An oral history of the original, doomed crossover (Part 1)

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“WHEN TITANS CLASH!”
An examination and oral history of the crash and burn of the original JLA/Avengers project

The collected JLA/Avengers was released in late 2004. In addition to reprinting the four-issue miniseries jointly published by Marvel and DC Comics, the slipcased hardcover had plenty of extras. One of those pieces was going to be a history of the project, covering why it didn’t originally happen in the early 1980s. KC Carlson was asked to write it, and he researched and assembled many comments from the magazines and publicity pages of the time.

The following is that piece, never previously published, probably because it wasn’t very flattering. Note that there are references in the below to “2004 interviews”. I believe, but no longer have any evidence, that KC conducted those conversations himself at the time. He, unfortunately, no longer remembers, as it was twenty years ago, and he has since been diagnosed with progressive memory issues. For that reason, this will likely also be his last published piece of original writing. — Johanna Draper Carlson

By KC Carlson

George Pérez:  “It just ended up being one thing after another — accusations both from DC and Marvel towards each other — until I realized there was a lot more private politics that seemed to be going on which were killing the book I really wanted to work on. After a while I became very bitter about the entire thing. It was never more apparent to me that, as much as I love drawing comics, it’s still a business, and politics and petty squabbles can kill a project, even such a potential money-maker.”  — Modern Masters Volume 2: George Pérez, 2003

George nailed it. If there ever was a single comics project that embodied company politics, petty squabbles, and flying accusations, it was the original JLA/Avengers crossover, scheduled to be jointly published between Marvel Comics and DC Comics in the summer of 1983 — the fifth in a series of highly successful team-ups. Pairing the legendary Justice League of America (JLA) and the mighty Avengers, this project would include virtually all of the quintessential characters from the two companies’ lineups.

But despite the fact that producing this titanic team-up was akin to printing money for the publishers, these comics were anything but easy to put together. There were many business and legal requirements to settle before just the right creative team could turn loose their imaginations on this unprecedented, historical project. The creators could not get too carried away — production of the books required a regular system of approvals from both sides of the publisher fence, at every step of the way. In some ways, it’s a small miracle that four of these super-crossovers had made it out the door relatively unscathed. Five might be pushing it…

The story of the original JLA/Avengers crossover is one of failure and betrayal of trust. One of hurt feelings and lost opportunities (and fortunes) and of hatred between people that exists to this day. It’s not a story that wants to be told, as many of the principals do not want to revisit the bad memories. Because of this, some of its secrets may never be unlocked and will continue to exist only as speculation among comics historians.

This is not your usual rah-rah “aren’t we great?” piece you normally see in these kinds of books. The following is not pretty.

(Note: All dates of publications are approximate, due to the varying necessities of periodical distribution, but generally are within a few days of the stated date.)

JLA/AVENGERS TIMELINE

The original Superman and Spider-Man pairing was published in 1976, and its inevitable sequel appeared in 1981. These were quickly followed by a Batman/Hulk teaming, also in 1981. The fourth crossover, Uncanny X-Men/New Teen Titans, is in the works as this timeline begins.

Early 1982:  Contracts are signed for more Marvel/DC crossovers, including JLA/Avengers. Under the terms of the contract, DC would take responsibility for editorially producing the book, while Marvel was responsible for the marketing and distribution of the project. One editor from each company is to be chosen to edit and coordinate the project together. DC selects current JLA editor Len Wein. According to a subsequent 1984 uncredited article in Marvel Age #19, Marvel selects editor-in-chief Jim Shooter. This is later a major point of confusion among the creative team, most of whom are under the impression that Marvel’s designated editor for the project is longtime Avengers editor Mark Gruenwald.

Mike Carlin:  “I was Mark Gruenwald’s assistant at the time of JLA/Avengers but have to admit that the project really didn’t get far enough for me to get to edit. I do recall that Mark, as editor of the Avengers, was involved, in that he read and signed off on the plots. He would mark up the plots and discuss his concerns with Shooter.” –2004 interview

The contract also stipulates that “Marvel and DC shall jointly agree on mutually acceptable modifications,” a phrase that would have much larger ramifications as well.

Soon, a creative team is agreed upon. Current JLA writer and past Avengers scribe Gerry Conway is a natural choice for plotting the book, and Conway’s occasional Hollywood writing partner — and acclaimed past Avengers writer — Roy Thomas will provide the script. Chosen to pencil the momentous team-up is the self-proclaimed man “born to draw this comic” — George Pérez. Pérez is arguably the hottest artist working in comics at this point, largely based on his current work for DC’s New Teen Titans, but his background also includes lengthy stints on both Avengers and JLA. Dick Giordano, one of comics’ top inkers when he isn’t chained behind DC’s Vice President – Executive Editor desk, is selected to ink the project.

(Interesting aside: Roy Thomas, Len Wein, and Gerry Conway were no strangers to corporate politics, as they all previously served as Marvel’s editor-in-chief at various times in the 1970s, although Conway’s tenure was incredibly brief. Conway had also been an editor at DC ,and Thomas and Wein were current DC editors at the time of this project.).

Conway is given the go to start writing the plot.

August 1982: The Comic Reader #203 reports that “1983’s summer inter-company special will be DC-produced and will star the Justice League of America and the Avengers.” This is the first public mention of the project.

August 10, 1982:  Marvel and DC Present: Featuring The Uncanny X-Men and the New Teen Titans is released. It is the fourth superhero crossover between the two companies.

November 1982: The Comic Reader #206 reports that “Marvel and DC are working out details which would make the X-Men/New Teen Titans specials an annual event. There will be two separate DC/Marvel team-ups in ‘83, the other involving the first meeting between the Justice League of America and the Avengers.”

November 1982: Shooter, according to the Marvel Age article, is concerned that he has not yet seen a plot and attempts to contact Giordano. After many unanswered calls, Giordano indicates that a plot is on the way. Considering the size and magnitude of this project, and the added time needed for approvals from all parties, Conway is very late with the plot.

January 1983: The Comic Reader #208: “The DC/Marvel team-ups of 1983 will both be produced under the auspices of the DC editorial offices. May’s Avengers/Justice League team-up will be by Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and George Pérez, with Marvel handling the promotion; and Marv Wolfman and Pérez will handle the fall New Teen Titans/X-Men team-up.” TCR #210 (April 1983) updates the release date on JLA/Avengers to June ‘83.

February 23, 1983: Marvel receives the plot, and Gruenwald and Shooter reject it. [You can read it here.]

Jim Shooter:  “I’m afraid that the first try at the Avengers/JLA plot isn’t acceptable, or even close. The problems are many, but there’s no point in listing them and getting bogged down in details because the whole thing just doesn’t make sense. Why is any of this stuff happening (other than because the writer says it is) and why are all these people doing strange things? I find very few solid reasons or motives for the actions of the characters. — Shooter letter to Giordano, February 25, 1983 (from Marvel Age #19)

Conway’s plot was written “Marvel style,” which is simply a description of the action and major plot beats of a story without the stage directions and dialogue that a full script would include. “Marvel style” was the preferred style of plot for many artists — George Pérez included — as it gave them the freedom to more fully “direct” the action and the storytelling of the comic.

George Pérez:  “– with all due respect to Gerry, this was just a job to him, and there were enormous plot holes, including stuff that seemed to be out of character for some of both the Marvel and DC characters. ‘They’re only acting this way because it gets us to this next point,’ as opposed to acting in character and letting that motivate what happens next.”  — Modern Masters Volume 2: George Pérez, 2003

Pérez isn’t overly concerned with this, as he’s used to working in this style — and working with Conway — and knows that it will be part of his job to tighten up the plot when he paces the story.

Mike Carlin: “Mark (Gruenwald) was concerned that the first plot wasn’t good. There were a lot of things that didn’t make sense, and he gave Shooter notes on it.” — 2004 interview

Roger Stern: “I had come into the office and, since I had recently become the writer of the Avengers, I asked if I could see the plot to make sure that the Avengers were being played in character.  I remember that I was sitting in Mark Gruenwald’s office with Mark and Jim [Shooter] and maybe Mike Carlin.  Anyway, they basically told me not to worry: ‘As soon as they [DC] send us the new plot, we’ll show it to you.’

“The first one was rejected. They then proceeded to outline the first plot for me, and it was pretty obvious why it had been rejected.  As I recall, the villains were Kang and the Time Lord, and there was an element of time travel involved, with various Leaguers and Avengers being flung through time.  The part I remember most vividly was a scene set in the past with Superman on Galactus’ world ship.  Superman discovered that Galactus had an actual written list of the next planets he was planning to eat, and Krypton was on the list.  What does Superman do?  In the proposed plot, he uses his heat vision to erase Krypton from the list!  The implication was that Superman didn’t care if Galactus ate all those other planets.  What a swell guy!  At first, I thought Mark and Jim had to be kidding me, but they were serious!  I mean, Superman is DCs flagship character.  And DC approved that?!  Mark just nodded and rolled his eyes.  I was flabbergasted.

“The problem was that Gerry’s plots had a tendency to be very loose, with scenes that might have looked cool but didn’t always make much sense.  And there was no sense to some of that stuff.  Superman would face off against Thor, for instance, while the other Avengers and Justice Leaguers seemed to just stand around, waiting their turn.  There didn’t seem to be any motivation for why any of the action was happening.  One of the things we [at Marvel] were most concerned about was the [JLA/Avengers] plot should have characters doing something for a reason  and with reason.

“Gerry, for all of his talent as a writer, seemed to approach comics as just another job in those days.  But this wasn’t just another job, this was a big deal.”  — 2004 interview.

Tom DeFalco (Executive Editor under Shooter at the time of JLA/Avengers): “Mark Gruenwald and I were given the plot to read. Neither one of us had any axes to grind. We discussed it a bit before we read it, and this might be a little sleazy on our part, but we thought that unless the plot really didn’t work, we were going to approve it. There was a little ‘just get it done’ attitude. We were shocked at how bad it was.”  –2004 interview

Jim Shooter: “The plot for JLA/Avengers had indeed been submitted to me before George Perez started drawing it. It was weak, full of holes, and replete with continuity glitches. I rejected it in writing. Dick Giordano subsequently telephoned me to ask if I would mind if he told Gerry Conway that DC had rejected the plot instead of me, for some strange reason of internal politics which I never did understand. I said I didn’t care what DC did internally as long as I got a revised plot.”  — Wizard #35, July 1994

It appears that the plot Shooter refers to in his letter of February 25 is actually Conway’s second draft of the plot. Thomas confirms that Conway wrote a revised draft.

Roy Thomas:  “Gerry Conway did a plot, which Jim Shooter didn’t like. Shooter had some objections — some of them were doubtless valid, some of them maybe less so — but, you know, that’s a matter of opinion. So Gerry rewrote the plot, slightly, trying to take into account what he thought were Shooter’s objections. But this was before Jim had actually put down anything in writing — I must say, somewhat insultingly — in a letter to Dick Giordano. Something like, “Okay, now let’s have a real plot,” and things of that sort. I thought it was a very unprofessional way of handling things. Dick elected not to bother to show the letter to Gerry, figuring it would just cause bad blood between them.”  — Comics Interview #6, August 1983

There is a possibility that the first version of Conway’s plot was only seen by Wein and Gruenwald. Len Wein’s memories of the project are admittedly “fuzzy,” but he recalls that he had discussions with Gruenwald before sending the plot to Pérez. Mike Carlin speculates that Gruenwald may have brought Shooter in when he continued to be unhappy with Conway’s plot revisions. This would explain why Shooter appeared to have no “official” response to the first plot, per the Marvel Age article.

Pérez recalled that Shooter’s rejection of the plot “distressed me, but was understandable” given the plot problems. He also indicated that prior to the rejection, Giordano had not read the plot.

George Perez in 1983. Photo © and courtesy Jackie Estrada

George Pérez:  “After it was rejected, in order to understand what was going on, he (Giordano) did read the plot. Not yet knowing what Jim’s objections were, he saw a lot of things that he didn’t understand and would have objected to. So Jim had a legitimate point.

“The big trouble was trying to specify what was wrong. Jim just sent a very short, curt letter saying it was ‘unacceptable. Try again guys.’ That was it– without dealing with the specifics, which was what we basically wanted. If the specifics could be ironed out, maybe the plot could be salvaged. If not, we’d have to do another plot.” — Comics Interview #6, August 1983

While the plot was being scrutinized and ultimately rejected, another problem came to light. DC editor Len Wein was primarily dealing with Marvel editor Mark Gruenwald, leaving Marvel’s editor-of-record — Jim Shooter — out of the loop. At laid-back DC, the editors in the trenches dealt with the day-to-day issues of their projects and the executive editor (Giordano) was only brought in on major problems (which explains why Giordano had not read the plot until the problems began). At Marvel, Shooter, as Editor-in-Chief and, more pointedly, as the editor of this project, preferred that everything go through him. There is speculation from many of the principals that Shooter was offended by this lack of protocol. The bigger mistake may have been that Giordano had neglected to inform Wein that Shooter was the go-to guy on the project, and Wein assumed that his contact was Gruenwald.

Another problem made worse by conflicting styles was that, under Giordano’s laid-back tenure, DC editors would more often accept a verbal approval. Marvel, under Shooter, preferred the more formal written confirmation required in the actual contract. Shooter, already burned by DC’s slack protocol and concerned by the lack of quality in the Conway plot, was understandably concerned with keeping a tight rein on the project.

At some point after this,  Wein contacted Shooter and with Gruenwald, discussed Shooter’s concerns with the plot via phone. The three came up with some possible solutions to plot problems. Wein asked if this discussion was sufficient to allow George Pérez to get started penciling the book. Shooter said “No.” He insisted on seeing a written plot, as per the contract.

However, George Pérez had already been sent the plot by Wein.

George Pérez: “The really big trouble started when I talked to Len Wein and we came up with a few ideas about correcting the plot, We suggested a few ideas that I was led to believe were discussed with either Jim Shooter or Mark Gruenwald. Now, by this time the book was already getting quite a bit behind schedule. So I had to have an answer immediately and DC gave me the go-ahead, saying that the plot should be okay, because everything had been discussed. All that needed to be done was the formality of sending Jim Shooter a written plot. They told me to get started.” — Comics Interview #6, August 1983

The fact that Pérez had the plot at all was technically yet another breach of protocol by DC. And it was made worse by DC when Pérez was given approval to begin work — on an unapproved plot!

Exactly who gave Pérez the “go” order has always been under speculation. Wein had sent Pérez the unapproved plot, and the two of them had discussed it at length. However, the official DC statement on the incident appeared in a letter from Giordano to Shooter where Giordano accepted the blame and apologized.

Dick Giordano:  “When we thought we had it (the plot) de-bugged, Len called you with an outline of the changes, to which you responded positively, saying you felt the changes would work. Len reported that conversation to me with the request from you that a new written plot be submitted. I thought this to be logical but largely a formality and ordered George Pérez to start drawing before the new plot was typed. In doing so, I had no intention of ignoring your wishes. I understood your conversation with Len to be a tacit approval of our modifications and desired to only to keep the project moving. I have since apologized to you for this seeming breach of protocol and trust that this unintentional mistake is not one of the reasons for your rejection.”  — Giordano letter to Shooter, May 26, 1983 (from Marvel Age #19 and the first “Meanwhile…” column).

March 15, 1983:  Coming Attractions, Marvel Age #4: “Marvel/DC Presents #2: The Justice League & The Avengers — Plotted by Gerry Conway. Scripted by Roy Thomas, Pencils by George Pérez. Inks by Dick Giordano. Thor vs. Superman! The Flash vs. Quicksilver! Hawkeye vs. Green Arrow! The matches you’ve always wanted to see as our heroes (and theirs) go barreling through time and space, at the command of Kang the Conqueror and the Lord of Time, in pursuit of the elusive Protosphere.” The one-shot is scheduled to ship on June 14, 1983, according to this listing.

This solicitation was a gaffe on Marvel’s part, as there wasn’t even an approved plot at this point in time. Obviously, this 64-page book was not going to make this scheduled ship date.

May 17, 1983:  Shooter discovers that Pérez has already started penciling, although he has seen no revised plot. Shooter calls Giordano immediately and follows up with a letter the following day.

Roger Stern: “As I recall, we had just finished discussing the rejected plot, when Chris Claremont walked into Mark’s office and said that he had run into George at a convention that day and seen penciled pages for JLA/Avengers.  Jim, Mark, and I must have looked totally slackjawed, because Chris just stood there looking confused like, ‘Is something wrong?’  Mark and I looked at Jim like, ‘You’ve got to stop this before it’s too late!’” –2004 interview.

Mike Carlin: “Shooter really flipped when he learned 21 pages were drawn and his (Avengers) editor was unhappy. That’s when he put his foot down.” — 2004 interview.

Jim Shooter: “… anticipating the possibility of a missed communication on a project this complex, I stated (in a previous phone conversation) that nothing should be considered approved by Marvel until you received approval in writing from me. I gathered that you understood and agreed.

“…Yesterday, I heard from various sources that George Pérez had begun penciling the story, though I still hadn’t received a revised plot…

“…I will be glad to look at copies of the twenty pages that you say George has drawn, along with a revised plot. Possibly the pages will be useable or salvageable…

“Again, no work on this project is to be considered approved until you receive approval in writing from me.”  — Shooter letter to Giordano, May 18, 1983 (Marvel Age #19 has the full text)

While the project was already wobbly, with DC approving what appeared to be a terrible plot and exacerbated by other protocol oversights, this is the point where the wheels came off the project altogether, according to several Marvel staffers. Shooter was being gracious when he allowed that Pérez’s already penciled pages might be salvageable — by the terms of the contract, Marvel could have rejected the pages unseen. Inwardly, the Marvel contingent was appalled that DC would step so far over the line and blatantly and repeatedly ignore requests for written approval.

DC had screwed up big time. And now they had to scramble to save the project while facing distrust and intense scrutiny from Marvel — and specifically Jim Shooter.

To Be Continued…check back tomorrow for Part 2!

Images of Pérez’s unfinished pages in this article come from Heritage Auctions and the blog of Tom Brevoort. Brevoort also posted Gerry Conway’s full original plot for the crossover earlier this year.

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