Sunday, August 30, 2009

Seven Questions with JIM SALICRUP!

Our newest interview subject needs no introduction, but just for the sake of propriety we'll go ahead and give him one. For nearly 40 years, Jim Salicrup has been an industry mainstay, first as editor on just about every major Marvel title, then as editor-in-chief at Topps, senior editor at Stan Lee Media and now as the creative force behind Papercutz. In his "spare" time, Jim also is on the board of trustees at MoCCA -- the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art -- and somehow still makes the time for conventions, fan interaction and interviews. Like, for instance, this one:

1. For those of our readers who may not be familiar Papercutz, what can you tell us about the company and your upcoming schedule?

Sure! Papercutz is essentially a successful graphic novel publisher whose titles are primarily sold in bookstores. We started up about five years ago, and amazingly each new series launch of late has be been bigger and more successful than the last. So, while we're still a relatively small publisher, we've got a lot of big talents.

You may have noticed I've very carefully avoided mentioning exactly which titles we're publishing and who our intended audience may be. The reason for that is, some folks might mistakenly leap to the wrong conclusion about us, so I wanted to ease into it. Y'see, even though I often say that Papercutz produces graphic novels for all ages, some people think that means "for kids only." So, while some of our titles are primarily for kids, others truly are for all ages-- titles such as TALES FROM THE CRYPT and CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED for example.

The reason my Papercutz publishing partner, Terry Nantier, and I decided to produce graphic novels for all ages, is that we both felt that the comics industry wasn't paying enough attention to kids, especially girls, and we wanted to see if we could produce great comics would reach that audience. Terry and I both grew up reading some of the best comics in the world-- Terry loved the great European graphic novels, I loved 60s Marvel Comics, and we both are crazy about Tintin -- so we both know that kids can appreciate great writing and great artwork in comics, and we both hate the idea that comics should in any way be dumbed down for kids. We remember how smart kids really are.

As for our upcoming schedule, here's a good example of what I'm talking about -- we'll be launching early next year DISNEY FAIRIES, featuring Tinker Bell and her fairy friends in Never Land. We want the writing to be on the same level as Carl Barks's Uncle Scrooge comics, and with Stefan Petrucha as our writer, I'm sure we can do it! Stefan wrote The X-Files comic at Topps Comics, and most fans found the writing to be just as good as the TV series, and in some cases, even better! Stefan has a lot of experience writing Disney comics, as he's written many Mickey Mouse stories for the European market, many of which have been published here by Gemstone. As for the artwork, let's just say, we're aiming to make this perhaps the most beautiful Disney comic ever created. How's that for ambitous?

As for the rest our line, we offer BIONICLE, a world populated only by robot-like creatures; CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED, featuring stories by the world's greatest authors; CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED DELUXE, featuring much longer adaptations of stories by the world's greatest authors; GERONIMO STILTON, which I'll get to in a little bit; THE HARDY BOYS, all-new adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy; NANCY DREW, the world-famous Girl Detective; and TALES FROM THE CRYPT, the classic horror comics anthology with a tad more twisted humor and sick satire.

2. You’ve expressed some concern on your blog over the fact that the acclaimed Classics Illustrated series put out by Papercutz isn’t carried by many comic stores that seem to cater only to superhero fans. Does the direct market system help the industry, or is it in danger of marginalizing “mainstream” comic business while bookstores enjoy a boom in alternative formats like manga digests?

Well, I don't want to sound like I'm complaining, because I'm not! Papercutz is doing very well in bookstores, schools, libraries, and even in foreign markets and as downloads from GoComics. The truth is I love comicbook stores, and I want them to do better, but outside of the top 200 stores, the stores that really know what they're doing, it's as if the rest of the stores are determined to go out of business.

The problem is that too many comicbook stores sell that same comics month after month to the same customers, and then they wonder, especially during tough economic times, why their business is hurting. While the most successful stores do indeed carry all sorts of comics and graphic novels, many stores still perpetuate the myth that non-super-hero comics don't sell. That's what they said about Manga, and now you can find a Manga section in every major bookstore. Guess what? Now bookstores are opening up shelf space for Kid's Graphic Novels sections -- again the majority of direct market comicbook shops have missed the boat.

Case in point-- our most recent launch was for a series called GERONIMO STILTON. This series is certainly aimed at younger readers, and it's featuring the title character from a series of kids books that have 35 titles in print, and each one sells an average of 185,000 copies! Let's put that in perspective -- in May of 2009, according to industry experts, not a single new comic sold over 100,000 copies. So here's a property that outsells every single comicbook in the comics shop, and other than the smartest comicbook stores, the direct market couldn't be bothered! Instead, they just continue to buy more of the same ol' stuff, at higher than ever prices, and wonder where their customers are vanishing.

Now, what if a comicbook store actually ordered a few copies of GERONIMO STILTON, and placed 'em prominently in their store window? Maybe kids who weren't aware that GERONIMO STILTON was now in comics form and available in graphic novels would actually, perhaps for the very first time, venture into the comics store and buy a graphic novel! And what if that kid showed it to his friends who might also be avid GERONIMO STILTON fans?

But, as I said, GERONIMO STILTON is clearly aimed at younger readers -- he's a time-traveling mouse, in case you're curious -- and comic shops will insist such a graphic novel won't sell. That's funny, 'cause we sold out of every copy we brought to sell at the San Diego Comic-Con.

3. Besides your work at Papercutz, you’re also on the board of trustees for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (or MoCCA). What can you tell us about MoCCA and what is it that you do there?

Papercutz really does take up the majority of my time, but I do love comics, and the opportunity that MoCCA founder Lawrence Klein offered me -- to help start a comic art museum in New York City -- was truly an offer I couldn't refuse. After all, I love comics, New York City, and museums, and this combines all three. So, if starting an all-new comics company wasn't a big enough challenge, try starting a not-for-profit museum in Manhattan.

It's been quite an adventure, and I can't tell you how exciting it has been. MoCCA is an almost entirely volunteer organization, which means people are their simply because they believe in what MoCCA is doing. Mostly I'm a glorified advisor to MoCCA, but I'm really their happiest MoCCA member-- it's almost as if I have comics museum of my very own with great exhibits and incredible programming designed just for me. The truth is, that anyone who becomes a MoCCA member or volunteer can feel the same way. You simply need to get involved, and if you have a great idea for an exhibit or a panel, or whatever, you can help make it happen. Currently, there's a wonderful show up that's just been extended due to popular demand: "Sounds and Pauses -- The Comics of David Mazzuchelli." On display are pieces from Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, to his current, many-years-in the-making Asterios Polyp graphic novel, and lots of stuff from in-btween too. Please go to for more information, especially on how you can support MoCCA by becoming a member, a volunteer, or attending the annual MoCCA Festival. Chairman Ellen Abramowitz and Director Karl Erickson are bringing MoCCA to new heights of glory, and it's great to be a part of it all.

4. One of my vivid memories from reading comics as a kid is an essay you wrote in an issue of Marvel Age where you discussed the term “Marvel Zombie”: someone who read and collected Marvel comics to the exclusion of all other companies. I have to admit I was not a Marvel Zombie, but I had friends that were and they proudly embraced the title. Where did the term originate and how do you feel about the recent wave of wildly popular Marvel Zombie comics?

I know who created the term Marvel Zombie, but that person had requested that I not reveal this top secret information, so I will honor that request until I'm told otherwise. The first few editorials I wrote about the term "Marvel Zombies" were somewhat outraged on my part, as I simply don't like name-calling of any kind. I still find terms such as "hot," "geek," "nerd," "jock," to be dehumanizing, and to some extent offensive, but I recognize that's a battle I'll never win. So, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, and I started using "Marvel Zombie" in MARVEL AGE MAGAZINE as a badge of honor, as opposed to the originally intended insult. I was soon proclaiming MARVEL AGE "The Official MARVEL ZOMBIE Newsmagazine!"

As for the recent MARVEL ZOMBIE comics, they seem to be fun, and I've enjoyed the ones I've picked up. I was wondering when Marvel was going to bring back TALES OF THE ZOMBIE, got tired of waiting, and we've worked in a parody of good ol' Simon Garth in the "Diary of a Stinky Dead Kid" spoof in TALES FROM THE CRYPT comicbook #13 (to be collected in TALES FROM THE CRYPT graphic novel #8, coming in November. It's by Stefan Petrucha and Rick Parker, and it's good sick fun.

5. During your time at Marvel, you edited some of the best loved runs in the company’s history, including the Phoenix Saga in X-Men, Todd McFarlane’s run in Amazing Spider-man, the Stern/Byrne era in Captain America and the Fall of Yellowjacket storyline in Avengers. What do you consider to be the highlight of your time as an editor at Marvel and why?

First, thanks! I really appreciate that. Second, how can I possibly answer that? It's like being asked, who's your favorite child? Actually, it's much harder, because I only have one step-daughter, and she's incredible! This reminds me of what someone once said to me, when I was sitting at my desk in "the Spider-Man office." Seeing how much I obviously loved working on Spidey -- I had decorated the office with all sorts of Spider-Man toys, posters, you-name-it -- this kind soul asked, won't you really be sad when you're no longer editing Spider-Man? I answered "A little, but as much as I love Spider-Man, it's comics in general that I love! I'm happy editing anything you throw at me, and figuring out not only how to make the stories and art as good as possible, but how to make it as successful as possible as well!" Which is exactly how I feel today editing NANCY DREW, working with writers Stefan Petrucha, Sarah Kinney and artist Sho Murase. In fact, unlike Spider-Man which had already been done brilliantly by creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and later writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway and artists such as John Romita, Gil Kane, and Ross Andru, we were the first ones to ever create NANCY DREW comics, and I suspect what Petrucha, Kinney, and Murase are creating today, may be looked back on, generations from now, as the definitive NANCY DREW comics.

All that said, and as much as I enjoyed every single comic I ever edited at Marvel, I probably enjoyed editing THE FANTASTIC FOUR with John Byrne the most. John was very passionate about producing a great FF comic, and it was a real joy to not only watch and witness what John was coming up with, but I even got to toss in a very crazy ideas, and John made them work brilliantly. I remember being excited whenever new FF pages from John arrived -- it was like being a kid again, and eagerly devouring the latest issue by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby! When you're job is that much fun, you ALMOST feel guilty about getting paid.

6. As editor on Avengers, you were editing writing done Marvel EiC Jim Shooter. How did the process of editing your own boss work? And how did the experience of working so closely with the EiC influence your own later stints as EiC or senior editor at Topps, Stan Lee Media and Papercutz, if at all?

Working with Jim was a constant learning experience. I didn't even know how much I was learning from Jim at the time, and I'm eternally thankful for the opportunities he gave me. Working with Jim as his editor though was a little awkward, as he had this impossible job of being Editor-in-Chief at Marvel, and the notion that he could write a monthly title as well was wishful thinking on both our parts. As Editor-in-Chief he'd say I should fire Shooter the writer, but I liked his ideas so much that I didn't want to lose him.

As I said, I learned a lot from Jim, and I hope I've been able to incorporate that knowledge in what I later did at Topps Comics, Stan Lee Media, and now at Papercutz. It's funny, one of the things Jim pushed for at Marvel was more self-contained stories, and now that's almost all we do at Papercutz. Jim's constant emphasis of the basics of storytelling has well-prepared me to edit graphic novels that need to be clear enough for young readers, yet sophisticated enough for older readers. It's amazing how confusing comics can be for non-comics readers, and part of what we try to do at Papercutz is produce comics that anyone can easily access. Just simple things like making sure the characters are well-introduced have a big positive impact on the overall stories. Of course, I learned a lot from others as well, especially Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, but Jim's advice may be most helpful when dealing with the nuts and bolts of comics storytelling.

7. Lastly, what’s one specific storytelling technique you use that you could share with new creators to help them hone their craft?

It'll sound obvious, but since comics are a visual medium, try to make your stories as visually interesting as possible. Yes, the old "show, don't tell" bit of advice is usually most helpful to new creators. Having the right powerful image can add tremendous impact to a comics story -- just think of the images that you remember from comics, and ask yourself if there's something in your story that could be conveyed more powerfully or poetically or even subtly through the right image.

Furthermore, and it may at first sound like a contradiction, so many comics creators today are trying to emulate film so much that they've abandoned literary techniques that are still effective in comics. Like a novel, to a certain degree, comics can also get inside characters in ways that would be awkward in film-- think of film adaptations that feature all the actions, but little of the insights of the book. If the captions or dialogue offers something that would've been impossible to glean from just looking at the art, then you're doing something right.

Thank again for this opportunity, Scott! And just to prove I learned something from all my years working with Stan Lee, let me wrap-up by saying "Watch out for Papercutz!"

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I just wanted to add that, going into this, I wasn't real familiar with Papercutz myself. Now that I've spent some time researching it a little bit, though, I have to say I honestly think it's fantastic. I particularly like the design -- each title has a style that is tailored for the appropriate audience. The almost manga-esque design elements for Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew are perfect for those titles in my opinion. Overall I'm very impressed with what Papercutz is doing and I think it's a great kind of alternative programming in the comic marketplace. Sales may be down on mainstream comic books, but I think the form itself is more popular than ever -- it's the format that is becoming obsolete, not the medium, and Papercutz is doing a great job of shifting to meet this new reality.