Fast Times at DC, Marvel, and Vertigo: An Interview with Steve Bunche

From the cover of Y: The Last Man #11, one of the many comics edited by Steve Bunche. (Art by JG Jones)

From the cover of Y: The Last Man #11, one of the many comics edited by Steve Bunche. (Art by JG Jones)

By Luke Herr

The comics industry has seen a tremendous number of changes over the past two decades, and Steve Bunche has been there through it all. Steve Bunche has worked as a production artist at both Marvel and DC, and as an associate editor at Vertigo. Currently, he’s on the press side of the comics industry as a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly‘s comics reviews section, reviewing collected editions and interviewing creators about their projects. He’s also a freelance editor for a number of book publishers and runs his own blog, The Vault of Buncheness, which chronicles his interests, obsessions, and true-life accounts of his misadventures in the world at large (including the tale of Freddie Mercury and Wolverine’s meeting). Deadshirt contributor Luke Herr was able to talk to Bunche about his time at the Big Two publishers, warts and all, in the interview below.

LH: You were formerly a member of the Marvel Bullpen and you’ve also worked with Vertigo, where else have you done editing work?

SB:  Well, to clarify things a bit, I started in comics as a production artist in the Marvel Bullpen, where I served as a “bring it and we’ll fix it” art grunt in the comics trenches for nine years. That stint ended when Marvel was in the throes of “Marvelution,” which was the incredibly douchey spin/”cool” label that some of the suits applied to the years-long wave of layoffs as the company endured Chapter 11 in the ’90’s. (Believe it or not, those assholes even had Marvelution t-shirts printed up and distributed to the staff. Never was Ben Grimm’s image used so ignominiously.)

The good thing is that the comics biz in NYC is rather small and somewhat incestuous, with staffers of one of the “Big Two” — Marvel and DC — sometimes leaving for the other, so news travels fast and in less than fifteen minutes after I was told of me being let go, I was offered a staff position in DC’s production department as I was packing my stuff. After that, I went to DC and did pretty much the same thing I did at Marvel, until an assistant editor position opened up in DC’s Vertigo imprint. I assisted editor Heidi MacDonald until she was “let go,” after which I served as assistant editor to Karen Berger and eventually made it as far as an associate editor position. I edited at Vertigo for two years until, like Heidi, I was unceremoniously “let go.”

LH: What do assistant editors do in comparison to editors?

SB:  It’s all there in the title. They’re assistants. They essentially serve to take care of any extraneous chores that the full editors need handled. That said, the degree of responsibilities and creative input allowed to an assistant depends on what their supervising editor allows them. Some are little more than lackeys, while the quality service of others has been noted and they have been allowed to rise through the ranks.

In my role as Karen Berger’s assistant/associate, I would read proposals, liaise with the creative teams, read scripts and apply corrections and make suggestions as needed, determine balloon placement for a comic’s pages, check coloring, ensure everything was ready to roll when a completed issue was sent to the separators, handle the editor’s duties when they were out of the office, et cetera. And on top of that, I was doing full edits on several monthly books and assorted graphic novels, so the slate was always full.

LH: Is there a major difference between companies over what a company expects from its editors? It can feel that way especially between Marvel and DC.

SB: The culture of editorial at both companies was rather similar during my years as a staffer in the biz on a daily basis (1990-2003), though Marvel at the time was a lot more relaxed and crazy than DC, and in many ways those of us who worked there at the time considered our co-workers to be one big semi-dysfunctional family. DC Comics, on the other hand, was far more corporate in its culture, with an attendant semi-rigidity that brought to mind an upper-middle-class family that always sought to publicly represent itself as the exemplar of a certain staid status quo. Within those parameters, the editorial departments of both companies defined themselves, and in most cases the books they put out reflected those attitudes, for better or worse. Since the 1960’s, Marvel sought to shake up the white bread comics landscape that companies like DC helped to establish two decades prior, so there was often an emphasis on taking chances and experimenting with their characters and situations. Plus, following the first wave of 1960’s editorial, Marvel allowed a younger, hipper contingent of editors to handle the reins, so their output was in tune with their respective eras. As for DC, they continued to hold the line for a somewhat-bland cookie-cutter flavor into the mid-1980’s, after which they opened things up considerably for edgier, more grownup material.

LH: One of the better-known comics that you’ve edited is Y: The Last Man. Is there anything you would have suggested now that it is all done?

SB: I loved working on that series and allow me to go on record and state that co-creators Brian K.Vaughn and Pia Guerra were fantastic freelancers to work with. Their first concern was with crafting a compelling story for adults that didn’t skimp on character development or crisp visuals. That said, I was “let go” a little after the series crossed the one-year mark, so I was not there for what ensued on an editorial level after that point. However, what I can say is that the project was brought to the Vertigo table by Heidi MacDonald and it was not exactly well-liked by the Vertigo powers that be, so it got little interest and no respect up there. That is, it didn’t until it became a critical and commercial success. And if I had been allowed to stay on as its editor, I would have allowed Brian and Pia as much room to do what they wanted as creators with a minimum of editorial interference. Unless there’s some glaring problem evident in what a creative team is coming up with, my policy as an editor was “if it ain’t broke, let the creators loose and treat them like human beings rather than cogs in a machine,” but not everyone espouses that philosophy. If the creators had been allowed less-restrictive deadlines  — which were granted to certain creative teams that were apparently more highly-favored by the powers in place at the time —and a few other considerations, I believe Y: The Last Man would not have wrapped up with a finale that felt a tad…rushed.

LH: One of the more eccentric titles you worked on was The Filth. What was that about?

SB:  Damned if I know! That was one of Karen’s projects that was handed to me to edit, and to this day I could not tell you exactly what the hell that book was about. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy a number of writer Grant Morrison’s works and I was honored to have the opportunity to work with him, but in my opinion that series fell victim to Grant’s penchant for trippy, transgressive psychedelia, only in that case with a meaning so obscure as to be nigh-incomprehensible. There were tons of intriguing concepts and dryly-delivered gags that were brought to vivid visual life by the incomparable Chris Weston based on what Grant had set down in his scripts, but both Chris and I were on the phone every day for over a year, attempting to make heads or tails out of exactly what the hell was going on in the story and exactly what it was all meant to mean.

Chris Weston and Steve Bunche at the 2007 New York Comic-Con. (Photo from Weston's blog.)

Bunche (right) with The Filth artist Chris Weston at the 2007 New York Comic-Con. (Photo from Weston’s blog.)

On the surface, it was about a mundane man who discovered he was involved as a member of a secret reality-policing organization that dealt with all manner of over-the-top and utterly twisted threats to our world, but the narrative was told in such a way that when all was said and done, the result was a massively-confusing mess. An entertaining mess, but a mess nonetheless. And let me go on record and unequivocally state that what does work in The Filth is directly attributable to Chris Weston’s tight and gorgeous pencils, with equally crisp inks by the stalwart Gary Erskine. No matter how insane and incoherent Grant’s scripting got, at least it looked incredible when translated to visual form. Hell, read it for yourself and see if I’m not right.

LH: You’ve worked with Brian K. Vaughan and Grant Morrison, do you have any stories about meeting other famous comic creators while you were working at Marvel and DC?

SB: Being a lifelong comics fan who was fortunate enough to land a position in the “majors” as a bona fide Marvel Bullpenner, one of my first objectives was to meet as many of my idols as possible. That was actually pretty easy since most of the superstars of Marveldom would occasionally drop by the company’s offices on Park Avenue South, but the one guy I always wanted to meet more than any other legend of the industry was Jack Kirby. Kirby was the first cartoonist whose style I learned to recognize at an early age, and his unfettered imagination fueled my young mind with images of kinetic brawling, super-scientific hardware that made no kind of engineering sense but looked incredible, and exciting stories that took the reader into a reality that was utterly ruled by Kirby’s signature sensibilities. Needless to say, he was — and still is — very important to me, so meeting him was a must, but he never came to the offices — the negative feelings he held toward Marvel are well-documented, so I won’t go into all that here — so when would I ever meet the King face-to-face? That opportunity came during a convention in Manhattan that took place sometime during 1990 (exactly which one eludes me; my mind was awash with considerable lashings of beer and bong hits back in those days), but the reality completely swept the fantasy under the rug…

Myself and several of my fellow Bullpenners — a scurvy lot who dubbed ourselves “The Sexy Pasteup Gods” — attended the con and while I walked the show’s rooms, I glimpsed the unmistakable profile of the one and only Jack Kirby, whose presence was announced in the show’s promotional material. Seizing on the fact that he inexplicably wasn’t surrounded by adoring worshippers, I made a beeline toward him and introduced myself, both as a huge fan and as a member of the current generation of Marvel Bullpenners. I gushed about how much his work meant to me and how he had been one of my early inspirations for learning how to draw, and on and on and on with youthful and sincere fanboyish enthusiasm, and when I’d exhausted all of my kudos I asked him if he’d please sign the copy of Mister Miracle #4 (which contains the introduction of Big Barda) that I’d brought with me.

The aged grandmaster of the comics art form looked at me with what was to this very day the single most world-weary facial expression and body language and stated with a lead-heavy sadness, “Kid, I don’t sign anything for anybody anymore. I’m sorry, but I just don’t.” And with that, he turned and slowly walked away, his bearing that of a man whose autumn years were marked with grievous feelings of betrayal and disappointment. Having followed his career with a combination of fannish and scholarly interest, I was fully aware of the history of his treatment by Marvel and other entities, so I understood. It broke my goddamned heart into seventy pieces, but I understood. And little did I realize it at the time, Kirby’s attitude was the first great lesson I had in seeing past the general perception of the biz and getting that its creative architects were human beings that were heir to all the same tragic emotions and failings as you or I. That said, I wish I’d been given that reality check by someone, anyone, other than the man whose artistry and imagination I had venerated since I was child of age five.

LH: Christ, that is just brutal. Do you have anything lighter that we can end on? For instance, were there any particularly proud moments from your time working in the industry, like something you can look back on that made a comic work?

SB: One of the key differences in the cultures of Marvel and DC Comics was that Marvel, by far the way more laid-back and less corporate of the two majors, was not afraid to tap its staffers when it came to seeking input on various projects. The editors there were themselves fans who loved comics in general and Marvel’s ongoing tapestry in particular, and they were savvy to the fact that the Bullpen was staffed with geekily-knowledgeable production artists who felt likewise. Early in my Bullpen days, longtime editor Ralph Macchio was in the process of finalizing the edits on the last issue of Man Without Fear, the excellent collaboration between Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. that did for Daredevil’s origin what Miller’s earlier Batman: Year One did for the Caped Crusader, and Ralph was wrestling over one of the issue’s sticky plot points.

There’s a scene where a young Matt Murdock hands out ass-kickings to a pack of criminals who had kidnapped children for extremely unsavory purposes, and after fighting his way through a number of said underworld vermin, he comes upon a huge gangster with a gun pressed to the temple of a terrified little girl. Murdock stops long enough for the thug to get a bead on him and squeeze off a shot, which Murdock’s hyper-acute senses and highly-trained reflexes allow him to bat out of the way with a billy club. Murdock then warns the crook to let the girl go or he’ll take decisive action with the next shot fired. The crook fires anyway and Murdock again reacts with the speed of a striking cobra, only this time sending the bullet back through the gunman’s skull. Ralph’s problem was that he was unsure how that bit would read to the audience; would it be a justified use of lethal force or would it make Murdock come off like a murderer?

The page in question, from Daredevil: The Man Without Fear #5 (1993). Art by John Romita, Jr.

The page in question, from Daredevil: The Man Without Fear #5 (1993). Art by John Romita, Jr.

Over the months that the mini-series was in progress, I had seen the pages as they came in and Ralph noted my enthusiasm for them, an enthusiasm fueled by my being a hardcore fan of Frank Miller’s now-classic run on Daredevil in the early 1980’s. When the aforementioned sequence came in, Ralph pondered it for a good while and then called me into his office. He had me read it and then asked me how I felt about Murdock killing the thug. I plainly stated that it absolutely worked as a character-defining moment because it was early in Murdock’s career and he was not yet known as Daredevil — nor did he have a costume at that point; if memory serves, he sported workout gear and a blindfold that somewhat obscured his face — and there was no way he would let some bastard further endanger a weeping child. Murdock/Daredevil is a creature of deeply-ingrained and rather harsh justice, so stopping the gunman in the way that he did was tough for him from a moral standpoint, but utterly right because it was the only way to save the kid.

Satisfied with my response, Ralph opted to leave the sequence in place without changing anything, and the result can be seen in print. I’m not sure if he consulted with anyone else on staff in regard to that sequence but if he didn’t, I’m very proud to have been instrumental in saving what was a badass moment, even in so relatively minor a capacity. And when he found out about it, John Romita Jr. even thanked me for going to bat for it.

LH: Thanks for taking the time to interview with us, Steve!

Luke Herr is many things at many places, like a cat in a box factory in Shroedinger, Ohio. Mostly he does internet writing shenangians, comic script tomfoolery and sometimes deeply confessional and heartful work. Most of the time this work can be found linked at his portfolio page.

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