Early on the second day of New York Comic Con, Danny Fingeroth (comic educator, Marvel writer, and multi-decade editor of the Spider-Man group) assembled an eccentric group of comic legends for a look at a turning point in comics – and world – history. This was 1968: The Year That Changed Comics And The World.
Alongside Fingeroth were Denis Kitchen (pioneer of the American underground comix scene, publisher of Kitchen Sink Press, and founder of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund), Denny O’Neil (Marvel writer, architect of the modern Batman comic, seminal voice on Green Arrow and The Question, and longtime editor of DC’s Batman office), Paul Levitz (writer, editor, publisher, and president of DC Comics over a forty year career), and Sean Howe (journalist and author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story).
Right from the start, O’Neil was a fountain of stories and exuberance. Before Fingeroth even had a chance to introduce the rest of the panel he had explained that strange, fascinating road that led him to comics. In the early 60s O’Neil was, in his own estimation, a journalist who “had managed to alienate nearly every body who was an authority figure in the small town [he] was working.” Stifled by the conservative atmosphere, O’Neil found himself kicked off his beat after he published a phony AP brief that Martin Luther King would be staging a direct action protest in town. Luckily, he had previously taken the Marvel Comics Writer’s Test, and a job at Marvel arrived just in time. Looking back, O’Neil told the audience, “I cannot imagine a better job than the one I have had for the last half century. You fans have given me the best life I could ask to have.” His thanks might have flowed even more forcefully, but at this point Fingeroth insisted that he’d have to introduce the rest of the panel.
Despite the title, two of the panelists were not working in comics in 68. Howe’s writing has led him to do a great deal of research into the period even if he was not “technically alive” in 1968. As for Levitz, while he would prove a precocious entry into the industry less than a decade later, he was only twelve in 1968. However, it has been said that the Golden age of Science Fiction is not 1938 or 1945 but twelve. Some see that as a cynical statement but Levitz obviously does not. He was at the perfect age for comics in 1968.
“Let me explain the sixties to you guys…,” began Fingeroth, after introductions were through. The slide show opened with images from the Tet Offensive. Vietnam was a shadow over much of culture then. But just to show you how ‘not yesterday’ this is, Fingeroth switched to an article from that morning’s New York Times, the obituary of Juan Romero, who comforted a dying Robert Kenedy in 1968.
Fingeroth continued to set the scene, flashing through major events. The Colombia takeover, the 1968 Democratic convention and the trial of the Chicago Seven, Nixon’s election, the debut of Hair, the return of Elvis and the end of Cream, Yellow Submarine, The White Album, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Fingeroth was going to show the album cover for Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company but it actually contained Robert Crumb artwork that he felt would no longer be appropriate to show in 2018.
Turning to comics, Fingeroth looked at Marvel, which was in the midst of a renaissance. Marvel was sold to a larger company for the first time, leading to a doubling of their publishing line. In 1968, Iron Man and Captain America got their own comics for the first time, Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. was spun off into its own magazine, and the Guardians of the Galaxy even debuted, albeit in a very different and unmemorable form. Marvel also tried to capitalize on the trends of the day, confronting Spider-Man with a “Crisis on Campus!” and experimenting with a short-lived line of larger, magazine sized, reprint comics.
In order to compete, Carmine Infantino (DC artist, art director, then editorial director, and later publisher and president) introduced striking, highly designed covers at DC. A number of former Marvel creators were also brought on board from Charlton Comics, including O’Neil and “angry Steve Ditko”, as O’Neil remembered him. Ditko was, in O’Neil’s words, “a deeply unhappy man”, something that the audience found very funny but O’Neil really did not. “We disagree- Disagreed – I forget that these people are past tense,” O’Neil corrected himself, taking a brief astonished pause before continuing, “We disagreed about everything but I did respect the fancy that he was very sincere.” At DC Ditko created characters like Hawk and Dove and the Creeper. Fingeroth considers the Creeper an attempt by DC to ‘Marvelize” their characters, creating off-beat introspective characters. Ditko, famously stern, envisioned the Creeper as a much more solemn character.
“My conscience occasionally bothers me over how many times I took something Steve Ditko created and ruined it,” O’Neil said. In hindsight, he wondered if a question he was later asked by Len Wein was not applicable to the Creeper: if you’re going to change the character that much, why not create a different character? Likewise, O’Neil joked that the Question was perhaps the character he did the most damage to, only for the image of the All-New Wonder Woman to confront him from the screen.
Wonder Woman was an attempt to bring the world’s greatest female superhero into line with then modern feminism, removing an origin that O’Neil felt gifted her powers from a male authority figure in favor of one where she earned her strength on her own. Unfortunately the change was not well received. Gloria Steinem, herself, famously decried the changes in the first issue of Ms. Magazine. O’Neil acknowledged that his well intentioned changes were flawed, accepting Steinem’s critique that he had removed the powers and iconography of comics’ strongest leading lady and going further to point out that his progressive reforms were undercut by giving Diana a male, orientalist kung fu master to replace her superpowers. The character was even named I-Ching, after the famous Chinese divination text, “so I managed to insult a whole [nation as well].”
But the Big 2 were hardly the only game in town. Comics like Archie and Richie Rich were thriving and indie comics were about to erupt thanks to the rise of zines.
Underground comics were a reaction not only to the national news but to the comics industry itself. The artists wanted to express themselves in new ways and without giving up their creative rights. “We didn’t get paid on Friday,” Kitchen admitted, “but we did set up the underground comics business in an as egalitarian manner as possible.” Underground comix couldn’t be found on newsstands or corner stores, but in head stores, along side psychedelic posters and rolling papers. Fingeroth argued that the direct market was directly based on the success of Underground comix distribution networks.
Howe’s next project is about the birth of underground comix. He drew the distinction between other mediums, where most films were controlled by the studios and even radical music that took off was still largely put out by major labels. In comics there were real alternate avenues now. Additionally, while the creators of the indie comics of the day grew up fondly on superhero comics, there was a distinction. Big Two comics at the time were squarely focused on children, with an expectation that their audience would filter out around puberty. As such, without the internet, without the ability to access head shops or really much of anything their parents didn’t approve of, children did not have access to indie books. That really avoided crossover between the two groups.
However, Marvel Comics did find some foothold among the drug counter culture, with their dramatic heroes and incredible visuals resonating with stoners and hippies. Ironically, the panel agreed, Lee and Ditko (the artist on Dr. Strange) were the last people on the island of Manhattan who would have tried drugs. Lee even once tore a button advocating the legalization of marijuana off of O’Neil’s jacket, informing him that there were things he wouldn’t accept from his employees.
Fingeroth called O’Neil a crossover figure, who largely belonged to the peace movement and bohemia but found mainstream success. O’Neil very much wanted to be a rebel, but, in comics, he saw an opportunity to do that while feeding his family. O’Neil also recalled that he was once urged to spike Stan Lee’s drink with LSD at a bar after work. O’Neil was smart enough to refuse, but the entire panel, audience included, seemed enraptured by the bizarre possibilities of this odd interaction, like some historical issue of What If?
Kitchen was asked about Comix Book an attempt by Marvel to reach out to the underground. The book worked out nicely as the underground comix scene was in the middle of the crash of 73, a combination of factors that severely hurt the head shop sales. Lee offered Marvel’s distribution networks in exchange for allowing the creators to retain possession of their artwork and their ownership of the IP. The result was a magazine with an underground spirit, that just happened to avoid the swearing and nudity that would have gotten Marvel in trouble. Comix Book worked out surprisingly well as the push and pull between the indie creators and Marvel managed to slip some quality content into the book and got a lot of great underground artists paid and noticed in a way that had never been possible before. Unfortunately, the mainline Marvel creators were not happy with the concessions that Lee had made to make Comix Book happen and he decided to pull the plug before it strained relations further. The series ended after only three issues, but it made a huge difference in the lives of the indie artists who contributed.
Another questioner asked about how comics evolved from an art form that was targeted squarely at children to one that is almost exclusively appropriate for adults. Levitz wasn’t sure that the premise held up anymore, citing the incredible sales of Reina Telgemeier’s graphic novels and the revitalization of the young reader graphic novel that it represents. Everywhere else in the world with a strong comics culture, Levitz noted, produces much more diverse comics, in terms of age and genre. That’s a trend that’s going to need to be adopted more and more by the American comics industry. Of course, there are books that are too explicit in some way for Levitz, but he simply answered that he shouldn’t care for every book being published and that’s ok.