by Mike Hansen
“Nobody works in the comics industry because they have a plan to retire and buy a yacht.”
Here’s the third part of my interview with Jeph York (Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here). In this final segment, Jeph talks about the challenges of researching over seven decades of Marvel’s “shared universe” and creating new collected editions of older Marvel comics, while offering some behind-the-scenes tidbits about the contents of some recent and upcoming books:
I’ve noticed that occasionally Marvel will make changes to its reprints from the initial publication: Ultimate X-Men reprints have removed the swearing from the early issues, and the recent Avengers Free Comic Book Day reprint recolored Spider-Woman so she’s fully clothed in scenes in which she was previously nude. Do these editorial changes ever complicate your work?
I wouldn’t say they “complicate” things, but I do have to keep them in mind. When I researched the Avengers by Geoff Johns 4-volume HC set, I had to check whether or not we could run the full version of Avengers #71, with the implied sex scene. We chose to run the censored version, to keep the book’s rating consistent with the first three volumes. And for the upcoming Marvel Firsts: the 1970s Vol. 3 TPB, we had to replace some mild cursing with “@#$%^&” symbols, because we didn’t notice them until too late – we’d already solicited the book with a lower rating, and changing it would have caused problems.
On the other hand, I imagine that the collected editions of Avengers #12.1 will keep the naked Spider-Woman, because the book’s rating already takes that kind of content into account – whereas the Free Comic Book Day version needed to be rated for kids.
Do you have any idea why other problematic lettering – that is, mistakes from the original comics (word balloons pointing to the wrong character, misspellings, etc.) – don’t get changed for the collected editions? (As a professional proofreader, this is one of my biggest pet peeves in comics.)
I’m not sure. My impression is, in general our mandate is to reprint a comic as it originally appeared, warts and all. I know that typos are annoying, but look back at the classic 1960s comics – in some cases, typos are part of the book’s charm! Like how Dr. Octopus called Spider-Man “Super-man” in issue #3, or how Stan Lee kept fouling up the characters’ names – Bruce Banner became Bob Banner; Peter Parker became Peter Palmer. Or, to use a more typo-like example, how Amazing Fantasy #15 didn’t use a hyphen in “Spiderman”‘s name. If we were to correct those, fandom would get annoyed. (And remember: some previous reprints have corrected them. And Cory Sedlmeier went back and reinstated the original typos!)
Then again, we have fixed reprints in some cases. Mostly ’90s books, when a digital production error drops out lettering that should have been there, or something similar. Or when color plates are switched in a 1980s book. So I guess we don’t have a mandate for 100% purity, no matter what.
I think the question boils down to, at what point do we stop doing our job, which is collecting books into TPBs and HCs – and start doing someone else’s job, which is catching and fixing every single error? And I’m not sure there’s one single, definitive answer for that.
The Astonishing X-Men: Northstar HC is coming up. It collects Astonishing X-Men #48, where Northstar is called “Jean-Claude” instead of “Jean-Paul.” Given that this arc is Northstar’s highly-publicized wedding, I’d be very curious to see if that error gets touched up.
A few creators have, in the past, publicly complained about not receiving comp copies of reprints of their work, or not being involved in their production. Have you been involved in dealing with these concerns? If so, what happened?
I haven’t really been involved in addressing either of these things, sorry. I will say that we DO send out comps, and we try to send them to as many creators as we can.
I understand that there been various legal issues that have prevented Marvel from reprinting certain stories or series, like licensing issues with Rom or Micronauts, the Fu Manchu appearances in Master of Kung Fu, and contract issues with the Malibu Ultraverse material – in fact, this was recently addressed by Steve Englehart (see here) and Marvel (see here). Is there anything being done, or can be done, for Marvel to reprint this material?
Again, sorry, but I’m not really involved in this. I know that in certain cases we’ve looked into reprinting licensed stuff, and sometimes we succeed (Essential Godzilla!) and sometimes we fail. It’s one of the pitfalls of licensed publishing, and it’s disappointing at times. But at least the original issues still exist for anyone who wants to own the material!
That’s true: The good thing about most ’90s comics (especially Marvel) is that most back issues are still dirt-cheap! Marvel is well known within the comics industry and press for letting most of its collected editions go out of print relatively quickly. Do you have any insight into why so many Marvel books (including random volumes of long-running series, for example Ultimate Spider-Man) are unavailable to retailers and not overprinted or reprinted? What do you think about the idea that there some “evergreen” titles that will always sell and deserve to remain in print?
Sorry to disappoint, but I have absolutely no insight on this. Again, it’s all way over my head, and anything I could say would only be speculation. If that’s the way they operate, it must be beneficial to them to do so.
Wow, 0 for 3! Okay, let’s try switching gears… Although some publishers have very little interaction with fans outside of convention panels, you regularly interact with comics fans at the Marvel Masterworks Fan Site boards. What do you like about this? Do you think other publishers or creators should do this, too?
Well, in my case, my Marvel career was born FROM those boards. I’d feel bad abandoning them. But it’s a weird balancing act – being half-fan, half-pro – and I’ve stumbled a lot more often than I’d like. I don’t think it’s an easy trick to pull off, and I can understand why other editors would choose to just lurk, or to avoid online interaction completely. Fans can be passionate and intense (and remember, I’M one of those fans too!). It’s also tough to try to be open with everyone while simultaneously making sure I don’t reveal privileged information. Message-board interaction can be a double-edged sword.
I will say that, by and large, the MMWF posters are one of the most civil and comfortable online groups I’ve ever met, though, and they’re the guys I turn to when I need help tracking down an obscure industry magazine or double-checking a wacky factoid. I think they love the feeling of being able to participate in the creation of their favorite books, and I try to “give back” by putting their names in the book’s Special Thanks section whenever I’m able.
(Sometimes I misspell their wife’s name, though, and that’s when all hell breaks loose!*)
Marvel has a pretty unique position: it’s the only comics publisher that’s created a coherent “universe” in which virtually all of its stories inhabit the same world and “count” as official canon. (DC comes close, but all of its reboots have made it impossible for readers to know what “counts” anymore!) As a lifelong Marvel fan and a contributor to related projects both official (the Marvel Handbooks and Index) and unofficial (the fan-created Marvel Chronology Project), what do you think makes this concept so appealing to so many people (like you)?
That’s honestly difficult to say, because I think it appeals to people for many different reasons. The impressive achievement of a single shared universe maintained over 70-plus years. The rich history and backstory of each character. The security of knowing that the stories “matter.”
In my case, I like to look at Marvel’s thousands of individual issues as pieces of a really big puzzle. Reading them, noticing the clues that link one to another, and then putting them together into their proper order “solves the puzzle,” and can be immensely satisfying.
It’s also challenging, as Marvel tends to wax and wane between periods of high and low reliance on continuity references. But unlike other fans, who seem to get very upset (or at least very vocal) when Marvel doesn’t provide a nice clear roadmap for how to read their various books, I tend to take it as a challenge. Marvel hasn’t “given up on continuity”; the puzzle just got more interesting, that’s all.
Marvel’s continuity and shared universe has given it the also rather unique opportunity to publish “alternate-universe” stories, like the What If? series or the Ultimate line. What do you think of these kinds of stories? Do they “count” for you as a reader? Are they a pain to figure out how to reprint or index?
As I reader, I personally don’t bother with them (although, actually, some What If? stories start with recaps of events in the “real Marvel universe,” and sometimes add new scenes). They’re not a pain to index, as the Handbooks have already done the hard work of cataloguing and numbering most of the alternate universes. Reprinting them can be tricky, though, as it’s really a judgment call whether or not they belong in a book. I’ve seen fans lamenting that, say, the Inferno, Atlantis Attacks, or Evolutionary War hardcovers should have ended with the event’s related What If? issue. Personally, though, I feel that the ending of a story is stronger if it isn’t immediately followed by an issue that basically says, “but here’s what ELSE could have happened!”
That makes sense, given that you have to think about the total package. But you never know, maybe down the line those books can be re-released in an even more deluxe format and include those What If? stories – as an ex-Manga Editor, I certainly never anticipated the mass acceptance of “authentic,” Japanese right-to-left comics in America – who knows where the market will go in the future?
That’s a good point, you never know. By the way, in some cases, like the Alias Omnibus or the X-Men: Dark Phoenix Saga 30th Anniversary HC, we did include the relevant What If? issues. Our current plan calls for at least one 2013 book to include a What If? as well. I’m certainly not 100% opposed to including them — it just has to “feel right” and fit the overall tone of the package.
Anyway, what have been some of your favorite aspects of your work researching the fictional history of Marvel’s characters for the Handbook and Index projects? Has there been anything you found especially challenging (like – going back to your Wolverine Index work – how different people portray Wolverine, his history, healing powers, multiple “deaths,” etc.)?
My favorite part is definitely finding, and then resolving, discrepancies. Most people don’t know this, but the Handbooks are an absolute hotbed of tying up dropped plot threads or fixing errors in regular issues. It’s all done with the cooperation of editorial, too: we don’t just make up solutions; we actually e-mail the book’s editors or the creators that originally wrote the story, explain the problem and ask for their input, mutually agree on a solution, then make sure the editorial higher-ups know that the problem’s been patched. The word “Official” is in the Handbook and Index’s names for a reason.
That said, Wolverine is definitely an extreme challenge. In the last twenty years, ever since Barry Windsor-Smith’s “Weapon X,” there’s been an absolute flood of stories dealing with Wolverine’s century-long past, and how he intertwined in secret ways with the pre-Silver Age Marvel Universe. It’s taken multiple Handbook writers and multiple editorial reviews to arrange his backstory in even a rough order. The most accurate resource covering Wolvie’s past right now is Ronald Byrd’s 2009 “Wolverine Saga” one-shot, although later “revelations” in newer comics have already rendered little parts of it incorrect here and there. I love a challenge, though, and I’m hoping to do a streamlined and updated version of Wolvie’s past in the upcoming Wolverine: Official Index GN-TPB.
With so many decades’ worth of Marvel comics that you’ve had to read and research – and with almost all of it being “official canon” – do you have to treat every story equally (in terms of having to summarize them for the Index or the Handbook character histories)? I mean, some stories have to be “better” or “more important,” right?
I suppose, although that sounds like I’m being dismissive of certain stories, which isn’t really the case. But yes, in terms of the Handbooks, we can’t possibly describe every single one of, say, Spider-Man’s adventures; we have to hit the important beats and flesh out the rest with a more general description of his activities at the time. There are occasional moments when two stories directly contradict one another, and we have to eject one from the canon, but that’s very rare. For the Index, I usually just describe it like any other story, then add a note explaining the contradiction and the editorial solution.
On a personal note, I was pretty bummed that the Official Marvel Index line got cancelled due to low sales. Since there’s no way I could possibly read every Marvel comic, I thought these were a great reference. Looking back, is there anything you wish was done differently?
From a technical or production standpoint, sure. I wish we had settled on a consistent “house style” earlier, I wish we had included variant covers from the get-go, I wish we had known that the monthly issues were going to be collected so we could have planned the page breaks better. Minor stuff. If I had known that the third volume would be our last, I would have stuck with Silver Age books: the original plan was to do volume 3 as a short run with modern books that tied into movies, then go back to longer, Silver Age series with volume 4. But overall, I don’t think the Index had a lot of flaws – in terms of the finished product, I think we did really well. I really enjoyed the “three series per book” split format, and I absolutely adore the GN size for the collected books. They just look so compact and dense – I love it!
Do you think it’s possible that someday every Marvel comic ever published gets indexed, with every character’s continuity figured out?
Fully indexed? I think that’s a virtual impossibility. The sales would never sustain an Official Index of that length – at 125 issues a month, it would need to run for twenty solid years to cover everything Marvel’s ever done! On a long enough timescale, a fan website like the Marvel Chronology Project could maybe do it, but there’s just too many moving pieces to analyze, and Marvel publishes a hundred new books every month.
Well, since the Handbook projects sell better than the Indexes, what if the two were combined somehow?
I’m not sure if you’re aware, but the Handbooks have recently been given a rest as well. I don’t want to say that they’ve been out-and-out “cancelled,” because they still produce an occasional new profile for the back of a trade paperback, but they’re no longer producing any new one-shots or ongoing Handbook series. After an eight-year run, the Handbooks are taking a breather for a while.
Comics are cyclical, though. I’m sure Handbooks and Indexes will be back again someday.
What are your all-time favorite Marvel stories? All-time favorite Marvel collected editions?
I don’t know that I have any absolute all-time hands-down favorites, but Joe Kelly’s X-Men, Fabian Nicieza’s New Warriors, and Larry Hama’s Wolverine are good, solid, entertaining reads every single time. In terms of collections, I love the Captain Britain Omnibus, Paul Smith’s X-Men: From the Ashes TPB, the X-Force MPHCs [Marvel Premiere Hardcovers] – and I have a perverse pride in the massive, eleven-volume Spider-Man Clone Saga TPB set, which I researched.
Are there any particular unreprinted Marvel stories that you’d love to see in a collected edition – regardless of how realistic that idea might actually be?
I’d love to see Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe done right. IDW’s recently-announced hardcovers seem to be a step in the right direction, slotting in all the Yearbooks and Special Missions in order – but they’re still very visibly scanned from the original issues, and that’s a shame. Marvel has the original line-art on file, and I’m sure they could do an amazing job.
I’d also love to see the same treatment given to the classic Transformers series: combining the US and UK runs, in proper reading order, into one lengthy hardcover series.
Can you tell I grew up in the 1980s?
No kidding! And finally, as a fan-turned-pro, what would you say to a comics fan who wants to “work in comics”?
My joke answer is, “Get out of here, kid! This is my slice of the pie and I’m not sharing!” But in all seriousness, I’d advise them that the best mindset to adopt is that of a businessman, not an artist. Nobody works in the comics industry because they have a plan to retire and buy a yacht; we all work here because we love the medium, and that’s what attracts a lot of fans, but it’s a business all the same: a nonstop publishing machine with deadlines and budgets and decisions and harsh realities and moving parts, and it might disappoint a starry-eyed fan if all you’ve ever wanted in life is to draw Spider-Man.
Or, if you’re like me, the challenge – of being as creative as you can possibly be, under specific constraints and constant pressure to produce – will grab you, seduce you, and never let you go.
Thanks for a great conversation, Jeph. I appreciate it!
(Readers: who else would you like to see interviewed? Post a comment or send an email!)
*Among the projects with which I’ve helped Jeph was the X-Men: Age of Apocalypse Omnibus hardcover, by scanning some of my wife’s X-Men books for the Omnibus bonus features. Unfortunately, her name got misspelled in the Special Thanks section, so even though I got a copy of the book I still haven’t shown it to her! I’ll probably give it to her for the next big holiday…
- Q&A with Marvel’s Jeph York, Part 1! (alldaycomics.com)
- Q&A with Marvel’s Jeph York, Part 2! (alldaycomics.com)
- The videos that shook the comics world, Part 1: Q&A with Comics Fan-lebrity, Kris Shaw! (alldaycomics.com)
- The videos that shook the comics world, Part 2: Q&A with John Ferrier! (alldaycomics.com)
- LOTS o’ Links (May 30 2012) (alldaycomics.com)
- First Look: ASTONISHING X-MEN #51 & the Wedding of the Year (comicvine.com)
- Marvel plans wedding for gay superhero Northstar (sfgate.com)
- X-Men couple set for first same-sex superhero wedding (itv.com)
- Get Your First Look at the Wedding of the Year in ‘Astonishing X-Men’ #51 (geek-news.mtv.com)