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VF / NM Industry Interview: Carl Potts

First issue of the second Alien legion series, from 1987. Cover by Larry Stroman and Frank Cirroco.

First issue of the second Alien Legion series, from 1987. Cover by Larry Stroman and Frank Cirocco.

Carl Potts is most known to comic fans for Alien Legion, as well as his creative and editorial work on dozens of prominent Marvel and Epic titles during the ’80s and ’90s. We interviewed him about working in the industry (focusing on the Copper Age of Comics), and the future of Alien Legion

Carl: I began freelancing for Marvel in the summer of ’75, mostly doing splash pages and pin-ups for the British reprint department. I joined the Marvel editorial staff in early ’83, replacing Al Milgrom who was leaving to go freelance. I was promoted to Exec. Editor in ’89. I was one of the five Editors-in-Chief during the period of Sept. ’94 to Jan. ’96 when editorial was divided into six groups. I left in 1996 and became Creative Director at an online gaming company in Boulder, CO.

VF / NM: Was there a real energy at Marvel during the “Copper Age” era of ’84 – ’91…that it was a real growth time of the industry, with both major comic companies (and some independents) really raising the bar?

Carl: I imagine that everyone who has ever worked at Marvel feels that their period at the company was special, including those who are there now. That said, the ‘80s to early ‘90s was indeed extra special for a number of reasons.

Except for the latter part of the Shooter period, the corporate culture, and the culture in the editorial department in particular, was very positive. We worked in a fun but productive environment. Most of us grew up as comics fans, loved our work and tried to turn out great comics. With rare exceptions, most of those on the editorial staff got along well with each other and many of us socialized after hours. There were some exceptional personalities during that time including Mark Gruenwald and Archie Goodwin.

Before the company was sold to Ron Perelman, Marvel’s executive ranks included many intelligent and good people including Jim Galton and Mike Hobson. Because they were not writers, artists or editors, most fans didn’t know these people existed — but they were the people who ran the company and made it possible for the editors and freelancers to do their thing.

During that ‘80s to mid ‘90s period, the comics market consistently grew, ignoring the ups and downs of the rest of the economy. New genres, concepts and formats were being tried. New companies sprang up, further diversifying the field.

The package design aesthetics of comics, graphic novels and collections began to evolve in the early ‘80s, getting more sophisticated. In the early ‘90s, digital production techniques slowly began to appear.

VF / NM: Can you talk a little about working with Mike Mignola in the mid-’80s…Rocket Raccoon, Alpha Flight, etc.?

Carl: Mike and I were both from the East Bay area (near Oakland, CA). Vincent Perez was my “anatomy for artists” teacher at UC Berkeley. Several years after I took Vincent’s class, he taught Mike at the Calif. College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. A few years before I joined Marvel’s editorial staff, I ran into Vincent at a convention in San Francisco and he introduced me to Mike.

Soon after we met, Mike moved to NY and broke into comics as an inker.

1985's Rocket Raccoon, Mike Mignola's first series assignment as a penciller.

1985's Rocket Raccoon, Mike Mignola's first series assignment as a penciller.

When I became an editor, Mike had just penciled his first story, a Sub-Mariner job for Marvel Fanfare. We renewed our acquaintance and I assigned him his first series as a penciller, Rocket Raccoon. Writer Bill Mantlo was a fan of Mike’s drawing and originally suggested Mike for the job. Unfortunately, the manufacturing department picked Rocket Raccoon to be the first book printed with the “Flexography” process. All of Mike’s beautiful stark black areas were turned to washed out greys while the colors were garish. I felt very bad for Mike. After that, I assigned Mike to the Hulk, Alpha Flight and other projects where he continued to hone his skills.

When I took over the Epic imprint, one of the first projects I put together was a Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series that Howard Chaykin wrote (adapting Fritz Lieber’s stories) and Mike penciled. Al Williamson did the inks. It was a beautiful project, a real labor of love that was finally collected a few years ago by Dark Horse.

Mike was always a pleasure to work with. He was sometimes lacking (needlessly) in self confidence about his artistic skills.

(Interview continues, just click below!)

VF / NM: Today, the term “graphic novel” has been extended to and accepted as being collections of previously published material (though, original graphic novels are seemingly coming back a bit). As I started collecting comics in ’86, to me, I still associate the term “graphic novel” with Marvel (and Epic’s) graphic “album” format…memories of working on projects in that format?

The Doctor Strange: Into Shamballa original graphic novel, from 1986.

The Doctor Strange: Into Shamballa original graphic novel, from 1986.

Carl: Production work was more difficult back then since there was no digital production involved, it was all mechanical paste-ups, FPOs, color guides, etc. Trying to do relatively “simple” things — like have a flat gray on all of the border and gutter areas in the first Dr. Strange graphic novel (art by Dan Green) — was a production and manufacturing headache back then.

Although the external dimensions of the old GN format was larger, the general proportions were very close to those of a traditional comic. The large dimensions made it almost impossible for the graphic novels to get racked in traditional book stores.

VF / NM: Can you talk a bit about promoting titles at the time; house ads, working with Marvel Age, comic book collecting magazines…this was all of course before comic news sites, and even Wizard.

Carl: There used to be periodic meetings in the 11th fl. conference room (at 387 Park Avenue South) with representatives from the fan press (mostly CBG, Starlog, Comics Journal/Amazing Heroes.) Marvel’s sales and promo people would have editors come in and talk up their projects to the press.

Some editors missed out on getting coverage in the fan press or Marvel Age by not getting their covers done on time.

I remember selling Archie Goodwin on an ad for Marvel Comics that promoted reading Marvel Comics to working professionals. It ran in Epic Illustrated magazine. I had Steve Leialoha do the art. In a way it was preaching to the converted. I wish the promo folks would have run it in a mainstream magazine with a system to track response rates.

I felt we should be trying to expand the comics audience with targeted ads in non-comics publications. When I did the Shadowmasters series, Fabian Nicieza (then in the promo dept.) agreed to run ads for the series in martial arts magazines.

When we did an Epic comic about a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, I wanted the promo dept. to run an ad (or at least get a mention in) whatever newsletters current and/or former Peace Corps volunteer organizations had at the time. I was not successful in convincing them to take the time to do so. I probably should have just done it “guerilla style.”

After Perelman’s team took over, it became difficult to get much promotion out of Marvel on some of the more unusual projects, especially Epic titles. They were focusing on the already popular Marvel franchises.

VF / NM: Rattle off a few Copper Age titles (’84 – 91) from other publishers that you would have killed to work on (editing, writing, or illustrating), had they been at Marvel.

Carl: I would have liked to ink Steve Rude on Nexus. Being a Ditko fan, I would have worked on The Creeper and The Question.

VF / NM: Frank Cirocco is one my favorite cover painters. Can you talk about his work?

Carl: Frank was another Bay Area guy who broke into comics soon after I did. (Other Bay Area artists who broke in during the mid to late ‘70s include Steve Leialoha, Brent Anderson, Joe Chiodo, Al Gordon, Steve Purcell and Mike Mignola. )

I met Frank at a San Diego Comic Con. He moved to NYC a year after I did and I helped him and Gary Winnick get work at Continuity Studios where I was working on Charlton’s B&W magazines for Neal Adams and Dick Giordano.

When I joined Marvel’s staff, Frank was one of the first people I called to offer work to. He was also my first pick to do the art on Alien Legion.

When we started doing some painted covers on Marvel’s titles, I’d occasionally ask Frank to do one. Sometimes he’d do all of the art and other times he’d do the painted art over someone else’s pencils (like the cover for Shadowmasters issue 1 where he worked over Jim Lee’s pencils.)

Carl Potts' cover for New Mutants 63.

Carl Potts' cover for New Mutants 63.

VF / NM: Okay, YOUR cover paintings…can you talk about your process for covers like New Mutants 63?

Carl: “Painting” is not really the right term for my work. I did full color illustrations. From my years working in advertising, I’d gotten pretty handy with markers. I’d lay down flat tones with markers and occasionally do some modeling with the markers as well. To fully model an area, I’d scrape dry pastels, mix the resulting dust to get the right color, pick it up on a cotton swab and apply it to the flat marker areas. I’d use opaque paint to add highlight areas. I’d often work in layers of thin bond paper since it absorbed the markers so well. I believe the New Mutants cover has at least four layers on it.

Originally, I’d done the illustration that became the New Mutants cover as part of my illustration portfolio. For a few years prior to joining Marvel’s editorial staff, I was working as a magazine and book illustrator. Leslie Zahler (then Howard Chaykin’s wife) was an art agent. In addition to Chaykin (who was doing numerous paperback book covers at the time), she represented Bill Sienkiewicz, Jay Muth, Walt Simonson, Joe Chiodo and other comics/illustrators. I did the piece in question as one of my portfolio pieces.

When I joined Marvel, I had a print of the illustration on my office wall. One day Chris Claremont came by, saw it and liked it. He thought the female looked like Kitty and said that if I was willing to change the small dragon so that it looked like Lockheed, he’d write a New Mutants story around the cover. I made the change and he wrote the story. This was the kind of serendipitous stuff that happened at Marvel all of the time.

Unfortunately, the reproduction on the cover was pretty bad!

Bernie Wrightson's first issue cover, for the 1985 Gargoyle limited series.

Bernie Wrightson's cover for the first issue of 1985's Gargoyle limited series.

VF / NM: Memories of the Gargoyle four issue limited series?

Carl: I really enjoyed working with JM DeMatteis and Mark Badger. I was thrilled to get Bernie Wrightson to paint the first issue cover. This was during the period when mini-series were all the rage. I thought it was a bit daring to do one featuring an old man trapped in a gargoyle’s body. Badger’s unconventional style fit the subject matter.

VF / NM: Can you talk about the launching of the ’87 Punisher “unlimited” series, and the title’s first year; Mike Baron, Klaus Janson, and then Whilce Portacio?

Carl: The ongoing Punisher series would not have happened if the five issue Punisher limited series had not been so successful. Mike Zeck and Steven Grant pitched the limited series to me soon after I joined Marvel’s staff. When I agreed to do it, some of the other editors thought it would never succeed. They felt that a non-super powered character who used real-world weaponry would not appeal to the audience. I got the distinct impression that Grant and Zeck had approached the other Marvel editors with the project and had been turned down so they decided to try the new guy, me!

I liked Zeck’s work a lot and wanted to work with him so was willing to take a chance on what, at the time, seemed like an unusual project. The success of the limited series proved that the market’s tastes were expanding, even within the confines of the Marvel Universe. Films like the Rambo series were popular so I thought that might help the Punisher comic’s chances.

Zeck could not reliably produce a monthly title so I tapped Klaus Janson for the ongoing series. I’d read and enjoyed Mike Baron’s work on Nexus and Badger and felt his lean, terse dialogue and hard-hitting action would be a good match for the Punisher.

Mike Baron’s plotting technique was sketching layouts — he thought visually and the sketches helped him pace the story. Klaus did great work, but felt inhibited by the layouts even though Mike and I reassured him that he should ignore Mike’s layouts and just follow the plot, drawing it however he saw fit. To resolve the situation, I decided to transpose Mike’s plot layouts to a prose for Klaus.

Whilce was part of a group of young artists I recruited and mentored over the course of about five years, that group included Jim Lee, Whilce, Scott Williams, Jon Bogdanov, Larry Stroman, Terry Shoemaker and others. I can not remember if I first saw Whilce’s work in an unsolicited submission or if he approached me with his work at a convention. Initially he was an inker but he got to show what he could do with his pencil on a few pages of a comic-within-a-comic that appeared in the first issue of Strikeforce: Morituri. Those pages impressed me and he was soon doing regular penciling work for me.

VF / NM: And then your scripting and some illustrative work on Punisher War Journal?

Carl: The first ongoing Punisher title was scripted by Mike Baron and had its own feel. While editing the Punisher, I found myself coming up with lots of story ideas for the character. Mike had no trouble coming up with ideas for his series so my ideas had no real outlet. Anything with the Punisher was doing very well in the market at that time so I thought we should try to build more of a franchise by launching another ongoing series. We launched Punisher War Journal with me doing the writing and, at least initially, the art layouts. The goal of that title was to look deeper into the character’s thoughts and internal workings.

VF / NM: Can you talk about working with Jim Lee?

Carl: About a year before starting up War Journal, I’d assigned a new artist, Jim Lee, to Alpha Flight. As I geared up on War Journal, I asked Jim if he’d be interested in doing the finished art over my layouts and, to my surprise, he jumped at it. After a handful of issues, it was clear that Jim didn’t need to work over anyone’s layouts and, if the book was going to move from a six week to monthly schedule, I would not be able to produce the layouts anyway. So Jim took over the penciling and we brought Scott Williams on board to ink.

Covers to two of our favorite Carl Potts / Jim Lee issues, Alpha Flight 53 and Punisher War Journal 18.

Covers to two of our favorite Carl Potts / Jim Lee issues, Alpha Flight 53 and Punisher War Journal 18.

VF / NM: Titles you were involved with, that didn’t get a fair shake, the fan attention they deserved?

Carl: As an editor…

Amazing High Adventure was an anthology I was hoping would last more than five  issues.

Although it was a critical success, Power Pack deserved more commercial success than it experienced.

The issues of What The–?! that I edited were a blast to work on.

The two issues of Tales From the Heart that we did at Epic were unusual publication that should have gotten more publicity.

The Chaykin/Mignola/Williamson adaptations of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser short stories.  Beautiful stuff but it was passed up by most of the super hero audience.

As a creator…

The Shadowmasters bookshelf limited series did quite well, but I wish I’d been able to launch of an ongoing series.

VF / NM: The convention scene during the time; San Diego way before it was what it is now, the big NYC shows of the mid to late ’80s I remember as being the Creation Conventions (Star Trek / Comics), and then later the Great Eastern shows as the industry entered the insanity of the early ’90s. What was the vibe like with the fans?

Carl: Before San Diego turned into the gargantuan event it is today, most conventions were much more intimate affairs with lots of interactions between fans and pros.

In 1988 when the Punisher and Punisher War Journal were huge hits, Marvel put together a promo tour for the creators of the books. We hit a number of comics stores in California and Hawaii. The tour was a lot of fun and we got to mix meeting lots of great fans with touring four of the islands.

It was not a factor in organizing the tour but as chance would have it, many of us on the tour had strong connections to the states involved. Whilce Portacio, Jim Lee and Scott Williams all lived in CA at the time. I was originally from California too. Whilce, Scott and I had also spent years living in Hawaii as well.

Punisher Hawaii Tour 1988. That's Mike Baron, Carl Potts, Jim Lee, Scott Williams, and Whilce Portacio. (Thanks to Carl for the pic!)

Punisher Hawaii Tour, 1988. That's Mike Baron, Carl Potts, Jim Lee, Scott Williams, and Whilce Portacio. (Thanks to Carl for the pic!)

VF / NM: Read the USA Today piece on Alien Legion. Congrats on everything going on with it, any update?

Carl: Since the USA Today article came out, Bruckheimer / Disney exercised their option on my Alien Legion screenplay, meaning they bought it outright. There are still a lot of hoops to jump through before it can get in front of the cameras. The script has been re-written by other writers at least three times now and will probably go though more revisions. I’m not sure how much of my original story will be in the final version, assuming there is a final version that gets produced. Keep your fingers crossed!

It’s hard for me to be objective about it (!) but Alien Legion is a property that seems like a natural franchise. It has obvious potential to be used across a wide range of product categories including games, toys and theme park rides. They all seem like logical brand extensions. Alien Legion was optioned for film or TV series four times over the last decade but bad timing, executive personnel changes at the studios and the cost involved in producing a big science fiction epic all made it hard to get the project on the screen. Hopefully, it is now in the right hands to get it up on the big screen in all its glory.

Alien Legion Omnibus Volume 1

Alien Legion Omnibus Volume 1

As far as I can tell, Alien Legion was the longest running original title in the Epic line. Groo ran far longer (and it was monthly) but that title had been published elsewhere before coming to Epic. Alien Legion was first published at Epic, thanks to Archie Goodwin. I am very happy that the title maintained a strong readership for so long.

VF / NM: Fundamental differences (as far as you can tell) of the industry now versus twenty to twenty five years ago?

Carl: There is much more competition for the attention and the dollars of the audience these days. Overall comics sales are a fraction of what they used to be.

The irony is that, in North America, comics are now accepted more by the general public than at any other time. Also, there is more diversity of genres, subjects and styles in comics now than ever before.

Many of today’s artists can draw very well but many of them seem to have little or no training in visual storytelling techniques so it is sometimes hard to follow what is going on in the story. Ideally, the readers should be able to tell what is going on in the story from the visuals alone.

There are plenty of interesting storylines today and some good dialogue but the craft of slipping the long-term status quo info into the flow of the story each issue seems to have been lost. Some writers and editors don’t even bother introducing the character’s names each issue. They seem to assume all of the readers have been following the series continuity for years and know everything. That is a self-fulfilling prophesy and recipe to alienate new readers. It’s hard enough these days to acquire new readers to an ongoing series without making them feel that they are not in the loop when they sample an issue. Each issue should be new reader friendly. Otherwise, an ongoing series will be fighting a losing battler of attrition for its readership.

VF / NM: Looking back now, your overall memory of working in comics at the time…why are YOU nostalgic about the ’84 – ’91 Copper Age?

Carl: I have very fond memories of most of the people I encountered — those who were on staff, the freelancers and those at other comics companies. There were a few bad apples but most of the people were friendly, dedicated and a blast to hang out with.

I’ve had the pleasure of working for some great companies since leaving Marvel, but the great corporate culture that existed at Marvel, especially during the DeFalco / Hobson era, has never been matched anywhere else.

I am very happy that I was able to find a lot of great talent and help them launch successful careers.

It was also during this time that I got married, started a family, bought a house and experienced other major personal milestones.

VF / NM: Current and upcoming projects?

Carl: I have not done much work in comics in recent years. I’ve been working as a creative director, mostly in marketing and education.

For 2010 I am working on a new Alien Legion series. Chuck Dixon and I worked out the story and Larry Stroman is doing some amazing pencils that I’m having a lot of fun inking.

I have a couple of large history-based graphic novel projects I’m trying to get set up, too.

More info / resources:

Thanks to Carl for the great interview!

Many of the creatives Carl discusses are affiliated with Lightsource Studios, check out their site.

Looking for original Copper Age back issues? We always first encourage you to support your local comic book retailer! If no luck finding what you’re after, we highly recommend mycomicshop.com.

For collections, head over to the Copper Age Comics Amazon Store and browse the sections, or click here for Amazon’s full graphic novel selection.

4 comments to VF / NM Industry Interview: Carl Potts

  • Whatever happened to Mike Zeck? Does he just do commissions these days?

    Also, >> When we did an Epic comic about a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa,

    I vaguely remember this – what comic is he referring to?

    Speaking of comics about Peace Corps-type themes, I really liked Quesada & Bill Jemas ’311′ Marvel miniseries – a 3-issue series with work by many comics superstars, including Mark Millar and Frank Quitely – the final issue of which NEVER saw print, due to low sales, I suppose. I have always wanted Marvel to collect this in paperback and include the never-published final issue.

  • I didn’t know that Potts had personally pretty much discovered & mentored Jim Lee, Scott Williams, Whilce Portracio and Jon Bogdanove. Wonderful talent that we might not have in comics without Potts’ encouragement & guiding hand —

  • admin

    Mike Zeck looks in recent years to be focusing on licensing art / styles guides, per his site http://www.mikezeck.com. Love his stuff!

  • As a quick FYI: I nick’ed Carl’s photo of the Punisher Tour for a blog entry on my webcomic, where I talk a bit about the store they’re at: Jelly’s…
    Please let me know if that’s a issue–
    The blog entry is here:
    http://www.spy6teen.com/?p=243

    Either way, very cool to see this photo– I was actually AT this signing as a youngin’…As I recall, Carl was making fun of Mike Baron because he was hungover.
    Ahhh, memories.

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