Forgotten Comics Wars

Or: How Angry Freelancers Made It Possible for A New Mainstream Comics Era (Including Vertigo) to Exist, Part 4

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“Let me clarify my position with a flat-out statement, guaranteed to offend all those who consider themselves stalwart champions of Freedom in this Nation: I see nothing wrong, per se, with a rating system for comic books. In fact, in a market increasingly occupied by comic books intended for an older or ‘more mature’ audience, I think a rating system would be a good idea — if it could be made to work. The problem is, it probably couldn’t.

…There must be a middle ground, and it lies with the publishers, editors, writers, artists and the retailers to find that middle ground, and stake out its borders for all to see. Common sense is all it takes. To paraphrase [Senator Barry] Goldwater, moderation in defense of Liberty is no sin.”

- John Byrne, “Guest Editorial,” The Comics Buyer’s Guide, January 23, 1987
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“If Robert Crumb didn’t feel censored by putting a rating on his comix, First Comics and the Epic line have nothing to worry about.” 

- Gary Groth, The Comics Journal #88, January 1984
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SRBDCRatingsdoc1bWhat prompted DC Comics, flush with the success of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, to even propose such a set of self regulatory guidelines and labels? Where did all this come from?

The fact of the matter is, the debate over ‘rating’ comicbooks, or establishing an industry ratings system, had been going on for quite some time by 1986.

And what I found so surprising at the time was how many creators and publishers seemed happy to play along. Jan Strnad (who had written some of my favorite underground and Warren comics stories for Richard Corben) and Gary Groth weighed in early — in the October 1983 The Comics Journal #85 — with Jan actively campaigning for a ratings system, and Gary seeing no problem with that (I am being necessarily glib summarizing their carefully articulated arguments; see the cited issues of The Comics Journal for the full context and their complete essays).

Others of us strongly disagreed, and things were really heating up in 1986, culminating in DC‘s proposed Standards and Practices system and cover labels. 

Here’s a brief summary, culled from my files and the documents Frank Miller mailed me in December 1986. And this, mind you, is just some of what was going on — there isn’t time to detail all of it:

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* Spring 1986: Southland Corporation removes Playboy, Penthouse and Forum adult magazines from all 4500 of its company-owned retail venues after campaigns mounted by Jerry Falwell‘s Moral Majority and Donald Wildmon‘s National Federation for Decency, and urges its 3600 licensed/franchised venues to do the same.

* National Federation for Decency mounts a boycott against the National Convenience Stores of Houston chain Stop N Go convenience stores for sale of adult magazines in their retail newsstands; as of June 1986, National Federation for Decency reports to have successfully removed adult magazines from over 20,000 retail venues.

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* April 1st, 1986 non-April Fool’s joke: Clerk at Garry’s Comic Stop in Edgewater, Illinois is arrested for selling a copy of the Eclipse Comics title Alien Encounters to an 8-year-old customer; comic carried a small “Mature Readers” label (see April 9, 1986 Edgebrook Times Review features news story “X-Rated Comic Sale Leads to Arrest”). Owner Garry Sher closes up shop for good two weeks later, citing “a severe decline in traffic” due to the arrest, a letter from the child’s school written by the principal and circulated among all parents, and the negative newspaper coverage (see Internal Correspondence, July 1986, Capital City Distribution; reprinted as ‘Guest Editorial,’ The Comics Buyer’s Guide, July 18, 1986).

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* Increasingly gruesome cover imagery and comicbook stories and artwork prompts controversy, including ‘Sophisticated Suspense’ labeled Saga of the Swamp Thing and many Code-approved mainstream titles considered suitable for all readers (see Tom Mandrake cover art for Batman #399, cover dated September 1986, on stands in June 1986, above).

* Cursing in comics prompts a ‘Guest Editorial’ by Dan Tyree in The Comics Buyer’s Guide for June 27, 1986 calling for moderation from writers (who “can claim vindication through their fat royalties and fawning groupies”): “…humor me and the other hayseeds who think that the road to a more sophisticated audience for comic books lies elsewhere than acting like giddy third-graders parroting a new dirty word.”

* July 1986 issue of Capital City Distribution‘s Internal Correspondence calls for labels on product. “Let’s wise up! Publishers must label their product properly. Retailers must be aware of what they’re selling… It has taken 30+ years and a new system of distribution and retailing to begin recovery from what happened to comics in the ’50s. Never Again!”

* October 20, 1986 Eyewitness News (WUSA, Washington DC CBS affiliate TV station) features news story “Sick Comix?,” attacking Marvel Comics/Epic Comics series Elektra: Assassin (by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz); reporter Jane Van Ryan returned on October 21 with part two, “Are They Really So Sick?” spotlighting Elektra: Assassin, Night Streets, Street Wolf and other comicbooks, with testimony from local retailers Ellen Vartanoff and Lance Racey and Diamond Comics Distributors‘s Steve Geppi (for more, see “Washington CBS-TV Station Looks at ‘Sick Comix’” by Lawrence Watt-Evans, The Comics Buyer’s Guide, November 14, 1986). That same week, Bob Larson‘s radio talk show attacked comicbooks as “occultic” calling creators and publishers “greedy merchants of lust and porn” and urging “good Christians” to avoid all comicbooks (see “Radio Talk Show Host Calls Comics ‘Occultic,’ ‘Porn’,” The Comics Buyer’s Guide, October 17, 1986; Steve Bond, “Guest Editorial,” The Comics Buyer’s Guide, November 28, 1986).

* October 1986: Diamond Comics Distributors sends a letter to all retail accounts expressing “a growing concern regarding violence, excessive nudity, and subject matter that is inappropriate in the youth market,” citing Elektra: Assassin, Miracleman, American Flagg! and Watchmen, among others, as potential problem titles.

* November/December 1986 (approx): The Comics Code Authority informs DC Comics Inc. that Kevin O’Neill‘s drawing style (!!!!!) is across-the-board inappropriate for any Code-approved comicbook, and will not be approved by the Code for publication. Precisely how this is communicated to DC Comics is never announced or publicized, but I have notes from phone conversations with Alan Moore and Karen Berger about this, and the following editorial cartoon from The Comics Buyer’s Guide, December 19, 1986 provides a public ‘announcement’ bookmark of sorts:

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* December 12, 1986: “Guest Editorial” by Frank Miller published in The Comics Buyer’s Guide marks the first clear statement from a prominent creator to stand firm against the increasing alarm and apparent consensus that a ratings system or some form of regulation is necessary or desirable:

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* In one of the many synchronistic events in this chronology, the very same issue of The Comics Buyer’s Guide published this letter from prominent Texas comicbook retailer Buddy Saunders:

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That pretty much sums it up — Frank‘s succinct statement to stand tall and broker no compromise, Buddy‘s detailed outline of his desire as a retailer and a proposed set of Standards and Practices that would have handily derailed the Brothers Grimm, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys (“…avoid the depiction of children being physically threatened…”). 

This is what led to DC Comics proposing (with every intention of institutionalizing) their Standards and Practices.

This is what led to a group of us saying, ‘No!’ 

It was abundantly clear to us — especially in the wake of the December 10, 1986 sting and arrest of Michael Correa and Friendly Frank’s Comics — that there was no ‘middle ground.’ 

Prisoners were, quite literally, being taken.

Labels did not work.

The Comics Code was regulating artistic drawing styles out of bounds.

Capital Distribution, Diamond Distributors and now DC Comics Inc. were capitulating to fear.

The comics industry was prepared to self-regulate the comics medium into a new dark age — just as we were on the cusp of so much raw potential being tapped, and perhaps a glorious new golden age for the future.

Enough was enough…
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* A proper PS to the recent opening chapters to this essay:
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Colleen Doran just excavated and posted the offending page (!) from her own contribution to the comics charged with obscenity in the December 1986 Friendly Frank’s bust:

  • Have a look at the infamous passage from Marvel Comics/Epic Comics Swords of the Swashbucklers #11 (December 1986) that offended hardened police officers back in ’86 — proceed at your own risk!
  • Thanks, Colleen, and very much appreciated!
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    Next: The Pot Boils, Marv Wolfman Pays the Price, and More…

    “Everett True’s Believe It or Not!” #162 ©1986, 2010 Tony Isabella and Gary Dumm, all rights reserved; posted here for archival and educational purposes only.



    Discussion (14) ¬

    1. Paul Riddell

      Yeah, about Buddy Saunders. Let me tell you something from the trenches.

      For a very long time in the late Eighties and early Nineties, one Lone Star Comics location was the only easily accessible comic shop for me. Until 1995, several friends were running and operating the now-defunct Preston Road and Forest Lane location in Dallas, so I spent a considerable amount of time and money in that shop while visiting with them. In the process, I got to see firsthand exactly how well Buddy’s little scheme to protect the universe’s little children from bad porno comics really worked.

      Buddy’s biggest problem was that he was an idealogue, and idealogues are perfectly willing to lose money in order to make a point. By the time I returned to comics in the very early Nineties, his shops were doing their absolute best to draw in kids. Well, kindasorta: all of the toy racks and Harvey Comics displays up front didn’t necessarily attract the kids as the soccer moms who needed a cheap babysitting service while getting cosmetics from the Ulta across the parking lot. “Here, sweetie, you come in here and read comics while Mommy gets her pedicure. I’ll be back in four hours.” Since that shop was right on the edge of the Park Cities area of Dallas, which in turn is one of the richest neighborhoods on the planet, this meant the store was usually full of budding entitlement brats who had no money on them but were perfectly willing to scream at the staff and patrons the way they’d scream at the help at home.

      This in itself wasn’t a problem per se, but Buddy’s kick on protecting comics for kids naturally precluded those kids who grew up and wanted something other than The Fantastic Four. By the time I stopped going there, the whole comics section was broken down into self-imposed ratings, with the vast majority of Marvel’s and DC’s output in the “I-14″ section only accessible to those customers who could prove they were at least 14 years of age. Better yet, while the “I-18″ section was supposed to be completely off limits to minors, it also happened to be right next to the collectible comics archive and most of the collectible toys. During the height of the boom, when you’d see 12-year-old Marvel zombies dragging their Dads in to buy that one really collectible X-Men back issue they wanted, I’d see Dad’s gaze wandering off to the I-18 section and staying there, and sometimes the kids’ gazes would follow.

      Again, not a problem, because if that’s the way Buddy wanted to run his stores, that was his own business. I just found it very funny that directly on the other side of the back door from the I-18 section was the print magazine section, and nobody was saying a thing about whether or not kids would be allowed to buy Film Threat (complete with the cover of Howard Stern as Fartman) or Science Fiction Eye.

      The real clincher? After a while, precious few casual customers would come in, and those that asked for anything other than kids’ comics were dissuaded. At times, it seemed like the ordering was some foul joke intended to get customers to keep coming back and then settle for what was being offered. Snag a copy of Those Annoying Post Bros. off the stand and come back for more issues? Well, tough luck, because not only would Buddy not order more issues for the displays, but he wouldn’t order copies for box holders more often than not. I finally stopped going when my then-girlfriend became addicted to Strangers In Paradise when it first started and was told at this store that not only had they not heard about it, but “Buddy probably won’t let us get it anyway.” It got even worse when DC started up the beginnings of the Vertigo line: okay, Sandman was available, but Preacher? Hell, my friends working at the store had to go elsewhere to buy their copies. In order to keep his store kid-safe, Buddy was perfectly willing to let business go elsewhere, and it was only when most of his customers threatened to leave if they couldn’t get something like Preacher that the stores belatedly started carrying it…hidden waaaaaaaaay up high on the top shelf of the I-18 section, so that most people didn’t even know it was there.

      The real irony of the situation was that by driving off casual readers, Lone Star actually made one of its problems worse. By now, the term “Cat Piss Man” is a standard in fandom to describe the worst sort of cliched fan, but not that many people realize that this store was where the original Cat Piss Man, the one who helped coin the term, bought all of his comics. He’d come waddling in at random times, not caring that the whole store would empty when exposed to his Lovecraftian stench, and he bought just enough comics that the staff couldn’t kick him out. They’d just have to deal with the odor, and his tendency to look for creased or smudged covers and then demand severe discounts for “damaged merchandise,” because he and his fellow Great Old Ones were the store’s best regular customers.

      Ultimately, that store shut down about five years ago, and relocated. This was after Jesus Castillo’s bust at Keith’s Comics (full disclosure: I started going to Jesus’s store when I gave up on Lone Star, and I consider him a king among men), and apparently Buddy thought that he could cash in on the Keith’s store having a bad name in the immediate Greenville/Lakewood neighborhood. The old Lone Star at Forest and Preston shut down and moved about three blocks up from Keith’s, assuming that the local parents would be glad to let their kids loose in a comic shop that doesn’t carry those horrible adult comics. It hasn’t worked all that well, although the local Cat Piss Man contingent is thrilled.

    2. John Platt

      I remember a lot of this from when it first happened, but this series is putting it all in context and it makes a lot more “sense” now. It’s always sad to see people making business and creative decisions out of fear. Maybe we will learn from our lessons? (Alas, I fear not.)

    3. Roger Green

      Fear was definitely a concern for a lot of retailers at the time who feared being put out of business. And depending on the geography, not an unwarranted one. I guess we at FantaCo (Albany, NY) were lucky in that we never had trouble with the mainstream companies’ product (Marvel, DC, First) in terms of complaints.

    4. Hart D. FIsher

      I remember being a comics fan during this time and I was on the Stand Tall side of things, obviously by what I went on to publish. Funny how many people will stoop and bow to the folks guiding them into the gas chambers. As far as I understand it. There is no rating system for novels. There’s some hideous shit in all those Stephen King novels i checked out at my local library.

      But then, it’s a lot harder to censor books if you have to actually sit down and read them. Comics are easy, the censors can just look at the pretty pictures and not have to be bothered with reading.

      Keep the good times coming Steve!

      Hart D. FIsher
      http://www.boneyardpress.net

    5. Hart D. FIsher

      Oh yeah, glad to hear Buddy cut his own throat. Lone Star was one of the chains that boycotted all Boneyard Press titles as part of the un-official blacklist. Great to read some background on that genius. Good to see where his dumb ass business practices led him.

    6. rhuari bradshaw

      i knew that kevin o’neill’s art was banned by the comic code, though i never knew why. over here in england we had been happily reading nemesis the warlock for it’s demonic art for years and hadn’t been corrupted yet, i just don’t understand how you can ban artist because of his style, but i know that kevin o’neill had problems from the 2000ad editors (after he went freelance from being art editor on the same title) over the art on the strip robusters, though it seems that this editor just didn’t like it and what’s not to like about his style?

    7. srbissette

      Paul, thanks for the lengthy followup on Saunders and Lone Star Comics. I wouldn’t be too quick to write ‘em off, though: I still buy back issues from Lone Star (http://www.mycomicshop.com/) and they still have seven brick-and-mortar locations (http://www.mycomicshop.com/ourstores), so don’t want the impression to stand that Lone Star isn’t with us any longer.

      That said, I respect and welcome your insights as a former customer. It’s been a rough couple of decades for most comics retailers, and only the rugged survive.

      Roger, as a frequent FantaCo customer in the shop, I always loved the place; the mix of comics, comix and monster zines made for always lively browsing, and you guys (I particularly recall Matt being personable) seemed to have a good handle on your customers needs and interests. The horror angle that increasingly dominated aspects of FantaCo’s lineup and display (God, I loved the monster magazines displayed on the wall!) may have tempered the expectations of those who walked in the door, too, making it pretty obvious it wasn’t a children’s store.

    8. Torsten Adair

      Marvel recently took much criticism when they edited naughty scenes from the Essential Tomb of Dracula, originally a Marvel Magazine.

      Did Marvel ever receive any criticism for the more “adult” magazines they published? Warren? You mentioned Heavy Metal.

      Did any publishers ever consider printing more mature comics in a magazine size, at a higher price point? It worked for MAD, I wonder if it would have worked for other comics.

      Finally, I’m sure this will have to wait for the epilogue… DC labels comics, mostly Vertigo titles. Given all the battles of this time (which I experienced as a teen in Omaha, Nebraska), what was the ultimate outcome?

    9. Bill Anderson

      Some of the customers were more frightening than anything we ever put on the shelves at Fantaco.

    10. srbissette

      Torsten, all in good time — for the record, Marvel had plenty of b&w comics zines for about a five-six year stretch, with SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN lasting longer than any other. Warren’s run on CREEPY, EERIE, VAMPIRELLA was longer than any competitors, but Warren’s fatal misstep with a HEAVY METAL spinoff/competitor entitled 1984 (changed to 1994 a few issues into the run) brought their whole enterprise crashing down. A ’1994′ story crudely satirizing racist manhunts went too far, ending with a graphic J. Ortiz splash of a white dad and his white son pulling a fetus from a dead black woman’s belly, with dad saying, “Look, son, this one was packing veal!” resulted in all military bases refusing all future Warren zines, precipitating a major loss of revenue for Warren that ultimately killed the line.

      B&W zines never really proved a high enough revenue stream for Marvel; DC’s only experiments with the format (the Jack Kirby SPIRIT WORLD and IN THE DAYS OF THE MOB) were self-destructive failures, not even issued with DC’s logo. Again, for Marvel, SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN was their greatest success as a b&w zine, and HEAVY METAL still sweeps ‘em all aside for sales, longevity and popularity, still going strong since 1977.

      Yep, DC/Vertigo labels their product. Stick with me, though, as that’s not the point of this exercise. There IS an ending of some gravity.

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