I was just listening to Rob Liefeld’s “Robservations” podcast about the “Heroes Reborn” portion of his career. One of the things he said was that since he was a West Coast guy he had no idea what was going on back East in the Marvel offices at the time. That’s what I’m going to tell you.

I’ll start this by saying that this isn’t a criticism of Rob Liefeld or Jim Lee. They did nothing wrong. They were trying to make a living and make some comics. I reserve my criticism for the higher ups at Marvel of the time. That’s kind of easy for me because I didn’t really know them but they were the ones making the big decisions that affected us all so I think it’s fair.

I was just a lowly Bullpenner at Marvel Comics. I was one of the people who did the print production work to get the comic books out the door. I wasn’t privy to any high level meetings or goings on at the top or even the middle. I, and those like me, had to deal with all the policies of the people at the top as they were pronounced. They said jump and we jumped. That’s how jobs everywhere work.

Since “Heroes Reborn” was so long ago I’m going to have to do my best with time frames and dates. I have some photos from that time period and I always wrote dates on the back of them so that’s often how I remember when things happened. Being that it was the age of film I sometimes only have the month and year a photo was taken. Not nearly the precision of the Digital Age. But this story will start with a series of photos.

One day in December of 1994 I went around the Marvel Bullpen and took everyone’s photo. From our boss Virginia Romita all the way to the latest hire there were 36 people in the Bullpen. That’s a lot. It was peak employment at Marvel. But things were bad and we all knew it. There is a good book called “Comic Wars” by Dan Raviv (Comic Wars) that tells all about Marvel’s bankruptcy and the corporate shenanigans that drove Marvel there if you want those details. At this time bankruptcy was still a year or so off but that’s the path we were on.

There were a lot of “Lasts” for Marvel in 1995. In January of 1995 was the last big corporate Holiday party. It was at the hotel that is above Grand Central Terminal. The story goes that the woman who was in charge of the party knew she was on the “To be Fired” list so she went all out and over budget. It was a big party.

I thought August of 1995 was the last Marvel corporate picnic but it was not quite the last one. Not nearly as big a budget as the Holiday party we all got on busses and went out to Craigmeur Recreation Complex in Rockaway Township NJ for an afternoon of fun and games in the summer sun. We had one more in 1996 and that was the last.

The reason I took that series of photos in December of 1994 is that I knew we were never all going to be together like this again. It was almost over and we were all waiting to see what was going to happen. In February of 1995 it happened. Mass firings. I don’t remember how many people were fired but it was a lot.

On the tenth floor of 387 Park Avenue South worked Editorial and the Bullpen. On this day it started with a phone call. I don’t know who was first but they got a phone call to go upstairs to Human Resources where they were told they were fired. Then the rest of us waited to see who was next as the phones rang all day. You knew you were done when your name was called. It was brutal and things were never the same again. The boom years were over.

During the boom years Terry Stewart was the president of Marvel Comics and he was a pretty accessible guy. It’s not like I knew him well but he liked to come down to the tenth floor and chat and see what was going on. At Christmas he’d even put on a Santa hat and hand out presents to us Bullpenners. According to the internet his replacement Jerry Calabrese was hired in April 1995 and I couldn’t pick him out of a line up. I’m not sure if I ever actually met him but he’s the guy who Rob Liefeld said he dealt with about the Heroes Reborn stuff. I heard his name but never saw him.

From the time of my taking the photos to the firings in February and beyond I’d say the general feeling of the Marvel offices was a feeling of being adrift. There was no plan. It wasn’t the comics that got Marvel into this mess. They were still profitable. It was the suits upstairs buying companies on Marvel’s credit. Those guys I never saw and never met.

For example in March of 1995, a month after they fired a lot of staff, Marvel paid a hundred and fifty million dollars for Skybox. A trading card company.That was crazy. Even a lowly Bullpenner knew that. The trading card business had been in decline for a while and Marvel pays top dollar for a trading card company?!? It was baffling and didn’t fill us with confidence. The day the news of the purchase was announced the whole office was abuzz with confusion. A lot of us were very familiar with the trading card business and had no idea why Marvel would do this.

Keep in mind that with all this going on comics still had to get out the door. We still had to do our jobs. Imagine being one of the creative people having to get comics written and drawn in that environment. That is no easy task.

The most outstanding thing I remember from this period is the lack of leadership from above. There were always new plans and old plans being changed. Everything was in flux. Some vice president somewhere would make a plan and then that plan would be abandoned a month or two later as that guy left the company. It seemed all those jobs were stepping stone jobs for executives and why wouldn’t they be? Who wants to be an executive for a comic book company that’s headed for bankruptcy? Better to get the promotion on the resume and then move on.

I remember editorial had it hard. They were the ones who had to shepherd the creative process and the rules by which they had to do that were changing all the time. They would be told “Yes” one day and “No” the next. It made them creatively conservative because there was no upside to taking any chances. Getting the comic books out the door became so much of a challenge that making the comics the best they could be was less of a thought.

I have no memory of when I heard of “Heroes Reborn” but according to the “Robservations” podcast it was right after Jerry Calabrese came onboard that Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee were in negotiations to take over some of Marvel’s books. I think he said they were announced at San Diego Comic Con in the summer of 1995. They didn’t come out until Summer of 1996 so maybe they weren’t quite announced yet. I’m not sure when we found out in the offices but it was probably fairly quickly after the deal was done.

The announcement of Marvel farming out its comics to be produced by Image Comics’ Rod Liefeld and Jim Lee was met with disbelief in the offices. First of all there were constant rumors at this time that Marvel was going to be shutting down and licensing out all its comics to other companies. Here that was happening on a small scale but if it happened on a bigger scale it would mean all of our jobs. How could we want them to do anything but fail? But believe it or not this was just one problem that we had to deal with. We had to put out one fire after another at the time. Constantly being screwed over became normal.

As a side note mid-1995 is when the Marvel Bullpen first began to computerize. We were switching over to desktop publishing and so had to learn to do our jobs all over again in a new way. In a meeting (that I wasn’t in) with some higher ups about buying the computers one of the questions an executive asked was, “If we buy these computers how many people can we fire?” That was what we were dealing with.

We were not happy with the leadership from Marvel’s upper management and therefore had no faith in them. Here is Marvel, a company that is swimming in debt it can’t pay, and the plan they come up with involves paying a lot of money (six million dollars according to Rob Liefeld) to talent outside the company. That’s after they had just finished firing a whole bunch of people making $35,000 a year because they said there was no money to pay them. What were we supposed to believe? That these people knew what they were doing?

Plus the plan didn’t even involve anyone who worked for Marvel. Talk about lack of leadership. How is anyone who works in the Marvel offices going to get behind a plan that leaves them behind? That’s just crazy. And it’s not like the Image guys were “Joining the team.” Jerry Calabrese went out and got a whole new team. The old team is never going to be happy about that.

I wasn’t in editorial but the Bullpen worked closely with them. My impression was that they were angry and frustrated. Their jobs were made harder long before this deal due to lack of leadership and not only did this deal make their jobs harder again but it even threatened them entirely. Imagine having to explain to your creative teams, who are also worried about their jobs and the future of Marvel, that “Heroes Reborn” is a good thing. That’s a tough sell.

It also irked editorial that Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee were given total creative control. The Marvel editors and creative teams didn’t have that. Their plans for the comics were constantly being thwarted by their bosses’ ever changing plans. The people on the inside had to play by a different set of rules than the guys on the outside. Here they were directly competing for their jobs with people from outside the company and they had to compete with one hand tied behind their back. You can understand the frustration.

Then we roll around to 1996. In February, just like in 1995, there is a second round of firings. Phone calls, the march up to human resources, and you’re gone. All over again. This time they even fired the guys making minimum wage. There was no money to pay a couple of Romita’s Raiders $500 a month?!? Really?

According to the internet it was “mid 1996” when Jerry Calabrese was fired. I don’t know if it was before or after the launch of “Heroes Reborn” but I can tell you that by the time it finally did launch nobody in the office really cared anymore. Too much had happened between the announcement and the launch.

I know Rob Liefeld said “Heroes Reborn” was a success and made Marvel a lot of money but it wasn’t enough and we all knew it. By the end of the year there was another mass firing, Marvel was in bankruptcy, and “Heroes Reborn” was a footnote. What seemed so important the year before to everyone in the office ended up being not so important. All the plans and changing of plans had come to nothing and, to us left in the office, “Heroes Reborn” was just another of the failed plans.