Jim Shooter Conversations edited by Jason Sacks, Eric Hoffman and Dominick Grace (book review).

I have a lot of respect for Jim Shooter. I was a fan of his ‘Legion Of Super-Heroes’ tales, which he started writing at the age of 13 to give financial support to his family. When he was older, he was employed by Marvel where he became its editor-in-chief mostly by being last man standing. He changed the management model to sort out the lateness of some of their books, not to mention no one in the office seeing the material before it was all completed. When the copyright law came into effect, he simplified the many pages of jargon that need to be interpreted into the ‘work-for-hire’ contract but also ensured anything they created did got some extra money or royalty on it. Granted it upset some people, more surprising some like John Byrne who was actually benefiting from it in terms of royalty benefits. From a fan perspective, having lived through the ‘Dreaded Deadline Doom’ and getting reprints or fill-ins something had to be done. Considering the number of editor-in-chiefs rotating through the door before Shooter, his nine year tenure is all the more remarkable for lasting so long and reading how he was attacked on both sides from upper management and certain fandom reaction. Then again, what he set in place has still lasted and a testament to his own management skills.

Jim is happy. Honest.

The ten interviews in this book are from across Jim Shooter’s career from various sources at different times in his life. Obviously, they are going to cover his early work in comicbooks a lot but it doesn’t become repetitive because his perspective and self-examination of it not so much changes over time but adds a lot more depth. On top of that, this was not necessarily to make him look better but with information he didn’t want to use at the time. The eighteen year-old Jim Shooter was a lot more polite about his boss, Mort Weisinger, calling him ‘Mister’ when a few years later it was down to ‘Mort’. Considering the continual brow-beating he got off Weisinger, I’m not surprised he wanted a break from comicbooks. Oddly, Shooter says Weisinger did give him a good grounding in writing comics and the entire process. He was later told by E. Nelson Bridwell that Weisinger was grooming him to become an editor. Something I hadn’t realised was Weisinger, of all the DC editors, was the only one who gave three young newcomers their way into his comics, Shooter, E. Nelson Bridwell and Roy Thomas. I found the 1981 interview conducted by David Singer as one of the most grounded of these pieces. It’s also rather telling that when Shooter was getting badmouthed in ‘The Comics Journal’, he wasn’t in a position to reply. As he points out, as editor-in-chief, he was also responsible for everything that goes wrong regardless from the top to the fans. I doubt if no non-editor really appreciates that. A very telling piece.

Something that came out of the Chris Barkley radio interview of 1982 was Shooter explaining about revamping characters and even replacing them if it was a good idea. Based on the number of times this has now been done to key Marvel characters almost looks like the current editorial team see this as gospel statements. Logistically, to be fair, there’s always the age old problem of why most popular fictional characters don’t age or, in the case of comicbook characters, have such a long history that you can’t possible have read or know. From my perspective, as long as the old material is available cheaply enough in print, I doubt if the new comicbook fans really give it any attention and are prepared to read what’s on offer if it’s any good.

Another thing that comes out across the interviews was Shooter’s desire to let the creative teams shake things up if it was a sufficiently good idea and certain writers saw it as his dissatisfaction with what they were doing than being given liberty to do things. Even back in the day, I did wonder on who was the most conservative, some of the creators or most of the readership who wanted to keep things the way they were. From an editorial perspective, what I say tends to go but I tend to add when I take anyone on is if they think I’m wrong, defend their argument or we find a way together to sort it out. Shooter’s thoughts on the freedom to do what they wanted than the parent company being important seems to have been eroded lately. Shooter was more prophet than he realised at the time.

The 1992 interview conducted by Joe Martin covering his time after Marvel, the horrible ousting from Valiant (should I be capping these companies names? Nah! It sounds like shouting) and then with Defiant shows a lot of insight into the royalty system. I especially liked what he wrote about the seminars he conducted across the USA and about the problems he thought he wasn’t good enough to talk about and brought in other people. The most self-depreciating remark that he doesn’t have a natural smile look and just looks like he’s scowling had me in a burst of giggles. I do agree with him that there’s no easy way to tell someone there’s mistakes that need to be corrected but I suspect I’m probably one up that I can charm a little.

Make a note when reading these interviews to give yourself plenty of time to read each one in a sitting. To my mind, the penultimate interview from 1993 conducted by Martin Grosser is another stand-out item, more so as Shooter’s prophesy of another comic implosion at Marvel happened a few years later. There are a lot of other insights here that still apply today.

The final interview is also the biggest conducted by the three editors of this book and that one I did have to spread over a couple days. I thought the other two noted above were insight but this one is as well. I did wonder why Shooter let his hair grow so long but I guess 550 plus days and nights without a break does leave it difficult to fit other things in. I guess I would be one of his exceptions to the rule of not basing any of my characters on people I know though. There’s a lot of detail given here from Spider-Man’s black costume to work-for-hire because of the change in US copyright law. Considering the length of the law, I can see why Shooter presented a simplified version. Equally, there is insight into the ‘New Universe’ and having its budget taken away in production as Cadence was getting ready to sell Marvel Comics on.

Do I need to go on? The length of this review should show you how much I learnt from this book. There are some topics that weren’t explored, like Marvel working with DC Comics with cross-over titles or how some creators thought he was infringing when he corrected things or asked for changes. Objectively, if Shooter hadn’t done it, someone else would have eventually been forced to or see the company go down the tubes from diminishing sales. If Jim Shooter is reading this, I hope he can put the knowledge of his seminars into book form as I’d love to read it.

GF Willmetts

October 2017

(pub: University Press Of Mississippi. 217 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: £38.95 (UK), $40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-4968-1179-0)

check out websites: www.upress.state.ms.us and www.eurospanbookstore.com

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