Sunday, September 28, 2014


A (hopefully) fair and honest defense of one of the more polarizing editors in Marvel's long history.

Four years ago yesterday, Bob Harras was appointed DC Comics' editor-in-chief, so this feels like an appropriate weekend for a post I've been thinking about for some time. But I don't read modern DC comics, so this isn't about Harras in his role there. I don't know what DC is up to these days, and it's possible the guy I'm about to ruminate on no longer exists. See, this an article on "vintage" Harras. And not Harras the writer, either, whose work I've seen very little of -- but specifically Harras the Marvel editor on the X-Men franchise and later the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics from 1996 to 2000 (incidentally, he's the only person to date ever to hold the EiC position at both of the "big two" publishers).

Occasionally around the internet, I've posted comments on Bob Harras ranging from mildly complimentary to frothingly defensive. Harras is no Jim Shooter, but he's certainly viewed with a great amount of disdain from many corners of comic book fandom. He catches flack for everything from pushing Chris Claremont to quitting the X-Men (an accurate criticism) to causing Marvel's mid-nineties bankruptcy and masterminding Spider-Man's "Clone Saga" and the "Heroes Reborn" event (all complete falsehoods; Harras was handed the keys to the company after every one of those things was well underway -- he did, however, spearhead the resurrection of Norman Osborn which ended the Clone Saga).

But all I can say is, I like the guy. I met him once, at Comic-Con in 1999, and he was very friendly. I told him how much I had enjoyed the Black Knight's lightsaber and he thanked me for the compliment. He also participated in the creation of my all-time favorite Con souvenir, which I described a while back.

Fumble recovery.
Art by Andy Kubert.
So, Did Harras force Chris Claremont off the X-Men books? Absolutely. He ceded far too much creative control to the artists, resulting in Claremont becoming a glorified scripter on the franchise he had guided into the comic book stratosphere. Louise Simonson left her longtime post as Claremont's "number two" writer on X-FACTOR and NEW MUTANTS under similar circumstances. There are those who argue that Claremont was due for a "vacation" anyway, but that's not something I want to get into here. The fact of the matter is that Harras made some questionable decisions which cost him -- and Marvel -- a star writer, arguably the superstar scribe of the eighties.

Then, shortly thereafter, Harras lost the very artists he had favored over Claremont when Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, and others quit Marvel to form Image Comics. Though the Image artists' departure was not a result of his actions but rather of Marvel policy in general, Harras's earlier editorial decisions nonetheless came back to bite him when he found his X-Men books without the talent on either end of the creative spectrum which he had relied upon to keep them as top sellers.

But his recovery from this situation is an area where I believe Harras deserves a great amount of credit, which he is usually not paid. Sure, he had some time to coast on the sales momentum left by Claremont and the Image artists, but momentum will only take you so far. And Harras used that time productively, to reassemble the X-franchise. As the speculator bubble burst and the comics world around them crumbled, the X-Men books remained consistently strong sellers (proportionally of course; even their sales unavoidably eroded along with the rest of the industry's).

Editorially driven.
Art by John Romita, Jr.
Harras's guidance certainly played some role in this. Even if an editor only assembles a successful creative team, that contribution must be noted. But Harras clearly did more than merely pick writers and artists to work on his books. He guided them, to some extent dictating the content of their stories, for a few years. There are those who disapprove of this method. I freely admit that I'm not sure if I'd want to work under such circumstances. But at the same time, it's not unlike working on a television show. You have a writers' room, full of various folks tossing ideas out, and you have a showrunner who judges those ideas, nurtures them, assigns them to individual writers to script, and shepherds them through production, guiding them to the screen as finished episodes. An editorially driven comic book is, to me, very similar to this process. And it's also a completely viable creative model for those who understand it going in.

And this is where subjective opinion comes into the matter, but I have to note that I think the Harras-edited X-Men comics, written by Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza, are genuinely good stories, and worthy successors to the legacy of Chris Claremont. Harras kept all the trademark Claremont angst in full effect, and his annual crossovers ("X-Cutioner's Song", "Fatal Attractions", "Phalanx Covenant", "Age of Apocalypse") usually felt organic and appropriate based on past storylines. I continued to enjoy the X-Men after Harras stepped away from day-to-day editorship of the titles, but I do feel that there was a noticeable step down in story quality and consistency at the time, as Harras's former assistant Mark Powers took over as the X-Men's editor and "showrunner".

Art by Jim Cheung.
At any rate, Harras was successful enough as the X-Men group editor that he eventually found himself appointed Marvel's editor-in-chief around 1996. As noted above, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. Whoever took the EiC position would be struggling to put out quality books under less-than-ideal situations. Harras did what, at the very least, must be declared a decent job; though I personally would say it was overall an excellent period for the company's creative output. Marvel certainly tried new things at the time. In the aftermath of the "Onslaught" event, even as the Avengers and Fantastic Four were farmed to outside studios (ironically run by some of the long-departed Image artists) for content, we saw a number of brand-new series and revivals launched: THUNDERBOLTS, KA-ZAR, DEADPOOL, MAN-THING, HEROES FOR HIRE, MAVERICK, and more. Most were canceled. A couple survived. But the point is, Harras greenlit these various attempts, some unexpectedly "outside the box", to diversify the Marvel Universe.

Harras also, a year later, presided over "Heroes Return" -- the event which brought those farmed-out heroes back to the Marvel Universe and saw Kurt Busiek and George Pérez take over AVENGERS, Busiek and Sean Chen on IRON MAN, and more. Chris Claremont even returned to Marvel at the time, writing FANTASTIC FOUR and taking a position as the company's creative director, functioning as Harras's right-hand man. Bygones were bygones. And if the man who Harras had so wronged nearly a decade before could forgive and move on, could fans do any less?

Art by Sean Chen.
(For what it's worth, by the way, Claremont also followed Harras briefly to from Marvel to Wildstorm after the latter's departure, before eventually returning to sign an exclusive contract with Marvel.)

So yeah, I like Bob Harras. I think he was a great editor for his time. The Marvel of the nineties needed someone like him. It was a company run by the marketing department, and Harras was an editor who clearly understood his audience and had a head for what would sell. I don't claim that all his ideas were recipes for success, but I firmly believe the man had more hits than misses during his time at Marvel.

All the above said, I certainly don't believe Harras is a saint, either. Multiple professionals have stated that he outright lied to them over the years. I believe them. There are too many such stories for the assertions to be false. His issues with Claremont, documented above, are well known -- as are problems with Mark Waid and others. So his managerial style, at least with regards to freelance talent, was one of deception and non-transparency. Not good. But there are also anecdotes, mostly from the editors who worked under him, about his strong work ethic and creative vision -- among other things, he constantly battled against Marvel's marketing department over their stupid ideas. Say what you will about the guy, but I firmly believe that the Bob Harras of the nineties would understand that Spider-Man and especially Wolverine don't belong on the Avengers, and would do his utmost to keep such a thing from happening.

Art by John Byrne.
And while I generally have few problems with Harras's editorial style, and I applaud some of the courses he charted as both X-Men group editor and Marvel EiC, I also believe that his final year or so at Marvel was far less than stellar. Chris Claremont returned to the X-Men with much fanfare, then delivered a year's worth of incoherent stories. The X-Men's sister titles, GENERATION X, X-FORCE, and X-MAN, were all revamped under the imagination of Warren Ellis, to disastrous results (though to be fair, even a disastrous X-MAN comic was better than the series' previous incarnation). And Spider-Man, whose four titles were usually pretty good at the time, was the subject of an unnecessary and ill-conceived reboot by Howard Mackie and John Byrne.

So maybe Harras was due to be put out to pasture and his exit from Marvel, unceremonious as it was, came at the right time; we'll never know for sure. The signs certainly pointed toward some questionable editorial choices shortly before his ousting. But what it comes down to in the end is that I've liked and even loved the majority of the Harras-edited comics I've read in my life. While my affinity for the X-Men of the seventies is well documented, it's really Harras's X-Men that are my X-Men, the X-Men I grew up with. And during Harras's years as the series editor, I was consistently engrossed, month after month. And the same holds true for most of his time as editor-in-chief as well, with respect to the entire Marvel line.

Thus, while I fully understand that the guy is not everyone's cup of tea, and I personally have issues with some of his tactics and choices, I feel that in many respects, the Bob Harras of the nineties is frequently, unjustly maligned -- and I will always defend him for the hours, months, and years of enjoyment his comics brought me throughout my teens.


  1. Agreed. As someone who was born in the early 80s this is my favorite period of Marvel. Granted I guess people like to downgrade Harras (understandably I guess) for the bankruptcy, but I loved this period of Marvel and X-Men. Andy Kubert will always remain an underrated artist to me and ditto on Nicieza and Lobdell.

    As for the rest, I have no idea if Harras ran Claremont off. I'm with you it sounds like he did. Claremont deserves his place in the pantheon, and I'm not going to get into that.

    But in terms of Louise Simonson, no offense, but she's always been massively overrated to me. I know there's more to a run than just dialogue and scripting, but her dialogue is SO bad. It's like a listening to a junior high student talk. And this is uniform across her work, not just New Mutants, to me. X-Factor became MUCH better after she left. Her issues of X-Factor always managed to be the worst of every crossover too. She made portions of X-Tinction Agenda downright unreadable. I feel like she is well-liked and consequently kind of gets a bye on subpar writing in the industry (which would hardly be unique).

    Anyway came here from Teebore's blog and since I'm years late on reading his posts, and this was recent, just wanted to let you know keep up the good work, I really like this blog.

    1. Hi, thanks for the compliment and for reading! I'm glad to know there's at least one other person out there who shares more favorable opinion of Mr. Harras's work in the nineties.

  2. Bob Harras is comics poison.

    Yes, it's completely unfair to blame him for Marvel's bankruptcy, but he had a prominent role in a fair bit that was wrong with comics in the 90s.

    Claremont was indeed going off the rails in his last couple of years but was infinitely preferable to what followed. Lee and Portacio had zero idea how to write a comic and ruined the X-Men in the bruief time they had to do so. They were followed by Lobdell and Nicieza who produced many of the most convoluted and nonsensical plots ever conceived (Kwannon? Stryfe?), many of which they just got bored of and discarded hoping no one would notice. Lobdell could write the occasinal one off but that's about it. Harras destroyed the X-Men. This stuff can only be read by children (utterly unlike Claremont) and the prevailing art style of Lee/Portacio/Liefeld is similarly bereft of any form of intimate expression -it is utterly shallow and dominated by posing from bodybuilders and pneumatic pin-ups whose emotional range is virtually non-existent- and is also only of appeal to children.

    I would agree that the X-men's decline began with late Claremont but it leapt maniacally off the cliff as soon as he was gone. The legacy of what was done to the X-titles in this period played a massive part in destroying the Marvel Universe and its carefully controlled continuity as it had been cultivated for the preceding 30 years. Marvel has not and cannot be what it was prior to this and has suffered accordingly. In the mid-late 80s Marvel had a 70%+ market share -it now has around 35%. Bob Harras is one of the main people responsible for this (though I have no truck with those who put all the blame on Harras and act like Jim Lee was completely innocent in this).

    He followed that up with one of, if not the, worst run on The Avengers in history. Some of the hardcore would say Bendis was worse but I'd take the view that what bendis wrote wasn't so bad it was just that it wasn't in any way recognizable as The Avengers.

    btw, I'm not sure that anyone who thinks the Black Knight's lightsaber was cool deserves to have an opinion. The only things worse than it were his ponytail and designer stubble (in the 90s! They were hideously embarrasing then -Miami Vice was mid-eighties for the love of out of touch can you get?).

    1. I appreciate your opinion, but a ton of the stuff you cite is what drew me into the X-Men back then in the first place (and, to be completely honest, I love "bodybuilders and pneumatic pin-ups" just as much now as I did when I was fourteen -- but only when drawn well; Liefeld need not apply). I loved the Kwannon stuff back then, too. My first X-MEN issue was #20, as I outlined here. So Harras's approach worked on this kid, at least.

      Granted, I haven't re-read most of that stuff since my early twenties -- and at that time I felt it still held up -- but a full nineties-X-Men-athon been on my to-do list for some time.

      Never liked the Black Knight's ponytail, but I see little wrong with the stubble. That rarely goes out of style. I just prefer superhero stubble to show that the character's been up all night fighting crime, rather than as the standard look. As for Harras's run on AVENGERS, I haven't read all of it, but it seems to have it's share of fans, at least up until "The Crossing" (for which terrible Terry Kavanagh deserves at least half the blame as co-plotter and scripter).

      Anyway, in part it's all based on when you grew up. I was in my teens in the nineties and that's when I did most of my heavy comic book reading, so I have a big soft spot for the era. Discounting nostalgia, though, I tend to prefer stuff from the seventies and early eighties.

      I shudder to imagine all the poor kids growing up with today's comics, who sill someday have nostalgia for overly padded, drably colored comics devoid of footnotes and thought balloons.