Judging by the number of views, a lot of folks like to hear stories about my early career. Or non-career.
Well, it’s story time again.
Back in the early 70s it looked like the end of comic books.
Sales were down across the board. Raising prices didn’t help much. DC Comics got rid of 40% of its artists and writers and turned to reprints and larger format books to survive. Marvel did much the same and also adopted an “austerity program” where they had the artists turning their art boards sideways and fitting two pages on one sheet of 11×17 paper. That meant the original art was nearly the same size as the comic! Things were bad all over in a downturned economy with massive unemployment and rampant inflation.
That’s when I decided to break into comics.
Back in these bad old days you couldn’t get an interview with an editor. If I pestered DC enough they’d let me come up on Wednesdays. But I still couldn’t get in to see an editor. Instead, they gathered all the wannabes into a conference room where we’d all be told by a pair of associate editors that it was no use.
"Find a real job."
"They’re dead. In five years there won’t be any more comics."
I remember one poor aspirant saying, “But what about Green Lantern/Green Arrow?” That was the fanboy darling of the moment.
The associate asked, “What do you think that book sells?”
“A million copies?” the fan said.
“No comic sells a million copies,” the associate said. “Our biggest selling title is Batman and that sells around two hundred thousand. The book you’re talking about barely sells forty thousand. Our war comics sell more.”
The fan with dreams of a growing, more sophisticated comics medium was crushed.
And, by the way, that fan wasn’t me. I didn’t care for GL/GA. I actually liked the war comics more myself.
But I was just as crushed as that other guy. How could comics survive if less than 1% of the country was buying them? I went home and re-assessed my life. Only I kept coming back to comics. I even took a swing at the undergrounds but my heart wasn’t in it. Those weren’t my kind of comics.
So I kept going to conventions and talking to editors whenever I could afford it. I concentrated on the growing alternate publishers. I remember interviewing with a publisher who listened to my pitches then offered to buy my Fritz the Cat button. I realized that he spent the whole interview looking at the button. I still have that button. I keep it on my desk. I just looked up and there it is resting atop my CPU along with challenge coins given to me by Afghan war vets.
I submitted work to fanzines hoping to get noticed. But the only artist who would draw my stories was me. And I was better on the writing end than the drawing end. And editors always wanted to critique the art.
The first guy in comics to take me seriously was Archie Goodwin.
Archie was my idol. He’s the first writer I really noticed. I bought the early Warren titles like Creepy and Eerie and read the covers off them. I studied those stories looking for how this guy Goodwin did it. I looked through the awesome art searching for the technique that made these stories more real, more vital, than everything else on the newstand. How did he fit a whole story with brand new characters, settings and situations into just eight pages? And how did he do it with so few words? I didn’t know it then but I would model my career after Archie. I would be the invisible hand of writing.
Anyhow, Archie would let me come up for actual interviews. They were pretty sad affairs as I really wasn’t ready. I knew zero about story structure, characterization or dialogue. I only knew I wanted to be a comics writer more than anything else in the world. Archie was always gracious and would actually read my miserable pitches (hand written no less!) and made suggestions that actually altered them from absolute crap to workable stories. He never hired me but was always encouraging. Archie was either being kind or maybe he saw something there. I think he was just being nice.
I asked him once (with the kind of ignorant chutzpah only a true fanboy can muster) if there were any Marvel tiles that no one wanted to watch. Archie clutched into Stan Lee mode.
“Everyone wants to write all our titles. We have the best characters in comics!”
I insisted that there must be some characters that no one is really aching to write. It would help me out if I knew what characters to pitch. The Inhumans or Guardians of the Galaxy maybe. (this was late 70s, remember)
What he said next stunned me. It still does.
“Well, sometimes we have a hard time finding writers for Spider-man and the Hulk.”
Today I would leap on information like that. Back then, I had no idea what to do with it. Writing for Marvel’s only household names was considered a thankless chore by the writers of the day. Today an army of freelancers would climb over the heaps of their own dead for a chance at those characters.
But then the whole business has warped and wafted and turned itself inside out since then.