Forgotten Comics Wars

Or: How Angry Freelancers Made It Possible for A New Mainstream Comics Era (Including Vertigo) to Exist…

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As noted here yesterday (and over the weekend via my Facebook posts), I turned up a motherlode of archival materials in the SpiderBaby Archives this past weekend while recuperating from a wicked bout with a cold/flu.

Primary among these materials — for my interests, anyway — was the complete files of the long-forgotten DC/Marvel ‘internal ratings’ debacle from 1986-87.

There’s literally over a hundred pages of documents here, including personal letters, photocopies of the entire debate that burned through the letters pages of The Comics Buyer’s Guide (when that publication was indeed relevant and vital to our interests as creators and freelancers), editorial cartoon sketches and finishes (see above), and internal documents. This forging of an activist professional creator community was intoxicating, and this permutation culminated a year later in the launch of WaP!, the short-lived zine for creators I wrote about some time ago in this venue –

  • (I first made reference to WaP! here,
  • and here,
  • and finally posted a selection of WaP! cover images and more info with this post. More to follow in the future, as time permits.)
  • Well, that age of creative activism — a period of a few years when I actually felt part of a vital, alive and ripe-with-potential professional creative comics community — was launched with this now-forgotten shockwave that rippled through parts of the comics freelancer collective in late 1986 and into 1987. It eventually led to my bond with Dave Sim, Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, and others I grew very close to for a time, and personally and professionally led to the birth and publication of Taboo and, later, Tyrant.

    I can’t even say there was a recognizable warning: a phone call from Frank Miller one afternoon kicked off my direct participation, and there was no doubt (then or now) it was Frank leading the charge. The first public manifestation was this pre-emptive strike, a full-page ad in the Comics Buyer’s Guide:

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    Events escalated quickly. It was DC, not Marvel, that took the brunt of the controversy, as it turned out DC was indeed about to mail freelancers a new set of ‘internal guidelines.’ Per usual (as they had with royalties, etc.), Marvel waited for DC to play their hand — and so skirted the heat that followed.

    If memory serves, Frank got his hands on a copy of that DC memo and FAXed it to a bunch of us, and the following letter was signed by a collective (I’ve trimmed off the signatures for obvious reasons, but it’s an impressive couple of pages!) that included Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Howard Chaykin, Marv Wolfman, myself and many others. It was Fed Xed to Jeanette Kahn, then head honcho/Publisher at DC Comics, Inc.:

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    Revisiting the entire span of events via this file, I’m having some major memory flashbacks.

    Ah, those were the days!

    While the individuals remain, that community is long gone, dispersed by ensuing events. Everyone had their own direction to follow in subsequent years — personal paths, agendas, successes, failures, fresh avenues, lack of alternatives, the need for work and income, the never-ending allure of ‘secure’ work-for-hire safety nets and terms, the erosion of ideals and bonds, loss, victory, defeat, triumph, etc. — and by the time the Direct Market implosion of 1996-97 hit a decade later, it was all over but the tears.

    I’ll share more of this here in the coming days/weeks, as time permits, and do a proper essay now that full documentation is right at hand. In the meanwhile, I’m got to get back to my CCS teaching duties, wrap up this Swamp Thing: The Curse hardcover introduction, and will regale you with more tantalizing images and tidbits from the SpiderBaby Archives excavation in the coming days…

    “Censorship” cartoon ©1986, 2010 Frank Miller; posted for archival purposes only, all rights reserved to Frank Miller.

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    Discussion (5) ¬

    1. Zatoichi

      I remember alot of this hubbub when Marv Wolfman appeared on Harlan Ellison’s radio show Hour 25 in Los Angeles. It was around this time that I was rapidly losing interest in comic books. 1963 was an exception however.

    2. Jason Moore

      Excellent stuff Steve. I really wish you could post ALL of that stuff in it’s entirety. I followed all of this as closely as I could back in the day and I am still very much interested in everything that occured then. It was and still is a very important time in our comics industry. As a comics professional myself, all of it was / is of interest. I am enthralled by reading this stuff and I hope you post as much of it as you can! I also think it’s just fantastic that you’ve kept all of this type of stuff from the past. Great job Steve!

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