inc., and their lawyers. My leaving had to do with the company being sold. It had been on the block for a couple of years. At that time, I was the highest ranking person at Marvel who was not an owner, and if you have any integrity at all, that makes you a labor leader – because when the company is being sold, generally the people are being sold out. Cashing Marvel paychecks at that time, I was not willing to publicly bad mouth Marvel management, however since I was at war with them every day, it was tough not to. I mean, they wanted to retroactively eliminate the royalties and do anything else that could put more bucks in the bottom line so that they could get a higher price for the company. I spent most of my time in the final year or so upstairs, arguing with the CFO and the president about issues affecting the editorial and creative people.
At one time I was sort of a fair-haired boy there, and, at the beginning of my disputes with top management, they were significantly afraid that if I left, the creative crew would go with me, so they spent a lot of time and a lot of effort for a couple of years undercutting me with my own troops and doing everything they could do diminish my power.
How many freelancers were there at that time?
A good 400, counting all the creative people. I had 75 people on staff under me: Editors, production etc...
Eventually, the owners actually sold the company to New World Pictures, which then became New World Entertainment. The New World owners weren't any better than the old Marvel management, and in fact they left the old Marvel top management in place, problems and all. So, I went over their (the Marvel management’s) heads and went to the new owners- the New World people with my complaints and reports on Marvel management corruption. That's job suicide basically, when you go over your superiors’ heads. You know you're dead, but I tried to take the corrupt Marvel management down with me (laughs).
I tried to cause as much trouble as I could, because there was no way I was going to stay there anymore. If I had been a smarter man, I would have previously negotiated myself a "golden parachute", but I'm not that smart.
So, I was fired. Bob Rehme, the catspaw of Kuppin and Sloane, the principal owners of New World, told me at my exit interview that he knew I was right, but couldn’t very well fire the rest of (the corrupt) Marvel management and keep me. How would that look to their investors, since they, New World, had just acquired this company? So I left there and discovered that I was now a pariah. No one would give me work (laughs). People hated me, in my opinion, unjustly. I didn't do anything wrong; I was a stand-up guy fighting a good fight, and I ended up getting blamed for the Kirby situation and everything else they could think of. The one thing they can say that is true is that I had creative and editorial standards and I wouldn't let anybody just do whatever they wanted. That's true. A lot of people don't like that- you tell a creative person something they don't want to hear and they hardly ever say, "Oh, what a wise man, I'll do what he says." They go to the fanzines and tell them what an idiot you are. So, anyway, after Marvel, I was in a tough situation, looking for the next thing.
I did several things after Marvel. I wrote some children's books.... I was hired by Steve Massarsky to write an Arena show for children. He and a partner had gotten a license from Marvel allowing them to use the Marvel characters for a live action show. They had a little company called "TM Productions”. So I wrote an Arena show for him. That's how I got to know Massarsky. I did a bunch of other things, too: small freelance jobs, mostly technical writing and children’s books. I was blacklisted from comics. But, eventually, it occurred to me that New World Pictures, which was losing about a million dollars a day, would sooner or later have to bail out and sell something, probably Marvel, to stay afloat.
So Steve and I, who had become friendly, and had tried a couple of projects together like producing a rock star sticker book for Panini and other ideas, tried to raise some money, and actually looked into buying Marvel. We ultimately did make a run for it. Through contacts of mine, we got involved with Chase N.A., and made a bid in the auction for Marvel. We were outbid by the Andrews Group, controlled by Ronald O. Perelman. So, our deal didn't work out with Marvel- however, since we had gotten a quick education in raising money, it seemed like it might be a good idea to try to raise money to start a comics company. In fact, we were invited to submit a start-up plan by one of the equity investors we’d dealt with regarding Marvel.
We ended up with this little venture capital company called "Triumph Capital, L.P.". The principals of Triumph were an older man, Michael Nugent, and a younger woman, Melanie Okun. They had originally been with Bankers Trust Capital, but were now on their own. After a few false starts: trying to buy Harvey Comics, almost doing a deal with Stan Weston, the founder of Leisure Concepts International and others (LCI is a licensing company that represented (and maybe still represents) Nintendo of America, the World Wrestling Federation and other clients helping them license and exploit their properties. Big outfit, publicly traded), we finally decided to start VALIANT with Triumph as our backers.
In that period of time, other than the work I had done for Massarsky: children's books, technical writing and stuff like that, I hadn't had a lot of work. The thing that saved my bacon financially was that I did 8 or 9 months of consulting for Disney which was a great gig. I think I did well with them, I think they were very pleased with me and I sure needed the work. They also weren't too demanding, which gave me lots of time to work on VALIANT.
The way VALIANT really got started was this:
Back in 1987 after I left Marvel, when I was such a pariah that no one would hire me, that's when it really first occurred to me to start publishing comics on my own. I went to a man I had met who had been at one time a potential buyer of Marvel, a man named Richard Bernstein, Chairman, CEO and largest shareholder of Western Publishing. He had met me while interviewing Marvel management and had said all kinds of nice things about me. In fact, at one point while he was trying to buy Marvel, he said that, as far as he was concerned, he was buying my creativity “and a bunch of used furniture." So he had a lot of respect for me. I went to see him and I told him "You have some old comic book characters that I think I can make into good properties". He reiterated his respect for my abilities and at first sent us (me and Steve Massarsky who was my partner by then) on a wild goose chase to see if his top management at Western would be interested in financing us. They weren't.
The management of Western Publishing (below Bernstein) were so predisposed against comics (understandable given Western’s bad experience with comics) that the very word “comics” was a deal-breaker. Then, Bernstein said to me okay, look- the characters are yours. Come back when you're ready, when you have backing.
So for the next year or so, I would get calls from the Western licensing guys asking "Hey, are you really going to do this, because I got all these offers from Dark Horse, DC, Marvel etc...." And I said, "I'm really going to do it."
Finally, Massarsky and I and a third partner, J. Winston Fowlkes arranged financing through Triumph. I tried to get in touch with Richard Bernstein, and ended up running into him at the ABA book fair. I said "I'm ready now. It looks like we're going to put together a financing deal and we're going to try this". Richard called over his licensing guy and said "This guy's going to license our comics characters. Do whatever he wants, give him the deal he wants." He said that because he said he believed in me, he knew I would make his dormant characters successful and make him money. The licensing guy, Jim Pisors, said “Okay, tell me the deal", and I told it to him. It was fair deal. It helped us close the financing deal with Triumph and get started.
Now, what I didn't realize was that somewhere between the time where we had first met the Triumph people and that deal-closing, apparently Steve Massarsky started dating the younger woman who was a principal of Triumph. (I don’t know the exact timing. I believe that in testimony at the arbitration, Massarsky denied that their affair began before the closing. Whatever.) We signed our deal, I think, in November of 1989. In December, the day before I went home (to Pittsburgh) for Christmas, standing on the corner of I think 44th and Madison, Massarsky confessed to me he was sleeping with Melanie, one of the two principals of Triumph. I didn’t know what to say. I said, "Well, you have to tell our other partner. He's not going to like this".
(NOTE: It was Steve Massarsky, Jim Shooter and Winston Fowlkes in association with Melanie Okun and Michael Nugent who were the principals of Triumph, who owned Voyager Communications Inc., publishers of VALIANT. Triumph owned 40%, Shooter, Massarsky and Fowlkes each owned 20% – Joe)
Massarsky was kind of afraid to tell Winston for a number of reasons. One of them, he said, was that Melanie was afraid that Winston, who is an accomplished and distinguished business/financial executive would lose his respect for her. Massarsky finally told Winston about his affair with Melanie on the 17th of January at our kick-off press party after my badgering him until then. Winston was appalled. He saw it as a clear conflict of interest for both Steve and Melanie.
Why is a principal of a business who's sleeping with a principal of the venture capital company that funded the business in a conflict of interest situation?!!! Because the principal’s loyalty ought to be to the business and his or her partners, but it's more likely to their bedmate.
In our case, it shifted a 60/40 balance of power in favor of management to a 60/40 balance of power in favor of the venture capital company (and bed-buddy Massarsky). It meant that Massarsky, his bedmate (and later wife) and her partner had majority and control, and operating officers like me were outvoted on every issue.
During the early months of 1990, Winston and I felt that Steve wasn’t attending his responsibilities to our company properly, and was spending a substantial portion of his office time conducting his law practice which, we believed, was in violation of our agreements which required that he give up all of his law practice except one account, I think, and spend full time on his VALIANT duties.
During the first crucial months of operations, when selling our Nintendo comics via mass market channels was all-important, Massarsky, whose job was marketing and sales, simply wasn't performing, in the opinions of Winston and me.
It worried us. Melanie and her partner, Michael Nugent, were two fifths of the board. Complaining to Melanie about Steve was, of course, absurd. That left Michael Nugent as the only hope for us. Steve and Melanie would obviously vote as a bloc. Our only hope was to convince Melanie's partner Michael that Steve's, and Melanie's behavior was so outrageous that he ought to side with us and take steps to set right the situation. Winston went to Michael and complained. Michael sided, however, with his partner Melanie (and Steve) and Winston was fired(!), leaving me with a 25/75 balance of power.
My first thought was to quit- leave with Winston- but remember, I was a pariah in the business. The only chance I ever had to make a comeback was with my own company. If this thing, VALIANT, went down 3 months into it, well, I figured that was my last chance.
Besides my personal problems, I had hired a lot of people to work at VALIANT who were friends of mine and had faith in me and believed in me, and if I just walked out- and at that point, that would have effectively dissolved VALIANT – those people, just because of their association with me probably couldn't get work anywhere else. So I had to stick with it.
So I backed Winston as best I could- I said to Triumph, unless you people make a settlement with Winston that he agrees to, I’ll quit- "damn the torpedoes." I don't care what you can do to me. With my support and Winston's good lawyer, he managed to get a nice little settlement where they paid him out for his entire three-year contract, left him with half of his equity, and relieved him of all obligations. It was a sweet deal. He was content with it, and happy to get away from those weasels.
I pushed along thinking that even though at this point it was basically me against the other 3 principals- Massarsky, his bedmate and her partner – that I’d be okay because they needed me. I mean, what could they do to me? I was the creative guy! They needed me! Later, I found out what they could do to me...
Anyway, we started making comics. Before we launched the company, before I knew Steve was sleeping with Melanie, we had gotten introduced to Leisure Concepts International through its founder, Stan Weston, someone I’d done business with during my tenure at Marvel. The management of LCI (Stan was largely out of it at that point) had suggested to Steve and myself that we ought to take the Nintendo license. They represented Nintendo. Steve kind of became a champion to that cause, and Triumph seemed to agree. I thought, "Well, okay", but Steve was really into the idea and strangely enough, Melanie and Michael (Triumph) seemed to be behind it as well. (As I said, this was before I knew Steve was sleeping with Melanie). Once we had committed to do Nintendo, I talked it up everywhere I could. As president and editor in chief of VALIANT, I had to be, and appeared to be, totally behind it. I thought we actually did some nice good work by the way.
Then it came out later that Massarsky was on retainer with LCI, or had some arrangement whereby he was representing them on music and entertainment matters. He was working for them! In my opinion, therefore, his pushing the Nintendo license was basically self-dealing. He was on retainer, or in some way of counsel to LCI, and encouraging the company which he, his wife-to-be and her partner essentially controlled, to pay LCI/Nintendo $300,000 in advance for rights to Nintendo’s properties! It was just messy; Winston was right- it was conflict of interest and it was just not right. I found out later that Massarsky also was on retainer, or on counsel somehow to Nintendo, and was doing business with Nintendo, and was representing them legally with some of their dealings like the deal with MCI Records for a Super Mario Bros. record and so forth. At any rate, we ended up doing Nintendo books and there was not much I could do about it because I was outnumbered 3 to 1 on the board once Winston was gone.
When it was apparent that Nintendo was a failure, I said can we finally do the super hero books I originally intended to do? We did start on them, but Massarsky also insisted on doing the WWF Wrestling books. I said it just wasn't good for us; they were nice people at the WWF, but it just wouldn't work.. And it didn’t. But because of Massarsky we got that license- through his cronies at LCI- and I did my best with it. The WWF promised us we'd have distribution in their venues (which never happened, of course), but we went on and did the books anyway.
I think for the first 2 books we did 6 covers. The WWF kept rejecting them. One of them was actually at the printer and was already approved. The WWF called me and said, "We are un-approving that cover," and I said why? Well, the Ultimate Warrior has changed the colors of his ribbons, they said, and I said, who cares? So it's last week's ribbons. Nonetheless, the cover was rejected. Fortunately, I know enough about printing that I was able to make the adjustments right on the plates, create the correct colors, and we went to print. They were really into it with likenesses of the characters, too. One time, I traced right from a photograph, and they said, "No, it doesn't look like him." I said, "photo...drawing." showing both right next to each other, and they said, well, we still think it doesn't look like him. I said what's wrong with it? They said ...uh, his nose is too big, and I said trust me – this is exactly how big his nose is, I traced it. They still wouldn’t approve it! (laughs) So we went through hell with that, but we finally launched the VALIANT super heroes in March 1991.
VALIANT was still a struggle to get going once we started the real books, the super hero books. We were selling marginal numbers and nothing was selling big. The turnaround point was February 92. That was the first month we made money, and the first month Wizard and the rest of the industry started to notice us.
Why did you choose the artists you went with? Why didn't you run out and get the new hot artists that were popping up all over at that time?
I was trying to do something different with the VALIANT books. I figured that we needed a point of difference. If we just "did Marvel" or "did Image", we'd be a pale imitation of Marvel or Image and the fact is we couldn't afford Jim Lee; we couldn't afford these new artists. Don't forget- comics were in a general boom at that time so anybody that was doing any book with an X character in it at Marvel was making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, right? They're not going to come over and work for a little start-up for what I could pay them, so it wasn't like I had that much choice. I basically had who to use the people I could get. The other thing was that I wanted to make a point of difference between us and everyone else, and not rely on the flashy graphics. Don’t get me wrong- I would have liked better art, and I don’t think flashy is necessarily at odds with good storytelling, but given the choice between begging a hot artist to work for us, and probably being in the position of having to take what they gave me, or having a new guy like David Lapham who’d do what I asked, I’d take Lapham in a heartbeat. He worked out rather well I think.
I thought "what can I do well?" Well, I could out-write the competition, I could write better stories and I could make them much richer; give them more content like Stan (Lee)'s old stories, the early Spider-Man stories and the early FF’s, where you really felt like you read something. What else could I do? I could do real science. The other writers couldn't do real science, they wouldn't know it if it bit them on the leg. I can develop the characters better. I can do continuity. No one else can do continuity the way I can, not when they have a whole bunch of different writers and stuff. So, I thought of all these things I can do, and I thought, all right- if we're going to do this more realistic approach, let's do it with very straightforward storytelling. Let's worry about the backgrounds, let's do the research, let's do it right. And Bob (Layton) was very good at that. Bob was one of those people who taught young artists he was training to use templates and use the reference, don't make up a car or something you can get a picture of, and stuff like that.
So, that was going pretty well. I wish our art had been better... Many of the people we were using were fresh out of the Kubert School, because that was all we could get. We used very raw talent that Bob called “Knobs,” because we’d have to ‘turn them from the dark side of the force,” i.e., teach them my kind of storytelling, as opposed to the gonzo crap prevalent at the time. We were so desperate for talent, and so short on money that I even picked up a pencil on a few occasions myself. I used the pseudonym “Paul Creddick”.
At that time, were you building a Universe around the Gold Key characters?
Sort of. Basically, I knew what to do with Magnus. I said, look, these are really cool concepts, these are good science fiction concepts, and I really liked the old Magnus. So I decided we were not going to change anything- Leeja was a bimbo in the old series because, let's face it, Magnus would say "stay home" and she would sneak out and tag along anyway, and lie fetchingly on the floor while he beat up the robots (laughs). Anybody else doing an update would have given her a big gun and made her Magnus’ partner. I said no, I respect the character as previously written and I'm going to develop her. She's going to become a real woman, but starting out she's going to be what Russ Manning left her: a bimbo. All I did was take his ideas and deepen them, broaden them, make them a little more real and use better science and find scientific reasons for all the stuff. So I knew exactly what to do and I did it.
Next was Solar. Bob and I had done a lot of talking about Solar. He was really interested in the character. I can't say which of us came up with exactly what bits, but I can assure you that it was almost all mine. I know he made some suggestions that I used, but, as I always did, I took whatever good that came out of our discussions and developed it, altered it, expanded it and made it work. Bob is on record as saying he’d seen a movie about a guy who’d had a chance to live his life again and that was the inspiration for Solar. Well, that’s how it almost always worked. Bob would talk about some old movie he’d seen and, largely to humor him I’d come up with something that incorporated enough of his movie so that he could feel that he’d had a role in creating (or recreating) the property. The whole self-referential four parter, issues #1-4, the main story (known as “Second Death”) was all mine, much of it made up on the fly as I wrote it. So was “Alpha & Omega.” For that matter, all of the stories done before my departure, and some that appeared afterward were mine, with no more than a little kibitzing by Bob, the staff and knobs.
Janet Jackson was at least as great a contributor as Bob to everything we did, including Solar. We all worked in the same big open space, and sometimes I'd shout out questions about some story point... should I go this way or that, and take suggestions from everybody before deciding how to write a scene. If you read the stuff and anything Bob or anyone else wrote anywhere near that time, I think it's easy to see that it's my work.
With Solar, I was dealing with a guy who basically owns the unified field – hey – this gives me some room to maneuver here! And so, then the idea of piecing together the continuity of Solar and Magnus began to happen.
Here's a funny story... Barry (Windsor-Smith) and I were talking on the phone trying to come up with a cover for Solar #10. We went back and forth, faxing sketches back and forth, trying to come up with the best idea to illustrate a black hole for the cover, to coincide with the conclusion of “Alpha & Omega” in that issue, and we were maybe trying to outdo each other. Finally, Barry faxes me an all black piece of paper with a note saying "there's your cover!" and to outdo him I went with it! And to take the joke to the extreme, I paid Barry $50 for designing the cover (laughs)! I wanted a heavy stock for the cover (because of the embossing), so I had Fred Pierce call the printer and confirm that we had some leftover heavy stock we bought for our early Nintendo books (covers) that we decided to use for the Solar cover. Our orders were, if I remember right, 38,000 or so. We told the printer to run to the end of the cover stock, because we thought that would be only one or two thousand extra copies. I believe it turned out to be 8-10,000 extra copies. Jon Hartz, who was doing the selling, was very concerned about an extra 10,000 copies of a book that was a moderate seller at best. But when it came out... we had hundreds of RETAILERS calling us to order more copies of the book that same morning! We worked something out with Diamond where we'd ship to the stores and they'd credit us... Jon sold the 10,000 or so extra copies within a couple of hours. That was a good one for us.
Then it was time to introduce a third property. We had to get to a “critical mass” of, I estimated, 8 books or else we would never be able to pay for our overhead. I had written a treatment (proposal for a movie) years ago for Paramount, and I really liked it, but they said this is really great, now can you rewrite it into comedy vehicle for Eddie Murphy? I said I don't think so. I used that idea for VALIANT’s third title- Harbinger.
I remember sales weren't going right through the roof. Magnus was selling 70,000 (copies) or something like that, Solar was at 50,000 and dropping a little, and all around me I was having everyone say- Massarsky and Jon Hartz, Bob Layton and everyone- saying "Well, your idea of how to do comics doesn't work. Let's do Image, let's do Marvel, let's just stick to big flashy graphics and forget this heavy story crap." I said no, I wanted to continue with this revolutionary approach, just like Marvel did once. I saw that Marvel in the 60's was in a similar situation to us in 1992. DC in the sixties was a giant, and Marvel was a little dot on the map. But Marvel was very different, they were very good, and though conventional wisdom said they were all wrong, but they succeeded. So, I thought if everyone else is doing this Image/Marvel type stuff, let me be different from them. I was always defending my vision. Bob and Jon went to, I think, a Capital City (Comics Distributor) conference and when they came back they said "We have a great idea for a character. We want to do an 'X-O'; a guy with exoskeleton armor", I said all right, maybe we'll do that. Bob and Jon each gave me their idea of what it should be. Bob wanted to do Iron Man, literally. He wanted a millionaire industrialist with a suit of armor – a pretty cold Iron Man rip-off. Hartz wanted to do the Punisher with body armor and lots of guns and bandoliers. He even did sketches of it. I wanted something different, no rip-offs.
Among the many discussions in which Bob was a participant, was one where talked about the idea of a Conan-type character coming to the present. Once again, Janet Jackson had at least as much input as Bob, though she never gets mentioned for it; we created all the ideas together. I was kind of conducting the orchestra. Sometimes people would come up with an idea for something and I'd make it work- I'd change everything, or take a piece of it and incorporate it into something else I was doing. A lot of times I'd use things people said because I didn't want to hurt their feelings, I figured I had a better idea but I'm going to make this work and work it into something, to make them feel good.
Sorry to harp on that, but it’s so annoying for other people to take, or be given credit for things you did.... Anyway, the idea for X-O was batted around. Barry (Windsor Smith) had agreed to draw it, provided I got the plot to him by that Saturday morning! So I came into the office early on that Saturday (I worked seven days a week), and I wrote the plot for #1 in one sitting, in an hour or two.
Why was X-O Manowar #1 28 pages?
I had to literally plot it in 2 hours. Barry demanded a plot page-by-page and pretty much panel-by-panel, so I did it, and once it became apparent somewhere in the second hour that the story would go too long, I didn't have time to go back and rewrite it to make it shorter. That happened a lot, because I was writing all this stuff flying by the seat of my pants, on every single one. I didn't have time to sit down and go through the process of plotting it out, and if it's 26 pages, rewriting it to make it fit (many of the pre-Unity books ran over 21 pages and no one ever knew why). But I was doing all of it by the seat of my pants and keeping all the continuity in my head. They ran long, but I got the plot for X-O #1 off to Barry and he liked it and drew it. I wrote the first 6 pages of the book... I was desperate to get out of the writer's seat. Good writers are hard to come by. Steve Engelhart turned up and needed work and I gave him a try. So he picked X-O #1 up from page 7 on and wrote it for a while, but Steve just wasn't interested in keeping continuity. He wasn’t used to dealing with realistic science, and it just was the wrong fit. He's good writer, but did not fit with what we were trying to do.
As a matter of fact, he posed some incredible continuity problems for me that I went through hell fixing. He'd plot a story and it would be drawn, then I'd realize- wait a second- X-O walks from South America to New York? Okay... Steve treated it like he’d arrived the next day, and has events in #2, 3, and 4, which he plotted, which suggested that what must have been a long journey happened overnight, but I've got characters interacting with X-O over here, and if his arrival was say, 8 months after what happened in the related books, so what did they do for 8 months?? So, I had to do this elaborate thing where Solar gets lost in space... for months, the Harbinger kids are on the moon... for months- all of this maneuvering to accommodate Steve’s total disregard for continuity- all by the seat of my pants, trying to remember where everyone is and is going. (NOTE: Jim is referring to X-O #1 where Aric walks from South America to New York. The problem was that, based on the other books coming out at the same time, and considering the fact that X-O #4 had the Harbinger kids in it, then, as he states, what was everyone doing during the time Aric was walking over 1,000 miles? A somewhat small detail like that could perhaps be written off or overlooked by most people if not fixed, but Jim made all these changes just to make the continuity fit. This is Jim Shooter at his best).
So, finally I talked to Englehart and told him he couldn't do write X-O anymore and he was very irate, but he calmed down. He's not a bad guy, and, by the way, he got paid for his work. Basically my problem was that I had to doctor or rewrite everything he did, or rewrite all the other books to accommodate his continuity gaffs. The second issue of X-O was entirely rewritten by me. You'll see two names in the credits. In fact, every time you see two names in the credits as writer, it's almost all me, because somebody would take a whack at it and maybe it looked okay at first, but eventually I'd realize there were continuity flaws or it just didn't make sense, or there was no real science in their story, or they didn't tie up any loose ends.
I'd start to get into it, then discover that the story was hard to salvage. A story is a whole. If you mess with one part, you gotta mess with the other parts to make it all make sense. So, every time I got one of these stories written by an outside writer, I had to make some major rewrites. I thought I was going to die until Roger Stern came along. He's just one guy but he was a tremendous help. He even caught my continuity errors... he's a terrific writer. He didn't know the science as much, but we were a good team – I'd tell him "you need to know this" and he'd send the story in perfect...in fact he'd attach a note, "By the way Jim, you made a mistake on page 14 of the last Solar..." So he was the godsend that really helped me.
So, as things were going along slowly. I couldn't pay these people very much, especially the staff people. And so, I often rewarded them with extra credit on the books, credit they didn’t necessarily deserve. I put Bob's name first on the Solar credits and such...It's annoying now, though, that people like Bob take credit for what I did, and that people are willing to believe them. See, we couldn't afford artists. For example, Barry Windsor-Smith. We convinced Barry to do that big panel (the final panel of “Alpha & Omega,” that single panel was inserted into the center of Solar #1-10 to make a 20-page single image, the largest single comics panel ever when laid out) Originally, Bob was going to ink it (and since Bob was on staff, and inking was part of Bob's job, the incremental inking cost was zero). But Barry decided to ink it- no discussion, he just decided. Well, when you have a superstar like that, you always have a tightrope- do you assert your will, in which case he quits and goes somewhere else, or do you let him get away with stuff? My rule was let him get away with pretty much as much as I could bear. Okay, so now he wants to get paid for this. Well it's not in the budget to pay him for this, and he wants a phenomenal amount of money. Then, he says the drawing was hard, and he wants another $2,000 for that. VALIANT couldn’t afford it. I paid him that $2,000 out of my own pocket. I wrote a check, gave it to the company, the company wrote him a check, and he thought VALIANT paid it. I didn’t want him to know how broke we really were. But the truth is, that was me. I paid one other thing of his, another time, I don't remember what. P.S.- I got the money from Visa cards- it's not like I have money to throw around. So, in those cases, the company paid him what they could pay him and I made up the difference.
(Click here to see the final panel to A&O! It's a really really big file but come on, how many of you laid out the books???)
Something else nobody knows- everyone worked extremely hard at the company. Most people never took any vacation time, but Bob came to me on a couple of occasions and said he was going on a vacation and wanted to get paid for it. He thought he wasn't making enough money with the company ($60,000 a year, as I recall) and the company should give him a bonus so he could go on vacation. The company could not give him a bonus at that time, so I did the same thing I did with Barry- I covered it with my Visa card. That was another thing... I didn't want people to know how frazzled and on the edge that place was. I mean, every day I was fighting with Triumph to get enough money to go another day because we were running a deficit for a long time and I was trying to hold it together... once again, for myself, as a chance to redeem myself, and for all the people who probably weren't going to get jobs in other places if VALIANT went down, so I was literally doing everything, and I was putting up with things I normally would not put up with at all, just to keep the place going because I thought we all needed it.
It was an incredible 3 years. No wonder my health went to hell in a handbasket. During the last year I was at VALIANT, I was in the office working every single day – from April or May of 1991 until the end of June 1992, I worked every day from seven or eight in the morning till late in the evening, get something to eat, then go home and write till one or two or three...
There were fourteen of us in the office that Thanksgiving. Debbie Fix cooked us dinner in the microwave. The only day I wasn’t in the office was Christmas. I took work and did it at home. During that year, I literally didn’t have time to get a haircut, which is why I ended up with a pony tail- it wasn’t a fashion statement. Being in an office pretty constantly, I ate too much pizza and junk food, got no exercise, and generally didn’t take good care of myself. The only good meals I had were when we’d go to my favorite Italian restaurant, Volare, usually when Barry or some other writer or artist was in town, and we’d talk over plots or other business over dinner. It’s no wonder 1992 was the worst health year of my life- I developed a food allergy, had severe back problems, had the worst flu I’ve ever had, had Bell’s Palsy, had a flare up of arthritis in my knee that put me on crutches for a while, and eventually required surgery.... I’m a lot better now.
Tell me about Rai and the other titles.
With Rai, he was a spin-off of Magnus. A person who should be mentioned, who contributed to that was Art Nichols. Art was there, too, for the other books as well. He always contributed, so don't leave him out. Basically, most of the ideas for Rai came up from Don Perlin and Art Nichols in the same way that ideas from Bob were used- I’d do all the meat and potatoes, taking what they said and making it work, but they contributed. I have to say that Don Perlin probably contributed more original thoughts- not recycled movie ideas- than anyone else.
He was an important contributor to a lot of things, especially Rai. But I came up with the idea of Rai as the "Magnus of Japan," and the idea that in 4001, Japan, the whole island is a robot, one giant robot. So an awful lot of it was mine.
So then we did the research. Debbie (Fix) spoke to friends in Japan who spoke Japanese who gave us proper translations and such, so we'd have the correct symbols and such. So when we did Rai #1 (Magnus #5), it was David Lapham's first super hero job. We had everyone helping out to make it work, myself included. You'll see credit to Paul Creddick on those books. He is actually my brother-in-law, and I used his name as a pseudonym on that book and others which I actually drew. I used a pseudonym because I didn't want to let anybody know we couldn't afford to hire a real artist.
Unfortunately, on Rai #1, the printer screwed up and stripped in the same credits for the front of the book and the back half of the book (Magnus #5 was a flip book: half Magnus/half Rai), so, David didn't get credit due. I remember when the book finally came in he was so excited, and he opens it up and it's the wrong name in the credits, and he was crushed. I felt terrible. He got over that, and I was really impressed with the work he did from that point forward. He emerged as an artist and a creator. In fact, David Lapham was one of the main people, along with Janet Jackson, Laura Hitchcock and Steve Engelhart, to participate in coming up with Shadowman.
That was the first one he really contributed in a substantial way. Once again, I was conducting the orchestra, I had a whole bunch of people involved.
That was another book where it really didn't work out with Steve Englehart. I did some touch up on the first one, I completely rewrote the second one and after that, there was one by Faye Perozich that I doctored heavily, and I wrote a couple myself- the Unity issues.
How much VALIANT work did you pencil?
Anything that was credited “Paul Creddick” was me, except for the one David Lapham story Rai #1. Anybody can look at that and tell it was Lapham. So I did Paul Creddick’s stuff, except for the one that was obviously not me.
I did some covers, like for Magnus #6. I am not a great artist, I'm a punter. But when Barry Windsor-Smith came in and saw that on the drawing board he asked "Who did this?" and I said, "I did that." and he said, "No, who really did this?" (laughs), But let's face it, when I draw, I basically give a reasonable outline drawing... I'm not Paul Gulacy- the proportions will be roughly right, the action certainly will be what it's supposed to be- the action might be a little stiffer than what it could be, but the storytelling will be solid- not inspired with some creative angles, but solid. My scribbles really need someone to ink them who can fix them. So when Bob inks the stuff, it looks great. Like the first page of Magnus #6 – the first page was inked by Bob, then after that it was Knobs, me and Kathryn Bolinger, all pretty much amateurs. After page one you can tell it's not as good. Actually, some of the pages were pretty bad. Bob would ink the occasional close-up head or something, but basically everyone who had a free hand worked on it.
Which book was next?
The next one up was Archer and Armstrong. I was thinking about a couple of movie ideas for Eddie Murphy (as requested by Paramount), and I came up with an idea for a guy basically who just didn't sleep, so he was able to live several lives at once. Somehow in discussions with the group and Bob, that idea developed into Armstrong, and the idea that he had been alive forever. Archer, I pretty much created on my own with almost no suggestions from the group. I actually did the designs for Archer and did some of the work on Armstrong. Don Perlin did a couple of sketches that were the basis of Armstrong’s appearance. Barry added the hat and the satchel. Then, naturally, the Eternal Warrior was an extension of the Armstrong concept and that was mostly my idea, with Janet Jackson’s help.
How did you come up with the names for all the characters you created?
From family and friends.
Tell me a few, like... Peter Stanchek, Phil Seleski, Ken Clarkston and others.
Peter is my cousin's name. Stanchek is my father's cousin's name.
Faith is the name of one of Mary Jo Duffy's sister's. Don't remember why it occurred to me to use it. Herbert? I thought her last name was Popovich. Oh, well.
Ken Clarkston. Don't remember. But, I have a good friend named Clark. My father's name and one of my best friend's names is Ken. Friend Ken (Klaczak) was the one visiting me when JJ, Deb and I were fired, the guy who helped Deb and JJ get their belongings home. A Herculean effort. He's a hero.
Phillip was my grandfather's first name -- my mother's father. Seleski was a simplification/corruption of "Streczletski," my paternal grandfather’s last name. When he passed through immigration at Ellis Island, they changed his name. Later he had it legally changed back to its original form, then later changed it again to Shooter, a direct translation of Streczletski. See, he wanted to have his real name, but he wanted to be "an American" too.
So the time had come for Unity...
What was happening was that all along I had planned that eventually the books would come together in a big crossover. Basically, Stan Lee had done crossovers for years... there have been crossovers between books long before VALIANT. When I was with Marvel and I did Secret Wars, it was basically an idea that had been suggested by a dozen readers a day: "Why don't you get all the heroes all at once in one story...?", and when we needed an event to do for Mattel Toys because they were doing a toy tie-in, I said "there's your event". We tried to do it with some attention to continuity and it was hard; I had asked everybody to leave a space at the end of one month; a gap in their individual books’ continuity, then pick up their continuity with some repercussions from Secret Wars included at the beginning of the next month. We decided how each character would be a little different when they came back from Secret Wars, and then I wrote the 12 issues to fit into that space, and of course, some of the differences I had to figure out. I had to figure out how to get Spider-Man in a new costume, etc... and that was a big success. Then, when I did the second Secret Wars I thought "well, how can I do it differently?".
So that's when I came up with the "branching off of the tree event" and since then, I think a lot of people have done those. So when I was with VALIANT, I said "all right, let's revolutionize this crossover thing again." and I thought, let’s do it just in the regular books, so you don't have to go out and buy a special issue, it's just in the books. Maybe with one special issue at the end and an intro. So I'd been thinking about that for a long time, and contrived to weave the VALIANT storylines together. I still think it was pretty damn good for somebody who was flying by the seat of his pants. (laughs)!
Unity was just amazing with its continuity, you could read the books in sequence and see in different books happening at the same time the same panels, backgrounds and action shots, but from a different character's perspective, like in there would be this battle going on and in Eternal Warrior you'd see Gilad front and center fighting with Magnus in the background and in Magnus you'd see Magnus fighting front and center with Gilad in the background... I don't think continuity to that degree has ever been done, and in a crossover no less...
Yeah – it was a little tricky too, because I was working with Roger Stern, and with David Micheline was doing Rai at that point... David wasn't like Engelhart, but he also wasn't comfortable with continuity. He was a great guy... in fact, I had to write that (Unity) issue of Rai, I don't know if his name is even on it, but I wrote it. But Unity was a major undertaking. I have to say that the entire office was talking about this series... I remember the ending when I was saying- what happens? How am I going to resolve Pierce's kid Albert? Debbie Fix said the whores (the Bims) should kill him, and I said OF COURSE they should! What is wrong with me?!? Why didn’t I think of that?
One of the critical conversations that formed Unity was one of those dinners at Volare, an Italian restaurant with Barry Windsor-Smith. We had a good talk about it. He didn't actually come up with much in the way of plot, he just sort of goaded me into it "it's gotta be this" and "it's gotta be that" and "it's gotta be really big..." so he sort of forced me to think about some things and I remember when I sent him the plot, which was so vast and complex, he sent me this note saying "I can't believe you're actually going to do this!" (laughs) and I said of course!
I remember at the Diamond Retailer Show, 1992. Stan (Lee) and I both got lifetime achievement awards, so did Bob Overstreet. A lot of this was for me vindication, because as I told you, my Marvel experience had made me a pariah. A year earlier, if I stood on that stage, they would have thrown rotten fruit at me, but now I was "good again"; I had written something they liked so I was okay again... how that works I don't know. But anyway, I got on the stage to accept my award and there was a standing ovation and it was just great. After the event I ran into Stan and he said, you know, I'm really proud of you, you're the best I ever had. I said "I just went through a month where I wrote six comic books. It almost killed me. You wrote 12 a month... for 10 years! How did you do it?" He said "You put a lot more into it than I did." I said "No, I don't..." but, wow. That was a great moment.
So, of course, then, two weeks later I was fired and they were recirculating all of the Jim Shooter is a megalomaniacal monster crap. It's very easy to revive somebody's bad reputation, it's very easy to say "well, you know how he is...", "yeah, we couldn't say anything till now, till we got rid of him, but he was really a megalomaniac all along...",
So everyone just accepted that I’d gone back to being a pariah.
How did they fire you if you were one of the owners?
I was still an employee. The board could and did fire me. The recapturing of my stock in the company was a separate issue. They did that next through an arbitration. According to Massarsky's testimony in arbitration, they, Triumph and Massarsky, had started thinking about a plan to sell control of the company to Allen & Company (to a group headed by Massarsky’s brother-in-law) in, I think, late February, 1992. He might have said March. Anyway, February was the turnaround month, remember, when we started to show signs of impending success.
Massarsky saying that explained a lot of things to me because, you see, around that time we’d had this strange visit from Michael Nugent, who was one of the two people from Triumph, the venture capital company that funded us. Nugent came to our office, he said, to tell us our note (loan to start VALIANT) was due, and that they, Triumph, would have to close the place down (foreclose, sort of) in a few months. Well, that was nonsense. If somebody owes you a lot of money and now is just starting to make enough money to pay you back, you don't close them down. That’s ridiculous. You might use your contractual rights to squeeze some more blood out of the principals, dilute them, or charge them a premium to extend the financing, but close them down? Nah. That threat, it later became clear, was just a scam to try to make me eager to do a deal to sell the company.
I’m less naive than they figured, though, and Massarsky and Nugent aren't good actors – they were very wooden and stiff. I thought "what's up with this?", and actually just ignored it. But apparently, according to his own testimony, Massarsky, his wife and her partner had decided to sell the company to a group from Allen & Company headed by Melanie’s brother- everybody get that? Her brother. Does that sound like a cozy deal or what? Anyway, they decided to do that in February or March, and the first time I was aware of the whole thing, I think, was in May, so it was all going on behind my back. Somewhere in the middle there was a moment when Massarsky, all excited, told me... "good news- we're going to be saved- Allen and Company (Melanie’s brother) is interested in buying controlling interest in our company. Now Triumph won’t have to shut us down". As if. Anyway, I thought well, if Triumph wants out and someone else wants in I'm okay with it, even though it’s Melanie's brother who seems to be spearheading this whole thing. Let's see the deal.
So for a couple of weeks I was taken around to many meetings and a couple of lunches at which the Allen and Company people were selling me the “sizzle”. Melanie's brother and this other fellow were telling me how great it was going to be because we're going to have these great investors in the deal- Wayne Huyzienga of Blockbuster, Charles Lazarus of Toys ‘R’ Us, Michael Ovitz of CAA and Herbert Allen himself. and because of their influence we'd get movies on the screen, we'd get distribution through Blockbuster, toy deals... we'd get all of this stuff which would inflate the value of the company (through these contacts with other media from the investors) then we would sell the company to a Sony or MCA Universal or somebody and get "cashed out” for big bucks. For a lot of money.
Well I said that all sounds great, but what's the deal? No one would tell me the deal, just how wonderful it would be. "It's going to be great!" they’d say, but no one would spell out the terms for me.
I kept saying I want to know the deal, so finally I'm given this description of the deal- a deal memo- and it was not real good, they were not great terms. I said I'm sorry, but with some of the provisions here I'm essentially losing a lot of control. That's okay as long as I have a good employment contract and certain things. Security, for instance. They said, well, sure...
So, finally I'm given the contracts late one Friday evening in mid-June. I was going to the Diamond (Comics Distributing) Conference the next morning, Saturday morning, but I was told that the contracts HAD to be signed and delivered by first thing Monday. No time for lawyers, just sign them and send them. Besides, Massarsky said, he was a lawyer, he thought the contracts were fine. So, I'm going to the Diamond Conference and I'm going to be busy there Saturday and Sunday, I'm told this thing has to be signed Monday, there's just no other way- it's now or never or the deal falls apart. Talk about blatant cheap pressure tactics. So, I thought "In a pig's eye I’ll deliver these signed Monday. You think I'm not showing these contracts to a lawyer who’s NOT sleeping with Melanie? Are you kidding?". At the Diamond Conference I found time to read the contracts and they were the most pernicious, evil documents I've ever read in my life. A very very bad deal for me. Great for Massarsky and his wife, her partner and her brother. Massarsky will insist that the deal was the same for him as for me, but it’s a little different if it’s all in the family...
The deal itself was just the beginning of the horror show. All the way down to Baltimore where the conference was, was Bob who was with me, acting strange and talking about how he and I were probably the only ones who could do this kind of work; create Universes like this, and running on and on about how important he was, how good he was and I was thinking "why are you selling yourself to me?". I think now that he wanted affirmation from me that if it didn't work out; if I ended up parting company with VALIANT over this, he could do it, he could take my place. That was my first clue that Bob (and Barry, and Jon Hartz) were in cahoots with the pirates.
In the few previous months, Massarsky had been sort of courting Bob, courting Jon and Barry... he had them up to his house, he had been spending a lot of time with them... actually, up until then he would almost never even walk over to the creative area, but in those couple of months before June 1992, he was there all the time getting to know the Knobs, the artists, making friends, ingratiating himself with them...pizza for everybody, that sort of stuff. So the handwriting was all over the wall, but I was too busy writing so I wasn't paying too much attention. I had this inane delusion that being the creative person I was all right, safe. They couldn’t get rid of me. What I didn't know was that they figured that if they had Barry involved, with his name and reputation to give the company creative credibility, they could get rid of me if I wouldn’t cooperate. And I had already done the bulk of what they needed me for, creating the stuff.
So here I am at the Diamond Conference reading this contract- it's horrible. So Bob brings up the deal to me. I'm thinking "how do you even know about this?", and he says we gotta do this deal, you have to sign this deal.
We were talking about it on the way back to the train station to go home. He was still sort of seeking affirmation of his abilities it seemed, telling me that Dark Horse had already given him this offer to come aboard there and create a universe for them, because they knew that he was the only person besides me who could do it- right? Right? Then he brought up the deal again, saying stuff like, “You're gonna sign it right? If you do then we're all going to be rich, right?” And I said "Bob, I can't sign these contracts, they’re horrible- one of them is a 10 year employment contract for me with a two year non-compete on top of that, with no substantial increase in salary. It also says that I’m being replaced as CEO by Melanie’s brother, it doesn’t have a title or defined job for me, except that I report to Melanie's brother. If I “fail to report” or if I “fail to obey” him, I they can fire me and “claw back” (take away) all of my stock, with almost no compensation. If I “fail to engender good morale,” say if I piss you off one day, they can fire me and take all my stock! And that's just the beginning: I have to warrant and attest to all this stuff that isn't true, in all these warranties and representations. There are things in here that, just by signing these papers I’m actually giving them cause for firing me!
This is a terrible deal. Allen & Company, very cozily with Triumph (and Massarsky) will have control. They can do whatever they want, they can drop us all like hot potatoes anytime they want, they're going to pump it (the company’s value) up, they're going to flip (sell) it, and they're certainly not going to listen to anything we have to say. I said "I'm not sure about this". So, then in the train station in Baltimore, he said "Steve (Massarsky) says you have to sign this or else they’ll pull the plug, the whole company will go down the tubes." and I said I don’t want to, I want to go talk to a lawyer and see what the options are, but there's nothing to worry about if we stick together. If the creative group sticks together, they can't do anything to us, that's the bottom line. He says "Well, you tell me your offer and I'll compare it to what Steve is offering me", I sure wasn’t going to get in a bidding war for his “loyalty.” I just said "I think I just found out what I need to know". So I walked away and I got on the train. I don't think he did. I think he went back to the conference.
Later I found out that Richardson (EIC Dark Horse) did not make him an offer, but that Bob had gone to him and tried to solicit from him a deal which Richardson wasn't prepared to do: he saw it as Bob betraying me.
So I got back to New York, refused to sign the contracts, and went through 2 weeks of what they call a "cram down.” Basically, I was shuttled from meeting to meeting, being threatened and argued with and told how selfish and stupid I was, and how this going to be so great for everyone, and I was just holding out because of my ego and my megalomania because I couldn’t stand to lose any control, but you can't have control with a second financing (buyout) and blah, blah, blah...I said "I have issues with this deal. It stinks". I got lawyer and he reviewed it and he said, “This is terrible, this ridiculous, but these people are business people, they’ll be reasonable. We'll just negotiate a deal- that's fine, I'll take care of it.” But we found out they wouldn't change a word of their pernicious contracts. They said, quote: "we will not change a word." Shooter signs it or he's fired.
My lawyer kept saying "they can't fire you, they're not going to fire you". But one morning I'm called into a board meeting at 9 AM and I'm told that I’m fired and that they’re diluting my stock according to one of the provisions in my current employment contract. They said, "Don't go to the office, there are two armed guards who will prevent you from entering.” So basically, in the nastiest way possible I had been gotten rid of.
They had fired Debbie and Janet the same morning, and I understand they were going to fire Don Perlin too, to make sure that they had gotten rid of everybody whose loyalty they couldn’t buy, but Don was given a last minute reprieve. Fortunately I had a friend of mine visiting, Ken Klaczak, who happened to be in the office at the time, who helped Debbie and Janet carry their stuff out, because otherwise they were just going to be deposited on the sidewalk. They packed up my stuff and mailed it to me, or most of it. They kept some miscellaneous stuff and art supplies and such that were there. The whole thing was done in the worst, most vicious way possible. And right away, they started the spin machine going against me. They had Barry and others explaining to the freelancers how I’d tried to screw up a really great deal for the company for selfish reasons, and had to be fired. They brought David Lapham in and they tried to ram a contract down his throat on the spot, which he didn't accept. But for the most part, people were willing to believe their spin.
And that was it for me. Conversely, since, for a while, I was still technically a principal in the company, I was not allowed, and frequently threatened with lawsuits, if I did say a word about them, or what they’d done, on the grounds that it would be harmful to the company to which I still had a fiduciary responsibility. And, with an ongoing legal case, I was not allowed to discuss it, even though at the same time they were saying plenty of bad things about me.
It was just so easy to write you off.
Yeah, it's just amazing how that works, but it's like if somebody is accused of being a child molester, just accused- even though their best friends know better and don't believe it, they still won't leave their kids alone with him, will they? It's so easy to hurt somebody with this "reputation" crap and I'm such an easy mark... I called Paul Levitz (DC VP) about 2 weeks ago and I said "you know Paul, I've been thinking about this for a long time- I think I’ve got one more Legion story left in me, so here's what I propose: I’ll do it sort of like the Watchmen – a long story that you can collect it into a book... 'Jim Shooter's last Legion story', set in the time period back when I used to write the Legion... I think I could do something good, I think it would be fun, so what do you think?", He said "I want to read it", so I said what's the next step? He said, more or less, “It's a done deal. I'll call you Friday when I get back to the office (he was in San Francisco) to finalize it". He said, “Think about what reference (old Legion books, etc...) you need, because I know you don't have files of your old stuff.”. We both talked about how great it would have been if Curt Swan, who’d drawn some of my old stuff, were still alive to do it. Anyway, we agreed that we were going to do this, and that we’d work out the details on Friday. I said okay... but I want you to know Paul, there are some people you have working on your staff who don't like me, and they might not be happy with this. He said oh, there's a couple who will sulk in a corner for a while over it, but don’t worry- I'll take care of it.
He didn't call me Friday, he called me the next Tuesday. He said "well, the scars are deeper than I thought. There was so much hatred and resistance and upset... I gotta keep peace in my house, I can't go through with this." I said "You know- like I said- I’ve thought about writing this story for years, and the reason I never called you before is because I knew this would happen. I don't even know why I called you now". This is what I'm up against; I can't get work. Am I such a bad writer that no one can use me?
That's all right, though. I've gotten work in other places... I've worked with Fox (Jim Shooter works with Fox Studios on turning ideas into films, a good writing gig), working for Golden Books, working with TV deals... that sort of stuff- I'm working around the clock. Again. Still (laughs)! But what’s happened to the comic book business is pretty sad I think- I’m talking about the collapse during the last few years- and it's mostly because of Marvel, I think. They strip mined the business, and now it’s suffering.
What kind of people do you think read comic books today?
I think there are the really old hardcore people who have been reading for a long time- people who have more affection for the comics than they deserve. There are still some speculators and collectors, and I think there are a precious few who still read and enjoy stories. I think there are almost no impulse buyers, it's very sparse. I think what happened was that the industry, and VALIANT was part of this, drove away the meat and potatoes readers. When I was with Marvel... the whole industry was virtually dead when I took over in January 1978. Charlton went out of business, Harvey went down to a trickle, Archie cut back on new stuff and started doing more reprint digests, Western trickled away the next year, there were almost no independents, because the the direct market (comics shops) wasn't yet big enough to support them, and it was pretty bleak.
Even Marvel wasn't doing very well. The DC implosion happened in 1978. DC cancelled 40% of its titles in one day, so they were pretty bad times. The way I fought back against the tide was this: I was able to convince the upstairs people to let me improve the benefits, offer incentives, pay the guys more, and we ended up instead of quickly losing people like Chris Claremont or anybody who came along who otherwise would have left as soon as they could get other work, we ended up keeping some of those guys, we ended up getting more talent and keeping it- Byrne and Sienkiewicz, Miller and many more... and I think we improved the quality of the books. I was all into entertainment... To me, the reason Marvel took off in the 60’s was because people like me loved Spider-Man. Because we wanted to know what happened to him next month. So I got good people who could do good stories and encouraged them to do good, clear storytelling- things like mentioning the character's name somewhere in the book, which often wasn’t done before I started there! But other than that I really tried to say yes a lot, and stay out of the way and let them go. It worked pretty well.
I think what we did is we established equity in the characters. We built up their relationship with the audience. We really built the audience up again- when I say we I mean the whole industry, because it wasn't just us at Marvel. We were leaders for a while, but then DC was doing Watchmen, and others chimed in. Don't think I'm taking all the credit for it, but I think the industry as a whole really started developing readers again. We had good products, we cared about the stories, we cared about the characters. Then, I think after I left there, a sort of strip mining started taking place, especially at Marvel. Marketing people came in and really started thinking about "gee, this Ghost Rider with the glow in the dark cover sold real well, let's do more of them." It got to the point at one time where virtually every book out of Marvel had some enhancement.
That “Franklin Mint” marketing strategy can only carry you so far. The first time I met Terry Stewart, then-president of Marvel, was the year Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 came out. Terry told me how they were so successful with Spider-Man #1. X-Force, X-Men and all the special covers and variants, that he felt like Marvel had won the lottery two years in a row. Since I was supposedly the big comics guru, Terry asked me what I thought they should do next. I told him that they’d used up all the tricks and gimmicks, so they were going to actually have to create something. He laughed.
For our part, at VALIANT, I didn't want to do the trick covers and multiple versions. But Massarsky, of course, was a big marketing guy who was also into trading cards and knew all the gimmicks that were happening with the trading cards. He wanted to do all the Franklin Mint tricks.
My way of resisting was by saying "I don't want to sell any limited editions, but we can give 'em away.” If you buy Magnus #1-8 you get one free or whatever, but as long as we're not making money off the limited editions and variants I don't feel so corrupt. The thing is, that didn't really help because the retailers then would make it even worse than we ever could have. They'd get the free book as a reward, a “gold record” in Massarsky’s words, and then they'd sell it for $500. So, if you're a guy collecting Magnus and you want the complete collection, how are you going to do that? Once I left there and no one was resisting it any longer, they went to the moon with the gimmicks. So, VALIANT was part of that whole strip mining of the business.
But you did the card/album exclusive with Plasm. That is borderline gimmick...
DEFIANT did no trading cards. The River Group, a licensee, produced and marketed all DEFIANT card products. I did much of the creative, but had no control over the details of their marketing. I could not stop them when they did gimmicks and limited editions. Our licensor/licensee relationship was complicated by the fact that they, The River Group, were also the largest investor in DEFIANT.
I think when I left VALIANT, well, I don't think they could do what I did and so there was much more of a shift over to "let's get flashier artists", "let's get bigger pictures"... stories aren't our strongest suit anymore, let's try some of those other things. I have to say, though, that the few VALIANT books I've looked at since then have still, to some extent, more story than the other guys’ books- they had a story, had a plot, and a couple weren't bad actually, it kinda made me feel good because I had a hand in it.
Rai had a strong fan following to the end even to this day... as did Magnus and X-O...
X-O? It was Jorge, right?
Yeah – Jorge Gonzales.
Yeah- he did pretty good. I read one of his stories and it wasn't bad... I think "he learned a few things from me" (laughs). He's got some stuff on his own too that I certainly didn't teach him... but it feels pretty good to think that what I did might have had some influence, might have made a difference.
You told me before that you went with that style of art from the start because you couldn't afford to get the "hot artists". If you had stayed with VALIANT and reaped some of its success and profits, would you switch to the flashy artists or stay with the style you were doing?
I couldn't afford the big name artists in the beginning, but if I could have, I would have made them do the straightforward storytelling I prefer. Some, no doubt, would have refused, but some would have agreed as Barry Windsor-Smith did. Notice that his panel layouts for me were as I like, not the artsier type he prefers. I humored him on many things, but I drew the line there. What I was trying to get across was that doing Image/Marvel type books was never even an option early on. When we were making big money, of course, I would have tried to get the best artists I could, but only if they'd do the work my way- storytelling first.
You have to understand that we were all seriously overworked and under pressure. People were working on several books at once, all at breakneck speed. When you realize that I had to resort to doing some of the art myself, you know conditions weren’t optimal. The general quality of the books suffered as a result. I would have loved to have had more people, better people, doing work at a pace that allowed them to do their best, but... That’s where extra money would have gone.
Few people know that, in order to get Triumph to keep funding us before the turnaround, I had to agree to a quota system for staffers. Every one of us had to do a certain amount of what would otherwise be freelance work- pages of coloring, script, inking, whatever, to “justify” our salaries. Every month there was a reckoning, and if someone wasn’t pulling their weight, Triumph would demand they be fired. The pressure was horrible. Fortunately, I beat my quota by so much every month (and I had the highest salary to earn out!) that I was able to shift some of the work I’d done onto Bob’s or Jade’s or Don’s timesheets when they fell short (usually because they’d spent some time doing work, like coaching new artists, for which there was no assigned value) to keep them from getting fired.
Did you read any of the new VALIANT Universe books? Fabian's books?
Well, not really. I ran into Fabian before the new stuff launched, and he said he was really interested in my opinion... but the only thing I read was some promotional stuff they did- a brochure, sort of- talking about Armstrong and other characters as the world's oldest dysfunctional family (their Retailer Review Copies they handed out. -Joe)... I didn't think much of the ideas. I remember that there were several things touted in that brochure that I didn't think much of. I haven't read the actual books. Let me put it to you this way: if I ever had control of those characters again I'd benignly neglect a lot of it.
So what would you do?
Geez. Well, I would be tempted to start at Unity, pick it up from there.
I don't know... that would be my first instinct, but I'd have to sit down and read all the stuff. And I'd probably find some good things, and say well... I can't throw the whole thing out. But just sitting here with you? My instinct would be to pick it up from Unity, rewriting Unity #1, which I plotted but did not script, and going on from there.
What were your ideas with Liefield in '97 for some books?
We never discussed it. He said let's do it, I said fine call me, he never called me.
What was supposed to happen at DEFIANT with Schism as well as the final Charlemagne – War Dancer?
Well, the Schism was going to be the first time in comics that I'm aware of that one of these giant crossovers ended with the bad guys winning. Basically, Mule was going to end up in control of Plasm. The girl with the psychic ability was going to end up becoming the new sort of central core of Plasm; the brain of Plasm. Chasm was going to end up really ruling the Earth which wouldn't require too many overt changes; your average person might not know it, but he would be running the whole show. And the only people who would really know about it would be our heroes, who would be reduced to sort of being the French Resistance.
Alan Weiss had some plans for War Dancer, once the crisis had passed, to be depowered and become a wrestler for a while and slowly learn his abilities again. So the two bad guys were really going to win, and the only thing that was keeping either of them from consolidating their victories was that they were at war with each other, each one trying to usurp the other. That was the only thing that was giving our heroes a window of opportunity.
Did you work with Jim Owsley (Christopher Priest) at Marvel?
We brought him in as a high school intern at Marvel. He was a crazy kid who would run around the office on roller skates and stuff. He was very bright and very talented and we eventually hired him as an assistant editor. He started writing and he really showed a lot of aptitude. We finally promoted him to editor, but that he wasn't good at. He just wasn't an organizer- he could do the creative stuff fine, but... everything was late, everything got chaotic and it was just this constant nightmare. I called him in my office one day and said "Hey, Jim, I gotta fire you", he said, "Thank you... I can't do this." I said you can do a lot of stuff, and you're welcome to work here, and you're welcome to do a lot of writing for us. So he did for a while. He later worked at DC for a while. They have a whole different system that's much less demanding on editors, I think, than Marvel’s was.
He wrote Quantum & Woody for Acclaim and did some 20 issues as Christopher Priest...
Oh, yes, I knew of that (name change), but I'm unaware of that work.
He also did Acclaim's Man Of The Atom and followed it up with other Solar books that were the cornerstone of that VALIANT Universe...
I didn't read it, but I know Jim's (Christopher Priest) pretty good.
To summarize, what have you learned over all those years in the comics business?
I've been in the comic book business in one way or another for thirty-three years. I've learned far too much to list here, but one thing I've learned is this: When I was a child in the fifties, I was taught and I believed that the good guys always won -- that is, if you played fair, tried hard, and did the right thing, you'd do fine. That's not true. Cheaters do prosper. The bad guys win sometimes. Nonetheless, I believe that playing fair and trying hard and doing the right thing is still the only way to go. Mike Hobson, publisher of Marvel Comics while I was there, crystallized it for me. He said, "Sometimes, at the end of the day, the only satisfaction there is in life is knowing that you behaved properly.".
Post Script: The last time Jim Shooter went to his office was the day before he was fired. He was forced into an arbitration, the purpose of which was to recover his stock for the company (Triumph and Massarsky – so the entire company could be sold) The arbitration cost him literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, more, in fact, than the net settlement amount. The arbitrator, unfamiliar with entertainment and intellectual property cases, based his decision on the value of the company on Jim’s last day there, rather than on the continuing value of his creations.
So in essence, Jim was getting a cut of the company before it became hugely profitable, even though during the arbitration VALIANT was making a pre-tax profit of approximately $2 million a month. The company was eventually sold to Acclaim Entertainment for $65 million, of which Jim got nothing.
Jim told me it actually felt good when it was all over... no more arguing and arbitration and lawyers. Within 2 years, almost every original VALIANT staffer was gone. Scott Friedlander was the longest running VALIANT employee, with his tenure ending in June 1998. Once the case was settled, Jim had a clean start.
Jim never received a dime from any properties he created which continued to publish for 5+ more years, or reprints, hard or soft cover trade paperbacks, international editions, ancillary items like the X-O and Ninjak rings, once he left VALIANT.
Acclaim Entertainment will be releasing Bloodshot, Turok and Shadowman comics to tie into the home entertainment release schedule between now and 2000. Turok's first home game was the fastest selling game ever with a record number of copies sold.
This interview is property and copyright Jim Shooter/Joe Petrilak and
absolutely may not be distributed without written permission.