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Jim Shooter: The Trouble Shooter of Comics

on Tue, 01/28/2014 - 00:00

Jim Shooter and Stan Lee
When people think of Marvel Comics, they inevitably conjure up images of such classic superheroes as Spider-Man, Captain America and the Hulk. Or maybe they think of the company’s long-serving editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, or the multitude of legendary artists that include Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko.

One name that is seldom mentioned, however, is Jim Shooter, the Pittsburgh-born comic book writer who guided Marvel Comics for nine years in the late 1970s and early 80s. Shooter built upon the foundation of those who came before him—raising Marvel to even greater heights in the process—but his tenure was also filled with controversy that inevitably led to his ouster as editor-in-chief in 1987.

Jim Shooter’s comic book career began in 1964 as a twelve-year-old boy recovering from minor surgery at Pittsburgh’s Mercy Hospital. While lying in his bed, Shooter began perusing the numerous comic books that were available in the children’s ward. The ones published by Marvel Comics appeared to have been read a multitude of times, while the DC Comics were still relatively untouched.

“I read a couple DCs and I read a couple of Marvels and I found out why everyone was reading the Marvels,” Shooter explains in Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (Harper Perennial, 2012). “They were way, way better. My family had no money, and they won’t let you work at a steel mill if you’re twelve. I thought if I could learn to write like this Stan Lee guy, I could sell stuff to these people at DC because they clearly needed help.”

This auspicious exposure to comic books highlights the competing elements of Jim Shooter’s career—the talent, determination and drive to succeed coupled with the arrogance that a bed-ridden boy in Pittsburgh could rescue an industry giant like DC Comics. Within a year, however, Shooter had completed a script for Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes, mailed it off to New York and received a phone call shortly thereafter from Mort Weisinger, an editor at DC. Accompanied by his mother, Jim Shooter made the trip from the Steel City to the Big Apple and was offered a job as a writer for the entire Superman line of comics. He was fourteen years old.

Juggling high school with his duties as a professional comic book writer proved too great a task for the young Shooter—who saw his grades drop in school while missing deadlines with DC—and by the time Shooter graduated, he was on the outs with Weisinger. Although he was able to secure a scholarship at New York University, Shooter decided to cold-call Marvel editor-in-chief Stan Lee from the airport, forgoing the scholarship to work for the “House of Ideas” instead.

After an uneventful four years of menial tasks and small pay, Shooter retired from the comic book industry and moved back to Pittsburgh. Without a college degree, however, his prospects weren’t much better and he eventually found himself as the manager of a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in the area.

In 1974, a pair of Legion of Superheroes fans tracked Shooter down for an interview, and the resulting article caught the eye of Marvel assistant Duffy Vohland. Vohland convinced Shooter to revisit Marvel, but the office appeared in such chaotic disarray that Shooter decided to give DC another chance and once again found himself writing Legion of Superheroes stories from the relative safety of the Steel City.

By now Stan Lee had assumed the title of publisher at Marvel, however, and its new editor-in-chief, Marv Wolfman, eventually convinced Shooter to fly back to New York to discuss a staff job with the comic book giant.

Marvel’s success in the 1960s, which saw the creation of such iconic superheroes as Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor and Iron Man, had led not only to an increase in sales but a larger staff and an elaborate number of issues that needed to be written, drawn, inked and colored on a monthly basis. Because of the hectic pace necessary to meet deadlines, the majority of these comic books were being rushed through production without any editorial supervision. Marv Wolfman thus envisioned Jim Shooter as a “pre-proofreader”—or, as Sean Howe phrases it in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, “a secret weapon to combat the inefficient workflow” that was quickly nicknamed “Trouble Shooter.”

Wolfman eventually stepped down as editor-in-chief, with Gerry Conway and then Archie Goodwin taking the position, but Shooter continued as second-in-command no matter who was number one. Part of his duties was to regularly meet with Stan Lee to go over the latest releases.

“The fourth or fifth time around, we’re still seeing the same kinds of problems,” Shooter explains in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. “Now he’s starting to think I’m a moron, and explaining it to me in one syllable words. ‘Don’t. Let. Them. Do. This.’ I’m like, ‘Stan, there’s just so much I can do. I’m doing everything I can.’ And I’m trying not to throw Archie under the bus because he won’t fire these people.”

Regardless of whether or not Jim Shooter actually campaigned for the position as many believed at the time, Stan Lee did eventually reach the conclusion that Shooter would make a better editor-in-chief than Archie Goodwin. Shooter thus took over the reins of Marvel Comics in December 1978 and immediately began creating order out of the chaotic atmosphere that surrounded the company.

The editorial division was restructured, with multiple editors responsible for specific titles, and the private fiefdoms of various writer/editors were eliminated. After Stan Lee was elevated to publisher in 1973, there had been a total of five editors-in-chief during the five year period before Shooter. In addition to bringing discipline and efficiency into the Marvel offices, Jim Shooter thus brought a state of stability to the hierarchy as well.

Marvel Comics experienced some of its most successful years under Shooter. Part of it was luck—Marvel, for instance, had bought the comic book rights to Star Wars and the graphic editions of George Lucas’ epic were just as popular as the film versions. The late 1970s also saw Chris Claremont and John Byrne breathing new life into an unsuccessful Stan Lee-Jack Kirby creation from the 1960s known as The X-Men, which quickly became one of Marvel’s most popular comics.

Shooter’s reign likewise saw a young artist named Frank Miller reinvent Daredevil by creating a new character called Elektra to serve as his antagonist, as well as the advent of the graphic novel, crossover narratives and higher-end publications, all of which met with equal success.

Jim Shooter’s tenure at Marvel also witnessed changes in the treatment of its artists. Although Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were instrumental in the creation of the classic superheroes of the 1960s, they were paid meager wages and saw none of the profits derived from these characters through merchandising rights.

Under Shooter, large portions of the original artwork from the 1960s were returned to the actual artists, and an “incentive” plan was initiated that saw both writers and artists receiving a percentage of the profits on new comic books once a certain number of issues had been sold. Shooter even suggested that the entire comic book line at Marvel end, with new editions of Spider-Man and Fantastic Four taking their place so that Kirby and Ditko could share in this new program, but the idea was rejected.

It was also during Jim Shooter’s time as editor-in-chief, however, that many of the most talented writers and artists at Marvel jumped ship to rival DC because of the perceived totalitarian and unilateral control that Shooter wielded, as well as his increased interference in the creative process as the company became more successful.

“He had helped build Marvel into a powerful juggernaut,” writer/editor Tom DeFalco explains in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. “And then decided that he didn’t like the way it worked anymore, and that it needed to be completely rebuilt.”

The dissention in the ranks reached the point where Marvel staff members burned an effigy of Shooter at a barbeque thrown by former Uncanny X-Men artist John Byrne. When executives of New World Pictures, who had recently purchased Marvel Comics, saw the resulting video, they quickly removed Shooter as editor-in-chief.

Despite his controversial reign as head of Marvel Comics, Jim Shooter left the company in stronger financial health than when he arrived, and even oversaw a resurgence in the quality of its content. For a Steel City native who entered the comic book industry in his early teens, that’s not a bad legacy to leave behind.

Anthony Letizia

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