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 TCBGGuest 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.]

But first, given the context of what did happen in the summer of 1987, and the substance and context of Gary Groth‘s TCJ #118 editorial, let’s bookend these events, shall we?

* 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.”

But — and this is a pretty major ‘but’ — “the Millers and the Moores” had, of late, not been required to work under Code guidelines.

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

All covers, artwork, text ©1985, 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.


Discussion (22) ¬

  1. Brian C. Payne

    I’m loving this series of posts just as I do all of your personal “comic history” essays. I also love it when you go off on a political” rant” but perhaps that says more about me than you. However, that being said I think it is important to include the name of an artist that I think remains to often unsung in recounting Miller’s early success story. I refer of course to the amazingly talented Klaus Janson. I can’t imagine “The Dark Knight” without him and believe that his contribution to the book is equal too if not greater than that of Lynn Varley. It is a minor quibble I know but still worth mentioning I think. Thanks!

  2. Robert O'Nale

    Steve–Just out of curiosity, since Dave Sim’s been mentioned a couple of times in today’s installment–does any of this debacle have anything to do with his rather enigmatic piece in Taboo #4? I’ve always wondered about it, and reading these posts has made me wonder if there’s any connection.

  3. srbissette

    Thanks, Brian, and I’ve insert Klaus’s name in the appropriate spot. Appreciate the vigilence; I write these as time permits, and occasionally miss those ‘I’ve got to double-check this/get back to this’ sentences or parenthetical statements.

    Long as this essay has become, there’s still so much I have to leave out. Primary to your comment is the fact that those who were used to working collaboratively — in this case, Frank and Alan — didn’t embrace self-publishing easily (Alan) or at all (Frank) because the business models for collaborative creative work can be onorous. WHO owns the final work? Work-for-hire solves so many of those dilemmas — and what creator wants to be responsible for foisting that on another creator?

    I write those words involved in a project in which, to protect TMs and copyrights under North American copyright law, I am having to embrace work-for-hire legal contracts. It’s unpleasant, but it serves its purpose, and my attempts to find other legal strategies (transfer of copyright, etc.) reinforced work-for-hire as the only viable option in this case. Sigh.

  4. srbissette

    Robert, you’ve got it. Dave’s TABOO 4 ‘editorial cartoon’ — done in the wake of the SWAMP THING #88 debacle — meshed JFK assassination iconography, the crucifixion of Christ (the ST #88 iconography) and ‘for Jenette’ as the dedication to comment on Jenette Kahn and DC thus having martyred Rick Veitch and ST #88. It was a weird piece, but I loved it, and Dave asked me NOT to comment on it. Per usual with Dave, in an odd way it perfectly encapsulated what was going on around that ‘issue’ (pun intended).

  5. Mark Clegg

    Hi Steve,

    I’ve really been enjoying this series, a real blast from the past during a crucial period in my life. It does explain the atmosphere at the time, which tangetially influenced my own actions at the time, where I placed my few hopes and where I thought there were nothing but dead-ends.

    A couple of minor corrections. Epic lasted until 1994 (and technically 1996) under the editorship of Carl Potts, who seems to be someone everyone else has forgotten. Fantagraphics also published Moore’s and Don Simpson’s “In Pictopia” in their ANYTHING GOES benefit mini-series.

  6. srbissette

    Thanks, Mark — but corrections, those aren’t.

    1. I wasn’t referring to the Epic Comics line within any given time span (I’ve just checked again to make sure I hadn’t done so, as I didn’t mean to), so not sure why you’re positing that as a ‘correction.’ But, for the record, the Epic line indeed continued under Carl (who I haven’t forgotten, he’s just not relevant to this block of time or subject), and Epic Heavy Hitters also resurfaced briefly afterwards.

    For what it’s worth, the Epic line was also muddied (like Dark Horse Comics) by work-for-hire while Archie was still at the helm, via Marvel character series like ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN and licensed properties like HELLRAISER, which was a disappointment at the time (I was asked by both Archie and by Clive Barker to contribute something to HELLRAISER, and I came up with a pretty twisted story both liked, but when I found out it was work-for-hire and offered no royalties or rights reversion, I bowed out quickly). Eventually, the original creator-ownership aspect of the Epic Comics line was so diluted it ceased to represent any real alternative to Marvel’s terms, save for the occasional exception like Joe Kubert’s TOR miniseries.

    In any case, I wasn’t talking about any of that when I referred to the Epic line herein, so it’s a moot point, and again, while I appreciate the info, it’s not a correction.

    2. And I noted that “Outside of the occasional cover, interview, benefit comics contribution…” Frank and Alan didn’t do anything for Fantagraphics, and ANYTHING GOES was a benefit project (to fund the Fleischer lawsuit defense). So I had that base covered, too.

    That said, I’m not being testy; I welcome genuine corrections, but I did do my homework and tried to ensure absolute accuracy as best I could.

  7. James Robert Smith

    Great Jove, Steve! This is why I read this blog several times a week. (I’d be here every day if it weren’t for the deadline with Tor Books.) Well rendered thought…probably the most intelligent pondering of comics history of the past thirty years or so, with the bonus of the fact that you were often a part of that history if not merely privy to it.

    For all of the relative honesty of the Journal, I am reminded of something that happened to me at a Small Press Expo in Washington DC some years ago. I went to the Fantagraphics setup and asked them if they were covering or intended to cover the Justice Dept’s investigation and possible pursuing of anti-trust violations against Diamond Comics Distributors. They seemed not eager to discuss this with me and kept avoiding it. I’d been out of the comics loop for some time at this point and couldn’t quite understand why the fellow manning the table was avoiding my question (I’m pretty sure it was Kim Thompson). It was during this frustrating exchange that I looked down at the table and realized that they were hawking books that were being co-published by Fantagraphics and one of Steve Geppi’s outfits!

    So much for impartiality and solid journalism.

    I was a part of the Epic Comics HELLRAISER event, having sold stories to that title. I have to point out that I did receive royalties for at least two of my stories. But I got no payments at all for a couple of reprints. I did hear that the artist who illustrated the stories got some reprint money, but he had signed an addendum work-for-hire document that I refused to autograph. Even today, my work from that title are being reprinted and sold by Checker Books, for which I receive not one thin dime. Similarly, at least two of my stories were reprinted in deluxe signed and numbered editions (and, I’m told, even a leather-bound edition) also for which I received no payment and not even a contributor’s copy).

    So much for the results of the struggles of the industry’s top creative talents.

    At any rate, considering the extremely fickle nature of comic book fandom, a lot of the people who thought they were making a stand at the time are hardly recalled or even known to the current crop of comic book customers.

  8. srbissette

    One of my last ‘I give a shit about the industry’ conversations was with Gary Groth concerning the DoJ investigation of Diamond, which Gary was calling me about and was very much downplaying and basically discouraging me from putting much stock in.

    That was such a weird period: Larry Marder had gone over to ‘the Dark Side’ with Todd McFarlane; Jeff Smith and Colleen Doran (among others) were placing their titles under Image’s umbrella (Jim Valentino invited me in to rescue TYRANT, but between my complete mistrust of Jim Lee over the fate of 1963′s Annual, and impending divorce proceedings in my personal life, I declined); and here was Gary, poo-pooing the DoJ investigation which I thought was completely justified, given the arguable collusion between DC, Diamond and others.

    Still, it was a tough argument to make. Capital had really fucked up badly — you may recall, they had JUST moved all operations and a new state-of-the-art warehouse to close proximity with World Color, which for at least two decades had been the primary printer of four-color comicbooks — just as Quebecor and the new era of computer color was making World Color obsolete and expendable. This, on the heels of (1) Marvel going direct with Heroes World, removing all Marvel product from Capital and Diamond, (2) DC going direct with Diamond, and (3) Dark Horse and Image following suit meant it really was all over for Capital but the tears. Even if the DoJ had followed through and dismantled Diamond, what was left to rebuild anything with? It was too late.

    The Epic HELLRAISER deal sucked. I had scripted my story and Archie and Clive were enthusiastic, and both tried to talk me into staying aboard, but once I saw the deal I said, ‘no thanks.’ EPIC magazine had already been compromised by foreign publication of material (including Steve Perry and my EPIC #6 story “Kultz”) sans payment, which Mike Friedrich later handled as a sort of ‘class action’ against Marvel and scored some $$ for folks with heavier EPIC zine page counts than Steve and I had with the one story. That, along with the HELLRAISER deal, was all I needed to decide ‘never again’ with the Epic imprint. I have other friends who’ve had your same unfortunate history with their contributions to HELLRAISER, and of course Clive gets nothing — HELLRAISER, being his debut directorial feature, was owned lock, stock and barrel by New World Pictures (then owners of Marvel Comics, too).

  9. Paul Riddell

    “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.”

    Every time I read a comment such as this, and I’ve said it a lot myself, I’m reminded of an interview with Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers in Rolling Stone at the end of 1996. This was about six months after the album Electriclarryland had been released, and the single “Pepper” was playing on seemingly every radio station in the US. Gibby was understandably pissed off at having to explain over and over to his friends that (a) just because “Pepper” was getting tremendous airplay didn’t mean that the Surfers’ label was bringing wheelbarrows full of cash to Gibby’s door, and (b) the band might have made a tiny bit of money if not for having to continue with the contractually obligated road tour. (At the time, the band was still hurting from their big 1993 tour for Independent Worm Saloon, when their opening act suddenly got a top ten song in the mix, and the opener’s lead singer, one Scott Weiland, demanded that the Surfers open for his little whiner rock combo instead of the other way around. In Dallas, at least, even God took issue with Stone Temple Pilots, as the show was canceled due to one of the worst thunderstorms we’ve ever seen right after the junkies took to the stage.)

    Anyway, not to get too far into musical minutiae, but Gibby made a comment in that interview that will probably be engraved on my crematory urn. “The worst thing in the world is to be famous with no money.” We as a people have this automatic assumption that fame means a corresponding financial solvency: after all, since people are reading your books or listening to your music or watching your television show, shouldn’t you be getting rewarded for it? Not only does it do no good to explain this in rational tones (royalties versus actual payments minus money owed by greedheads who simply refuse to pay their bills), but you get a tenor of point-blank rage going through the crowd if you dare note that many of their role models are lucky to make rent every month. (I see a lot of this, interestingly enough, with the pirated E-book crowd: you have characters who feel that they deserve books or comics for free, always for free, and they’ll fight to the death to prevent their ever having to do so. They then throw tantrums when creators have to point out “You know, my last book didn’t sell enough to pay back my advance, so I’m having to go back to a day job.”)

    One little personal tale: the only good thing that came out of most of 2002 was my getting hooked on carnivorous plants, and the lowest point in my life up to that point was having to take a job in a liquor store to attempt to pay the bills. I couldn’t find a day job that covered expenses, and every time I’d get someone asking me to write for them and I’d ask about payment, I’d get a snotty response along the lines of “Well, since I’m not a well-heeled trust fund baby, I can’t pay anyone until the magazine starts making a profit.” And we all know how that goes. The absolute lowest point came when two fans of my old film essays for SCI FI came into the store, and simply wouldn’t shut the hell up about how unfair it was that I was having to work in a liquor store. They weren’t offering me a job, they weren’t offering job leads, and it’s not even like they actually bought the magazines they were reading. That was the point where I quit writing entirely, because I knew that if I kept going, I was only going to have to deal with more of the same for the rest of my life.

  10. srbissette

    Ah, Paul, I know it well.

    Dave Sim used to cite the passage in the Rolling Stones history (in various print bios) when they were touring on the road, but didn’t have enough cash between them to eat or buy a drink, while management was awash in income earned by their music, records, etc.

    I saw it often among my higher-profile friends in freelancing, and it was rare and tough for them to ask for help, but I always gave it when and if I could. I’ve no doubt it still goes on.

    Self-publishing was and remains as risky, sans the ‘inverted pyramid’ Dave delineated in freelancer/publisher relations. Once Diamond was the only game in town, the writing was on the wall: even with the healthy annual sales I had on TYRANT, the profit was the Capital check; the Diamond check paid the printing bill. Just paying the printer wasn’t sustainable, regardless of my numbers, especially with two households (mid-separation) to support. My decision to abandon (the incredibly risky) self-publishing of TYRANT still ‘earns’ me acrimony, including from peers who should know better (and, in one case, a peer and fellow inky traveler whose big payday came from the work I originally convinced said party to take on, and I myself published at ongoing and considerable financial loss to myself and my family). While I am careful about pointing out the occasional troubles others face, I’ve been pretty candid about my own situation, in print, in person, and online, and still get brickbats for that, too. Ah, well, fuck ‘em, I say.

    When it became obvious — OBVIOUS — working as a local video superstore manager was going to offer greater fiscal security and income to myself and my then-teenaged children than continuing to bang my head against freelancing (at a time on publisher was taking five+ months to pay me for a completed and accepted job, and another was breaking contract and refusing to pay for work turned in, requiring the whole job be done first, despite the clear and carefully negotiated terms of the contract), it was all over but the tears.

    As I wrote in the intros for my BLUR books, that period was punctuated by a young customer at the store once recognizing who I was from my name tag, turning white, and dashing out of the shop. A day or two later, a friend steered me to Grant Morrison’s board, where a Morrison fan wrote about seeing me ‘reduced’ to working in a video store and writing weekly film reviews for the local paper — and Morrison responded, in so many words, he’d rather kill himself first than similarly degrade himself. Ah, the lessons I learned during those years.

    The illusion of ‘fame=fortune’ is all-pervasive, and a key factor in acknowledging what a risk was being taken by those who — however briefly — put their jobs on the line over an ethical issue, and how great the risk was for Alan Moore, who DID walk, for good, from DC Comics.

    I’m glad that came through to you, Paul, and thank you for reinforcing the reality behind such legacies — though I’m sorry your own situation led to you quitting writing.

    That said, I completely, completely understand.

    (Note: For the record, MYRANT remains free, sans advertising; my appeal last week for folks to consider supporting this venture yielded ONE sale of ONE book in the SpiderBaby Store — but multiple appeals to ME for ‘more, more’ comics history writing. For free (which I do willingly, mind you). And THREE requests from online venues asking I let them ‘reprint’/post my complete essay on THEIR sites — for free.)

  11. James Robert Smith

    I’ve now sold three novels (one of them twice) and a fourth sale coming through my agent’s offices soon, and movie rights to one of them. When people I know hear this they say silly things like “Why are you still working for the Postal Service?” and “You must be getting rich!”

    They’ve all heard so many Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Tom Clancy, etc. multi-million dollar contract tales that they think everyone who sells a novel is rich. Alas, it’s not so. I keep the day job and will until such time as I have vast stores of money in a retirement account. Not bloody likely.

    Yes, some former friends of yours are full of shit. Alas.

  12. Mark Clegg

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for correcting about your statement on Fantagraphics publishing Moore’s work. You were absolutely correct. I was just scanning too quickly and the post was too massive (and time too short) to go back and make sure I got what you said correct. Sorry about that.
    On the other point, I went back and am still confused. In your reply to me you did acknowledge Carl Potts and his history with Epic. I just wonder how that jives with this quote from your original missive:
    “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 and its companion comics line through to their demise. ”
    Carl Potts was there at the demise, not Archie Goodwin, unless you restrict the meaning of demise to the demise of the creator-owned aspect. I don’t think the context alone would justify the reader making that restriction.
    Still, make no mistake, I’m really enjoying this series, its data, and its trip (for me) down memory lane.

  13. srbissette

    Ah, I see that now, Mark. Point taken; correction made. And thank you!

    My apologies — I scanned the post for other references; you’re right, my wording concerning Archie‘s run is incorrect. I’ve now rectified that error, thanks to your eagle eye.

  14. srbissette

    And Bob: Keep the post office job. I’ve seen too many of my novelists friends jump from the employment pool briefly flush with momentary success, only to be scraping months/years later. The health care benefits alone are irreplacable.

  15. Paul Riddell

    Sorry about not making a purchase just yet: I’m waiting until after my current move. As it is, I’ve been introducing my co-workers to your work, and I think a complete set of “Taboo” is exactly what my boss needs. (He’s a very talented artist in his own right, and I’ve been having fun passing on further inspiration.) I understand all too well, though: the only thing worse than making a pitch for purchases and having everyone ignore it is when people complain “You don’t post enough” when you have to take a side job to pay the bills.

    (Several years back, I put together a small palaeo and science blog on LiveJournal, and had a character running a science fiction convention in North Carolina contact me. He was magnanimously willing to cover my hotel room fee to get me out as a guest, but only if I could guarantee at least 75 people would come out to this show solely to see me. I laughed for an hour at this: I couldn’t get 5 people to show up to a midnight movie thanks to that blog, so how long had he been freebasing Preparation H to make that sort of assumption?)

  16. srbissette

    No apology necessary, Paul. Times are tough for most everyone — but how could I resist mentioning supporting my efforts after your post?

  17. Colleen

    It might be useful to put up a donation button. it works for me. Many people want to pay for their online use, but don’t necessarily want to buy physical products.

  18. srbissette

    That’ll be part of our site/blog revamp this summer, Colleen, and thanks!

  19. Colleen

    You can do that on WordPress with no special skills. I can set it up for you in about five minutes. Let me know.

  20. Chris B

    SRB: “…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…” and “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.”

    You’ve got the horse and the cart slightly reversed here, I think: it was more the success of Sin City that led Dark Horse to establish a specific imprint whereby talented “mainstream” cartoonists could bring their personal projects. Sin City first ran as a serial in Dark Horse Presents from 1991 or so (I think it began in Dark Horse’s 5th-anniversary special), then that one was collected in paperback (the first printing under a fairly cheap glossy cover, the next switching to a matte stock which became a design trademark of the series) then a second story was serialised in its own miniseries circa 1993. Legend didn’t launch until 1994 – a discreet distance after the clusterfuck of the Comics Greatest World imprint launch!

    One definitely got the feeling that Miller focussed his recruiting powers, which had generated the petitions and protests here, as well as WAP!, into bringing the other (five or six?) closed-door members into the fold that he’d found so satisfying personally. Of course, the success of Image’s similar founding-member recruitment a couple of years before both motivated the action and the declaration that the door was closed, and wouldn’t be expanding out of control the way Image had (once they moved on from merely being an imprint themselves).

    It’s not unlikely that Mike Richardson and Dark Horse had been looking both to the success of Vertigo the year before – a broad genre publisher hiving off a chunk of its line with an identifiable feel or hook into a cleanly brandable division – and to the threat/possibility of market share dividing up as Dave Sim was opening up the audience for his “anyone can do it! Don’t let the publishers take 90% of your income!” exhortations to include everyone who could listen, rather than peers he admired. The Image founders had shown you didn’t need Daddy holding your hand already, Sim was firing off a couple thousand words per month detailing how and why you could do it yourself, the likes of Terry Moore and Jeff Smith (and Colleen!) were getting press attention for their content AND their self-contained publishing set-ups… it was smart of Dark Horse to both ride the wave of attention for broadly mainstream (i.e. not necessarily super-hero) cartoonists doing what they “REALLY wanted to do,” and to make sure that these commercial creators brought their ideas to Oregon, rather than actually striking out on their own.

    (Note that all the principals were used to working under a corporate structure; none of the invitees were true independents: Paul Chadwick was already at Dark Horse, and Allred’s early work had been through small publishers like Slave Labor and Caliber.)

    But remember that even Sin City wasn’t Miller’s first “leap” – he’d first done Give Me Liberty (with Dave Gibbons), and Hard Boiled (with Geof Darrow) for Dark Horse in 1990, before committing to something he both wrote and drew. Though this was likely a time-management issue, rather than deliberate baby steps – he likely would have been working on Robocop 2 around this period, and always cited the frustration of that experience as contrasting with the freedom of writing AND drawing AND lettering the original Sin City. But though he shared ownership on those first two, they were both “truly creator-owned”.

    SRB: “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.”

    This doesn’t seem to have been a wilful intention of Moore’s – for several years (per Amazing Heroes Preview Special and interviews of the time), he had a “solo anthology” in development at Fantagraphics – at first under the working title “Alan Moore’s Comic,” and then under the then-already-stillborn-once, now-finally-realised sobriquet of “Dodgem Logic.” The first issue was to be titled ‘Convention Tension,’ and be a freewheeling detail-crammed MAD-style satire of an American comics convention – supposedly this one was fully written for a while, and eventually Don Simpson was attached to draw – and the second was going to be a biography of Aubrey Beardsley, IIRC. That one may never have been written or had a prospective artist, given that the first issue failed to get drawn.

    JRS: “For all of the relative honesty of the Journal, I am reminded of something that happened to me at a Small Press Expo in Washington DC some years ago. I went to the Fantagraphics setup and asked them if they were covering or intended to cover the Justice Dept’s investigation and possible pursuing of anti-trust violations against Diamond Comics Distributors. They seemed not eager to discuss this with me and kept avoiding it. I’d been out of the comics loop for some time at this point and couldn’t quite understand why the fellow manning the table was avoiding my question (I’m pretty sure it was Kim Thompson). It was during this frustrating exchange that I looked down at the table and realized that they were hawking books that were being co-published by Fantagraphics and one of Steve Geppi’s outfits!

    So much for impartiality and solid journalism.”

    A handful of problems with this account as evidence of, well, anything in particular:

    1) Approaching someone working in a retail capacity for a publisher at a trade show and upbraiding them for the actions of one or two employees of a different division of the publisher, who were physically on the other side of a continent at the time, is even less productive than the superhero fan getting up at a convention panel to sobbingly ask how they could possibly let Power Lass get married to The Purple Python. If it was Kim Thompson, he hadn’t been connected to TCJ in an editorial capacity for a good decade or more, and was thus in no authoritative position to know what they were or weren’t planning to cover. If it was a local friend of a Fanta employee helping out in order to get in for free and have an hour or two to look around, they would probably have had no idea what Mr Smith was even talking about. (And even if Mike Dean had been standing around in Washington DC selling books, instead of either doing some news reporting in Seattle, or enjoying his weekend and re-potting some azaleas, he probably wouldn’t have given out details of his current work projects to a cranky stranger.)

    2) Groth’s disinterest in hashing out the possibility of the DOJ investigation ever going anywhere may have had a public component akin to the previous parenthesis, but generally seemed to me at the time to indicate that he simply thought that there was not much of a case to make: Geppi had been delivered his near-monopoly with a ribbon on it tied by DC Comics, not through any usurious underhandedness – and the wheezing, strangulated existence of Cold Cut, Last Gasp and one or two others proved that there TECHNICALLY was no monopoly, anyway.

    3) The Journal DID run stories about the investigation – amounting only to “well, there’s this investigation, you know?”; but there WAS nothing more to the story, as much as many of us might have WISHED for the distribution exclusives to be torn asunder, as viewers or participants – so there’s not much outrage to whip up about their failure to do so… and

    4) Unless anyone else can point to ANY book or “books” ever being co-published by Fantagraphics and Another Rainbow, Fantagraphics and Gemstone, or Fantagraphics and Gladstone, I think we can write this evocatively swell-of-strings-soundtracked ‘smoking gun’ off as another fever dream of the creative mind that delivered us “Dave Sim and Peter Laird could have brought Geppi TO HIS KNEES with SHEER ECONOMIC MUSCLE!” earlier in these comment threads.

    Thanks for putting all this material together, Steve – I hope you had a lot of fun doing it, too!

  21. srbissette

    Chris, THANKS! I’ll review your comments in detail and revise my final version of this essay accordingly, with full credit to you for the fact-checking and relevant revisions. All in all, terrific input, THANK YOU — this is just what I’m looking for when I post these essays.

  22. srbissette

    I’ll be considerably revising my account of Frank and Dark Horse — checking my shelves, you’re dead right: Frank’s incremental step into fully writing and drawing SIN CITY predated Legend by a stretch. My memory’s condensation of events completely failed me here, and thanks for catching that and outlining the true chronology (including GIVE ME LIBERTY and HARD-BOILED); I was so focused on 1985-88 in my research that I trusted memory alone on SIN CITY. My bad.

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