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