Mike Friedrich was one of the original “letterhacks” back in the day who successfully made the transition from fan to professional. His discussion with me about how that and other things worked back in the day made for some fascinating insights.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: It’s been suggested that the Silver Age was also the beginning of more serious fandom through the famous letter columns. Would you agree?
Mike Friedrich: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It was definitely the letter columns that Julie Schwartz set up along with sort of what Stan Lee did at Marvel around the same time, but I think Schwartz started it first. He really created a fan community that hadn’t really existed before.
CB: I think that’s quite accurate. It’s also been mentioned that he kind of cherry-picked the most articulate writers and this may sound a little bit self-serving, but was that your observation also?
Friedrich: Well, I learned later that there was less there than it appeared. He certainly was trying to encourage people to write in and encourage people to take a longer term interest. What he was hoping to do was to discover readers that would stick with the comics longer. He’s trying to encourage longer term readership.
But a few years after I was having letters printed I was actually on the other end of the spectrum and I was reading the letters. The number of letters that were well written that came in were actually rather sparse. He’d maybe print three letters per column and he probably had less than ten to choose from on any given comic. And probably the three that were printed were the three that were the most well written and then there’d be a pretty dramatic fall off.
One of the stories behind the comics is that what he taught me when I first met him was that what he did when a letter came in was he’d grade it. Kind of like a school teacher. He’d grade it by how well it was written and then he’d put a plus or a minus next to it based on whether it was a positive comment or a negative comment. And what he’d like to do is if he had space for three or four letters he liked to have two positives and one negative or three positives and one negative. He liked to engender a little bit of controversy in the sense to encourage the idea that readers would disagree. And that’s generally how he did it.
CB: Okay, so try and have a little ongoing dialogue, so to speak.
Friedrich: Yeah, but the critical thing that I think built creating fandom was the whole idea that he did for quite awhile, that he printed people’s actual addresses, and this really encouraged the fans to write each other. I was one of those people and I became pen pals with three or four other fans who had their letters printed and 45 years later I still know two of them. (Chuckle.)
CB: That’s pretty impressive.
Friedrich: Now that didn’t last very long. There got to be privacy concerns and things like that and you notice that Time Magazine doesn’t print mailing addresses.
Friedrich: Neither do the comics, but then again they don’t have letter columns any more. You’ve got to go online and that’s its own story. You’ve got the same community event happening because people can reply to the e-mail addresses.
CB: That’s true, but there’s still that shroud of anonymity.
Friedrich: Yes, but there was a long period where the only way you could meet another fan was through the conventions and the letter columns were part of the process for a limited period of time. Whatever it was. Less than ten years. And then it wasn’t until the online era showed up and the people were posting online comments allowing people to directly communicate without having to go someplace.
CB: Absolutely. You’re part of kind of a unique group of prolific…
Friedrich: The right place at the right time.
CB: (Laughter) Well, I think of some of your contemporaries or peers if you will like Roy Thomas or Nelson Bridwell or Marty Pasko or Bob Rozakis and of course Irene Vartanoff who also kind of spring boarded from being a regularly printed fan into actually professionally writing and/or editing. In fact you ended up as an editor, did you not?
Friedrich: Well, I worked as an assistant editor at DC and then at Marvel and of course I edited the comics that I published.
CB: Ah, yes. Star*Reach.
Friedrich: So depending on what you count I edited for about eight or nine years.
CB: Was that preferable to writing or did it make much difference to you?
Friedrich: Well, the story I like to tell about that is that I’m a superhero comics fan and what are superhero comics about other than power? So as a reader I wanted to have power over these characters, and so I wanted to write them. So I started to write them and I discovered the people who really had power were the editors. All right, so I became an editor. Then as an editor and a publisher I discovered the people who really had power over how these things were received were the retailers and distributors, and so I got into setting up distribution and got into the whole marketing and distribution era and then of course once I got really deep into that I discovered that the people who really had power were the readers.
Friedrich: (Chuckle.) So I was back all the way…
CB: …full circle.
Friedrich: Full circle. Now it’s taken me a long time to get to be a reader again, but now that I’ve more or less retired from comics; that I’m now able to read again, I’m not writing letters to anybody, so I have no power whatsoever. (Mutual laughter.)
CB: Well, Mike, I suspect that when you started writing in you had no inkling it would springboard you into a career, or did you have aspirations that direction?
Friedrich: No, it was all just stumbling from one thing to another. I was a teenager, of course, when I started writing the letters and was still a teenager when I started writing for the comics and I was writing professionally for maybe three years before I really thought this might be something I’d like to do as a grownup. It was very definitely just something I was doing because I enjoyed doing it. It only later turned into a career…that lasted 40 years.
CB: (Chuckle.) Not bad for a couple of unplanned steps. I was talking to Shelly Moldoff a few weeks back, wishing him a happy 89th birthday and he remarked that he’d enjoyed 70 years of not having to look for work. When you did begin editing I was curious how much of Julie’s style may or may not have influenced you. I understand he was very hands on as an editor.
Friedrich: Yeah, and I guess it influenced me in the negative, in that I was much more attracted to the Marvel comics approach to editing which was find the right people, point them in a direction, and let ‘em go. And then if they don’t deliver, you find somebody else. So I had a relatively light hand. The challenge that I had as an editor was to articulate the direction I wanted people to go, and that took awhile to get to learn. Then, most of the editing I was doing were people who were somewhat volunteering to work for me. It wasn’t like no one was making a living drawing alternative comics. So it was as much trying to deal with carrots as it was with sticks. With Julie’s editing, he had a hard time communicating with me, and a lot of this was just me being young and stubborn. In fact, I would say most of it was me being young and stubborn.
He had a hard time getting through to me what it was he wanted, and he was kind of frustrated by that and I could tell that. I just wasn’t getting what it was he wanted. Looking backwards, I can look at the stories that I wrote and I see all the flaws and I see what he was trying to get at, what he was trying to get me to do and it was probably beyond me. That was probably a large part of it. And that was frustrating for him and therefore he sort of micro-managed a lot of copy-editing that I never really quite got. I was the same writer when I was working at Marvel and they barely did anything. They’d edit my copy for grammar and that would be it. There was never really any editing for content, or very rarely edited for content.
CB: I’ve heard the two companies contrasted by people as, “Your Father’s Comic Books,“ referring of course to National/DC and then “The Wild West“ over at Marvel.
Friedrich: Yeah, and there was a sense of that. That’s a good way of looking at it. Some of it was just the economic bottles that both companies had. Marvel was putting out as many comics as DC and Marvel had one editor and DC had six, and the editor was writing half the comics himself or a third of the comics himself. Anyway, so he had no time to edit. So when he brought in people to be his assistants…
I never worked for Stan (Lee) actually. I always worked directly for Roy (Thomas). Although Stan’s name was on them, Roy was actually my editor. I mean Roy himself was a writer who sort of edited on the side. And it was more being a managing editor than a copy editor. More like a, “What are you doing and generally where are you going, and where do you want to go?”
The amazing development in editing these days is that I would say maybe 20 years ago the publishers actually figured out that they should plan things a year in advance. I think it started with Mike Carlin over doing the Superman books at DC, but now both companies are doing this a lot where they really sit down with their writers; multiple writers, and hash out plot lines for a very extended period of time.
Looking backwards, if I had been 18, 19, 20 and I had been involved in those kinds of discussions I would have been much more energized and much more interested in figuring out how to make these better stories.
CB: Okay, so you think that’s a better approach then.
Friedrich: Oh, yeah, very much so. It was very difficult, because I had a vision of where I wanted the characters to go and was semi-articulate and the editors of the characters were static, and to me they were kind of more organically growing and it was hard to work that out. Ultimately, for me it didn’t work out. After about three years of doing that I moved.
CB: Just sort of reached the end of your fount, I suppose. Do you think any of it was due to generation gap issues?
Friedrich: Quite a bit of that. I mean I walk in the door and people are wearing white shirts and ties and I’m wearing t-shirts and shorts, and that was a big, big difference. And of course the people who were doing it were the people who had survived the huge contraction in the ’50s. They were sort of inherently conservative in that respect; not really trying to take any chances, where the younger crowd coming in was much more wrapped up in the characters and there were positives and negatives about that, but there were a lot of positives where we cared a little more passionately about what we were doing and it was less of a job and more of a hobby, and again, there’s good stuff and bad stuff about that.
CB: You’re the first one to ever mention that and that really rings very true. I’m sure to some there’s a bit of befuddlement as to the interest in what to them was just a way to make a living.
Friedrich: Right, right, and that was part of the trouble I remember coming in is that I had a hard time relating to people for whom this was a job. I now am at a place in my life where I have a job and I understand it. I go to work, I do my work, I come home, I turn it off. And that’s very different from how I treated writing comics, which was a 24-hour occupation.
CB: A grand pursuit.
Friedrich: Yeah, and where I credit Julie an awful lot, was that he, of course, in his youth, had been a science fiction fan and he sort of knew what it felt like to be a teenager and a young adult fan of a medium and so he had an appreciation for fans that the other editors really were baffled by. But then when the fans became professionals then they sort of proved themselves and then the other editors started picking them up. But Marvel did as much to bring in fans as DC did.
CB: That’s true. Building up the mythos of the bullpen and all that other good stuff.
Friedrich: Right. Always as a fan I was a DC fan. When I went to work for Marvel these were not characters I had some passionate interest in. I was a writer now and it was more of a job and less of a passion, but I thought I did better work. I was older and more experienced.
CB: Yeah, you’d earned some of your stripes, so to speak.
Friedrich: But through all of this we’re talking about a really, really young kid. I mean I started writing when I was 18 and stopped when I was 25.
CB: That is quite a short period of time, particularly when you take into account a Jim Shooter who started at 13 and only recently finished up his latest run on the Legion.
Friedrich: Which was actually quite good.
CB: I thought so, too. I let him know, too. He was kind of unhappy with the way they abruptly cut him off on his run.
Friedrich: Well, he should know as somebody who had to do that to other people. That’s what it’s like. (Chuckle.) As a reader it was very obvious that they just suddenly stopped.
CB: Yeah. Exactly. It was like somebody just hit the brakes. Even though I’m far from being a kid at this point I thought, “Okay, this is kind of insulting. Changing the writer to “Justin Tyme.” Come on.” I had to chuckle. I was looking through my House of Mystery reprint volume from Showcase Presents and the depiction Gil Kane did of himself, Joe Orlando and you in that story…was that with your blessing or was that a surprise?
Friedrich: No, no. That was all done on purpose. I’m actually somewhat embarrassed by that story. I was roped into a prank that Joe Orlando played on Gil Kane. Joe came up with the idea and worked with me to plot it out and the idea was to satirize the artist and then have the artist himself be the one to draw it, but there was actually a little bit of viciousness that’s in there that I regret now. But it was intended to be the principals. Joe’s in it, Gil’s in it, I’m in it and we set it up that way and Gil and I met so he knew generally what I looked like and he knew Joe of course pretty well and he could look at himself in the mirror, so that was pretty easy.
CB: The little gremlins that were helping to draw? Someone suggested that was a Carmine caricature. Is that correct?
CB: Okay. For some reason that slipped right by me the first couple of times I looked at that and then I thought, “Yeah, I can see that.”
Friedrich: That was really Joe Orlando’s idea. I didn’t come up with that story at all. It was entirely Joe’s story. It was my copy and Gil was one of the artists I enjoyed working with the most. I had grown up with his work and I really understood it. I knew how to write stories that played to his strengths and avoided his weaknesses and almost every story he drew of mine I was satisfied with the outcome, and that was rarely true. I didn’t feel that I had very good artists to work with, or perhaps sympathetic artists to work with most of the time, but with Gil I enjoyed 8 or 10 stories of mine that he drew and I liked them all.
CB: I was going to ask. It seems like different writers have particular art partnerships that they thought really, really worked or really understood what they were trying to get across and your commentary sounds consistent. I’ve hear more often than not it was really hard to find somebody who truly “got” what you were trying to convey.
Friedrich: Well the one who did it the best was Neal Adams. He actually could find things in my stories that I didn’t know were there and pulled them out and made them part of the stories so he made me look better than I was. Gil was somebody who gave you what you asked for, so it wasn’t like he added anything, but I knew what to ask for, so it was that kind of relationship in that it was very clear what I wanted and he was able to deliver it and it came out very, very well. But most of the time I’d be describing things that artists just didn’t know how to draw or I didn’t describe it in a way that they could understand. I dealt with George Tuska for 4 or 5 years on Iron Man and we were never in synch.
CB: That’s a shame. Jim Shooter told me he dearly loved working with Gil and Woody. He said Wally Wood always did very well by him, but he dropped a couple of other names that he just was not too pleased with at all.
Friedrich: Interestingly enough the other guy…I only had the opportunity to work with John Buscema once, and that was really a total pleasure. It was very much like working with Gil, but John added stuff that gave more life to it. I also worked quite a bit with Sal Buscema, and Sal was not nearly as talented, but it was kind of like Gil. You sort of had a known range of expressions and action poses that you could do and it didn’t take too long to figure out how to play to that. What worked with him and what didn’t work with him and I did some Captain America with him that I really enjoyed.
CB: Did you have a favorite writing assignment over the years, Mike?
Friedrich: Well, I always enjoyed writing Batman more than writing anything else. I had the opportunity to write I think three Green Lantern stories and I enjoyed those quite a bit, too. Those were my favorites.
CB: You and Denny O’Neil are in good company. He said he preferred writing human- scaled characters, so he said rather than some of the demi-gods he loved doing Batman and to a lesser extent perhaps, Green Arrow.
Friedrich: It’s interesting. When I read the Green Lantern stories that I wrote…they’ve recently been reprinted in these large volumes, so I’m looking at them for the first time in quite awhile and I saw that I treated Green Lantern more like he was a human-scaled character and not a galactic-scaled character, and that I didn’t really take advantage of his power ring very much, and so yeah, like Denny, I think I was more in that level than elsewhere. On the other end I had a good time writing Justice League. There were a lot of different kinds of characters in Justice League and I enjoyed playing around with that. That was a reasonably good assignment.
CB: That’s saying something. It had to be kind of tough to integrate all those different kinds of characters even though not necessarily all of them were involved in every story. Of course I imagine it’s even worse from the artist’s standpoint. When I read Crisis on Infinite Earths I thought George Pérez has to be enshrined in a hall of fame somewhere after this mess. (Chuckle.)
Friedrich: Oh, it’s astonishing.
CB: As you look back over things is there anything you’d have changed or done differently or wish you’d have done?
Friedrich: Oh, yeah, but that would take me two more hours. I was a hard guy to talk to. I was ambitious and stubborn and really full of myself and had a hard time…I mean the stuff that I could figure out on my own I did well with, but I didn’t learn very well from other people. What I wish now is there had been a way to learn more from the resources and people that were around me, to have made the work better.
I kind of cringe reading a lot of that stuff now. There was kind of an energy to it that you could see, which is why I think I got the work at all. It was obvious that it was energetic. I was passionate about it, but most of the stories just do not hold together very well and there are some pacing issues that are tough and I didn’t really get a good rhythm down on a lot of things.
CB: Hazards of youth, I suppose.
Friedrich: Yeah, and a lot of it was just lack of personal maturity. I just didn’t have a lot of emotional development or experience, so it was hard to do much when I was tapping into a very narrow range of relatively shallow emotions in those stories. That’s something you can’t go back and fix.
CB: Yeah, you’ve either got it interjected at that point or you don’t.
Friedrich: Right. I’m intrigued now by the fact that the writers are 20 years older than the artists. You’ve got these 40 or 45 years old writers and these 25 year old artists; which seems to be the industry model these days, and that’s very, very different than ever before. So there’s more maturity in the writing while the young energy of the art is still there.
CB: That’s probably a pretty good combination as you stop and think about it.
Friedrich: I think it’s working out very well. I’m really enjoying the stuff I receive through DC’s comp list and that’s what I’m familiar with. I haven’t been keeping up with Marvel at all. But the stuff that I’ve been reading from some of the writers and artists teams has really been quite solid.
CB: Was the Comics Code ever any kind of hang up for you?
Friedrich: I had a couple of things changed that were at the time very silly, but it was never really a frustration. My favorite Comic Code story had nothing to do with me. It was my friend Marv Wolfman and when he was hired by Joe Orlando one of the first things he did was one of these House of Mystery stories and they were doing credits, and so they gave credit and the Comics Code said, “You’ve got to change the writer’s name. That’s obviously terrible.” So they had to send Marv down there with his ID to prove that was his actual name.
CB: (Laughter.) Bernie Wrightson told me a great one and maybe you’re already aware of it, but it’s another Joe Orlando story. He said that the Comics Code was objecting because Swamp Thing was “undraped.” He appeared to be naked, and we couldn’t have that. (Chuckle.)
Friedrich: I never heard that one. That’s pretty good.
CB: Bernie apparently heard part of the conversation or something and Joe was literally on the phone going over the story panel by panel and pointing out that he’s always in shadow and they weren’t trying to get away with anything, but he’s not really a human being, he’s a creature.
Friedrich: He’s got nothing to hide. (Chuckle.)
CB: Yeah, but “undraped.” Good grief.
Friedrich: This is a plant costume. He’s draped as a plant. (Mutual laughter.)