At Comic-Con international in San Diego, moderator Mark Evanier began his panel discussion with a twist -- the history of how the panel was created. "There used to be something called the Golden Age Panel," but, as Evanier recounted, there were too few comic pros from the era attending cons to populate the panel. "So it became the Golden/Silver Age Panel, then the Silver Age Panel. Then, we couldn't get enough people for the Silver Age, and it became That '70s Panel."
With that brief history out of the way, he introduced the panel of legendary comics creators, which included Bob Layton, Chris Claremont, Don McGregor, and Dean Mullaney. He kicked the talk off by asking how the panelists got into comics.
McGregor started with a bold story of his entrance to the profession. "In 1969… I met Alex Simmons," said McGregor. "If I do one thing and work really hard and do it well -- Alex, he could do everything. We made our own comic book, stapled them ourselves and brought them to a Phil Seuling con," continued McGregor, referring to the legendary figure in comics history. "Jim Warren -- he always says, 'I make the best comics, better than the others because I can do things they can't.' I come to him and ask him, 'Then why do you publish crap?' He goes 'What are you talkin' about?! What comic book is crap?' And I wouldn't do this today, but I pointed out a story, and he says, 'Oh yeah? Come with me,' and grabs me and drags me to the screening room… He walks into the movie room, and goes down the aisle, and this guy who's 6' 6" gets up, and I didn't know it was ['70s comic book artist] Billy Graham, and he brings him back to me and says, 'Tell Billy Graham his story's crap!'"
Chris Claremont said he "started for Marvel as a go-fer, go for coffee or sandwiches… I was just saving up money so I could go to summer stock and be an actor. But I got an opportunity to write and edit." In a short amount of time, he was writing the #1 hit series, "X-Men." "I answered submissions. I typed up the letters, basically 'dear so and so thank you for your interesting submission. Have you tried DC, we're not interested…' I never thought I'd be a writer, especially in comics," continued Claremont. "We were counting down the death of the industry, sales were in collapse every month. Comics went through news distributors and they weren't buying them anymore, so this is just a cool gig for two, three, five years and it'd be out of business by 1980."
"One of the true joys of that time was the Neal Adams/Roy Thomas X-Men, and I'd see pages come in of a sentinel fight!" Claremont lamented the title's cancellation by making a pointed contrast about the business between then and now. "We had a rule at Marvel -- every comic has to make money. If it prints less than 150,000 copies, it's dead. A success was 250,000-500,000. Us seasoned pros look at a comic today that sells 12,000 and is considered a success -- and I mean, Marvel not an independent! It makes us say," and he lowered his voice and whispered into the microphone, "what the fuck?" He said he remembered the moment he gave up on acting for comics: "'X-Men' #121. I said 'Wow, we're selling a lot of copies… I'm making some money!'"
Legendary "Iron Man" writer Bob Layton revealed that he did his first comics fork for Charlton. "I learned to read from comics," said Layton. "I skipped grade four and graduated early. I wanted to tell stories -- writer, editor, producer, whatever." He got "the chance to apprentice with [legendary artist] Wally Wood -- I was a background artist. There were only 30 books being published, you had to wait for someone to die to get a job.
"I got a tryout on Iron Man, and I loved him, but… he was the red-headed stepchild of Marvel," continued Layton. "It was at ninety thousand in sales, but my fourth or fifth issue got up to the two hundred thousand range. Within a year, it turned into one of Marvel's top selling books."
Evanier broke in to mention that he was the first person to overnight a package to DC Comics, saying he would "drop the packages off at the airport in Los Angeles at 2 AM, and they'd arrive later that morning in New York." He said a woman from DC Comics anxiously called him "that morning and said, 'When did you mail this?' I said, 'Yesterday,' and she said, 'And it's here now?' I said, 'Apparently.'"
Evanier also stopped the panel when the videographer needed to change memory cards and he didn't want any good comments to miss being included in the record. "This will only take 30 seconds -- don't say anything of importance." That's when Claremont blurted out, "Vote Trump!"
McGregor talked about his early days with Black Panther in the Marvel series "Jungle Action." He said he got it because it was a troubled title. "The first three issues, three different artists -- let's give it to Don."
Steve Gerber told me he was in the room when they assigned that to you," Clarmeont added. "They said, 'We'll give him 'Jungle Action,' it'll die and we can tell him we gave him a chance.'"
Dean Mullaney said that at first his "goal was to work for Marvel Comics," but he soon tired of corporate comics and decided to strike out on his own and publish independent comics. "The '70s was when the industry changed from newsstands to comic shops, and that allowed comics to survive." He also was a key person in the movement to pay artists royalties for the sales of their work. "My goal as a publisher was to pay artists royalties -- and I did."
"There were moments in comics history where publishers paid royalties," Evanier added. "Russ Manning in the '60s for Gold Key on 'Magnus, Robot Fighter,' and they got pressure from the rest of the industry to stop doing it… In the '70s and '80s, any time you brought up royalties to anyone they said, 'You're an idiot, you don't know how the business works, we'd never survive, we'd be dead in a week.'" Evanier noted that the industry soon caught on that certain writers and artists -- like Layton and Claremont -- were attracting greater audiences and sales, but it was pioneers like Mullaney that helped pave the way.