Comic Culture

FULL EPISODE

Carl Potts

This week on Comic Culture, Carl Potts discusses editing at Marvel Comics, nurturing new talent, and why the Punisher is no hero.

AIRED: November 30, 2020 | 0:27:45
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
TRANSCRIPT

[dramatic orchestral music]

- Hello and welcome to Comic Culture.

I'm Terence Dollard,

a professor in the Department of Mass Communication

at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

My guest today is writer, artist,

editor, educator, Carl Potts.

Carl, welcome to Comic Culture.

- Thanks for having me.

- You were an editor at Marvel at a time

when I guess they were the big dog

in the industry in the 1980s.

And you had the opportunity to sort of shepherd

in a lot of new talent, folks like June Brigman,

like Arthur Adams, like Jim Lee.

And I'm just wondering as an editor,

how is it that you can help an artist sort of figure out

how the system works and how to get better?

- Well, I think that the fact that I was both a writer

and an artist was very helpful

and I would look,

since I remembered what it was like

when I was trying to break in and I'd send in my samples

and either get no response or get a response ages later

that was a form letter that usually told me nothing useful,

I decided when I became an editor,

anybody who sent me their portfolio

or their samples directly to me, not to Marvel in general,

but directly to me or if I saw them at a convention,

they were gonna get a quick response

that told them something useful.

And by doing that, occasionally I'd run across people

who showed advanced talent,

but weren't quite ready to be professionals yet.

So I'd try and discern where their weaknesses were

and give them

exercises or resources to try and beef up those areas.

And for those who were getting really close,

I gave them a six-page Tom DeFalco story

that was incredibly hard to do in six pages,

a lot of storytelling condensed into six pages

and that was their sort of trial by fire,

throwing 'em into the deep end of the pool.

And we paid them $60 a page to pencil it,

even though they never got published.

And they'd do the layouts,

and I'd go over the layouts and have changes made.

And I'd do the pencils and I'd go over that.

And then if they went on to inks, I'd do the same thing.

And it was a learning process that way.

And

some people were just so sharp when they came in

the door that we just gave them work right off the bat.

June had, Brigman had met Louise Simonson

and they got together to create "Power Pack."

And when Louise Simonson asked me to edit the book,

she showed me June's stuff and I was blown away by it.

So she basically pretty much started her career.

And strangely enough,

the person that followed her on the book,

John Bogdanove, it was a similar thing.

He came up to Marvel, showed his portfolio.

I needed someone to replace June

who was moving on to other books,

and trying to find people who could draw children well

in comics was very difficult.

You know, all these amazing artists that draw

all of these amazing things,

and their children really were ugly.

[laughing]

John Bogdanove came up when he had a portfolio

of full of samples of sword and sorcery stuff

which I didn't really need.

But then this piece of paper he'd done a sketch on

of some kids slipped out of his portfolio.

And I said, "That we can use,"

and that was the start of his career.

So it's a little different now.

I'm a little harder to get in.

You can't just make appointments to see people,

or send your stuff in because people are worried now

that the companies are worried now

about people claiming that you stole their ideas

or whatever, if you send in ideas or samples or whatever.

So it's gotten much harder in that regard unfortunately.

- Now, you mentioned "Power Pack,"

which was one of those great innovative series of the 1980s.

And when you're brought in as an editor

and you've got a writer who's got this concept,

what do you bring to the table that's going to help,

in this case, Louise Simonson really refine it

and make it as good as it was?

- Well, with "Power Pack" I was very lucky

because Louise Simonson is one of the best writer editors

in the field to begin with.

One of the first main contributions I made is

she had a different name for the series.

And the reasons behind that name are very clever,

but I thought they weren't...

Since she weren't gonna be there whispering in the ears

of a potential buyers about how clever this name was,

I thought on face value,

it was a kind of off-putting or misleading.

So I came up with the name "Power Pack"

and Weezy really liked that.

And when June was designing a lot of her characters,

she did an excellent job on the kids.

She was having some trouble with some of the aliens

and with the SmartShip Friday.

So I did a lot of work on those as well.

And with June, I would go over her pencils or her layouts

and make sure all the storytelling was clear and so on.

So just basically every step of the creative process,

an editor goes in and makes sure that the creators are

telling a story in a clear and compelling way.

And if there are problems,

ideally you come up with possible solutions

to pitch to them,

whether that ends up being the final solution

to the issue may or may not be the case

'cause you basically want to creatively brainstorm

with your people to come up with the best solution,

no matter where it comes from.

- Now, when you're working

on a new series like "Power Pack,"

I guess it's going to be different

than when you are handed an established franchise

like let's say, "The Incredible Hulk."

So when you have a character that has a long history,

as a new editor, how do you sort of step in and say,

"This is the direction we wanna go in

"because maybe the old direction is getting a little stale

"or maybe this new writer that you're going

"to work with has some great ideas?"

- Well, when I inherited characters to edit

like Dr. Strange, and the Hulk, and so on,

later on Alpha Flight, I, well,

with Dr. Strange and the Hulk,

I'd been reading them for decades at that point.

So I knew a lot of what was going on.

I needed to catch up on some of the recent history,

but I would go back and reread almost everything

to just make sure I knew what had been done before

so we didn't accidentally retrace certain steps

or storylines and see if there were things in there

that I thought hadn't been explored properly or just...

I believe a large part of creativity is

juxtaposing things together in new and interesting ways,

and following what if kind of questions

and things like that.

So I would make lists of all these thoughts,

and questions, and ideas that occurred to me

when I was reading through these books

and write them up and go over them with the writer.

And we would brainstorm back and forth

about what to do with these things.

If anything, sometimes it would be we'd hit a dead end,

but other times it would open up whole new areas to explore.

- One of the things that I recall from this time is

not only are you editing books,

but you're also working on your own series.

And I believe you had a, through Epic imprint,

your own series, "Alien Legion."

And I'm wondering how do you sort of manage the time

that you're doing the stuff that Marvel is paying you to do,

which is to be an editor to make sure your books are out

on time and look as good as they can,

but at the same time,

hit your deadlines for your own stories

that you're trying to tell

and still have time to sleep and maybe eat?

- Well, that's when I started getting all this gray hair.

[Terrance laughing]

But what I did is with "Alien Legion,"

I ended up coming up with the basic concept,

and some of the main characters,

and the original storylines,

but I did not have time because I was editing

to actually do any hands-on scripting

or drawing except for character designs.

So I brought on a couple of co-creators,

Alan Zelenetz and Frank Cirocco.

We all worked at that all out together

and they ended up writing and drawing under my direction,

the original run of the series.

So that way I was overseeing the series,

it's almost like editing another book,

but it was at the Epic Department.

When I went on to write and do the layouts

for "Punisher War Journal," that was a real problem.

So I proposed that it be on a six-week schedule

instead of a monthly schedule.

That would allow me to write it and do the layouts.

But it became such a huge hit so quickly

that the sales department was

screaming for it to go monthly.

If they could, they would've probably had it go daily.

Jim Lee had come up through my office

doing "Alpha Flight" for about a year

and he didn't really need anybody doing layouts for him.

[laughing] Definitely.

So I finally just bit the bullet

and said, "Okay, we'll go monthly, I'll just write it."

And so we took on from there.

So there were time management issues.

Also around that time I got married, started a family.

So I was really being, you know,

having my attention pulled in a lot of directions.

So I had to try and manage all that as well as possible.

But the thing is, is when you're doing things you enjoy,

it's much easier to handle a whole lot of work

and be scattered in different directions

than if you're doing a bunch of stuff

that feels like drudgery, and you know,

all that stuff was, I took great pleasure in.

So it was great.

- And when you're working with Jim Lee

on "The Punisher War Journal,"

this is sort of transforming a character

who's sort of the antihero.

And I think when Gerry Conway,

and I don't know if it was Ross Andru

or John Romita who had created him--

- Well, John Romita did the design,

but I think Ross Andru drew the stories,

the original stories, yeah.

- And he was sorta created as a villain of the month.

Somebody who could keep Spidey occupied for an issue or two,

but now you've sorta gotta flesh him out

and turn him into a character

that's sympathetic to an audience.

So how do you do that?

- I think that they were,

I had no real plans to use the Punisher,

but then Jo Duffy who,

she was an assistant to Archie Goodwin

and she had also been writing for Marvel for a long time.

She had a nice long run on "Power Man and Iron Fist" and

she was

proposing a Punisher graphic novel

called "Assassin's Guild,"

which Jorge Zaffino ended up doing the art on

at around the same time that I was approached

by Steven Grant and Mike Zeck

with their five-issue mini series proposal.

I liked the proposal.

I always loved Zeck's work,

was interested in working with him.

And I'd seen in the marketplace outside of comics

with films like the "Dirty Harry" films

or the Charles Bronson "Death Wish" films

that there seemed to be something in the ether

about this sort of thing.

So

I signed on to do those projects,

even though a lot of the other editors thought

it was pretty silly to try and turn

the Punisher into a leading character.

And it took me a little while,

but I came up with a take on the character

that I tried to make sure all of the books

I either edited or wrote adhered to as much as possible.

Although things that were done with the character

outside of my office or whatever,

after I started vetting it,

I take great issue with the lie.

But to me, he was a man who it could

have easily been called The Punished.

He was punishing himself.

He had a death wish for failing to protect his family

when they were rubbed out by the mob.

And

his

death wish involves him going

after violent criminals to hopefully prevent other people

from having to endure what he endured.

And if he ever fails and gets killed,

he's getting what he deserves

for failing to protect his family.

And he takes no pleasure,

even if he has a successful mission,

he doesn't kick back and have a beer

and have a feeling of accomplishment.

He's just driven to go to the next,

and the next, and the next one.

And so, and on the rare occasion where he did

start feeling like emotion towards somebody else

or taking pleasure in something,

he would cut himself off short

'cause he didn't deserve that.

Or if he got close to anybody because of his lifestyle,

almost always they'd get killed or maimed or something.

The longest survivor was Microchip,

which was a creation of Mike Baron's.

So I wanted to make it clear

that this was an action adventure thing.

It was sort of a cathartic thing where people who are

really horrible but escape the law, get their comeuppance.

But it wasn't meant to be a role model

in any way, shape or form.

But other, some people did not see it that way.

They, and I would occasionally get letters from people

like, "Oh, I wanna be just like the Punisher."

And I'd have to stop whatever I'm doing

and write them a letter back

explaining everything I just told you

and how this is nobody to be emulated.

And it's nobody that's happy.

And they usually just end up inciting

ongoing cycles of violence.

They hardly ever actually solve anything.

And I was always kind of amazed at that point of view

of the character didn't always come across

'cause I thought we were putting it in there.

But after editorial control went elsewhere on the character,

I think they just lost all sight

of any of the stuff I've just talked about.

And people just thought he was a guy who was

mad and went around hunting criminals.

And they started doing things where they'd have,

We'd had started out doing profiles of the equipment

and the weapons that he used on a separate page.

And that got taken over

by somebody else who was writing it.

And they started slipping in their own backstory

in there that drove me batty.

Like they had him in his downtime,

first off, he never has any downtime,

but in his downtime he supposedly goes bear hunting.

And they had him be a member of the NRA.

They had him have a torture chamber built

into his warehouse.

These are things to me that are totally against the version

of the character that I was in charge of.

Also, you get people that wanna guest star the character

just because he was popular and they go,

"Oh, he's a guy who's mad at criminals and kills them.

"So we'll have him go berserk

"and shoot jaywalkers and litterbugs."

It's like the easiest stupidest idea

for a story with a character.

And when I was in charge of the character,

I'd always nix those things.

But when I wasn't, a lot of that stuff started happening.

There was some really good stuff done

after I stopped editing the character,

but there was also just a lot of stuff

I thought was ridiculous.

And I don't think it's an accident that the popularity

of the character started sliding around that time.

It was just so inconsistent and weird.

That's just my subjective point of view on the character.

- Well, it's interesting because, you know,

on the one hand you've got this tremendous success

with a character and I guess that's,

you know, that's great for the ego

because it sort of validates what you're doing.

But on the other hand, this is a character that's owned

by Marvel and now is owned by Disney.

And you have to sort of give it back and give control.

So how do you balance that,

your success with the character is not really yours?

- Everybody who goes into the game of working for

a major company's

personal intellectual property,

you know the rules going in.

So if you don't like the rules, don't play that game.

And the other thing that happened

around the time I started at Marvel,

that Marvel did was that if you created a new character

that was within their universe or fictional universe,

they had what was called

the new character agreement which gave you

a percentage of the back end,

if it was licensed for merchandise

or film or television and so on.

And they've modified those agreements over time.

Each new ownership wants to modify it.

And so some people do and some people don't.

Depends on how much money

that's being waved in front of them to alter their deal.

It wasn't like if you created a character

from Marvel at that point, you would never see any

of the fruits of its exploitation down the road.

So that was fine.

With a character like the Punisher who was created

before that time, that agreement,

then nobody involved would get anything from it.

But if you created a new character

within the Punisher mythos like when Mike Baron

and Klaus Janson created Microchip,

they did get a piece of Microchip.

So when Microchip ended up being used,

for instance, in the Netflix "Punisher" series,

I'm sure they got a paycheck for that.

- You shepherded new artists at Marvel.

And now you are sort of guiding the artists of the future

in your role at the School of the Visual Arts in New York.

So I'm wondering, how do you go from being

a comics pro to being a comics professor?

Wasn't that a great segue, right?

- The mentoring had always come naturally to me at Marvel,

and it just seemed like a natural segue to me.

And I'd done a little bit of teaching

and seminars here and there,

but I'd had lunch one day with Klaus Janson

who had been teaching a long time

at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

And I told him I was very interested in teaching there.

So he put in a word with the chairman of that department

and they ended up starting another section

of the senior portfolio class that I co-taught

with Klaus for the first year, get my legs under me.

And then I took over solo for a while.

And then I ended up joining up

with another former Marvel and DC editor and a writer,

Joey Cavalieri, to teach together.

He and I make a pretty good team.

We have a lot of things that we see in common,

and a lot of things that we have different takes on, so...

It's there, the students are getting

multiple points of view

while still having us agree on a lot of the basics.

So I think that's very helpful.

Then I started teaching online as well

for Academy of Art University.

And it's based in San Francisco.

They have a major online component

in addition to their onsite school.

When I was at SVA a while,

I decided to propose a new course that I wrote

called Creating Fictional Worlds.

And a lot of the students have their own ideas

for their own story worlds that they're trying to build.

And so I have them build a Bible, so to speak,

around their intellectual property

that has a logline, and a synopsis,

and the first, a script for the first episode,

and outlines for the rest.

It has turnarounds for all the characters,

and schematics for all the major scene environments.

And talks about the rules and internal logic of the world

if it has any fantastic elements.

If you have a fantasy, science fiction, or horror world,

it's important for the creator to know

what the rules of those worlds are,

what can and can't be done,

what the capabilities and limitations are.

Otherwise you just start writing something

and 'cause there's magic there, or science fiction,

you know, you get these very unsatisfying

deus ex machina type events coming on

because you don't know what people can or can't do.

And part of the creative fun is to note the limitations

and figure out how your character butts up against them

and figures out a way around them

within the logic of that universe.

And so I may try and make sure

all that stuff is worked out so they have,

they know their property inside and out.

So if they go ahead and start working on it, they're set.

They know what they're doing or they can, if they want,

they can use that Bible or adjust it

to use it to help pitch their project

to publishers or editors or producers.

- You're talking about the pitch,

and I'm familiar with a pitch for television

where maybe you just have a paragraph

that you can use to sort of describe your show.

So what would a pitch be like in comics?

Let's say you were going to DC or Marvel,

and you had an idea for a new character

or an existing character with a new take.

How are you going to kind of pitch that to them?

- I think a lot of that depends on

your position in the industry

and your relationship with whoever it is you're talking to.

If you have a long track record and a good relationship,

you can get away with a lot less

because they have confidence in you.

They know what you're capable of.

If you're new or untried,

you need to really have a polished act together.

And it would include, I think, a really good logline.

There's a template I like to use

that comes from the "Save The Cat!" books,

a template for writing loglines.

But "Save The Cat!" books,

I have a real love-hate relationship with

because I think there's some great information in there,

but too many people follow the beat sheet that he has there

and write it religiously along that.

And they can end up with a beautifully crafted

and totally soulless piece of work.

I teach my students it's best to combine

a combination of the

creatively inspired

and intellectual approach to writing.

So I have them figure out their basic plot.

Like they need to know their character.

Where the character starts.

Where they want the character to end up.

And the general route they're gonna take.

And then I tell them to write the first draft

totally from their gut.

Don't worry about beat sheets or classic story arcs.

They've got the classic story arc built into 'em

almost anyway because of all the stuff

they've been reading their whole life.

And then,

take that first draft,

and you know, when you're doing it, just impulses,

whatever that hits you, directions you wanna explore.

You can always cut them back,

but if you're following a beat sheet

and you never explore them to begin with,

you won't know what you might discover.

So you take that meandering thing

that you come up with a first draft,

then you compare that to like Chris Vogler's

"Hero's Journey" model, which is based on Campbell

or the "Save The Cat!" beat sheet or you know,

any of the others that are out there, they're very similar.

They're all very similar.

They just emphasize different things a little differently.

And then ask yourself where

your first draft diverges from that,

would your story be better if it did it adhere

more closely to that classic story arc or would it not?

And you have to be as honest with yourself as you can.

And more often than not, I find that, gosh, darn it.

I guess I should [laughing] make this in here

'cause it would be better if I did that, but not always.

And the only way you'll know if you've come up

with something that really works even though it's

a bit different is if you let yourself explore

in that first draft without being riveted to a beat sheet.

That's why I think the "Save The Cat!" beat sheet

is like a two-edged sword.

- A lot of times we tend to think

of the story as a series of events,

whereas really we should be thinking

about the way the character grows

and moves throughout these events.

So how do you sort of explain that difference?

Like I've got a galactic space battle.

So how would you kind of steer a student towards

understanding that the character is the important part?

- Well, basically if you're doing a self-contained story,

it's much easier to have a really strong character arc

because they have their wants and needs,

and they also have their conscious wants and needs,

as well as their subconscious wants and needs.

So someone who say is desiring to be

respected by their peers consciously,

subconsciously, they might have,

they might not feel that way at all.

They might feel that they're

totally not worthy of any of that.

So that's in conflict within themselves.

And that's what affects their relationships

with the other characters throughout the story.

So you have to find out what your main character's fault

or missing pieces or information they're lacking,

and within the scope of the arc of the story,

they find out what that is

and then how they need to address it.

And if they address it successfully,

you end up with a happy ending

because when the final conflict comes,

they have the ability and the tools to triumph.

Or if they're unsuccessful, you have a more tragic ending.

And then a lot of endings are mixed.

So you have sort of a, you know, ironic ending in a way,

I guess, because it's a mixed thing.

When you're doing a serial character like Spider-Man,

you can't, every issue, you can't go through some giant arc.

So a lot of times it's a matter of him, his morals,

and his convictions being tested each issue.

He's Spider Man, he's, by failing to save his uncle

when he had a chance because he was being selfish,

after that he's compelled to use his abilities

whenever he can to to help others

and not let that happen again.

And there are times when that gets tested,

and his conviction to that,

especially when he has needs, and wants,

and desires in his personal life or his commitment

to helping other people and is as a civilian disguise.

- Karl, I think we've just about run out of time.

I'd like to thank you so much

for taking time out of your day to talk with us.

I'd like to thank you at home for watching Comic Culture.

We will see you again soon.

[dramatic orchestral music]

- [Announcer] Comic Culture is a production

at the Department of Mass Communication

at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

[dramatic orchestral music]

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