Q&A with Marvel’s Jeph York, Part 2!

30 May

by Mike Hansen

“I feel like a comics archeologist when I dig this stuff up and get it back in circulation.”

Marvel Comics

(Photo credit: Scott Beale)

(In case you missed it, here’s Part 1 of this interview.)

Here, in Part 2 of my 3-part interview with Jeph York of Marvel’s Collected-Editions team, Jeph talks about some of the details and inner workings of his unique job putting together Marvel volumes, and what it’s like to research “bonus materials” for each book:

It might surprise some readers that an “internal” Marvel job like yours isn’t done at the Marvel office, but at your home (like most freelance creators). Have you found any advantages (or disadvantages) to working from home?

Freelance editorial is a bit more common than you’d think, actually; there are at least three other guys I know of who work for Collected Editions from home. Plus the Official Handbook/Index writing staff, who pull double duty as layout proofreaders…

The advantages are obvious: I can work from anywhere with an internet connection! I don’t have to worry about moving to Manhattan to work for Marvel, and I don’t have to worry about commuting. Or, heck, getting dressed! Some mornings I literally roll out of bed and start typing away.

The main disadvantage is that I’m not in the office to solve problems immediately with a conversation, or a quick fact-check in Marvel’s digital files or reference library. All my communication is through email, and if the editor I’m emailing is busy with something more pressing, sometimes my work stops dead for an hour until he writes me back with an answer. But that’s when the advantages of being at home kick in again – I can go do dishes while I wait!

Your story is a great example of a comics fan “living the dream” – getting paid to help make the comics you love. What have been some of your favorite projects so far at Marvel?

Acts of Vengeance Omnibus hardcover

“I have the opportunity to take a complicated, far-reaching storyline and hammer it into an optimal reading order.”

My favorite projects are the ones where I have the opportunity to take a complicated, far-reaching storyline and hammer it into an optimal reading order. Acts of Vengeance. Onslaught. Inferno. Even [Avengers:] The Crossing. I worked on the Age of Apocalypse Omnibus and the Avengers Assemble TPB set, and in both cases I had the chance to reshuffle the issues from their previous collection order. I think both projects read much better now, and I think some fans agree.

I also love finding rare or little-seen material to run as bonuses. The Captain Britain HCs and Omnibus include never-before-collected backup stories and pinups only ever seen before in England. The X-Men by Claremont & Lee Omnibus sets include every single piece of Jim Lee X-Men artwork I could get my hands on. The Wolverine Omnibus includes two obscure short stories from a Marvel Age Annual and a hardcover sold only in the Sears 1987 holiday catalog, of all things. I feel like a comics archeologist when I dig this stuff up and get it back in circulation. [Note to readers: the 1987 Sears Wolverine story was also reprinted in the excellent Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics, still available cheap online!]

I also adored putting together the Marvel Firsts books. They were so very complicated, but it was insanely gratifying to see how well fans responded to them!

Marvel has built up a massive library of collected editions in a bunch of formats (Trade Paperback, Marvel Premiere Hardcover, Oversized Hardcover, Omnibus Hardcover, Masterworks, the smaller “GN-TPB” and Digest TPB, etc.). I remember back in the 1980s and ’90s that Marvel had very few collected editions, and what got reprinted (or didn’t) seemed pretty random. These days, it seems like 99% of the comics Marvel publishes get reprinted in collected editions. In your view, how did Marvel get from there to here?

The collected-edition explosion precedes my working there, so I could only give a fan’s take on it. But it seems to me that they found an unexplored niche and filled it handily! I think the fanbase has aged, and a lot of folks still love comics, but think that long boxes full of thin, stapled newsprint magazines wrapped in plastic are either juvenile, or a huge hassle. Hardcovers and trade paperbacks seem to have more cachet to them; they look like something a grown-up wouldn’t mind being caught reading. Plus they’re sturdier, often have better production values, no ads, and there’s no need to wrestle with Mylar bags and Scotch tape. Plus, for some, it’s a thrill to just look at a big shelf chock-full of books you love. What’s not to like?

X-Men by Chris Claremont & Jim Lee Omnibus vol. 2 hardcover

“I also love finding rare or little-seen material to run as bonuses. The X-Men Omnibus sets include every single piece of Jim Lee X-Men artwork I could get my hands on.”

As I recall, Marvel started testing the waters in 2001, during the Bill Jemas era. They were shaking things up, breaking established rules, and throwing around a lot of radical-at-the-time ideas to see what stuck…and this stuck! A lot of people still moan about the downsides of that era – I hear “decompression” a lot to this day – but let’s not forget, the experimental mentality that those guys had gave us the Collected Editions Department as we know it today!

One of the ways that Marvel’s collected editions really stand apart from other publishers is the sheer volume of bonus features in many of its books. The X-Men by Claremont/Lee Omnibus HCs are a perfect example: as you said, over 120 pages of bonus features, with virtually every scrap of Jim Lee X-Men art ever published! I’ve seen some books by other publishers that don’t even include the cover art to the stories they collect. What led Marvel to go the extra mile and include these extra features?

That’s also something that started up before my time, but I think it coincided roughly with the rise of the DVD format, and its opportunities for reams of “bonus content.” All of a sudden, it wasn’t enough to just own a movie: the package had to come with all kinds of neat behind-the-scenes stuff to entice you to pay the higher DVD price to buy it. I think that’s a model that Marvel noticed and emulated. I don’t know of any books that have sold more copies simply BECAUSE of their bonus features, but I like to think that the extras are a pleasant surprise that get fans more interested in taking a second look at other things we’re publishing.

Bonus features vary from editor to editor, or from researcher to researcher. Some guys love overstuffing books with all kinds of neat extras; some aren’t as interested, or are hampered by page-count restraints, or just don’t have as big of a knowledge base of what’s available. When I manage the yearly research, I try to make sure each book at least has the obvious bonuses included: variant covers, house ads, pin-ups, text pages, etc. I have sort of a mental checklist that I run down: did Marvel Age do a cover story on this series or storyline? Did this artist do any pinups or sketches that ran elsewhere? Did previous collected editions of this material have any bonuses? Is the story confusing enough that we should try to run a relevant Handbook profile to bring readers up to speed? And so on.

X-Men The Age of Apocalypse Omnibus hardcover

“I had the chance to reshuffle the issues from their previous collection order. I think these read much better now.”

Well, count me as someone who’s definitely more likely to buy a collected edition if it includes comprehensive bonus features! What about the potential bonus material that doesn’t get included (say, some random piece of artwork that appeared in an old Wizard magazine or something)? Does Marvel have any sort of reference library of all of its material, or do you have to research every book from scratch?

I’ve had many experiences where we send a book to the printer, and then the next day I discover another perfect piece of bonus material. It kills me – but what can you do? I file it away mentally and wait for another opportunity to run it somewhere. I’m not entirely sure what Marvel keeps track of, in terms of extra features. I tend to work from scratch, or from databases that I’ve built up myself. I have some go-to publications if I’m looking for bonuses: Marvel Age is a big one, or its successor Marvel Vision. If we’re building an early-’90s book, I check the Marvel Year-In-Review and Marvel Swimsuit Special magazines. Mid-’80s, I look for Marvel Fanfare pinups, house ads, or Marvel Press Posters (although solid information on the latter two is more scanty than I’d like). There was a time when I was really big into including trading cards, though that’s mostly a 1990s thing, too.

I’ve wanted for a really long time to create an enormous database of bonus features. To just sit down with every magazine I own and make lists – then reach out to the comic community and get them to help catalog the books I don’t own. Hey, maybe I’ll make that my summer project!

I can probably help with that at some point! [Full disclosure: I’ve provided Jeph with scans from my collection for inclusion as bonus features in a few Marvel volumes.] So how does Marvel determine the best format for a collected volume? For example, why do some series get Oversized HCs (like S.H.I.E.L.D. or Deadpool Team-Up) and others get standard-size Premiere HCs?

Spider-Man poster by Todd McFarlane

“I have some go-to publications if I’m looking for bonuses…I look for pinups, house ads, or posters…”

The short answer is “voodoo.” Honestly, those are decisions that are made above my level, so I’m not really privy to the specific rationales. All I know is, every time I think I’ve figured out their pattern, they go and change it on me! But I’m sure they know what they’re doing – and if something stops working, they tweak it until it starts working again!

And why do so many collected editions get printed in more than one format (especially Marvel Premiere HCs being reprinted as TPBs)? Is there ever a concern that “trade-waiters” (readers that skip the individual issues with the intent to buy a collected edition later) might “book-wait” for a different format, and kill the orders for current books?

See, now your questions are starting to get into internal decision-making rationales, and as a freelancer I’m not really in that loop (nor am I comfortable speculating, either). But my take on the multiple formats is that it’s NOT an unhealthy thing. Each format has its fans: for every fan that skips the Premiere HC because he’s convinced that a lower-priced TPB awaits nine months later, there’s a fan who loves the aesthetic feel of hardcovers, and would never consider buying anything else. There are people who want absolutely everything released in an Omnibus, and others who find them far too clunky to read and would much rather have a set of five TPBs. Then there are folks who don’t really care, who just want to read the stories, and are glad that certain runs they might have missed the first time are made available again, even if the format changed. I think it’s great that Marvel is offering product to the entire spectrum of collectors.

So how far ahead does Marvel’s collected-editions department work on books? Can you give a short breakdown of the production process (from the idea to getting the book in stores)?

I don’t know exactly where the “inside information” line is, here, so I’ll just say that we start working really far ahead, but still somehow wind up working until the last minute! In a nutshell, the process is: a list of book ideas is drawn up, books are picked and researched, they’re then nudged around on the schedule and tweaked until everything’s perfect. We solicit them, I lay them out, the in-house guys work their magic to gather the source materials and build, design, and proof the books, we send ’em off to the printer – and then, ta-da, they wind up in fans’ hands and on store shelves!

Do you ever get questions like “Why hasn’t Marvel collected [my favorite title] into book form yet?” or “Why hasn’t Marvel reprinted [out of print collected edition] now?” What would you say to those sorts of questions?

I generally say, “Give it time.” Then I smile with a little twinkle in my eye, because about half the time we actually DO have something similar in the pipeline!

Next, in Part 3 of this interview, Jeph talks about what it’s like to be involved in figuring out (and sometimes fixing) over 70 years of Marvel continuity, I try to learn more secrets of Marvel’s collected-editions program, and Jeph reveals which comics he’d love to see reprinted someday. Coming soon!

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2 Responses to “Q&A with Marvel’s Jeph York, Part 2!”

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

    […] Q&A with Marvel’s Jeph York, Part 2! (alldaycomics.com) […]

  2. 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 seven decades of […]

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