Posted In: News
Forgotten Comics Wars
Or: How Angry Freelancers Made It Possible for A New Mainstream Comics Era (Including Vertigo) to Exist, Part 4
“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
“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
What 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:
* 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.
* 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).
* 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:
* 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:
* 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:
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…
* A proper PS to the recent opening chapters to this essay:
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:
Thanks, Colleen, and very much appreciated!
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.