Gemstone Vice-President Publishing J.C. Vaughn recently celebrated his 25th anniversary with the company. Having worked his way up from Associate Editor to his current position, Vaughn has been an integral part of The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide and other Gemstone publications for 25 years. Having reached this milestone in his career, Vaughn took some time to reflect on his tenure with Gemstone and the Guide.
Scoop: What positions have you had with Gemstone Publishing over the course of 25 years?
J.C. Vaughn (JCV): In chronological order, I was Associate Editor, Marketing Manager, Executive Editor, and Executive Editor & Associate Publisher before becoming Vice-President of Publishing.
Scoop: What do you enjoy most about working on the Guide?
JCV: The thing I enjoy the most is trying to respond to the legacy that has been put in my charge by Steve Geppi and Bob Overstreet. It’s not lost on me that I run the day-to-day operations of a book I grew up reading. On a similar level, I love the challenge of choosing the covers for the book. In a number of interviews, I’ve said that it’s as if Bob threw down a gauntlet with his covers for CBPG #5, 6 and 7 – Joe Kubert, Will Eisner, and Carl Barks – and that every year I have to try to live up to that. I love the feeling I get when I know a cover is a home run before anyone else has even seen the final version. I love working with the top artists in the business, particular those who get the significance of the Guide and doing a cover for it.
The other thing I have to say, and this is really important, is that one of the best things is working with so many people in this industry who truly respect what the Guide is, what it means, and what Bob has always worked for it to be. It’s so cool when you meet a fan. They’re not fans of me; they’re fans of this institution. It’s awesome to be a part of something that has meant so much to so many.
Scoop: Did you always want to work in comics?
JCV: No, not “always,” but for a really long time. I think I started being serious about it when I was 13. I’d only been reading comics intensely for a couple of years at that point. I tried to write my own stories and even tried to draw them. That was tragic, of course. But where I grew up in Mt. Lebanon (suburban Pittsburgh), the legend of 13-year-old Jim Shooter writing Legion of Superheroes loomed large. Jim was from Bethel Park, a mere stone’s throw from Mt. Lebanon, so it didn’t seem at all impractical that I could start writing comics at 13. I just didn’t think it would take years before it worked out.
Scoop: Can you pinpoint some of your favorite articles that you contributed to the Guide?
JCV: Scott Braden and I wrote a piece called “Built To Last” that kept getting bumped, but it finally was the first piece of mine that ever made it into the Guide. I was so psyched when it finally got in. Since then, I’ve written a bunch, and I genuinely like most of them. I love writing about comics history and particularly the creators, so I’m never at a loss for a subject.
Scoop: Do you have a favorite volume of the Guide?
JCV: No. There’s something I love about each of them. There are also some mistakes (generally ones that no one will ever notice) that I hate about each of them. That’s just being an editor, though. I love the effort we put into each of them, and love getting in the market reports, new ads, new articles, and new covers every single time. There’s always something cool, something new, something unexpected. There are some covers I love more than others, but that’s about it.
Scoop: How about a favorite cover?
JCV: CBPG #45’s Joe Shuster Superman might be it because I dreamed about this cover for more than a decade (and thanks to Alex Sinclair for his part in making that happen). Ryan Sook’s Planet of the Apes cover on CBPG #48 is a sentimental favorite because I was actually an Apes fan before I was a comic book fan (and because it’s so unbelievably good), but the real answer is no. As I’ve said, what I really love is trying to live up to the challenge that Bob Overstreet set down before us with his early run of Kubert, Eisner, Barks, Ward, Wood, and Schomburg. How are we supposed to beat that? The fun, of course, is in the effort. Not only did Bob set the bar very high, in doing so he made it that I’ve been able to personally work with some of the very best artists in comics. I love that it’s a “bucket list” gig for many artists and that is deservedly so.
Take a look at Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man/Spawn cover for this year. Or the Wynonna Earp cover by Chris Evenhuis or the Valiant Heroes cover by John K. Snyder III. Each year we’re trying to do something that is simultaneously appealing and different. I’m already excited about next year’s Guide covers, too.
Scoop: Your 25th anniversary is happening when the comics industry and the world at large are going through a difficult time. As someone who has been a part of the industry for so long, and one who got Gemstone and the Guide through the recession in 2009, what do you anticipate happening in the near future for comics?
JCV: I think anyone making grand or dire predictions of the short term is nuts (that’s the technical term for it). On the other hand, the situation we’re in at present isn’t the result of an economic crisis, but a medical one. That’s not to say there aren’t some really tough economic results as a result of the situation; clearly there already have been and there will be more. But my belief is that the national economy will come back, and so will our industry’s. That doesn’t mean there won’t be changes, but we have so many great stories to tell and so many people want to know them… I think we’ll be back, and we’ll be back strong.
Scoop: This year, the Guide celebrates its 50th anniversary. How does it feel to be working on that milestone edition?
JCV: I’ve spent the last few years thinking about this anniversary. I’ve worked with Bob Overstreet for half the Guide’s lifespan thus far, something that seems unreal to say out loud. Dream gig or not, every job is a job sometimes, but being responsible for the 50th anniversary of a book that’s been a huge part of your life is pretty awesome. Daunting at times, sure, but sincerely something to be enjoyed, even treasured.
Scoop: What are your plans for the future of Gemstone?
JCV: Whenever anyone talks to me, it’s always fair to say that in one way or another I’m already at work on the next year’s Guide. That’s true now. And there are some very big additional plans. I just don’t want to give anything away. Also, we need to concentrate right now on helping our industry survive the economic effects of this pandemic.
Scoop: What advice would you give for someone trying to break into the industry – be it in comics, as a journalist, or as a historian?
JCV: It’s a great business filled with many high points, but one has about as much chance of earning a living at it as high school athletes do of making it to the professional ranks. The road to becoming a creator is littered with shattered dreams, but there’s also an enormous egalitarian streak in this business that’s hard to ignore. Breaking into the upper echelon of writers, pencilers, inkers and colorists is incredibly hard, but produce a professional-looking indy project and other creators will treat you like one of the gang. Just like any other creative enterprise, there’s plenty of groupthink, ageism, and other negatives, but nothing succeeds like success. Do a great comic – and market it successfully – and sometimes you can overlook the fact that there is no meritocracy here.
Writing about comics and comics history is a wide-open field. So few people do it right – conducting the research, delving into the history, providing the context for what’s going on now – that anyone who dedicates themselves to getting the story right and thinking outside the box can have a genuine impact on the industry. Chances are that you’re not going to make stockbroker money, but you’re going to enjoy what you do, and so many people all around the world never get to say that even once. It’s special.
Scoop: What are some of your favorite memories from the past 25 years at Gemstone?
JCV: Each year as my anniversary date approaches, I think about this, even though the answers don’t vary a whole lot when I’m asked. The highlights are a blend of professional and personal.
Meeting Mickey Spillane. Interviewing Jim Lovell and Mike Eruzione. Hanging out with Dodgers great Wes Parker and Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas. Getting to produce a previously unpublished Joe Shuster cover for the Guide. Becoming friends with dozens of creators whose work influenced my life. It’s really hard to pick!
A lot of the people I’ve worked with have been more than colleagues; they’re the kind of folks who will be lifelong friends. That’s the biggest thing. And because of Steve Geppi’s incredible connections, I’ve been privileged to meet a lot of famous folks who turned out to be pop culture fans. Working with Steve, Bob, Carol Overstreet, John K. Snyder, Jr., Scott Braden, Mark Haynes, Missy Bowersox, Josh Geppi, Joe McGuckin, Mark Huesman, Jamie (David) Blagg, Mike Wilbur, our current team (Amanda Sheriff, Carrie Wood, and Braelynn Bowersox) and so many others to document the history of this great medium. It’s been too cool. Working with Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, the Library of Congress, a huge number of publishers, and so many other opportunities. “Surreal” is an overused adjective, but sometimes it really fits.