Tuesday, February 5, 2013

ITEM! The Thinning Of The Bullpen

With all the fascinating dialog going on about Sean Howe's book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story--and specifically, the debunking of the image we were given of the "Marvel Bullpen," the so-named production room at the Marvel offices at 575 Madison Avenue where most of Marvel's writers and artists worked en masse to create the comics we grew up with--I was curious to take a look back at how Marvel itself depicted this place that came alive through the pages that so colorfully described it. There was of course the "Bullpen Bulletins" page, which gave the impression of a "one big happy creative family" working environment. And the Bullpen was promoted in countless letters page responses, special announcements, and of course in the missives of Stan Lee. When these stories began, I'm not really clear on. Oddly enough, in early Fantastic Four issues, the production room that would later become the "Bullpen" we're familiar with seemed to consist of a small studio office, with just the names of two familiar figures on its door:

But as Marvel's books expanded, the concept of the Bullpen as we knew it would flourish, with its talent pool seemingly gathering every day in one large office, working like happy, twinkle-eyed elves to churn out Marvel comics. It was a masterpiece of company marketing, making readers feel like they were part of the team, if only in terms of morale boosters.

Yet as turnover at Marvel changed, editorial positions shuffled, and the Bulletins began to appear less frequently, the "Bullpen" seemed to be "thinning out" or otherwise evolving into a different working model--that is to say, the image of such a place was doing so, by virtue of the fact that its promotion mechanism was not as active as it once was. In mid-1982, Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter even made a point of defining it for those readers who were unfamiliar with its existence. You'll undoubtedly notice some key differences in its description from the Bullpen's original glory days:
"[I]n the old days, you see, virtually every comics company had a big room where all the artists and writers sat together, creating their works of four-color wonder. Creative folks generally being the garrulous sort, typically, quite a bit of 'bull' got tossed around these legendary rooms, so the nickname 'bullpen' was a natural. It was borrowed from baseball, of course, from the area where relief pitchers wait to be called into the game. Where baseball got the name, I don't know--maybe from bullfighting arenas, from the place they keep the bulls until it's their turn. Who knows? Noah Webster I'm not. At any rate, these days, most comics artists and writers prefer to work in their own studios, but, still, here at Marvel, we have a big room, a production bullpen, where all of our art/production people work doing our paste-ups, lettering corrections, art corrections, and such--and even though the editorial folks are bunched in small offices off to the sides we still refer to the whole shebang as the Marvel Bullpen. It's a tradition dating back to the days when we actually were a one-room operation!"

This could be a description of any busy publishing environment--but for Marvel, a significantly scaled back description of the gathering of its creative talent we'd pictured. And given how unlikely it was that Marvel's offices had the square footage to sustain a one-room operation of the magnitude that Shooter suggests existed at one time, it's just as difficult to imagine one office room housing production personnel that needs all the elbow space it can find in order to shuffle art pages back and forth, to say nothing of moving about. If you're working on artwork, I would think the last thing you'd want is to have people underfoot.

Yet the Bullpen idea was maintained, taking whatever shape and housing whatever complement of talent any Marvel reader(s) might envision. And Marvel's own comics pages helped to perpetuate it, however it shifted in size and/or personnel:

This What If? concept was originally an idea by Roy Thomas, who offered it to Jack Kirby to script and pencil. Thomas would also keep the Bullpen idea alive with an earlier 1976 story he wrote in the regular Fantastic Four book, where the Impossible Man invades the Marvel offices. As you'll see, Thomas seems to show no signs of letting the promotional machine for the Bullpen fall into disuse:

Yet the "Bullpen" pictured here is now, in a sense, the entire Marvel office space in the building, where everyone congregates to do their work--even Kirby, coming in "from the coast," as if it would never occur to him to actually do his work at that distant locale. And as the Impossible Man begins making demands of the staff that they produce a comic book featuring him, we move throughout the various offices and see other Marvel mainstays who apparently clock in here regularly on a 9 to 5 schedule:

(Anybody catch that clever under-the-radar dig at Marvel's dizzying editor turnover on that Editor's Office door?)

I'm actually a little surprised that the concept of a "bullpen," as Marvel saw it, wasn't a bona fide working model for a comics studio--or, failing that, at least having your creative staff grouped in the same office. I mean, if you're going to shell out the dough to occupy office space, you might as well use it and have everyone on the same page, as it were. With the advantages of the Internet still a ways off, you'd save on long-distance telephone calls and overnight mail costs--you'd have your entire operation under one roof--and the titles you publish may be more coherent as a result of the closer coordination. Otherwise, those offices serve mostly in an administrative capacity, and as an address where the fan mail is sent.

In any event, the Marvel "Bullpen" is well in the past now--part of comics history that it didn't really occupy in a tangible sense. Somehow it doesn't evoke the same wistful feeling of nostalgia if you refer to it by what it very quickly evolved into: an inspired semi-promotional gimmick that helped to connect Marvel Comics with its customer base.  I guess that wouldn't have been colorful enough to make it onto a Bullpen Bulletins page.


Doug said...

Great post! I appreciate the time it took to put that together!


Kid said...

You know, I'm not really 100% convinced that Stan really believed that readers wouldn't recognise his description of the Bullpen as an exaggerated and somewhat fanciful representation of reality - a 'joke' which we were in on, as it were. Stan revelled in hyperbole and I kind of think he knew readers were smart enough to know this. However, it was fun - and a fantasy which we were all prepared to buy into because we wanted to believe that the bullpen was actually as described - because that's how it should be. You could always sense that twinkle in his eye whenever he mentioned the Bullpen - at least, that's what it seems to me.

Comicsfan said...

Much obliged, Doug! And welcome back. :)

Comicsfan said...

That's a fair point, and Lee might indeed have been describing the Bullpen symbolically--perhaps likening the company's collective creative talent to an image of collaboration and common purpose, and not meant to be taken literally. Though that may be a stretch, given pages like the examples above as well as some of the caricature stories in comics like Crazy! which do more to perpetuate the one room/one talent pool image we've come to know. Also, if Lee's intent were otherwise, it seems Shooter never got that memo.

If memory serves, one of Lee's "Stan's Soapbox" columns might have featured his own description of the Bullpen, which would supplement this discussion nicely. Surely someone on the Internet has collected and indexed those puppies by now!? :)

Doug said...

You don't have the Stan's Soapbox book? And here I thought it was a must-have! http://www.amazon.com/Stans-Soapbox-Collection-Stan-Lee/dp/0979760291

But as a child, I had no concept of what a freelancer was, and no idea that much of the work was done via the US Mail. To think, in regard to the Dreaded Deadline Doom, that all of that artwork was entrusted to a mailing service. So as far as the Bullpen goes, I was all in on that idea.


Comicsfan said...

Ha ha, yes, I spotted that book while snooping around for an indexed version. I may plunk down for it at the same time that I finally break down and get Sean's book--in which case, I'll probably need a hiatus from blogging while I machete my way through all of those pages. Talk about "too much information"!

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