Forgotten Comics Wars

Or: How Angry Freelancers Made It Possible for A New Mainstream Comics Era (Including Vertigo) to Exist, Part 5


“Nobody wants censorship. It is, after all, a fundamental principle upon which our country was founded that each of us has freedom of choice in where we worship, if we worship, what we think, what we say, what we write, and what we read.

This makes America a difficult place to live. It would be much easier if we had one religion, one political party, one moral and ethical point of view — in short, one set of standards by which everyone was to live. But nobody wants that.”

… The last attack on comics succeeded in decimating the industry and castrating the comics only because the comics publishers, with the exception of William Gaines, handed the victory to the enemy voluntarily. If [Buddy] Saunders, and others, have their way, and if the publishers are as cowardly as their predecessors were, recent progress in the development of the artform could well be aborted.

No, Buddy Saunders doesn’t want censorship. Nobody wants censorship.”

- Frank Miller, “Guest Editorial,” The Comics Buyer’s Guide, December 19, 1986.

“Frank Miller fires his big guns… so now it’s time for those of us who oppose his point of view to counterattack while he reloads. I’ll try a little fire for effect first.”

‘Jerry Falwell would not like it.’ It took Miller less than two sentences to inveigh against the name of Falwell, a man he clearly does not understand. Miller’s contempt of him not withstanding, Jerry Falwell is not Frank Miller’s nemesis, and Miller’s life would be better, not worse, if Jerry Falwell came to politicial power in this country. Better because Jerry Falwell understands the Constitution much better than Frank Miller does. Falwell is a free man who knows the difference between freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

‘Nobody wants censorship.’ He could not be more wrong, for I want censorship…”

- Robert E. Butts,, letter in “O’ So?,” The Comics Buyer’s Guide, January 2, 1987.

SRBDCRatingsdoc1bWhat a Christmas gift to comics creators, readers and fans all this was.

By the January 2, 1987 issue of The Comics Buyer’s Guide, the letters pages (entitled “O’ So?”) were alight with the controversy.

There were those who sided with Frank and the rest of us, and those (see quote above) absolutely aligned with pro-labeling forces and even pro-censorship sentiments — and every variation of the rainbow in between. Rationalizations, equivocations, desperately sought middle ground, polarized extremes; those early 1987 Comics Buyer’s Guides still make for fascinating reading, as timely as ever given our current political tempests. We’ve learned little or nothing, the same battle lines exist, the same extremes embraced, the same courage and cowardice when under fire demonstrated by new players.

As I’ve already made clear and documented fully (see earlier installments, including the actual arrest document from the December 10, 1986 Friendly Frank’s Comics bust), labels were not a solution.

The labels that did exist were targets, and we had testimonials from the police officers involved making that abundantly clear.

Per usual in such firestorms, the information just wasn’t getting out — or if it was, it wasn’t sinking in. “What [Buddy] Saunders is saying is true,” John Cheves wrote (in the January 2, 1987 “O’ So?” letter column), “we must protect ourselves from Meese and the other fundamentalist idiots by labeling offensive material. …As long as we have a label on the cover, it will be very difficult for a mother to sue a comics shop because her 7-year-old watched Silk Spectre and Nite-Owl take off each other’s clothes. …Yes, we have to censor ourselves. Either we do it or Meese does; which do you prefer?” Fresh political bogeyman Meese was U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, whose Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, aka the Meese Commission, convened in the spring of 1985 and published its findings in July 1986 to much controversy, establishing major firing lines in the cultural wars of the President Ronald Reagan era (an era many are nostalgic for now, save those of us who lived in them; it was not a stellar moment in American history, and Reagan was not yet a lionized US President, nor will he ever be for many of us who remember what his Presidency really was and truly represented).

But one of the highpoints in the letters exchanges was this early entry, a sadly long-forgotten letter from DC editor/writer Marv Wolfman, still at the top of his game in the market and hot as a pistol for his 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths 12-issue miniseries (among other popular creations):


The January 2, 1987 issue of The Comics Buyer’s Guide featured letters from Grimjack writer John Ostrander (unopposed to “ratings/guidelines as I understand them — italics John’s — while “…’unalterably opposed’ to running up the white flag due to fear and paranoia…”), Robert J. Sodaro and others, including the Robert Butts letter I’ve quoted from above. Best of all was a pointed letter from Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, Claudine Giraud, Jean-Marc Lofficier and Randy Lofficier (“…first those who advocate rating books will strike at sex and violence, because they are easy targets. But soon, as Buddy Saunders letter amply demonstrated, they will start rating books according to their political content.”).

The January 9, 1987 issue of The Comics Buyer’s Guide featured a ‘Guest Editorial’ from the best-selling writer in comics, X-Men scribe Chris Claremont (“…out of that fear — and all the wonderful, ‘rational’ justifications put forward in a vain, desperate attempt to banish it — they may well destroy what they’re trying so hard to save…”). Better yet was a scathing response to Buddy Saunders letter from comics writer Steven Grant:

“Tell you what, Buddy; write and draw, or hire someone to write and draw, exactly the comics you want to see. Put them in your shops with the works of Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin, Alan Moore, Marv Wolfman, Chris Claremont — all of whose work has fit your description at one time or another — and may the best books win. That’s the way the free market system is supposed to work.

…Most creators I know are doing their best to express a vision of the world as they see it. They believe in allowing others to express differing visions. That’s what this country is supposed to be about, not the rule of fear and hysteria. If we feel that what we’re doing has value and importance, then we — publishers and retailers and creators and distributors and readers alike — should fight the good fight, like Buddy’s childhood heroes would tell us to. And if we must go down, we owe it to ourselves to go down in flames.”

And then there was this:

SRBDCRatings3dBut this controversy — though it was just really getting started — was already clocking up a body count.

The second casualty in the crossfire (the first, for December 1986, was undoubtably Michael Correa, the man behind the counter at the Friendly Frank’s Comics bust) was none other than Marv Wolfman.

How dare Marv, an editor as well as a writer at DC Comics, sign the petition against DC Comics‘s proposed Standards and Practices. How dare he cosign a January 19, 1987 letter to Jenette Kahn (with Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin and Alan Moore) saying they would no longer “bring our idea and our efforts” to DC once they’d honored their “contractual obligations to DC….”

How dare he.

So Marv was ‘censored’ right out the company door.

The only scapegoat and handy corporate employ among the signatures on the freelancer-dominated petition and the January 19 letter, Marv got the corporate boot up the ass.

How it all went down was shameful — but the manner of its reporting was even more shameful. 

The week after Marv was shown the door, the lead headline in The Comics Buyer’s Guide was:

“Captain America Fired”

It was accompanied with a generic drawing of Cap to illustrate the headline.

It was mere Marvel Comics ballyhoo for a new story arc, a fiction, a publicity gimmick to sell comics, a press release disguised as news.

The smaller headline, below and tucked in the lower right hand corner of the same cover:

“Marv Wolfman Fired.”

There was no accompanying image.

A real man, a human being, in real life suddenly without a job — and The Comics Buyer’s Guide placed that grim turning point in this concentrated series of events second fiddle to a fictional construct, to Marvel‘s publicity department press release.

That pretty much said it all. 

Next: More & Moore

Discussion (14) ¬

  1. Martin Wisse

    Excellent series. As somebody who got into American comix in the late eighties, I knew sort of about these events, but having it all laid out thias way is very enlightening. This is comics history that needs to be written about and too rarely is.

  2. James Robert Smith

    Do any of you ever get calls or letters from the honchos at Vertigo thanking your for taking the stand that made them possible?

  3. srbissette

    Bob, are you fucking kidding me?

  4. Michael

    Reading these pieces really puts Joe Quesada’s mealy-mouthed, whimpering apology over the Captain America “tea party” controversy (I would’ve put quotes around that, too, if it wouldn’t have looked weird) into perspective, don’t it?

  5. Kieron Gillen

    This is fantastic stuff. Thank you.

  6. Derek McCulloch

    This really took me back. I was involved with the Canadian end of the free-speech-in-comics fight, co-founding the Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund to help a comic shop in Calgary that got Friendly Franked. We did various things to raise funds, most prominently publishing two anthologies called “The True North.” I’d forgotten this, but while the original True North anthology had contributions only from people either born or living in Canada (Matt Wagner and Joe Matt being the resident aliens), True North II went international and included a contribution from Mr. S.R. Bissette. So thanks from twentyish years ago (though I’m sure one of us MUST have said so back then).

  7. srbissette

    Thanks, Derek, and I was proud to be part of TRUE NORTH II. I did all I could at a time I had precious little free time (two kids!) or disposable income, including extensive fundraising within my limited means for the CBLDF (my “Journeys into Fear” lecture tour primary among those efforts, which I presented from coast-to-coast for a number of years, including Canadian venues). Nice to be remembered.

  8. srbissette

    Michael: Ya, I felt that way about Joe Quesada’s apology to the Tea Baggers. I thought, and think, they just should have reissued the art with the actual contents of some of the Tea Bagger signage in place of the tame panel art — the truly racist comments and malapropisms and misspellings characteristic of the Tea Bagger protests (photos online for all to see) would have been verifiable as accurate, and far more damaging than the tepid lettering Quesada apologized for.

  9. Robert Stanley Martin

    My recollection was that a Xerox of the letter signed by Miller, Moore, Chaykin, and Wolfman was given to the CBG by Miller with Wolfman’s permission. If I were Jenette Kahn, Paul Levitz, and Dick Giordano, I would have canned Wolfman, too. Unlike the others, he held a salaried staff position at DC; he wasn’t an independent contractor. I’d be very surprised if he hadn’t been reprimanded over the earlier petition that you signed as well.

    Anyone who publicly criticizes an employer in the press is asking to be terminated. I seem to recall an interview with Miller at the time in which he said that Wolfman anticipated that consequence.

    An employee has a responsibility to their employer in company matters. If he or she can’t honor that, it is necessary to move on. If Kahn, Giordano, and Levitz couldn’t find it within themselves to fire Wolfman over this, they should and would have been fired themselves.

    Your indignation over this seems very misplaced.

  10. Gail Simone

    Thank you for these great articles, Steve. I’m kind of astounded at how the firebrand element seemed to disappear from comics creators with the previous generation. This stuff reminds me that there are issues worth fighting for, worth being branded a troublemaker for.

    Great stuff, everyone should read it if they want to work in comics.

  11. srbissette

    Robert, I’ll be getting into the various sides of Marv’s firing as they were discussed in its wake, including Dick Giordano’s (from the DC side) and Marv’s. Again, I’ll be working from the public record, so I’m not betraying any confidences that might have been agreed to in the distant past.

    That said, my ‘indignation’ was over the fact Marv was scapegoated; it was also over the implicit (soon to be explicit) issue Marv had with one of the lies at the core of DC’s campaign: editors were NOT consulted, as DC claimed, and Marv, as the sole editor of the group signing the petition and of the quartet signing the TCBG letter, was making it obvious to all of us DC had not consulted its own editors, as it stated it had.

    Marv was the whistleblower, though in the heat of the exchanges almost nobody saw fit to explain what precisely Marv’s strongly-held position, at great cost to himself, really represented.

    You’re right, of course; in the corporate business arena, DC had the right to do whatever it did every step of the way, but DC’s mishandling of this whole affair is in part what I hope becomes clearer as we proceed. Nice to know (and I am not insulting you, Robert, just stating the obvious) citizens condoning the sway of corporate ideology remain as steadfast today as they did in 1987.

    “An employee has a responsibility to their employer in company matters.” YOUR words, Robert. That does not always mean adhering to the company line, Robert, and I hope you know history is peppered with corporate martyrs like Marv who have made a huge difference in the company’s future fortunes, however much then-present management reviled the individual whistleblower.

    Marv believed he did have “a responsibility to [his] employer” — and that part of that responsibility, since his direct conversations with DC management was falling on deaf ears, was to take a public stand on the issue of the ratings and standards being proposed.

    Marv’s stand indeed made a difference; DC backing away from their proposed standards and ratings made a positive difference for DC as a corporation (can you say ‘Vertigo’?); and DC continued to profit from not pursuing the ill-advised path they were proposing in late 1986-early 1987.

    In hindsight, it should be absolutely clear that Marv DID THE RIGHT THING — he was honoring what he perceived as his responsibility to DC, his employer, though not in a manner DC approved of or appreciated — for himself, for his fellow creators, for his fellow editors (Karen Berger surely benefited in the long run), and for DC Comics Inc.

    DC profited for decades to come from the stand we took against their proposed plan. And none of us paid the immediate price Marv paid as the sole DC employer in the group. Others — including Alan — paid over the long term (Alan still is, in many ways), as did I; but that’s not the point of this essay. Marv’s role is central to the narrative, and deserves to be detailed, reviewed and fully understood.

  12. Sean Aaron

    Great stuff Steve. I loved your work on Swamp Thing (and elsewhere).

    I was in high school and had undergone a return to comic buying during this time, a patron of Dan Vado’s “A World of Fantasy” in San Jose (he of Slave Labour Graphics fame). I can remember him bearing the torch for the CBLDF and urging his customers to buy The True North (which I did) and assuring them that he would continue to stock the cutting edge works of yourself, Alan Moore and others. In fact Dan gave me a copy of Swamp Think #38 after I dismissed it off the cuff in comparison to Marvel’s Man-Thing (I was a bit of a punk) so sure was he that I’d enjoy it. It was a revelation and needless to say my collection of your’s and Mssr. Moore’s work on that title has pride of place on my shelf to this day.

    Thanks to you and the others for championing the cause; I shudder to think what might have been otherwise…

  13. srbissette

    Thanks, Sean, for the kind words and sharing your experiences with Dan Vado. Much of SWAMP THING’s considerable circulation boost (from near-cancellation 16,000 with SOTST #19 to 60,000+ by the time we were at SOTST #35) was thanks to retailers like Dan; a lot of retailers gave customers copies of SOTST to hook new readers. It was a grass-roots (pun intended) campaign the retailers initiated and sustained throughout our run.

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