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A Conversation with Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is one of a small group of writers and critics about comics who have been enrichening the discussion of comics in the 21st Century. A regular contributor to TCJ, Heer is the author of In Love with Art, about Francoise Mouly, and has co-edited books including Arguing Comics, A Comics Studies Reader, and The Superhero Reader. He’s also written introductions to many collections of comics including Little Orphan Annie, published by The Library of American Comics/IDW.

In addition, Heer is the co-editor of the Walt and Skeezix books from Drawn & Quarterly. These collections of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley have been one of the great comics publications of the past decade and have led to a new appreciation for King and the strip. The newest volume in the series is Walt Before Skeezix, which collects the early years of the strip. It’s clear reading the strip why they didn’t start reprinting the series with these strips, as they are so different from what will follow, but it’s easy to see how, King grew as a writer within a few months, and glimpse the shape of the masterpiece that he would go on to create.

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Alex Dueben: I’m glad we could talk about Walt Before Skeezix and your other projects. There’s a lot to talk about.

Jeet Heer: I’m heartened you wanted to ask about the Walt Before Skeezix book because when we were working on it, I thought it was going to be a hard sell, since it doesn’t have the narrative of the other series. It’s 100-year-old jokes about cars. [laughs] We thought we’ll do this and then resume the books everyone loves but oddly enough Walt Before Skeezix has gotten more attention than any book since the first book in the series. The first book gets a lot of press and acclaim but as so often happens with continued series that tapered off quickly since people assumed each new volume was just more of the same. Walt Before Skeezix has gotten more reviews and more praise than anything in the series for a while.

This is technically the sixth book in the Gasoline Alley reprint series. Why was this the time to go back and do these early strips?

We had several reasons. One is that we had just completed a decade of the Gasoline Alley series. We’d covered the twenties, and we’re going to do the thirties but we’re probably going to redesign the series a little bit to give it a different feel for the new decade. In between the redesign we figured now we can go back and do the beginning strips. Maybe another way to say this is why didn’t we start with these strips because we started in 1921 instead of 1918. The reason is that the appeal of the Gasoline Alley strips is the relationship between Walt and Skeezix. That’s why we call the series Walt and Skeezix and we wanted to start with Walt discovering Skeezix and then the baby ages in real time. But we always wanted to reproduce the early strips at some point so it seemed like a good time to do it.

You talk about this a little in your introduction to the book, but all the things that became evident a year later you can see in the strip emerging in 1920 before Skeezix arrived.

Now that people are familiar with King’s work, from having five volumes of the dailies and some other volumes reprinting the Sundays, we can go back. In some ways readers are in a better position to understand how Frank King evolved because we know what he ended up. We can go back to the beginning and see him putting things together. I really see part of the interest in Walt Before Skeezix is you can see an artist evolving and almost brick-by-brick building this series. In some ways it has the interest of early Peanuts where it’s not quite the Peanuts we know and we see Schulz trying out different characters and different ideas and really working at the parameters of what he’s doing. I think that alt Before Skeezix definitely gives you that. You see different directions that the strip could have gone into. The times where he’s really highlighting the character Avery and his wife and the strip could have focused on the penny-pinching Avery and his wife. Then Bill and his wife Amy have a child and you can say that if he hadn’t decided to have Walt discover Skeezix, it could have been a family strip about Bill and Amy.

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One reason I specifically wanted to talk with you about the books is that if the canon of comics has changed in the past fifteen to twenty years, I think it’s the addition of Frank King and that’s because of these books. It’s a reprint project but it’s also a scholarly and critical project.

I think that’s definitely the case. One of the things we had wanted to do is to get people to take a second look at Frank King and the books do a heavy contextualization of him. I’ve written about this on several occasions, but what’s also happened is that as a new wave of alternative cartoonists have come around we can see Frank King as being part of a larger story. Chris Ware doing work like Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories—Frank King becomes the ancestor of that. Not just Chris, but Kevin Huizenga and Sammy Harkham can now be seen as the grandkids of Frank King. And there’s a whole school of cartooning that we can now see Frank King being one of the initiators of. It sounds like boasting but I do think that the series has done more to change the comics canon than most books of this sort have. I think people have a much higher opinion of Frank King now than they would have in the 1990s or 1970s.

I spoke with Jules Feiffer a little while back and he mentioned his love of Gasoline Alley, which he didn’t love when he was young because he couldn’t see what King was doing, but he’s able to in the books.

I think that’s true as well. I think that in some ways the emergence of the graphic novel as a genre has given us a new way to read Frank King because we can now see him as being a novelist in comic strip form that follows the life of a character. Gasoline Alley now reads not like a daily comic strip but as a multi-volume roman-fleuve. For a lot of readers in the twenties if you were reading it day by day you don’t necessarily pick up on that. I’m very gratified by Jules Feiffer’s remark. I think that in some ways the strips work better as a graphic novel than they did as a daily strip. It was a popular strip and a lot of people loved it at the time, but now that you have it in book form we can really see the grand scope of King’s work. We’re living in the age of the graphic novel and there are people reading graphic novels. That also changes the way we read Gasoline Alley.

I reread Walt Before Skeezix because there’s a point where it stops being a gag a day strip and King has each strip represent a day in the life of these characters.

In some ways I think it’s part of the move from the panel the square panel to the sequential strip. That introduces an element of narrative and character evolution. Also I think the addition of the baby, as well, even before Skeezix is born we have the pregnancy of Amy. This is at a time when you don’t have comic strip characters being pregnant. It doesn’t say it explicitly but if you read carefully you know what’s going on. You’re seeing a 1920 view of what pregnancy and childbirth were like.

How did you first get involved in this project?

Drawn & Quarterly had this yearly anthology in book form and they had reprinted fifty pages of the color strips along with Chris Ware doing the cover of the book doing an homage to Frank King. I reviewed that for the National Post where I was doing other writing on comics. Through that Chris Oliveros became aware of my work and I met Chris Ware when he was on tour for Jimmy Corrigan. We knew each other and hit it off so when the time came to do the book it all came together.

There’s an earlier pre-history of all this where a big figure is Bill Blackbeard who in the 1970s had co-edited The Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics. That book was very influential in reviving Frank King because it included six of the Sunday strips, very well selected and reproduced, which was not common in 1970s books. Chris Ware, Joe Matt, and I all read the Smithsonian book growing up and those six pages really sparked in all of us an interest in Frank King. Joe Matt is the real unsung hero of this. He started collecting Frank King dailies and Sundays and amassed a huge collection. Chris Ware had his own collection. I know that Bill Blackbeard died a few years ago but I always want to mention his name because he really planted the seeds that made the Walt and Skeezix books possible. Not just those books, but the whole age of reprinting comics that we’re going through is really a product of Bill Blackbeard.

What was the thinking behind collecting the daily strips but not the Sundays?

That’s Chris Ware’s intervention. When we first started doing it I thought we were going to do the Sundays. Chris and Joe Matt were more aware of the dailies than I was and those guys had an understanding that King’s genius was in the dailies, in the accumulation of stories and having the characters age in real time. That was something I was only vaguely cognizant of, but thanks to Chris and Joe we made the right decision.

I know there are collections of the Sunday strips elsewhere.

There’s actually been a couple of collections since then. Pete Maresca did a great book and now Dark Horse is doing a series of the Complete Sundays. Everything is getting reprinted. There’s actually four different publishers that have put out Gasoline Alley books in the last decade, which is great. It’s a huge body of work.

It is a huge project. When you signed on were you thinking okay we’ll publish the entire fifty years that King worked on the book in twenty-something volumes over however many years?

I don’t think we’ve decided yet how far we’re going to go. We want to get as much of King’s work as possible. He takes on assistants at a certain point so it becomes less and less his own work. I don’t want to speak for Drawn & Quarterly because we haven’t decided but I feel like going to the end of World War II would be a good end point. After that King is using assistants a lot and the strip takes on a different feel. To get Skeezix from being born to serving in the war and returning home – that feels like a natural progression. He marries before the war and has a son after the war. That would give you a good sense of his life. That’s a good end point. But nothing is set yet. We’re going to do as much as we can.

It’s a large project, but in some ways, the way we’re doing it gives it the feel of the strip. People are following it from year to year. It reproduces some of the effect of a being a comic strip you live with.

imagesSpeaking of larger projects, you’re writing essays for the reprints of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie.

Yes and that’s about the same length–44 years–and that’s going at a good clip too. I don’t think every comic strip needs to be reprinted completely. I think there’s a lot of comic strips where a “best of” approach would work well. There are a few like Krazy Kat, Peanuts, Gasoline Alley, Little Orphan Annie, where you need to get the full sweep of it. You see the cartoonist evolving and changing and reacting to the world around them. It makes for a very rich reading experience.

You interviewed Walter Biggins the other year and touched on this idea about how we’re starting to see comics programs and academics who write about comics

It’s definitely proliferated far beyond what anyone could have predicted ten-fifteen years ago. Comics Studies is a very lively part of academia now. It used to be that University Press of Mississippi was the only one but now there are other presses–Rutgers, Ohio State, Yale University Press–that have substantial lines on comics. That’s all to the good. It’s very interesting because what you also see is a lot of comics scholars who are involved in comics culture and there’s a cross fertilization. I was invited to Denver Comic Con to give presentations with other academics. I think that’s interesting that in comics culture you have academics who go to comic cons and there’s an overlap. There’s an academic event that’s affiliated with TCAF. You don’t see that in other areas. You don’t see academics at the Cannes film festival or the Toronto film festival and giving panels as academics.

I’m interested in two things related to that. One, what is the role of independent scholar in the midst of this?

I think independent scholars are very important and there’s a couple of them who have been really crucial. One is R.C. Harvey who did a couple books with Mississippi and writes for The Comic Journal. He’s someone who doesn’t have a scholarly position but does a lot of really valuable writing. I think that’s a crucial part of the story, especially in the early days. I mentioned Bill Blackbeard before and I think he’s a classic example. He saw value in something other people didn’t which is these old newspaper strips and he was an independent collector. Now eventually his everything that he gathered these trailer trucks full of newspaper comics have been bought up by Ohio State University. Independent scholars are a crucial part of comics scholarship being built up.

I interviewed Katherine Roeder recently about her book on Winsor McCay and we talked about how most comics scholarship comes out of English departments.

Her book is very valuable. I had read her thesis before it was a book. I think that’s one of the other things that’s happening. In the early days of comics studies a lot of it was coming out of English so there was a heavy emphasis on narrative with a real interest in people like Alan Moore, who does a lot of stuff that English scholars would be familiar with in terms of creating complicated narratives with a lot of symbols and textual interplay. But comics are also a visual form. There are a few people like David Kunzle, who did a valuable history of comics, but it’s very rare for someone in art history to do comics. That’s something we’ll probably see more of. It’s a valuable perspective we need.

That parallels the popular conversation about comics in thinking of it as a writer-driven medium and thinking about it primarily in terms of narrative rather than art

I think that’s true. Again to talk about independent scholars it’s coming from people like Dan Nadel and Frank Santoro. That’s the other thing in terms of independent scholars a lot of the best or most interesting comics theorization is coming from cartoonists themselves. Because the academy was so slow to take it up, people like Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, Scott McCloud, Lynda Barry have been major theoreticians of what comics are and how they work.

Frank Santoro recently wrote that how he wouldn’t read criticism by people who don’t make comics.

I don’t agree with Frank on that point but I think Tim Hodler’s point [in The Comics Journal] was pretty much on target, which is that people use criticism for different reasons and Frank is using criticism as a particular type of educator. He’s running a school for cartoonists so he wants cartoonists to be thinking in terms of practice. For him a lot of the more theoretical more academic more historical writing isn’t really pertinent to teaching someone how to make a comic. I think that’s where Frank’s comment comes out of. A specific type of pedagogy that he’s trying to follow through.

I think that's true, but comics are probably one of the few media where you could say that and still have a significant body of work to work from.

I think that’s true. In the olden days you did tend to see filmmaker-theoreticians. Hitchcock/Truffaut is the great example.

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Late last year your monograph In Love with Art about Francoise Mouly was published. I can’t help but think about how some of what we’ve been talking about, the thinking about comics from a narrative perspective, means that people like Mouly are ignored.

I think that’s right. That’s part of what I wanted to get across in the book. It’s hard for people to see what she does because so much of what she does is in the world of design and visual editing like giving artists advice how to tweak a cover or tweak an image. A lot of the sensibility she brought to that partnership was a visual sensibility. Look at the difference between Arcade, which Spiegelman and Bill Griffith created, and RAW. In RAW you see a much more visual sensibility and I do credit Francoise with being a big part of that change. In writing about Mouly I wanted to highlight comics as a visual medium. I’m glad you picked up on that. I think that’ a very important point and it also helps to explain one of the central points of the book which is why her contribution has been ignored.

Also in general editors tend to be ignored unless they’re someone like Gordon Lish where their sensibility is prominent, which is its own problem.

Yeah. It’s interesting in comics as well because there hasn’t been a lot of great editing but there’s been a lot of dubious editing. Harvey Kurtzman was undoubtedly a great editor. After him, we have Spiegelman and Mouly but other than that what do we have? Mort Weisinger, whose idea of editing is to say, “Let’s put a gorilla on the cover.” There’s Stan Lee who takes credit for what Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko have done. That’s not a great tradition of editing. There’s Jim Shooter who fired Gene Colan because he didn’t match Shooter’s idea of what Marvel Comics should be. [laughs] Maybe I’m being unfair. Another predecessor would be newspaper people like William Randolph Hearst sticking with Herriman in his period of unpopularity. There are some good editors.

There are some good editors, particularly in the past twenty-thirty years, like Diana Schutz and Bob Schreck and others. Archie Goodwin is probably the model of a great editor in comics.

Those are all good names. There are plenty of good editors: the late Kim Thompson, Gary Groth, Eric Reynolds, Chris Oliveros, Tom Devlin, Annie Koyama, and Dan Nadel. There’s a curatorial sensibility in editing which we really see in the art side of comics.

That stands out because you don’t see that curatorial sense in mainstream comics where the editor’s task is to put out x number of books a month with y number of pages.

One thing with Mouly which we see going forward with Drawn & Quarterly and others is the idea of you don’t just grow for the sake of growing. They could have published 50 to 100 titles under the Raw label and they decided, no, we’re going to do this out of our loft and select the artists and do one or two books a year. I think that’s very important to have a model where your line fits together because you’ve selected them very carefully.

You wrote a good piece for The New Republic earlier this year about Herblock and your point was that he was an interesting and important artist, but the film deified him.

I had to write that very quickly so I didn’t get to go into all the details, but in some ways it does him a disservice by deifying him because it makes him this bipartisan figure. In this way of thinking, Herblock stands for America and all these patriotic principles almost everyone agrees to. I think one of the interesting things about Herblock is he is a real partisan. When he hated someone like McCarthy or Nixon, he was a dirty fighter–which is good! To make Herblock into the Statue of Liberty is to do him a disservice. I don’t write a lot about political cartooning because I find it a hard form to write about. A lot of it dates very quickly and it’s hard to get at but it’s something I’m trying to think about writing about political cartoonists because some of them are very important and some of them I really enjoy like Matt Bors or Ruben Bolling. There are people doing interesting work but I find it hard to write about them because the nature of their medium is such you don’t have a plot or character to hang your hat on.

I bring it up in part because I think that’s a trap a lot of people fall into when writing about cartoonists.

I think that’s right. There is a tendency to deify and I try to resist that as much as I can even with figures I have a lot of respect for. I have a lot of respect for Herblock, I just don’t think we should deify him. I think you want to try to get at the complexity of these figures as much as you can and in some ways you see that with the opposite with someone like Harold Gray. It’s easy for people to dismiss him as this fascist warmonger. Warbucks is his hero–“War bucks.” But if you go into the weeds and Gray is a very complex, interesting guy. He’s much more friendly towards immigrants and towards racial minorities like Chinese Americans and Jewish Americans than any other cartoonist of his age except maybe Milt Gross. Harold Gray and Milt Gross are the two cartoonists who have an appreciative sense of the diversity of America and you don’t expect that from Harold Gray. With Gray I want to say, let’s step back and not just call him a fascist but see what’s going on in his work. You want to get at the complexity of these figures.

Whenever people tackle something like Li’l Abner, there’s the question of, how do you treat Al Capp?

I haven’t written about Al Capp because I would find it hard to balance my appreciation for his work with my distaste for his personality. I enjoy late 1940s Li’l Abner and I love Fearless Fosdick, but Capp is in a lot of ways a very unsympathetic human figure. One way to think about him is that comics culture has a larger problem with gender and the persistent harassment of women. This way we can see Capp as not an anomaly but as more typical of the culture than one would like to think. It would be an interesting project to do a human portrait of Al Capp because in a lot of ways he’s such a monstrous figure. I think I would find it hard to go back and reread Li’l Abner knowing everything I know about Capp.

I haven’t been able to read Li’l Abner since reading the Denis Kitchen-Michael Schumacher biography of Capp.

Yeah it’s a hard thing. Humor relies on some sort of shared sympathy. You’re making a joke together. It’s different than if someone is a poet or doing work that’s not trying to be funny–like Ezra Pound. Pound was a monster on many levels yet his poetry still yields riches, but with humorists, you want to feel a human connection to them. With Al Capp, it’s genuinely hard after you know about his life to go back and appreciate the work. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

That’s often a problem with biography. I know the Schulz family wasn’t thrilled by the biography of him, but it is a struggle to convey the complexity of these figures without destroying the work.

It’s more of a problem with Capp than Schulz. Even at his most horrible moment, Schulz is still an endearing human being. I had problems with the Schulz biography as well, but I thought it was okay. I can still appreciate Schulz and I don’t think it did any lasting damage to Schulz, but gave us a more complex view of the man.

I know that you write about a lot more than comics, but what else are you interested in doing, going forward?

I do a lot of writing on literature and culture in general and politics. I’m putting together a new collection, Sweet Lechery, which will collect the range of my essays. There will be a lot of stuff on literature, some stuff on politics and a few pieces on comics and science fiction. In the future I do want to do more monographs on the model of In Love with Art. I have a list of artists I want to do book length studies of. It’s just a matter of finding a publisher and the right circumstances.

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24 Responses to A Conversation with Jeet Heer

  1. Jim Shooter did not fire Gene Colan.

    At the time Colan’s Marvel employment contract came up for renewal in 1981, he received an offer from DC Comics and took it. The Comics Journal reported at the time that he had been “released from” his Marvel contract, but this was only in the sense that he opted not to renew. His contract expired on March 31, 1981. His assigned work for that month was the September 1981 issue of Avengers and that year’s Captain America annual. He turned in that work and was done.

    Shooter’s general policy at Marvel was that the more skilled and experienced artists were allowed to be as idiosyncratic as they liked as long as their work met sales standards. Bill Sienkiewicz is a case in point. Michael Golden is another. But if Shooter saw a bad sales trend, the artist would start facing greater scrutiny. Colan’s three principal series assignments during Shooter’s tenure–all of which Colan requested–were the Hulk, Dracula, and Howard the Duck titles in the Marvel black-and-white magazine line. All three were cancelled in 1980 for poor sales. He began to transition back to the color comics with the Avengers title that year. A sales decline began to occur there as well, and at a time when most series’ numbers were increasing. During Colan’s last year or so at Marvel, he was facing regular demands from Shooter that he focus on making his cartooning legible without the benefit of the copy. (With comics intended for children and adolescents, this is a pretty sensible rule.) Shooter was also regularly fielding complaints about Colan from editors, scriptwriters, and inkers. In addition to the opaque cartooning, Colan had a habit of ignoring the pacing specifications in the scripts, and his dense pencils were extremely difficult to ink. Colan resented being told to make revisions.

    Colan later claimed that Shooter’s ordered revisions were interfering with his ability to make a living, but the bibliographic research doesn’t bear this out. During the editor-in-chief tenures of Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, and Archie Goodwin, Colan was averaging approximately 396 new pages a year. (There was a dip of about 40 pages in 1977, but this was likely attributable to Colan’s work on the Howard the Duck newspaper strip.) Colan’s average during his first two years under Shooter was 504 pages. During the third and last year, it was 516 pages. Colan was making significantly more money under Shooter than he had been under Shooter’s predecessors.

    Colan moved over to DC, and they ran into the same problems with him that Shooter had at Marvel. In particular, the sales of the Colan-drawn comics were dismal. His best-selling assignment was the Detective Comics Batman title, which according to the Statement of Ownership record filed in 1985, averaged sales of 66,739 copies an issue. Break-even sales for a newsstand distributed color comic in those days was approximately 80,000. At Marvel back then, a newsstand comic was facing cancellation if the average paid circulation fell below 125,000. Now DC lost money on most of their titles in the ’80s, but they had their limits. They cut back Colan’s assignments by about a third when the initial term of his contract ended in 1984. In 1986, they cut him loose.

    By the end of the decade, Colan was unable to make a living from comic-book work alone and was teaching to make ends meet. His problem was not that he didn’t match someone’s idea of what a comic should be. It was that his new work didn’t have the necessary level of commercial appeal, and he wasn’t willing to change course. Shooter was just the first editor among many who had to confront this.

    When it comes to historiography, people need to base what they say on hard research, and not unthinkingly repeat erroneous fan lore. I hope Jeet can appreciate that view.

  2. Jeet Heer says:

    You know, when I made that comment about Shooter, I had the immediate thought “boy, this will probably illicit a long, indignant response from Robert Stanley Martin.” And I was right. On the factual point, I’ll simply say that I don’t see much difference between firing someone and making their work environment so unpleasant that they feel they should take a job elsewhere. I suppose the chief distinction is that firing someone is the more honest and forthright way to behave.

  3. Wow. As far as ruthlessness goes, you make Jim Shooter seem like a nebbish.

    Personally, I believe that trying to work with a problematic employee in an effort to get him or her back on track is the preferable course of action. Firing someone outright without giving them that opportunity strikes me as despicable.

    It’s often more expensive in the long run as well, as the employer may very well have to pay out the value of an employment contract, cover unemployment benefits, and so forth. The course of action you advocate is actively discouraged by U. S. labor laws. People also tend to be very leery of working for such an employer, because they won’t know if their neck is on the chopping block until it’s too late.

    Perhaps things are different in Canada, but I doubt it. If I had to guess, it sounds like you have very little if any experience working on staff for an employer, and most likely none at all in a capacity where you had to supervise other employees. It seems true of a lot of people in the comics community.

    As far as the rest of the interview goes, you seem quite oblivious if not disdainful of the fact that publishing is at least as much a commercial venture as an aesthetic one. Many of the editors you speak of admirably were either business failures or at most marginal successes.

    You also seem to think that if someone publishes something aesthetically worthwhile, everything else is irrelevant. In support of that, I would start by pointing out that William Randolph Hearst was first and foremost a war-mongering scumbag who actively smeared anyone whose political views ran counter to his. His publications were a blight on the culture in general. But since he was willing to give George Herriman editorial autonomy and published Krazy Kat at a loss, you seem to feel this was all beside the point, and he’s a “great editor.”

    Well, enough. Time has shown we agree on very little, and I see that hasn’t changed. There’s not much point in arguing values. It just goes round and round. I just wanted to clear up one factually challenged matter, and that’s been done. You’re welcome.

  4. R. Fiore says:

    Probably not a sign of success when your employees and freelancers burn you in effigy at a party.

  5. That happened six years later, and I’m not a defender of Shooter’s conduct during his last year or so at Marvel.

    That aside–and I’m sure you’re aware of this on some level, even if you won’t admit it–but if it weren’t for Shooter and the success of Marvel under him, none of us would be talking here right now. Marvel’s comics operation would all but certainly have been shuttered by the end of ’78 if he hadn’t taken over. It barely made it through 1977. DC would have all but certainly followed suit. God knows they were losing enough money from comics publishing as it was. Without Marvel and the popularity of their line during Shooter’s tenure, you have no direct sales market. Marvel accounted for 60 to 80 percent of its sales in any given month back then. No direct sales market means no Fantagraphics, no beachhead for the underground publishers, no self-publishing, etc., etc. Drawn & Quarterly and so forth would never even have gotten started. You want to dis the guy, fine. But the last 35 years of comics publishing would not have happened if it weren’t for him. Anyone who claims otherwise is either lying or they don’t know what they’re talking about.

  6. sammy says:

    did Jeet leave a flaming shit on Robert’s doorstep once upon a time? where’s the beef? someone fill me in…

  7. Jeet Heer says:

    @sammy. The origins of the Jeet Heer/Robert Stanley Martin feud have been lost in the mists of time. I honestly don’t remember how it began. I’m just hoping that unlike the Al Cap and Ham Fisher feud, JH v. RSM quarrel doesn’t end in violence.

  8. R. Fiore says:

    Mr. Martin believes the Comics Journal and the critical tendency it represents treats the business/front office creative practices of the big companies unfairly, and attempts to redress the balance, by his lights. It doesn’t really have anything to do with Jeet Heer in particular.

    Jim Shooter’s editorial policies seemed terribly important back in the days when Marvel and DC were the only game in town, but seems awfully remote these days. I believe the rap against Shooter was that he attempted to impose a house style in a way that stifled creativity, which again is a much bigger deal if Marvel represents 60-70% of the opportunities to put comics before the world than if it doesn’t. Interminable and circular as it is, the argument about Stan Lee’s value as a creative artist is much more significant one, relatively speaking.

  9. Pingback: Off-Panel: October 14, 2014 | PANELS

  10. Sean T. Collins says:

    I’m glad the TCJ comments were preserved so that this kind of vital discussion, debate, and dissent was not doomed to the obscurity of unpopular platforms like Twitter, where criticism of institutions is uncommon and unsuccessful. As it stands, I’m prompted to mull over the Shooter period at Marvel. You could almost think of Marvel as…I don’t know, a fractious Southern European nation with only a very recent history of nation-statehood, emerging from a period of great tumult into one of political uncertainty. And you could think of publishing comics as, say, planning and maintaining a network of mass transit and cargo transportation across that fractious nation. And you could think of Shooter, I suppose, as a charismatic leader overseeing that transportation network as part of a style of leadership known for grandiosity and rule by diktat. What might such a ruler of such a nation have enabled such a transportation network to do? There’s a metaphor there, I swear. Tip of my tongue. Jeet, you’re a historian, help me out here.

  11. Oliver says:

    “If it wasn’t for X, Y wouldn’t be here now.”

    Kim Il-sung and North Korea? Probably.
    Thomas Edison and motion pictures? Possibly.
    Jim Shooter and superhero comics? Sycophancy.

  12. Allen Smith says:

    I understand about firing Colan if his comics weren’t selling, but who else was fired? Did Shooter get the boot? The editor and writer of the comics Colan was working on? Or was he the easiest one to treat as a sacrificial lamb by that man of limited talent, Jim Shooter?

  13. Paul Tumey says:

    Alex, thank you for this look at one of the finest scholars to work in comics history. I am pleased that some meta-attention is paid to the scholarship of comics at tcj.com — and not just because I’m one, myself. As little as 6-7 years ago, it seemed that very few publishers who were tackling reprint projects were interested in working with scholars, historians, and critics to put their material in context. Books were streaming out that presented interesting material, but lacked much of the necessary information to deepen one’s understanding of it, making them little more than portfolios. The little text publishers were including was limited to mostly breezy introductions. (Exceptions to this, of course, exist — but on the whole, this was the scene).

    I’m happy to say that, somehow, a great many more publishers have come around to the idea that comics scholarship — whether it’s history, art analysis, or personal memoir — is valuable and worthwhile. I think the work Jeet Heer has done with his Frank King and Harold Gray writings has helped establish the importance of comics scholarship in our time.

    Jeet has built on the work of many others, including Bill Blackbeard, Ron Goulart, and Rick Marschall — not to mention Art Spiegelman, who is currently travelling around the country delivering comics history as entertainment.

    One last comment – we are in — or approaching — a golden age of comics scholarship. Finally, with the availability of material as never before, through Internet archives and reprint projects, we can deepen our understanding of comics and the people who have made them beyond the rather shallow understanding we’ve had until recently. Much of the work being done today in comics scholarship will influence the way the work is seen and talked about for generations. All the more reason to pay attention to a valuable, gifted writer and scholar like Jeet.

  14. George Gordon says:

    Yes, Shooter was fired- and the creative people burned a likeness of him to celebrate. And then, in a few short years, those same creative people suddenly had their freedom running out as more lazy “editors” started pushing the Image Comics hot-shots and big summer events and style over substance- all things Shooter would not have tolerated. I am sure, in their innermost thoughts, more than a few of them had to come to terms with the knowledge that Shooter was preferable to the Wizard era of what comics eventually became.

  15. Mike Hunter says:

    “A Conversation with Jeet Heer” was a delight, laden with historical, critical, and aesthetic information and food for thought. It reminds in its rich, vitamin-packed “juiciness” of the considerable pleasures to be found in issues of “The Comics Journal” in its printed heyday. Kudos to Dueben and Heer.

    Re that ancillary argument, I certainly am a great and steadfast admirer of Gene Colan, and fail to see — in what works I’ve read — the decline in his later art that others did.

    However, in the comments to this admiring article about Colan ( http://tinyurl.com/oc2mglp ), we read:

    ———————–
    Kim Thompson says:
    Aug 24, 2011

    Hey now, wait, nowhere here does it say that Shooter gave Colan “tips on drawing.” What it does say is that Shooter was responding to complaints from writers that Colan would ignore their plots or render them in a way that favored his own indulgences as opposed to serving their scripts, which is not an unusual complaint to hear about headstrong artists. (Alex Toth being a famous example.) And the Marvel way of working could certainly exacerbate that. If you’re on Colan’s “side” on this, I don’t know if the rebuttal is that Shooter was lying about the writers’ complaints and fucking around with Colan out of sheer malice, or that the writers were a bunch of unreasonable crybabies, but like Paul Chadwick above (hi, Paul!) I see this as a much more nuanced conflict where it’s easy to fall into a reflexive “Corporate Shooter Bad, Courageous Cartoonist Good” mindset.
    ———————–

    It’s certainly arguable that Shooter should have given a splendid talent like Colan free rein on visually adapting the scripts he was given. However, it’s also an editor’s prerogative to insist that the writer’s work should be honored and “translated” without undue change or distortion. Given Marvel’s financially dire situation at the time, Shooter’s wish to “run a tight ship” becomes even more understandable.

    (It also didn’t help that, with changing and declining tastes, Colan was not a huge fan favorite, who could be guaranteed to ramp up sales of a title. Even the great Kirby found his clout with higher-ups hampered by lackluster sales when he went to DC and returned to Marvel.)

    I once was the beneficiary of such a situation, when I became the editorial cartoonist (in addition to the paste-up work for which I had been hired) of a small chain of local newspapers headquartered in Miami Beach. The editor had fired the previous cartoonist because he would alter the ideas the editor had given him for cartoons. He was delighted when I faithfully rendered his concepts. (Which were quite good in and of themselves.) My antecedent was by far a greater talent; I even had the chance to tell him so in person, and was delighted to take it. But if an editor wants things to be done a certain way…he’s the boss!

    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Shooter (which features a listing of remarkable successes during Shooter’s reign):

    ————————-
    Although there were complaints among some that Shooter imposed a dictatorial style on the “Bullpen,” he cured many of the procedural ills at Marvel, successfully managed to keep the line of books on schedule (ending the widespread practice of missed deadlines), add new titles, and develop new talent…

    Roy Thomas, who left Marvel following a contract dispute with Shooter, reflected in 2005 on Shooter’s editorial policies:

    “When Jim Shooter took over, for better or worse he decided to rein things in – he wanted stories told the way he wanted them told. It’s not a matter of whether Jim Shooter was right or wrong; it’s a matter of a different approach. He was editor-in-chief and had a right to impose what he wanted to. I thought it was kind of dumb, but I don’t think Jim was dumb. I think the approach was wrong, and I don’t think it really helped anything.”
    ————————–

  16. Pingback: Comics A.M. | A peek behind the scenes of New York Comic Con - Robot 6 @ Comic Book ResourcesRobot 6 @ Comic Book Resources

  17. R. Fiore says:

    If his titles aren’t selling and writers aren’t getting along with him, that kind of cuts down on the reasons to keep using him, doesn’t it?

  18. Allen Smith says:

    I assume you are referring to Shooter.

  19. R. Fiore says:

    You’d think he and Colan would be kindred spirits . . .

  20. steven samuels says:

    “I bring it up in part because I think that’s a trap a lot of people fall into when writing about cartoonists.”

    It’s a trap a lot of people fall into when writing about artists and/or public figures, period. Especially in the mainstream arena. See how Woody Guthrie gets whitewashed in the popular press. Standard Operating Procedure to make things cuddlier.

    “That aside–and I’m sure you’re aware of this on some level, even if you won’t admit it–but if it weren’t for Shooter and the success of Marvel under him, none of us would be talking here right now. ”

    Oliver put it best, but the logic behind that statement is so fatuous. I guess you’re referring to the same market that almost completely collapsed at least two or three times in the past thirty years? Please.

  21. Patrice Chevraulaix says:

    Nothing to do with Shooter, et al, but since Heer likely has his ear to the ground regarding old strips, FBI was supposed to publish Herriman’s “Stumble Inn” on 10 Dec 2014, but my amazon order has been cancelled. Was this not part of the recent group of Kickstarted titles, or?

  22. Jeet Heer says:

    @Patrice Chevraulaix — the book has been delayed because it was Kim’s project but I’m sure it’ll get done. I’ll talk to Fantagraphics. Jeet

  23. R. Fiore says:

    You will note that the highest profile delayed Kim Thompson projects — Pogo Vol. 3 and the next Jacques Tardi book — are just now coming out.

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