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How not to run a Comic Book Company


© 2003 Jeff Rovin. All rights reserved. Used by permission.


An Expose of Atlas Comics by one of the Company's Founders


by Jeff Rovin


This article originally appeared in The Comics Journal #114



I. Hegel and Comics

One of the reasons culture is so fascinating is that it’s governed by a Kierkegaardian rather than an Hegelian sensibility. That is, truth and art are subjective rather than objective, which is why 2001: A Space Odyssey is a brilliant film to some and a bore to others and why Jackson Pollacks's drip paintings are genius or sludge depending upon the viewer.

The history of culture is somewhat less subjective. We know the emotional, political, and social forces that motivated the likes of Van Gogh, Chopin, and H.G. Wells, and that knowledge helps us to better understand the finished work. Mind you, this knowledge is entirely peripheral to the work itself: you're the arbiter elegantiarum, and if the art has no merit in your eyes, all the background in the world isn't going to alter your view.

Having said that, and moving from the sublime to the relatively ridiculous, if you think that the 50-odd issues of Atlas Comics we published in 1974-5 are dross, nothing's going to change your mind. In many cases, I wouldn't even disagree with you: we should have been executed before we were allowed to publish Devilina and some of the other titles. However, taking a look at what went on behind the scenes will reveal a few Hegelian truths: how a comic-book company that published many of the top talents in the industry (including Archie Goodwin, Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, Alex Toth, Ernie Colon, Walt Simonson, Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, Marshall Rogers, Howard Chaykin, Russ Heath, Frank Thorne, John Severin, Jeff Jones, and countless others) could possibly go belly-up in just over a year.

II. Martin and Comics

I became involved with Atlas by answering an ad in The New York Times. At the time, I was working for Jim Warren, running his mail order division Captain Company and just starting to edit Creepy, I'd edited comics for DC and Skywald before them when I read the ad, thought it would be challenging to create fresh titles for a new comics company.

Several weeks after answering the ad, I received a call from Martin Goodman, the founder of Marvel Comics and a slew of pulp-related titles. Not long before, Martin had sold his Magazine Management Company, leaving son Chip at the helm. But Chip had a falling out with the new management, so Martin was setting up Seaboard Periodicals to provide him with gainful employment. Martin had advertised for a comic-book editor, intending for comics to play a large part in Seaboard's publishing program.

I was one of several people Martin interviewed, and I got the job because I'd had experience not only in comics but in mail order, the latter of which was to contribute significantly to Seaboard’s cash flow.

Sharing editorial duties on the comics was artist/writer Larry Lieber, whom Martin had long-wanted to transplant from under the shadow of Larry's brother, Stan Lee. A skittish but perceptive man, Larry ended up handling roughly a quarter of Atlas outout - primarily the police, western, war, and color anthologies of horror stories.

Seaboard opened its doors on June 24, 1974, undertaking an ambitious publishing program that included not only a dozen color comics, but a line of black-and-white horror comics, confession magazines, a monster magazine, puzzle magazines, a game-show book, and an innovative gothic story title (for the only issue of which the comics wing obtained illustrations by Heath, Adams, Chaykin, Colon, and others). During our tenure at Seaboard, Larry and I had very little contact with the other editors; the Goodmans did not go out of their way to create a feeling of family among the staff.

What the Goodmans did go out of their way to do was to tackle Magazine Management and Marvel head-on. The bitterness they felt about Chip's falling-out was clear not only in the similar nature of the Seaboard titles in production and on the drawing boards, but in the choice of Atlas as a name for the comics, Atlas having been a Marvel imprimatur during the 1950s. Unfortunately, anger is a lousy reason to start a publishing company; not only are bad calls made in an effort to be vindictive or to recapture lost glories, but the angry party tends to lose interest when the anger fades and the bills continue to mount. That was to prove a fundamental problem at Atlas Comics.Grim Ghost #1

Gearing-up and conceptual time was nil, since Martin wanted to get the comics out quickly in order to get that ole cash-flow rolling. I can't speak for Larry, but my own ambition from the start was to do characters that were a little bit outre and experimental. Not as extreme as Captain Guts or other underground characters, but somewhat more hard bitten and schizophrenic than the average super-hero. To this end, I assembled a team of freelancers who, with the exception of Michael Fleisher, were not strongly identified with either DC or Marvel. (And Michael certainly filled the bill when it came to writing "outre" characters, contributing some unusual and generally inspired material to The Grim Ghost, lron Jaw, and Weird Suspense.) Sal Amendola, Pat Boyette, Al Milgrom, Pablo Marcos, newcomers Pat Broderick and Klaus Janson, and especially Ernie Colon also worked hard to give Atlas what we hoped would be a unique look and feel.

While I brought together artists and writers, and new characters were created,I also endeavored to give the line some name-value in the marketplace by attempting to license some well-known properties. Among these were the pulp heroes the Avenger and the Spider, Godzilla (for a black-and-white comics magazine in which it was giant monsters and not nuclear war that brought about the fall of civilization and a future in which humanity tried to reclaim the world from dinosaurs), and Richard Matheson's vampiric chiller I Am Legend. Indeed, Charlton Heston was kind enough to send me some very incisive analyses he's written about the Matheson story before filming it as The Omega Man. (See sidebar - Heston on Legend”)

 

Heston on Legend

Most of this is useful, if it is useful, primarily as texture, to put a little thickness behind the false-fronted structure that is inevitably the scenery of fantasy. Ian Fleming used the same device, for the same reason, in his Bond things: the most implausible inventions seem likelier if you make what can be made real as real as possible. Thus, a little reflection on the circumstances and life styles of Neville and the other survivors in what we see of the world after the bacterial holocaust on which our story is premised may be constructive.

Of the three groups, Neville constitutes a minority of one, His unique immunity to the virus that has decimated the earth’s population and doomed those left alive have made him a freak, intact, a point we should make sure occurs to the audience. In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, someone said, but in a world of sick men, can the healthy man be permitted either his health or his life?

Besides, though Neville's background has equipped him to cope with the desperate circumstances of his world, just as the serum has inoculated him against the virus. He is still vulnerable to the psychological terrors of his solitary survival. Clinically, paranoia is a mental disease whose manifestations include the conviction that one is the special object of the attentions of a hostile world and the target of desperate and never-ending plotting. This is of course Neville's situation in the nightmare reality in which we find him. Nevertheless we must query: if a man's circumstances justify paranoid behavior, and indeed offer him no alternative for survival is he not still paranoid in living so?

Excerpted from Charlton Hestons analysis of "Legend" by Richard Matheson.

 

Sadly, I was stymied across the board. After we met with Conde Nast's Paul Booner about the Avenger, DC thundered in and got the rights. The Spider seemed to Martin too overt a red flag to go waving at Marvel's Spider-Man (even though the two had practically nothing in common), and Martin didn't want to pay Toho's fee for a Godzilla title (although Walt Simonson did draw a magnificent black-and-white story in which giant monsters Gorgo and Rodan duked it out in Washington D.C.- a spectacular tale that was never published and vanished when Seaboard went under). As for I Am Legend, Martin read Heston's precis and decided that we should imitate the story rather than buy the rights, hence, the Atlas comic Planet of Vampires.Planet of Vampires #1

In October, I took one last, hotly argued stab at getting Martin to approve a license when I went after TV's Kolchak: The Night Stalker. But Martin shot me down because the series was a ratings flop. Which was true, but that didn't alter the fact that the show would still run at least a season, that some 10 million people were aware of the character, and that we could get a license for relatively little money. Alas, Martin failed to be persuaded, and we had to settle for dedicating the first issue of The Cougar to producer Dan Curtis.

Early on, I also implored Chip and Martin to let me buy the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. In fact, I was so confident they'd go along with a reprint/new-material program that I actually put a 64 page T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents book on the schedule. Instead, the Goodmans opted to purchase the rights to Tower's Tippy Teen title, which we reprinted as Vicki. (I was glad, then, that I hadn't suggested going to Gold Key and taking over Turok, a character which I felt had untapped potential. Had we done so, I do believe that Atlas would have become the new home of Zody, the Mod Rob.)

Actually, those first setbacks represented the high point in my relationship with Martin. After he saw the initial comics that I was putting together - Chip was preoccupied with the other Seaboard titles, all of which died even swifter deaths than the comics - he decided that my stuff wasn't good either. Among his complaints and commands:

  • Howard Chaykin's art on the Scorpion was too confusing and the writing was too sophisticated.

  • Morlock 2001 was to be taken out of the future, since science-fiction comics didn't sell.

  • Frank Thorne's beautifully drawn Lawrence of Arabia strip was to be dropped from future issues of Thrilling Adventure Stories because it was about Arabs.

  • Ernie Colon was to be removed from Tiger-Man so that Steve Ditko could come in and make it more like Spider-Man.

  • Bill DuBay's Wonderworld was to be aborted in the formative stage because serious adventure comics about kids didn't sell. (Of course not: that's because there weren't any serious adventure comics about kids.)

  • Most painful of all, after he saw messing and confusing cover of our first black-and-white title, Weird Tales of the Macabre, Martin informed me that he would not sign any more checks made out to Jeff Jones. What's more, I never saw Martin so livid as when I informed him that I'd already bought two more Jones paintings. He immediately deep-sixed them both, though Bill DuBay did buy one of them and ultimately used it as the cover of Creepy #120.

As it turned out, covers proved to be the bloodiest battleground at Atlas. Martin wanted covers with lots of text, word balloons, and close ups of snarling villains or monsters. I, on the other hand, preferred covers with panoramic action and as little text as possible. An example of covers Martin liked were Wulf the Barbarian #2 and The Brute #2, both of which featured villains drawn by Larry Lieber and pasted over, respectively, the artwork of Larry Hama and Dick Giordano. Early covers, which I felt were the strongest, were the unMartinized Iron Jaw #1, Planet of Vampires #1, and The Brute #1.Movie Monsters #2

For the record, Martin and Chip's greatest collaborative faux pas regarding covers was when they changed the color of the lettering on Movie Monsters #2, killing the blue that production manager Steve Mitchell and I had chosen and replacing it with pink. The pink was utterly lost and illegible against the orange background.)

None of which is to say that from a commercial point of view, Martin was absolutely wrong and I was inarguably right. What bothered me was that Martin adamantly refused to compromise. If the covers weren't formularized just so, he didn't want them - which, in my judgment, was no way for a new company to find its footing artistically or commercially. Indeed, one of the most successful covers we did, Ernie Colon's magnificent Grim Ghost #2, literally had to be cloak-and-daggered through production, since Martin would have rejected it, had he laid eyes on it.

Meanwhile, Martin became more and more disgruntled as he read more and more of my comics. And what he decided, without having received a single sales report, was that they didn't look and read enough like Marvel Comics.

"That's right," I remember telling him with a mixture of disbelief and disappointment." Why should they look like Marvels?"”

"Because Marvels sell."”

"Sure", I replied, "but that's because the characters have had over 10 years to establish themselves, not to mention the newsstand clout Marvel has developed -"

"Look," he snapped, "I don't want to argue about this. Just do it." To which end Martin established a hefty warchest and told Larry and me to go out and hire away as many Marvel people as we could.

Larry seemed disappointed, but I was frankly appalled. For one thing, it was a kick in the teeth to the people who'd busted their backs helping us get off the ground. For another, it wasn't fair to the people at Marvel. Larry and I had diligently avoided mounting raids” on the competition in order to keep peace within our very small industry (though that wasn't possible with DC - more on which in a moment.) Finally, it had failed to demonstrate that our own nascent approach to the medium wasn't going to work!

Let me reiterate that like every command decision, the Make Mine Marvel edict was entirely Martin's prerogative to make, just as it was my prerogative to quit if I didn't like the way things were going. And in fact I did quit when Martin decreed that we were to hire only Marvel artists and writers. Larry threw out the net, pulling in Tony Isabella and other forms of sea life, but I went back to my office and hammered out a note of resignation, giving the Goodmans two weeks notice. Instead of accepting, Chip took me to lunch and told me that my titles would be exempt from the decree - a concession which delighted me, even though I knew I'd received it solely because there were no records about what artist and writer was doing what and, had I left, the schedule would have been pitched into turmoil. I realized, of course, that this was only a temporary reprieve, and withdrew my resignation in the hope that sales would be good and that the creative folk would be left alone.

That didn't happen, as it turned out. Worse, in the midst of all this creative turmoil, waffling, and confusion, people were hurt. Some of them were hurt by Martin, some of them were hurt by me, and while none of it was ever malicious, none of it ever made a whole lot of sense, either.

I'd gotten my first, unpleasant taste of things to come during our third week of operation. Martin took a nap most afternoons, and one day I had to wake him because he'd forgotten to sign a check one of our artists needed to make a down payment on his new home. Martin's response, when I tiptoed into his office, was "You woke me for that" and he promptly ordered me out. Fortunately, his compassionate secretary went back in and got Martin to sign.

That was just for openers. Over the next few months, fully half our personnel were in some way the victims of caprice, short sightedness, or selfish expedience. To wit:

  • Steve Mitchell, who had quit DC to work as our art director. When Martin set out to Marvelize Atlas, he ordered me to fire Steve because he wanted someone who would make the books look more like Marvel. There is nothing I regret more in my seven months at Atlas than having gone along with that line of crap.

  • Larry Hama, whose mother was dying yet Martin refused to move back the deadline on Wulf the Barbarian #2. Not only did Larry have to pull together some nine hundred people to finish that issue, but we lost Larry as a contributor.

  • Steve Ditko, who labored endlessly on a terrific spy/super-hero strip called Wrecage, only to eat it when Martin pulled the plug on the black-and-white titles before the second issues even went on sale. (Martin's reasoning on this, which I still find incredibly specious, was that Marvel's black-and-whites weren't doing so well, so ours wouldn't either. Never mind that Warren's were making money and that, stylistically, our titles were much closer to his books than to Stan's.) The only magazine to survive the purge was Movie Monsters, which went on to become a camp classic, more on which in a bit.

  • John Albano, who worked with me, sans pay, because Martin wanted a humor magazine. We conceptualized the books and worked out the contents of several issues, only to have the project killed solely because a specific Marvel employee wouldn't come over and handle the title. Never mind that John would have made a great editor. Alas, having spent several years at DC, he was the wrong pedigree.

  • Mary Skrenes, who was one of the first writers to come aboard, wrote outlines that neither Martin nor Chip liked. They paid her a hefty $25 and told me not to bother working with her. Like a jerk, I agreed even though I found a lot of merit in what she was doing.

(And let me pause here to offer belated apologies to Mary, Larry, and especially to Steve. To paraphrase Richard Pryor, I dun fucked up. Look on the bright side, though: had you stuck around, you might all be working for Swank.)Demon-Hunter #1

As if artistic difference and the brutalization of our personnel weren't bad enough, things got worse when Martin added titles to the color comics line. The decision wasn't anyone's fault, per se: we needed more magazines in order to secure sufficient rack space for the line. Unfortunately, the demands on our time forced us to push out derivative, uninspired titles about every idiotic character we could invent, from the Son of Dracula to the Bog Beast to Man-Monster to Demon Hunter; whereas before we'd been living by Suetonius's admonition to "Make haste slowly," the expansion of the line turned us into bona fide schlock-meisters. And though Ric Meyers was added to the staff as an editorial assistant, within a few short weeks he was spending all of his time on the burgeoning mail-order company as well as writing scripts to keep the comics factory running.

No wonder Jim Warren didn't talk to me for two years. He wasn't ticked that I was competing with him: he was embarrassed to admit that he knew me.

III. In All Fairness...

As much as I still disagree with most of the things Martin did, I understand why he ran Seaboard the way he did. From a purely Hegelian point of view, he was simply doing business the way he'd done it since the Depression Era. That is, he'd capitalize on what was current or successful, take as few chances as possible, and enjoy relatively good chances for stability and growth.

Yet, while that was the way he'd made his own fortune, he failed to see that things had changed dramatically since the Marvel renaissance in the early 1960s. Artists and writers no longer had a cattle mentality (I can't tell you how many times Martin would listen to some of the things Neal Adams was saying and mutter, "Who the hell does he think he is") while, aesthetically, the undergrounds, foreign comics, and even Warren's titles had pushed comics toward new artistic horizons. Martin never saw how it was incumbent upon Atlas to continue that trend if we were to have any credibility in the marketplace.

However, miraculously, Martin and I did manage to come together on two matters of some significance: one was an ownership/profit-sharing contract for artists and writers on any character(s) they created, and the other was the return of all artwork. Neither of these was being practiced at the time (though Warren did return some artwork to freelancers), and Martin grudgingly agreed to do so when he realized that that kind of arrangement, coupled with high page rates (we were then paying record sums to most contributors) was a means of getting talent to work for us. Today, a whole bunch of comics companies claim to have been the first to initiate concessions of this kind, but the fact of the matter is that Atlas got the ball rolling long before many of today's fans could read. We may have screwed up when it came to implementing parts of the program (for example, a lot of artwork was stolen before we could return it, and none of the characters remained in print long enough for anyone to benefit), but at least we pointed the way in terms of creators rights, especially, in an oblique way, at DC -

DC and We

Marvel was gentlemanly, even gracious about Atlas's entry into the comics field. The staffers and freelancers were close to Larry, and they genuinely wished him and the company well. There was no reason not to: from a practical standpoint, if Atlas survived, it was another outlet for those who became disgruntled with Marvel or DC.

Still, most of the freelancers were happy with what they were doing at Marvel, which was one reason Martin's raid on the bullpen was so spectacularly unsuccessful and humiliating.

DC was another story.

When Carmine was in charge of DC, he tended to be very paternal toward his people. I know, because I'd worked for him. He was very defensive and proud of most of his employees, and gave them a lot of support, creatively.

Our first run-in as competitors was when Atlas began publishing house ads with the phrase "The Atlas Line of SuperStars." At the time, every one of Carmine's covers bore the words "The Line of DC Superstars" and he resented the similarity. That was fair enough, and when DC production chief Sol Harrison called to complain in his blustery but good-natured way, I pulled the ad.

Things got a bit nastier, though, when DC's freelancers started coming up to see us about work. Everyone from Bob Kanigher to Elliot Maggin to Curt Swan paid us a visit; so did Mike Grell who, as it happened, was a catalyst that brought the flow of DC people to an abrupt end.

When Mike came up to see us, he was worried that if DC found out he'd even been to our offices, he'd get the axe. I told Grell not to worry, that if his work at DC were ever restricted or cut off, we'd keep him busy and at a higher rate than he was making at the time. Naturally, I assured him I'd keep his visit confidential until he'd had a chance to talk to Carmine and make up his mind about what he wanted to do.

Next thing I knew, Grell was grousing that I'd called Carmine and clucked about how we'd "landed his boy Grell," thus making the artist's position at DC extremely uncomfortable. I hadn't made any such call, of course; not only did I scrupulously avoid Carmine - he intimidated the shit out of me —but, in all candor, Grell wasn't a catch worth hooting about to Carmine or anyone else. I might have crowed to one or two of my discreet colleagues like Bill Dubay or Ernie Colon if we'd signed Joe Kubert or Jack Kirby. But Mike Grell? Uh-uh. While circumstances at Atlas often left me compromised and/or playing the part of an SOB, betraying confidences has never been one of my bad habits.

To this day, I don't know how Carmine found out literally within minutes that Grell had come to see us. Most likely someone who was just leaving the office or was in with Larry saw Grell enter and spilled the beans. The comics industry is many things bright and wonderful, but tight-lipped it ain't. (AT&T could learn something about light-speed communications by tapping into the comics industry grapevine. The most impressive such transmission of data in my experience occurred when Neal Adam's cover for Iron Jaw #1 was stolen. Neal knew about the theft within 10 minutes of our realizing at the office that it was gone and while the guy has many extraordinary talents, I don't believe that ESP is one of them.)

Regardless, the Grell-Atlas imbroglio crystallized Carmine's view that we were a threat to his family, and it didn't take long for a chilling effect to set in. DC freelancers stopped coming by (with the exception of Mike Fleisher who, to his credit, stood beside us), and Carmine hurriedly mustered an offensive of his own: issuing bonus checks to his creative personnel, upping the rates for most freelancers, instituting a policy of returning artwork to artists and colored silverprints to colorists, and establishing a reprint rate of 25 per cent for writers. The catch: with rare exceptions, these perks applied only to people who worked exclusively for DC.

That last part of the deal pissed me off, not only because free enterprise took it on the chin, but because only a fool would go from DC to Atlas under the circumstances. DC's magnanimity cost us a lot of promising and/or heavyweight freelance talent. In retrospect, though, the friction with DC did enable creators rights to take a small step forward and, in light of Atlas otherwise spare legacy, I take some delight in that.

IV. The Code.

What more is there to say about this 18th century institution that hasn't already been said?

Having come from Warren Publishing, I was unhappy that our magazines were subject to the outdated strictures of the Comics Code Authority. As a result, the Code and I fought over literally every magazine Atlas published, starring with the very first, Iron Jaw #1, in which we were forced to clothe the hero and his girlfriend (page 10, for the curious), even though they were discreetly positioned. In retrospect, our spats were more a matter of principle than of real substance, since I'd always been bothered by Mark Twain's quip that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them. I felt, as many in the industry do, that if comics were to achieve artistic parity with movies, music, and other art forms, we had to be free to function without Big Bother [sic] looking over their shoulder.

But the time wasn't right, and I didn't win a single dispute with the Code. However, sharing my pique, artist Mike Sekowsky did manage to slip one past the blue pencil brigade in The Brute #1, lettering 5Hl7 on the wing of a plane, which reduced to Shit on the printed page. Childish? You bet. But at Atlas, we learned not to let any victory slip through our fingers, no matter how moronic.

V. And Yet.The Brute #1

Obviously, we churned out a lot of crud and hurt a lot of feelings before Atlas quietly cashed in it's chips, Martin retiring to Florida and Chip devoting his full time to Swank Magazine which he'd bought toward the end of 1974.

Withal, I feel that Atlas did put out some interesting books - particularly Thrilling Adventure Stories, Ernie's first Tiger-Man, Howard's two issues of The Scorpion, Weird Suspense with Pat Boyette's evocative art on The Tarantula, Pat Broderick's moody Dark Avenger character (which appeared only once, as a backup in Phoenix #3) and my personal favorite - the unusual juxtaposition of Ernie Colon's spirited art and Mike Fleisher's alternately cocky and sinister text on the first two issues of The Grim Ghost.

Granted, that's a pitifully small percentage of our overall output but we didn't exactly have the artistic integrity of a Dick Giordano radiating from above. In all, I have to say I'm grateful that we were able to do the handful of good books that we did!

VI. Post-Mortem.

I wasn't around when the patient gave up the ghost, grim and otherwise.

I left Seaboard in January of 1975 when Chip told me that I was to show him every script I wanted to buy from Ric Meyers and Steve Mitchell. Admittedly, I was buying a lot of stories from both of them: Ric because the unparalleled Alex Toth had specifically asked for more of Ric's work to illustrate, and Steve because he had an exceptional flair for action writing and, besides, was out of work thanks to Atlas. The implication of Chip's request that I'd buy shit from Ric and Steve just because they were my friends was the proverbial last straw, I walked out the door that very same day. Ric quit a month later, while Larry manfully continued to the end.

Thus, I wasn't there to see the Morlock die in his own book or to see the Phoenix become the Protector, changes that turned what I felt were flawed but promising strips into something more closely resembling pond scum. Nor was I there as the Scorpion was updated from the 1930s to the present and given a costume. (I would have gone along with a costume for the Scorpion - Alex Toth and I had done some preliminary work to that end - but changing the period was insane.) I also wasn't on hand to do a third issue of The Cougar, which remains one of my most bitter disappointments. In issue #'s 3-5, he was to have become involved with the plight of handicapped Vietnam veterans.., a less flamboyant form of heroism that would have opened some eyes and called attention to some societal debts we all had.

Mercifully, I also wasn't around when the art director of the confession magazines was given carte blanche to design Movie Monsters. The fourth issue of that title must be seen to be disbelieved - a new low, even for Seaboard.

VII. Ten Years Later.

In my letter of resignation to Martin and Chip, I pointed out that it'll hurt when we look back and see what Seaboard might have been. And so it does. I loved writing comics and, though my career has gone in a rather different direction, I expect to get back into them one day. Yet, whatever aesthetic contributions may have died aborning, Atlas did manage to accomplish one thing above all. It has come to stand as the text-book example of how not to run a comics company.


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Comments or Suggestions ? Let us know ! 29-Sep-2010 9:06