From Owsley to Priest

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Spider-Editor

When I was growing up, Spider-Man was inescapable on the comics landscape. Not even Superman had as many solo titles as the webhead. First there was the flagship title, Amazing Spider-Man; then there was Marvel Tales, which reprinted classic Amazing stories; Marvel Team-Up, which paired Spidey with another hero every month; Spidey Super Stories, which were easy-to-read stories produced in conjunction with the Children’s Television Workshop; and finally, Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, a second, purely-solo Spidey comic that got its start late in the summer of ‘76, just when my comics fandom was kicking into high gear. So five titles every month—pretty much guaranteeing that you could find a fresh Spidey comic on the racks every week.

By the time Owsley got the gig as editor of the Spider-Man books, the Super Stories comic was kaput and Marvel Team-Up had just been converted into a third solo title. (Tales, of course, remained a reprint book.) So there were four titles, three of which featured new material every month. The first credited under Owsley’s sole editorship were Amazing Spider-Man #264 (May 1985), Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #101 (Apr. 1985), and Web of Spider-Man #2 (May 1985).

Owsley rationalized the potential over-saturation of Spidey thusly: “Look, I’ve got different aspects of my life, as you do. You could probably publish three comics about my life” (“1985 Preview Issue,” Amazing Heroes #62, January 1, 1985, p. 135). His idea to keep the line of titles fresh was to try and give each one its own unique flavor. As editor, this meant finding writers that could provide the flavor(s) he was looking for; which in turn meant replacing some (if not all) of the writers already there.

“I want to get a Hill Street Blues feel to this title,” Owsley said of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man (Amazing Heroes Preview Special #1, Summer 1985, p. 87). Hill Street was a groundbreaking, gritty, television crime drama, and Spectacular got this same flavor from Peter David, the writer responsible for the gritty, and gripping, “Death of Jean DeWolff” storyline. Web was (eventually) to become a sort-of mystery title, following Pete/Spidey around when he went on assignment for Jameson’s Now magazine, which almost invariably took him outside of his regular NYC environment. David Michelinie would be the writer.

Now whom did these writers replace? Well, Al Milgrom had been both writer & penciler on Spectacular prior to Owsley taking over and he was gone with Owsley’s fist issue of the title. Danny Fingeroth, after vacating the Spidey-editor’s chair for the purpose of writing Web, was gone after issue #11 (and taking out fill-ins, he only contributed five plots/scripts altogether). Were they pushed out by Owsley? In a word: yes. As Priest/Owsley recalled it:

I loved Amazing, but I didn’t think the other two books were very good…. Shooter was asking for heads on a plate, and I tried not to give them to him. To that end, I made a project out of Danny Fingeroth on Web, refusing to hand him over to Pontius Pilate, but hammering him in Shooter Emulation Mode. In retrospect, I went too far and humiliated and tortured this really nice, really friendly guy, and he quit in frustration.

…I didn’t much care for the whimsical tone of Spectacular Spider-Man, and tried to nudge writer Al Milgrom out of the seat in favor of the brilliant newcomer Peter David. I handled that in equally clumsy manner, alienating Al, who had been a friend and mentor.

…I had alienated just about everybody but Shooter, who encouraged me to move Spidey towards excellence.

This left Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz as the sole holdovers on Amazing. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, they would butt heads with Owsley the most during his editorship of the Spidey books.

FUN FACT SIDEBAR: The preview of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man from Amazing Heroes Preview #2 (Winter 1986) revealed that there were plans to revive Deathlok (of all characters) in the pages of PPTSSM (of all places). As Deathlok was Rich Buckler’s baby, I’m guessing he played a big role in proposing the storyline and then these plans were scrapped after Rich left the book as penciler. According to the then-preview, the present-day General Stryker would have gotten hold of some files detailing the adventures of the time-traveling Deathlok in our era (which took place in the pages of some classic issues of Marvel Two-in-One) and be inspired to “change the future by creating Deathlok now” (p. 97). This could have been a lot of fun—too bad it never happened.

Highlights

As editor, Owsley continued to use many of the signature moves he had used (or was still using) as writer of Power Man and Iron Fist. Holding the creator credits until the end of the story, for one:

His postmodern, fourth-wall-breaking sense of humor was another:

Owsley also liked to experiment and try new things. There was one pub month (August 1986) when he took Spidey out of two of his three titles; an event called “Where Is Spider-Man?” (aka “Missing in Action”). Originally, the idea was “a three-part story that will crossover all three books. The story will point out how each writer views Spidey and would deal with the same plot” (Amazing Heroes Preview Special #1, Summer 1985, p. 87). As it turned out, only Amazing and Spectacular were without the webhead that month, and the experiment of how the different writers see Spidey didn’t really pan out. Instead, Amazing gave us what amounted to a Silver Sable solo story, while Spectacular offered a similar spotlight on the Black Cat. Still, it was a noble effort to attempt something fresh and different.

One of the consequences of the storyline in continuity terms was that Spidey’s classic red-and-blue costume was shredded, so he would be switching to the black suit full time. (There’s the iconoclast again.) Naturally, I much preferred the red-and-blue duds, but they’d been switching back and forth so much, I didn’t think much of it. I expected the classic costume to return eventually, and of course it did.

But more broadly, Owsley was succeeding at what he was trying to do: the three books all had their own flavor at this stage. Plus, Owsley had discovered a major talent in Peter David, who had been working in Marvel’s sales department prior to this.

Though he may have had a lot to learn as far as people skills and communication, Owsley was getting a lot done on the creative end. So where did it all go wrong?

Lowlights

Most of the negatives of Owsley’s editorial career were tied up in the flagship Spider-Man book. Even though he claims to have “loved Amazing,” I’m not sure I buy it. Looking back, none of the three Spider-books were very good when Owsley took the reins. Amazing may have been better than the other two titles, but it was still merely okay, not great. I have a hard time believing that Owsley could readily recognize the weaknesses of two of the titles, yet remain blind to those of the third. Jim Shooter probably recognized this as well.

As a young guy, passionate about his work and (probably) headstrong, like most of us were in our youth, I imagine Owsley had his own ideas about what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go in the comics world. Tom DeFalco is a solid writer and a pro, but he’s not going to venture into deep artistic waters. My belief—based mostly on what he did with the other two Spider-books, plus his approach as writer on Power Man and Iron Fist—is that Owsley wanted to explore these deeper waters.

Another wrinkle to consider in all this: as editor of the Spidey books, Owsley was supposed to be DeFalco’s boss; but as the Executive Editor at Marvel, DeFalco was Owsley’s boss. On top of this, before his promotion to the then-newly-created position of Executive Editor, DeFalco was editor of the Spidey books himself just a year prior to Owsley getting the job. So DeFalco cast a pretty big shadow over the entire operation, but an even bigger shadow over the whole Spider-Man line of books, particularly.

So my guess is that Owsley probably wanted DeFalco off Amazing, for whatever reason—maybe just to escape the political pressure of editing one of his bosses, or maybe because he had a different creative vision for the title. If Shooter was truly challenging Owsley to fire DeFalco, then maybe Shooter wanted DeFalco off the book as well. (Again, for whatever reason.) This is all my own opinion, of course, based mostly on circumstantial evidence, but it’s evidence that I find compelling.

An additional problem with Owsley’s tenure was that there were too many fill-in issues, but much of this was a by-product of the problem (real or contrived) of DeFalco and Frenz missing deadlines. Speaking for myself, I can’t believe the deadline issues with DeFalco and Frenz were legit. The duo didn’t have any such problem prior to working under Owsley, and certainly didn’t have any such problem afterward. In fact, after leaving ASM, The DeFalco-Frenz team reconvened on Thor and went on a five-year run with almost no fill-ins, meeting their deadlines fairly religiously. (And DeFalco was also fulfilling full EIC duties the whole time!)

Whatever it was, there were clearly issues there between Owsley and DeFalco (and possibly Shooter as well). This clash would lead to much chaos later on.

The Whole You-Know-What Mishegoss

Another big blemish on Owsley’s record—in my view, at least—was the Spider-Man vs. Wolverine one-shot. Written by Owsley, the book came out in late ‘86 (Feb. 1987 cover date), when the cult of Wolverine was running wild, and this story only increased the mania. At one point, Spidey is pounding on Wolverine in a cemetery, hitting him so hard that he’s breaking the headstone behind him. Wolverine’s response to this hellacious beating? He smiles.

Things like this are why a lot of fans (those with maturity and taste) soured on Wolverine. He’s got a mutant healing factor and an adamantium skeleton, which makes him very hard to kill, but it does not make him completely invulnerable. He’s not super-strong and he still has nerve endings; he still feels pain. Meanwhile, Spider-Man can bench press a bus, so if he punches Wolvie in the head with all he’s got, just once, guess what? Wolvie is taking a nap. Here, he smiles. This trend of Wolvie’s omnipotence and infallibility would continue to get worse in years to come. It smacks of fan service, not writing.

On the flip side, Spidey comes off as a total putz throughout the story, which is another big strike against it. And then Ned Leeds ends up callously killed off. Strike three. It’s a shame, because there’s a pretty cool story of international intrigue underneath all this, but all the terrible stuff going on up top ruins it.

Killing off Ned also circles back to Owsley’s struggles with DeFalco, which in turn ties in with an even larger mess: the Hobgoblin.

Now I’m not going to get too deep into the whole Hobgoblin mishegoss beyond this: It was a great idea at the start; was a gripping mystery for a while; but Roger Stern’s original idea for the character’s identity was awful, and no one who came along afterward was able to course correct. Suffice it to say, it turned into one of the great creative disasters in Spider-Man history (which is saying something, ‘cause Spidey’s had a lot of ‘em).

Anyway, after killing off Ned, Owsley (and everyone else at Marvel, I imagine) was anxious to wrap up the mystery of the Hobgoblin, as it had dragged on for about four years by this point—twice as long as the mystery of the Green Goblin had. The problem was that they had no real juicy candidates left for the big reveal. For the record, Stern’s original plan was to have a guy named Roderick Kingsley be the Hobgoblin. What made this an awful choice was that nobody cared about Kingsley; he was like a nothing, throwaway, background character. DeFalco was then going to make Richard Fisk, son of the Kingpin, the Hobgoblin—which wasn’t a great resolution either, but probably the best of a lot of bad options. Ned Leeds was never meant to be more than a red herring.

So of course, after much deliberation, they reached the conclusion that the only answer that made any sense was… Ned Leeds. So they revealed Ned Leeds as the Hobgoblin, post mortem. Naturally, everyone hated this.

Priest/Owsley stated that making Ned Leeds the Hobgoblin was “a move that infuriated Roger Stern [the Hobgoblin’s creator], but one that I had absolutely nothing to do with.” In a later article in Back Issue magazine, Stern denied being angry about it, while Tom DeFalco observed, “How could Owsley have nothing to do with it? He edited the freaking book!” Peter David would echo, “Owsley had nothing to do with it? Bull. That’s nonsense. He was the editor!” (BI #35, Aug. 2009, p. 20).

Leaving Spidey

There was a lot that went wrong for Owsley as editor of the Spider-Man books and it definitely left scars. Back circa 2002, Priest/Owsley penned the essay “Why I Never Discuss Spider-Man” and published it on the web, hoping to answer all possible questions about his editorial tenure therein so he could (hopefully) never have to worry about discussing it again. Aside from the Amazing Heroes preview specials, all the quotes I’ve pulled from him for this section were taken from said essay. As the essay reveals, “the catalyst for my demise was my firing Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz off of Amazing Spider-Man.” Elucidating further:

I had been told, at least a dozen times, to fire Tom…. I scheduled fill in after fill in, affecting sales. Tom and I planned one schedule fix after another, but these efforts were routinely torpedoed by Shooter himself, who’d suddenly send Tom here or make Tom drop what he was doing and work on thus and so. All the while complaining about our near-misses (as I said, I never, not once missed shipping) with Tom, urging me to get rid of him. It was Jim himself who was playing havoc with Tom’s writing schedule.

To say DeFalco and Frenz did not take this well would be quite the understatement. Almost everyone in the office was pissed at Owsley now, a situation that was completely untenable. The axe fell shortly thereafter.

“I fired Jim Owsley because his tenure as an editor was a train wreck,” Jim Shooter said. “When I fired Jim Owsley, he thanked me. Seriously. He said, ‘Thank you.’ He admitted that he just wasn’t good at the administrative stuff (i.e., schedules). P.S.—there was plenty of work for him as a writer, so it was not such a big deal. In fact, it was like giving him a raise. He is, as everyone knows, wonderfully creative. Meant to be a writer, not an expediter” (Back Issue #35, p. 20).

As Owsley recalled it in his essay:

Marvel offered me a lucrative exclusive contract that paid me more money to stay home than I made coming into the office. Nobody said, “You’re fired.” Nobody had to.

…So Owsley may have been “fired” in spirit, but not really, technically speaking. What happened was he relinquished his editorship (at Shooter’s request) in favor of writing freelance. As he put it in a more recent blogpost:

Shooter gave me an ultimatum: accept the contract or be fired. In retrospect, I should have let him fire me rather than have a lie pinned to my Wikipedia page for all eternity. I was not fired. I was offered an exclusive contract and I left voluntarily…. He could not have fired me, he had no grounds to fire me. I never missed shipping. Not once. Any cost overruns incurred on my watch were ordered by Jim Shooter because nothing was ever good enough for Jim Shooter…. Had I been fired, I’d have sued Marvel and I’d have won.

Owsley’s last credited Spider-titles as editor were ASM #283 (Dec. 1986), PPTSSM #121 (Dec. 1986), and Web #21 (Dec. 1986). Understanding that the pub dates are about three months ahead of when the books are actually on the stands, and that they’re put together a few months still prior to that, I’d say the calendar days Owsley actually sat in the editor’s chair were from about late ‘84 through the summer of ‘86. The effects of his departure were fairly immediate.

Suddenly, the three books that I had worked for years to give unique identities to were homogenized into a blur of Spider Sameness: same logo style, same basic look, indistinguishable from one another.

When I look back at Owsley’s stint as editor, I see a lot of Gerry Conway. The parallel is that both men were simply far too young to handle the positions they were in. Even under normal circumstances, most editorial departments are snake pits; and at that particular time at Marvel, it was even worse—an absolutely toxic environment. And I haven’t even touched on the racial bullshit that he had to deal with (Vulture covered this well enough already). As Priest/Owsley reflected:

At age 22, I became the first African-American editor in comics, the youngest editor in comics, and the youngest and least experienced guy to take the reins of Marvel’s signature franchise…. If I had it to do over again, I never would have accepted the appointment as editor of the Spider-Man franchise. I made a lot of mistakes. I hurt a lot of people. I lost a lot of friends. It’s a difficult thing for me to discuss…. As the new kid, I absolutely should not have been given Spider-Man, the corporate high-profile franchise, but Shooter ultimately found himself in the position of either having to force somebody to take the line, or give it to the new kid…. Giving me the Spider-Man line was an incredibly bad call. Saddling me with several beloved staffers as creative talent on books that constituted over two million dollars of Marvel’s bottom line was a very bad idea. And it was criminally stupid to have a 22 year-old neophyte editor edit his own boss (DeFalco)… I have little but regret about how I handled a lot of issues between Tom, Ron and myself.

NEXT: The Panther!

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