3. Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority. (The Last War in Albion Book Two Part Seventeen: The DC Ratings System Controversy)

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Previously in The Last War in Albion: DC and Alan Moore's simmering tension finally came to a head after an October 1986 news report on a Washington DC station about "sick comics" that pushed a narrative of moral panic about the more adult comics being released by Marvel and DC. The first part focused heavily on Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz's Elektra: Assassin.

The second part, on the other hand, was downright fascinating; it focused on efforts within the industry to clean up its act and prevent awful tragedies like eleven-year-old boys accidentally reading something with naked women in it. Which was an astonishing topic in many regards, because there really weren’t any such efforts in progress. Its main interview was Steve Geppi, the president of Diamond Comics Distributors, the largest direct market distributor in the US, who explained that while “there’s a tremendous amount of wholesome comics” on the market, there were also dangerous ones that risked harming children, and vowed, as the reporter put it, “to put pressure on comic book publishers to clean up questionable content.” Geppi spoke emphatically about this as a “moral issue,” explaining that “as you grow up, you’re expected to experience a lot of things in your life. And you’re influenced greatly by your early years in life, and if you’re brought up thinking that violence and sex are so ordinary that you read them in comic books, you become conditioned to that.” Geppi had actively lobbied to be included in the broadcast, and followed it up two days later with a “Special Report” sent to all of the comic book stores with Diamond accounts that opened with Geppi declaring, “personally, I am getting sick and tired of making excuses for irresponsible publishers.”

While the “Sick Comics” feature on WUSA had mainly focused on Frank Miller’s Elektra: Assassin, his “Special Report” was unambiguously aimed first and foremost at Alan Moore. In the first paragraph he proclaimed that “Miracleman #9 was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” a strange claim given that it hadn’t appeared in the WUSA report at all. Miracleman #9 is the (in)famous “Birth” issue of the comic, in which Rick Veitch draws an anatomically accurate and head-on depiction of childbirth, and it’s clear that Geppi reacted badly to it. “I have four children of my own ranging from ages six to fifteen,” he writes, “and each of them knows where babies come from. I never found it necessary, however, to graphically describe to them how a baby is born.” He called on publishers to “be much more selective of the nature of the stories and artwork they publish,” and to “do something of a self-regulatory nature, maybe as in the 50s,” a clear reference to the Comics Code Authority. He also noted that if he had known the comic had contained such material he would have “strongly recommend[ed] people don’t buy it.”

Geppi’s letter is a fascinating and largely pathological piece. Its most revealing section comes when says, “I can imagine a 13-year-old-girl” who reads Miracleman #9 and “may be shocked into never wanting to have a baby, because now she sees a head lying out between the woman’s legs.” Almost every part of this is remarkable, but what stands out the most is simply the bewilderingly cack-handed attempt at understanding a woman’s perspective on childbirth. It is as though Geppi, horrified by the sight of a human being emerging from a vagina, has concluded that the only way the species has managed to survive all these millennia is through an elaborate social consensus to keep women from realizing how inherently gross they are. Which is obviously tremendously mockable, but in many ways the really significant is the underlying contempt; the idea that childbirth is such a horrifying thing in the first place, and that a thirteen-year-old girl is likely to be so mentally fragile as to swear of childbirth forever if she knew the awful truth.

That sense of moral panic was only amplified when a prominent retailer, Buddy Saunders, who owned five comic shops in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, wrote an open letter to the industry about his efforts to establish a ratings system within his stores and calling on publishers to be more responsible, specifically saying that superhero comics should “set an example that would make a boy scout proud” and decrying comics “with a hopeless, negative view of people, the world, and the future,” calling for comics with themes such as “pride, honor, and courage” as well as “beliefs in self and country” and expressing the “hope that comic writers might one day discover that not all authority is evil, dishonest, and not to be trusted.” Saunders, with five shops in a major metropolitan area, was a significant figure, and Geppi controlled the largest comics distributor in the country, so their calls naturally carried some weight. Indeed, Geppi, talking to The Comics Journal after his letter, explicitly cited support from Paul Levitz in his efforts to clean up the industry.

A few weeks after Saunders and Geppi’s letters, at a convention in Ohio, Frank Miller got word of exactly how DC intended to support these efforts, namely an internal ratings system that would divide books into Universal, Mature, and Adult categories, with the Universal category (which would cover all books save for Swamp Thing, Vigilante, The Shadow, and Watchmen) under rules like “destructive behavior cannot be shown as acceptable behavior. It always will be discussed with accuracy, and casual or subtly negative behavior will not be dismissed as trivial” and the adult category explicitly not intended for use and serving more as an absolute line on what DC would never do. Miller was incensed, partially because the guidelines were crafted without any consultation with creators, and partially because, as he put it in a later interview, “people who are professional censors… let’s just say the job does not attract the best people.” Miller sprung into action, contacting a number of other creators, including Moore, who, to put it mildly, did not take the news well.

Moore’s response, characterized by Rich Veitch (who was apparently one of Moore’s first calls) as having “hit the ceiling… HARD!” cannot be separated from his already growing discomfort with DC. But it’s no wonder he took this particularly personally. After all, one of his proudest moments at DC had been when Karen Berger secured freedom from the Comics Code on Swamp Thing, a moment he retained nothing but warm feelings about even after nearly every other aspect of his time at DC had turned sour for him. To see DC back down from that support and institute a ratings system that was clearly rooted in the same deeply conservative ethos that led the Comics Code to forbid any disrespect for authority, and moreover to do so in the face of direct attacks on him would have felt like an absolutely vicious betrayal, especially coming as it did so close to his unpleasant meeting with Jeanette Kahn.

DC, for its part behaved with a crashing lack of subtlety and respect. As the story broke, they quickly retreated behind public statements, so that when The Comics Journal tried to follow up with Janette Kahn about her December 1986 letter announcing the new ratings guidelines, Kahn asked that an interview be scheduled with DC’s spokesperson, Peggy May, who refused to set one up, “claiming that DC had already said all that needed to be said in press releases.” Similarly, when May asserted that “guidelines have been in use as long as anybody can remember and have been periodically updated,” she declined to actually provide any of these previous guidelines to refute claims, including ones from Len Wein, that no such guidelines actually existed. This, needless to say, did not do much to refute the claims from numerous freelancers that the ratings system was imposed from above without adequate consultation or dialogue. Nor did heavy-handed reactions like sacking Marv Wolfman from his editorial duties when he signed a letter penned by Moore and Miller complaining that “these new guidelines were developed without our consultation” and that the signees “take this opportunity to express our extreme displeasure.”

But much as DC circled the wagons, the game was pretty much up. The letter, published in the Comics Buyer’s Guide, was signed not just by Moore, Miller, and Wolfman, but by twenty-four creators including Howard Chaykin, Bill Sienkiewicz, George Perez, Chris Claremont, Len Wein, and even John Byrne, who signed despite not objecting to the ratings system, not thinking it was censorship, and thinking that American Flagg! and Elektra: Assassin were pornography. DC might retaliate against an individual creator, and indeed did, but a list like that had to be mollified, especially with Miller, Moore, Wolfman, and Chaykin all proclaiming that they’d no longer work for DC unless they reversed their position. And though they waited until July of 1987 and denied even then that the ratings had anything to do with Geppi or Saunders’s letters, sure enough, they backed down, saying, with impressive understatement, that they “got a little more feedback than we anticipated” about the system.

The six month delay was, of course, as much a strategic choice as using Peggy May to give The Comics Journal the runaround in terms of actually talking to anyone at DC. It ensured that when DC reversed their position it was not so much another round of an ongoing fight so much as a footnote to a battle that was long since over, and whose participants were mostly exhausted with it already. Chaykin, for instance, proclaimed once it was all over that he’d “got bored with the ratings system argument soon after it started as a result of my inability to take it personally,” while Miller and Wolfman cheerily expressed their eagerness to get back to work with DC now that everything was resolved. It had not, on the whole, been a struggle in which anyone covered themselves in glory; as Gary Groth put it in a Comics Journal editorial, it mainly amounted to “a lot of grown-ups stamping their feet and holding their breaths. It was a frightful spectacle of supercilious sniping and intellectual sterility when it wasn’t merely irrelevant,” and noting that for all that Miller and his allies had claimed victory, the only actual concession on DC’s part had been to drop the Universal label, which was always the least necessary, since it largely coincided with the Comics Code.

But there’s one name, of course, that’s conspicuously absent from the reactions: Moore’s. [continued]

Comments

Daibhid C 1 year, 3 months ago

My memory's hazy: was it Geppi's letter that was quoted in the intro to the trade paperback containing that issue? The one which at one point said something like "I've nothing against pornography as pornography"? Because I remember thinking "Yeesh!" the first time I read that.

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Jane Campbell 1 year, 3 months ago

Great cliffhanger.

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Timber-Munki 1 year, 3 months ago

yeah, it is quite vertigo inducing

(I'll get my coat)

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Evan Forman 1 year, 3 months ago

Juxtaposing panels with paragraphs in a manner resembling Burroughs' aforementioned cut-up method, one of which directly namedrops Nova Express? I'd throw the "good shit good shit right there" copypasta in here if the emojis would work across platforms.

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Kit Power 1 year, 3 months ago

Just FYI - the 'share to Twitter' button isn't working, as it produces and auto tweet that hugely exceeds the character limit.

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Daru 1 year, 3 months ago

Great stuff.

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