When you hear the name "Ralph Macchio," chances are you think of The Karate Kid, but comic fans think of The House of Ideas. That's because this Ralph Macchio has been working for Marvel Comics longer than most of us have been reading comic books. He's currently editing the mega popular Ultimate line for Marvel and told us a little bit about his vast three decades in the industry.
MANIA: You've been in the comics industry for so long, but people might not know a lot about your earliest days in the industry. How did you get your big break?
RALPH MACCHIO: I had gone to a comics convention in the mid-seventies and was fortunate to run into Don McGregor, who was the writer of Killraven and the Black Panther then. He recalled that I had written letters to those books and asked if I wanted a tour of Marvel. I said yeah, and while taking the tour I ran into Chris Claremont who recalled my letters, also. He asked if I wanted to interview Roy Thomas for FOOM magazine and I agreed. So, suddenly, I had a reason to come back to Marvel. And, as Roy was such a busy guy, it was weeks before I actually got the interview, so I kept coming up to Marvel and getting to know people. Eventually I did interview Roy. Then, when there were some personnel changes, John Warner asked me if I wanted to come on staff and assist him with the Marvel black-and-white magazine line. I agreed and I’ve been up there learning my job ever since.
MANIA: When you had that first shot, what were you hoping the end result would be? Did you dream of years and years later still being actively involved in the comics industry or did you see your work here as a stepping stone to something else?
MACCHIO: When I came on staff as an assistant, it was generally accepted that you took a staff position as a way of getting enough freelance work to leave staff and become a freelance writer. That never appealed to me. I don’t like working at home and I’m not much of a writer. I liked the editorial end of things—being on staff, being involved in every aspect of comics production.
So, I never saw my job as a stepping stone to something else. It was what I loved to do then—and what I love to do now.
MANIA: What has kept you working in the comics industry for so long? We've seen a lot of people come and go, but you always are involved in one project after another ... what continues to hold your attention in comic books?
MACCHIO: I love the Marvel Universe. It’s that simple. It’s a source of endless wonders and there are always new stories to tell. I enjoy spending my days immersed in this wonderful fantasy universe and still fulfilling childhood dreams of working with these great characters. Of course, there are some days that are discouraging—that’s true in any job. But when I get a great script or see some very cool artwork, I become a kid all over again and I know why I’m still here.
MANIA: What is a typical day at the office like for you?
MACCHIO: I come in and check over the email. Then I discuss schedules with John Barber and Nicole Boose who work with me. Then we’ll go over plots and scripts we received the night before and see if they’re up to snuff or if they need some work. For me, that’s the most critical thing I do all day—ensuring that the stories that go to our pencilers are the best they can be. After that, I’ll check email again and then call freelancers and bug them about deadlines or discuss story elements with them. Later, me, John and Nicole will discuss cover ideas or check over cover sketches that have come in. Then, towards the end of the day we’ll assess the day’s output and maybe make some final calls to freelancers to nail something down.
If it’s a day we’re trying to get a comic out all of the above will be interspersed with our rush to make sure the book leaves Marvel and gets to the printer on time. Finally, John, Nicole and I will take whatever scripts or plots have come in that day and take them home to read so we can discuss them the next day. And that’s the cycle.
MANIA: Before you began working on the reimagining of the Marvel universe through the Ultimate Line, what had been some of your favorite comics projects to be involved with? Why?
MACCHIO: That’s tough to say because almost anything I’m working on is a favorite while I’m on it. High points were certainly working on Daredevil and Thor with guys such as Frank Miller and Walt Simonson. Working on Moon Knight with Moench and Sienkiewicz. These were great projects because of the caliber of the talent. Just watching them take these characters to new heights. Also, I thoroughly enjoyed becoming the Spider-Man editor during the midst of the clone saga and being given the responsibility of pulling it all together and making sure the ending paid off in a big way. I was pleased with the group effort it took to get that character back to where I felt he should be. That was another high point for me because it was so work intensive, but, ultimately, satisfying.
MANIA: When the groundwork was being laid for the Ultimate Universe, what were some of the things you felt were essential to make this a lasting part of Marvel not just one of those groups of titles that are around a year or a year and a half and then vanish?
MACCHIO: For the Ultimate Universe to survive, it had to establish its own identity and sense of place. Our characters couldn’t be pale imitations of the mainstream versions. They had to be able to stand on their own two feet and be characters that readers loved for themselves. We had to make the Ultimate Universe a self-sustaining entity with its own lore and legends. We had to come out from the shadow of the mainstream Marvel Universe.
MANIA: Looking back at the past few years of the Ultimate titles, what do you consider the biggest highs that happened within those pages?
MACCHIO: One thing that gave me great pleasure was reaching the 100th issue milestone with Ultimate Spider-Man. This meant that we’d successfully done a version of the character who’d been a hit with the audience. We had been able to keep our Spidey in high school and give readers an alternative to the mainstream Spider-Man. And, of course, working with great pros such as Brian Bendis and Mark Bagley made the experience a joy. Another high point was just watching the Ultimate Universe grow from one fledgling title to four successful ones. That’s been a source of satisfaction for me. And seeing the incredible success of Marvel Zombies, which rode out of a storyline in Ultimate Fantastic Four and has become a publishing phenomenon.
MANIA: Flip side, what were the lowest lows? What, when you're looking at it now, didn't come across as well in the execution as you might have hoped?
MACCHIO: I’ve always been a bit disappointed that we’ve never really been able to link the Ultimates title as closely to the other three as I would like because of its publishing schedule. Considering the earth-shaking events that go on in that book, I would love to be able to show their effects in the other titles at the same time, but the schedule prevents it. One other low point is that I was disappointed Ultimate Fantastic Four readers didn’t react as positively as I’d hoped to Mike Carey and Pasqual Ferry’s initial storyline: Godwar. I was so excited about it and it just didn’t seem to resonate with readers as I’d hoped, although it came out exactly as I’d wanted it.
MANIA: You seem to have some of comics' brightest stars working on the Ultimate titles, when you have an opening for any of the art or writing duties, what are you looking for before you get someone else involved in one of these series?
MACCHIO: I want someone with great imagination and superb storytelling skills—whether they come in as writer or penciler. And a working knowledge of the Ultimate Universe is good, too. Those are the big items.
MANIA: How do you decide - as an editor with years and years worth of experience in many different parts of the comics creative process - when you need to be hands on with a comic creator you're working with and when you need to step back and just see how it turns out?
MACCHIO: You just feel your way along. I always discuss both the direction of the book I’m editing and individual storylines with my creative personnel. I believe my big purposes are to ensure that the heroes and villains are presented in as true a manner as possible and to make sure that I've given both the writer and penciler the latitude they need to maximize their creativity. It’s always a balancing act. And some creators solicit your advice and guidance more than others and you have to be sensitive to when your stepping on their creative toes and when you’re guiding them to bring out the best in them.
MANIA: As the editor, when you're reading something you might not think is the best of ideas, do you let the writer go with it or do you use your position to have something you think needs changed, changed? Have you ever had to do anything like that with the Ultimate line?
MACCHIO: I can’t recall any specific incidence, but if a writer hands me something that just doesn’t work I will let him know and we’ll discuss and debate it and, hopefully, reach a point of compromise. While I do have the final say on the content of an Ultimate title, I try not to be insistent as that makes for an unhealthy atmosphere. The one place I might really put my foot down is regarding continuity. I don’t want anyone coming in and violating what’s been established because they can’t be bothered to research or they think their story is more important so we need to violate continuity. But I’m rarely if ever in that situation because I discuss things with my talent before it would ever get to that stage.
MANIA: Out of each of the titles in the Ultimate line you're editing, what has surprised you the most about some of the recent events?
MACCHIO: On Ultimates, it’s that Bryan Hitch and Mark Millar have seen their plan—which they had in mind when they started the series—is coming to fruition pretty much as they’d planned it. Yes, it’s taken months longer than any of us had hoped, but when their run is finished, it will read like one illustrated novel.
On Ultimate X-Men, it’s seeing Robert Kirkman come on and find his sea legs and really turn in some good stories and keep his eye on the ball despite the multiple pencilers we’ve thrown at him.
On Ultimate Fantastic Four, it’s learning that there is life after Millar and Land. I’ve been very happy with both Mike Carey’s work and Pasqual Ferry’s incredible visuals. They mesh beautifully, and more people should be picking up that title.
On Ultimate Spider-Man, it’s seeing that Brian Bendis and Mark Bagley are turning in their best work after 100 issues. Mark has really come into his own as penciler on this book and he handles the super heroics as well as he handles the high school hi jinks. And Brian simply is a creative dynamo who is just warming up even after all this time on the title. That’s incredible and a great source of pride for me.
I just hope everybody reading this will give each of those four titles a try and see if they don’t have a great time reading them.
MANIA: What other Marvel Comics would you recommend as good starting points?
MACCHIO: Far be it from me to recommend other Marvel titles. Each of them has their own charms and I wouldn’t want to prejudice anybody one way or the other. We’ve got books for every taste and for those who are dyed-in-the-wool Marvelites and for those just poking their toe in the water for the first time. I say try ‘em all!
Jennifer M. Contino is a lifelong comic book fan. You can read her work every weekday at http://www.comicon.com/pulse