My Marvel “Our” Marvel

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A shockingly long time ago, 2010, I was talking all manner of things over with my old boss and comic comrade, Tom DeFalco. He and I had a conversation a long time prior about him contributing something to a “photo” book I was planning on. Some may know that I took a LOT of pictures during my employ at Marvel—from late 1978 to mid-86 and then beyond as a bottom-feeding freelancer/scavenger. He reminded me of this but phrasing it as a whole new project, something more along the lines of “some talk/some pictures” which told “our” story. Which sounded fine to me. Any time I can get someone else to work on one of “my” projects is a good thing.

As it turned out, some publisher had come to Tom about doing a book on the subject of his time at Marvel. Since his time and my time there overlap quite a bit, involving me was a reasonable fit.

When we met with the eminently likeable publisher, they had by then, a thoroughly different concept. One involving many pictures from Day One (which I believe is Stan Lee walking into Timely Comics in the, uhh, McGraw-Hill Building in 1939… ) and sorted down through the decades to crash up against… us. Presumably halting the account around the time Tom was frog-marched out the front door of Marvel (1990?). The obvious problem was that this story was not our story and the task of finding and obtaining the rights to any known and unknown photos—that were not mine—meant real work. ‘Real’ work was something Tom had taught me to avoid many years ago.

Thus, Tom and I decided to try to put together something that looked more like what we wanted to do. Something pegged around my photographic “points in time” and off of which we could tell tales. Perhaps even something cohesive and entertaining would result. Tom and I met in Manhattan and to my delight, more co-conspirators had been brought along. Carl Potts and Danny Fingeroth, both colleagues,  pals, comic creators, editors and all-round famous comic people—were there too.

When it was revealed that Carl was still in touch with James Galton, the former Senior Group Publisher Emeritus of The Marvel Entertainment Group and that he was interested in joining our merry band—my happiness rose to new heights.

Jim Galton was one of those interesting cats who prowled the lanes of Big Deal Publishing for years before fetching up against Marvel’s alleys. I had heard of him when he was head honcho at New American Library—a paperback publishing entity that he drove to new realms of success. He was just the savvy power broker to take over Marvel—then owned by Cadence Industries (don’t ask—lo-o-ong story)—and I think, saw the alternate creativity that was possible with comic characters. We are now seeing the fruits of those beliefs, movies, TV, toys and more! This cross platform spree and all that fun is marred by fact that dear Mr. Galton himself has passed on to that board room in the sky. The awful delay of Marvel being taken over by battling billionaires during the latter-90s, going bankrupt and finally emerging in, uhh, 2005-ish—only allowed him to see some of the very first successes.

Now us guys downstairs— that physical distinction holding true when he arrived at Marvel when it was located at 575 Madison Ave and later, down at 387 Park Avenue South—were very aware of Jim. Us lower denizens, upon seeing Mr. Galton appear, would try to halt our breathing and enter a trance state—if he thought we were dead, he wouldn’t pay any attention to us. I wouldn’t describe this process as “fear” or “terror” more like self-preservation. Considerate, I would say.

Here is the best and most illuminating Jim Galton story I can tell here. When we moved from uptown to downtown we were moving into a brand-spanking-new office. Built from the ground up. Mr. Galton believed we, at long last, had an opportunity to re-make the Bullpen as a lean, clean and efficient workshop. No more torn Xerox copies of the latest office waggery on the walls, layer upon layer left for months and years… To be banned were junk movie posters or pictures taped or push-pinned to the walls! No more! Everything would be sent out to be framed and hung up nicely, neatly. The gigantic new art and materiel storage things—built at fantastic cost; price? No man may say– in the middle of the new Bullpen would be indicators of the solemn tidiness that was expected of us.

At some time during the first week of our relocation and occupation of this new Bullpen, Jim came downstairs to enjoy the fresh scent of modern, driven capitalism. What he saw (he couldn’t see us; everyone was slowly exhaling and rolling their eyeballs up) was torn Xeroxes, junk movie posters and pictures taped and push-pinned on the walls—but neatly and with dollar-store frames also taped and push-pinned on the walls. I was not there, but I was overjoyed at the tale of Mr. Galton pausing to take in the clock.

In the Bullpen was a rather prominent column right in the middle of the floor. On it was a simple black and white office clock. It had a few inches of electrical cord with plug dangling just above an (oddly placed) electrical outlet. Of course the clock was a battery run variety. A small sigh was heard and from then on, Mr. Galton pretty much remained up in his tastefully appointed and lush executive office.

[An interesting architectural detail was that the rear walls of the Bullpen, as well as the large walls of every editorial office, was covered with ¼” cork from floor to ceiling. Well, they gave us a surface to be push-pinned into, what were we to do? Eventually, the system of sending “artwork” out to be framed worked. Only a few years later, there were very nice pieces and Marvel posters all over the place.]

Such was Mr. Galton’s special business acumen that he knew to let well enough alone. This band of gutter-snipes and ne’er-do-wells were inadvertently making the company millions. Let ‘em alone!

Back to that remarkable meet up! I was very excited to have Jim Galton as a part of this team. Perhaps then, some books would be sold. 1/5 of something is better than ½ of nothing! Mr. Galton really was an important figure in modern entertainment and had more than a few bombshells of his own to drop (catching Jack “I Never Nap” Abel asleep was mine). Such as – and this was right on the heels of Disney acquiring Marvel – that Disney had tried to buy Marvel once before… revealed at that meeting!

But I quickly realized that Mr. Galton should really be writing his own book. I felt that his presence, while genuinely fascinating, would overtake our modest tales. I vacillated between telling my old comrades to go jump in the lake and swear to make sure the story of a true, working Bullpenner (back in the day, I was one of only a few who came up from Production to Editorial) was told, dammit! (Plus, a 1/5 of something, etc.)

Alas and alack! As with so many back-room, smoke-shrouded (or steam jetting from Mr. Galton’s ears) deals, one publisher fell by the wayside, another rose up—sniffing the tell-all scent of Mr. Galton’s name. One, who, believed as I suspected… Galton’s story was much more interesting to well, pretty much everyone’s than ours. As much fun as the prospect of weaving Mr. Galton’s story in with our own might have been, that much fun (see ‘work’ ref above) was not to be.  But not before we shared one final meal with Mr. Galton. A remarkable one, to me. I had been a door mat in his employ, one he might have spotted first and wisely stepped over. Yet, a little time, a little mellowing and there we were reading a restaurant menu together! Of course I was hardly breathing and imagining that I was “building a white wall,” my eyes rolled back…

After all that, there we were, right back where we started and called it a day. We all said our hail-fellow, well-met blandishments to each other and slunk off to our various domiciles. Mr. Galton, of course, did not slink. In fact I should note that I had heard he had been a recent cancer survivor and personally felt that this might be the reason he would break bread at the same table as I (he heard me place my order with the waitress); time was marching on; an interesting life should be shared, etc., etc. I believe he was 80 (83?) at this meeting but he was sharp and energetic. I would not have expected such conviviality.

Our Marvel Lunch1







Danny Fingeroth, Tom DeFalco, Jim Galton, Carl Potts


Why yes, yes he did pick up the check.

What follows is a quick thing I really did dash off about me and my time within the Marvel Bullpen. I was trying to throw in some “heart” and humor. I’m not sure it worked. I did go over it, changing only a few things to avoid litigation and with clarity a trembling hope.



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Working At Marvel—My Marvel


I am an only child and was raised by a single, orphaned-as-a-child mom. I hadn’t really experienced a large family—no matter how many times my Jewish friends had brought me to their very large Seders—until I’d worked at Marvel.

So pervasive was the feeling of family, togetherness and a mutual shoulder-to-shoulder forward push, that it holds to this day. When kids speak to me about wanting to “get into comics” I do the best I can to tell them about the “larger world of comics” that once was and can still be. Recently, I was asked for my opinion about the wording on a piece of work I had done some 27 years earlier, being prepared for reprinting. I decided to re-do the artwork and update the text. It was Spider-Man’s web-shooter. Sure, Steve Ditko had designed it 20 years prior. Then, during the Marvel Universe days I lovingly rendered it and suggested how it might work. All those years later, the scanned artwork was all that there was for Marvel Online. When it was printed in the dark days of FlexiGraphic “rubber” printing plates, the thin lines had gone all wiggly. So, I was given the opportunity to fix it. For free.

But working for free on a project that was long-finished is old-hat for me. Because of that family thing. You pat your kid on the head and send him out in the world, but when he comes back a little scuffed and tousled, you spiff him back up, nourish him a little and send him back out there.

Working with genuinely “funny” people—the bone-dry wit of Stu Schwarzberg or the genteel madness of Marie Severin—to the day-to-day funny people like Robbie Carosella or Al Smith– life was never dull—not even saying good morning! The cross-section of people—even humanity– was mind-boggling. Russian ex-pat Nora Maclin, an old “speak-easy” and then-union drummer Anthony Cerniglia, man-with-a-dream Mid-Westerner Mark Gruenwald, mad Australian Peter Ledger—ALL of these people drawn together for silly, fantastic purposes. Mostly to draw and gather images for a living.

Which is still hard to explain to this day. That sense of isolated community, speaking a shared language, is the heart of that experience. People wonder why I enjoy but ultimately don’t go wild for the hit TV show, “Big Bang Theory.” It’s because I lived that life—even to the plumbing the depths of the universe, real and imagined, that the characters do in their “day jobs” as physicists and engineers.

Marvel—my Marvel of the late 1970s to early 80s—was a place that allowed me to do every aspect of that business. I exploited my early interest in photography to be the best stat-camera operator Marvel had. That had little to do with my progress—for me, Marvel was a meritocracy, where I could rise as high as I could manage. A guy like Tom DeFalco, inventor of the Laughing Wallet, saw whatever he saw in me, while I contributed to the fledgling Marvel Universe after hours, and dragged me out of Production, made me his assistant.

A guy shooting stats one year, co-writing the back-story to toy-lines (Robotix with Ralph Macchio) only two years later and then co-creating a brand-new comic (Spitfire and the Troubleshooters with Jack Morelli) only a year after that. Few companies would have that sort of How To Succeed At Business phenomenon.

Coming in early and leaving late—not even a consideration. Burying Tom’s Uncle’s second wife—still not a problem. Wearing a brassiere and panties and jumping out of a cake—all part of a day’s work. A “Many Hands” operation was another one of the “calls” that any red-blooded Marvelite would answer—must answer! What other corporate entity would have the equivalent of a cry for help in the Bullpen, where anyone in earshot would jump on an artboard that had only penciled art on it and start inking with random tools in nearby taborets? For free? I did it more than once.

Mark Gruenwald was experimenting—yet again—with a cinema verite approach to a limited series he was writing about Hawkeye. Since the character was based in Manhattan, he had me travel with him on the #7 line to take pictures of certain ramps, stairways and odd intersections deep in the Time Square subway station. When we had those pictures developed, he had me draw in the backgrounds of his pencils, exploiting my architectural student training. I also laid out a cover that featured a rooftop so that the angles worked in correct perspective. Mark then penciled in the characters. Then he took me to dinner—but that was just two pals sharing a meal.

Again, when Gruenwald needed to create an entire magazine almost from scratch—the third of his Alternity magazines—he turned to the Marvel Bullpen to produce anything he needed. With Mike Carlin – his then assistant and but soon to be editor; not just at Marvel but then DC(!)—and myself, we put together an entire, profusely illustrated magazine. When we needed a beautiful babe to model a commercial T-Shirt, we had the pick of the pack of “Executive Floor” beauties to choose from (and of course, selected the most beautiful). All done after-hours and though Mark paid for his articles and artwork, we helped for free. That was the way.

Such was the dovetailing of abilities. When legendary artist and staff colorist, George Roussos prepared a booklet for a private reserve that he was devoted to, out on Long Island, he had Gruenwald proofread and improve the copy. George and I shared a passion for photography and I was delighted to egg him on to try more and more unusual angles. I encouraged him to purchase a specific wide-angle lens that helped him work in tight spaces such as a staircase.

Two stand-out acts of incredible generosity come to mind. When staff-colorist Paul Becton needed hip surgery, Jim Shooter dug out the oldest “inventory” pencil job (a Larry Lieber “Hulk” story) and handed it out to anyone. We all contributed inks, lettering or coloring. The money went to Paul. When Jack Abel, old-time artist who had pioneered Sgt. Mule for DC, had a heart attack and could no longer ply his trade, Shooter created a new position. Thus the staff proof-reader was born. That way we all got to enjoy Jack for a long time. And when he had his third heart attack, the sweet presence of Veronica Lawlor—the tall, lithe designer and production worker who Jack called a “6-foot leprechaun”—waited with him for the ambulance as he lay on the Bullpen floor. I believe that expression of mutual love and respect helped Jack come back one last time for another run.

Then there was the knowledge that we were all contributing to a world-wide happening—the least little jot of ink could change things. Not every office joke stayed in the office! A quip on the border that was not erased or indicated for cleaning at the separators, but not, could cause havoc. Anyone remember “Clint Flicker,” a detective whose name could bring down the curtain. Or “Hits” cereal? When stacked on a shelf in the background, it could raise blood pressures all over the country! Or leave a cover in the hands of a letterer long enough and the venerated “Comics Code” seal of approval becomes the “Cosmic Code.” All very funny now…

So Marvel became a big, rambling, shambling super-extended family that lives and breathes to this day. Like any big family, Marvel has loved ones who cannot get a break, cousins who get married, big spenders who have fallen on hard times, characters who have remained characters and its revered dead. Many were improved by death—some not.

For me, this family goes on. Part of it staggers like a zombie still producing comics. Many of its members have moved on and done normal things, some not so normal. But we always come back because we knew that we were so different from those unlucky souls around us. We even called them a special name and had to treat them delicately: civilians. It’s been 32 years since I walked into Marvel and my heart has never left. I take with me good friends—a best friend; a wife—and dear and close friends plus a host of good chums and acquaintances. When we get together we can still speak to each other in our special language and make fun of each other and our friends. Catching up feels unnecessary, as though no time had passed from whenever to now.

The single greatest expression of the enduring togetherness that our comic world had was the recent “Marvel Reunion.” In the middle of that raucous melee it hit me that this was for us and all by us. Marvel people had reached out as far as it could and brought together as many people as could make it. We even, believe it or not, invited the executives! Everyone got there on their own dime—which was a hardship for some; a lot of travel for others. But we all felt the same way! We may have looked like FBI aging-software versions of ourselves, but no time had passed. We celebrated our silly uniqueness, mourned our dead and had a great time. Together.

2 Responses to My Marvel “Our” Marvel

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  • Marion says:

    Good job, Eliot, I enjoyed reading your taller and got a deeper understanding.

  • Shoshanna says:

    Yes Eliot. I often question how I feel all those things you write about when I worked at Marvel for such a short time. In fact I was just discussing with Ken Lopez last week—testiment to those lifelong friendships that were cemented back then. My favorite people and the most fun at movies (Godzilla remake in the 1980s cones to mind).