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Forgotten Comics Wars
Or: How Angry Freelancers Made It Possible for A New Mainstream Comics Era (Including Vertigo) to Exist, Part 11
I’ll now step briefly away from airing the public record to offer my perceptions and opinions directly. We’re finally reaching the conclusion of this historical overview, and before I wrap up with more material from published sources, it’s time I assert my two-cents about this whole dance. I’ll also be using a Gary Groth 1987 editorial to springboard aspects of this discussion, as Gary summarized what many felt and still feel about this controversy.
You may remember I emphasized earlier that much of thus was about ‘face’ — pride.
Corporate pride can be as or more formidable than personal pride, and no less desperate for preservation, saving or salving; axes can and do fall, heads can and do roll, and personal pride is instantly expendable when measure against the terrible toll of corporate pride.
It’s all about ‘face,’ in many ways, and that’s what you must keep first and foremost in your mind as the final chapter of this history unfolds.
The events of 1986-87 were important, but they were foreshadowed by earlier events involving similar controversies, just as they would be echoed to the present day. Other retailers had been busted and others would be busted; other comicbooks had and would push envelopes “too far” in the eyes of many; other publishers would do whatever it was they felt necessary to deal with the ire at hand.
Proposed rating systems would come and go (after all, Jan Strnad had been promoting the industry-wide adoption of a regulatory ratings system since his article in Comics Scene #10, July 1983), but none would stick, even as the Comics Code Authority Seal of Approval continued to shrink into near-invisibility; advisory labels of various wordings, sizes, designs and orientations would come and go, as the comics industry never embraced the industry-wide standardized labeling systems that television, motion pictures and the recording industries did.
Looked at in this way — that the comicbook and graphic industry ultimately neither adopted nor institutionalized any standards, practices, ratings or labels — it must be said the freelancer uproar of 1986-87 succeeded.
Though DC Comics did adopt a “Suggest for Mature Readers” label in 1987 for some product (more on that next chapter), the corporation abandoned any attempt to adopt or impose any formal internalized standards or practices.
On the other hand, though it was in no way as surreal, ridiculous or prematurely horrific a spectacle as President George W. Bush‘s May 2003 victory declaration in the Iraq War, it was a bit embarrassing in the summer of 1987 when Frank Miller declared a victory of sorts.
As Gary Groth pointed out in the first sentence of his scathing editorial “Is This Any Way to Run a Protest?”, “The labeling/censorship controversy/debate had, by the time it was officially declared over, degenerated into an incoherent and unmanageable forensic quagmire…” (Groth, TCJ #118, December 1987, pg. 5). If you need further evidence of that, go back and read John Byrne‘s TCBG ‘Guest Editorial,’ then come on back. Please.
All that mattered, in the end, is that Alan Moore had walked, and had absolutely meant it when he walked. (It would take the mechinations of multi-millionaire comics creator/mogul Jim Lee to return Moore, to Alan‘s eternal and lasting regret, to the DC fold over a decade later, and that brief non-reconciliation soon ended, too, with even further recriminations, none of which I’ll get into here.)
Alan Moore‘s walking away from DC Comics would have the greatest consequence of anything that had occured amid the dim cacophony of 1987, though no one at the time seemed to acknowledge it, outside of our immediate circle; and no one, to my experience, has sufficiently noticed the very real consequences of Alan‘s actions in all that followed.
As Groth succinctly noted in his editorial, “I hate to break it to the world of mainstream comics professionals, but creative freedom is already hopelessly compromised at DC by the universally-applied work-for-hire system, under which no true artist with even a modest degree of self-worth would work. …This leaves artisans and hacks to animate the adventures of costumed, corporate owned characters. This situation is not going to change in the foreseeable future for reasons that should be obvious…” (Groth, Ibid.) As an advocate for labeling — a position Groth had supported as publisher and steadfastly in the pages of The Comics Journal (via his and Jan Strnad‘s essays in The Comics Journal #85 back in 1983) — and as a publisher and critic fiercely defending creator ownership and independent publishing (within the parameters Fantagraphics offered and maintain to this day), there was nothing surprising in Groth‘s straightforward analysis and conclusions.
Then again, Gary was being glib. The fact Gary was downplaying and even ridiculing was that many creators of my generation had tasted new creative freedoms in the shifting editorial waters of mainstream comics of the 1980s. I know, for I was among that number.
For some of us, juggling mainstream work with creator-owned work (as Rick Veitch and I had since first meeting in 1976) allowed us to taste a bit of the new freedoms of mainstream comics even as we explored our own personal work in other (largely low or non-paying) venues. Creators like Rick and I had, in fact, savored far more genuine creative freedom than Frank Miller ever had up to that point: even as we cut our professional teeth on work-for-hire Heroes World merchandizing catalogs for Ivan Snyder, DC reprint paperbacks for New American Library and back-up stories and “Battle Albums” for Sgt. Rock, some of us at the Kubert School were contributing stories and art to APAzines (Rick Taylor, Cara Sherman-Tereno, etc.), undergrounds (Clifford Neal‘s Dr. Wirtham’s Comix & Stories, Larry Shell‘s 50′s Funnies and Alien Encounters, etc.), fanzines (Burroughs Bulletin, Rocket’s Blast Comics Collector, etc.) and self-generated comics projects like Parade of Gore and Ken Feduniewicz‘s Third Rail. I was among the first American cartoonists to sell work to Heavy Metal during that magazine’s first year of publication (while still in the Joe Kubert School!), and the Heavy Metal contracts were models of creator-owned work with freshly-minted publishing experimentation.
Within only two years, Rick Veitch and I had first-hand experience with both total creator ownership and work-for-hire with the same publisher, via our freelance work accepted by art director John Workman for publication in Heavy Metal and our work with John on the work-for-hire graphic novel adaptation of Steven Spielberg‘s ill-fated feature film 1941 (see our 1941: The Illustrated Story, now available via the SpiderBaby Store). We were afforded surprising creative freedom in that enterprise, too — so much so that the published result yielded a delightfully scathing letter from none other than Steven Spielberg himself.
That said, Frank Miller‘s success with Daredevil at Marvel (a Code-approved comicbook throughout Frank‘s run) had elevated him to a rarified, almost never-before-explored stratosphere during the early 1980s. He was of a new aristocracy, unlike any mainstream comicbooks had ever nurtured. With only their experiment with Camelot 3000 (1982-83) worthy of note, DC extended to Frank during their successful attempts to woo him away from Marvel unprecedented (for DC) creative freedom and lavish production and format elbow-room, yielding first Ronin and then The Dark Knight Returns.
This was ratified contractually, not just a matter of editorial noblesse oblige. There was a universe of difference between the simple one-page work-for-hire invoice/contracts Alan Moore, John Totleben and I signed regularly as we turned in our work on Saga of the Swamp Thing and the phonebook-sized The Dark Knight Returns contract DC and Miller negotiated and cosigned.
Frank Miller had enjoyed creative freedom unprecedented in the history of DC Comics Inc., and that must be acknowledged as a fact.
Both parties reaped enormous benefits, and still do to this day; The Dark Knight Returns inarguably rebooted the whole Batman franchise, soon extended into the ambience and edge of the two Tim Burton-helmed feature films and all that followed, while Frank parlayed his hard-earned and well-deserved creative and business clout into work for both DC and Marvel and his first truly creator-owned efforts with Dark Horse Comics‘s elite creator-ownership masthead ‘Legend,’ notably Sin City and 300 (note by that time Dark Horse, originally founded on creator-owned material, had muddied its den and inflated its industry clout and income via movie adaptations and extensions, plunging into work-for-hire waters only two years after its own inception as a publishing company — and to great success).
Thus, Gary Groth‘s editorial wasn’t quite on the money, either. There was at the time considerable truth to Gary‘s statement, “DC could argue… that it’s to their economic advantage to publish the Frank Millers and Alan Moores for a few years, own everything they did in perpetuity from which they will derive great profits, than to grant such rights as would jeopardize their future income….” (Ibid.), but the terms under which those works were created, completed and published were in fact quite different than those under which Frank had first labored for DC Comics in the late 1970s penciling a couple of stories for Weird War Tales. Then and now, Gary‘s equating and conflating those two very different DC business ‘universes’ undercut his editorial’s primary thesis and conclusion.
But Alan Moore did change that business environment further for the next generation coming in the door — for the Neil Gaimans, Grant Morrisons, Warren Ellises and their brethren — and in ways that forever marked DC‘s dealings with their perceived elite creators ever after, or at least to the present day.
[Note: Just as Disney's acquisition of Marvel Comics in 2009 will no doubt make all prior Marvel business regimes look positively benevolent by comparison (we'll all see how the current legal war between Jack Kirby's heirs and the new Marvel/Disney behemoth shakes out), we've yet to see how the post-Paul Levitz dynasty of DC Comics as a subsidiary of the new DC Entertainment umbrella corporation will alter the landscape. Please bear in mind what I discuss in the following is relevant to DC Comics Inc. as it existed, 1988-2009, and that nothing can or should be presumed about the new regime.]
* BEFORE OCTOBER-DECEMBER 1986: Angry distributors and retailers had previously flexed their muscles, and the impact had been felt in the hallowed halls of the so-called House of Ideas, aka The House That Jack [Kirby] Built, aka Marvel Comics. Unlike DC‘s bungled public relations amid the 1986-87 debacle, Marvel dealt with the issue then as they usually did: sans public relations, and hence no public ‘loss of face.’
At the time, Epic Illustrated and the Epic Comics line were the pioneer and premiere venues for creator-owned work at Marvel Comics. It wasn’t a complete ‘first’ for Marvel Comics — that would have been Denis Kitchen‘s short-lived, fascinating experiment in editing and packaging underground comix for Stan Lee (at Stan‘s request!), Comix Book (1974) — but it was a pretty dramatic turn for Marvel, and DC Comics didn’t have (and still doesn’t have) anything like it.
Initiated as Marvel‘s response to Heavy Metal by Marvel Preview/Bizarre Adventures editor Rick Marschall, Epic Illustrated was a grand experiment for Marvel. Heavy Metal‘s ongoing success as a monthly partially-full-color adult comics magazine invited competition, and Epic became a beachhead for creator ownership at Marvel (a deal Marschall had successfully convinced Marvel management was essential if they were to go toe-to-toe with Heavy Metal, the first Manhattan-based mainstream comics publisher to allow creators to own their own creations as a matter of policy). Before the first issue of Epic Illustrated saw print, Marschall was unceremoniously fired (while away from the office, representing Marvel at a comics convention) and Archie Goodwin took the helm, ushering the magazine through to its demise (after his departure the companion Epic Comics line continued under editor Carl Potts). For some, from Marvel vet Jim Starlin to Kubert School graduate Rick Veitch to sui generis creators like Art Suydam, Epic Magazine and Epic Comics offered a real haven.
Even still, Marvel couldn’t stay out of the kitchen. At times, punitive restrictions were imposed on the Epic stable’s creator-owned work. While many enjoyed cordial relations with Goodwin, Christy Marx recalls her less than stellar experience with Marvel‘s pre-1986 enforcement (it all went down in 1985), sans press, of in-house standards and practices during Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter‘s dynasty:
“During the run of The Sisterhood of Steel with Epic Comics, word came back to me that some Marvel execs had been confronted during a meeting with comics distributors. The distributors were upset, if I’m remembering this right, by language in the Moonshadow book relating to masturbation. Rather than holding their ground that these were adult books, a general wave of censorship was applied. The point man was editor Archie Goodwin.
Book #4 was in production and I was in negotiations with Archie to end the regular comic at #8 and continue the series as graphic novels. Archie told me I had to have one panel of art changed and remove certain words in book #4. I found the changes arbitrary in that “shit” stayed in, but “tits” and “jugs” had to go. The one panel of art he wanted changed wasn’t even remotely sexual or violent and the change felt pointless. I argued, but wasn’t given a choice.
I vented about the censorship in a private newsletter that I sent out only to fans who had subscribed to it and showed them what the original panel had been. Being an honest person, I didn’t want to go behind Archie‘s back, so I sent a copy of the newsletter to him.
Archie took it badly and cancelled the deal, killing the series.” (Quoted, with permission, from a personal email to yours truly from Christy Marx, Friday, March 26, 2010, 12:24 AM)
* AFTER AUGUST 1987: Rick Veitch‘s writer/penciler tenure on Swamp Thing ended in 1989 with Swamp Thing #88, in the incarnation scripted, penciled (by Michael Zulli) and partially inked (by the late, great Tom Sutton), unpublished as originally conceived and accepted for publication. Veitch resigned from the title in protest, and the two writers originally feted to follow — Neil Gaiman and Jamie Delano — declined that position.
As this essay is about the 1986-87 debacle, I’ll not get into any specifics about the latter; suffice to note it happened. Thus, Christy Marx‘s prior experience with editor Archie Goodwin at Epic Comics and Rick Veitch‘s subsequent experience with DC Comics demonstrated that both mainstream publishing companies were enforcing some measure of in-house standards and practices before and after the hubbub of 1986-87. The former created nary a ripple in the freelance community (because it wasn’t a highly-visible popular title; because Archie Goodwin‘s standing in the community was that of much reverance and respect; and because Marvel kept it all pretty damned under-the-carpet and quiet); the latter stirred up a hornet’s nest (in part because, well, some of us made sure it did so, and the story hit during a low-impact news week, unexpectedly landing the story in venues like The Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine).
These ‘standards and practices guidelines’ existed and were wielded on a case-by-case basis when the publishers thought it necessary. There was no consistency in the rules applied, or the manner in which they were applied (more on that next chapter); it’s sufficient here to note they were occasionally applied, and not always with finesse.
To the best of my knowledge and the experiences I’m aware of involving every freelancer I knew or know, these ‘rules’ weren’t written down; we weren’t ever handed a document and told, ‘stick to this, Bunky.’ Nevertheless, the ‘rules’ existed even if they weren’t codified, institutionalized or even manifest as documents made available to freelancers who asked for them. I can accurately state that we — freelancers — were told they didn’t exist (for that matter, when we lost the Comics Code with SOTST #29, despite my repeated requests via phone and in writing, DC couldn’t and didn’t ever produce a copy of the Code, either!).
Though I freelanced for Marvel from 1978 until 1983, I never saw any guidelines, including a two-year period when I worked closely with Jim Shooter on the ill-fated proposed color comicbook series Titan Science project; when I asked about such matters (during my work with editors Rick Marschall, Lynn Graeme and Denny O’Neil at the black-and-white magazine Marvel Preview/Bizarre Adventures), I was told not to worry. Though I freelanced for DC Comics from 1983 until about 1989, and again (briefly) in 1999, I never saw any guidelines, and when I asked about such matters I was told not to worry.
In over two decades of freelancing, the only guidelines I ever saw from either DC or Marvel were confined to Jenette Kahn‘s letters and that December 1986 press release from DC Comics I’ve already shared with you — guidelines which many of us publicly contested, and never saw officially adopted.
I have worked freelance for publishers who did have written guidelines and parameters, including some who would incorporate them into their contracts; there was never such a document or set of guidelines asserted by either DC or Marvel for me to work within or under. There was always contract language that DC or Marvel could make changes to any work delivered to render it suitable for publication, mind you, but never any standards or practices guidelines to work to or from.
So, back to Gary Groth‘s TCJ editorial. While there’s much truth to Gary‘s assessment of the mainstream comics market of 1987, he was being somewhat disingenuous, to say the least. While Gary was right about the economic and long-term (“in perpetuity”) straitjackets still imposed and accepted by “the Millers and Moores” of the freelance community, he wasn’t right about the issues of freedom of creative expression within the respective sandboxes of DC and Marvel by that time.
We were pleasantly surprised at how much creative freedom we did have while doing the first two-three years of work on Saga of the Swamp Thing. We pushed some envelopes, kicked up some dust. We lost the Comics Code — no small accomplishment in 1984 — and weren’t fired on the spot. After some initial timidity (see last chapter), we were in fact encouraged to expand the parameters of what we were doing, and we imposed our own limitations (embracing adult themes and content instead of gore) and worked within others (we could not, for instance, use ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’ in dialogue even after we’d lost the Code).
It’s no coincidence that both “the Millers and Moores” had come into their own working on titles practically abandoned by their publishers: for both Daredevil and Saga of the Swamp Thing, there was literally nothing to lose by giving “the Millers and Moores” their head to play. Both titles became unexpected hits for Marvel and DC, respectively, elevating Miller and Moore to higher positions of payment, creative freedom of expression, and boxoffice value within the confines of the work-for-hire mainstream comics publishing arena.
With rare exceptions, even work-for-hire terms had changed for select creators and projects; in the cases of Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns, etc., contracts embodying previously inconceivable negotiations and terms involving even venerable, highly-protected corporate properties like Batman had been stretched to new thresholds. Within the confines of work-for-hire, far more was being indulged, coaxed and nurtured from a new generation of creators than the companies had ever permitted or imagined sellable before, and as the 1987 Kirby Awards demonstrated, both DC and Marvel were yielding bountiful harvests by doing so.
Especially after they were free of the newsstands, both Frank and Alan reaped considerable royalties from their work in the mainstream American comics industry (newsstand sales only began paying royalties after very high sales numbers; Direct Sale market royalties began at a much lower threshold, earning much more generous royalties for the respective creators). As noted in the prior chapter, 1987 was the first year DC‘s sales had eclipsed Marvel‘s since the founding of the Direct Sales market: “According to Capital City [Distributors Inc.]‘s orders, which are considered indicative of the whole market, DC obtained 32.98% of the market’s sales compared to Marvel‘s 27% share,” TCJ reported; “A year ago, in August 1986, DC‘s share was 29.0% and Marvel’s 49.4%…” (Thom Powers, “DC Overcomes Marvel in Sales,” TCJ #118, December 1987, pg. 24).
In the high-stakes game of the 1986-87 comics industry, this meant that granting a certain degree of unprecedented creative freedom within work-for-hire parameters on projects like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, as well as the more traditional, tightly-prescribed work-for-hire terms of all other comicbooks (including Saga of the Swamp Thing and other titles Moore continued contributing to), were yielding measurable market results. Major measurable market results.
At some 1987 meeting of the Warner Bros. Board of Directors, someone from Paul Levitz‘s side of the table must have shared and/or received some very kind words for Frank Miller and Alan Moore, or at least their projects.
For a time, both the publishers and the freelancers who reaped these harvests enjoyed considerable income booms. Thus, greater freedom and more generous contracts and packaging options were open to creators like Frank and Alan (these did not ‘trickle down’ to all of us, though).
This is what made it so difficult for Dave Sim to convince the creators he approached directly in 1985-88 to chuck the plantation — however well-paying and benevolent the masters seemed — and self-publish their own work, initially under the financial auspices of Dave‘s new imprint Aardvark One International. Dave’s offer was tempting and generous indeed: he would bankroll the initial publishing effort, and then cut each creator loose so they could continue as self-publishers. It was, essentially, the template for how the Xeric Grant now functions. Only a few creators bit: Steve Murphy and Michael Zulli were first on board, making the transition from Aardvark-Vanaheim to Aardvark One International‘s maiden voyage midway through their (nearly completed) run on Puma Blues; John Totleben and I accepted Dave‘s offer, and the result was Taboo (not what Dave had in mind, really, an anthology, but that’s another story), a project John abandoned just as Aardvark One International was shut down and SpiderBaby Comix was born to ensure Taboo saw print.
Alan Moore finally made the leap in 1987-88 under his own steam (I don’t think Dave bankrolled Alan‘s ventures), launching his ill-fated, aptly-named Mad Love imprint with the publication of the benefit one-shot AARGH!. Of those Dave really worked on to consider his offer, Bill Sienkiewicz never made the jump, and Frank never made the leap, though he flirted with it (including a long-discussed, ever-changing story contribution to Taboo that was finally, amicably, abandoned by both Frank and myself). Again, this isn’t the essay to get into this matter (see my prior posts on Taboo‘s formative years for more on this process and period and its relevance to the events of 1986 and after). Based on my own sometimes lengthy phone conversations with Frank during this time, he simply could not see the value in taking on the necessary business matters self-publishing required. It was scary and daunting and something he simply didn’t want to engage with; he’d rather be writing and drawing sans the attendant business shenanigans self-publishing required.
This was a major stumbling block for almost every creator Dave Sim approached at the time. Creators reaping the rewards of just creating — particularly those in the enviable positions many perceived “the Millers and Moores” being in — simply didn’t want to trade the (often illusory) safety of working with/for a publisher for the autonomy and perceived greater risks of self-publishing and all that entailed. They weren’t willing to let go of what working with/for publishers offered — from advances to page rates to royalties to handling everything involved in dealing with production, printers, distributors and retailers — to truly go it alone.
Frank really wrestled with this at the time. Remember, the only creator-owned work he’d done up to that juncture (1986-87) was a single story in Bizarre Adventures. He didn’t make a leap (he never did make ‘the’ leap) until Dark Horse provided the Legends imprint umbrella: creator ownership within the relative safety of the Legends deal, which yielded Sin City – the rest is history.
I am using modifiers like “many perceived” and “illusory” because much of what was going on was illusory. At a time everyone in comics believed “the Millers and the Moores” were wealthy men, they weren’t. Not always.
There’s lots of dry stretches between checks when you’re a freelancer. Even a busy, successful, prominent freelancer hits dry spells when the money’s gone and money due hasn’t arrived. Royalties can arrive only after months of low or no income; it was, as it always is for even the most successful freelancers, feast or famine. Whopper checks would arrive from time to time once royalties due were paid, twice a year, perhaps quarterly. But between quarters or half-years, rents still are due, bills still must be paid, and freelancers still live check-to-check. Those incoming checks thin considerably when one works on a singular massive project or projects instead of a monthly title. I can personally attest to stretches in which “the Millers and the Moores” were having tough times making ends meet, while all about them fans, fellow pros and even their publishers imagined they were Scrooge McDucks swimming in imaginary money bins. We weren’t yet in the rarified environment of the 1990s boom, where creators like Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee (among others) were breaking comics sales records and reaping considerable rates and royalites… not yet.
For Alan, once he took that dive from the DC page rates and advances into “self-publishing” (an oxymoron for any writer in comics, in that unless they are drawing their own work, they cannot per se truly self-publish comics), the risks proved exponential. Mad Love‘s communal projects like AARGH! (for which all proceeds went to fight homophobia in the UK) and Big Numbers (for which huge advances were paid to creative partner Bill Sienkiewicz, draining the Mad Love coffers and yielding only a single issue before Kevin Eastman and the aptly-named Tundra came to the apparent, short-lived ‘rescue’) ultimately sank Mad Love. I can tell you for a fact that serializing From Hell in the pages of Taboo — where Alan and his partner in that venture Eddie Campbell split the modest $100 per page advance I paid all contributors, without exception — didn’t go far in easing economic woes, much less supplanting DC Comics freelance income Alan had been able to depend on from 1983-January 1987.
I’ve already said and/or inferred too much, I fear; you get the point, I trust.
It was a huge risk that Alan took when he jumped ship in February 1987, and Alan put a lot on the line making that leap, and that should never, ever be minimized or forgotten.
But, as Gary Groth wrote, what did “the Millers and the Moores” expect? What had they expected?
Gary acknowledged his own “biased ability” to discuss these matters — acknowledging his pro-label, anti work-for-hire biases — and this reader at least recognized Gary‘s unacknowledged biases as a competing publisher in the same marketplace (a bias I never could get Gary to fess up to when he was wearing his journalist hat, hard though I tried). Gary also has a bias against genre comics, particularly the superhero genre; I don’t have much affection for superheroes, either, but the fact that all four of the creators who signed the February 1987 letter did and do excell in regularly mining their favorite genres within mainstream venues is also relevant here.
Nevertheless, Gary was right in one way when he asserted that “protesting the lack of creative freedom imposed by editorial guidelines when all such creative ‘freedom’ is exercised in a work-for-hire capacity seems to me like an ass-backward protest…” (Ibid.).
In another way, though, Gary was missing the point:
For both Alan (emerging as he had from the UK weeklies like 2000 AD) and Frank (emerging from the monthly grind of scripting and penciling Daredevil), DC Comics had provided unprecedented — for Frank, Alan and DC — freedom of expression for at least three-four years.
For Frank, DC had done so under contractual terms considerably more gracious, less editorially inhibiting, and far more financially and personally rewarding than any DC had ever offered any freelancer before in the company’s history.
In another matter Gary sidestepped, part and parcel of this creative freedom was the relative comfort of the payment terms Frank and Alan worked within. Yes, point taken (and it’s a mighty important, central point, I am not being in the least sarcastic): Jack Jackson, Los Brothers Hernandez and all creators who followed in their footsteps to be published by Fantagraphics had far, far greater creative freedom than “the Millers and the Moores” could or would ever have at even DC‘s most generous and benevolent.
But the fiscal risks for Jaxon, Los Bros., Daniel Clowes and those Fantagraphics published were genuine, too. It’s not in the least bit cynical or unfair to raise that point. For those of us working freelance in the mainstream comics industry, it was tough to entertain a project, however fleeting, for an outfit like Fantagraphics (as I did, twice, in the 1980s; I honestly couldn’t afford to entertain either venture, especially with two children to raise). For “the Millers and the Moores,” moving from DC (or, in Frank‘s case, Marvel) was to weigh many options, including how one was going to feed oneself and one’s partner(s) and/or family.
I knew Jack Jackson; he never earned much off his work for Fantagraphics or Kitchen Sink, and he worked hard for what little he did earn, though he knew it was fair given the marketplace and his place in it, and he valued his creative freedom above all. Whatever Fantagraphics and Kitchen Sink paid was honestly all they could afford, and Jack trusted both publishers. Those were his best options, coming as he had from the underground comix era. Jack knew the business, having indeed wrestled with self-publishing (God Nose) before anyone else in comix were even trying to do so; having edited and co-edited anthologies (prominent among those the second full-color underground, Up From the Deep). Those were risks Jack took and had taken for over a decade and a half, and he never complained about it to me. Jack was a seasoned vet of truly independent, creator-owned comix — for a new generation just coming in the door, publishers like Fantagraphics were an oasis, too.
For Los Bros, whatever offer Fantagraphics extended beat the low numbers they’d earned on their self-published first issue of Love and Rockets (which I mail-ordered from Los Bros upon reading Gary‘s rave review in TCJ), and they’ve stuck with Fantagraphics and vice-versa through thick and thin, while occasionally doing outside work for publishers ranging from Bill Marks (the ill-fated Mister X) to DC/Vertigo to The New York Times Magazine.
I mention this because this touches upon the other unspoken bias of Gary‘s TCJ #118 editorial platform. Outside of the occasional cover, interview, benefit comics contribution or permission to reprint existing work (e.g., Alan‘s UK-fanzine article “How to Write Comics” that was serialized in TCJ in 1987-88), “the Millers and the Moores” were never, ever going to work for or with Fantagraphics.
Again, this is neither a dig nor stated with sarcasm. I just thought we should make sure all the cards were on the table here, folks.
That all said, Gary was right when he argued that “creative freedom” within the parameters of a mainstream publisher like DC Comics was illusory, and a matter of opportunistic profit-based motives resulting in ‘new freedom’ as easily taken away as it was granted. Thus, “…the new editorial guidelines [proposed in the December DC Comics letter to freelancers] do nothing more than ambiguously re-state the Comics Code Authority’s own guidelines,” Gary wrote, “under which creators have worked for years without squawking.”
For Frank, both his ‘solo’ writer/artist work on Ronin and The Dark Knight Returns (in collaboration with inker Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley on the color, natch) and his adventurous Epic Comics collaboration with Bill Sienkiewicz on Elektra: Assassin had been free of any Code or stated, codified in-house restrictions.
For Alan, he had enjoyed relative creative freedom with his various collaborative series in Warrior prior to the fateful phone call from Len Wein inviting him to work with DC Comics. Once there, Saga of the Swamp Thing had truly shucked the Code in short order (with SOTST #29) and blossomed under the new freedom that represented; in fact, Alan had only scripted ten issues – less than one year — under the auspices of the Code seal. Watchmen and the just-starting completion of V for Vendetta were ambitious undertakings completely unfettered by the CCA or stated in-house guidelines.
In fact, “the Millers and the Moores” were encouraged by DC to continue to do their best, pushing envelopes in all directions, free of anything resembling the Comics Code Authority rule, and all parties were profiting (creatively and financially) from this new paradigm.
Make no mistake: historically, this was a new paradigm, a new landscape, a new reality.
This was the impact of the undergrounds, the alternatives, and of the monthly National Lampoon and Heavy Metal mainstream newsstand “Illustrated Adult Fantasy” magazines, and of the Direct Sales Market alternatives (including Cerebus and Elfquest and the fruit of competitors like Pacific Comics, Eclipse Comics and First Comics) being felt at last in the American mainstream comics industry.
Gary was (willfully, I believe) ignoring that to make his point: in essence, “This means that ‘creators’ would have even greater freedom to write and draw super-hero comics, which is a freedom considered pretty important in comicbook land, but which I think is a moot point in any serious discussion of creative freedom…” (Ibid.)
If the issue, then, was (as Gary proposed) that of relatively new and arguably naïve creators privileged beyond those of previous generations — literally, “the Millers and the Moores” — suddenly balking at having blinders affixed to their eyes, and protesting this ‘new’ treatment as a measurable shift in their work environment up to that point in time, fair enough.
If the issue, however, was that “the Millers and the Moores” were among the creators who came into their own amid a new publishing environment, a new reality, and a new paradigm, Gary‘s tenor and conclusions were problematic at best.
Be that as it may, DC continued to mismanage their public affairs while at the key forum of San Diego Comicon, and Alan Moore‘s decision to walk was the one aspect of this debacle that had lasting consequences.
At some 1988 meeting of the Warner Bros. Board of Directors, someone from Paul Levitz‘s side of the table must have had a very difficult time answering why there was noticeably less of Frank Miller visible at DC Comics, and how exactly they’d managed to loose that British fellow — what was his name? The one who did Watchmen? Oh, yes, Alan Moore. “He what?“
There must have been some words exchanged about why there would be no new Alan Moore projects, and what they were going to do to try and get him back.
Or bring in someone just like him — and how to make sure they didn’t lose whoever that might be, too.
Suddenly, there was much, much more than just corporate or personal face at stake.
How would DC maintain their market gain over their main competitor Marvel without “the Millers and the Moores”? How would DC Comics remain profitable — as profitable as they had been in 1986 and especially 1987, when that nice Alan Moore chap was such a gold mine for Warner Bros. and DC Comics?
Next: More on Moore –What It Meant & What It Means
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