I dug into my box of old Marvel Comics memories the other day. I am still reeling from the negative vibes of that encounter with my past. Sarcastic memos flung far and wide, sturm und drang from every direction. Bad stuff happening to many people. Bad stuff perpetrated by many people.
From this stretch of years, I wonder whose fault it was. Was it the times? Was it ambitious personalities pushing and shoving at competitors? Was sexism or ageism involved?
How about yes to all three?
How much responsibility does each of us bear for being what our culture made us at a point in time? And what our human natures made us? In a world in which use of the term “Ms.” was mostly sarcastic, how could any of us smoothly negotiate the changing relationships between the sexes? Decades later, when I was in a different office situation and had to consult an elderly executive, I was stunned to find him fully cooperative. Why? Because I cut my teeth on dealing with those men and they were all hostile to some degree. Patronizing and friendly; nasty and uncooperative; take your pick. And what method did I use to cope with them? Flirting, acting like their favorite grandchild, or overt contempt, whatever worked. Those aren’t exactly the tools of the modern working woman.
I don’t want to suggest that my time at Marvel Comics was a constant battle of the sexes, because that was not the whole story, only part of it. What about the reality that a bunch of comic book fans, most of us very young, were invading the business and driving out some of the older folks? If the adults were patronizing to us, or hostile, we were the same right back at them, with the addition of the smug arrogance of youth. And we didn’t even deign to wear office attire. Ripped blue jeans and tee shirts were a common sight at Marvel then. Only the old guys wore suits. And the middle-aged ladies wore dresses. We thought we knew a lot more than they did. But did we?
And what about the rough elbows people used to attain their ambitions? With so many young men, burning with a passion to succeed in an industry about which they deeply cared, it’s not surprising that there was plenty of aggression around. Many of them had only so-so education and training, so they viewed this as their one shot at the brass ring. And for many, it was.
The crazy thing is, the uneasy mix of gender tensions, generational tensions, and flat out competitiveness made working at Marvel a heady experience. It was exciting, like being in the movies. It felt glamorous, which is a ridiculous thing to say, but we were comic book fans who were striving for the keys to the shop. We believed we were making a difference in the business and bringing more respect for the artists, and we tried to produce wonderful comics. That we fell short of the mark, that we were all too human in our behavior, and that we each had our personal issues to clog the situation, may be to our discredit.
But boring was not the word to describe working at Marvel Comics. Not for one minute.