Jim Shooter was hired as assistant editor at Marvel Comics in 1976 at the age of 25. By 1978 he had worked his way to Editor in Chief. Thus began the 1978-1988 run at Marvel Comics with Jim Shooter calling the, er, shots.
To understand Jim Shooter’s style as EIC at Marvel, you need to hear 4 stories from his childhood.
Story #1: When Shooter was 5 years old, his elementary school teacher challenged students to share a word the other students wouldn’t know. Shooter shared “bouillabaisse.”
When his teacher said that–not only did he not know what the word meant–he couldn’t spell it, Shooter marched straight to the board and proved her wrong. He had learned the word when his mom had read him a Donald Duck comic book.
Story #2: When Shooter was 12 years old he had a brief stay in a hospital where he passed the time reading comics. This was the early 60s and he identified that upstart Marvel comics were being written in a different style and depth than market leader DC comics. Shooter figured if he studied the Marvel style, he could get a job writing comics for DC, who he thought needed more of that Marvel influence.
Story #3: When Shooter was 13 years old he sold a script for Legion of Super-Heroes to DC Comics, earning money his family desperately needed. Shooter’s father was a hard-working, noble man who never missed a day of work and took every hour of overtime offered. But lengthy steelworker strikes in the 60’s meant Shooter’s family was in dire straits. So, while other kids were enjoying their childhoods, Shooter was already shouldering the responsibility of helping to provide food and shelter for his family as a comic book writer.
Story #4: When Shooter was 14 years old he confessed his age to Mort Weisinger, his editor at DC Comics. Mort’s response? He called Shooter his “charity case” and made him feel like he could be fired any minute, while simultaneously bragging to other editors about this child savant. Mort was nasty and extremely verbally abusive to Shooter, calling him an “idiot” and a “füc&ing rétård.”
Says Shooter, “First of all, my family needed the money. Badly. Second, my editor, Mort Weisinger, mean as a snake at his nicest, would have screamed at me more than usual if I was ever late.
“Mort would call me every Thursday night, right after the Batman TV show to go over whatever I’d delivered that week. […] The calls mostly consisted of him bellowing at me. “You füc&ing moron! Learn to spell! What the hell is this character holding? Is that supposed to be a gun? It looks like a carrot! These layouts have to be clear, rétård!”
“When you’re 14 and the big, important man upon whom your family’s survival depends calls you up to tell you you’re an imbecile, it makes an impression…
“Mort used to tell me I was his “charity case.” He said that the only reason he kept me on was because my family would starve otherwise.
“The net effect of Mort’s honking at me was slowing me down. I’d sit there for hours, immobilized, useless, unproductive, because I was sure that anything I put on the paper would be wrong and therefore, Mort would scream at me. My mother would occasionally plead with me. She’d say, “We really need a check.” I started working in my room, sitting on my bed to keep my lack of production more private. Every once in a while she’d come upstairs, look at the blank page on my lap board and start crying. That was tough. She meant no harm. But that was tough.
“At some point, my fear of delivering work that Mort would rip me to shreds over was eclipsed by the fear of failing to deliver, or delivering late, which would be worse.”
An apocryphal story of Mort’s funeral goes like this: They couldn’t find anybody to do the eulogy and finally some guy who had known him a long time got up and said, “Well, his brother was worse.”
How do these 4 stories from Jim Shooter’s Childhood inform our understanding of Marvel Comics from 1979-1988, the years the Jim Shooter was at the helm?
Firstly, Jim Shooter was a child prodigy. Even at the tender age of 5, he displayed an intelligence and precociousness well beyond his age.
Second, Jim Shooter was curious and an insatiable learner. The middle school years are where most kids are picking their noses, yet Shooter was studying the medium of comics, willing to put in the work to understand the stylistic differences between companies, characters, and storylines.
Thirdly, Jim Shooter understood hard work. His family experiences instilled within him a sense of responsibility and a work ethic that was extremely results-oriented. Comics weren’t a hobby or an aspiration for Jim Shooter; even from his teen years he learned that making comics meant putting your butt in a chair in front of a drafting table.
Fourthly, Jim Shooter had a supervisor that pushed him. While Mort should in no way be given a pass for his abusiveness, he was a manager from a different era. Mort’s behavior was clearly traumatic for Jim Shooter but rather than buckle, Shooter learned to deliver on time, without excuse or exception.
Marvel was in total chaos in the mid-70s. Stan Lee had taken off to Hollywood, which made Marvel’s top editorial job a revolving door. When Shooter began in the job in 1978, he was the sixth editor-in-chief in less than four years and by all accounts that had left Marvel’s editorial operations a company-wide disaster along the lines of a Galactus attack.
But Shooter had quickly risen through the ranks by doing the jobs no one else wanted to do, so the thankless job of overhauling operations didn’t make him flinch in the slightest.
Despite an exploding line of titles, the structure of the editorial staff hadn’t changed. There was next to no oversight, meaning a laissez-faire editorial atmosphere reigned. While many of the comics were wonderfully imaginative, many of them were poorly crafted.
Rough material was being sent to the printer almost immediately after arriving in the office. Printing deadlines were being missed left and right. And the comics themselves had been losing money for years.
But remember the discipline and work ethic that Shooter had internalized as a kid? By the end of his first year, Marvel was on schedule with its printer, probably for the first time ever. By the end of year 3, Shooter had overhauled the entire editorial operations, making some unpopular changes like eliminating the idea of the writer-editor position, meaning all writers had oversight.
Scripts and art were given far more scrutiny. Shooter trained new writers and artists in the principles of the “Marvel Way” of visual storytelling by sharing a 1963 Human Torch story drawn by Jack Kirby. Marvel’s output became considerably more accessible by eliminating visual flash in favor of clean narrative illustrating.
Remember, Shooter learned early that no job was beneath him, so when toy companies came calling, Shooter was willing to play ball if it meant profitability for Marvel. Licensed properties like Micronauts, ROM, GI Joe, and Transformers became consistent hits. The audacious Secret Wars was penned by Shooter, paving the way for comic book crossovers.
Hippy, temperamental, lackadaisical creators were told to get with the program or shown the door to DC. Some took him up on that offer, which gave rise to the narrative that Shooter was controlling and difficult to work with.
Jim Shooter held the Marvel EIC job for nine years, during which time he oversaw the second best stretch in Marvel history, and the most productive one, coming in just behind the Lee and Kirby heyday of the 60s, which was due more to lightning in a bottle, unlike Shooter’s disciplined approach.
Shooter oversaw Chris Claremont’s X-Men, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Byrne’s Fantastic Four, Stern’s Avengers and Spider-Man, and so much more. 1979-1988 was the most marvelous time at Marvel.
He spearheaded the first graphic novel in God Loves, Man Kills. He supervised the creation of a new X-Men character called Dazzler, publishing a special Dazzler comic directly to comic book stores, bypassing newsstands for the first time in Marvel history, creating the rise of the comic shop model.
He conceptualized the New Universe, in part because he felt Marvel characters should change and grow, perhaps even being replaced line-wide.
Despite all this success, Shooter had developed the reputation of Doctor Doom and he was forced to resign in 1988. Perhaps that was for the best. In just a few short years the pendulum in the early 90s swung hard toward artists. The prima donna ways of Rob Liefeld never, ever would’ve melded with the in-your-face-until-you-get-this-done-on-time ways of Shooter.
Just like the freelance creators of today, you go into the business as starry-eyed fan, only to quickly realize it is a business and you need to put a butt in a seat to get the work done and make deadline. Shooter pushing to professionalize Marvel Comics was resented by many. But it got results. And then some.
But it’s funny how narratives take hold and I could see this even in researching Jim Shooter. A book like Marvel Untold Stories was clearly trying to gin up sales by sensationalizing the behind-the-scenes stories of the creators, amping up the drama. Other articles clearly were reinforcing their schtick by playing up the snark. Others tried to present a fact-filled rebuttal in an attempt to defend Jim Shooter’s legacy.
So even the material written about Jim Shooter generates a bit of controversy. Some creators said they owed their career to him, while others said he was impossible to work for, so they bolted to DC. Some mock him for writing comics that sold toys, while others credit him with saving Marvel’s bacon financially.
As most things, there are often many sides to a story. That’s why I leaned most heavily on the memories that Jim Shooter shared from his childhood. In that way, I tried to let the stories speak for themselves.
Jim Shooter always let the results speak for themselves.