Forgotten Comics Wars

Or: How Angry Freelancers Made It Possible for A New Mainstream Comics Era (Including Vertigo) to Exist, Part 9

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The next public forum essential to mention in this February 1987 chronology is Mike Hodel’s Hour 25 (“The Hour That Stretches”), a long-running radio show on KPFK 90.7 FM (Los Angeles, CA) about the field of science fiction (according to Christy Marx, “Mike Hodel died young of a brain tumor and many hosts have since kept the show running …hosts have included J. Michael Straczynski, Larry DiTillio and Harlan Ellison…”). Harlan Ellison was hosting this talk radio program for the Friday, February 13, 1987 broadcast in which Harlan interviewed (and opened up the phones for his listeners to ask questions of) Frank Miller, Marv Wolfman, Mark Evanier and DC Comics editor Julie Schwartz.

Before we get into that, Marv Wolfman‘s internal dance with DC Comics merits further attention.

It’s all a bit confusing, as the dance continued into the week after the publication of the quartet’s letter in The Comics Buyer’s Guide and the broadcast of the fateful Hour 25 program, culminating in a February 19th DC letter officially terminating Marv‘s editorship. 

First of all, understand that Marv was not a staff editor at DC Comics at the time. He was a “creative editor,” handling his editorial duties from outside the office. He initially stated this as one of his reasons for choosing to sign the petition without feeling particularly vulnerable to retribution or punishment (see “DC Guidelines spawn reaction,” TCJ #114, February 1987, pg. 20).

The Comics Journal offers the clearest public record of Marv‘s back-and-forth with DC management, and I’ll quote a bit of that here (all quotes from Kim Fryer‘s “Newswatch” article “Marv Wolfman fired by DC as editor,” TCJ #115, April 1987, pp. 9-10):

* In December 1986 (reportedly during DC‘s annual Christmas party), Dick Giordano‘s assistant Pat Bastienne offered the writing gig on The New Teen Titans (Marv‘s writing gig, mind you) to vet Marvel Comics X-Men writer Chris Claremont. Claremont refused and contact Marv to tell him about the offer. Marv recalled, “I called DC to confirm it and I was told by Dick Giordano that it was a joke.” Claremont, however, told the Journal, “I assumed that it was [a] reputable offer from the representative of a reputable company and responded accordingly.”

* The claims in December 1986 and January 1987 by both Jenette Kahn and Dick Giordano that DC had been working on their proposed standards and practices guidelines and proposed labels since “April 1986″ only further outraged Marv, as DC claimed that preliminary work was done with input from the DC editors — and Marv was a DC editor, and had heard nothing about it.

This was confirmed by former DC editor (and signatory to the original December 1986 petition) Len Wein — my original editor on Saga of the Swamp Thing, though he was no longer editing for DC by late 1986. “DC denied established guidelines until the petition was presented… It didn’t show confidence in people who work for them. I have an objection to not being informed…” (Len quoted by Kim Fryer, “DC Guidelines spawn reaction,” TCJ #114, February 1987, pg. 22). DC honcho Jenette Kahn and DC rep Peggy May both claimed DC had always had internal guidelines; that was hooey. I’m compelled to add — and confirm based on personal experience working with Len Wein as an editor on Saga of the Swamp Thing — that Len also stated for the record about the supposedly pre-existing in-house guidelines as well as the proposed DC standards and practices, “It’s double-talk… No one at DC ever pointed out that I could or couldn’t do something on my books. I always just did what I felt ought to be done…” (Len quoted by Kim Frye, Ibid., pg. 16).

[For the record, the only time I recall tension over anything we did in Saga of the Swamp Thing happened under editor Karen Berger, when SOTST #29 lost the Code. For about two weeks, Karen was suddenly under a lot of pressure from upstairs; at this point I was penciling "Down Amongst the Dead Men," Swamp Thing Annual #2. Karen called to ask if I could keep Etrigan the Demon's booting of Arcane's head from his swollen hell-body somehow "off panel." I refused, arguing that the image and panel was the dramatic punchline to the story, and not only the punchline to that double-sized issue, but to the whole multi-issue Arcane narrative arc begun in SOTST #19. That payoff panel had to be vivid and visible, though I pointed out I wasn't going to be playing up the gore quotient. We argued a bit, always on amicable terms, but I refused to back down, and at one point conferred with Alan and John, and we agreed we'd wrap up what we were doing and ask to work on another title as a team instead, if the Code was going to be an issue. Karen insisted that wasn't necessary, and -- once the in-office storm over SOTST #29 losing the Code abated -- it didn't ever come up again.]

* Two days prior to his appearance on Hour 25, Marv called DC President and Publisher Jenette Kahn. Why? “I felt she had always been straightforward with me,” Marv reported to TCJ‘s Kim Fryer, “I felt I could deal with her… I told her that if we could make it work, I would not appear on Harlan’s show.” According to Marv, Jenette claimed she had not been consulted in the decision to fire Marv; she called Marv back on Friday shortly before Hour 25 was to start, and “she said that there was still the feeling that I was an editor, but if I recanted and didn’t appear on the show, they would be happy to have me back as an editor.” Marv made his decision, and he was on Hour 25, as scheduled.

* After the February 13 Comics Buyer’s Guide publication of the letter from Marv, Alan, Frank and Howard, and the Hour 25 broadcast, but before Marv received the official February 19 written notification of his termination as editor, DC Vice-President and Executive Editor Dick Giordano called, “according to Wolfman, offering to reinstate Wolfman as an editor if he would apologize for the content of the letter. Wolfman refused….According to Wolfman, Giordano then asked that Wolfman apologize only for publicizing the letter…” Marv refused to do that, too, and subsequently sent a letter to Dick reinforcing Marv‘s stance against the proposed guidelines and ratings, calling them “misconceived and potentially dangerous.”

Marv subsequently told The Comics Journal‘s Kim Fryer, “I think DC is totally wrong… and it’s going to backfire on them. …by reiterating my opinion I made the situation worse” in terms of Marv‘s working relationship with Dick Giordano.

As has been pointed out on the comment threads to my previous installments of this essay, DC Comics was certainly within its rights to fire Marv Wolfman.

But understand that Marv was still, to his mind, acting in DC‘s best interests by fighting what he considered a gross error in the management of DC‘s corporate affairs. DC had reversed its fortunes by growing more adventurous in their publishing and editorial policies since 1980, and they were about to reverse those fortunes by negating much of the progress (and profits) self-evident in top sellers like The Dark Knight Returns, The New Teen Titans and Watchmen, along with other titles.

Yes, he was a whistleblower; but Marv maintained throughout the debacle that he believed what DC was doing was wrong, and not in the company’s best interests.

Time has proven Marv was correct.

During the Hour 25 broadcast, Harlan Ellison said that a Marvel Comics employee (“official,” according to TCJ) he had recently spoken to was “roaring with laughter. He loved it. He said it’s the first time in 20 years that DC Comics has had an opportunity to regain any part of the market share that they lost to Marvel, and they’re so busy shooting themselves in the foot and losing their talent that they’ll never catch Marvel…” (Ellison, transcribed by Teresa Gertrude Moore and quoted by Joe Sacco, “Miller, Evanier, Wolfman discuss comics ‘censorship’ with Ellison on Hour 25,” TCJ #115, April 1987, pg. 20).

This statement confirmed what many of us believed at the time, too.

DC was killing the goose that laid the DC golden eggs of 1986.

Here it was only February 1987, and they’d already lost Alan Moore — and many of us were finding better things to do elsewhere ourselves. 

[A relevant aside: Aside from Frank Miller's assertions in December 1986 and Harlan's comments cited above on Hour 25, it was difficult to find anything in the public record about Marvel's view of these events. In this, the winter of Jim Shooter's reign over Marvel Comics as Editor-in-Chief and Vice President, Marvel was growing more bullish about their relations with the fan press. Journalism and criticism was increasingly frowned upon by Marvel management; aside from their fall 1986 decision to reinstate the Comics Code Authority seal of approval on relevant titles sold in the Direct Sales marketplace, Marvel made almost no public comments about the entire ratings, labeling or standards and practices debate and debacle.

In fact, Marvel Comics "severed all lines of communications with The Comics Journal... as well as her sister publication, Amazing Heroes..." early in 1987 (see Kim Fryer, "Marvel news: no communication with the Journal; Moebius signs with Epic," "Newswatch," TCJ #115, April 1987, pg. 28).

In the spring of 1987, Marvel took legal action against fanzine/prozine publishers Hal and Jack Schuster over six titles in their Comics File Spotlight Magazine series involving Marvel characters and comics titles (see Kim Frye, "Marvel Takes Legal Action," TCJ #116, July 1987, pp. 16-17). These Schuster volumes were similar to books and magazines previously published by FantaCo Enterprises Inc. and Fantagraphics Books Inc., and though the Schuster Brothers had abused various copyrighted properties over the years (including my own), this was perceived as a mean of squashing any such fan publications from any publisher in the future.

We were entering a new era in the fan market, and Marvel was flexing their legal muscle to show who was boss when it came to their properties.

If memory serves, Marvel also began to play hardball with editors Don and Maggie Thompson at The Comics Buyer's Guide as the 1980s came to a close, eventually pulling advertising for a brief time due to a negative review of one of their product in TCBG; relations worsened into the 1990s, culminating in the momentous events of 1994 -- but that's another story, for another essay. To quote Stan Lee, "...'Nuff said."]

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For a full account of the Friday the 13th February Hour 25 program, I encourage you to ferret out Joe Sacco‘s exhaustive detailing of its contents in The Comics Journal (“Miller, Evanier, Wolfman discuss comics ‘censorship’ with Ellison on Hour 25,” TCJ #115, April 1987, pp. 16-21), from which the following was culled. 

A few highlights:

* Mark Evanier opened with a concise, lucid and absolutely accurate history of comicbook censorship, noting that the one publisher to refuse participation in the 1954 institution of the Comics Code Authority was Western Publishing Company, which was “the largest comic book publisher in the history of mankind…” and refused to “sanction the large publishers and cripple the small publishers” of the time. [Note: Mark wasn't 100% correct here; Western, which packaged comics for Dell, was not the only publisher to refuse in 1954: Gilberton, publisher of Classics Illustrated, also declined participation in the Code - SRB]

Mark traced the changes in the industry and distribution of comics from the 1960s to 1987, concluding:

“But the fact is that we now have a form here that was to most of us, up until the last few months, something that we were very proud of in that it was maturing… There was a period that was very nice when DC Comics was really courting talent and getting people like Frank Miller and George Perez and John Byrne and Marv Wolfman and Howard Chaykin to do books that they wanted to do, to give them a lot of personal publicity.” Evanier noted that this stood in stark contrast to earlier times (and the current policies of publishers like Archie Comics), where and/or when creators were considered disposable and interchangeable. “They were kept interchangeable, and if they asked for more money, they were told they were interchangeable, and what they received for their work was commensurate with the fact that they were interchangeable artists.”

  • Left: Hour 25 poster “The Hour That Stretches,” artwork © Peter Ledger, commissioned and paid for personally by J. Michael Straczynski; note that Christy Marx is executor of the Peter Ledger Estate, so I’ll add that this image is also © Christy Marx. Limited print run signed by J. Michael Straczynski, Harlan Ellison, Larry DiTillio and Peter Ledger; click this link to buy a copy of this signed and limited print yourself! Posted here with the express permission of Christy Marx, granted on March 23, 2010; all rights reserved.
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    * Frank Miller noted he was the first comics freelance (and possibly editorial?) professional to be informed about the proposed DC guidelines. Frank was first alerted to DC‘s plans during a conversation with Jenette Kahn concerning a sequence in Batman: Year One (scripted by Frank, art by David Mazzuchelli) depicting the Catwoman as a prostitute with a masochist client. Frank noted, “The scene had been approved by every member of the staff, but Jerry Falwell had said some things about the X-Men, and there was a fear on at both Marvel and DC. Marvel had been working on applying… the Comics Code more strictly across their line. …DC took the bold step of creating a ratings system.” 

    Note that later in the program, when DC senior editor Julie Schwartz was brought into the conversation via phone, Julie said of this sequence, “If I were the editor of Batman [: Year One], I would have asked him to take it out… I just feel uncomfortable. There’s no necessity for having her do that.” 

    * Frank also noted that DC‘s fellow Warner Bros. corporate entertainment divisions, Warner Books (then publisher of the mass-market trade editions of DC’s collected editions for book market distribution, including the first Swamp Thing collected editions, which led to John Totleben and I momentarily being invited to visit the Warner Books division during one of our visits to DC, taken up the elevator to see how they were handling the different cover design using another one of John‘s paintings; see the two covers, right and below) and Warner Records, “have both been fighting against pressure groups who have actually exerted palpable force against them.”

    * Harlan Ellison: “In checking out a lot of this stuff, I found an attitude at DC of righteous arrogance, of indomitable correctness, that how dare anybody ask them about what they’re doing and that as a company [they] had a right to do what they damn well pleased with the creative work of anybody.”

    * Ellison‘s intro of Marv Wolfman: “… a company guy… He grew up to believe that you don’t talk badly about the company for which you work. You let them do what they want. If you have reservations, you voice them in private; you voice them in-house. But you don’t say anything outside; you don’t be a whistle blower; and you don’t shoot off your face the way I do… I like least about him the fact that he would not take a stand on these things…” Ellison then noted that now, Marv found himself at “the center of the bull’s-eye… Marv Wolfman suddenly found that paternal, wonderful organization that has sustained and succored him had turned on him because he managed to speak out.”

    * Marv noted that he’d initially thought changes could be made from within DC, and that he had argued “almost every policy down the line” within DC, and that “people in-house probably were sick of me eight years ago… the rating system that’s been released is incredibly detrimental to the future of the industry…. This is detrimental because we’re finally reaching a point in the industry where we can get out of only doing comics for kids… Dark Knight is bringing people in from outside; Watchmen is bringing people in from outside… [now that the market] has a chance to expand outward… all the editors are going to start saying, ‘Well, cut back just here.’…”

    Marv added, “Already editors at the company are wondering what the system means. I’ve asked various editors that I work for, ‘Well, is this approved?’ They don’t know. They don’t know what makes a ‘mature’ book… an ‘adult’ book.” Marv noted he couldn’t decode the difference between the two proposed labels. 

    Note that during Julie Schwartz‘s interview on the program, when Ellison asked Julie what the difference between the two might be, according to TCJ reporter Joe Sacco, Julie “likened the ‘adult rating to a movie X-rating, and the ‘mature’ raring to an R-rating. ‘DC is going to publish an X-rated comic?’ Ellison asked. ‘No, I didn’t say that,’ Schwartz said. he added that an editorial meeting he had missed decided that the ‘only rating they’re going to have is ‘mature.’ That’s it.’…” (Sacco, Ibid., pg. 21). 

    * Marv on DC Comics offering Chris Claremont the script duties on The New Teen Titans: “I was sort of surprised… When I called later, everyone said it was a joke and it was done in light spirits. I didn’t find it very funny.”

    * Marv on DC not informing DC editors of the plans for standards and practices guidelines and labels until November/December 1986, when DC claimed to have been working on them since April 1986: “…[they say they] began supposedly working on the rating system back in May which means… they had six months that they didn’t tell one of their editors. I’ve since found out that all the writer/editors, the out-of-house editors, were not consulted on this.”

    Joe Sacco‘s TCJ report adds, “Miller said that a week before the guidelines were officially released, one or two editorial staff people he talked to hadn’t heard them. Miller said that the ‘timing is important. Buddy Saunders wrote his letter dictating terms to publishers on October 30… DC’s rating system was in place and functioning on November 7.’…” (Sacco, Ibid., pg. 19).

    * Mark Evanier: “You’d think that DC would parlay the outrage of the creative talent into something to combat this Steve Geppi/Buddy Saunders — [though] you shouldn’t just single out Steve and Buddy. There’s some other people involved… You’d think [DC] would say …’You know, you people make tons of money off Dark Knight, too. We don’t want to alienate Frank Miller… Marv Wolfman, Howard Chaykin and Alan Moore.” 

    * Harlan Ellison: “In a bookstore, you go in… there’s a children’s section and the rest of it is adults. If we’re suddenly going to have an entire artform that is governed and intended only for the smallest, youngest, most susceptible reader… that means that you have once again stunted an artform.”

    There was more, much more — including the active participation of DC senior editor Julie Schwartz and Captain Jack creator Mike Kazaleh (“…I think that the distributors and the retailers are forgetting they’re a service industry, that they’re really supposed to deliver the comic book readers what they want to read. It’s up to [readers] to decide what they read and don’t read, and not the distributor…”). 

    And just as radio had played a role in the comics controversies of the 1940s and early 1950s, Harlan‘s Hour 25 played a pivotal role in what was going down in February of 1987.

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    After Harlan‘s Hour 25 radio broadcast and The Comics Buyer’s Guide publication of Frank, Howard, Marv and Alan‘s letter, DC Comics‘s president and publisher Jenette Kahn sent private letters to Frank, Howard, Marv and Alan, the contents of which I never saw myself. 

    Word was at the time Jenette claimed they’d be reworking the proposed standards and practices in “six months,” though to my knowledge they were never actually put into effect; however, both the TCBG and The Comics Journal reported they were implemented in January 1987.

    It’s possible, but it doesn’t jive with either my memory of events or my notes; then again, I was primarily focused on early work on Taboo at this time, though I still was doing occasional work for Karen Berger on Swamp Thing. I can say for sure that nothing was ever put in my hands relevant to the proposed guidelines being in effect, and the proposed labels didn’t appear on the June-cover-dated titles (shipping in March 1987). That came later.

    As to that letter to Marv, Frank, Howard and Alan from Jenette, The Comics Journal interviewed Marv and Frank about it. “The letter essentially said nothing,” Marv reported, “She just wrote that she would like to continue to work with me, and after six months the guidelines would [be] renegotiated…”

    Frank was quoted saying, “The letter wasn’t the cause for much reaction… They made it clear that they’re going to maintain the guidelines… The protest against the DC guidelines is gaining steam. I think this is going to be a project of much noise in the conventions this summer… The fans are getting involved. I’ve been receiving letters from readers who say they’re boycotting DC Comics. This is not a momentary squabble… there’ll be more petitions. There’ll be more protests…” (Kim Fryer, “DC responds to Miller, Moore, Chaykin and Wolfman’s letter,” TCJ #115, April 1987, pg. 20).

    Publicly, DC was playing awfully coy, and understandably so, given how badly they’d mismanaged this whole affair for over two months. 

    With San Diego Comicon a’comin’ fast, something would have to break… and ironically enough, work was well underway on DC‘s Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters written and drawn by Mike Grell. The first issue of the three-issue miniseries was already in production, shipping in April (cover dated August 1987).

    For this new Green Arrow miniseries, Grell revised the venerable character in numerous ways. Oliver Queen and his partner Dinah Lance (formerly the Black Canary) moved from the fictional ‘Star City’ of previous incarnations to real-world Seattle, Washington. Gone, too, were the ‘trick arrows’ of the Code-approved Green Arrow; Oliver Queen was now using standard steel-tipped arrows, maiming and killing criminals.

    Grell really pushed the envelope further in the second issue of the miniseries (cover dated September 1987), in which Dinah‘s attempt to locate Seattle’s primary source of cocaine traffic leads to her being kidnapped and ruthlessly tortured… like I say, I don’t recall any enforcement of the DC standards and practices in 1987, folks.

    Next: Hot Fun in the Summertime, and Another Letter from Jenette

    All covers, artwork, text ©1986, 1987, 1990, 2010 their respective creators, publishers and/or copyright owners; all rights reserved to their respective owners. NOTE: All images are posted for archival and educational purposes only, under applicable US Fair Use laws.

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    Discussion (6) ¬

    1. Robert Stanley Martin

      Question: You draw a distinction between a “creative editor” and “staff editor” when talking about Wolfman. Are you saying that Wolfman was functioning as an independent contractor in this capacity rather than as a salaried employee? Or are you just drawing a distinction without a difference?

    2. srbissette

      Robert, MARV was drawing that distinction, hence my including this add’t material in this post. I didn’t go further because I honestly can’t define the difference to my own satisfaction; my best guess (which I’m comfortable speculating about in the comment thread) is editors like Marv were working as salaried subcontractors, with a certain amount of autonomy, a position that MAY have begun at DC via Jack Kirby’s unique setup under publisher Carmine Infantino’s regime in the 1970s. I know Joe Kubert enjoyed similar status in the 1970s, though he lived a short drive from the DC offices, unlike Kirby or Wolfman — but again, I’ve no idea if this was a salaried position, or what.

      I intend to interview Marv at some point concerning his historic TOMB OF DRACULA series and pioneer work there, and will be sure to ask him to better define what, precisely, his “creative editor” position entailed. Did they get the benefits due a salaried employee (e.g., health insurance, etc.)? Again, I presume they did, but can’t say for sure, and nothing I found in my archives or the public record (e.g., TCBG, TCJ, etc.) clarified that difference, either.

    3. Aaron Poehler

      Great stuff, if more than a little bittersweet to recall just how badly DC blew it back then.

    4. Robert Stanley Martin

      Thanks for clarifying. By the way, who else had “creative editor” status at DC at the time?

    5. srbissette

      Again, Robert, I don’t know offhand. Since DC’s comics credits habitually credited all as just ‘editor,’ that would be a bit of guesswork at best. Again, I’ll try to remember to get into this with Marv once we conduct an interview, and if I find out more, I’ll share that info on MYRANT.

    6. Scott Rowland

      Going from some memory and some speculation, at one point DC gave editorship to character creators or folks associated for a long time with a creator: Among others, Marv (with George Perez at one point) got the Teen Titans editorship, Roy Thomas had All-Star Squadron, etc., Cary Bates got the Flash, Mike Barr got Batman and the Outsiders, Gerry Conway got Firestorm, and I think Michael Fleisher got Jonah Hex. Doug Moench may have been editor of his Electric Warrior comic also.

      Some time later, this was amended to “creative editor”, with an associate editor of some sort. My speculation is that DC originally wanted an in-house editor to manage traffic, particularly since many of the creative editors lived outside New York. At some point (again, my speculation), it appears DC wanted more control, and started looking for reasons to end the arrangement: Barr got fired for his letter, Marv got fired for his, Flash and Jonah Hex were canceled (I’m not sure off-hand if Fleisher actually was editor of the Hex series that followed). Roy seemed to last the longest, I think, but eventually even he was gone, his series canceled, and he was working for Marvel again.

      Thanks again for all your effort to document this stuff. It’s fascinating.

    Comment ¬

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