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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

DC in the 80s interviews editor Dave Manak

We at DC in the 80s LOVE interviewing editors who worked at DC comics during the 1980s. Often, editors know the 'inside scoop' of what was going on behind-the-scenes and can share interesting anecdotes of working with certain comic pros or amusing stories about what was happening in the editorial meetings. Editors are the unsung heroes of the comic book industry -- they were the glue that kept our favorite books published on time and coordinated with the writer(s), artist(s), letterer(s) and everyone else on the creative team (that I'm drawing a blank on) by keeping everything from going off the rails. Next time you meet an editor of one your favorite books, tell him how much you appreciated his work.

Today we are lucky enough to interview Dave Manak.

Dave Manak in DC offices (circa early 1980s)


Justin: Welcome, Dave. Tell us a bit about your editorial time at DC comics during the eighties.

Dave: I worked on the editorial staff at DC for approximately three years from 1981 through 1983.

I edited DC’s Mystery line: Ghosts, Unexpected, House of Mystery and Green Lantern for about one year. Then I moved over to work in our Special Projects department led by my mentor and friend, Joe Orlando for my last two years on staff. There I worked on projects for various companies like Atari, Mattel, Kenner and The White House (Yes, THAT White House!) to name a few. I’ll talk more about that in time, but first let me tell you how I got to 1981.

Justin: Your career follows an interesting trajectory -- your first work (that I'm aware of) was as an artist for DC's Plop! magazine in the seventies. Plop! was kind of like DC's answer to MAD magazine. (Marvel had CRAZY magazine). I have your first artistic work cited here as 1974's Plop! #7:

Dave: Sometime in 1971, as a young guy living in Southeast PA with no contact with anyone in the comic book industry I sent a sheet of drawings of my best versions of superheroes to Joe Kubert at DC (National Periodical Publications at the time). I sent it to Joe because of my love for his art in SGT ROCK, particularly ENEMY ACE. To my shocked delight I got a letter back asking me if I’d like to visit him in NYC at the DC offices and BOOM! I was on my way to the Big City.

After a bunch of visits showing Joe new samples each time I showed him some humor cartooning I did and he introduced me to Joe Orlando, who was already famous from his time at MAD Magazine, and that was the meeting that would set things in motion. In about a year I moved to NYC and started doing some freelance production work at DC to pay the rent and sold my first single panel cartoon to DC appearing in Plop! # 6, Joe Orlando’s brainchild. Then it wasn’t long before I was penciling and inking stories for Plop!, and I became good friends with Orlando after that. Maybe he saw something of himself when he was just starting out in me. I don’t know... but I do know that for the next almost thirty years that I knew him, we had a BLAST! Oh, and that’s when I met my DC best bud: Andy Helfer. He was Joe Orlando’s assistant (or something --I’m not sure what... ha ha) but we had a lot of fun in those days. Andy went on to become a great writer and editor at DC.

cover of Plop! #24 (1976) by illustrated by Dave Manak

Dave: Joe Orlando was editor of the DC’s Mystery comics line and had mystery inventory scripts that they couldn’t use, so the two of us would sit in Joe Orlando’s office rewriting some of them and turning them into humor stories for Plop! (I think that’s how I learned how to write comics. Besides, I was a huge movies buff and was always writing screenplays in my head.) During that time I met Sergio Aragones who was the premiere artist for Plop! and, of course, a major MAD Magazine contributor. At that time the DC offices were a pretty loose place where freelance artists and writers would wander in and out freely. One could talk in the open artists bullpen area between the editorial offices really as long as you liked catching up on stuff with fellow creators, some seasoned pros and some relatively new, like me. 

Although my style was a bit "Sergio-esque", I wasn’t trying to imitate him -- although he was an influence. I got it mostly because I liked the cartoonist Charles Rodriguez who did single panel gags and work for National Lampoon. My time at Plop! was pretty much a dream come true. I played around with my art style during the seventies mainly because I worked on so many individual pieces and could. Anyway, after a few years Sergio and Joe Orlando urged me to submit some ideas to MAD Magazine. I did and sold a few cover ideas to them and some gags that Don Martin drew. WHAT A THRILL! All of the rejected ideas -- and there were quite a few, let me tell you -- I tramped over to Marvel’s CRAZY Magazine and pitched them to then editor Larry Hama. He liked them and I had an extra gig drawing them myself. Of course, an artist or writer couldn't use their own name if they sold to MAD Magazine and then sold the rejects to a competitor, so, I’m not sure how many fans know that I used the name KOVACS for that work at CRAZY.

Marvel's CRAZY magazine #41 (1978)

Dave: Also, a shout out to Paul Levitz, here. He began as Joe Orlando’s assistant editor around the same time as I showed up. We both learned how to be comic book people from Joe. And Paul, of course, became a major creator and leader that made DC the company that it is today.

I also have to mention the arrival of Jenette Kahn in 1976 as Publisher. She became president in 1981 and brought a new feeling of creativity and sophistication to comics into the eighties and nineties.

Justin: So, the next BIG move after that was becoming editor on 4 ongoing DC titles in 1981: 3 Mystery anthology titles (Ghosts, Secrets of Haunted House, and Unexpected) and 1 regular title (Green Lantern). [One of these things is not like the others -- more on that later.] How did you make the jump to editorial?

Dave: Well, that brings us to 1981. Joe Orlando asked me to have lunch with him and Dick Giordano. I had no idea what for. There they asked me if I’d be interested in becoming an editor as well as Dick’s assistant editor. Dick was then DC’s managing editor, but he was still editing the Batman titles. I’d really never thought about that line of work, but after a few days I got back to them and Manak was an editor!

I had the Mystery line of books and Green Lantern. And since the Mystery books were all-new stories, each issue I got to work with talents the likes of: Keith Giffen, Robert Kanigher, Mark Texeira, Gary Cohn, Dan Mishkin, Paul Levitz, Paris Cullins, Steve Ditko, Tony DeZuniga, Jack C Harris, Bob Rozakis, Steve Skeates, Trevor Von Eden, Steven Bissette, Paul Kupperberg, Joey Cavalieri, Greg LaRocque, Ernie Colon, Pat Broderick, Andrew Helfer, Gerry Conway, Mike Zeck, Mark Silvestri... I’d gotten to know most of these people simply by hanging out at the DC offices in the seventies -- it really was a community of freelance writers and artists, so it was easy to work with them. I got along great with everyone and I have to mention Bob Kanigher. At the time I really didn’t know what a volume of work he’d done in comics. He didn’t really talk about comics much to me but, more, as I remember about the scar he had on his cheek from a fencing match or fanciful goings on and escapades in Europe. True? Made up? Probably, but who cares? It’s a precious memory, nonetheless.

One of the things I found very cool was personally doing layout sketches for the Mystery covers and getting great artists like my old pal, Joe Kubert to do them. He loved it! Ernie Colon did some, too.

Justin: Being an editor of a title seems to require a different type of skill set than being a writer or artist on a book. How did you find the transition? What were some key take-aways from your experience? As far as you were concerned, what was your content strategy for the anthology books?

Dave: As a new editor I certainly was in the best of worlds. After all, I shared an office with Dick Giordano. What more could a novice ask for? The way I personally approached editing was pretty basic. Make sure the story had a beginning, middle and end (or cliffhanger) and to make sure it wasn’t DULL. I pretty much learned this from watching Twilight Zone episodes as a kid. As far as I'm concerned, that’s the best storytelling format for any comic book story or series... and it’s exactly what I used when I went on to do a pretty large amount of writing for Marvel’s STAR Comics.

Justin: You edited Green Lantern from issues #145 - 155 (1981 - 1982). I always liked your run of Green Lantern -- we saw a lot of his classic rogues appear (ex: Goldface, Black Hand, etc...), we saw Hal receive more characterization, the Adam Strange back-ups were dropped for Green Lantern Corps back-ups (written by Paul Kupperberg) which ultimately led to the GLC making more appearances in the regular stories, and your run more or less ended with Hal going on more sci-fi adventures (as opposed to simply protecting earth). We liked this run so much that we reviewed it several years ago. I've got to ask: Marv Wolfman was the writer during the majority of your run (issues 145 - 153) -- how much of your Green Lantern run was yours and how much was Marv? Was it a 50/50 split?

Dave: Editing Green Lantern was great!... with writers like Marv Wolfman and Paul Kupperberg, and an artist like Joe Staton, I was the one learning how to do a main-line comic from great talents like them. When a book has great talents working on it who respect the material, it’s not hard to do. I offered suggestions and that was about it.

Green Lantern #154 (1982) - cover by Gil Kane

Justin: One story I seem to recall [writer] Dan Mishkin telling me is that Blue Devil and Amethyst were originally created so that the Mystery anthology titles could have 'recurring characters' to increase readership. I believe the idea was pitched to you, which you liked, but senior management decided Blue Devil and Amethyst should have their own titles. Am I getting the story right?

Dave: Both Dan and Gary are great writers on their own, but back in 1981 they were a writing team and the Mystery books were basically try-out books for new artists and writers. The team presented the story ideas Blue Devil and Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld. I took them to Joe Orlando saying I thought they would make great new titles. Joe took them to the powers that be, and... Guess what? Those titles were born. Actually, I was in on the initial development: working with Dan and Gary writing, and Paris Cullins (on Blue Devil) and Ernie Colon (on Amethyst) as artists.

Justin: So, as I recall, the 3 Mystery anthology books all concluded in 1982. We know that around this time anthology books were falling out of flavor with comic fans as they wanted lengthier stories and consistent characters. How did this lead into your next transition?

Dave: Being an editor was fun but the Mystery line was soon going to be gone, and it’s not that I couldn’t have continued with the superhero books -- that’s what DC wanted me to do -- but I wanted to make a change.

The Special Projects Department was created to deal with the creative side of licensing; making custom comics for companies with their characters or DC properties. Joe Orlando was put in charge there and I wanted to work with him. So for the next two years that's what I did...

...but first I’d like to apologize to the writers and artists who I don’t mention here -- either my almost-forty-year-old memory doesn’t hold it anymore or I don’t have the info at hand.

Joe Orlando (circa early-to-mid 1980s)

Dave: So, working in Special Projects was an absolute whirlwind! Most of the time we had more than one project going at a time, but had to treat each as if they were the only one. Under Orlando’s leadership we did it. Joe Orlando picked most of the talent, and other times we’d have meetings to decide who would be good for what.

One of the first things we did was put together the Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew preview as a 16-page insert in 1982's New Teen Titans #16. I got to work with Roy Thomas and Scott Shaw on that. I didn’t know them before that, but they were as nice as could be and it was fun.

Dave: Then there was Atari, Mattel, Kenner and the White House and others during my two years.

For Atari and Mattel it was custom comics, for Kenner it was the Super Powers Collection (a DC-owned property) and The White House was the New Teen Titans 3-part mini-series for the government’s drug awareness program.

From what I recall, the Atari comics were pretty much based entirely on the video games with some character reference about the characters in the games and maybe a brief synopsis. I know that Dick Giordano was in charge of the biggie, Atari Force. I handled several, but my stand out memory is that Gil Kane did one of my books. It was the first time we’d met and I was in awe, for sure. I also did the art for one of them -- DIG DUG! Unfortunately, I never saw a printed version.

Then came Mattel. The property was 'Masters of The Universe' and the main character was... 'He-Man'...SCREEEECH! He-Man? Yes. And we soon found out what an iconic character He-Man would become -- with the help of DC’s mini-comics, of course! LOL. These seven comics were written by Gary Cohn and penciled by Mark Texeira. Action figures of The Masters of The Universe were already being sold, but Mattel chose DC to give them a bit of history and place them in our universe. This was also greatly enhanced by the Masters of The Universe 16-page preview insert which appeared in several DC comics in 1982, and was followed by a DC comics limited-series all written by Paul Kupperberg and penciled by George Tuska. What a team!

Masters of The Universe 16-page preview insert that was published in 1982

Dave: One funny thing: companies often send toys to people they work with in gratitude for a job well done. I was the point person for the project on the phone with Mattel at every step. Well, this huge box shows up next to my desk addressed to me. Hmmm? From Mattel. It turned out to be a full-sized Castle Greyskull with some Masters of The Universe action figures! I thanked Mattel for their kindness and since I wasn’t a toy collector I gave it to Joe Orlando, who had young kids just the right age then. I was a big hit with them for sure!

Justin: This is interesting... Mattel was obviously impressed with DC's work on the Masters of The Universe franchise, so why didn't Mattel just continue with DC and turn the Kupperberg mini-series into an ongoing series? It would seem like Mattel just decided to do their 'own thing' after those 7 DC mini-comics, and start producing their own mini-comics 'in-house' -- eventually handing the license over to Marvel's STAR comics in 1986? 

Dave: I don't know why DC didn't continue with a MOTU regular comic. Maybe they wanted to go beyond the initial contract with Mattel and couldn't come to an agreement. In retrospect, that's probably what happened.

Kenner’s Super Powers Collection featured DC action figures with a 'trick movement' built into them -- for example, slightly squeeze the legs together and the arms go up, etc. Joe Orlando did most of the actual design work on the characters, and then it was just a matter of approving the prototypes and so on. I got to meet comic book legend and god, Jack Kirby, when he dropped by Joe’s office. Kirby did some design work on some characters he created for DC’s New Gods comics with Darkseid being the headliner.

House ad for Kenner's new Super Powers Collection action figures. Collect 'em all!

Justin: I wasn't aware you were involved in the Kenners Super Powers Collection! I LOVED that toy line! Were you involved in producing the mini-comics packaged with the Kenner figures, as well? Why was the Kenners Super Powers Collection toy line discontinued? It seemed as if they had a few more waves of figures planned (ex: Blue Devil, Vigilante, Manhunter, Wonder Twins, various Legion of Super-Hero characters, Man-Bat, a few made-up characters) [editor's note: you can read all about the history of the Super Powers Collection on this fantastic fan-site:]

Dave: As far as the SUPER POWERS COLLECTION goes... Joe Orlando did most of the assigning and reviewing of the finishes because Kenner was such an important client. I think sales just weren't large enough for it to continue.

The New Teen Titans Drug awareness mini-series: these were three New Teen Titans comics done in cooperation with the President and Nancy Reagan’s Drug Awareness Program and were co-sponsored by Keebler, the American Soft Drink Industry and IBM.

Once again, it was a sheer pleasure working with Teen Titans' team [Marv] Wolfman and [George] Perez. George was an absolute joy to work with, also. I got to visit The White House and, on the whole, I’m very proud of the finished project. I guess how much real good it did will never be known, but if it had some impact on it’s readers I’d count that as a success.

The New Teen Titans Drug Awareness special #1 (1983)

Dave: Well, that kind of wraps this up. Next would be my Marvel work and meeting my cartooning best bud, Michael Gallagher, and then back to DC for Looney Tunes Magazine and MAD Magazine again, and then to Sonic the Hedgehog at Archie comics. I know I left some people out during my years at DC -- editors and peers who had an impact on my career and life -- but I hope you know that all of you guys will stay in my hearts! Hmm... maybe I’m the next Doctor.

MAD magazine #342 (1996). Art by Dave Manak (as 'M&e')

Justin: Thank you for sitting with us today, Dave!


If you have any additional question for Dave Manak, send them our way and maybe we'll be able to get answers for you. No absurd questions, thanks!

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