LET ME FILL YOU IN ABOUT SOMETHING...
We seem, once again, to be observing an industry awash in late comic books. This, of course, is nothing new. But the way in which publishers and creators respond to lateness is evolving, as is the entire business.
This could be the topic for a completely different column (which I may do at a later date), but as briefly as I can, let me explain this. The comic industry is slowly but inexorably moving from a medium driven by hundreds of monthly, periodical, 32 or 40 page comic books into a medium of comic collections, graphic novels or albums, published not on a strict periodic schedule, but more of a random, "when it's done" kind of basis with usually one or two collections a year. A lot of people are in denial about this, and no one is sure how - or even if - the traditional comic book format will survive.
What is definitely changing - and right now! - are artists' attitudes toward their work and how it is being collected into these "permanent" collections. Not that long ago, artists could have a bad month, or a bad ink job or production job, and be able to gloss over it, doubling their attention and skills in making the next issue better. Once an issue was published, it was "gone" and the next one would soon take its place. With the advent of the ongoing collection, where virtually every issue of a series is being collected, artists now feel that they have to strive to make every single issue the best that they can. And to do that, a lot of them are slowing down to do it right. And it is causing trouble in the marketplace.
And because publishers want their collections to be the best they can be, they are increasingly willing to let the "monthly" books slide later and later rather than pulling in an additional "fill-in" artist or two. This is especially evident in those cases where "superstar" talent is involved. I am no longer actively involved with creator/publisher negations, but I would not be surprised to learn that "no fill-in" clauses are now inserted by creators in contracts as a matter of business. How else to explain such severe cases of "lateness" as All-Star Batman and Robin and The Ultimates?
Fill-in artists and issues still occur occasionally in long-running monthly titles. But the majority of those are long-planned out in advance, and frequently dropped from the eventual collection. Fill-ins are less likely to be used in shorter, self-contained miniseries, which will be often collected in a single volume. Even slow-selling series like White Tiger and Trials of Shazam are being limped out months late to allow the original creators to complete the series.
But the actual concept of fill-in issues is being lost in the shuffle. It's a concept that was born of desperation and haste, and probably deserves to die for the trade-off of quality. But over the years the much-maligned concept has often risen to the challenge of transcending its meager origins. I know I always tried to do something a bit different when I was forced into needing a fill-in. And others along the way have as well.
Inventory stories were produced by the major companies as a matter of business beginning in the Golden Age and continuing well into the Silver and Bronze Ages. Back then, with issue-to-issue continuity not the issue that it is today, it was fairly easy, and commonplace, to slip in an inventory story or issue, and very few readers would know the difference, other than somebody else was drawing the story instead of the regular guy. Since so many titles were anthologies back in these eras, inventory stories could be used frequently without anyone being the wiser. Unused inventory stories would often be used decades later in reprint collections, digests or treasuries, or published in foreign editions. But quite often, unused inventory stories were simply "written off" the books (removed from inventory) and, in most instances, destroyed. Occasionally, an unused story would resurface years later, either via copies kept in artist or editors files, or miraculously, the originals somehow made their way into collector or original art markets - providing great treasures for those who were lucky enough to find them!
It wasn't until deep into the heroic age of continuity-tight super-hero comics, as pioneered by Marvel in the 1960s - and which eventually became an industry standard - that inventory stories became a problem. They simply couldn't be dropped into an ongoing storyline without a howl of protest from the ever-more-rabid fandom that began to have more "say" in the direction of their comics. Unfortunately, schedules still had to be met, which was becoming more of a problem as the 1970s rolled along.
The reasons for this were twofold: First, comics books, as an industry, had done a very lousy job in finding and developing new talent. They can't really be blamed for that too much - ever since the comic book "witch hunts" of the 50s, spurred on by Fredric Wertham's attack on comics, Seduction of the Innocent, and the subsequent Congressional hearings, most comic book companies were fighting to stay alive. Many of them failed, leaving a relatively large talent pool and very limited prospects for them to find regular work. So, developing new talent was definitely not a priority in this period.
By the mid-1960s, when the industry had relatively stabilized, the majority of comic book work was being done by artists and writers in their 50s or 60s (like Lee, Kirby, Fox, Broome, Kanigher, Simon, Barks, and most of the Archie guys) and the "youngsters" were guys like Kubert, Buscema, Kane, Ditko, and Heath - all in their 40s and all had gotten their starts in the tail end of the Golden Age. Even the breakout "rookies" of the 1960s (Adams, Steranko, Thomas) were in their 30s (or thereabouts)! [Aside: Okay, so Jim Shooter was 13! But nobody knew that - including his editor!!] For an industry that theoretically produced entertainment for children, most of the guys doing it were old - and had been doing it for a long time!
The catalyst for change occurred in the late 1960s in the form of a proposed union for freelancers, quickly squashed by the DC brass and suddenly a large group of older talent suddenly found that all their work had dried up. (Technically or legally, freelancers cannot be "fired" - however, their work can be withheld or reassigned without notice or reason.) For the first time in a long time, slots were open on a number of long-running DC titles, and there was no qualified talent immediately available to take those slots - except for comic "fans" who were producing work in an ever increasing number of largely self-produced fanzines. And before long, a number of younger fans-turned-pro - including Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Berni Wrightson, Jim Starlin, Walter Simonson, Howard Chaykin and many, many others - had found themselves working in the industry they loved as fans.
Despite the fact that many of them had apprenticed with the great, older artists, they were all fairly "green" and ended up learning their craft while on-the-job. This, along with their desire to push the staid borders of moribund comic printing and production - as well as just plain overwork and overbooking by the talent - started to cause increasing lateness by the mid 1970s. Marvel seemed to have more problems with lateness initially, with their production schedules traditionally much closer to the edge of printer deadlines than other, more conservatively run companies - which was most of the rest of the industry.
Another factor for Marvel was that they had been gearing up the number of publications they produced after finally managing to break away from a overly restrictive distribution situation. (Through an arcane set of circumstances, for most of the 1960s, Marvel's distribution was more-or-less being dictated by DC, who limited their distribution to a small and finite number of titles per month.) This "ramping up," without the needed amount of talent to produce the extra books (during this period, many writers were writing five or more titles a month!), also contributed to lateness. Before long, a disturbing number of reprints began appearing - many under the cover originally prepared for the regular, ongoing storyline - leaving fans angered who bought without looking inside, only to discover when they got home they had purchased a reprint.
Realizing that they couldn't completely stop the lateness, Marvel, at least, came up with a plan for stopping the reprints - the fill-in issue! This was a slightly modified version of the inventory story, the difference being mostly that each fill-in was specially designed to be a few pages shorter than the current standard page count, so that the remaining few pages could be created on-the-fly to incorporate a tiny bit of the current continuity into what was essentially an out-of-current-continuity story. Many of these fill-ins were designed to be "casefile" flashback stories, or "Here's what you missed between issues #37 and #38 - Aren't we cool to catch you up!" type of stories.
Although sometimes a fill-in story would be written by the regular writer, fill-ins were almost never drawn by anyone involved with the regular creative team of a series. The reason why is pretty much a no-brainer: the penciler and inker require the largest amount of time to actually produce a book. A page-a-day penciler usually needs an entire month to draw a book. Inkers are generally faster, needing about half that time to finish a full-length story (although often wishing they had more time). Fill-ins for artist reasons are the norm, to enable the entire art team to get a jump ahead on the next series of books following the fill-in.
Because of their very nature as "fill-in" issues, they are generally produced by talent not regularly affiliated with the regular team. As they evolved, most fill-in issues became de facto "try-out" issues for young talent trying to break into the field. What better way to judge if a talent is "ready" by throwing them headfirst into an already late situation and seeing if they survive the ride!
Probably the "King of Fill-In Issues" at least at Marvel in the late 1970s was writer Bill Mantlo. For awhile it seemed that he was writing dozens and dozens of fill-in issues, and, in fact, he was. It was rumored that he was assigned to produce fill-in scripts for virtually any series that Marvel was currently publishing, and I've never heard for sure, but I think he came close to getting them all. He also did little tricks for some of his fill-ins, like using more than one character in a team-up situation, which would allow for that particular story to be used in any of several different series. Bill managed to turn his early fill-in work into a long and respected career, with notable runs on fan-favorite characters and series like Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Rom and the Micronauts. Tragically, he was struck and severely injured by a hit-and-run driver in 1992 (although he had left the industry several years earlier to become a attorney).
Many new artists got their first breaks doing fill-in stories, but they often provided a much-needed opportunity for many older artists, who for whatever reasons were not doing regular series - and probably needed the work. I was always pleased to see guys like Bob Brown, Don Heck and especially Frank Robbins get the opportunity to do an issue of something every so often.
For several years, fill-ins became pretty routine. There often wasn't a whole lot of reason to get too excited about them, but at least they were better than reprints. And then, Steve Gerber caught a big case of the Dreaded Deadline Doom in Howard the Duck #16 and the world of "fill-in" issues went all wacky.
Howard the Duck #16 was, basically, a fill-in issue on acid. Gerber took the entire issue to produce a stream-of-consciousness dialogue between creator and character discussing, among other things, the Dreaded Deadline Doom, Gerber's inadequacies as a writer, and seemingly anything that happened to pop into his head while sitting at the typewriter. The "story" was presented as blocks of text, illustrated by a deliberately random series of pin-up shots of Howard, his friends and enemies, Gerber himself and a Las Vegas chorus girl and her ostrich, who two decades later starred in Nevada, a mini-series written by Gerber and published by DC/Vertigo. Because so many different artists worked on the issue, it reportedly was produced in a matter of days. It was, to say the least, a much-talked about issue.
It also provided inspiration, at least to me. Forced to come up with something clever for a very very late issue of Legion of Super-Heroes (#94) that I was editing, I remembered the idea of Gerber using a small army of artists to get him out of a jam. But instead of just having a series of random pin-up shots, and inspired by a recent Simpsons episode entitled 22 Short Films About Springfield (which was, in turn, inspired by the 1993 film biography Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould), I decided that the Legion issue would consist entirely of one-page stories, each one illustrated by a different artist (we didn't quite get all 22 in the end). After working out the idea with Legion writer Tom Peyer, Tom banged out a brilliant script entitled 22 Pages About The Legion of Super-Heroes in record time, which we then photocopied and sent out to 14 different artists. In a matter of days, we had all the artwork in the house and the issue was saved.
And Peyer, without telling me, snuck in the oddest page of Legion that we had ever done - a sequence of Koko the monkey sneaking out of Legion HQ late at night, meeting up with a band of similar white monkeys with the same limited vocabulary [Koko! Koko!], of whom our Koko is seemingly the leader. Frantically plotting some sort of - well, we're not quite sure, Koko then snuck back into the HQ as if nothing had happened. To this day, people still come up to me at conventions and ask what that was all about. And here, for the first time, I can reveal the secret: It was all a dream. A dream that I had one night after some obviously bad pizza. The dream spooked me so much that I told Peyer about it one morning (and he found it quite funny!) - and then, weeks later, it was in the book.
And that's how we did things at the big company back then.
We never intended to follow it up. We didn't even know what the damn monkeys were yelling about. It was just left there to stand forever without explanation, just like another Gerber creation, the Elf With a Gun (That Got Run Over by a Truck).
But you know the way comics are, one of these days, someone's gonna pick up on it and try to explain it (just like someone tried to explain Gerber's Elf). It will probably be some 23rd Century descendant of Mark Waid who just found it in Mark's collection (which will still exist in the 23rd Century, because it is a Force Of Nature by then). And you know what...
It will probably be a fill-in issue.
Hey kids! What are your favorite fill-in issues of all time? (I might pick Legionnaires #7, a gorgeous all-underwater issue drawn by the very amazing Adam Hughes - who wasn't doing much interior work by then. If I wasn't disqualified for picking something I worked on.) Let us know by contacting us at AuntieKC@WestfieldComics.com, and we'll print some of the results here.
KC Carlson has been working in comics since 1972, where, at the age of 16, he worked at the local magazine distributor, stripping the covers off unsold comics to return to the publishers. Since then, he has worked for DC Comics, the Westfield Company (yay!), Capital City Distribution, and many other places, continuing to destroy comics at every step. He also once worked as a "pooper-scooper" for a Dog Show. Guess which one paid better?