San Diego Comic-Con: That 70’s Panel

Comic book icons shared their experiences about the decade.

Seeing the names involved in this panel, Mark Evanier, Richard Pini, Wendy Pini, Marv Wolfman, Rick Hoberg, Steve Leialoha, and Elliot S. Maggin, discussing the changes in the industry during the 1970’s had me eager to attend Friday’s first panel of the day at the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con.

Before the panel began, Mark told the audience that they used to give a ton of Inkpot Awards away at Comic-Con. “You would walk in to the convention, ‘Here’s your badge. Here’s your program. Here’s your Inkpot.'” This had Wendy respond, “Thank you for devaluating my award.” Mark was quick to say, “No. You earned yours.” Someone in the crowd then yelled out, “Do we get an Inkpot if we stay through the whole panel?” Mark answered, “No. We take one away from you.” One panelist then said, “You do get some pot.” This got a big laugh from the audience, with Mark barely able to be heard, “This is That 70’s Panel.”

Introductions were given, formally beginning the panel. Mark then said that a question that’s always asked is when the Silver Age of comics ended. “Some say it was when the companies went corporate, when the first Conan comic was published, when Kirby left Marvel, or when Infantino took over DC Comics. We all know it was when I entered the business.” This got a good laugh from the crowd. “This panel is how comics changed in the 1970’s. In July of 1970 I was at DC. I saw Robert Kanigher yelling at a young writer in the hallway.” He was listing off all the classic literary writers that he assumed this younger writer hadn’t read. The young writer was saying he had read them, but Kanigher wasn’t listening. That young writer was Marv Wolfman. “He would argue all the time,” Marv said. “He didn’t have respect for us.” Marv went on to say, “We (the young talent) were unaware of the seismic shift in the companies then. Like how talent wanted health care. The companies wanted to replace us because we didn’t know. DC also couldn’t understand why Marvel was outselling DC. I was an assistant editor for Joe Kubert and they would have discussions over this.” He added, “There was a lack of understanding about the changing medium.”

Elliot was asked if he encountered that at DC as well. “Yeah. They were so territorial.” Mark said that Elliot’s stories couldn’t be told by older writers. Elliot replied, “Yeah. I could use charisma in a sentence.” This got the panel and the audience to laugh. Marv jumped in saying, “Julie (Julius Schwartz) was one of the few editors who enjoyed working with younger writers. His comments would upset them to engage them, though. It became ‘If you can work with Julie, you can work with us.'”

Steve was asked how he broke into the mainstream. “Funny you should ask, I did fanzines for Marv. Mark asked me to do my first professional work. I got hired at Marvel due to Jim Starlin. I was an inker on Warlock in 1975.” Rick added, “I worked with Mark as my second editor.” The pair worked on Tarzan.

Mark stated that he did fanzines before becoming a professional. “The highlight was the art (submitted) by Wendy Fletcher. Everybody dreamed of marrying Wendy Fletcher.” Wendy went on to marry Richard Pini. Mark continued, “One day she visited Jack Kirby.” Wendy continued, “I loved the Inhumans.” She found out where Jack lived, using the phone book. “Jack taught me about structure, weight, movement, and linework. I got to meet Roz, see his art studio.” Wendy went on to say she wrote a fan letter to Grantray-Lawrence animation, the studio responsible for the 1960’s Marvel cartoons. Patterson responded from the company, “We don’t get fan letters.” They were so happy with her letter they sent it on to Stan Lee. She sent Marvel some artwork, but they responded she was too young. However, they were also encouraging with their response. “That bit of encouragement helped so much…My work has always been evaluated for the work, not for me. The industry has been so good for me. The issue of being a woman was always on the back burner.”

Richard was then addressed, asking if he got into comics via a letters page. Richard said, “I was a fan of comics. I knew nothing of the business. Silver Surfer #5 came out and had a letter about how the Surfer was being treated by mankind, and that many humans would be nicer to the Surfer; his stories should reflect that. I thought two things: 1, great letter and 2, ‘Wendy?’ A girl?” This got a laugh from the audience. “I wrote her a letter. She got hundred of letters from guys. She wrote back and we had a correspondence for four years. We got married in 1972.”

Rick and Steve were then asked if there was pressure to draw characters like other artists did. Rick said, “The pressure was put on me by me because I wanted the characters to look good. Roy Thomas never pressured me.” Steve added, “Same thing for me. At Marvel you just had to stay focused on the work.”

The pair were then asked about Star Wars and if they were required to make the characters resemble those in the film. Both laughed. Rick began, “No one had any idea on what to draw. We had no references. People criticize (Howard) Chaykin for Darth Vader, but I get it. There was nothing to reference.” He also said that the photos that were available were bad. Steve said, “There was nothing on Vader’s costume (to look at). We got in (eventually) to look at the studios. It was a game changer.” Rick added, “It (the series) was taken from me when it became popular. Everyone wanted to do it then.”

Mark then asked what it was like to work with someone they looked up to. Steve went first with the artists he looked up to. “Kirby, Infantino. Yes. Gene Colan.” However he wasn’t nervous. “No. I was under a deadline. My approach was to make everything neat quickly. Tom Palmer was someone whose work I emulated when inking Gene.” Rick added, “I got Ross Andru’s pages. I learned so much from him. One of the best pencillers I worked with.” Wendy said she was in the Marvel offices one day visiting and Jim Shooter stuck his head into the room, “You an artist?” I said I was and he said, “Ink this!” It was a page of Gene Colan’s Doctor Strange. I did it in Marie Severin’s office. It was a fascinating experience. Cleo looks like one of my characters.”

Marv and Elliot were then asked if it was intimidating to write for Curt Swan. Elliot said, “I almost never knew who the artist would be to my stories. I assumed they would be Curt and they weren’t. I would write jokes in scene descriptions — Curt hated those. Alex Toth illustrated my best story. Alex understood that Batman and Superman were just guys.” He explained that Toth had the heroes talking on a rooftop with the characters leaning an elbow on the overhang, while Swan drew them puffed up and upright. “I didn’t know (the story) was going to be done by Alex. It was ‘Villain! Villain! Who’s Got the Villain?'” Marv said, “So much of my early work I did was full script.” There were only two artists that made him stop for a moment. “Gene Colan…was so impressive. I couldn’t dream of using a blue pencil (on his pages). The other was Steve Ditko. Something intimidating about working with the creator of Spider-Man. He was so so easy to speak with that that helped considerably.” He added, “Curt Swan’s style was starting to go out of favor. I tried to up the action content and Curt rose to the occasion. People assumed he was incapable (of the work), but he did it.”

Mark then asked if Marvel or DC could have done Elfquest then. Richard gave a quick laugh before saying, “We took it to them and they rejected it. It was too strange.” Wendy said, “They said it was ‘odd.’ I was influenced by Kirby and Osamu Tezuka. It didn’t go over. It bothered Marvel and DC: the big eyes and all the guys look like girls.” Richard said, “Marvel wanted a monthly. We did three (issues) a year. The machinery of getting a book done…we couldn’t do (a monthly).” Mark asked if they heard back from Marvel or DC. Richard answered, “Archie Goodwin, he was great. Years later he said, ‘That was my bad.” And Carol Kalish told them, ‘We blew it. Would you consider a reprint license?'” Richard paused before saying, “Irony is delicious.” Wendy continued, “Once Marvel picked us up, we got onto spinner racks and into grocery stores. That really brought our numbers up. “Newstand distribution,” Richard said,”brought us to 200,000 copies, double what we had on our own.”

The panelists were asked if they could state three things in the 70’s they were proud of. Marv said, “Tomb of Dracula. I learned to write and create on that. Spider-Man. I wanted to write FF, I didn’t think I could write it. I was told I had to write Spider-Man before FF. I found I loved Spidey. Being allowed to be an editor to come up with new concepts was good.” Mark interjected, “Bonus question: What happened when you became an editor at Marvel?” Marv smiled, “I didn’t want to screw it up. Let’s continue it, but not make it different.” Steve stated, “My own personal favorites? Star*Reach comics, Quack, a lot of inking work while at Marvel — Warlock, Howard (the Duck), and Star Wars.” Rick said, “Star Wars. My whole career took off. I see my work on t-shirts. What If #10, I learned a lot.” “This is from left field,” Richard began, “Wendy sat me down and said ‘Help me with this concept called Elfquest.’ That threw me into the deep end. That event has given me forty years of fun.” Wendy jumped in, “The 1970’s are a blur because it meant deadlines, writing, pencils, inks, painting covers — front and back. It occurred to them to have me write Red Sonja #6. That’s how I broke into the industry.” Elliot smiled, “The Joker series. It was fun. It was a hoot. Superman #400. Pieces I did for The Village Voice on Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. The story cost me a year’s worth of work, how Neal Adams brought the industry to reckon.”

Rick was asked if Batman was a character he wanted. “He would have been one of my choices,” Rick answered. “I got it after Don Newton’s death. I loved it. Dick (Giordano) was so good for me. He had my back.” Steve agreed, “He was encouraging to me.” Wendy added, “He was interested in the independents.”

The conversation went to protecting your own characters at that time. Wendy started, “Wally Wood asked, ‘How did you do it? How do you protect your product?'” Richard continued, “We never got predated. We cut our own path and nobody dared mess with us. How do you tell people not to get messed with when they’ve been messed with? Jim O’Barr and The Crow, Dave Stevens’s The Rocketeer. So sad.”

Mark asked if there were any regrets. Richard replied, “I worked 8-10 hours at IBM. It was a cushy job with benefits. Elfquest took 8-10 hours at home. I was afraid of losing benefits. We never hurt, but it was scary to imagine.”

The final question went to Wendy and if she ever experienced any sexism. “There was an announcer at a masquerade dressed as Thor.” She was going to be Red Sonja and spank him with her sword to get him off stage so her act with Frank Thorne could begin. They had rehearsed it, but when she came on stage that night, he grabbed her and said, “If it’s good enough for Frank Thorne, it’s good for me.” Wendy recounted, “He bent me over to kiss me. He broke my costume. I said, ‘Let go of me you a-hole!’ That’s the worst of anything that’s happened to me. He ran off. It’s been pretty good actually.”

Sadly time was called on this panel, but Mark wanted to remind the attendees that this was a comic book convention. With all the movies and television shows in attendance, comics should be the focus. He asked all to spread the word that people should be attending panels, such as this one, and coming to conventions so that people learn the joy and history of comic books. There was applause and the panel dismissed.



Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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