Mercenary Mind: Issue #3

Mon, May 29th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Justin Gray, Columnist

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THE SENTIMENTAL MARVEL EDITION

This is just us talking in our secret language and so I know you'll understand when I say I grew up as a Marvel Kid. This is not to say I didn't read and enjoy DC Comics, but for the most part I was digging Spider Man, Sub Mariner, Thor, Hulk, X-Men and the Fantastic Four - mainly helped by the Stan Lee narrated cartoons. My close friend Jonathan was a diehard DC fan so we were obligated to argue endlessly on the merits of each company's heroes. Secretly I wanted to read his collection of DC Comics, but I couldn't concede my argument that Marvel had the coolest characters by doing so. Years later I became less a zombie and grew to appreciate both companies for their own reasons.

Back on track, I was a Marvel Kid for years and now, after a few bumps in the road, I'm taking mercenary gigs from them. It is kind of amazing when I think about it. Sadly the one person in the world I wish I could share this with, the man that scoffed at comics and insisted I read "real books" and stated that comics were "trash," has long since passed away. Admittedly the reptile brain in me would like to say, "I told you so," in response to my Grandfather's belief that you "can't make money as a comicbook writer." Still, I think he'd have been impressed to see a dream become a reality even if it took twenty-five years. I would have liked to show him the issues of "Marvel Adventures: Fantastic Four" that will be released this summer.

THE MICROVERSE AND THE MACROVERSE

Ironically my favorite childhood comic published by Marvel was based not on the creations of Lee and Kirby, but the short-lived toy line known as the "Micronauts." Go ahead and laugh I don't "TIK" mind. At age 10 I thought the "Micronauts" were cooler than cool. Sure the guts of the series were a mash-up of "Star Trek," "Star Wars" and the whole space opera thing meets World War Two, but it worked for my ten-year-old mind and I stuck with them until they disappeared in 1986. Ironically, that was the year my obsession with comics shifted to an obsession with girls and I read very few comics for over a decade. I was jilted.

This was of course back before this crazy thing we call the Internet was spreading across the globe and you knew instantly just about everything that happens in the industry. Back in the days of mastodons and wall mounted telephones you could walk into your local comics shop and be startled to learn the comic you loved wasn't on the shelves. You'd ask your storeowner, "What happened to the 'Micronauts?'" and you'd hear, "Oh, they don't make that book anymore." And that was that. No more trips to the microverse for you. At the time it was almost as bad as breaking up with the first girl that, while her parents were at work, took me to her house during fifth period lunch for what we secretly called "intensive study sessions."

Faced with the awkward stumbling of teenage adolescence, the heartbreaks and social disasters and the end of childhood innocence, how can you not remember fondly a book where tiny superheroes were being chased by a lawnmower? There's a metaphor in there I promise.

The "Micronauts" also introduced me to Bill Mantlo, Michael Golden, Pat Broderick, Jackson Guice, Kelley Jones and the legendary Gil Kane. All of them had an influence on me and were the last architects of my childhood love of comics.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF WESTERN

When Marvel editor Mark Paniccia offered Jimmy and myself the opportunity to write a one-shot issue starring Kid Colt and Arizona Annie, we weren't exactly sure what to do. After all we were in the beginning stages of bringing back Jonah Hex and working on back-to-back westerns for rival companies put us in a strange position. Naturally we couldn't use the same style for such vastly different characters, nor could we use certain themes without becoming redundant and doing a disservice to both books. Mark suggested we have fun with KC&AA, and adopt a lighter tone. One thing you should know about me is I'm serious about my westerns. With the exception of "Blazing Saddles," I'm not a fan of western spoofs. Any other genre is fair game, but not the western. I suspect many feel that way about the superhero genre.

Anyway, Jimmy and I went back and forth on different story ideas, but nothing seemed to work. We thought about handling the romance angle, but that required more than 22 pages. The general idea that stuck with us was pulp western; a sort of Saturday morning cartoon meets dime novel with a decidedly Marvel-centric twist. Having driven cross-country on several occasions, I've always liked the idea of visiting a small American town where everything looks perfectly normal on the surface only to discover some very weird shit is happening behind closed doors. So, in the Wild West of the Marvel Universe, Kid Colt and Arizona Annie have that exact experience.

SO YOU WANNA BE IN COMICS?

A guy looking to break into comics approached me at a recent convention. Not much new in that opening statement, but he wasn't looking to be an artist, writer, inker, colorist or letterer. He wanted to know how to break into editorial. The advice I had for him was relatively useless because I hadn't given much thought to how one goes about getting editorial work in comics. I figured internships were a good way to go and having a portfolio of published work might help, but after that I was clueless.

This week I'm going to talk to a pair of editors to gain some insight to their journey into the ranks of editorial departments. To make things even more interesting and to give some exposure to guys you may not be familiar with I approached Nate Cosby of Marvel Comics who, along with Mark Paniccia, are the editors on "Daughters of the Dragon," "Marvel Westerns: Arizona Annie and Kid Colt" and "Heroes For Hire," which I write with Jimmy Palmiotti and "Marvel Adventures: Fantastic Four," which I'm writing solo. PLUG!

Okay, Nate, lets cut to the chase - how did you break into the editorial ranks at Marvel?

NATE: Blackmail. I saw Jimmy Palmiotti strangle a drifter in Central Park. He tried to kill me, too, but was no match for my spry sprint. I guess he figured getting his buddy Quesada to give me a job would be easier than plotting my assassination.

Nah. Lying. Truth is, I got my start at Marvel as a lowly intern in the Marvel Knights office under Axel Alonso. They didn't have enough for me to do, so I'd wander over to MacKenzie Cadenhead and Mark Paniccia's office and bug them for work (they worked on my favorite books anyway - "Runaways" and "spider-Man Loves Mary Jane!" - so that's where I wanted to be). They let me balloon and give script notes, and I guess they figured I didn't suck, because they made me an editor (it can happen, kids!).

As I understand it you're not originally from New York. Was it a culture shock to be working in the extremely competitive environment Manhattan creates?

NATE: At first. The transition from Columbus, Mississippi to New York City is more than subtle. I suppressed my accent and kept my head down for the first few months, just to make sure I didn't sound stupid. Then, once I realized that I'll always sound stupid, I figured I might as well get my talk on. You get used to the rhythms of the city. Everyone moves and talks faster, and they don't wait for you to catch up, so it was very much a survival mentality at the outset. I'm caught up now, but I dread vacations, because I know I'll go home, get back into the slower rhythm of the south, then get back to NYC and have to catch up again (but it's a fair trade-off, because food's better in the south. 'Cuz that's where my mom cooks).

What motivated you to seek work in the comic book industry as opposed to any other publication medium?

NATE: I worked in television for a while, as a script doctor. It's a lucrative business, and I'm a huge fan of that medium. More than a film, you're able to create three-dimensional characters with deep back stories, because you have an hour a week to get to know these people and understand their actions and motivations. But comics, as a medium, are far superior, because your budget is limitless and the stories so much more concise.

Take "Runaways" as an example. Lots of scenes where characters are doing nothing but talking. Perfect for television, until you get to page 8, when they jump into their gigantic Leapfrog and go fight Ultron. You'd need a $10 million budget every episode. In comics, you never have to compromise your story because it costs too much…just draw it.

Tell us about the glamorous life behind the scenes of one of the industry's premiere publishing companies. Is it as thrilling as an outsider might expect when walking the hallowed halls of Marvel Comics and rubbing elbows with writers and artists? I mean this on a personal level as a fan.

NATE: Butterflies in the stomach. First week I got the job, I found out I was gonna be working on a book with Keith Giffen. Keith Giffen! The man shaped my childhood (along with J.M. DeMatteis) with Justice League America/International/Europe/Antartica, and now I've gotta edit his scripts!? It sucked, until I realized he's just a guy. Talented guy, but he's not a God (don't tell him I said that). But more than meeting any specific person in the industry, I just get a kick out of having a voice in the shaping of a comic. I have an opinion, and it's applied. Still kinda blows my mind.

When it comes to storytelling, how much influence would you say an individual editor has over the direction of a book or its themes? I know there are grumblings about editorially driven content at both companies so what is your personal philosophy about the collaborative process?

NATE: It depends on the book. Each one's different. With the "Marvel Adventures" line, they're all ages, which means the writers on those books are going to be on a pretty tight editorial leash, just to make sure the characters' voices are consistent, making sure it's not Punisher-level violent and it's a palatable stand-alone tale. A person with no past knowledge of Peter Parker should be able to pick up "Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man" #13 and understand who everyone is and what's going on. That's very much an editorial-driven project. Very tedious and very necessary.

Other projects, such as "Daughters of the Dragon" (plug!), are different, in that the creators have very specific ideas of how the characters should interact, and we don't want to get in the way of their story. An editor has to maintain a delicate balance between helping a book and controlling a book, and there's never a set way to approach the all. You feel out the creators and see how much help they want. That's what we're here for.

What are the most important factors when pairing up writers and artists for a specific project? How are those decisions made?

NATE: To me, the most important thing about picking creators is that their names be Sean McKeever and Takeshi Miyazawa. That's about it. But, unfortunately, I've only met one Sean McKeever and one Takeshi Miyazawa, so we've put them on "Spider-Man Lvoes Mary Jane," while we search for other Sean's and Tak's.

Sometimes a writer already has a specific artist in mind, but most of the time, it falls to the editor to come up with a penciling wish list. I start with story. Once the story is rock-solid, we start thinking about the best visual storyteller we can find. And it's beautiful when it works out. Best example I've had so far is Dan Slott and Eduardo Barreto on the upcoming "Marvel Western: Two Gun Kid." That book is un…be…lievable. It's this awesome, untold, stand-alone tale that ties into current She-Hulk continuity, but you needn't ever read She-Hulk to get it. It's almost all set in the old west, and for anybody that's seen Eduardo's art…the man can draw a western (I love westerns). I couldn't see anybody else on that book. He and Dan are both on point, excited, enjoying their work. That's the feeling you want with every book.

Any advice you can give people who might be looking to work as an editor in comics?

NATE: Read everything. Comics, sure, but novels, screenplays, medical journals, shampoo bottles…well, maybe not bottles. Read, question, try to read things not as a fan, but as a skeptic. Question why something happens in a story. Analyze a scene and figure out why it's necessary to the development of the plot. If you read something and don't like it, don't just leave it at that. Think of what sucks about it and come up with constructive ways in which you could make it better.

And as for breaking into the industry, you've got to be completely humble and unblinkingly determined. I worked for months for no money before I was noticed (I think people are just now remembering my name). I didn't quit, didn't lose hope, just put my head down and did the best job I could. And that's what I still do. They just pay me now.

What do you think about the often-overstated division between Marvel fans and DC fans? Being the mercenary type I've always felt that the competitive nature between the two companies ultimately benefits the fans and right now we're seeing the strongest cohesive publishing plans from both companies in a decade. I can't help but think that for fans of both companies it is a great time to be reading their comics.

NATE: Personally, I've never subscribed to the "Marvel vs. DC" mentality. We motivate one another, sure, but you can buy both, y'know. When I read, I don't look at the company logo, I'm looking at the creators and the quality of the story. I like plenty of DC's books. I read "Hard Time" and "Ex Machina" and dearly miss "Gotham Central," one of my favorite books of all time. And I pray that the new "Robin" creative team can bring back that ol' Chuck Dixon magic. And for Marvel, I love "Ultimate Spider-Man," "Daredevil," "Captain America" and "Runaways" (I work on that book, but I still read the finished product as a fan). A good book's a good book. My favorite comic is forever and always "The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck." Greatest biography I've ever read, real or otherwise.

It's never a bad time to be reading comics, what with almost everything from the past being collected in trade paperback form. But, yeah, as for current books, I think it's very healthy for Marvel and DC to be rivals. It does nothing but help the quality of the books. From "Infinite Crisis" to "Civil War," it's good that both companies keep upping the stakes and making it exciting to follow everything. I'm in awe of the intricacies involved with these crossovers. My hat is off to The Force that is Tom Brevoort, knower of all things continuity and the gatekeeper of "Civil War." The raw tonnage of information flowing through the man's bearded cranium would be enough to choke a good-sized ocelot. But I hope that for people that don't want to follow dozens of books at a time will seek out smaller books, like the "Marvel Adventures" line or "Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane" (plugs!), that have great stories without having all the continuity baggage. I love one-and-done issues, and Adventures give ya that every month.

Nate, it was a pleasure as always.

We'll I'm out of here. Have a great Memorial Day and maybe I'll see you in Philly this weekend at the show.

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