Forgotten Comics Wars

Or: How Angry Freelancers Made It Possible for A New Mainstream Comics Era (Including Vertigo) to Exist, Part 10

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[My plate for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund Portfolio, Summer 1987; ©1987, 2010 Stephen R. Bissette]

Before this saga reached its nominal conclusion in the summer of 1987, it’s worth noting that nothing had simmered down in the volatile American comics industry.

In fact, things were getting mighty hot in a number of ways.

Aside from all this standards and practices and proposed ratings hubbub, here’s a quick chronology of what preceded the summer 1987 San Diego Comicon:

* November 21, 1986: New World Pictures, Ltd. purchased Marvel Entertainment Group (including Marvel Comics) from Cadence Industries for a reported $40-50 million (according to The Los Angeles Times). New World owners and chairmen Harry Sloan and Lawrence Kuppin had purchased New World Pictures from founder Roger Corman in 1983; Corman had launched New World in 1970. According to some sources, Western Publishing and American Greetings had also negotiated with Cadence about purchasing Marvel prior to New World Pictures doing so.

* Fall 1986: It was reported that producers Joel Silver and Larry Gordon (48 Hours) optioned Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘s Watchmen for adaptation into a feature-length motion picture.

* October 15, 1986; January 6, 1987: American Splendor writer/self-publisher Harvey Pekar appeared on Late Night with David Letterman.

* 1987: Ballantine Books and Berkley Publishing launched repackaged collected editions and graphic novels from First Comics, Inc.; distribution of the new packaged product into bookstores began in March 1987.

And: The black-and-white comicbook ‘boom’ of 1986 was over. Capital City Distribution reported orders on black-and-white comics plummeted 40-50% in January and February 1987, while Bud Plant Distributors and Crown Distributors reported orders dropping 75% (for more, see Kim Fryer, “The black-and-white market rapidly declining say industry professionals,” TCJ #115, April 1987, pp. 21-22, and especially see Gary Groth‘s editorial “Black and White and Dead All Over,” TCJ #116, July 1987, pp. 8-12, which is the best one-stop account of this entire mid-1980s phenomenon in print).

And: Distributors suffered, some succumbed; Glenwood Distributors (Collinsville, IL) went under after seven years of business, declaring bankruptcy in July; Sunrise Comics Distributors (Los Angeles, CA) also closed up shop after a little over two years of service, but only after co-owner and president Scott Rosenberg assumed the presidency of five comics publishers (Malibu Comics, Amazing Comics, Eternity Comics, Imperial Comics and Wonder Color Comics) in February 1987, thereby assuring his future in the industry apart from distribution.

* January 23, 1987: Store manager Michael Correa‘s appearance in the Illinois Markham County court over his arrest for a Class A misdemeanor in the Friendly Frank’s Comics bust of December 10, 1986 lasted only five minutes; it was part of the pre-trial procedure, in which defense attorney Judy Goldstein asked the court for discovery proceedings (see Joe Sacco, “Friendly Frank Update,” TCJ #114, February 1987, pg. 15). Correa‘s next court appearance was on March 3, 1987; defense attorney Goldstein successfully had some evidence (including videotapes of the bust) declared inadmissable (see Joe Sacco, “Testimony given; Friendly Frank’s case goes to trial May 13,” TCJ #115, April 1987, pg. 24). As the case became more widely publicized, some questioned whether Correa‘s race (African-American) was a factor in his arrest and the shop being busted.

The planned May 13 trial was postponed due to the court losing records; in the meantime, the prosecutor added seven additional titles to the list of “obscene materials” as evidence: The Chronicles of Corum, Elektra: Assassin, Elfquest: Siege on Blue Mountain #1, The Ex-Mutants, Love and Rockets #16, Ms. Tree #34, and Swords of the Swashbucklers, three of which were Marvel Comics/Epic publications. Friendly Frank’s Comics owner Frank Mangiaracina went to court on June 11, and at the time chose August 20th as the date for his own trial. That date was subsequently postponed to October 19th. Before that date, Correa decided to have his case tried before a judge rather than a jury, “based on his lawyer’s advice.” The trial was held in October, with the presiding judge allowing only “a single day of testimony, allowing for only two witnesses” — arresting officer Anthony Van Gorp, and the expert witness for the defense, Eclipse Comics editor Cat Yronwode (!). “Store owner Frank Mangiaracina was on hand to be used as a witness… but time ran out before he could be called due to Yronwode’s longish answers…” (all quotes from Thom Powers, “Newswatch: Friendly Frank Goes to Trial,” TCJ #118, December 1987, pg. 24).

The judge’s verdict was then scheduled for January 6th, 1988…

* To help cover the mounting costs of the Friendly Frank’s Comics legal ordeal, Denis Kitchen of Kitchen Sink Press announced the publication of a benefit portfolio and original art auction, and the formation of the non-profit Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to administer the funds raised by the portfolio sales and art auction. 14 artists (myself included) donated their work. The portfolio was announced for a July/August ship.

* March 10, 1987: The 1986 retailer and distributor letters that sparked the whole ratings controversy spilled into 1987 via the Diamond Comics Distributors trade show panel on censorship, which featured retailers Buddy Saunders (Lone Star Comics), Mark Steiner (The Great Escape, Louisville, Kentucky), and Bob Wayne (Fantastic Worlds, Dallas, Texas; note that Wayne subsequently left his retail store chain to become DC Comics‘s retail promotions manager in July 1987) joined by Diamond‘s national account rep Bill Schanes and Fantagraphics Books president and publisher Gary Groth. Steve Geppi, president of Diamond, also participated from the audience. A full account of the panel was published in TCJ #116 (Joe Sacco, “Under Fire by Trade Show Panel: Diamond Policies Questioned,” July 1987, pp. 18-20). The removal of Love and Rockets #19 from all of Geppi‘s comic book stores was central to the discussion, as was the controversial Omaha the Cat Dancer, the Friendly Frank’s Comics bust, and Elektra: Assassin receiving preferential treatment as a Marvel title.

* April 15, 1987: Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter was fired after a full decade as editor-in-chief (second only to Stan Lee‘s tenure in terms of length of service in that position and impact on the company product). The announcement from Marvel Comics was terse, giving no reason for the termination of Shooter‘s employment, naming Tom DeFalco as Shooter‘s replacement. Marvel President Jim Galton and Vice-President Michael Hobson held their positions under the new management of New World Pictures.

As soon as Shooter‘s termination was announced, writer/artist John Byrne returned to work with Marvel Comics, starting with Star-Brand #10 — a New Universe title originally created and scripted by Jim Shooter. With the ‘prestige format’ special one-shot entitled The Pitt, Byrne killed off Shooter‘s protagonist and obliterated the character’s home city of Pittsburgh. I wonder if John also sowed salt on the blistered script he co-authored with Mark Gruenwald.

* May 1987: “Marvel Comics notified The Comics Journal and its sister publication Amazing Heroes… that communications were reopened between the two magazines and itself….” (Kim Fryer, “Marvel News Line Reopened,” TCJ #116, July 1987, pg. 28).

* May 1987: American Bookseller magazine’s May issue featured Dan Cullen‘s article “Comics for Grown-Ups” and a companion article by Elizabeth Szabla, “A Directory of Comics Resources,” listing contact information and terms on comics distributors for booksellers who wished to bring graphic novels into their stores.

Around this same period, it was announced that Warner Books had cut a deal with DC Comics to release trade paperback editions of Swamp Thing, Watchmen and Ronin into the bookstore market. Due to Frank Miller‘s decision to create no new artwork for DC Comics as long as the standards and practices guidelines were in place, there was no new artwork created for the Warner Books trade edition of Ronin.

* June/July 1987: Six new comics industry trade publications were launched: Comics Arena, Comics Book Trader, Comics Business, Comic Shop News, Comics Week, and Retail Express. At this point in time, there were already six publications servicing the industry: Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer’s Guide, Comics Feature, Comics Interview, The Comics Journal, and Four Color Magazine. The controversies were prompting the proliferation of industry trades (few of which survived) as much as the industry’s growth.

Summer 1987: It was shaping up to be a momentous summer, too.

The International Association of Direct DistributorsIADD, Inc. — issued a formal resolution concerning how publishers, distributors and retailers should be handling potentially “obscene materials.” The resolution was based in large part on a report commissioned from specialist attorney Susan B. King. IADD had already issued a press release after their October 1986 meeting urging the industry adopt a “uniform labeling of comics,” a position they’d retracted as “unworkable” early in 1987. Have a peek at their Summer 1987 resolution (from Thom Powers‘s report “Distributor Organization Issues Guidelines About Obscenity,” which I’ve quoted from above; see TCJ #117, September 1987, pg. 14):


Metal Hurlant — the French sf comics magazine founded in 1975, from which National Lampoon spawned Heavy Metal, which is still published today — folded with its July/August 1987 issue #133. This occured even as France‘s then-current Minister of the Interior, Charles Pasqua, dropped the full weight of the law on five adult magazines and threated eighteen more with similar extreme measures, including the venerable French comics magazine L’Echo des Savanes.

This ban and the prosecution of the initial five magazines was an ominous sign of the times, evidence of similar controversies spilling beyond North American boundaries. All the while, UK customs was merrily seizing Knockabout Comics‘s shipments of incoming Last Gasp comix titles, all confiscated under the 1876 Customs Consolidation Act. Grrrrrrrrrrrrr. 

On the other side of the equation, The Dark Knight Returns was a huge success in France upon the release of its translated edition published by Aedena — after which (sigh) Aedena folded up shop.

In the UK, that country’s largest comics publisher IPC — specifically its ‘Youth Group’ (including 2000 AD) — was sold to British Printing & Communications for 6.8 million pounds. The new owners renamed IPC‘s line Fleetway Publications (a moniker IPC had adopted in the 1960s for a time), and business as usual continued under new management.

August 8, 1987: In that summer’s 1987 Kirby Awards, many of those at the center of the 1986-87 shitstorm won big.

The Dark Knight Returns won Best Single Issue, Best Art Team (for Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley), Best Finite Series, and Best Graphic Album; Bill Sienkiewicz won Best Artist for his work on Elektra: Assassin; Watchmen scored Best New Series, Best Writer and Best Writer/Artist Team for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and Swamp Thing won Best Continuing Series. Dave Sim‘s Cerebus won for Best Black-and-White, even as Dave was mobilizing a number of us (including Alan Moore, John Totleben and myself) to new directions.

This meant that DC Comics were the big winners at the awards as publishers — the very year DC finally registered higher sales than Marvel Comics in the Direct Sale market, according to an August 1987 DC Comics press release – 

– a twin victory that only emphasized how completely they’d blown it with the whole standards and practices and proposed ratings debacle.

Ah, the standard and practices and ratings debacle. 

July 1, 1987: The six months reassessment period was up, and the next phase in this unfortunate clusterfuck was underway.

Here’s the letter freelancers recieved from DC President and Publisher Jenette Kahn, dated July 1, 1987, the first official public followup from DC Comics since the February protest letter:


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Whew, I’m zonked. I’m going to take a breather from this for a couple of days, then wrap this monster up.

Next: What It All Meant, What It All Means

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 (5) ¬

  1. John Platt

    Oh man, the sudden flood of understanding… I was in high school until June 1987, and had precious little access to news about the comic books I was reading (let alone access to the wider range of independent titles). I don’t think I discovered CBG until I was in college, and even then had few funds for it, Amazing Heroes or the Comics Journal. By the time I was reading those pubs regularly around 90/91, a lot of this was already history. Now I finally have context.

  2. Aaron Poehler

    Byrne didn’t actually “kill off Shooter’s protagonist” in The Pitt–the book was more of an attempted ‘event’ intended to reboot the New Universe, springing out of events in the Star Brand book proper, which Byrne continued for several more issues. His in-book, thinly veiled critiques of Shooter’s run on the book as “making no sense” were enjoyably vitriolic, if slightly petty.

  3. Paul Riddell

    I know the feeling, John. All throughout high school, I’d been told about Fantastic Worlds, and how one of the stores was the best comic shop in the Dallas area other than the now-equally-defunct The Comic Zone. Of course, a combination of lack of funds and a lack of courage among my friends kept me from going down there to visit it myself, and when I finally decided “Screw it, I’m going to find it myself” once I was out on my own, it was already gone.

  4. srbissette

    Thanks, Aaron; I read the comic in ’87, and barely remembered any details. Appreciate the correction and insights. I couldn’t resist mentioning it, though, as it seemed petty to me at the time, too.

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