Q&A with Marvel’s Jeph York, Part 1!

29 May

by Mike Hansen

I’ve had the opportunity to pitch, research, and build several amazing collections that I could only have dreamed about as a fan.”

Jeph YorkThe folks who write and draw comics get a lot of (deserved) attention for their efforts, but there are a lot of people who work behind the scenes in comics to make them the best they can be when they get in our hands. From editing to design to proofreading, there are a LOT of steps in the production process of every issue and collected edition.

Lifelong Marvel fan Jeph York is one crucial piece of the production puzzle for many Marvel projects. From his home in Boston, Jeph has had a major hand in many of Marvel’s best and most interesting reprint and archival releases for the last few years (including one of my all-time favorite Marvel volumes, the Captain Britain Omnibus by Alan Moore and Alan Davis).

I’ve known Jeph online since I first started posting in comics message boards a few years ago. Not only is he incredibly knowledgeable about Marvel’s vast publishing history, but he’s a really nice guy,  and – though I’m not sure if it comes through in this particular interview – can be wickedly funny.

I emailed Jeph over the last few weeks to ask him about his work at Marvel. In Part 1 of this wide-ranging interview, Jeph explains how a fan like him got to turn pro, and managed to make for himself one of the coolest jobs in comics:

You once told me that you got hired by Marvel because of your posts on the Marvel Masterworks Fan Site boards – could you elaborate?

Sure!  I started posting on Rhett [John Rhett Thomas, a.k.a. Gormuu]’s Marvel Masterworks boards back in 2004 – the Masterworks HCs had just relaunched, and Rhett had developed a friendly relationship with Marvel’s Collected Editions Department. In 2006, they hired him to produce the Marvel Spotlight interview magazine, and after a few months he decided that he needed a staff.  He got in touch with a few board members, including me, who had impressed him with their writing skill and their passion/knowledge of Marvel books – and he offered us contracts to interview creators, write short articles, and so on. I’ve been a Marvel fan since I was 8, so I jumped at it.

Onslaught the Complete Epic Book 1 TPB cover

“The Onslaught books were my first taste of trade-paperback building.”

My first job was transcribing audiotapes of Rhett’s interviews. He’d mail me cassettes, I’d type them up for hours on end and mail them back. (I’m sure Rhett would like me to point out here that I was horrible at meeting deadlines!) I went on to write several articles and interviews, but my real passion was Marvel’s collected editions – I was bursting with ideas on how to reprint certain titles, story arcs, or crossovers.

Then a few things happened in rapid succession. Marvel solicited a 4-volume collection of the Onslaught crossover, and I noticed that the issues were being collected in the wrong order. I wrote an (embarrassingly long) email to the editors, and to my surprise they emailed back and asked what I recommended they do instead. Granted, I was already a contracted freelancer for their department – that’s probably the only reason they asked for my input – but I sent back a revised pitch, and they went with it! The Onslaught books were my first taste of trade-paperback building.

Shortly after that, I was contacted by the writers of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe – another freelance group handled by the CE Department – and offered a job on their staff. They knew about my love of Marvel minutiae from my years posting at the Marvel Chronology Project website – and again, being under contract already helped quite a bit. I wrote a few test entries for them (Hellion and Icarus of the New X-Men, I believe) and they took me on. This was late 2007 or early 2008.

Skrulls! cover

“I’d write some text on a Saturday, then see it being proofed in the office the next Monday – it was kind of surreal.”

At that time, I was working on a graduate degree in publishing at the Harvard Extension School, and one of the requirements was an internship. I had a brainstorm, and emailed the Collected Editions Department to ask if I could intern there. The email conversation was hilarious: “Wait, we pay you to work for us, and you want to come do more work for free? You’re hired.” So in the summer of 2008 I interned there, and got some valuable face time with the staff.

The arrangement was fun.  Three days a week, I’d go in and work as an intern, proofing and fact-checking and filing and the like – then the other four days I’d go back to my rented room and produce paying work. By then, Rhett had branched out from Spotlight and started producing one-shots that tied into Marvel’s big events. He was doing a Secret Invasion tie-in called “Skrulls!”, and since I had Handbook-style experience, he pulled me in to help write profiles on all the major Marvel Universe Skrulls. I’d write some text on a Saturday, then see it being proofed in the office the next Monday – it was kind of surreal. I even got to kibbitz on the layout a little bit.

One day as I was filing, I overheard a conversation about reprinting the Captain Britain by Alan Moore & Alan Davis TPB. I poked my head in and suggested that they should also include Alan Davis’ pre-Moore material this time around (the original TPB began with Moore’s first issue, which was midway through a Davis-drawn storyline). They asked me to explain, and that conversation rolled into a request for an official pitch. I came back the next day with spreadsheets and ideas, and the book eventually became the Captain Britain Omnibus HC.

Captain Britain Omnibus cover

The Captain Britain Omnibus hardcover.

I did the same thing with the X-Men: Inferno TPB: I overheard a reprint being discussed, suggested that they reorder the issues and add some tie-ins, and the eventual result was the massive X-Men: Inferno 2-volume hardcover set. Not bad for a nosy intern!

So I guess I was the right guy at the right time, because senior editor Jeff Youngquist took my love of collected-edition creation, plus my ties to the Handbook staff, plus the fact that I was physically there in the office, and he put me to work coordinating the 2009 trade-paperback research.

Basically, every year the department draws up a list of what they plan/hope/intend to publish in the coming year, and then they employ the Handbook staff to figure out the fine details of each book. Exactly what issues should be included, if there are any relevant bonus features, how many pages each book will end up being, etc., etc. I became the liaison between Marvel and the Handbook staff: I handed out the research assignments, answered (or forwarded) the Handbook folks’ questions, tweaked and fine-tuned the contents as we went along, collected and fact-checked all the research spreadsheets, and finally presented them all to Marvel.

I guess they liked how that system worked, because I’ve been in charge of the research every year since. (We’re working on the 2013 books right now, in fact!) In addition to managing the group, I research a lot of books myself. I take a lot of pride, and put a lot of thought, into trying to make each book the best it can be. Trying to make books work not only as an individual standalone volume, but as part of a larger series. Casting a wide net for interesting bonus features. Pitching sequel/prequel/tie-in/companion volumes. I still consider myself a lucky fan, not a hardened pro – so in everything I do, I try my best to combine Marvel’s needs, and the framework they give me to work within, with what I think other fans will want from the product.

I’ve seen you credited variously as Research or Layout on some Marvel collected editions, and Writer on some Marvel projects (like the Official Marvel Index); you’ve submitted project proposals to Marvel; and I think you’ve mentioned that you write some solicitation copy. So what exactly do all of your credits mean? And how did you get involved with your different roles on your various projects?

How do I get involved?  It can vary wildly.  Sometimes they email me out of the blue and ask if I’m interested in trying something new, sometimes it’s a logical follow-up to something I’m already doing, and sometimes I start nosing around and asking if there’s anything else I can help with.

Marvel Firsts: The 1960s TPB cover

“Research” is telling Marvel exactly what the books’ contents should be…it can be as twisty and complex as figuring out the contents of the four Marvel Firsts volumes.”

“Research” is, like I said before, taking a premise (such as “let’s collect Onslaught in four volumes!”) and figuring out what it will actually entail. Telling Marvel exactly what the books’ contents should be, and in what order, and how many pages each book needs. This can be as simple as counting up all the pages in a 4-issue miniseries, or it can be as twisty and complex as figuring out the contents of the four “Marvel Firsts” volumes.

“Layout” is making a detailed map of a TPB or HC that states what page of what comic will fall on what page of the new book. (“Pages 1-3, opening credits. Page 4, cover of X-Men #54. Pages 5-26, X-Men #54 pages 1-22.” Etc.) And “layout” is actually a credit that was created just for me. After my internship ended, I offered to help them streamline their operations by handling the time-consuming setup paperwork on various books. We tried it out for a while and it clicked, so now I lay out about five or six books a month and compile the opening credits. They credited me under “Research” for a while, but I didn’t want the Handbook guys who actually did research the books to think that I was stealing their thunder, so I requested a separate credit recently, and they agreed.

The Official Index – yup, I somehow became one of the head writers of that book! In late 2008, the Official Handbook was given a spin-off series: a revival of the Official Index. (The Handbook profiles Marvel’s characters, and the Index profiles Marvel’s comics.) A few of the Handbook people decamped over to the Index, including me. The first volume covered Iron Man, Spider-Man, and the X-Men…at first I was just one of the writers, working on the X-Men section, but as the two head writers got more and more swamped with the sheer scale and level of detail of the Index, I found myself stepping up and doing more and more to help.

Eventually I sort of took over as the unofficial third head writer, handling the entire X-Men section – proofreading, fact-checking, polishing, rewriting, researching, scanning comic covers – it’s actually a hugely labor-intensive gig. Frankly, I consider “Index head writer” to be a second full job, above and beyond the normal day-to-day stuff I do for Marvel. I was essentially working two jobs at that point.

Official Index to the Marvel Universe: The Uncanny X-Men TPB cover

“Out of all the Index TPB collections, the X-Men book had the most changes and rewrites by far.”

When the Index started over for its second year, I bowed out of the day-to-day stuff, and concentrated on overhauling the early X-Men entries for their TPB reprint. In the first few months of the Index, we hadn’t quite settled on a consistent format, and we’d made several mistakes and omissions due to general disorganization. I was determined to fix all of that for the collection. I spent about six months overhauling the Index entries for the first third of the book – around 240 issues – and in many cases, rewrote them from the ground up. Then I put together an all-new bonus section for the back of the book covering the Classic X-Men series. It was a LOT of work. Out of all the Index TPB collections, the X-Men book had the most changes and rewrites by far.

After that, we decided to cover Wolverine for year three, and for some reason I went completely crazy and decided to write the entire thing myself. Previously, as a head writer, I took all the writers’ individual entries, massaged them together to read with one “voice” and made sure that they all referred to each other correctly. This was different. I wrote every single word myself, did all the research myself, generated 24 pages of tiny text every month for eight solid months. About Wolverine and his convoluted history. There were weeks where I didn’t socialize or leave the apartment. I just wrote and wrote and wrote. And I chose this! What was I thinking?

I’ll admit it: this was another case where I started to blow deadlines like crazy after a few months. The constant grind just wore me down and I slipped further behind every issue. On two notable occasions, I literally wrote the final page of text mere hours before the book went to the printer! It was hideously unprofessional, and the guys at Marvel were saints for putting up with me. The Index wrapped up after the third year, and while I’m sad to see it go, I’m also breathing a great big sigh of relief. It was lots of fun, and I’m very proud of my work, but it was a case where I poured way too much time and energy into the book, and paid the price.

What else? Oh, I also used to write some of the hardcover dustjackets: usually, when I researched or laid out a book, they’d offer me the dustjacket gig at the same time. When I got swamped with Index work I had to give up the jackets, but I may be getting back into those shortly.

X-Men: Future History cover

“I got to pretend I was Cable and narrate his personal files about his friends and enemies. That was the first time I ever wrote in the “voice” of an existing Marvel character.”

And my other main monthly gig right now (another case of me nosing around and asking how else I could help) is assembling the department’s monthly Previews catalog. They send me a list of all the books they’ll be publishing that month, and I compile the solicits, ISBNs, prices, contents and creators into a big Word doc. In some cases I write the solicits myself, if they haven’t already been drafted up. I really enjoy putting the catalog together.

I’ve also been fortunate enough to do some more creative writing. No actual comics, of course, but I’ve worked on some other one-shots with Rhett – most notably, the X-Men: Future History one-shot, where I got to pretend I was Cable and narrate his personal files about his friends and enemies. That was the first time I ever wrote in the “voice” of an existing Marvel character, and it was a blast!

I got to do that again when I wrote the All-New Wolverine Saga one-shot in 2010. Wolverine basically recapped the plot of the last few years of his various titles, and I got to put words in his mouth. Very cool. I forget if I actually used the word “bub.”

I was also credited as the Collection Editor – the head guy – on the X-Men: Mutant Massacre HC and X-Men: Prelude to Onslaught TPB. But since I don’t actually work in the office, the editors there did a lot of the heavy lifting for me – I basically just did the proofreading and color checking, on top of my regular layout chores.

X-Men by Chris Claremont & Jim Lee Omnibus Vol. 1 hardcover

“I’ve had the opportunity to pitch, research, and build several amazing collections that I could only have dreamed about as a fan.”

So, I’ve had quite a few jobs around the Collected Editions Department. But at this point, I’ve slipped into a comfortable routine of research, layout, catalog compiling, occasional writing or proofreading, liasing with the Handbook staff, and helping hunt down and gather bonus features that Marvel doesn’t have in their digital files.

It’s a great gig.  I think I’ve slowly worked my way into filling a very specific and very weird “jack of all trades” niche, helping the department work more efficiently. And I’ve had the opportunity to pitch, research, and build several amazing collections that I could only have dreamed about as a fan. (Like the X-Men by Chris Claremont & Jim Lee Omnibus two-volume set, with over 120 pages of bonus features!)

When I started out six years ago transcribing audiocassettes, I had absolutely no idea that I’d ever get where I am, or that I’d help create as many books as I have.  I’ve been very, very lucky.

Coming soon: Part 2 of this interview, in which Jeph talks about what it’s like to assemble Marvel’s collected editions, research seven decades of Marvel publishing history, and work for Marvel from home. Stay tuned!

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3 Responses to “Q&A with Marvel’s Jeph York, Part 1!”

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  1. Q&A with Marvel’s Jeph York, Part 2! « All Day Comics - May 30, 2012

    […] case you missed it, here’s Part 1 of this […]

  2. LOTS o’ Links (May 30 2012) « All Day Comics - May 30, 2012

    […] Q&A with Marvel’s Jeph York, Part 1! (alldaycomics.com) […]

  3. ADC Q&A with Marvel’s Jeph York: Part 3 (of 3)! « All Day Comics - June 1, 2012

    […] the third part of my interview with Jeph York (Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here). In this final segment, Jeph talks about the challenges of researching over […]

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