TwoMorrows
 
Comic Book Artist Edited by Jon B. Cooke Comic Book Artist, Eisner Award winner for "Best Comics-Related Magazine", celebrates the lives and works of great cartoonists, writers and editors from all eras through in-depth interviews, feature articles, and unpublished art.

Recent picture of Jeff Rovin, onetime editor in chief at Atlas Comics. Courtesy of Jeff.

Rise & Fall of Rovin's Empire

A candid conversation with Atlas/Seaboard editor Jeff Rovin

Conducted by Jon B. Cooke
Transcribed by Jon B. Knutson

From Comic Book Artist #16

I first encountered Jeff Rovin's name when he served as an assistant editor at DC Comics in the early '70s, and finally met the man himself within moments of also meeting Jim Warren for the first time in 1998. Since his stint as (co-?) editor-in-chief at Atlas Comics for a brief period in the '70s, Jeff has done relatively little work in the comics field, but he is a highly successful writer, renowned for genre encyclopedias (e.g., The Encyclopedia of Superheroes), and his Op-Center series scribed for Tom Clancy. Jeff was interviewed by phone on Oct. 4 & 11, 2001, and he copyedited the final transcript.

Comic Book Artist: Where are you from?
Jeff Rovin: I was born in Brooklyn, in 1951.

CBA: Were you attracted to comics at a young age?

Jeff: Oh, sure. It was a wonderful time to grow up, in terms of the explosion of Silver Age characters... you had Zorro and The Adventures of Superman on TV and when your parents weren't looking, you could immerse yourself in this stuff.

CBA: Did you want to be a writer or an artist at a young age?

Jeff: I always wanted to be a writer, and always wrote. I should also add it was a terrific time to read science-fiction, with the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels coming back into print, the Doc Savage novels being published by Bantam, and a lot of great science-fiction writers doing some of their best stuff.

CBA: Did you read those paperback reprints of pulp material?

Jeff: Oh, sure!

CBA: When did you realize these things were from the '30s and the '40s, from an older culture?

Jeff: When an uncle of mine saw the cover of a Doc Savage book I was reading and said, "That's not what Doc Savage looks like!" I said, "What are you talking about?" He said, "Doc Savage has wavy hair, not a plastered-down bronze widow's peak." He told me how he used to read the magazines as a kid, and I was flabbergasted. Of course, I read Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes and realized comic books went back that far as they did. Still, it was a revelation about Doc.

CBA: So the wave of nostalgia hit at a prime time for you, when you were 14 or 15 years old?

Jeff: Well, it was not nostalgia for me, [laughter] but it was nostalgia for a lot of people, and it was great to discover that. Of course, G-8 and His Battle Aces came a little bit later, and The Spider, and The Avenger... it was just a flood of material. World-class material, because a lot of those guys knew how to write.

CBA: And a lot of those guys didn't.

Jeff: Yeah... [laughs] touché! But they knew how to tell a story. You can fault their grammar, fault their characterizations, but they kept the pages turning.

CBA: I remember getting into the Doc Savages as a kid, and then probably giving it up after about the eighth book, because there was just so much repetition in the descriptive passages.

Jeff: I suppose those would be so easy to write today, because you could cut and paste huge paragraphs of text! [laughter] Back then, they had to type it all over.

CBA: After a period of time, did you become more discriminating, looking for, perhaps, more literate fare?

Jeff: If you call discriminating going from Doc Savage to The Avenger and The Shadow! [laughter] Of course, I looked for more sophisticated storytelling as my tastes changed. That was when I discovered Ray Bradbury, Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and writers of that nature.

CBA: You were guided more to the contemporary science-fiction?

Jeff: Correct, and it was kind of fun to notice that Gardner Fox had written some space operas, because there was a name I recognized from comics, and I'd say, "He's also writing novels," and pick up his books and see ads for Lin Carter and L. Sprague DeCamp and other authors. So you'd get a wide variety of styles and subject matter.

CBA: Did you do creative writing in grade school?

Jeff: I went to public school, made it all the way through high school, tried a couple of months of college here and there until the money ran out and the interest waned, got into comic books. There really wasn't much of an airlock between reading and doing them.

CBA: What was your first professional sale?

Jeff: That was to Skywald comics, in late 1971. I was writing a column called "The Psycho-Analyst," analyzing Psycho magazine [laughter] and doing odd jobs, proofreading, that sort of thing.

CBA: What was Sol Brodsky [co-founder of Skywald] like?

Jeff: Sol was very enthusiastic about what he was doing. He was in kind of a difficult situation because Herschel and Israel Waldman, the publishers, were pretty much calling the shots in terms of frequency and eventually whether the magazines would continue. Their main business was coloring books. But Sol loved those magazines and really wanted them to work. He was excited to be working with guys like Jerry Siegel and Bill Everett, and newcomers like [editor/writer] Al Hewetson, Augustine Funnell, and Pablo Marcos.

CBA: Were [Skywald art directors] Mike Esposito and Ross Andru around the offices when you were there?

Jeff: No, I was there maybe two or three afternoons a week. The only one I bumped into regularly up there was Bill Everett, who was extraordinary.

CBA: Did you know of his illustrious past?

Jeff: By then I did, sure, and I was not smart enough to get him to draw Sub-Mariner for me. Pablo Marcos was up there. Jeff Jones, of course, was doing covers for them, Boris Vallejo... there were a lot of interesting people.

CBA: Do you recall a tentatively planned book called Science-Fiction Odyssey?

Jeff: Yes, that was a magazine Jeff Jones had done a cover for, and I think Al Hewetson finally used it on Psycho or Scream, one of those. I remember we'd started to collect material for it and never did it for one reason or another.

CBA: Yeah, Gardner Fox and Jack Katz did a story for that title.

Jeff: That's right! But Jerry Siegel was really the one, of course, I wish I'd gotten to work with a little bit. He had done a script or two, and just holding them was sort of exciting! [laughter] I didn't keep them, unfortunately, but holding them was fun!

CBA: How did you get the job at Skywald?

Jeff: I'd gone up there to interview Sol for a research paper for the week or so I was at New York University, and he offered me work as an editorial assistant.

CBA: For that term paper, were you just focusing on Skywald, or did you also go over to Warren?

Jeff: I went over to Warren. It was going to be about comic books in the early 1970s, mainstream comics as opposed to the undergrounds-which of course were exploding at the time-and I never finished it, because once Sol offered me the job, I said, "Okay."

CBA: Did you go to any other publishers?

Jeff: I talked to Carmine Infantino, and at Marvel I talked to Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas. But again, my memories of that time are pretty much centered on Skywald because they gave me a job, and that made a big impression.

CBA: How long did you last at Skywald?

Jeff: Until October of 1972, because I really wanted to work in color comics. I think by that time Sol had discontinued his color line, and I went up to DC and couldn't get in to see Carmine, so I sat in the lobby until Carmine came out. That was from about ten in the morning until about five or six in the afternoon. I assumed he would come out for lunch, but he didn't, he sent out to Friar Tuck's for a salad, so I missed him. But he told me to go see Dorothy Woolfolk, who was still there, and I went to see her. She was editing romance comics, and as it happened, her editorial assistant was leaving to get married so I took her place.

CBA: Who was her editorial assistant?

Jeff: Deborah Anderson. She was doing letters pages, proofreading, that type of thing, advice to the lovelorn, so I just took over all those jobs.

CBA: What was Dorothy like?

Jeff: She was about as animated as a person can be-always moving, speaking, acting... often, not in that order. She was very much a feminist, and wanted Lois Lane and the love comics to reflect that, and it was just a great learning experience, because I hadn't been working with anyone-well, [laughs] I hadn't worked with anyone except Sol, but it was fun working with someone who was that dynamic.

CBA: Alan Kupperberg and Alan Weiss said she clicked with the younger generation.

Jeff: Oh, yeah, she clicked, she just loved them, she loved us and the ideas, and I'm just sorry I didn't get to know her better, because I got shuffled off to Joe Orlando, Joe Kubert, Bob Kanigher....

CBA: How long did you last with her?

Jeff: It was maybe two months, and then Joe Orlando asked me to come over and help handle the horror comics and Swamp Thing, and who could resist that? Then Joe Kubert decided he didn't want to come in every day, his assistant Marv Wolfman was leaving, and so he needed somebody to fill in, so I kind of rotated, mostly between the two Joes.

CBA: Kubert was only coming in a couple of days a week?

Jeff: Yes. He was deadline-challenged by the war books and Tarzan titles. That, of course, was the pinnacle of that era-working with Joe Kubert, learning about his storytelling and insights into comics. Then I spent a little bit of time with Bob Kanigher, who as I recall replaced Dorothy and did Wonder Woman, which he insisted on referring to as "WW," even though I pointed out saying the initials had more syllables. [laughter] We just didn't get along that well. Bob didn't get along with too many people, although he got along well with Joe, even though Joe Kubert rewrote him extensively. But Joe used to do-and I have them here somewhere-these wonderful thumbnails for all of his artists. Even in those crude little pieces, the drama was so clear.

CBA: Joe Kubert certainly has a reputation as a very heavy-handed editor, of extensively rewriting almost everybody's stuff; whatever came across his desk, he really worked on.

Jeff: I don't know that I'd describe it as heavy-handed, I'd describe it as heavy, because his editing usually-in my experience-improved what he was working on.

CBA: I think Bob Kanigher is one of the best writers comics ever had.

Jeff: I really appreciated him more when we weren't working together. At DC, Carmine asked me to edit reprint titles, including Legion of Super-Heroes (which, I believe, was the first time they had their own title), Doom Patrol, Metal Men, and I had to go back and look at the material Kanigher wrote, and I had to cut the page number down because there were more ads and fewer story pages.

It was actually heartbreaking to take those pages out, and difficult to have it still make sense! But you really saw how tightly scripted some of his stories were. Bob also was a heavy-handed editor, [laughs] and I mean that in the way you meant it! He used to take scripts from George Kashdan, and people of some repute, and massacre them.


Glorious Neal Adams cover art to Ironjaw #2. Courtesy of Victor Lim. ©1975 Seaboard Periodicals, Inc.

CBA: I first came across your name in those short-lived DC reprint books. Did you do any writing for the company?

Jeff: I co-wrote a horror story for Dark Mansions of Forbidden Love, but I don't think I did any others. I co-wrote that with a guy named Michael Pulalski. He had sent in scripts; Joe Orlando thought the idea was good, but wasn't crazy about the script, so he asked me if I wanted to rewrite it, so I said okay. I got co-authorship credit on that.

CBA: Did you get an idea why there were suddenly an enormous number of reprint books at DC? It didn't seem to make any sense from a reader's point of view, as so much of the material was dated and unappealing.

Jeff: Not from a reader's point of view perhaps, but it did two things: One, it preserved rack space for DC, which was important because Marvel was expanding at the time. Also, it gave DC an income on very low-cost titles. They were not making a lot of money on the highly-publicized books like Green Lantern, "Sgt. Rock," Shazam!, so Carmine decided to do these reprint books.

CBA: At one point Marvel publisher Martin Goodman made his entire line of comics giant-sized, bringing them up to 64 pages for 25¢ apiece, and DC immediately followed suit, but then the next month Martin dropped down to 20¢ for 32 pages, but DC remained at the giant-size for about a year. That was the time Marvel started overtaking DC in sales.

Jeff: Yeah, and it was also a time when it looked like Jim Warren's format might end up dominating comic books. DC was in really bad shape at that point, and I don't know how much of that impacted Carmine's tenure there, but clearly they were hurting, and sales at Warren, conversely, were growing exponentially at that time.

CBA: What was the atmosphere like at DC while you were there?

Jeff: There was really a lot of energy from the young Turks. That was the time Neal Adams, Howard Chaykin, Mike Kaluta, Dan Green, Steve Mitchell, and a lot of the new generation of creators were coming in, and Carmine had created a kind of a lounge in the back where everybody could go hang out and get in trouble away from Murray Boltinoff, who was a little suspicious of some of us. There really was this generational explosion going on, as there was in the rest of society at the time. That was the outstanding thing I remember.

CBA: And yet, Carmine really brought these young guys on board. He was the one who really brought in a new generation of creators.

Jeff: Carmine nurtured them, Joe Orlando nurtured, Julie Schwartz nurtured, Dorothy nurtured... and to an extent, Joe Kubert as well-that's one of the reasons he started his school-but still, there were the old guard at the production department....

CBA: Sol Harrison, Jack Adler.

Jeff: ...there was Gerda Gatell... oh, I've forgotten some of the other people's names. But it was a fun time, it was definitely a fun time.

CBA: Do you think Dorothy got her due from the company itself, or was she short-shrifted?

Jeff: Dorothy had editorial freedom. Whether she got respect from her peers, I can't say. She probably didn't care about that very much, because she just enjoyed what she was doing, and she enjoyed talking to Steve Mitchell or myself, or even Ethan Mordden, who was another one of the assistants who went on to be an author of some note. I just don't think she cared, but I will say she liked sparring with Carmine. She really took some kind of pleasure in that, but she was also very protective of her properties. I remember the first thing I did for her was put together this Wonder Woman book with Gloria Steinem, and Dorothy really wanted to be sure it was the best and most representative Wonder Woman material there was, and she would fight for things like that. So maybe her integrity got in the way some times.

CBA: This is the Wonder Woman reprint hardcover, with a Gloria Steinem introduction, and Dorothy chose the stories?

Jeff: Dorothy and I went over them-library copies-and as I recall, we sent over the ones Dorothy thought were best. Gloria didn't do much, so to speak.

CBA: I did notice a preponderance of bondage stories in that volume. [laughter]

Jeff: You're talking about a woman who had a magic rope that tied people up, Jon.

CBA: Did you see Gloria in the office at all?

Jeff: Maybe once or twice. I just don't remember, because she was all around town at that time, and I don't remember if it was there or at some other functions.

CBA: After Mike Sekowsky's tenure on the book, Dorothy was editor of Wonder Woman for a very short period of time, right before the transition back to the Golden Age character. Was Sekowsky there when you were there, or was he already out?

Jeff: No, he wasn't there. I didn't meet him until the Atlas days.

CBA: You were editing the reprint books, none of which lasted very long.

Jeff: Well, they lasted beyond my stay there. I know Allan Asherman continued them another issue or so.

CBA: Where did you go?

Jeff: I started an ad agency with a friend and decided I didn't like advertising, although the agency endured for 20 years. I went up to see Jim Warren, and he hired me. At first, I was just doing Captain Company copywriting and picking products to sell through Captain Company. I think my title was marketing director, but then I began doing editorial work as well, and at one point, I suppose I became assistant editor-I don't even remember what the title was-of Creepy or Eerie, one of those.

CBA: How long were you there?

Jeff: That would've been from early '73 to mid-'74, when Atlas started.

CBA: I apologize for not interviewing you for the Warren book, but I don't recall seeing your credit line very much.

Jeff: Well, I wrote stories and I was on the masthead of virtually every issue from The Spirit #1 onward.

CBA: Than I'm blind. [laughs] Did you have a good time over at Warren?

Jeff: I loved it. Jim was-and is-amazing, as you know. Bill DuBay was creative, one of the hardest workers I ever knew. Everyone up there was just pretty terrific and really motivated, because they were doing great material, Jim was a terrific leader, and that was a lot of fun.

CBA: Did you go through the legendary "Summer Push"?

Jeff: Yes, but I don't remember the agony of that so much as trying to do the Moonraker one-shot in two weeks, from concept to newsstand.

CBA: That was obviously later, right?

Jeff: Yes. I don't remember a Summer Push so much as a Constant Push, you know? I remember Jim tearing up mechanicals from Famous Monsters #108, and the entire staff quitting on a Friday.

CBA: [laughs] The entire comics staff?

Jeff: Bill DuBay, Sherry Berne, myself, Michelle Brand... I don't remember if Bill Maholley left. But Jim was just... [laughs] It started because one of the page numbers had been pasted down crooked and it really pissed him off, and he started going through the magazine, tearing it apart, and he was really upset with it, because that particular issue was going to be going against the first issue, as I recall, of Monsters of the Movies from Marvel, and he wanted it to be absolutely perfect and it wasn't. So we all quit on Friday and he went looking for a new staff over the weekend. I guess Bill DuBay made overtures that we should come back, and we did. [laughs]

CBA: Jim is definitely a very interesting guy. He's got a reputation in the business, and a lot of people love him, and a lot of people hate him.

Jeff: Yeah, they do. Jon, I think anybody in a position of publisher/editor-in-chief-whether it was Jim Warren or Jim Shooter or myself or Carmine-is going to generate those kind of feelings among people.

CBA: Jim is certainly, perhaps, unique in that group. He has a way of teasing, a way of testing people's limits, and, as Weezie Simonson says, a inclination to "push" people's "buttons." I perceive it as half a put-on, that he can be blustery, can look a lot bigger than he is, and be scary, but he's testing a person's limits; but I also perceive something... very humane about the guy, but he can bust balls really bad!

Jeff: I'll go further. I loved the man, without qualification, but I will say that back, then-I don't know if you knew him back then-but he was a sadist. [laughs] There's just no getting around it. [laughter] He heaped cruelty upon artwork, upon stories, and certainly upon mechanicals of FM #108, [laughter] but he did it in such a way that you never took it personally-or at least, you shouldn't have. I've studied martial arts for a long time, and my sensei does the same thing, he will tear you apart, but it's only so that when you're out in the street, you don't get your ass kicked. I won't say that Jim's motivation was the same, but the end result was the same. You didn't take him personally, and you got better, or at least you did things the way he wanted them done. You certainly couldn't argue with the quality of the product he was putting out, and he did give guys like Bill DuBay an awful lot of leeway, and Bill brought his own sense of style and professionalism to the magazines, that improved upon what Jim did. So, it was really a kind of Golden Age for that type of magazine.

CBA: Certainly, there was a renaissance that took place at Warren, with DuBay spreading his wings and Louise taking the mantle for a time. Did it feel like a special time?

Jeff: Yes, because Warren was the best, and if you were there, then de facto, you at least had a chance to be one of the best. I wouldn't say any of the stories I did for him were any better than mediocre, but stories that other people did for him-like Bernie Wrightson or Rich Corben-were certainly incredible, and even guys like Ken Kelly, when Bill DuBay would art direct him, produced some of their best work. Bill gave people like Leo Summers the opportunity to come in and experiment, and a lot of the Spanish artists. It really was a special time. Even to the point of hiring commercial artists like Ted Coconis to try to do things. He approached-and this was my idea, and probably a silly one-Charles Schulz at one point, because I wanted him to do a Halloween cover, but he politely declined. [laughter] But, then of course, you were surrounded by the Jack Davis Creepy cover from #1, Frazetta artwork on the wall-not the posters, the originals! It was overwhelming.


Apparently this is Larry Lieber's Kirbyesque character design for the planned (but never fully realized) character Whiplash, a Western hero conceived by Jeff Rovin when he first joined the company. From The Comic Reader #110, courtesy of Mike Friedrich. ©1974 Seaboard Periodicals, Inc.

CBA: How did you first hear about Atlas/Seaboard needing somebody?

Jeff: There was an ad in The New York Times. It didn't say for what or whom, it just said it was for comic books, so I answered that.

CBA: It was looking for specifically a comic book editor?

Jeff: Yeah. I think it said editor and writer, but in any case, I answered it, and got a call from Martin Goodman, which I have to tell you, is quite a way to end the day! [laughter]

CBA: Were you called at home, or at work?

Jeff: He called me at home. I didn't leave my office number.

CBA: Yeah! [laughs] You obviously wrote that you had experience working at Warren.

Jeff: Yeah, I ran down everything I'd done, so Martin called me up and asked me to come to lunch, and I did, and he asked me to come to another lunch, which Chip, his son, attended, and that was it.

CBA: What was Martin like?

Jeff: Martin was gruff, a bottom-line guy.

CBA: How old was he at the time?

Jeff: Certainly in his late sixties, early seventies, I suspect. He was an angry man, too; he was angry at what happened to Chip up at Marvel.

CBA: I know you didn't work for Marvel between entering the field and the time you answered the ad, but were you surprised it was Martin Goodman, and did you realize his reputation, who he was?

Jeff: I knew who he was, but I didn't realize what he was doing.

CBA: Did you think it had something to do with Marvel Comics?

Jeff: No, I'd known he sold the company.

CBA: How did you know that?

Jeff: Well, it had happened maybe six months to a year before.

CBA: So it was just scuttlebutt around the industry?

Jeff: Right. A figure of that magnitude doesn't leave the business unnoticed. At the time, there were various industry meetings of creators, and occasionally publishers and editors were invited, like Neal Adams was very much at the forefront of, you know, creators' rights and getting a stipend for Siegel and Shuster... there was a lot of righteous indignation growing in the industry about rights, so we would have these meetings in various halls, or at offices, or up at Continuity, Neal's studio, and people would talk and find out what was going on in the industry. It was a very grapevine-y time.

CBA: It was actually one of the few times in which comics professionals-outside of conventions-had sociable events to attend.

Jeff: It was still a small community, and everybody knew everybody, [laughs] yet nobody knew what Martin had in mind when he started Atlas Comics. I remember he'd talked to Roy Thomas-I don't know why they didn't come to any kind of agreement, but in our first meeting, Martin said that he had already extended an offer to Larry Lieber to edit some titles, and I'd known Larry's artwork, of course, but that sounded fine to me. As I said, by the end of the second lunch, they'd offered me the job; they were ready to go.

CBA: You were aware that Larry had an older brother, Stan Lee.

Jeff: One of the things Martin said was he wanted to get Larry a chance to step out from behind the shadow of Stan Lee. Which again, seemed to me a good idea.

CBA: Had Larry helmed books, perhaps secondary books, back in the day? Did he have editorial experience?

Jeff: I don't think so.

CBA: I know he wrote some Westerns, and he also wrote some super-hero stories for "Thor" and "Iron Man" for a period of time.

Jeff: I'm not really sure what was going through Martin's mind, because I was 22, Larry had not a lot of experience, and there wasn't really a clear vision of what Martin wanted to do. He didn't express what he saw the new company as being, [laughter] and so, I wasn't surprised that Larry was there, because I don't think we had a mandate to do anything!

CBA: Did you think he wanted to re-create Marvel Comics?

Jeff: Not at first. That came later. That was, unfortunately, when I think was the start of the end of Atlas. I really think that at the time we started, he was just plain angry. He wanted to get something onto the newsstands fast, wanted to put money into it, wanted it to look good, just wanted to eat up rack space, and he wanted to punish Cadence Industries for mistreating Chip-I don't know what the details of Chip Goodman's contract with Cadence were....

CBA: Can you outline what had happened?

Jeff: Martin sold Marvel and its related companies to Cadence Industries. It was my understanding that Chip was supposed to remain in some high managerial position, but he was either minimized, or demoted, or fired, I'm not really sure what happened. I wasn't privileged to that information. Whatever it was, it pissed Martin off enough that he wanted to strike back, and very quickly.

CBA: So, it would seem by appearances that the creation of Atlas/Seaboard/Seaboard Periodicals was an act of revenge.

Jeff: Oh, absolutely. As a matter of fact, people used to refer to the arrow in the "A" as an "up yours" in the logo. [laughter]

CBA: And Steve Mitchell designed it... did Steve know he was doing that?

Jeff: I don't know, I think it was John Costanza who designed it. Steve came on a little bit later, after we started to get things rolling.

CBA: Steve takes credit for it.

Jeff: Well, Steve can have credit. [laughter]

CBA: He didn't get much else out of the company, I think! [laughs]

Jeff: Yeah, it's quite possible, although he was the first person to use the word "sh*t" in a comic book. I think he got that out of the company. [laughter]


Two attempts by Russ Heath at a Tiger-Man cover. At left, courtesy of Terry Austin, looks to be the first try and right (salvaged from the trash at Continuity Associates by Bob Wiacek) is apparently the second attempt. Neither were published. Bob tells CBA that Russ rendered billows of smoke for this assignment, only to trim it out for use in another Heath masterwork. Always a recycler, that Russ! Art ©2001 Russ Heath. Tiger-Man ©1975 Seaboard Periodicals, Inc.

CBA: Did you start realizing what you were getting yourself into?

Jeff: Well, Martin was like any of my grumpy old uncles, so it didn't intimidate me that much, and he was, at the start, a kind of a fun thing, because he only wanted to do five color comics, and maybe two black-&-whites. For some reason, he wanted Larry to do the black-&-whites and me to do the color, and I pointed out to him that maybe we should do it the other way around, because I had more experience in the b-&-w's than Larry did. Then I suggested it might be good to do a monster magazine, Movie Monster magazine, because those are relatively low-cost things to do. It wasn't original, but it made sense. So, we ended up doing the b-&-w's, and we started developing some color comics, and Martin very quickly decided-even before they'd come out-that five wasn't going to be enough, and he wanted to really flood the racks and do about 20. I'm pretty sure that's when Steve Mitchell came on, right in the beginning when that decision was made, because I know he had another art director up there named John Chilly, and John was doing a lot of Martin's other magazines, puzzle books, confession magazines, Gothic romances-or they wanted to do Gothic romances, they couldn't really put that together. And then they bought Swank, and that became their primary interest, but that was later. Very quickly, it went from this kind of gentlemanly small boutique shop with trying to compete head-on with Marvel and DC, which meant you couldn't just develop new talent, you had to raid the stables for other talent.

CBA: When it was the boutique, at that stage, what concepts were you working on and thinking of?

Jeff: Well, the first ones were The Scorpion, Ironjaw, Wulf the Barbarian, Phoenix, Tiger-Man, and The Grim Ghost. All of them came about for different reasons. Tiger-Man came about because Joe Orlando had sent Ernie Colón up to see us, and Ernie and I hit it off right away, just started playing around with ideas, and....

CBA: Why would Joe Orlando send Ernie your way?

Jeff: Because Joe couldn't use him. Perhaps his roster was full. It might also be Ernie was perceived as a Harvey type of artist, and Joe felt he could do action-adventure, which he'd proven up at Skywald-where I'd never actually met him, but I'd seen his work.

CBA: He did a bunch of Warren stuff.

Jeff: Yeah, he may have, but I wasn't aware of it then. Then you had guys like Larry Hama. I don't remember if we suggested to him that he do a Conan type of thing, or he suggested it to us, but you know, that had a very distinctive look, and Howard Chaykin and The Scorpion, where there was bondage for sure. Mike Sekowsky, because we wanted to do something with a great Silver Age guy, and he was crusty and cantankerous and fun. We just kind of put together this eclectic bunch of comic books. Larry did The Destructor with Steve Ditko and Wally Wood.

CBA: ...and Archie Goodwin. In a way, there's a perception that these are different books, but there was also that these were knock-off books. I think a lot of fans immediately looked at The Brute, and said, "Oh, look: That's the Hulk."

Jeff: The Brute was the first book of Martin's "new wave" of books and not part of the original group. Martin specifically told me he wanted to knock off the Hulk, and that was really the best we could do, in terms of not being a direct rip-off. That sounds like a clumsy defense, [laughter] but we were told, "Do a comic book like The Hulk." Okay, how do we do that without plainly stealing the damn thing? And that was indeed the start of the "Marvelization" of Atlas, it was one of the first things I had a problem with, with Martin and Chip, because he really wanted me to raid the Marvel Bullpen. Not only didn't I want to do that-because it wasn't the right thing to do-but we were looking for our own identity, and imitating Marvel wasn't going to get us there. However successful or not they were, magazines like The Grim Ghost and "The Tarantula," even Morlock and some of the other wacky ones, had their own personalities.

CBA: I know you didn't edit the book, but did you look at The Destructor and think, "That's an awful lot like Spider-Man."

Jeff: No, I stayed completely away from Larry's books.

CBA: But just the perception, did you look at that? Because certainly, as a reader, we looked at that and said, "Wow, it's even drawn by Steve Ditko," you know? [laughs]

Jeff: You're right, I can't dispute that! But you know, Sgt. Stryker was Sgt. Fury, and [Western Action] was the Marvel Western. Lomax was supposed to be Kojak, but he had hair, and it just didn't make sense. [laughter] Over on my side of the office, when we got hold of Howard Nostrand, and asked him what he wanted to do, he wanted to do some kind of spy thing, and Ric Meyers came up with Targitt, and had a great time. Neal Adams had sent Howard up there...

CBA: Neal started off as an assistant for Howard Nostrand.

Jeff: Correct. Howard was a tough guy to work with, but he did some great Will Eisner-esque stuff, and it was just... We were really excited about a lot of it. Ric Meyers wrote a story for Alex Toth to illustrate, "A Job Well Done," and I thought it was one of the best things he'd ever done, and I was fortunate enough to have him illustrate it. That kind of stuff really makes you happy. The things that didn't make us happy were the deadline problems; those were immediate stumbling blocks between me and Howard Chaykin and Larry Hama. There was a lot of miscommunication, because of the numbers of books we were doing. I had Ric Meyers coming into the office a couple of days a week, but we were doing about 20 titles plus the black-&-whites, plus helping out with Gothic Romance. It was just too much, and that's where I said before, "You can't be in this position and not piss people off." Well, that's when it started to happen. [laughs]


A fine Frank Thorne cover (sans logo and blurbs) for The Cougar #1, a book created and written by Steve Mitchell, a comic inspired by the famed TV movie, The Night Stalker. ©1975 Seaboard Periodicals, Inc.

CBA: You edited 12 color and three black-&-white titles.

Jeff: There were other ones, by the way, that were on the drawing board that never got produced, for one reason or another. Steve Ditko had done a thing called "Wrecage," which was, I think, one of the best things he ever did. It was spelled with no "k." [laughter] I don't remember really what it was about; it was a bunch of guys in costumes who were breaking things. He had penciled this job, and it came in, and the lettering, the balloons were in the middle of the panels instead of butting up on the edges, and he was so angry about that, he just threw the pages down and said, "You've taken the heart out of it," and walked out. We never saw him again. That was one book that, even though we had done the script, done the pencils, worked every detail out, it never got done. Along with...

CBA: Ditko was angry because the balloons were in the center of the panel?

Jeff: Right, instead of butting up against the panel borders, which is how he apparently liked them, but neglected to say.

CBA: Did you look at that like as an idiosyncratic response?

Jeff: Well, if I had known, I would've put it up against the panel! [laughter] I felt bad, because we didn't know, and if he had told me and I didn't hear it, or failed to communicate it to the letterer, it was unfortunate, but there you go! Again, we had other titles we wanted to do, like The Avenger, and we actually did a lot of work on it, and negotiated with Condé Nast, only to find somebody else [DC] stepped in and took it away from us. We had been negotiating to do Godzilla. Put a lot of work in on that. So, there were a lot of comics we developed and spent a lot of time on that never got done.

CBA: If we can, if you don't mind, go through a few of these titles, and just perhaps give in a nutshell what the thinking was behind it.

Jeff: I'll tell you what, Jon, who really cares? I've got to ask you that. I mean....

CBA: Was the idea behind Ironjaw, "Barbarians are hot, let's do a new barbarian."

Jeff: Yeah. I have to say, in defense of Ironjaw, we really had wanted to push the Comics Code, certainly push the boundaries of what they would permit, and that was the first title we did, and from the very start we had problems with them. One of the things we really wanted to do with "Tarantula," Tiger-Man and Ironjaw was make them a lot more violent, kind of what Wolverine ended up being. So, the idea that it was going to be like Conan is not quite what we had in mind; we just wanted it to be really rough, sexual, primitive barbarian kind of thing, but boy, the Code ripped us apart! The Code administrator, Len Darvin, actually went to Martin and complained that I was a pain in the ass, [laughter] that he should replace me, blah, blah, blah.

CBA: Whoa! [laughs]

Jeff: Yeah, he was not pulling punches, because we had really harsh words over Ironjaw. There was one panel were a woman's back was facing the reader, and she clearly had clothes on, and he made us put them on, even though we were just seeing her naked back. We gave her a skirt but no top. He was livid.

CBA: A lot of the books had pretty edgy writing for the time, replete with a lot of "damns" and "hells" in the dialogue. Believe it or not, when I was a kid, "hell" and "damn" were considered swear words, and here they were in a comic book with the Comics Code Approval stamp on it!

Jeff: You know, I guess we got the stamp because we took so much stuff out they forgot the other stuff was in there. [laughter] This was a time of movies like Death Wish, and I think there was a kind of rampant impotent rage, whatever you want to call it, that we carried out of the '60s and into the '70s, and I think that was trying to come out in the comics, and also we had seen so much being done in the undergrounds, in the Star*Reach comics, in the Warren titles, that it seemed absolutely ludicrous to be handcuffed by the Comics Code! Particularly when the things we were doing were not so rough. Certainly not compared to these other things.

CBA: Well, with the cynicism that permeated American culture at the time, you had probably the premiere cynical mainstream comics writer, Mike Fleischer, working for you. How did you choose him?

Jeff: Mike was one of the first people who came to talk to us, and that was a very bold move at the time, because we were pariahs. There was an implicit blacklist of people who came to work for us. We were paying more per page than other companies, and particularly DC rightly figured that people would defect, and they wanted to hold on to their people. Michael was offended by that notion, since he was a freelancer, and came up partly because he had great ideas, and partly because it was an act of defiance just to do it! I really respected that.

CBA: Did you like the writing? There seemed to be certainly a strong element of misogyny in Ironjaw, [laughs] he tended to treat horses better than women.

Jeff: Well, there's some of that in Robert E. Howard, too. Certainly Howard was writing at a different time, and maybe we should have been more sensitive, perhaps, but...

CBA: Michael took a lot of critical hits in the early to mid-'70s, especially with "The Spectre," about being extremely violent.

Jeff: Well, people didn't have to read it. Michael was expressing whatever he wanted to express, and he did that in the novel Chasing Hairy, and it was okay by me. I wasn't there to censor him, but to give him a platform to tell his stories, and we liked the stories he was doing, and they all had a different voice, really; The Grim Ghost and Tarantula were different from one another.

CBA: You used him a lot.

Jeff: Yeah, we used him a lot, but he was happy to do it, and he was always surprising, which was fun.

CBA: I read an article you wrote for The Comics Journal ["How Not to Run a Comic Book Company," TCJ #114, Feb. 1987] about the rise and fall of Atlas, and one of the interesting things you brought up was your desire to get licensed, recognizable properties and adapt them into comic book form. You tried to get The Avenger, but DC came in and scooped it up. Was The Scorpion part of that thinking? Was there a pitch to Howard to say, "We want a pulp character?"

Jeff: Actually, I left that up to Howard, and I don't think that we contributed anything except the title on that initial concept-I do intend to go back and check that-no, I think that was pretty much all his idea.


Courtesy of the artist, Larry Hama's unused cover rough for Wulf the Barbarian #1. Wulf ©1975 Seaboard Periodicals, Inc.

CBA: Looking at the book, Planet of the Vampires, immediately when I was a kid, I thought of [the Charlton Heston film] The Omega Man.

Jeff: Well, yeah, we had tried to get the rights to [science-fiction vampire novel] I Am Legend by Richard Matheson but we couldn't.

CBA: What would you have named that book? I Am Legend?

Jeff: That's a good question, we never got that far!

CBA: Would it have been an adaptation of The Omega Man?

Jeff: It probably would've been closer to The Omega Man. I think the main thing was who we would end up getting the rights from, whether it would've been Matheson or whether it would've been Warner Brothers, who we were talking to. If it had been Warner Brothers, clearly The Omega Man was the better-known title at the time. So, we probably would've gone with that. By the way, you mentioned The Scorpion, that was again one of the early battles I had with Martin; he felt the drawings were too small, and he couldn't tell what was going on, and I wasn't going to go back to Howard and say, "Gee, Howard, could you draw bigger?" It's amazing, the things that come up that you don't expect when you're just trying to do....

CBA: A dozen books, plus three black-&-white titles. [laughs]

Jeff: When you're just trying to give people some creative freedom, and at the same time, keep the publisher happy, [laughs] it's really tough! Especially, by the way, when you're a dumb kid!

CBA: And you were young!

Jeff: Yeah.

CBA: Were you surprised when you were hired? Were you cheap, or well-paid?

Jeff: I was getting, I think, $20,000 or $22,000 a year at the time. That was good. I had to edit and write I don't remember how many stories a month for that, but no, that was a great salary! That was [laughs] when we were doing five books, but I still made the same money when we doubled that.

CBA: Goodman used the comics as catalogs for his merchandising department, and you had experience with Captain Company.

Jeff: Well, that was actually my idea, because I had been Captain Company's marketing director, and it seemed obvious that if you were going to publish these magazines, you'd use them as catalogs. Jim Warren invented that concept in comic books, and I saw how much money he made, and it just seemed like a good idea for us, plus I was able to take free toys!

CBA: Archie Goodwin, one of the great editors in comics history, could've been available at that time... I wonder why he wasn't approached.

Jeff: A lot of these guys wanted a lot more money than I was getting, and I think that was the problem they'd had with Roy Thomas, he wanted a larger salary than I got, and a contract that was a number of years-I didn't have a contract-and so....

CBA: So you were attractive in that way.

Jeff: Yeah, and I could, in theory, get the material onto the newsstands, and that's all that Martin cared about at first.

CBA: Ernie Colón had endless nice things to say about you-

Jeff: Ernie's senile. [laughter]

CBA: He called you a wunderkind, repeatedly. You were pretty young, and dealing with a lot of creators who were certainly older than you. Did you possess something that made you right for the job? Did you have a self-confidence, for instance? Was Brooklyn instilled in you? You were a cocky kid, right?

Jeff: I was a cocky kid, but a lot of that came from working for my uncle in Times Square-it was actually on 45th Street, between Broadway and Sixth-he had a costume store across from the Peppermint Lounge, and it was from the time I was about 13 to when I was 18, I was there an awful lot, largely because I got to fit G-strings and pasties on to go-go dancers, [laughter] among other things. But, that was a very, very aggressive business, dealing with Broadway people... Laurence Tish and Loews, because we did the costumes for his ushers. Jackie Gleason because he shipped the costumes to Miami for The Jackie Gleason Show, and at the same time my uncle was a civilian cop, because that was a fun thing to do, and he had a gun permit! [laughter] So, he'd go around in a squad car at night, and his partner was a guy named Johnny Kuhl (pronounced "cool"). [laughter] Best name in the history of the world.

CBA: In Times Square? [laughs]

Jeff: Exactly, and these guys, they would protect the prostitutes from their pimps, they would mingle with the mobsters. It was The Untouchables, The Naked City and Batman all rolled into one, and I just reveled in it! But I saw the kind of grit they needed for their respective businesses, and in the streets, and it was inspirational. I just carried that same mindset into the comic books, plus there was the love of the material! Unfortunately, I think I had the creative chops at the time, but I did not have the managerial skills necessary at the time at all.

CBA: Howard Chaykin said that he came into the office after the second issue of The Scorpion, and saw evidence that Alex Toth was working on the book.

Jeff: Well, Alex Toth was working on a concept for The Scorpion in case we had to change it. There were two things that were happening: One was Howard and I had a massive miscommunication about the deadlines, and he got incredibly burned-out. The second thing that happened was, Martin was more and more vocal about hating the book, and put me into a real tough spot, because Howard created the character, and we came up with the title, so what do you do? What do you do if you want to change a book? Legally, we would've had the right to continue it in his vein, but morally, I didn't think we did, so yeah, I was prepared to go in another direction, which in fact we ended up doing. Am I sorry about it? Yeah, Howard was doing great stuff. Would I have done it differently now? Sure, I probably would've quit along with him. But that's not the way it went. Figure, if you quit, everything goes to hell, everything that you fought for, all the people you do get along with-and I got along great with Jack Sparling, John Albano, Michael Fleischer, with a lot of the people. You didn't want to lose that. Sal Amendola. We were all having great success, creative success.

CBA: Another person who had a bittersweet experience was Sal, and he told me his heart went out of the book he was doing-The Phoenix-to a degree, and he felt that you had to accept the dictums that were coming down from Martin Goodman, that you were just squarely stuck in the middle of these arbitrary decisions.

Jeff: Well, here's how arbitrary it was: Disaster movies were big, so Martin decided the cover of The Phoenix #1 that I had worked on with Dick Giordano that we all liked would be much better if we had a city falling down around him, which was not the way the cover was designed, and it was not what we wanted to do, but Dick, being a professional, went ahead and put in buildings falling down. [laughter]

CBA: Sal sent me his thumbnails for the first two issues of The Phoenix, and I noticed the only difference I could ascertain from the final work and the thumbnails was that the capital city of Iceland, Reykjavik, was changed from a more rural-looking, smaller city, to a metropolis with skyscrapers. Was it changed to justify the cover?

Jeff: Yep! [laughter] Never mind what the city really looks like. Let's make it look like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. Yes, there were dicta coming down from Martin, and some of them I had to carry through, partly because there were also some victories. For example, Pablo Marcos needed a downpayment for his house, so I got him an advance for $3,000. Walter Simonson was really sick at one point, and we had to advance him the money and carry the story as done when in fact it was not done, but there was a lot of good we tried to do to counterbalance the bad, and I'm not going to defend the bad, because it was bad! I'm sorry people got hurt. Again, when you're 22 or 23, and trying to manage all these temperaments, and with a personality as strong as Martin, with an anger as strong as Martin's, with a checkbook controlled by Martin-it's awfully difficult.

CBA: Did you see him on a daily basis?

Jeff: Yes, except for the hour or two when he took a nap in the office.

CBA: Did you have a daily meeting with him, or did you just see him in the course of the day, with weekly or monthly meetings?

Jeff: No, he wanted to see everything that came in.

CBA: Every day?

Jeff: Every day. He didn't want to see the scripts or the pencils, he wanted to see the finished artwork before we sent it out. Increasingly, he would throw it on the desk with greater disgust than the last time, and finally, Chip would get involved, and however gruff Martin was, at least he had the background, he'd earned the right to be gruff. Chip was a real lightweight in that sense, and I just couldn't take it from him. He would be dismissive of work, but have no suggestions on what to do better. It was so frustrating that at one point, Ric, my assistant, went into the bathroom and cut off all his hair, he was just so frustrated. [laughter] I felt that was really a defining moment, because my God, look what's happening to us!

CBA: He's pulling out his hair, so to speak!

Jeff: Yeah, literally! [laughter] Howard Nostrand came in one day so upset about something that... I don't know whether he threatened to beat Ric up, or actually threw him against a wall, but I mean... tempers were high. Those are only the ones that spring to mind, I'm sure there were others. Mike Sekowsky lettering the word "sh*t" on an airplane wing, which we didn't notice in the artwork, and even Martin missed that one.

CBA: Did Mike Sekowsky, as far as you can tell, have an unhappy experience at Atlas?

Jeff: He had an unhappy experience everywhere.

CBA: Were you unhappy with his work at all, that you could see? For instance, I've got this real mystery, I've got this story that's in pencil form that was originally made for 8 1/2 x 11, and this will probably be stretching your memory, but it was called "Speed Demon," and it was a race car Formula One story that Sekowsky did, and I'm convinced that it's a rejected Atlas/Seaboard story, and that Ernie Colón jumped in-and Ernie can't remember doing this-but he did a story called "Speed Demon"...

Jeff: Yeah, where a guy disintegrates in the end.

CBA: [laughs] Right. But it's the same kind of thing: A demon, the devil's in it, and it's like... do you recall at all?

Jeff: No, the title is not familiar. But then, there were so many things coming in, God, I mean... Eliot Maggin came in with stuff, I remember Alan Weiss wanted to do a comic called Red Blooded and actually showed us some sketches for it. All I remember was Martin Goodman said, "No way," and I had to tell Alan, "No way," and... [laughs] that was that! What was I going to say beyond that? Mike Grell actually came up as well, but I don't remember what we talked about.


Unpublished cover by Howard Chaykin for The Scorpion #2, courtesy of another renowned inker, Bob Wiacek. Art ©2001 Howard Chaykin. The Scorpion ©1974 Seaboard Periodicals.

CBA: Did you ever have a heart-to-heart in the intervening years since then with Stan Lee at all, and talk about Martin?

Jeff: We did briefly, but Stan wasn't going to say anything bad about him, and I'm not sure Stan would have any reason to say anything bad about him.

CBA: I just mean to say was Martin doing the same thing over at Marvel, looking through all the art every day... was he any different over there?

Jeff: Of course, Marvel was a much larger operation, and I doubt Martin would have the time to do that.

CBA: It seemed to be a lot less arbitrary situation at Marvel. You can see a logic, a discernable linear progression put into projects. Perhaps the situation at Atlas/Seaboard was due to that anger.

Jeff: Yeah, and that's the key. Martin was spending an awful lot of his own money on this! On higher page rates, for instance. The whole idea that I had for the company to give some percentage of participation to creators, he just wasn't happy about that. So we really started out on a bad foot, because no sooner had I come aboard than I presented him with this concept of giving royalties on ancillary rights to people. This was a time when nobody was even getting reprint money. So, he was immediately suspicious and on guard, but I said, "Look, if we're going to get good people, this is what we have to do." These are the fights that, as Jim Shooter has often said, nobody hears about. This was a very real problem, this was a time when you didn't miss deadlines, because news dealers didn't like that.

CBA: You guys were distributed by Kable, who was a second- or third-string distributor, historically. What was your feeling about being distributed by Kable?

Jeff: Well, the comics were showing up where I shopped.

CBA: You saw them?

Jeff: My world was New York, so I knew nothing. [laughs]

CBA: Because the rest of the world did not see a lot of them!

Jeff: They may not have got them, but who knows the reasons for that? I just don't know. Getting back to Martin and our struggles, we had Tippy Teen reprints in Vicki. Very early, I said, "We're doing Tippy Teen, can't we please do the other Tower comics as well? They had some great super-hero stuff," and he said, "Well, we'll look into it, okay, go ahead." So we put a lot of time and effort looking into doing reprints of NoMan and Dynamo and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and all that, and that came to nothing, because he just decided he didn't want to do them!

CBA: Do you recall if it would've cost much?

Jeff: It wouldn't have cost anything, or else he wouldn't have been doing Tippy Teen! [laughter] Of all the titles to pick from that, Tippy Teen was arguably the worst! It was inconceivable to me! I understand what he was reaching for, to try to get that teen audience, but when the guy you hired to produce your super-hero comics says to you, "These are some of the best that were done in this time, let's bring them back," and he says, "Nah, I don't wanna!" it's very debilitating.

CBA: [laughs] What was Chip's position at Atlas/Seaboard? [Jeff sighs.] Was he officially the publisher?

Jeff: Martin got really angry at me because we listed he and Chip as co-publishers in the first issue of a black-&-white magazine, and he made me take his name off immediately. I suspect that had to do with some kind of contractual arrangement with Cadence, not to put out a competitive product in a certain amount of time. But Chip was nominally the publisher, though he showed no interest in the comic books, apart from just not liking them. It's very difficult for people to understand that he would come in to the office, spend a lot of time on the phone, a lot of time planning to buy Swank magazine, and just kind of being dismissive about all the comics. I don't even know if he wanted to do them at all.

CBA: The comics?

Jeff: Yeah. The puzzle books made sense to him, because they were cheap and delivered quick revenue, the confession magazines the same, comics were expensive.

CBA: [laughs] I think it was Steve Mitchell who said, "If you think comic fans are rabid, you won't believe the crossword puzzle people, when they would call up the office and demand when the next issue's coming out!" [laughs]

Jeff: Yeah, it's pretty amazing.

CBA: So we ain't nothing!

Jeff: Yeah, yeah. And there weren't enough people to even handle these things! That's why when the decision to publish Gothic Romance came, Steve and I ended up getting all the artwork for that from comic book artists-Neal Adams, Russ Heath, Howard Chaykin-so there were some triumphs, but for every triumph, there was a Scorpion situation, and then there was. How do you delicately go to Larry Hama and nudge him to finish Wulf when his mother is dying? I mean, it was an impossible situation!

CBA: Obviously it soured for you pretty quickly. You were hired in June of 1974?

Jeff: I was hired at the end of June. I quit once in the Fall because these guys just didn't know what they were doing, and they were stopping us from doing our jobs. Chip persuaded me to stay, and I just quit in January of '75 for good, because it was... I didn't even give them notice, I just walked out.

CBA: Steve Mitchell mentioned something to me, he recalls you writing a letter. Was that the Fall resignation?

Jeff: Yes.

CBA: So Steve went with you, and was basically dismissed at that time, or he quit?

Jeff: Yes.

CBA: And you wrote a letter saying, "It's either me or it's Chip"?

Jeff: Right. At first, Chip agreed to stay out of it. He said, "We want you to stay, you're doing a great job," and that lasted a day, because that was when Larry started going after the Marvel people, under orders from Martin, and... oh, I forget some of the titles we did then, that Dracula thing....

CBA: Son of Dracula, Hands of the Dragon....

Jeff: Right, and I... Steve and I were still trying to do nifty stuff with The Cougar and Frank Thorne did the cover, and we just... were still trying to do different kinds of books, but it became increasingly impossible. Particularly when they'd change titles like The Phoenix or even The Grim Ghost from what we were doing to Marvel style before the sales had even come in on the first issues! So they didn't even know if they were successful, and we were being told to change them. [laughs] It took three issues at the time-and it probably still does-to find out if it's selling.

For the rest of the Jeff Rovin interview, be sure to order your copy of COMIC BOOK ARTIST #16


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