Posted In: News
R.I.P. Dick Giordano
And: Forgotten Comics Wars
Or: How Angry Freelancers Made It Possible for A New Mainstream Comics Era (Including Vertigo) to Exist, Part 12 (Conclusion)
Dick passed away on Saturday in Florida due to complications from a brief, recent illness; Dick was 78 years old.
My Kubert School pioneer classmate Ken Feduniewicz emailed our fellow classmates the following (which I’m posting here with Ken‘s express permission):
“Dick Giordano, long-time comics artist, inker, teacher and editor (first at Charlton, then DC Comics) passed away on Saturday in Florida from complications stemming from a recent, brief illness. He was 78.
XQBs (ex-Kubert-School-students) need no intro to Dick, who was a beloved first-year instructor at the Kubert School. Sal Trapani’s more-famous cousin was an artist and editor at Charlton Comics in the 60s, until Carmine Infantino pulled him over to DC, along with young guns (at the time) Denny O’Neill and Steve Skeates.” [Note: Ken adds in a followup email: "...it may have been Joe Orlando that hired Dick away from the Santangelo family, and not Carmine. I can't remember exactly when Carmine was replaced as DC's publisher (1970?), but it feels like Dick was already part of the DC family BEFORE the turn of the decade...so that would have put the smart-move under Infantino's aegis...credit to Carmine." I welcome any clarification or correction of this aspect of Dick's history with DC Comics.]
A decent artist in his own right, Dick REALLY got noticed as Neal Adams inker on Adams’ more notable contributions to the DC pantheon: the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series and some of Adams’ work on Batman. Partnering with Adams at Continuity Studios propelled Giordano to super-stardom; from that point on, his place in the “fan-fave” firmament was fixed. Approachable, friendly, and good-natured to begin with, Dick’s popularity only grew exponentially from that point onward. During his DC editorial heyday, he was famous for getting up at around 3 a.m. and pencilling and/or inking for 3-to-4 hours BEFORE boarding a train from his Ct. home to the NYC DC offices…and THEN putting in a full day at the office!
Within the past decade, he retired and moved to Florida; in recent years, partnering with Bob Layton and trying to launch a new comics line: one of his few failures, as the fledgling Future Comics group became yet another casualty of the weak US economy.
Aside from being a talented artist, Mr.G. was an inspiration. He WILL be missed. – KF”
This hearbreaking news necessitated a slight rewrite of the following concluding installment in this serialized essay; though Dick was front-and-center in much of the events of the 1986-87 I’ve been discussing the past two weeks, it’s not my wish to either play up or down, or inadvertantly malign, Dick‘s role or his memory.
To those of us who knew Dick throughout his management tenure at DC Comics, he could be as formidable a foe as he could be an ally.
But to those of us who knew him primarily as our teacher at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, Inc., we have only fond memories of what Dick shared with us and the lessons we still apply in our own lives and work. According to Joe himself, Dick was among the first professionals to offer to teach at the school when Joe and Muriel were pulling it together, and Dick was among my favorite of all our teachers that momentous first year. Dick was nothing but generous, attentive, giving and focused in his time with us, even when we were ignorant, obstinant and bull-headed.
In the fall of 1976, it was Dick (in his inking class) and Joe Kubert who first put a brush in my hand — Windsor-Newton Series 7, Number 4 — that forever changed my relationship with a piece of paper and the fireworks that were forever detonating in my imagination.
That is a debt I will never, could never, can never, repay.
[Self-portrait, Dick Giordano, from Dick's own website "Commissions Gallery" page; click here for more. Artwork ©2005 Dick Giordano; Wonder Woman ® and © DC Entertainment Inc./DC Comics Inc.]
Dick was the first professional cartoonist to instill in me a fire for the advocacy of creator’s rights, beginning with his candid in-class discussion of his and Neal Adams‘s efforts in the mid-1970s to organize cartoonists into a guild to articulate and protect their rights. Dick, Muriel Kubert, and Burne Hogarth (in a speech we caught as students at the opening of a Frank Frazetta exhibition in Pennsylvania) were the primary powerhouses that put me on that path in 1976-77, and for that, too, I am forever grateful.
My first-ever published professional comics work appeared alongside Dick Giordano‘s serialized sf comic “The Smooth” in a creator-owned experiment in publishing initiated and helmed by Joe Kubert: Sojourn #1 and 2. Joe had told us Dick had jumped at the opportunity to be part of Sojourn and own his own work; he had earlier contributed a story or two to Starreach, if memory serves, and valued any venue that allowed him to own his own creations. It was a real point of pride to be part of that venture, and soon after Dick said to me, “Welcome to the club.”
Here I was, a newbie, being affectionately welcomed as a peer by my teacher! Dick had a big heart and could be incredibly kind and giving.
I must be candid, though: In subsequent years, I too often found myself at odds with DC Comics, and for much of my time working at/with DC, my old mentor and teacher was the voice, face and (at times) finger and/or fist of DC Comics. This was nothing Dick or I ever enjoyed or relished, and I wish it had been otherwise. It was clumsy and painful and difficult, and remained so over the years. But so it goes: it was what it was, we were who we were, we did what we did. Life changes people, as does respective conditions and positions of employment and the various roles we find ourselves in over the years. My respect, affection and admiration for Dick never flagged or faded through thick and thin, but I fear I was often a thorn in his side.
So, that said — Please read the following in the context of the previous chapters and the spirit that initiated and (hopefully) enfused this effort, rather than in the immediate context of Dick‘s passing, which brings nothing but loss, grief and sadness.
All this makes this posting of this final chapter more than ill-timed, bittersweet and ironic, in more ways than I can articulate.
Again, please don’t misinterpret the following as being in any way mean-spirited or malicious; as should be obvious, I’d written most of this long before knowing of Dick‘s illness and his tragic death this weekend — and I see it through now in hopes of honoring that fire Dick himself instilled in a young, idealistic cartoonist struggling to learn his craft and find his footing in a classroom in the Joe Kubert School back in 1977.
* In July 1987, DC Comics announced the launch of Piranha Press, a new imprint under the helm of a complete newcomer to comics, Mark Nevelow.
While touted as an alternative to the traditional DC line, and with Nevelow citing titles like Love and Rockets, Maus and Zot! as examples of the kind of material he intended to publish, Piranha Press was not DC’s answer to Heavy Metal or Epic Illustrated and Epic Comics: creators would not be owning the rights to their material, with the tradition of parent corporation Warner Bros. seeing comics primarily as fodder for licensing and merchandizing given as one of the reasons.
What, then, was Piranha Press for?
As Mark Nevelow made the rounds of the summer conventions courting creators and seeking projects, he found the ownership of rights a major stumbling block in attracting the very talent he craved to publish; the DC logo on his Piranha Press card was in and of itself a warning flag to many. That was certainly true in my circle of associates (but don’t take my word for it; see Thom Powers, “Newswatch: DC Aims to Take a Bite Out of Comics with Piranha,” TCJ #117, September 1987, pp. 13-14, which includes reactions from Gilbert Hernandez, William Messner-Loebs, Tim Truman, Donald Simpson and others).
* By the time the August 8, 1987 “Ratings and Standards in Comic Books” panel convened for one hour at the San Diego Comicon, it seemed the controversy was over.
After all, just weeks before (July 1987) Comics Buyer’s Guide headline announced, “The Rating Battle is Over.” The December 1987 The Comics Journal #118 dedicated much of that issue to an overview of the controversy and its conclusions (highly recommended reading if you want to know more, but bear in mind TCJ‘s prejudices: they were for labels, and belittling any real consequence of these events and the protest).
“In the end, DC pulled back on the ratings system and cancelled the ‘Universal’ label, though the guidelines would still seem to be in place on paper,” R. Fiore wrote in that issue of TCJ (“As The Dust Settles,” pg. 59), having earlier in the same article noted, “…books with ‘mature content’ were DC’s biggest money-makers over the last two years (a trend which continued with Mike Grell’s Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters), it’s hard to see why they would want to shut them down. Since the beginning of the year, there hasn’t been a notable change in the content of DC Code-approved books.”
[Image from the spring 1987 issue Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters #2, story and art by Mike Grell; this was published in the DC 'Prestige Format' sans any label of any kind. ©1987, 2010 DC Comics Inc./DC Entertainment Inc.]
Fiore continued, “Miller, Chaykin, and Wolfman are satisfied with DC’s actions and will consider doing new work for them….”
Note, please, which name is missing from the quartet behind the February, 1987 letter.
Alan Moore walked, and meant it.
That, in the end, was all that really prompted significant change in the industry and at DC Comics in particular, though no one cared to note this at the time — or later.
R. Fiore concluded, “Had the pressures on comic books been what people thought they might, the anti-ratings protest might have been very important indeed, and it might have been more intense than it turned out to be. As it is, it must at least be considered a fairly successful fire drill.” (Ibid.)
On that San Diego Comicon panel, DC Vice President and Editor-in-Chief Dick Giordano discussed DC Publisher Jenette Kahn‘s July 1, 1987 letter to freelancers and noted that DC‘s label plans were “implemented to the degree that ‘For Mature Readers’ has been appearing on comic books before the announcement was made, on certain books it still is…” and that the ‘Universal’ label was problematic for a number of reasons, “so we decided to abandon the ‘universal’ label and continue with the Code seal which appears on most of our books…” (Giordano, quoted by Thom Powers, “Newswatch: DC Changes Labeling Policy,” TCJ #117, September 1987, pg. 11).
The ‘Mature’ label had indeed been applied by August 1987 to over a half-dozen DC titles, beginning with our own Swamp Thing (switching from the vague ‘Sophisticated Suspense’ masthead over the title to ‘For Mature Readers’ with issue #57, cover dated February 1987). The other titles included the Swamp Thing spinoff Hellblazer – the maiden voyage in what was to become Vertigo, historically, under Swamp Thing editor Karen Berger – along with the sui generis anthology Wasteland, and Vigilante, Sonic Disruptors, The Shadow, Slash Miraud and The Question.
At the same time, though, strong thematic and graphic content appearing in DC‘s so-called ‘Prestige Format’ publications was published throughout the period and afterwards sans labeling of any kind, a prominent case in point being that spring 1987 Mike Grell miniseries Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters. According to TCJ‘s Thom Powers, “DC’s marketing communications manager Peggy May told the Journal… comics in the prestige format containing adult content… have never carried labeling and will continue not to…” (Ibid.).
Now, it’s not like the ‘Prestige Format’ was a venerable tradition at DC; it had been launched only a short time earlier with Frank Miller‘s Ronin. But it was apparent to DC itself that these works, and the format, was their entree into the bookstore market (see prior installments of this essay for the specifics), and such labels would be anachronistic, even a hurdle, in that marketplace.
Dick went on to say the following on that panel:
“I believe what we did was honorable, I don’t think it was a moral issue at all. It was essentially a business issue. We felt it necessary to enter into the ratings system because we felt our products were aimed at different segments of the audience… One of our slogans for the last year was ‘DC Comics aren’t just for kids any more.’ We were trying to define different levels of the product aiming at different levels of people, of our audience. Somehow it became a moral issue, and I’m not really to this day, not really quite sure how so much was printed in the fan press. And if you’ll go back and look you can see how I did not respond to any of it. I couldn’t. It wasn’t an emotional issue for me. It wasn’t a moral issue for me and there was no way I could respond to people who were becoming so emotional about what seemed to me a very simple marketing device… essentially that’s what we were doing. Somehow it turned out the other way. I mean, you look on our product now and see the company has really changed. We haven’t been imposing undue restraint on anybody.” (Giordano quoted by Thom Powers, Ibid., pg. 12).
According to Thom Powers‘ TCJ report, “Frank Miller later joined the panel from the audience and briefly discussed his feelings that the comics industry should stand up to outside pressure. He concluded by stating ‘I do not believe DC has a rating system any more… the issue is resolved.’…,” adding in a followup statement to Powers, “[I]‘ve no longer ruled out the possibility of working for DC.” Powers added, “His reaction has been reiterated by Marv Wolfman and Howard Chaykin.” (Ibid.)
Only Alan Moore stood firm.
For Alan, not only was it a moral issue, but DC‘s method of doing business was in and of itself objectionable to Alan (as noted in the interview excerpts from #138 I’ve already cited, concerning DC‘s veiled threat about others working on Watchmen if Alan and Dave didn’t maintain good relations with DC).
That, in and of itself, was increasingly becoming an issue to many of us, myself included.
[My final Swamp Thing cover art, abandoned after pencils were accepted in February 1987, inks by Bill Sienkiewicz. Note the new "Suggested for Mature Readers" label now in place. Though I penciled a portion of Alan Moore's final issue as writer, Swamp Thing #64, as I'd promised editor Karen Berger and my collaborators Alan, John Totleben and Rick Veitch, I didn't draw Swamp Thing again until 1999, when John Totleben and I drew the Neil Gaiman script "Jack-in-the-Green" for Neil's anthology Midnight Days.]
I always thought it unfortunate that Alan didn’t articulate his real reasons for leaving DC at that time and place, but that was and remains none of my business. I said as much to Alan directly at the time, but — well, more water under the bridge.
Throughout 1987, Alan would only address his reasons for leaving DC in the immediate context of the proposed standards and practices and ratings debacle.
He also didn’t share the distinctively American obsession with ‘victory’ — who had ‘won’ the debacle — however hard pressed he might be by an interviewer. Here’s what Alan had to say to Gary Groth in the summer of 1987 (published in TCJ #118, December 1987, pg. 61):
“It’s mainly that I felt that DC had unfortunately created an untenable position as far [as] my relationship with them went, because they were including me in a decision that they were making reagrind the way that they were responded to the distributor’s letters, which I really didn’t feel that I wanted to go along with. Did I answer your question, Gary? I’ve lost track of it; I’m quite through.”
‘Quite through’ with DC Comics, Alan meant — not with Gary. The conversation/interview continued for another seven pages.
“Since then, DC has made attempts at reconciliation. But, they’ve mainly been along… [elipses in original printed interview] I mean, we’ve [been] offered better financial deals which I found a little distressing because I wasn’t asking for a pay raise, and I would have hoped that no one though thought that I was asking for a pay raise. So, there have been various attempts at reconciliation since that point. But nothing has moved me terribly. And, there’s nothing that’s been effective, as far as I’m concerned. Like I said, this is a something of a dead issue. It’s a thing where I quit and that was a final decision. And nothing has happened between then and now to make me change my mind.” (Ibid., pg. 62).
Nor would anything change (as previously noted, it was only the extraordinary in-person efforts of Jim Lee over a decade later that led to Alan Moore again being published by DC Comics, via the mechinations of Lee selling the Wildstorm imprint and stable to DC Comics in 1998).
Still, it was a relief to me to read three years later what the real moral issues were for Alan, and his real reasons for ceasing to work with DC Comics (in his previously cited and quoted interview with Gary in TCJ #138, October 1990, pg. 68):
And that, as they say, was that.
The capper, if one was needed, was the September 22, 1987 bust of Comics Legends in Calgary, Alberta.
This three-store chain (a fourth store was to open the following weekend, until that landlord learned of the September 22nd bust and that, apparently, was that) exclusively targeted labeled comix, 15 titles in all including Zap #1 (published in 1967!), Weirdo #4, 5 and 15, Bizarre Sex #5, People’s Comics, Ban-Zai, and the Canadian underground title Beaver Comic. Vice Squad officers Al Stagg (!) and Dennis Moodie and an unidentified Royal Mounted Canadian Police Customs officer also confiscated copies of Snarf and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, along with Evangeline, Matt Wagner‘s Grendel, and the now-oft-targeted Love and Rockets.
For the record, Comics Legends indeed limited the sale of all the cited underground titles (and all comics and comix labeled ‘‘Adults Only“) to customers 18 years of age and older.
Ya, labels — that’s the way to go.
(For what it’s worth, I never used labels on any SpiderBaby Comix product, though I did provide ample warning in all catalog listings to retailers and all promotional materials.)
The 1986-87 DC standards and practices and labeling controversy was soon forgotten amid the subsequent busts, the subsequent controversies. Frank, Howard and Marv indeed continued to work with DC (and Marvel), there were more comics shops busted (primarily of labeled comics and comix),
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund — originally funded, founded and helmed by underground comix publisher Denis Kitchen — became the primary industry advocate and venue for all of us who cared to continue the fight.
Many of us did what we could to get behind the CBLDF — donations, fundraisers, signings, convention appearances (I rolled out my horror comics history slide show, ‘Journeys Into Fear,’ for a full year at cons and gatherings to fundraise for CBLDF, as well as making personal monetary donations when I could afford to) — though it must be said that over the years Dave Sim and Neil Gaiman arguably stood and stand tallest among the many freelancers, creators and self-publishers to made sure the CBLDF coffers didn’t run dry. That is in no way intended to minimize the efforts of all others who pitched and still pitch in, but Dave and Neil raised and donated mighty, mighty sums to the ongoing legal battles that continue to this day.
The loose coalition of activist freelancers forged by the 1986-87 DC standards and practices and labels controversy went on to publish WaP! the following year, which I’ll write about in some depth at another time.
Many in comics ridiculed and reviled WaP!, too, if they noted its existence at all — just as prominent creators then and today ridicule and revile the subsequent Creator Bill of Rights which Scott McCloud proposed and a gathering of like-minded creators ratified in Northampton, MA in November, 1988 (that gathering being Scott McCloud, Ken Mitchroney, Mark Martin, Michael Dooney, Steve Lavigne, Peter Laird, Kevin Eastman, Ryan Brown, Michael Zulli, Richard Pini, Larry Marder, Dave Sim, Rick Veitch, Eric Talbot and Gerhard — oh, and me).
That, in its way, also grew out of the events of 1986-87, and all that followed.
DC Comics didn’t care about that. Most everyone at DC forgot about it almost immediately, if they’d noticed it at all.
But DC Comics did not forget Alan Moore walking.
As I noted earlier, at some 1988 Warner Bros. Board of Directors meeting, hard questions had to have been asked.
“How did you lose the man who wrote Watchmen?”
And, “how can you get him back?” and “don’t do that again” or some variation thereof must have been said.
That’s all conjecture, mind you.
But you don’t lose a breadwinner like Alan Moore in a corporate entertainment empire and not have hard questions asked by someone in a position of power, and be left to ponder the consequences.
Behind closed doors, policies subtly shifted.
Even work-for-hire policies can be sweetened, more gracious relations established, nurtured and sustained, more favorable royalty plans and unofficial ‘we won’t mess with your characters/creations’ agreements tendered and honored.
The next wave of British writers coming or already in the door — Neil Gaiman, Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, etc. — and all who followed benefitted enormously, professionally and personally, from the stand Alan took at the beginning of 1987… as did DC Comics Inc.
(Would DC have sought out all those writers — much less been able to accommodate them? — had Alan not left, leaving such a huge vacuum behind after his departure? Something to ponder…)
It helped, too, that among their number was Neil Gaiman, diplomatic in all circumstances, who made it his mission to always give DC a way out — a way to save face — in whatever disagreements they might have over the years.
I can’t overstate this ability, one of the key lessons I learned and still try to practice from my own friendship with Neil; I’d like to think DC has also learned, too, from their relations with Neil.
From the ashes of the torched Moore/DC Comics relationship, Vertigo Comics was born in 1993.
Again, that’s another story for another time and place; I don’t want to suggest or elevate Vertigo as being in any way as progressive as Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated in the context of mainstream Manhattan-based comicbook publishing were before Vertigo existed, nor is this the time or place to get into what I find objectionable then and still about the ‘Vertigo deal’ (and I have major problems with the Vertigo contracts I’ve seen, and consider it another unfortunate beachhead in comics publishing history, despite it being a step up from the previous work-for-hire templates DC embraced and enforced).
That, too, was a process, which also involved DC imprints Piranha Press and its successor Paradox Press.
In time (Piranha Press lasted from 1988 to 1993), DC ceded some ownership of rights to creators — copyright, but not trademark — and two dozen titles emerged from Nevelow‘s imprint, including Kyle Baker‘s Why I Hate Saturn (1990), which was without a doubt the most successful of the Piranha projects (my personal fave was Marc Hempel‘s Gregory, 1989). Begun under the Piranha imprint but published as a Paradox Press book after the Piranha imprint was retired, Howard Cruse‘s extraordinary semi-autobiographical Stuck Rubber Baby (1995) was among the finest fruit of the experiment.
By then, Vertigo had been launched (1993) under Karen Berger‘s steady hand, building on the bedrock laid by Karen‘s seminal work with Alan Moore and seeding the initial imprint offering with a handful of titles acquired from a failed Disney mature comics publishing experiment, Touchmark Comics, along with that aborted line’s editor Art Young. With a strong stable of existing DC ‘For Mature Readers’ titles (Hellblazer, Sandman, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, Black Orchid, etc.) already providing Vertigo with more momentum, popularity, stability and credibility than Piranha Press ever enjoyed, Vertigo proved to be the most durable and successful of all DC‘s late 1980s-1990s experiments with boutique imprints, lasting to the present day.
But Vertigo — and the modified contractual terms offered to DC freelancers via that imprint — existed in part only because Alan Moore did what he did while he did write for DC Comics in the mid-1980s, and because Alan Moore did quit writing for DC Comics — and meant it — at the beginning of 1987.
In subsequent months and years, DC quietly offered better deals to those who followed in Alan‘s footsteps, doing their utmost to ensure the Gaimans, Delanos, Morrisons, etc. of their freelance stable wouldn’t have reason to follow Alan‘s example.
And that, my friends, was the real consequence of the DC Ratings Debacle of 1986-87.
It’s about time that was recognized and acknowledged.
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.
For those who want to read and/or know more:
An earlier, in-depth Myrant serialized essay detailing where Taboo came from — which covers in excrutiating detail the events framing and following this 1986-87 DC Comics standards and practices and ratings hubbub — is instantly at your fingertips by clicking the links below. It might answer many questions about what happened next, including the Aardvark/Diamond Comics controversy, WaP!, and what led to the historic Creator’s Summit of November 1988.
The serialized Taboo Origins essay will read quite differently now in the context of this expansive essay on the DC Comics Ratings Debacle, and provide interested readers with far, far more documentation and history to chew on.
Essays ©2009, 2010 Stephen R. Bissette, all rights reserved. Permission to link, post pingbacks granted, but please do not quote excessively or post these essays on your own blogs, websites or venues; it’s not yours to play with. NOTE: All images are posted for archival and educational purposes only, under applicable US Fair Use laws.