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Resident proves ‘with great power comes great’ ... comic-books

Posted: March 30, 2018

by Charles Cassady Jr.

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The annual Wizard World Comic-Con in Cleveland famously brought Stan Lee and other luminaries in the world of comics and pop-culture to Northeast Ohio in March.

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But one of the visitors hailed from – no, not a galaxy far, far away – but Twinsburg.

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Marc Steven Sumerak is a local man who lives the stuff that dreams are made of (at least for the last few generations). He contributes to the legendary “House of Ideas” famously associated with Stan Lee and known as Marvel Entertainment.

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“I fell in love with comics as soon as I could read, maybe even before,” said Sumerak. “And I still have copies of comics that I made on my own when I was barely able to write or draw. So I’ve clearly had a lifelong love of the medium.”

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Sumerak is a Cleveland Heights native whose family moved to Solon when he was still in elementary school.

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“I graduated from Solon High School in 1996 and then attended Bowling Green State University,” he said. “I earned a [Bachelor of Fine Arts] in Creative Writing from BGSU in 2000. Immediately after that, I moved to New York City to join the Marvel Comics editorial staff.”

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Comics and movie fans (there is considerable crossover) should note this was a critical period in Marvel Comics history. After years of wobbly attempts to transform Marvel superhero classics into bankable Hollywood blockbusters (there had been better luck with TV cartoons and Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk), quality Marvel-universe movies such as “X-Men” were finally getting made. Marvel material was feeding into groundbreaking virtual-reality theme-park rides and video games.

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Even though the company itself was in financial trouble, Marvel was an exciting place for any job seeker. How did Sumerak, as a young graduate, make it into the sanctum – without even wielding Thor’s hammer or Captain America’s shield or Doctor Strange’s runes?

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“Throughout high school, I created all kinds of ridiculous comic stories with my best friend, purely for our own amusement,” he explained. “When we went off to separate colleges, we started publishing those stories online.

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“I’m certain that there were a lot of talented students vying for the same spot in the program. Judging by the other members of my own intern class – most of whom have gone on to astounding creative careers across the entertainment industry – I’m amazed that I was one of the lucky names selected. I think what probably pushed me over the edge was the fact that I was already publishing my own comics online. I think it showed the Marvel team that I clearly had the ambition to make comics and, maybe, just a little bit of raw talent that they could help shape further.”

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Starting as an assistant editor, he worked on literally hundreds of titles, including Thor, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Power Pack, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Iron Man and others. “Many people don’t realize what a comic-book editor really does. They think that they only catch spelling and punctuation mistakes, like most copy editors do. But the comic-book editor is really more of a project manager,” he said.

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Editors hire (and sometimes fire) the talent on a book, according to Sumerak, making sure that the writer and artists are the right fit for the characters and stories. They manage the production workflow, making sure that every member of the team – including the writer, penciler, inker, colorist, and letterer – are turning their work in on time and free of error. They guide the stories and act as the guardian of the characters, making sure that continuity and personality mesh across the publishing line.

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“And, sure, they proofread and make basic copy corrections, too. And they do all of this on anywhere up to 20 books a month!”

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And, Sumerak said, Stan Lee had long since moved out to the West Coast (though was very much a figurehead), so banish all thought of sitting around with the great man trying to figure out the infamously convoluted Spider-Man “Clone Saga.”

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“Working on staff at a comic book company is definitely not for the faint-hearted,” said Sumerak. “Days were long and exhausting, but also insanely rewarding once a final printed book was held in your hands.”

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Sumerak said one of this favorite assignments was handling the Fantastic Four, a comics franchise revered as the first one to bear out Stan Lee’s notion of “heroes with hang-ups,” that is to say, human-scale flaws and complexities, even in the way-out fantasy contexts.

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“I was never a big Fantastic Four fan as a kid. But when I first got hired on staff at Marvel, my boss immediately made me read the first 100 issues of the series. I soon realized that the FF was really the foundation upon which the Marvel Universe was built, and I fell in love with them. Specifically, I realized how great the Thing was as a character. He is a monster with a heart of gold who holds the team together, even though he’s the only member who isn’t technically part of the family. He really is Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at their best.”

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Marvel was still rebounding from near-bankruptcy when Sumerak started in the NYC offices. “Now it’s a multi-billion dollar brand owned by Disney. So yeah, there have been some significant changes over the years! … Leaving staff was a hard decision, but there were a lot of personal factors that influenced my decision [to move to Twinsburg]. It was just the right time for me to make a change, and I had learned so much during my time as an editor that it made the leap a little less terrifying. But only a little.

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“Since all of Marvel’s creative talent is freelance, we can live wherever we want. For me, it made sense to come back to the Cleveland area to be closer to friends and family.”

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Lately, Sumerak has been writing superhero crossovers for the video-game trade, especially mobile games and downloadable apps. It is not so different from writing narratives in graphic-panel formats, he said.

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“Honestly, I think the level of storytelling in video games has already reached the point of many blockbuster films,” he said. “It’s astounding to see what development teams are creating from a narrative perspective. Keeping a player engaged and invested has become a vital part of the creation process, and so many companies have risen to the challenge.”

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He’s also entered a different phase of fleshing out the Marvel universe and similar creations: writing books that examine some pop culture favorites. “I’ve gotten the chance to provide the text for guidebooks, visual histories and art collections featuring characters and worlds that I adore, including Harry Potter, Ghostbusters, The Walking Dead, Firefly, and, of course, Marvel.

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“One unannounced book that I’m working on for fall 2018, will be my first chance to write for a franchise I’ve loved since I was a kid, so that has been a real honor.”

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Beyond that, Sumerak is still providing new story content for the popular mobile game “Marvel: Future Fight,” along with newer video game projects in “deep development” that he cannot talk about.

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“It is a lot to juggle,” he said, “and occasionally leaves me wishing that I had super powers myself to help me keep up. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything!”

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Sumerak meets and greets fans and even leads workshops at additional local and national comic-cons. Expect him at C2E2 in Chicago in April, E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) in Los Angeles in June, and Akron Comicon in November. He may even attend the mighty San Diego Comic-Con in July.

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Keep up with the latest exciting installments in the Marc Steven Sumerak chronicles at sumerak.com.

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