Danny Fingeroth is a man who’s made his life in comics. Best known as the longtime editor of Marvel’s Spider-Man comics line, Danny is also something of an academic authority on the form. His impressive contributions to the underlying power of the medium include such well-received books as: Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society; Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero; and The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels. He created and edited Write Now!, a magazine dedicated to the craft of writing comics. In a similar vein, he has taught comics-related courses at New York University, The New School and The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA). He has spoken on the subject at The Smithsonian Institute and The Metropolitan Museum of Art and has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and The Today Show on NBC. He currently offers classes and educational programs at The SoHo Gallery for Digital Art. His most recent book (co-edited with fellow legend Roy Thomas) is The Stan Lee Universe.
Derek Mainhart: You’ve delved quite a bit into the autobiographical subtext of a lot of comics, especially regarding the original superhero comics of the early 20th Century. What got you thinking along these terms?
Danny Fingeroth: It’s something I just gravitate toward thinking about. Sure, these stories were created to generate revenue, but with that as a given, what were they about under the spandex trappings? Why THESE stories and characters, and not others? When you start thinking about that, pretty soon you’re getting to “What were the creators—including the editors—trying to express? What personal experiences, yearnings, dreams, did they draw on?”
DM: Interesting that you mention the editors; they often get overlooked in questions like this. To what degree do you think editors influenced some of the autobiographical subtext we’re talking about?
DF: Editors often become part of the creative process, especially in mainstream comics, since you are often dealing in a shared universe. Every comic and every team deals with this differently. Ultimately, the editor is concerned with, “What will sell the most comics while also preserving the long term integrity of the main characters?” (Business imperatives may dictate how much concern is evidenced for those long term concerns.) So if a story ultimately becomes a combination of ideas and experiences from the various parties concerned in making the story, then that’s fine, at least as far as the long term health of the character franchise, if not for the egos of all concerned. Just as a TV series can be the “vision” of one or multiple minds, the same with a comics series. The editor is supposed to not take credit for the creative content, but if you find yourself liking multiple titles, on an ongoing basis, that are edited by a specific person, then you have to think that, at the very least, that editor is catalyzing these particular creators into working at the top of their game, even if he or she is not specifically directing them regarding what to do and how to do it.
DM: What would you say the comics written by Danny Fingeroth reveal about him?
DF: That’s not really for me to say. Let a thousand doctoral theses be launched! (Or at least a couple of blog posts.)
DM: On the other side of the coin, you’ve written about society’s need for superheroes. Do you think they have a shelf life? The heroic figures of the 19th Century, for example, don’t necessarily carry the same weight as they did in their own time (Sherlock Holmes being, perhaps, an exception). Even the pulp heroes that begat superheroes, while still around, are hardly the phenomena that they once were. Could it be said that, in terms of comics, the 20th Century was the Superhero Century, and that the 21st will perhaps move on to Something Else? Or have waves of blockbuster movies enshrined them in the popular consciousness?
DF: The latter. As our society seems to become more complex than ever (is that an illusion?), people tend to want simple, direct solutions to these problems in their entertainment. Superheroes, even complex ones, fill that bill. The superhero has become for the 2000s what the Western was for the 20th Century—a metaphor system through which Americans tell ourselves our collective story.
Behind the Scenes
DM: Sean Howe’s book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story recently garnered some attention. Naturally, you make a couple of appearances. Would you say his behind-the-scenes look at Marvel’s history paints an accurate picture? Is there anything in it you’d care to comment on?
DF: I’d say given the enormity of the task Sean took on, he did a good job of weaving the company’s history into a narrative with a compelling flow. There is no single “Marvel,” after all. Everyone who worked there experienced it differently. I think Sean delved into some of what was going on behind the scenes over the years with a reasonable amount of accuracy. The hardest thing to convey in a biography of a company is the reality that, while people come together at a place for a common cause, they/we all have our own non-work lives going on at the same time. That’s where personal memoirs would come in. What non-work-related reasons were there for why a particular person made a series of decisions? Who were they when they left the office for the day? How did that affect the work they produced?
DM: How do you think the job of an editor has changed in the last 15 years or so?
DF: It seems pretty much the same to me. I think the replacement of the phone call with e-mail and other electronic communication media is problematic when applied to a creative field. As in most areas of life, communication is now quicker, and while in some ways clearer, in other ways more confusing. We’re probably now at a similar point where, 100 years ago, people were bemoaning the impersonal nature of the phone call. Now we yearn for the shades of meaning that can be conveyed by an actual human voice over a phone. But the roles of an editor as representing the company to the creators and the creators to the company seem to me to be pretty constant.
DM: What about the role of an editor as representing the company and creators to the public/fan base? How important is it to have a presence on social media, for example?
DF: Social media is an accelerated, intensified version of the letters page, and convention interaction which editors and creators used to interact with the public in the pre-digital era. Readers and fans (not always the same thing) may think they want to see a particular character’s saga develop in a certain way, but the fact is that what people want is to be surprised by something that in retrospect was inevitable–which is the definition of a good story. Ultimately, in non-gaming, non-fanfic narratives, we want to see the characters we have an emotional investment in do amazing things that are awesome and cool–but that also make sense given what we know about the characters and their worlds. So social media can serve to help get a more immediate sense of what the readership likes and doesn’t like, or what surprises they may have figured out before you wanted them to–but ultimately, just as they want to hear a singer sing, they want to have the storytellers tell them the best possible stories. Social media helps that process along.
DM: The fanboy/geek in me has to ask: the Spider-Man line is currently involved in a controversial storyline. Your run as editor on Spider-Man was no stranger to controversy itself. Is there any advice you could give to Spidey’s current editorial crew?
DF: Listen to all advice, but keep your own counsel. If the fan inside you says “I gotta read that!”—then do it!
DM: In The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels, your top three choices are memoirs, and your top ten is rounded out by books that are at least partly autobiographical in nature. Is there something inherent in the medium that lends itself to this type of personal narrative?
DF: I think so. There’s something so direct and visceral about comics. The medium can convey complexities of human experience that are simultaneously “realistic” and yet also subjective, and do it in a way that neither print nor film/video can.
DM: How much of this autobiographical strain do you think can be traced back to the “first” graphic novel, Will Eisner’s A Contract with God?
DF: I think it goes back at least as far as Crumb, who often told stories that were from his own life, and then to Harvey Pekar, who refined autobiography to a high level, often with Crumb illustrating. Eisner added a distancing layer by lightly fictionalizing his characters’ names and likenesses. Being of a different generation with a different orientation toward comics, Eisner’s stuff was a synthesis of what he had done over the previous decades, along his realization that adults who enjoyed comics might actually want material that deals with more mature themes and concerns. Of course, storytellers have been mixing autobiography with fiction forever. Even in Contract and his other work that is considered autobiographical, Eisner is very careful to use fictional street names and somewhat disguised characters, so what seems like memoir is fictionalized.
DM: TRGtGN was published in 2008. Anything since then crack your list of must-reads?
DF: Jason and Seth are pretty fantastic. So are Miriam Katin, Dean Haspiel, and Peter Kuper. Leila Corman’s Unterzakhn was great. Rick Geary’s body of work is astonishing.
And Now for Something Completely Different…
DM: Whatever happened to WhirlGirl?
DF: She hasn’t gone away. More info when and if something happens…
Stan the Man
DM: What was the impetus behind Write Now! ?
DF: I wanted to demystify comics writing and to get it some respect. Also, I wanted people to get some sense of how it’s done and make them think about how they might be able to write comics of whatever type, for the major companies, or 20 of their friends. Art is “sexier” than writing because its appeal is visceral and often immediate, whereas writing takes a little more time and effort to judge and respond to—at least it seems that way on the surface. After all, writing and art combine to make comics, so how can you really separate the two crafts, anyway?
DM: Was putting together The Stan Lee Universe a natural outgrowth of your experience on Write Now! ?
DF: Well, it started as the simple idea to combine my and Roy Thomas’s 85th birthday tributes to Stan from Write Now and Alter Ego magazines. Then it got a whole lot more complicated when we decided that I would travel to Stan’s archives at the University of Wyoming and see what unique material I could find there. And I found lots!!
DM: Sounds potentially fascinating. Anything you can share?
DF: I found recordings of radio interviews that were broadcast in the 1960s and then never heard again. I had the best of them transcribed and then lightly edited them, and they appear in the book. There’s a lengthy one of Stan with Jack Kirby from 1967, which is fascinating. Then there’s one from 1968, the week after Nixon was elected president, of Stan debating comics-hating Fredric Wertham’s colleague, psychiatrist Hilde Mosse, about comics and popular culture.
DF: There’re also pages from the screenplay Stan wrote in the early ’70s for a film that was to be directed by his friend, French director Alain Resnais, who made Last Year at Marienbad, among many classics, and is still making important movies.
DM: Tres avant garde
DF: Plus, there’s a lot of script and pencil art from the 1978 Silver Surfer graphic novel Lee and Kirby did, including many personal notes and comments from both of them. Those are just a few of the incredible things in the book. It’s pretty amazing stuff. I’d love to do a volume two.
DM: Stan projects a very strong public image. Without giving anything away, did editing all of those interviews from various points in Stan’s life give you some new insight into the intersection of his life and work? The man behind the persona?
DF: I learned that he gives the world more glimpses behind that public persona than is immediately obvious, because he often couches remarkably frank statements within the context of other material that is more purely promotional or entertaining. His public persona, in my experience, isn’t that different from the private one—just louder.
From Behind the Scenes to In Front of a Blackboard
DM: The classes you put together for MoCCA over the years featured an impressive roster of talent (Chris Claremont, Dennis O’Neil, etc). Had any of them taught before?
DF: Dennis had taught for many years at SVA. Ditto for Joey Cavalieri and Klaus Janson. I think at some point most comics creators have done at least a guest shot in a class or been on a panel at a convention. For those with less teaching experience, I would do the lesson as an interview I was conducting with them. Don’t forget, in pitching a story, one uses many of the same skills a teacher uses: conveying an idea clearly and in a compelling manner to someone else. I would generally try to choose people to teach whom I knew had an engaging conversational style, and who were excited about sharing ideas. They were teaching already, even if they weren’t aware that they were.
DM: Any thoughts on MoCCA’s absorption by the Society of Illustrators?
DF: I’m glad MoCCA is surviving and thriving. I’m a big fan of both organizations.
DM: Anything else in the works?
DF: I’m working on several book and comics projects that I hope to be able to speak about in more detail soon. Ditto for events and classes that I’ll be giving live and online. I can tell you that I’ll be teaching my comics writing online class again through The Media Bistro website in the fall, and teaching a comics writing course for undergrads through the department of TV and Radio at Brooklyn College, also in the fall.
DM: What advice would you give to prospective comics creators (other than to take your classes!)?
DF: Don’t do just one thing. Be an artist, not just a comics artist. Be a writer, not just a comics writer. Comics careers are for the most part relatively short, even for people whose talent is acclaimed and in demand. Even if you have a twenty-year comics career, you still have another twenty, thirty, forty or more years of a working life in which you’ll want to stay active and productive.