Collecting Dust: A Guide to Preserving Comic Books

Sunday, August 18, 2019
1985. The year I bought my first personal computer: The original 128K Apple Macintosh—a model that, as I used to say, had the processing power of a lightbulb. (Less, if you compare it to 21st Century smart lightbulbs.) It wouldn’t run until you inserted a 400K floppy disk—which wasn’t floppy at all, but which contained both an operating system and whatever meager application and text files could fit thereon.

And there, at the dawn of an era that promised eternal digital life for creative content, I wondered about the lifespan of books on paper. Specifically, comic books on paper. So—armed, as I was, with curiosity and my first personal word processor—the timing was good for editor Mike Gold to assign me to a third series of features for Evanston-based First Comics.

“Collecting Dust: A Guide to Preserving Comic Books” was the first substantive writing I undertook on that meager Mac. In those days before widespread email, Gold and I would send a 400K floppy back and forth by U.S. mail. I’d ship him my first draft, and he’d send the edited version back to me on the same disk. We’d repeat for each successive installment.

Text files are mercifully small, so you could fit the whole four-part series—and the edits—on a single disk, with room left over for my interview notes and one of my early MacPaint exploits: A logo that, mercifully for all concerned, didn’t make it into print.

Ironically, the comics I was collecting in 1985 have fared far better—are far more easily read—than the digital files I created to write about comic book preservation. (See my note at the end of this post on the technical challenges in recovering this series.)

With that, here you go.

Part 1 (Published in comics cover-dated October 1985):
Where do they go?

“In tropical countries … a whole shelf of books can be eaten through the center without a bug ever stepping out on the shelf and getting zapped.”

Sounds like a bibliophile’s nightmare, doesn’t it?

The bugs in the United States tend not to be so literate, but your book collection faces a swarm of problems that, in the long run, can do just as much damage.

If you collect anything on paper, you are fighting a losing battle. Your collection faces an enemy from within: The paper is decaying. If you live a full life, you may one day find you have collected an impressive mound of dust.

EVEN IF YOU NEVER touch the comics in your collection—if you handle your comics once with linen gloves, only to put them into plastic bags—they may not last more than 50 years, after which you won’t be able to turn a page without breaking it.

According to the paper conservator at Chicago’s Newberry Library, Cathy Atwood (whose vignette I invoked at the start of this column) 50 years is the useful life the U.S. Library of Congress projects for most books published these days.

Those who hope to leave a legacy of comic books face a legion of enemies: Heat, humidity, dust, vermin, light … even air.

Comic books are made of some of the thinnest, cheapest paper available. The pulp used to make it comes from trees; it’s full of lignin, which holds the fibers together. Exposed to air, lignin turns brown and releases acid, which eats away at the fibers that hold the paper together, making the paper turn brittle.

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ANY LIGHT CAN fade colors and provide energy that accelerates the chemical reactions that destroy paper. Ultraviolet light is particularly bad, according to Atwood. If you’re obsessed, you’ll read your books only in rooms where the lights and windows have been treated with ultraviolet filters.

High humidity promotes the growth of mold; low humidity can dry out paper, making it brittle. A 50% relative humidity is a good compromise, according to Atwood.

Paper does well at low temperatures, under moderate humidity. By one estimate, the lifespan of paper doubles for every temperature drop of ten degrees Fahrenheit. But most comics are supposed to be read, coveted and enjoyed by people, who don’t fare too well below freezing. An abrupt change in temperature from subfreezing storage to room temperature can trigger the condensation of moisture, which combines with chemicals in the paper to form acid. Atwood says it might be better to keep a collection constantly at room temperature.

You can do a few things—small, simple things—to delay the inevitable.

To begin, you can store comics upright, spines vertical. Books stored flat, one on top of another, tend to crush the items on the bottom.

WHERE DO YOU KEEP them? A spare room in the living quarters of your home may be ideal. But for most collectors, that would mean kicking out a human; the choice is usually the attic or the basement.

Atwood calls it an “impossible choice.” But she chooses the basement, “because in the attic, it’s just plain too hot. With paper, once it gets dried out, it will never again pick up as much water as it once had. This is permanent damage; whereas, if something’s been wet, you can dry it out to its optimum condition again.” In the basement, she recommends a dehumidifier, to hold moisture at bay. Another precaution: Keep books away from outside walls to avoid temperature shifts.

Dust may seem a minor nuisance, but it promotes mold. Atwood recommends dusting the collection once a week and running a fan frequently. Atwood says books in a humid room with a fan may fare better than those in a not-so-humid room without a fan.

THEM PESKY COCKROACHES have been around longer than humanity, and they’ll probably outlast us and our comic books. If they work their way into your collection, there’s not much you can do.

More than 70 varieties of insect would enjoy lunching on this book. “The most effective insecticides have been banned,” Atwood says. “To some extent, any pesticide is also harmful to people, so you can’t work directly on a collection you intend to read. It becomes a matter of pesticides on the shelf, waiting for a bug to walk out of a book.” As you now know, that can be a long wait.

The key is to avoid infestation in the first place. Ideally, Atwood says, you wouldn’t eat near your books. And you’d spray regularly around the perimeter of the room in which they’re stored.

AND SO WE have your collection well protected from the environment. It’s in a cool, dark place, away from food and outside walls—the air circulated by fan and maintained at a 50% relative humidity. You’ve placed UV filters over windows and lights. You patrol regularly for insects, endangering your health with pesticides. And you dust once a week.

If that leaves you time to read the next installment of our series, you will find a look at the pros and cons of plastic bags. Until then, keep your comics out of tropical countries, hmm?

[Charlie Meyerson reports the news on WXRT Radio (93.1 FM) in Chicago. He credits inspiration for this series to a Chicago Reader article written by Flora Johnson Skelly.]

Part 2: November 1985
Plastic rap

For those of you joining us late, here’s what you’ve missed. Informed that even the best-preserved comic book may not outlast its owner by more than a few minutes, we’ve concluded that the best environment for storing comics—allowing for the possibility that a human being may occasionally want to read them—is a cool, dark place, away from food and outside walls. For most of us, that’s a place known as “The Basement.”

This month’s topic: Accessories.

ONE OF THE BIGGEST businesses to spring up to support the comics collecting boom is the comics bag industry. And one of the captains of that industry is a guy named Gary Colabuono. He presides over Moondog’s, Incorporated, which runs three retail stores and a wholesale bag service. Colabuono says he’s sold more than 60 million bags in three years. By his estimate, as many as 20% of the 20 million comics sold every month wind up in plastic bags.

At wholesale prices of about $l5.00 per thousand, that puts the retail market comics bag industry in the million-dollar-a-year bracket. Is it necessary? Would Baggies do the job?

Maybe. Colabuono says he once came across a group of Marvel Comics from the early ’60s, “taken right off the rack, put into Baggies that were taped shut. I was the guy to open them, l5 years later.

“And the comics were perfectly preserved. The Baggie in no way harmed them at all. The tape was yellowed, the bags were filmy … and the comics inside were absolutely perfect white.”

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ARCHIVISTS HAVE FOUND plastic attractive for the same reason environmentalists hate it: It isn’t biodegradable; bacteria can’t destroy it. Plastic garbage is (almost) forever. But some plastics change over time. And the changes can harm the contents of plastic bags.

Cathy Atwood, the paper conservator at the Newberry Library in Chicago, says many plastics shrink. Vinyl, for instance: “It was very early and very popular because it’s clear and stiff and people think it protects things. But it doesn’t take very many years before it warps and shrinks,” damaging the contents.

Most of the comics bags sold every year are made of polyethylene. But “poly-bags,” as they’re also known, pose threats of their own.

BILL COLE, WHOSE Massachusetts firm is the granddaddy of the comics bag business, says polyethylene bags contain chemical additives to ensure their clarity. “What is in that poly-bag will degrade and migrate onto the comic paper and start eating away.”

Cole says polyethylene is fine for the short run—“anywhere from one to six months. Anything over six months, we generally say ‘Save it, preserve it with archival quality polyester film.’”

Atwood and Colabuono agree: The best plastic for storing comics is polyester, sold under the trade names Mylar and Melinex. Polyester is one of the most inert plastics. Unlike polyethylene, it won’t fall apart, and it won’t contribute to the natural deterioration of comic books.

Cole, who says he sells a million polyester bags a year, swears by them: “Archival quality polyester film is the only material used or recommended by the Library of Congress to store paper documents.”

Atwood: “I’ve seen a lot of comic-book stores where they want to protect the stuff only until they sell it; they’re not necessarily thinking of customers who want to keep it for the next 40 years. They just want to protect it while it’s in their stores. For that, you could use polyethylene.

“But if it’s something you value and want to keep for your lifetime, I’d use polyester. And you can’t just stay ‘Mylar,’ because Mylar is used in different applications. You want to make sure there have been no surface coatings, no additives, no opaquing agents. That’s usually a Mylar type D or Melinex type 5l6.”

SURPRISE! MYLAR IS much more expensive than polyethylene. For the price of 40 Mylar bags, you can buy a thousand polyethylene bags. And many comics shops give away polyethylene bags with purchases.

Cole: “Some people can’t afford to purchase Mylar. I say: Do something to protect [your comics]. If you’re not going to do anything state-of-the-art, at least put them into a box of some type. You can go one step further: Put your books in a [polyethylene] bag. It does give you some protection, at least from the elements.”

Colabuono: “If you’ve got a collection of Spider-Man, for instance, I’d put issues 1 through 38 in Mylar. After that, put them in poly-bags and save the dough.” You can also save some money, he says, by putting two comics in each bag … although Atwood cautions that if the fit is too tight, doubled-up comics may bend around each other.

DOES PLACING A comic in a plastic bag just allow it to “stew in its own juices”—trapped with the by-products of its own decay? Atwood says she doubts that polyester, at least, contributes to deterioration. But she says another kind of container may actually help slow deterioration: Acid-free, alkaline-buffered envelopes, which libraries use to store manuscript collections. “Any acid produced at the interface of a comic book and the envelope will be neutralized by the envelope. The envelope is helping the comic book.”

The envelopes run about $15 per hundred—about half as much as polyester bags and about a tenth as much as polyethylene bags. But Atwood says you’d also need to make an acid-free sling for each envelope—a folded piece of paper designed to guide your comic in to and out of the envelope without snagging and ripping the edges.

To a lesser extent, acid-free storage boxes can help prolong the life of your collection. Bill Cole says non-acid-free cardboard boxes—even many of those designed to hold comics—can contribute to the decay process. “You’ve got the dredges of wood and materials not used to make paper. You’ve got coloring and you’ve got bleach that goes in there. That could possibly attack the comics.”

Although Cole says any box is better than no box, he says the best way to store comics is to place them in Mylar bags, putting the bags in acid-free boxes. “Then you’re about 95% home free.” And if you take those steps immediately, he says, your comics may last hundreds of years.

As for the other five percent: Be here next time to learn about restoration and deacidification.

[Charlie Meyerson reports the news with acidic wit, weekday mornings on WXRT Radio (93.1 FM), Chicago.]

Part 3: December 1985
Acid reigns

So far this series has examined ways to preserve your comics by managing their environment: Storing them in plastic bags and acid-free boxes or envelopes, keeping them away from heat, light, humidity extremes and food. Meanwhile, ticking away within your comics is the time bomb known as “inherent vice”—the chemical instability of most paper used for comic books.

The tree pulp used to make most comic-book paper includes lignin, which holds tree cells together. Exposed to air, lignin turns paper brown and releases acid. The acid, eating away at paper fibers, makes paper turn brittle and crumble.

The experts agree that once paper reaches that stage, you’re too late. You can take preventive action, but it’s not cheap.

DEACIDIFICATION CAN neutralize the acid in pulp paper. Jim Saunders, a chemical engineer who’s been treating comic books commercially for about two years, notes that the materials are generally available to the public. He says he uses Wei T’o products: Sprays and solutions that neutralize acids and leave behind an alkaline buffer to prevent further decay.

“The active ingredient is magnesium carbonate,” he says. “I prefer the spray. It dries a lot quicker and there’s less chance for the ink to run. If I’m going to dip a comic in solution, I’ll test it—on a little spot on the back of the cover or something. Then I look at the color of the remaining solution, and if I see a little red trace, I know it’s leached out some of the red ink, and I don’t use it.”

One of the earliest scholars of comic book preservation, William Sarill—a physicist who now works under the title “Conservator of Ephemera”—warns that deacidifying solution can “greatly damage covers if it’s not applied the right way.” Sarill says he’s found a way around the problem; but, he says, “Nobody who has not been trained by me should attempt it.”

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IF YOU DO ATTEMPT it, Bill Cole Enterprises is offering a can of deacidification spray for about $15, but it’s only enough to treat a few pages. To treat large numbers of books, Saunders says, “you’re going to need a compressor, a spray gun, and some sort of commercial space. It makes a mess. The organic solvent is somewhat toxic. You don’t want to be breathing it or using it inside your room. You want to have a spray booth or some sort of a hood.”

At Chicago’s Newberry Library, paper conservator Cathy Atwood says that, for all but the most valuable items, deacidification may not be worth the trouble. Depending on the method, the difficulty and the size of the job, costs per page can run from 10 cents to about a dollar for Sarill’s services.

Deacidification will help protect your collection against the ravages of time. But has time has already taken its toll? Have the front and back covers begun to separate? Has the cat used your books as a scratching post? In youthful enthusiasm for comics collecting—did you reinforce the spine with (sigh) Scotch tape? You may want to consider the art of restoration.

“THE WORST THING you can do is use Scotch tape to repair a tear,” Saunders says. “The whole area where the tape has been will just turn brown.”

Another common mistake, according to Atwood, is using a dilute solution of Elmer’s Glue to make a worn cover look glossy. “It does put some gloss back in your cover, but even in a very thin solution, it’s going to become brittle. Then your cover’s going to crack up a lot.”

Doing restoration yourself is not advised. Sarill says, “I still see a great deal of the damage done to books by people attempting to make their own repairs. It’s better to leave a book unrepaired than to do a bad repair job.”

HOW DO THE experts handle it?

Holes in the cover? Saunders: “First, you try to pick the right paper for repairs, something with the same overall background color. I mix up a batch of paper pulp and sort of work it into the hole and let it dry. Then, I’ll re-ink it by hand, to try to match the original artwork. But there are some things I can’t reproduce. I can handle Mickey Mouse’s foot. But really small lettering, in an advertisement or something—that gets out of control. Sometimes, if there’s a great big piece missing, gosh, you don’t know what’s there!” (Sarill says he’s developed a photographic technique for replacing small lettering precisely.)

Ripped page? Atwood: “We repair it with a long-fiber, hand-made Japanese paper and a conservation adhesive.” Even then, the patch may prove stronger than the surrounding material, causing a fragile page to crack.

Of course, expert restoration doesn’t come cheaply. Saunders says repair and deacidification of a typical comic book—with say, a torn spine, a crease-marked cover, rounded corners, a loose centerfold page—could run as much as $60. For restoring a comic afflicted by mold, surface dirt, discoloration, tears, missing pieces, rusted staples … Sarill’s charges can run as high as $2,000 a book.

IF YOU’RE SERIOUS about this, Sarill offers private instruction in restoration of old comics: $1,500 for five days.

Once you’ve restored and deacidified a book, you may want to isolate it from a harsh and uncaring world once and for all. Bill Cole Enterprises has just the answer: It’ll seal your comics individually in polyester bags, for prices ranging up to $3 per book, depending on the number of books and the thickness of the plastic. Under development: A process that would seal comics inside bags and replace the air in the bags with an inert gas.

Of course, that makes comics impossible to read, which may explain why Cole characterizes demand as “very, very moderate.”

NEXT TIME: Fires, floods, earthquakes and nuclear holocaust.

Until then, you may want to contact the experts for more information:

Cathy Atwood, Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton, Chicago IL 60610
Bill Cole, P.O. Box 60, Dept. 595, Wollaston MA 02170
William Sarill, “Conservator of Ephemera,” P.O. Box 729, Cambridge MA 02139
Jim Saunders, “Restorations,” P.O. Box 1194, Minden NV 89423

 … or, your friendly neighborhood librarian

[Charlie Meyerson awakes each weekday at 4:23 a.m. to deliver the morning news on WXRT Radio (93.1 FM) in Chicago.]

Part 4: January 1986
Going nuclear

[An intro that didn’t make print.]
So: you want to preserve your comic book collection for your children. Your children will probably be no more interested in your comic books than I am in baseball, which has been a big disappointment for my father. Well, you’re entitled to your dreams.
If you’re just joining this series, here’s the score: The paper used for most comics is not long for this world. To keep them in good shape as long as possible, store them in a cool, dark place, away from food. Avoid extremely low humidity and sudden changes in temperature. (A good compromise: 70ºF, 50% relative humidity. You might be able to live in the same building!)
The consensus seems to be that individual comics are best stored in polyester bags—Mylar type D or Melinex type 516. Keep those in acid-free boxes.
If your comics are beyond preservation, restoration may be appropriate. But doing it yourself is risky and professional help is not cheap. (This is a recording.)
Now for some miscellany:


Somewhere, someone may have evidence demonstrating that the higher grades of paper increasingly popular for comics will last longer than the uncoated groundwood (newsprint) paper most commonly used. But the experts I’ve consulted—the plastic-bag moguls, the preservation wizards and the paper companies’ sales representatives—hesitate to make any promises beyond a few years.

The two most popular grades are Boise Cascade’s Mando and Great Northern’s Baxter.

A Boise Cascade sales rep says Mando tends not to brown as quickly as newsprint. But he says the functional lifetime is probably about the same.

At Great Northern, another sales rep says an experiment to simulate two years of natural aging concluded that Baxter lost only about half as much brightness as newsprint. Baxter carries a clay coating—an inert substance that retards and conceals the effects of aging. Fifty years down the line, Baxter may look better than newsprint, but it might crumble away just as easily. “It’s not for the archives,” he says.

Advice to those caring for “premium” comics: Grant them the same protection you give other comics.


An addition to our last installment: Deacidification can remove the agents of decay in comic-book paper. But doing it yourself is risky and professional help is not cheap. For more information on do-it-yourself deacidification, here’s an address: Wei T’o Associates; Dr. Richard Smith; P.O. Box 40; Matteson, IL 60443.

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...words to strike terror into the hearts of comic-book collectors everywhere. Plastic bags can protect your collection only so much. Beyond that, you’re at the mercy of your insurance policy. Do you need one?

If you own a home, you certainly should have some insurance. If you’re still dependent on your parents, you may be covered; check your folks’ policy.

If you’re renting an apartment, insurance is probably a good idea. (GEICO, the Government Employees Insurance Co., says one recent industry survey found almost four out of every five U.S. renters do not have their own insurance.) Your landlord’s policy—if he has one—probably doesn’t cover your possessions. You might be able to sue for damages related to a broken water pipe, but lawsuits are expensive, and let’s face it: You have no constitutional right to a jury of comics collectors.

A conversation with your insurance agent is a good idea; coverage varies from policy to policy. And if your comics do meet an untimely demise, your claim will probably be stronger if your insurance agent has heard of your collection in advance.

State Farm Insurance spokesman Dave Hurst had to check; he was surprised to learn that his company does insure comics collections.

He says the company generally trusts clients to evaluate their own collections; it doesn’t require professional appraisals, but it may compare claims to one of the price guides on the market. If you make a claim, photos of individual items or your collection en masse may come in handy. And having an appraisal in hand won’t hurt; it can also help you decide how much coverage you need. (Your local comics dealer may be able to conduct an appraisal.)

Clients can insure collections with what the industry calls “floaters”—additions to a general policy to cover specific, valuable items. Hurst says such coverage from State Farm would run about $1 a year per $100 in value of the items insured.

Hurst says comics also are covered under the company’s general policy for homeowners—at no extra cost. And those policies don’t put a limit on the value of comic-book collections, as they do on jewelry. The difference is that, unlike many general policies, a “floater” won’t stick you for a deductible in the event of a loss; and it would protect your investment in the event of flood, earthquake or war.


Sooner or later, your collection will turn to dust. But as Dave Newkirk of Warrenville, Illinois, noted in a letter to the Chicago Reader earlier this year, laser- and compact-disc technology has reached the point where books can be recorded in detail. One could record almost every aspect of a comic book except that addictive odor of newsprint-and-ink. (And Scratch’n’Sniff technology continues to make great bounds, so …) Embedded in plastic, as they are, discs have proven invulnerable to almost everything. Even chocolate.

The solution, Newkirk reasons, is to translate books to digital form for everyday use, keeping the originals in chilled, helium-filled rooms for review by the scholars who need them.


What about that ultimate destroyer of comic books—nuclear war?

At the Chicago-area headquarters of the U. S. Energy Department, spokesman Brian Quirke says radiation itself doesn’t pose much of a hazard to comics, but they can be contaminated by atmospheric fallout. If you keep them in a basement, that shouldn’t be a major problem. The major threat is fire; but that might be a problem only within a few dozen miles of ground zero. (Of course, a nuclear war could result in thousands of ground zeroes!)

Quirke says the major cause of death after a nuclear exchange would probably be widespread contamination of drinking water, which would lead to a massive outbreak of diarrhea. If so, a large, well-preserved collection of comic books could prove far more valuable than anything envisioned in Overstreet’s Price Guide.

[Charlie Meyerson lives in Oak Park, Illinois. His lawyer wife, Pam, advised him on the constitutional questions raised in this article.]

Notes on the resurrection of this series: Recovering these files from a 400K floppy proved far more complicated than the scanning process I used to digitize the text of two previous series I’d created (on a typewriter) for First: “Scapegoat in Four Colors,” a history of comics censorship; and “The Origins of Independent Comics.”

This one required heroic efforts to revive a Motorola StarMax 3000/200—reinstalling the last Mac operating system to read those disks, System 7.6.1—and then to use the dearly departed WriteNow word-processing software to translate outdated MacWrite files into the enduring Rich Text Format (RTF).

It was the StarMax’s dying act. A few days later, it refused even to power on.

Enjoy this? Check out its precursors: “The Origins of Independent Comics” and “Scapegoat in Four Colors,” a history of comics censorship. And this blog contains lots more about comics and pop cultureSubscribe—free—by email to get the latest.

(First Comics illustrations by Alex Wald and Rick Taylor.)

Aug. 22: A dive into the 'fake news' cesspool

Saturday, August 17, 2019

I’ll be speaking and leading a discussion at Oak Park’s Nineteenth Century Club on the 21st Century dangers—or not—of “fake news.”

It’s free and walk-ins are welcome. (Plus: A cash bar!)

178 Forest Ave., Oak Park
Aug. 22, 2019
6-8 p.m.

The Origins of Independent Comics

Thursday, August 1, 2019
Word that my friends John Ostrander and Tim Truman’s character Grimjack—launched in 1983 for the Evanston, Illinois-based startup First Comics—has landed a big movie project reminded me of a series of features my friend and First editor Mike Gold assigned me to create for Grimjack and other First titles in 1983 and 1984: “The Origins of Independent Comics.”

At the end of the final installment, I declared in the third person: “Charlie … is looking forward to his piece of the action from The Origins of Independent Comics—The Movie.

In the hope that that hour has come round at last, and with a nod to Hollywood, here’s the full six-part series—whose text is available digitally for the first time here.

Part 1: (Published in comics cover-dated) December 1983
Wally Wood and Witzend

Every medium has its pioneers: The newspaper, Horace Greeley; broadcast journalism, Edward R. Murrow; animation, Walt Disney. The comics industry has its trailblazers, too—most recently, those responsible for opening what’s become its fastest-growing field, the direct sales market.

The so-called new publishers—including First Comics, of course—have a lot of people to thank, people who were among the first to produce comics for discerning individuals who seek out specific artists or writers, who have a more active involvement with the medium than merely buying what appears to be interesting … “the fan market,” as it’s called. People like Mike Friedrich, Dave and Deni Sim, Jack Katz, Wendy and Richard Pini … and, most importantly, Wallace Wood.

Here’s Charles Meyerson’s look back on what may have been the first professional direct sales comic book.

* * *

For me, it began with a small note on the letters page of Mad 112, dated July 1967:

“Have you heard about Wally Wood’s new magazine, Witzend, which features some of the best comic artists in the world … and sells for the amazing price of $1.00?”

It was signed “Wallace Wood” … and followed by an editor’s note: “No, we haven’t, and we resent our letter column being used for such crass commercial purposes as this plug.”

Crass it may have been, but it was one of the few channels open to promote what at the time was an expensive experiment. After all, comic books were still 12¢.

Wally Wood died in 1981—an untimely end to a career highlighted by work at EC, a career that encompassed nearly every major publisher. But Witzend is still published by his one-time assistant, Bill Pearson, also the editor at Charlton Comics:

“Woody thought if the artists did their best work, society would discover and support it. It was a naive idea at the time, because we had no distribution at all. We had no way to get it seen … and nowhere to sell it; it was all by subscription. We built a subscription list of about 3,000 names, eventually.” Pearson says little notes like the one in Mad and in Galaxy would win about 50 subscribers each.

THE CONCEPT ORIGINATED in 1966 with another of Wood’s assistants, Dan Adkins. “Dan wanted to put out a fanzine (a comics fan magazine), mainly to get his own characters out there,” Pearson says. A finished product made for a slicker presentation to publishers.

Limited-edition comics publications until then had almost all been projects by fans, interested mainly in writing about or drawing characters owned by Marvel, DC or out-of-business publishers. Witzend was one of the first efforts by professionals to publish their own work, featuring characters they created and owned.

Publicized mostly through those other limited-edition magazines, the first issue of Witzend came out in the summer of 1966. It featured work by Wood, and a collaboration by Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta. “Most contributors got nothing except their work in print,” Pearson says. “It was very important for them to get their copyright on the material. Look back at those issues: our copyright notes were in 18-point type. We wanted to be sure everyone would see them … because at the time there was none of this ‘sharing the rights with the creators.’ It was a real breakthrough.”

The first issue went back to press twice, for a total run of about 3,000 copies. Witzend #7 (1970) hit a peak of only 6,000. “It was never a moneymaking venture,” Pearson says. “And when it became obvious I wasn’t going to be able to maintain a regular schedule, we had to give up subscriptions.”

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TWELVE ISSUES OVER 17 years is not a publication record to make others envious. Ah, but the contents!

Witzend #3 featured the debut of Steve Ditko’s “Mr. A,” a humorless, no-compromise crimefighter who showed some of us a side of Ditko we never knew. And it gave us an idea what Spider-Man might have been like without Stan Lee. (Issue #7 included a two-page “rebuttal”: A Pearson/Tim Battersby satire titled “Mr. E, Master of Mayhem by ‘Steve Diktato.’”)

Witzend #4 offered the debut of Wood’s “Wizard King” illustrated serial, which he later expanded (for his own series, Woodwork). The character design for “Wizard King” may have served as inspiration for Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest.

Witzend #7 cover-featured a story by the late Vaughn Bode (very much alive at the time), including characters which—along with Wood’s—would later serve as models for Ralph Bakshi’s animated film Wizards. And it featured early work by Berni Wrightson.

PEARSON SAYS CONTRIBUTORS thought of Witzend as “a showplace—a place they wanted their work to be seen.” Ditko, he says, was so enthusiastic he even helped with the envelope-stuffing and other routine work. Even after Wood left—selling Pearson his publishing company for the grand sum of $1—Pearson says Wood didn’t like to see an issue without some Wood work in it. (Pearson is quick to point out that, in addition to that single dollar, he agreed to fulfill Wood’s guarantees to subscribers—several thousand dollars worth of printing and postage expenses.)

To fans and pros in the 1960s and ’70s who were used to comics produced under the strict-standards of the Comics Code Authority, Witzend was another world. Women went naked or seminaked (some in fashions that might pass the Code today … but not then). Blood flowed more freely. Don Martin’s characters engaged in bodily functions you wouldn’t have seen in Mad.

At the time, I found it a little disturbing, at first. I had trouble accepting comics characters who did that stuff. But it grew on me; and Wood and Co. made clear they weren’t in it for popular acclaim or money.

Editorial, Witzend #2: “We will not have page after page of (ads for) absolutely essential products like pimple creams, two-mile binoculars or fetish pictures to hustle. We are counting on … your appreciation of our material.”

It was the foundation for a publishing revolution leading eventually to Mike Friedrich’s Star*Reach, Dave Sim’s Cerebus, the Pinis’ Elfquest, major concessions to creators at the established companies, and, of course, to the creation of First Comics. But, in Pearson’s words, “It’s an antique now. There are markets now paying for material that is pure expression by the artist. That was our whole thing: that artists could do their own work and writers could create their own stories.”

Does the new and growing market for creator-owned comics mean that independent, non-profit publications like Witzend are doomed? Pearson doesn’t think so: “There’ll always be people so interested in putting out their own product, from cover to cover, that they’ll still want to publish their own material—people who have to do every bit of it themselves.”

* * *

(Charles Meyerson is a reporter and the morning news anchor for WXRT radio (93.1 FM) in Chicago. He’s been writing about comics ever since 1964, when his first fan-letter appeared in Herbie #7.)

Part 2: January 1984
Mike Friedrich and Star*Reach

You may have a hard time believing it—after buying this comic at a store where the owner actually reads and likes comics—but there was a time when most fans bought their comics at places where the people behind the counter (and the magazine distributors behind them) didn’t know Superman from Spider-Man.

That was before Mike Friedrich founded Star*Reach—probably the first commercially distributed comic book specifically aimed at the fan market.

Star*Reach took the idea of creator-owned material championed by Wally Wood’s Witzend (see last month’s opening installment) and made it more available to fans than ever before.

IN 1972, FRIEDRICH was an experienced fan-turned-pro, with writing credits for Batman, Iron Man and Green Lantern, among others. Living in California’s Bay area near San Jose, he was then one of the few comics pros residing outside the New York area. That isolation from the heart of the comics industry may have added to his insight.

“For years, I’d been visiting Bob Sidebottom’s Comic Collector Shop, one of the first specialty stores in the country,” Friedrich recalls. “I’d picked up a lot about the problems of distribution through the standard system.

“At the time, DC and Marvel had no interest in providing material he could sell, beyond what they were already doing. They weren’t interested in his opinions because he was one store and he didn’t count. Being a comics store, he even more didn’t count, because he was dealing with ‘the fans.’”

That was also about the time Jim Steranko was shucking a praise-studded career as a Marvel artist and writer to form his own publishing company. Supergraphics, which now publishes the media-magazine Prevue. And the underground comix business was in full flourish, with creators owning their material and collecting royalties from publishers—like the book and record industries

So, Friedrich says, he began to sense opportunity knocking. “I had some contacts with artists and writers. I figured there was a big enough market through distributors like Bud Plant and Phil Seuling to put something out and see if it would work.”

STAR*REACH #1 came out in 1974, a black-and-white comic-book-size publication whose color cover featured the adventures of Howard Chaykin’s “Cody Starbuck,” a Han Solo-kind-of-guy (pre-Star Wars). The back cover featured Jim Starlin’s fable, “The Birth of Death.” (In a stab at equal time, Starlin also contributed a one-page account of “The Origin of God.”) In three reprintings, the Starlin piece won the front cover position.

A lot of stores displayed Star*Reach side-by-side with the undergrounds. But Friedrich says he tried to keep his distance: “I knew I didn’t have much of an underground market, because I was trying to do mainstream, fantasy/adventure material.”

Eventually, someone suggested Friedrich use the word ground-level to set his product apart from the undergrounds and the “above-ground” titles from Marvel and DC. He says it may have been a put-down, but he used it to promote Star*Reach Productions.

Now, he says, it’s useless: “For one thing, the undergrounds have pretty much disappeared. And the range of work from different publishers is now very broad. Ronin by Frank Miller … DC would not have published that 10 years ago. An underground publisher might not have published it 10 years ago, either, because it would have been too straight. An alternative publisher would have had to publish it.

“But that type of product now is an accepted part of DC’s product line. So you don’t need to create a distinction between yourself and DC. It gets created within each company.”

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STAR*REACH WAS HOME to the work of a lot of Marvel and DC’s most respected talent: Neal Adams, Len Wein, Dick Giordano, Steve Leialoha, Frank Brunner, Joe Staton, Lee Marrs and P. Craig Russell—whose series, “Parsifal” (with Patrick C. Mason), Star*Reach Productions later collected and reprinted in color. Same with Chaykin’s “Starbuck” series.

Star*Reach was probably the first of the ground-level or “direct sale” comics to use interior color. Issues 12 through 15 (the last before Star*Reach grew to magazine size) featured a few such pages.

Friedrich admits what he calls his biggest mistakes: He turned down the chance to publish what would become two of today’s most successful direct sales comics, Cerebus by Dave Sim and Elfquest by Wendy and Richard Pini. “I should have listened more to distributors. I should have been able to tell Elfquest had a market. I didn’t. Dave Sim had been working for me for a while, but when he proposed Cerebus, I passed. I take some credit for giving the Pinis and Dave advice on how to set up their own publishing companies, although, of course, they actually did it themselves.”

Eventually, the cost of experimenting with color and other money problems pulled Star*Reach under. In 1979, Friedrich left publishing reluctantly. But he says he doesn’t regret developments since.

After Star*Reach folded, he took his know-how to Marvel, as its first direct sales manager—developing the “Baxter book” and co-developing with Jim Shooter the “graphic novel” format. At the same time, he was using his connections to develop what’s become the comics’ first “talent agency,” Star*Reach Productions, to represent writers and artists who want to keep control of the material they create. He left Marvel last year to do that full-time. He’s now responsible for packaging the “Elric” adaptations published by Marvel and Pacific, as well as Eclipse’s DNAgents.

“I’M DEDICATED NOW to fulfilling a lot of the dreams I had in the late ’60s and early ’70s: Winning more control and responsibility for creative people.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am. I see more possibility for comics publishing than I believe has existed at any other time in the business. The relationship between publishers and the readers is much closer than it’s ever been. I see more publishers entering the field. Book publishers I’m dealing with are starting to look at the comics business as another avenue.”

And Friedrich claims a lot of the credit for that shift.

“I BELIEVE STAR*REACH paved the emotional path … to go in this direction. I was the first publisher to say that these specialty stores and distributors count, and that if you listen to them—you can make a lot of money publishing for their market.”

Mike Friedrich’s not alone, admiring his accomplishments. Just ask any of us who used to buy our comics from people who looked at us funny.

(Charles Meyerson wishes to thank Larry Charet of Larry’s Comic Book Store in Chicago for loaning him a set of the original run. Meyerson, of course, is still a reporter for WXRT Radio (93.1 FM) in Chicago.)

Part 3: April 1984
Jack Katz and The First Kingdom

JACK KATZ is a hard man to reach. The only way I know to arrange an interview with him—aside from sending a letter to his post-office box—is to call Bud Plant, his publisher/distributor in California, and leave a message. But Katz is quick to call back. He apologizes for the secrecy, but he says it’s the only way to protect his magnum opus, the 24-issue graphic novel The First Kingdom.

“It is unlike anything ever written. My wife and I keep all the original artwork in two vaults. I take the script out a book at a time. Whenever I go anywhere, we take with us whatever I have at the time. I’m sorry I’m paranoid about this.

“I ain’t takin’ a chance on anything: Only one other person has seen (the unpublished issues), and his mind is totally blown. He goes around in a state of total stupefaction.”

Katz will say no more about it, except to tell you about the theft of other creators’ work and to mention “outrageous monsters in my past who have tried to steal the artwork legally.”

WHATEVER HIS REASONS for secrecy. at the age of 58, Jack Katz is responsible for a landmark in the history of independent comics. In extending “creators’ rights” to mainstream artists, Katz was probably the first to go a step further: Instead of showcasing the work of many, The First Kingdom put the vision of a single artist/writer on the direct-sales market. (Katz was among the first to use the phrase “graphic novel,” although his work is more like what is now referred to as a “limited” or “maxi-” series.)

“I started in the business at 16. I drew Bulletman. And Archie, just after it started. I ghosted it in 1946. Then I got a job at King Features, I did everything. Also at that time—although nobody knows it—I worked on someone’s comic strip.” Whose? Again, the secrecy: “That will remain sacrosanct, because I was very fortunate, inasmuch as he gave me that chance.

“In 1951, I decided to go out on my own. I did many, many jobs until 1966, when I dropped out completely. Then, I did everything else: taught, sculpted—everything except drive a truck.” Why not? “I could never concentrate; I started doing strange things like knicking people along the way and backing into other cars. I have a chauffeur: my wife.”

BUT BY 1970, Katz was back in comics, over at Marvel. “I did a ‘Sub-Mariner.’ Stan Lee took out half the pages because he didn’t like the story. I thought it was great.” Katz did work for Warren and the short-lived Skywald companies, work which included the forerunners of The First Kingdom. But he believed comics weren’t living up to their potential.

“Let’s say motion pictures haven’t been invented. It’s Christmas, and your father brings home a package about 14 inches high, 12 inches across. It’s a book. The cover is black, except it says King Kong: A Fully Illustrated Novel. Can you imagine what an impact that would have?”

Katz had an idea he thought would work in that format. “Around 1947, after the atomic bomb had been dropped, I kept thinking, ‘What would happen after a nuclear war?’ I kept it in my head for many, many years. The regeneration of man after an atomic holocaust: most of the people are mutated; they live much longer because the pernicious rays of the sun do not eat into our skin as much; there’s a continual dust in the atmosphere and that’s why people go around fairly nude.

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“UNTIL THE UNDERGROUNDS came out, there was no way. Then, I said, if an underground can take a chance on this kind of material, surely one publisher might take a chance on The First Kingdom. I took Bud Plant the first seven pages. The artwork was very crude. Remember, I had to learn to draw again in 1969, after a 14-year layoff.”

Bud Plant took the chance. “A damn courageous publisher,” Katz says.

And since 1974, as of this writing, Bud Plant has published 18 issues—magazine-size, with color covers and black-and-white interiors.

It looks like science fiction, but Katz says it goes far beyond that. “I’ve done a lot of reading on psychology, sociology. It talks about programming: why we need to program ourselves; why we cling so desperately to our bad habits; why, when a person does something very successful or very evil, he then goes about to destroy himself and his opportunity. That is the first 20 books.”

He says the last four books represent much more. And he won’t talk about them at all … even to those interested in turning The First Kingdom into a movie.

“PARAMOUNT ASKED for the manuscript. I refused. We had a tug-of-war. Who the hell am I, an unknown writer, not to give them the manuscript? Why, can you imagine all the money they’d give me? They’d even have Farrah Fawcett play in this thing!

“Those morons didn’t understand what this was all about. The only way you can get a serious idea across is to keep it secret until it has to come out. I would love to tell you; you’ll have to read it.

“The fellow who did Mount Rushmore ended up penniless. I think he owed about $30,000. He said, ‘I know those people on that mountain are as imperfect as myself. But they were the voice of a body of documents which said I didn’t have to take the same job my father did and because I was born poor didn’t mean God wanted me to be poor.’ He had a purpose.”

JACK KATZ HAS a purpose, too.

“I want to show the kids—the young artists today—they don’t have to be afraid.

“They can express themselves. They don’t have to put across mindless violence. Their precious lives, their ambitions, are very meaningful. They owe the legacy of their experience to the next generation … and they should have the courage to do this. This is why I’m doing The First Kingdom.”

(Charlie, who spends most of his time reporting history-in-the-making for WXRT Radio (93.1 FM) in Chicago, wants to thank The New Fantasy Shop in Chicago and Rick’s One-Stop Comics in Oak Park, IL, for their help this month.)

Part 4: May 1984
Wendy and Richard Pini and Elfquest

Until Wendy and Richard Pini launched WaRP Graphics and Elfquest in 1978, the history of independent comics was dominated by professionals who had left the mainstream to keep financial and creative control over their work. The Pinis were among the very first non-pros to enter the independent field—and they’re certainly the most successful.

Coming from one of the few female comics fans of the 1960s, Wendy Fletcher’s letter in Silver Surfer #5 (1969) caught the eye of Richard Pini. “It was a very optimistic, kind of upbeat letter enjoyed the tone of very much,” he says. “So I began corresponding with her.”

THREE YEARS LATER, they married. Wendy Pini just about dropped out of the comics scene, devoting herself to freelance science fiction illustration …

… Which led her to a science-fiction convention in 1976. There she met Frank Thorne, who was drawing Red Sonja for Marvel. “He was such a delightful person,” she says, “we just kind of got caught up in his interest in Sonja.” Wendy rejoined comics fandom. For a couple of years she appeared at conventions, somewhat scantily dressed as Sonja, performing skits with Thorne.

Ah, but others coveted the Sonja role! And Wendy took some criticism from fans who thought her outfit didn’t enhance the image of women. All of that, she says, has no bearing on Elfquest, except that “it put me in the public eye. It challenged me to face criticism and got me a certain amount of notoriety. It helped me gain confidence.”

Eventually, she says, she and Richard asked themselves, ‘Why should we give Marvel free publicity when we can do something for ourselves?’”

THAT “SOMETHING” turned out to be Elfquest: in Wendy’s words, “a fantasy/romance/adventure, with a dash of science fiction. It’s about a tribe of elves seeking other members of its race and, ultimately, its origins.”

Wendy denies speculation (in Part 1 of this series) that Elfquest’s characters may have been influenced by Wally Wood’s “Wizard King.”

“The whole universe is Wendy’s,” Richard says. “We can show you characters who very strongly resemble those in Elfquest today. Neither of us saw “Wizard King’ until Seagate published the book, substantially after Elfquest started.” Wendy says she was inspired by J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and by Walt Disney’s animation.

FROM INSPIRATION TO pulp was a big jump. Richard, who handles WaRP’s business and editorial chores, says, “We didn’t know squat about publishing. From Marvel and DC, we got polite ‘thank you’s. Bud Plant and Mike Friedrich said they really didn’t want to take the gamble.”

Eventually, they found a small independent publisher and cut a deal that—after months’ delay saw “Elfquest’s” first installment in Fantasy Quarterly 1 (March 1978).

“While we were 20% happy it was finally out, we were 80% disappointed with the way it looked,” Richard says. “But they did print and distribute it. We received a lot of positive feedback. And that encouraged us to try it on our own.

“We had to borrow a couple thousand dollars from my folks, who were skeptical but willing to take a gamble.” WaRP GRAPHICS printed 10,000 copies of Elfquest 2. They sold quickly enough to help the Pinis pay back Richard’s parents within a few months.

The only two independent comics distributors at the time, Bud Plant and Phil Seuling, bought the whole print run, Richard says. “When we went to do issue 3. they said, ‘Yeah, we’ll take the same amount.’ Around issue 4 or 5, word began to get out. That’s when our print-runs started to grow.”

The print-run for the latest issue (17) was 85.000 After several reprintings, copies of issue 1 number more than 100,000.

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UNLIKE THEIR PREDECESSORS, the Pinis seem to have entered the field intent not only on keeping their creative rights, but also on marketing them.

Elfquest’s pages have included ads for Elfquest pewter figurines, T-shirts, an Official Fan Club, full-color reprints, art portfolios, a novel (from Playboy Paperbacks) and a role-playing game. Plans for an animated film are in negotiation.

For all its success, Elfquest will end—as a black-and-white, magazine-size comic—with issue 20, due late this year.

“It seems idiotic,” Richard says, “but one thing that’s always been important to us, as one measure of Elfquest’s success, is how well it breaks out of the comics market. As far as the direct-sales market goes, we’re successful. The newsstand market, we haven’t scratched.” Yet.

Beginning next year, Marvel Comics will begin reprinting Elfquest in regular, color format, for mass distribution. The reprints of the original editions will stop, but Richard says the reprint collections (in hard and soft covers) will continue. “I want to make sure Elfquest is always available to the person who’s just heard of it.

“TWO YEARS AGO, I left a job at IBM to devote full time to WaRP Graphics. A year from now, I don’t want to go sit on a street-corner and twiddle my thumbs with nothing to publish. WaRP itself, hopefully, will continue doing comic magazines. And I intend to try book publishing—small-run high-quality editions.” But no color comics.

“After some soul-searching and talking to Wendy, I decided that’s not what I want to do. I really like the black-and-white magazine format.

“I think the independent industry is the best thing that’s happened to comics in a long time. (But) if there’s any regret, it’s that there’s not enough true alternative product out there.

“THE PROPORTION OF off-the-wall alternatives is getting smaller every day, in comparison to the number that look like mainstream books.

“That’s not what Wendy and I were feeling when this independent industry was growing.

“Somewhere along the line, the number of titles suddenly grew like topsy, to compete for the fan’s dollar. When that happened in the mainstream (in the ’70s), you had things like the Great DC Implosion and Marvel cutting titles with a machete. I wonder if the same thing’s going to happen in the independent market.”

Charlie wants to thank One-Stop Comics in Oak Park, IL, for helping with research for this installment. When you’re in Chicago, you can hear him report the news on WXRT Radio (93.1 FM).

Part 5: June 1984
Dave Sim and Cerebus

Dave Sim has a mission: “My priority,” he says, “is to make sure that every month until March 2003 there will be a new 20-page segment of this 6,000-page story.”

That wasn’t always the case. For one thing, his Cerebus the Aardvark began as a bimonthly comic. And before the first issue appeared, late in 1977, his commitment was much more limited. In the words of his publisher (and former wife) Deni, “We said, ‘Why don’t we do three or four issues? If we’ve lost money by then, we can ditch the whole project.”

IN 1976, DAVE SIM was a 20-year-old high-school drop-out doing a lot of what he calls “cartooning for money—doing tire ads,” and working at the “Now and Then Books” comics shop in Kitchener, Ontario.

Not far away, 25-year-old office-worker/dancer/hamburger-slinger Denise Loubert was looking to launch a writing career: “A couple of friends and I were trying to form a writing group. I didn’t read comics. Then, my brother picked up a copy of Dark Fantasy (a collection of illustrated fiction assembled by the late Gene Day). I said, ‘Why don’t we do one of these?’”

She went to “Now and Then,” hoping to sell a fanzine she hadn’t published yet. She met Dave, who had done some of the illustration for Dark Fantasy. He agreed to contribute to her project.

THEY CAME UP with a company name, “Aardvark-Vanaheim Press,” and a mascot—an aardvark, of course—whom they named after their magazine: Cerebus. It was to have been Cerberus, after the three-headed dog of Greek mythology, but Deni misspelled the logo.

Unfortunately, Cerebus the anthology went the way of many projects back then: “We sent it out to be printed.” Deni says, “and the guy just took our money and disappeared.”

They never published the anthology, but her friendship with Dave endured.

“Deni had a regular job,” Dave says. “There was someone basically supporting me by feeding me and being emotionally supportive as well. After we started living together, it became obvious that comic books were what I wanted to do.”

DENI TOOK THE ROLE of publisher: “He needed somebody who could present it in an unbiased manner to the distributors. Also, I had a basic idea that artists shouldn’t have to deal with mundane aspects: who’s got their checks in, how are we going to get them out of people who didn’t, and what box of books got lost this month.”

“Even as a fan,” Dave says. “I knew I preferred any comic that said it came out bimonthly and then came out bimonthly … to any book that maybe was of better quality but didn’t come out when promised.” Irregularly published books “just don’t feel like the bandwagon most fans are looking for.”

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AS A CONTRIBUTOR to Star*Reach (profiled in part two of this series) and as an editor for Orb magazine in Toronto (as Dave puts it, “a fanzine trying to do it professionally”), he was convinced interior color didn’t work for non-newsstand comics.

Orb tried color, even though it didn’t work for Star*Reach. Basically, it didn’t sell more copies and it wasn’t necessarily more attractive.”

So Dave and Deni took the mascot of their ill-fated anthology and made him the star of a black-and-white comic book.

In the beginning, it was mainly a series of take-offs on Barry Smith’s Conan artwork and on sword-and-sorcery comics in general. But Cerebus was possibly the first serious comic-book-size competition for newsstand comics in the direct-sales market.

CEREBUS APPEARED a few months before Elfquest. Nevertheless, Dave says he owes a debt to Richard and Wendy Pini:

“Until Issue 15 or 16 (of Cerebus) I was basically just trying to do good comics. Seeing the enormous success of Elfquest, I became aware that it was very important to Wendy. It was a story she wanted to tell.

“I started looking at Cerebus and saying, ‘What do I want to say with it—which changed the book from a sword-and-sorcery pastiche to the statement of political or social values or the basic quest for truth, moving comics away from adolescent power fantasies.

“I DON’T READ a lot of comics. I try to read what is considered the world’s great literature. You find basic themes: politics, religion, how men and women relate. Those are the kind of things I’m trying to explore in Cerebus.

“You can build a constituency of just 20,000 people; you’re not as accountable to the marketplace as other media are.

“It would be tragic if that kind of medium weren’t able to broaden its horizons so someone could come along and say, ‘This is a pretty esoteric idea; I don’t know how many comics fans are interested, but I’ll be content with being able to say it to 5,000 very interested people.’”

CEREBUS’ “CONSTITUENCY” has grown steadily. Print-run for the first issue was 2,000; for the latest (#56, as of this writing), 20,000. Dave and Deni announced their marriage between issues 6 and 7: they announced their separation in #55. But Deni says their differences are personal, not professional, and Aardvark-Vanaheim goes on.

In addition to Cerebus, which became a monthly with #14, the line has expanded to include Arn Saba’s Neil the Horse, Bill Loeb’s Journey and Valentino’s Normal-Man.

Dave is working on his second deck of Cerebus-inspired playing cards. He’s writing commentary for a series of reprint anthologies, and his Cerebus art portfolio is a sort of pilot for what he hopes could become a short animated film.

HE’S EVEN WORKING on a color Cerebus story for Marvel’s Epic magazine. Dave says it could lead to a second Cerebus comic—in color.

Above all, though, he’s committed to telling Cerebus’s life-story, month after month, until just after the turn of the millennium.

“I will have traced maybe 20 years of the character’s life, finishing with his death in the final issue, because I believe there’s a need for a more naturalistic comic book.”

Funny that a sword-wielding aardvark could usher in an era of “more naturalistic” comics. But that could be Cerebus’ lot in the history of independent comics.

(Charlie Meyerson reports the news weekdays on WXRT Radio (93.1 FM) in Chicago.)

Part 6: July 1984
The future of independent comics

(In concluding our series on the origins of independent comics, we asked Charles Meyerson for his own analysis on what has become the most vital movement in the comics medium in the past four decades.)

INDEPENDENT COMICS still face some problems. But most new media have problems: Remember the battle among 78-rpm, 33 1/3-rpm and 45-rpm records? Eight-track tapes and cassettes? VHS and Beta video tape?

Independent comics are a new medium: different paper, different printing, different distribution, closer ties between creators and audience—the comic book you are now holding is as different from newsstand comics circa 1960 as Q’Bert is from I Love Lucy.

Despite the growing pains, comics are bursting with new companies, new formats and new ideas.

As Star*Reach publisher/agent Mike Friedrich said earlier in this series, “I see more possibility for comics publishing than I believe has existed at any other time in the business. I see more publishers entering the field. I see more small-press, alternative people coming in to publish.”

TEN YEARS AGO, the comics industry was facing declining sales, wondering how long it had to live. But a dedicated fan-market made it clear it would buy new formats and new material by favorite talent. The people who founded the independent comics field—including distributors such as Phil Seuling and Bud Plant—responded, turning the comics industry around.

Even so, to hear the critics tell it, all is not well. One after another, they’ve complained the fan-market is strangling the industry by supporting little but superhero comics.

Elfquest publisher Richard Pini: “There’s a lot coming out from Pacific and First and several publishers that is good product. But there’s a certain sameness to it.”

Cerebus publisher Deni Sim: “Comics right now are at a real crucial point. The publishers could be going into a real golden age, as far as creativity is concerned. Working together, we could introduce  … not just stuff that sells real good right now, but the kind of books that 50 and 100 years from now people will still be holding up and saying ‘This is art.’”

FIRST KINGDOM’S creator, Jack Katz, says he’s sorry about the drop in comics for younger readers: “The idea of comics is to broaden the imagination at the lowest level and then introduce the kids into the world of reality on the other. Television and all these other media are just stealing the kids’ eyes away. I need the kiddies to be introduced to comic books first, or else they won’t be able to follow the graphic novel.”

The independents may have other problems: As the big, established companies have entered the direct-sales market, the name-recognition and fan-following their characters have developed has given them an edge over newer, more experimental projects. The proliferation of glossy reprint titles, in particular, has upset First Comics publisher Rick Obadiah. In their newsletter to retailers, he called it “the big dump,” designed to “dry up available retailer and distributor capital … (to) pillage and rape the direct-sales market.”

Deni Sim: “I had two other titles I was going to put out this year, I can’t, because there’s no room on the market for them. On the other hand, (the established companies) are answerable to other people. I know very well that a corporation has to earn more money this year than it did last year, every year, to justify its existence.

“I have to make more money this year than last year, and they’re on a bigger scale.”

Dealers have some problems, as well. One of them, writing in the Comics Buyer’s Guide last year, objected to publishers pushing subscriptions. “By discounting subscriptions,” he wrote, “you are in direct competition with us. Do you or do you not want comic stores to carry your product?”

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BUT THE WONDERFUL thing about comics is that they combine words and pictures you can receive without any special high-priced equipment. And because the initial financial investment for most publishers is nowhere near the cost of a TV show, a movie or a video game, comics are an industry ideal for people who want to market ideas.

Witzend’s publisher, Bill Pearson, says those people are out there, “so interested in putting out their own product from cover to cover that they’ll still want to publish their own material.”

The trick is keeping the industry and the audience open to those people. Cerebus creator Dave Sim: “It would be tragic if … a medium where you can build a constituency of just 20,000 people weren’t able to broaden its horizons so somebody could come along and say … ‘Yeah, I’ve got a bizarre idea, and I think I’m going to stick with that, rather than come up with a new group of mutants.’”

THE COMICS INDUSTRY is much the same as other contemporary mass media: You have more choices than ever before.

With the maturity of FM radio, chances are your town has more viable radio stations than ever. With the growth of cable, you can watch more TV channels than there are hours in the day.

With the rise of the direct-sales, independent market, you have more comics titles to consider than fans have had at almost any time in thirty years.

The industry itself has some tough choices ahead. But the comics might not have survived to make those choices, if not for the pioneers of independent comics.

(Charlie—who still anchors morning newscasts for WXRT Radio in Chicago—has benefited from those who helped creators win the rights to their comics material, and is looking forward to his piece of the action from The Origins of Independent Comics—The Movie!)

Notes on the resurrection of this series, whose creation predates my ownership of a computer and therefore was written using a, you know, typewriter: These pieces were digitized using Google Docs’ ability to extract text from any graphic image—in this case, from scans of the published comic book pages. The process is impressive, but not perfect. Holler if you find typos. Also: As I recall, each of these installments was based on recorded interviews. If I ever find those tapes, I’ll digitize them and share them here.

Enjoy this? Check out the sequel: “Scapegoat in Four Colors,” a history of comics and censorship. And this blog contains lots more about comics and pop culture. Subscribe—free—by email to get the latest.

Scapegoat in Four Colors

Thursday, August 1, 2019
Between 1983 and 1986, Evanston, Illinois-based First Comics hired me to write a series of text features for its pages. The first of these focused on “The Origins of Independent Comics,” previously posted to this website. The second explored a subject about which I’d been passionate enough to research for high school and college papers. Drawing on that work alongside fresh interviews, the result was a survey of comic book censorship: “Scapegoat in Four Colors,” whose text gets digitized here for the first time.

Part 1: (Published in comics cover-dated) August 1984
The rise of the Comics Code Authority

(Over the past half-dozen months, Charlie’s shepherded us from the 1960s to the 1980s, following the development of the independent comics market. In this, the first of a new series tracing the history of comic book regulation, Charlie sets the Wayback Machine for the year 1954, when psychiatrist Fredric Wertham wrote: What is the social meaning of these supermen, superwomen, superlovers … super-ducks, super-mice, super-magicians, super-safecrackers? How did Nietzsche get into the nursery?”)

DURING THE FIRST half of the 1950s, the comics industry was selling about a billion magazines a year. At 10¢ a copy, annual sales were totaling about 100 million dollars.

So it was probably inevitable that someone—it turned out to be Dr. Wertham—would ask what effect all those comics were having on kids.

Based upon his seven-year study, Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent presented a damning picture of the industry—although it was a picture painted with questionable logic and shaky research methods.

NEVER MIND ALL the other changes the United States faced at the same time—the automobile-assisted flight from city to suburbs, urban blight, the Cold War, a recession, race tension.

As Don Thompson, now editor of the Comics Buyer’s Guide, wrote in a collection of essays entitled The Comic-Book Book, “Instead of setting up control groups of children who read comics and children who did not … Wertham found juvenile delinquents and asked them if they read comic books. Since nearly every kid read comics in those days … the answer was almost always affirmative. … Juvenile delinquents read comic books, therefore comic books cause juvenile delinquency. What could be plainer?”

Whether Wertham’s book was fair or reasonable, it struck a nerve. The American Legion, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National Organization for Decent Literature and others began passing resolutions, conducting boycotts and publishing monthly evaluations of comics.

LATE IN 1954, San Francisco-area Safeway food stores announced they were dropping all comics. Denver Safeway stores followed suit. Some parents publicly burned comics.

Several comics publishers got the message. They decided to try a plan for self-regulation—so the government wouldn’t do it.

The first plan—The Association of Comics Magazine Publishers (ACMP), formed in 1948—flopped because the big companies refused to participate. These included National (now DC), Dell (the Disney titles, among others), and Fawcett (Captain Marvel).

These publishers said they didn’t want their image used as a cover for publishers of inferior products.

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THE SUCCESSOR TO the ACMP was the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA), which in turn established the organization responsible for that little seal on the cover of almost all newsstand comics now: the Comics Code Authority.

It incorporated just about all the old ACMP rules: no favorable treatment of criminals; no unfavorable treatment of police; no sadism, torture, “sexy, wanton comics,” vulgarity, obscenity, excessive slang, religious or racial slurs.

The Code added some new bans: no vampires; no ghouls, no ads for tobacco, liquor, knives, guns, gambling equipment or salacious items; no use of the words horror or terror in a magazine title; no use of the word crime alone on a cover.

THIS TIME, IT worked. With an anxious eye toward those hordes of boycotting, burning moms and dads, 24 of the nation’s 27 comics publishers agreed to submit their books to the Comics Code for approval before publication. Dell still refused, but it ran its own “Pledge to Parents” prominently in each issue. Dell’s successor printer-owned publishers, Gold key and Whitman, maintained the Code-free tradition.

As it turns out, the creation of the Comics Code came just in time to save the industry from the wrath of the Senate Subcommittee to investigate Juvenile Delinquency.

Stay tuned. Next: The Men Who Cracked The Code.

(Charlie Meyerson is the morning news anchor for WXRT Radio, Chicago.)

Part 2: September 1984
Cracking the Code

STIRRED UP BY Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent, state lawmakers across the country late in 1954 began to form “study groups” to examine the dangers comic books posed to the youth of America.

Some state legislatures and city councils passed laws banning the sale of “crime comics” to kids under 18. Generally, those laws didn’t survive challenges in the courts or vetoes from mayors and governors.

That was the atmosphere as the U.S. Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency began to study “the comic book menace.” One of the star witnesses was William M. Gaines, then publisher of EC Comics (now Mad Magazine)—well known by fans for its wonderful art and creative scripting, but then under fire for graphically depicting adultery, ax-murders, kids killing their parents …

“JUST FOR THE RECORD,” Gaines told me in 1978, “I requested the right to appear. Having requested it, I was subpoenaed. But I requested it, and I don’t want it to sound like I was dragged there.”

Gaines was in fine form to begin the hearing. His opening statement defended American kids as “citizens, entitled to select what to read. Do we think our children are so evil, simpleminded, that all it takes is a story of murder to set them to murder, a story of robbery to set them to robbery?”

William M. Gaines
Gaines was taking an appetite suppressant; at a key point in the hearing, it began to wear off, dulling his senses. The result was a public-relations disaster. He wound up attempting to defend an almost indefensible cover—a man with a bloody ax holding the severed head of a woman.

“A COVER IN bad taste,” he said, might have “the head a little higher so that the blood could be seen dripping from it.” Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee noted there was plenty of blood on the cover as it was.

The days to follow brought a fresh wave of public criticism of Gaines, EC Comics … and of the industry.

Still, the subcommittee wound up its work rejecting “all suggestions of governmental censorship as being totally out of keeping with our basic American concepts of a free press operating in a free land for free people.”

In Kefauver’s words, “the public must be sold this idea of restricting purchases of comics to those carrying the (Comics Code) seal of approval.”

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THE CODE WAS off and running.

Among its first victims were EC Comics: no room for EC’s best-selling Vault of Horror and Crypt of Terror under a code that banned the words “horror” and “terror” on comic book covers!

“I dropped the books I dropped,” Gaines says, “not as a result of the committee’s investigation, but as a result of wholesaler pressure, which was brought about by dealer pressure and parent-teacher-group pressure.

“The horror books made money right up to the last issue. The other books had been losing money anyway.”

A FEW POST-CODE EC titles with thrilling names like Psychoanalysis didn’t last more than a few issues. Their deaths demonstrated the real muscle behind the Code: magazine distributors.

As Frank Jacobs writes in his biography of Gaines, “Stack after stack came back, unopened by wholesalers … (because) they didn’t bear the (Code) Seal of Approval.”

For most of the next two decades, the Code was as good as law. Between 1954 and 1969, according to comics historians Reinhold Reitberger and Wolfgang Fuchs, the Comics Code reviewed and approved 18,125 comics titles—the vast majority of U.S. comics sold during the time.

THE PEOPLE WHO created the Code were concerned comics might encourage violence among kids. Under the Code, though, kids may have found violence more attractive. Code rules prompted scripters to make gunplay look like a game: no one suffered; the good guys never killed anyone.

In the words of Reitberger and Fuchs, they just “planted the bullets with breathtaking precision into a man’s upper arm, or shot their opponents’ guns clean out of their hands.”

IN 1971, Stan Lee decided to do a three-issue Spider-Man story about the dangers of drug addiction. Then-Code administrator Leonard Darvin said no.

IN A DECISION that made the pages of The New York Times, Lee published the issues anyway—without the seal.

The issues sold as usual. Distributors, retailers and readers didn’t seem to notice.

But the Comics Code Authority noticed. On April 15, 1971, Code officials unanimously adopted the first changes in the Code, allowing “narcotics addition … presented (only) as a vicious habit.”

WHILE THEY WERE at it, they modified the Code to allow vampires, ghouls and werewolves to appear again in the pages of comics; to allow comic book police to die in the line of duty and comic book public officials to break laws, as long as the guilty were punished.

A few months after the changes, DC Comics published a Green Lantern/ Green Arrow story similar to the SpiderMan story that prompted the changes. It won Code approval.

But the Code had cracked. It clearly wasn’t the power in comics it had been. More on that story next time.

(If you are interested in reading more about Bill Gaines and the development of the Comics Code, look up a copy of Frank Jacobs’ The Mad World of William M. Gaines (Bantam Books, 1973) and a long interview with Gaines in The Comics Journal #81, May 1983. And you might be surprised how much comics history you can unearth at your friendly neighborhood public library.)

(Charlie Meyerson, as ever, remains employed as a reporter and morning news anchor at WXRT Radio, Chicago.)

Part 3: November 1984
Why bother with the Comics Code?

THE COMICS CODE Authority? That little seal in the upper right-hand or lefthand corner of most newsstand comics?

Eric Olson said he’d never heard of it. You might find that surprising, considering he’s the magazine buyer in charge of comics for the Chas. Levy Circulation Company, maybe the biggest magazine-distribution concern in the nation.

Levy delivers about three million comic books a year to Chicago-area retailers. But as far as Olson knows, no one in the country pays attention to that little seal.

That’s not surprising to the man who administered the Comics Code for more than 20 years, Leonard Darvin, who describes himself as an old retired guy” still serving as lawyer for the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA), which created the Code.

“CHARLES LEVY,” Darvin says, “certainly was one of the wholesalers that had a great deal of trouble with the opposition to comics published in some measure—most comics were OK even then—in 1952 and 1953.

“Of course, times have changed. They had a change in personnel; they’ve had no difficulty with comics. They assume the Code is sort of built-in, without even thinking about it.”

Times have changed, indeed: thirty publishers originally held membership in the CMAA, now there are three—Marvel, DC and Archie—along with their three national distributors, and World Color Press and Chemical Color Plate.

In the summer of 1979, the CMAA turned over its management to a timesharing firm, Trade Group Associates, which also handles work for organizations representing hardware manufacturers and women in publishing.

Dudley Waldner, who followed Darvin as Code Administrator, oversees two reviewers charged with checking every page of books published under the Code.

ONCE, THE CODE AUTHORITY kept watch for anything less wholesome than Nancy Drew mysteries; now, because the Code and the times have changed, the Authority allows material considerably more risqué:

Despite a Code requirement that women be “drawn realistically, without undue emphasis on any physical quality,” you don’t have to look through too many Code-approved comics to find at least a couple of qualities unduly emphasized.
 Despite a ban on portrayal of “illicit sex relations,” stories involving extramarital sex appeared under the Code last year.
 Despite the prohibition of “gruesome illustrations,” another Code-approved book showed a boy about to explode in the vacuum of space.

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NONE OF THAT is likely to have much impact on a generation of kids exposed to contemporary TV and radio. As DC Comics Executive Editor Dick Giordano explains, “Almost any other medium displays far more explicit violence, sex, nudity and language than we do.

“You don’t have to go very far to be able to see things much stronger than the strongest comic books and far more negative than the most negative comic books.”

Under the direct-sales system, publishers now can reach a growing audience without having to satisfy distributors and retailers who once insisted the Code approve all books. Marvel and DC are expanding their direct-sales lines—which do not go through the Code Authority.

Direct-sales versions of Marvel’s regular newsstand comics do not carry the Code seal, even though they have earned it.

IF DISTRIBUTORS AREN’T watching to see whether books pass the Comics Code: if the Code Authority itself is a “shell of its former self,” in Giordano’s words; if publishers have an efficient means to sidestep the Code, then why bother with it?

“That’s a good question,” Giordano says. “We haven’t answered that yet, internally. I guess maybe ‘old habits die hard’ is the best reason I can think of.

“We recognize that the Code as it now functions probably doesn’t serve any real, worthwhile advantage—with the possible exception of having us be able to say to parents that we pass material through the Code without really telling them what that means.” Code Administrator Waldner points out that the CMAA aggressively publicizes the Code, distributing free copies to parents, teachers and librarians.

Darvin says the Code is important to the industry. Referring to the 1971 decision allowing comics to deal with the problem of narcotics, Darvin says the beauty of the Code is that if it is not doing the job, the industry can change it: “They themselves made the change, and they can make it again, if time comes along that it should be made.

“But just to throw it out the window and not have any restraint will cause difficulties.”

IN COMICS SHOPS across the country, Code-approved books are sold side-by-side with direct-sales comics without any external restraint.

Darvin recommends “these new fellows … use legitimate material (because) even though the market today—especially in these comic book stores—basically caters to the teenagers, they’re still basically children’s publications.

“It isn’t a question of being blue-nosed about it. It’s a question of what you’re selling. Just as prime-time television can not have sexual intercourse on the air—you try it on prime time and you’re going to knock off television—you try certain things in comic books and you’re going to knock off the comic book industry, whether it consists of the traditional publishers or the new ones.”

NEXT TIME: What publishers are doing to prevent the industry from being “knocked off.”

(Charlie, who reports weekday mornings on WXRT (93.1 FM) in Chicago, recommends you read Dr. Seuss’ latest work, The Butter Battle Book, before it’s too late.)

Part 4: December 1984
Can the Code be saved?

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DOES THE COMICS INDUSTRY risk incurring the wrath of a new generation of parents, outraged that their kids are buying and reading comics less wholesome than they remember?

An article that could trigger those concerns appeared in the February 1984 issue of Psychology Today. Amherst professor Benjamin DeMott surveys a few of the new direct-sales comics (like the one you’re reading), which do not pass through the Comics Code Authority for approval.

He refers to them as “adult comics,” noting a new “frankness about sex.” He offers a “guess” that most readers of “adult” comics are “dropouts and community-college students”—“young losers” who take comfort in what he calls “the gloom, the pervasive atmosphere of defeat in comics,” from the oppression of American Flagg’s Plex to the double-crossing President in Camelot 3000.

Never mind that DeMott passes judgment without waiting for the story’s resolution; never mind that he doesn’t distinguish between direct-sales comics and regular, Code-approved newsstand titles. This is the stuff of which anti-comics crusaders are made.

DC COMICS EXECUTIVE Editor Dick Giordano says he doubts a new dark age is likely. He’s not required to send any comic book through the Comics Code. But he does have his own code:

“I’m not willing to accept anything in terms of violence, sexual innuendo, strong language … not absolutely required by the story line (or) with a view to titillation. I will permit any of those things if it’s absolutely necessary to the telling of the story.”

Mike Gold, First Comics’ editor and a former broadcaster, may be a little more liberal. Gold would accept anything that would pass on contemporary radio—if it makes the story work.

GIORDANO SAYS DC has been trying to persuade the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) to do something to counteract the bad press comics can get. But he believes “a trade group that has just three of 16 publishers as its members probably can not serve any real function.”

Giordano would like to gather all publishers in a new organization “that might use the CMAA as its base … so we could solve common problems—marketing problems, publicity problems.”

So far, First Comics—among others—has refused to go along. Publisher Rick Obadiah says he supports the idea, but not as long as it is tied to the Comics Code, which he says has a history of censorship.

YOU WANT TO KNOW what I think?

The concept of Comics Code approval as a prerequisite for national distribution is dead. The direct-sales market now distributes comics nationwide, with or without a Code Seal.

The Code has survived primarily as a defense against criticism, so the industry can-in Giordano’s words—“be able to say we pass material through the Code.”

Publishers seem just to be going through the motions. Critics – like DeMott—and distributors aren’t paying attention to the Code. Whether or not it was a good idea to begin with, it is almost useless now.

YET THE CODE ITSELF is a good set of guidelines for people creating comics for children. It requires that bad guys be punished and wrongs be righted; it says guns and drugs are bad; it encourages use of good grammar.

Rather than scrap it—as some critics propose—the industry could revive the Code.

The pressure of the 1950s is off. Publishers don’t have to apply the Code to all newsstand comics. Doing that has devalued it. Publishers could apply it more selectively – to comics whose creators are willing to follow it.

Maybe the CMAA would administer a code, or maybe it would authorize its member-publishers to use the Code Seal as they see fit. But the Code need not represent censorship. Properly promoted, it could be a big help—like a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for publishers hoping to persuade parents to buy children’s comics for their kids.

A trade organization is just the kind of group to do that promoting.

IF COMICS ARE IN danger of some new Seduction of the Innocent-type crackdown, it is because the public still sees comics exclusively as — in Comics Code administrator-emeritus Len Darvin’s words—“children’s publications.”

The industry needs to establish that comics are a medium as versatile as any other, capable of communicating with kids or adults. A well-funded joint effort to get the idea across—in TV, radio and print ads—would make the prospect of complaints about adult comics falling into kids’ hands as remote as complaints about adult books falling into kids’ hands.

For decades, mainstream bookstores have displayed children’s paperbacks among more “adult” books. In almost any supermarket you will see “Peanuts” collections displayed just inches from sleaze. Why no complaints of dangerous “adult” books being sold to children?

Paperback book publishers use cover design to steer kids to the right titles—a lot of children’s books use cover borders, where adult books’ cover illustrations run off the edge. Book publishers also establish special divisions for children, such as Dell’s Laurel Leaf line.

If nothing else, all that helps guide retailers. Already changes along those lines seem to be taking shape in the comics field: Marvel and DC are talking about establishing children’s lines; Giordano has said he’s considering establishing a separate cover format for DC’s entries.

IN A LOT OF WAYS the comics industry is coming to resemble the rest of the book industry. For instance, as the “trade paperback” has become popular in the mainstream, comics of similar size and format have become popular as “graphic novels.”

And, as Comics Buyer’s Guide columnist Heidi MacDonald has noted, the word-balloon-and-picture format is invading the mainstream. One week The New York Times bestseller list included three Garfield books, Berke Breathed’s Loose Tails and Gary Larson’s Beyond the Far Side.

MacDonald argues—correctly, I think—that before the comics can reach maturity, they have to develop material to attract people with interests broader than capes-and-leotards. And she says they have to win respect as a medium.

On the first count, the industry’s making progress. As for the second, overhauling Comics Code enforcement and establishing a strong industry-wide trade group would help.

(Broadcast newsman Charlie lives in Oak Park, Illinois with his wife, Pam and his cat, Mimsy, neither of whom is particularly fond of comics.)

Notes on the resurrection of this series, whose creation predates my ownership of a computer and therefore was written using a, you know, typewriter: These pieces were digitized using Google Docs’ ability to extract text from any graphic image—in this case, from scans of the published comic book pages. The process is impressive, but not perfect. Holler if you find typos. If I ever find additional tapes of interviews conducted for this series, I’ll digitize and share them here.

Enjoy this? Check out the precursor: “The Origins of Independent Comics.” And the successor, “Collecting Dust: A Guide to Preserving Comic Books.” And this blog contains lots more about comics and pop culture. Subscribe—free—by email to get the latest.

(First Comics illustration by Alex Wald.)

Previously posted to this page:

Happy to see my work for First Comics in the ’80s resurrected on the Web. Thanks, Tom Mason and FLD. And, of course, Mike Gold for the original assignment.
Part 1: Scapegoat in Four Colors.
Part 2: Cracking the Code.
Part 3. The Comics Code Authority.
Part 4. Overhauling the Code.
(First posted to this blog August 25, 2011. Updated with direct links, May 2016.)