Friday, May 15, 2009

BUT WE'VE ALWAYS DONE IT THIS WAY

Yesterday, I mentioned my old friend, the late Michael Sisson, who had already had a rich, fascinating career by the time I met him. He'd been an art director at Playboy, and he told me an intriguing story about the first staff meeting at which he met Hugh Hefner.

He'd been working there a few weeks, and had noticed that all the model shots were being color-corrected to make the flesh tones more pink, more rosey -- "healthier-looking" was the way the senior art directors put it. Michael thought they looked as unnatural as department store mannequins. He asked why this was being done and was told "Hef wants it that way."

To the apparent mortification of his boss, Michael had the cojones to speak up at the meeting, and said, "Hef, do you really think it's a good idea to keep making the flesh tones redder all the time?" Hef looked confused and asked what Michael was talking about. His boss jumped in and reminded Hefner of the time, years earlier, that he gave the order. His memory jogged, Hefner was aghast. "You mean you guys have been doing that in every issue since?" Hefner remembered vividly the Playmate of the month and year that prompted his request, and explained that she was suffering from jaundice at the time of the shoot. He'd meant for the color correction to be done on that one gatefold only. Michael never told me if he was rewarded or reprimanded for bringing the misunderstanding to Hefner's attention, but I don't imagine it hurt him much because he was with the magazine for at least ten years.

I told this story to Len Wein a few years later and he responded with the words "Iron Man's nose." "Come again?" I asked. And Len proceeded to tell me of the time he was in the Marvel bullpen as Stan Lee was passing Johnny Romita's drawing table, where Romita was redrawing an Iron Man head to add a nose to the mask. Stan asked, "Since when does Iron Man have a nose?" And Romita reminded Lee of the order Lee gave to give Iron Man's mask a nose, and let it be known that the character had been drawn that way for a few issues already. According to Len, Lee was as aghast as Hefner.

Stan remembered making an off-hand comment, several months earlier, about the way a profile shot had been drawn. The mask seemed too narrow and needed to be "fuller" in the front because, as Lee put it, "It looked like he didn't have a nose" (or, at the very least, that if he had one it would have been flattened against his face because of the impression of the tight fit created by the way the mask had been rendered.) Somehow that got garbled in translation, into "Stan says we have to give Iron Man a nose." Needless to say, once Lee became aware of the miscommunication, Iron Man's mask immediately reverted to its original design and the Tin Woodsman look disappeared forever.

Both these stories illustrate the potential perils of loyal and too-obedient employees working for people they regard as creative geniuses. Questioning authority is, it seems to me, almost a professional responsibility of creative people. And far too few do it; they let hero worship get in the way. And there's a larger danger: the vision of the visionary defines a culture, and business cultures can become entrenched and difficult to change.

Writer D. Keith Mano once wrote a marvelous article -- in Playboy, ironically enough -- about the Walt Disney Company in the years between Disney's death and the company's "takeover" by the now-legendary Michael Eisner management team that revitalized Disney starting in 1984. It was called "A Real Mickey Mouse Operation" (December, 1973), describing a less-than-inspired management team that approached every decision with the question, "What would Walt do?"

Mano pointed out that the problem, of course, was that Disney died in 1966, so his successors were approaching their core audience with thinking that was almost a decade out of date. Had Disney lived, he would have evolved with the times, as he had done continuously over a four-decade career in which he remained at the cutting edge of family entertainment, constantly innovating and leaving his competitors struggling to catch up. The point is, since there was no way to divine what Disney's thinking would have evolved into in 1973, there was no point in even asking "What would Walt do?" Just as there's no point in asking the same question about Hugh Hefner, Stan Lee, William Gaines, or any other great innovator after their tight control of, or hands-on association with, their creations comes, in time, to its inevitable end.

I think of this often when I read or hear fan complaints that the latest revival of a favorite TV show or movie franchise or comic book isn't "faithful" to its creator's intent. Why should it be? Why can't it be given room to grow?

There's no way to know what, say, Gene Roddenberry would think of J. J. Abrams's Star Trek feature, and I would argue that it doesn't matter. A great property is a living, ever-evolving thing, and if we try to trap it in amber, motivated by the useless emotion of nostalgia, we risk killing it.

Food for thought, I think. Especially in these times when we now speak of "branded entertainment properties." Sometimes, serving the cause of "protecting the integrity of the brand" reduces itself to -- unfortunately -- just one more "What would Walt do?"

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Marty,

Regarding color correcting, I must tell you the 'sofa' story offline.

Later,

Rick

John said...

Martin,
I publish the Jack Kirby Collector magazine, and saw your correction on Michael Netzer's blog about your co-creation of Kobra. Two questions:

1) Would you be willing to do an interview for the magazine about how Kobra came about?

2) Do you still have stats of any of the original Kirby pages, so our readers could get a better sense of how it changed?

You can reach me at john@twomorrowspubs.com

Thanks!

John Morrow
TwoMorrows
10407 Bedfordtown Dr.
Raleigh, NC 27614
919-449-0344
fax 919-449-0327

Anonymous said...

This is off topic except that you mention 'Star Trek' on the post and I wanted to say: I'm reading the old past issues of Marvel. (I don't really read the modern comics anymore --I like th compressed stuff of bronze/silver age, most of which I never read because I was too young/or not born yet). I'm reading your work on Star Trek for the first time. I know it was long ago for you but Im discovering it now and just wanted to say: I love it. Its like discovering old Trek episodes I never watched.
Also I didn't know until today that you are a fellow Canadian (eh).
Hello from Toronto. Best wishes in your current/future works.

George

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