Posted In: News
Forgotten Comics Wars
Or: How Angry Freelancers Made It Possible for A New Mainstream Comics Era (Including Vertigo) to Exist, Part 6
“Diamond has been accused by its competitors of being a censor because of our stand. We are not censors. We no more want someone deciding for us than you do. We cannot, however, stand by and watch the marketplace become a dumping ground for every sort of graphic fantasy that someone wants to live out. We have an industry to protect; we have leases to abide by; we have a community image to maintain. Not one of these items is worth jeopardizing because someone else is trying to take advantage of the competitive marketplace….
Miracle Man [sic] #9 is no doubt, one of the most blatant examples of such material, but it is by no means the only one. Captain Jack #5 was a good candidate for runner-up. Now we have animals fondling each other’s genitals and then having intercourse. Sure, it too was labeled for mature readers but what does that mean? Is it a license to do anything? I consider myself to be mature, and I can assure you that it does nothing for me….”
- Steve Geppi, “Special Report” to Diamond Distributors retail accounts, October 23, 1986.
“I could count on one hand the number of actual obscenity busts that ever involved any undergrounds… Omaha is a very literate book, but it is not intended for children… [the Friendly Frank's Comics bust is] an aberration. I see it as a small town enforcing a small-minded ordinance.”
- Denis Kitchen, quoted in “Newswatch: Comic Shop Busted,” The Comics Journal #114, February 1987, pg. 15.
You must understand, too, that much of this was about ‘face’ — pride.
And how corporations and corporate CEOS and management — like Steve Geppi, Jenette Kahn, and Dick Giordano — deal, and don’t deal, with saving face, and losing face.
And there was a lot of ‘face’ on the floor in 1986 and early 1987 — and somebody had to pay.
I mentioned earlier that my chronology of the events of 1986 was only a partial list. Here’s a few more highlights of that year; it was a pretty memorable one:
* 1986: A bitter battle between Jack Kirby and Marvel Comics raged over the return of Kirby‘s original art, and Marvel‘s demand that Kirby sign a singular document deeding over all copyrights and claims for the return of only 88 pages out of the thousands Kirby had pencilled since 1959 (the Kirbys estimated at the time that Jack had penciled over 13,000 pages). I can’t possibly summarize the controversy here; suffice to note Kirby signed a specially negotiated ‘short form’ release for return of some of his art (much had been stolen and/or lost and/or destroyed over the decades), and continued to fight for his legal rights as co-creator of much of the Marvel universe (a battle that still rages to this day, with Kirby‘s heirs currently suing Marvel/Disney).
The bitter legal battle between DC freelance writer Michael Fleischer (The Spectre, Jonah Hex, etc.) and The Comics Journal and Harlan Ellison — a protracted $2 million lawsuit, the particulars of which I won’t go into here — also ended on December 5, 1986 after six long years and a four-week trial (see The Comics Journal #114, February 1987, pp. 8-9, and Joe Sacco‘s extensive report “The Fight for 1st Amendment Rights,” TCJ #115, April 1987, pp. 51-59, with additional material by Harlan Ellison, Gary Groth and others, including the depositions of Eclipse publisher Dean Mullaney and Marvel Comics Vice President and Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, pp. 61-142).
Like I say, there was a lot of face at stake.
And a lot of blood on the floor by the end of 1986.
* The 1986 black-and-white comics boom in the Direct Sales market exploded, expanding from almost 40 titles in January 1986 to over 160 by December, spawning many new publishers (including Dark Horse Comics) and self-publishers. New Direct Market retail shops opened during 1986 as well, but before the boom imploded it would take a few comics distributors (Glenwood, etc.) down with it.
* Summer 1986: The issue of Atlantic cover dated August 1986 featured an article by Lloyd Rose targeting the new ‘adult comics’ and the work of Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin, Dave Sim and others as “the apotheosis of the uncritical, fannish attitude, the triumph and redemption of shameless trash.”
* October 23, 1986: Despite being clearly labeled, Miracleman #9 (Eclipse Comics), Captain Jack #5 (Fantagraphics) and other titles (e.g., Love and Rockets #19, which Steve Geppi had removed from the retail shelves of his six stores) drew fire from Diamond Comics Distributors president Steve Geppi. In a “Special Report” mailed to retailers written the day after Geppi was interviewed for the October 22 WUSA-TV Eyewitness News report (see previous timeline), Geppi wrote, “Personally, I am getting sick and tired of making excuses for irresponsible publishers… Miracle Man [sic] #9 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. This issue contained graphic scenes of childbirth. I don’t care how many warning labels are stickered to this comic warning parents about its contents… Diamond has been deluged with phone calls and letters from irate retailers who insist on return privileges on this book…”
Please note — again, the cover labels did not in any way rectify the objections. Geppi was objecting to the content, labels or no labels, and clearly was not arguing on behalf of labeling as a means of dealing with what he strongly considered objectionable material.
* Fall 1986: Lone Star Comics instituted an in-store ratings and racking policy, labeling comics with content considered objectionable with either I-16 (not sold to anyone under the age of 16) or I-18 (customer must be 18 years of age or older to purchase) stickers; the I-16 titles were Mylar bagged, the I-18 titles Mylar bagged and displayed only behind the sales counter, out of reach of casual customer browsing.
* September 5, 1986: Vet sf author and recent Heavy Metal editor (former editor of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Science Fiction) Ted White, age 48, was convicted of possession with intent to sell illegal substances (marijuana, LSD, mushrooms) and sentenced to ten years on each count, to be served concurrently, with nine years of each sentence suspended. [Note that this did not break in the national news; it was only reported among sf fan publications, Heavy Metal circles, and certain comics circles; see The Comics Journal #113, December 1986, pg. 24. Heavy Metal dodged another bullet in a rough year for other comics publishers.]
* November 24, 1986: WaRP Graphics (Wendy and Richard Pini, cocreators of Elfquest) filed a lawsuit against A Distant Soil creator Colleen Doran and collected edition Distant Soil publisher Donning Company (and, in an addendum filed in February 1987, Donning editor Kay Reynolds) seeking $85,000 from Colleen, over $250,000 from Donning, over one million dollars from Doran and Donning (and, as of February’s addendum, an additional $3 million from Reynolds). Colleen had parted ways with WaRP in June 1986; the lawsuit was a shameful chapter in publishing and self-publishing comics history, further blighted by an FBI investigation of nine threatening, anonymous letters received by Reynolds in October-November 1986. Suffice to say Colleen Doran retains full ownership of A Distant Soil (copyright and registered trademark, thank you very much).
* Winter 1986: Marvel Comics sales rep Steve Saffel announced that the Comics Code seal of approval would be reinstated to the covers of all Code-approved Direct Market Marvel titles beginning sometime in 1987. Note that the Code seal had been removed from eligible Marvel titles over a year earlier due to requests from retailers; an “informal” 1986 survey of retailers demonstrated that retailers now wanted the Code seal visible on all Code-approved titles.
That’s a whole lot of shitstorms in just a few months. This fueled the atmosphere like petro fumes, adding as well to the sense of urgency Frank Miller and the rest of us involved brought to our response to the proposed DC Standards and Practices.
* Note: Many of the very titles under attack throughout 1986 swept the sole industry award of that time, the 1987 Jack Kirby Comics Industry Awards (which later were ‘divided’ into the Eisners and the Harveys, but that’s another story). Prominent among the nominees and winners was Frank Miller (for both The Dark Knight Returns and Elektra: Assassin), Alan Moore (Swamp Thing, Watchmen), Bill Sienkiewicz (Elektra: Assassin) and other titles and creators repeatedly cited in the ratings/adult content controversy.
* Also, the May 1987 issue of American Bookseller trade magazine featured an article entitled “Comics for Grown-Ups” by Dan Cullen on the new graphic novel movement and market spearheaded by Maus, The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, etc.
This was on the heels of a plethora of sterling, complimentary and quite prominent articles about the new adult face of comics that were published throughout 1986 in The New York Times, Rolling Stone (prompting DC to purchase a full-page color ad promoting The Dark Knight Returns in the issue with writer Mikel Gilmore‘s laudatory article on the new comics movement), The Village Voice, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and many other venues — including The Today Show.
There was a lot of positive attention to the new comics, too, and in high places.
* January 16, 1987: In a relevant sidenote, Tony Isabella and Gary Dumm‘s three-year-running weekly The Comics Buyer’s Guide editorial strip Everett True was withdrawn by the creators due to editorial censorship. Isabella noted, “…one cannot express an opinion criticizing” the publisher of CBG, Krause Publications.
It was in the air, one might say.
Before I get into the details of Marv Wolfman‘s firing from DC Comics Inc. and Alan Moore‘s ‘Guest Editorial’ in the same issue of The Comic Buyer’s Guide that published the jointly signed letter from Moore, Wolfman, Frank Miller and Howard Chaykin, it’s worth noting the another DC editor was fired in November, 1986 due to a letter published in The Comics Journal #110 (July 1986).
Mike Barr, editor of The Outsiders and other DC titles, was asked by DC Vice President and Executive Editor Dick Giordano to resign due to his TCJ letter citing both Bill Finger (“…indeed ‘the unsung hero of Batman’… and who received no payment beyond service fees (to my knowledge) from DC…”) and Keith Giffen (who “obviously attempted to use [Jose] Munoz‘s style without compensation…”), concluding, “I hope the management at DC… will be… zealous in prosecuting misconduct within its own walls.”
Obviously, DC considered Barr‘s letter “misconduct,” and after Barr refused to resign, he received a letter dated November 4, 1986 “terminating [his] editorial contract.”
According to Barr, Giordano had said, “freelancers can speak out against the company; staff editors can not,” and that Giordano considered Barr‘s TCJ letter in and of itself evidence of Barr‘s “resignation as DC editor…” (see The Comics Journal #114, February 1987, pg. 25).
That, in a nutshell, would also seem to summarize DC‘s reaction to Marv Wolfman co-signing the January 19 letter to DC Comics publisher Jenette Kahn.
That letter read in its entirity:
We have received your correspondence of December 4, which announced and described DC’s new rating system.
Since no member of your staff saw fit at any point in the development of these guidelines to consult a single member of the freelance community, we cannot accept your assertion that the rating system was designed to protect our creative autonomy. It is apparent, from the timing of DC’s decision, and the wording of the document itself, that DC is surrending to demands for censorship made by distributors and retailers.
Nor can we accept claims made by DC personnel that the rating system will leave working conditions for freelance talent at DC unchanged. No policy could be drafted that would accommodate Steve Geppi, Buddy Saunders, and us.
Further, we are not eager to bring our ideas and efforts to a publisher whose stated intention is to place our work in ‘controlled distribution.’
To the extent that it is possible under DC’s rating system, we will honor our contractual obligations to DC. However, we will not consider producing any new work for DC as long as DC maintains its position in this matter.
We hope you understand that, due to the urgent nature of the issue of censorship in the comics industry, we feel it necessary to make our decision known to the comics profession and readership, and will protest DC’s ratings system in every public forum available to us.
The letter was dated January 19, 1987, and it was published in The Comics Buyer’s Guide for February 13, 1987.
I presume Frank had Federal Expressed that letter (and likely FAXed it, too) to Jenette, as he had the initial December 1986 documents and letters to all of us, but I have no proof of that. My notes, however, show that the letter was sent and received by January 20th, according to phone conversations I had with Frank that very week.
In the subsequent coverage in The Comics Buyer’s Guide and The Comics Journal (which offers the fullest and most accessible public record; see TCJ #115, April 1987, pp. 9-10, with excellent coverage by then-managing editor Kim Fryer), little was made of the time lag between the letter being sent and received by Jenette, and its seeing print in TCBG, save for Marv‘s concern that the letter “was not supposed to be published at that particular time.”
Given my own involvement in the December 1986 flurry of activity, I’ve no doubt Frank (and possibly others involved) likely pushed the publication as being urgent, eager to ensure the letter appearing in the same issue as Alan Moore‘s ‘Guest Editorial’ (which I’ll be running in full next installment). But I’ve no evidence of that, either, so take that as pure conjecture on my part. I knew the late Don Thompson, and know Maggie Thompson and Frank, well enough to say with certainty they wouldn’t have published Marv‘s name as a signatory had he not signed the letter. Note that Marv never, ever contested his signing the letter — just the matter of the letter being apparently published prematurely — but I just want to be sure nobody reading this in 2010 thinks that might have been an issue. It wasn’t.
Be that as it may, whatever the timing issues concerning the letter’s publication, it was foolish of Jenette and/or DC to think they had time to ‘sit on’ the letter, which stated clearly the intention to publicize the quartet’s position. Also given the rapid-fire public arena exchanges of December 1986, it was doubly foolish to think Frank, Howard, Alan and Marv might be bluffing. They weren’t.
It’s also obvious that Marv, being editor of The New Teen Titans and The New Teen Titans Spotlight On… at that point in time, had the most to lose for his involvement — and given DC‘s firing of Mike Barr only two months earlier over a letter in TCJ, Marv must have known DC wouldn’t take his involvement lightly.
Then again, nothing had been done (as far as I knew then, or the public record or my private notes show) to Marv over his signing the December 1986 petition, or his letter to TCBG of that month. Maybe Marv thought he was in a good position to ride it all through and out. His comics were, by and large, strong sellers, and he had the hit New Teen Titans titles under his stewardship.
DC made sure he paid the piper.
(FYI, I’d had personal experience with how vindictive DC could be by this time. A couple of years earlier, when John Totleben and I thought it essential to publicize the theft from the DC offices of the original artwork to Saga of the Swamp Thing #34 and pinups from #32 and #33. Though we carefully coordinated and cleared all the press releases, statements and announcements through DC, it was repeatedly made clear — at the time, and over well over a year later — that DC and Dick were decidedly embarrassed and unhappy about the debacle, and angry at — well, me, certainly. They were not upset over the theft, per se, but over their having to publicize it had happened, and the press it briefly generated. Given how relatively minor that incident was, I can only imagine what kind of heat Marv endured in February 1987.)
According to Kim Fryer‘s TCJ #115 reporting, “Wolfman was called shortly after the publication of the letter by… Dick Giordano, who asked Wolfman to resign as editor… because Wolfman had signed and publicized the letter. According to Wolfman, when he refused to resign, he was told by Giordano that he would be relieved of his editorial duties. ‘I was fired because DC editors are not allowed to take a public stance,’ said Wolfman…. Giordano called days later, according to Wolfman, offering to reinstate Wolfman as an editor if he would apologize for the content of the letter. Wolfman refused. ‘I think DC is totally wrong,’ Wolfman told the Journal, ‘and it’s going to backfire on them.’ According to Wolfman, Giordano then asked that Wolfman apologize only for publicizing the letter…” (Fryer, Ibid., pp. 9-10).
Marv declined, reiterating in writing his view that DC‘s proposed ratings system was “misconceived and potentially dangerous” — which is absolutely consistent with Marv‘s initial December letter published in TCBG — and which subsequently “made the situation worse.”
I’ve no doubt.
Marv received official written notification of his termination on February 19, 1987, only 6 days after the letter had been published in TCBG.
If only Jenette had responded sooner to the letter itself, it might have all been averted or at least postponed — but that was not to be, nor was it DC‘s management style to respond in a timely manner to any such matter.
DC, according to my records, never publicly commented on the firing, save for DC publicity rep Peggy May saying to TCJ‘s Fryer, “We don’t discuss our negotiations with freelancers in public.”
Nor their negotiation with their editors.
DC was making an example of Marv.
They could not place his head on a pike outside the DC offices, but that is figuratively what had been accomplished.
Marv was the only one of the letter’s signatory quartet they could lash out at — and they were losing considerable public face in the wake of Alan Moore‘s TCBG ‘Guest Editorial’ of February 13.
As I said, please remember — much of what happened that fateful year was about saving — and losing — face.
Next: A Letter from Mr. Moore
All comics covers ©1986, 1987, 2010 their respective creators, publishers and/or copyright owners; Captain Jack #5 cover ©1986, 2010 Mike Kazaleh, all rights reserved to their respective owners. NOTE: All images are posted for archival and educational purposes only, under applicable US Fair Use laws.