Ageism And Discrimination In Comic Books, or… Whatever Happened to Frank Springer?
AGEISM AND DISCRIMINATION IN COMIC BOOKS, or… WHATEVER HAPPENED TO FRANK SPRINGER?
Does ageism and discrimination exist in comic books today? You decide.
Frank Springer is not only a good guy; he’s a very talented artist. During his long career he provided more work than you’re ever likely to know about as he ghosted for more than one person on various strips and books. He drew, uncredited, strips such as The Heart Of Juliet Jones, The Phantom, Friday Foster and many more. He began work as an assistant to the late George Wundar on the legendary Terry And The Pirates strip. Natural progression saw his career go from newspaper strips into comic books, first at Dell comics in the 1960s where he both pencilled and inked various books, then to DC and Marvel. Along the way Springer was paired with Frank Robbins to create one of the most unique art teams of the 1970s, bringing a Milton Caniff feel to titles such as The Invaders. At Marvel alone Springer inked artists such as Howard Chaykin, the Buscema brothers; John and Sal, John Romita, virtually the entire Marvel roster and also inked Frank Miller’s first ever Daredevil stories (appearing in Spectacular Spider-Man). At DC he inked a who’s who of artists, from Curt Swan and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez on down. He also pencilled a number of stories at both companies. Frank Springer never missed a deadline and his work was always of high quality, he never handed in a sub-standard job. He did the best possible job on everything he did. In short Frank Springer was the consummate professional artist. So why isn’t Frank Springer still working in comic books?
Clearly he’s not dead. He’s also not infirm. Indeed he now dabbles in oil painting and is producing gallery standard work that is featured in magazines such as Sports Illustrated. His mind is still very sharp. He didn’t move away and not tell anyone where he went. So what happened?
I interviewed Frank on his 78th birthday and towards the end of the interview I asked him outright, what happened? “You were going along great guns,” I said, “and then you just kind of vanished. Did you retire?” Frank didn’t miss a beat with his reply, “I think that they were going on a youth movement,” he replied. “When Stan Lee was there at Marvel, if Stan wanted you, you worked and if Stan didn’t want you, you didn’t work. When Stan went to the West Coast and left the day to day editing thing there a lot of individual editors hired people who some of us old timers didn’t think could really cut it, but that’s what they did. I know some artists at the time, better than I was who could also not find work. Fortunately I had some other accounts so that wasn’t a huge problem with me, but gradually the comic work did disappear and they used younger artists, figuring the younger artists would get along better with their young clientele and so on. I don’t think that improved things, but that’s what happens. It was a similar thing at DC. I didn’t press it. When they didn’t call me I didn’t call them.”1
Franks reply didn’t shock me in the slightest. I told Frank that I’d heard it before from many artists over the age of 40. Frank also told me that he knew the end was near when his good friend, Don Heck, was also involuntarily ‘retired’ from the comic book industry. Luckily Frank Springer had other, better paying accounts to fall back on. He wasn’t reliant on his comic book work and had no emotional attachment to the characters, so he just moved on, as he’d done throughout his long and illustrious career. It’s a common mantra and most editors will tell you that taste changes and that, and only that, is the reason why artists suddenly find they’re no longer given work. There is a common thread throughout this mantra, virtually all the artists are 40 or over. Changing tastes never claims anyone under the age of 30. An article written for 1988’s W.A.P. magazine illustrates the mentality of hiring young talent perfectly. Despite being written twenty years ago the contents of this article are still very relevant and could easily fit into today’s current situation. In part it states, “The company execs, no matter how old they or their views may be, would rather identify themselves and their editorial regimes with the young, the new, the different. If you don't have New Ideas, you can at least ballyhoo that you have New Talent... even if the New Talent often just imitates or follows what the Old Talent has done.”2
When asked about why he left the comic book industry veteran inker Mike Esposito replied, “I never really retired; people just didn’t want me anymore. The doors were closed. It was forced retirement; not fired, but not hired.”3 In Mike’s case his page rates were cut when everyone else enjoyed a rise at the company where he worked. Mike was ready for it though; he’d seen it before and had been on the other side. In the late 1950s he and artistic partner, the great Ross Andru, ‘inherited’ Wonder Woman from the aging Harry Peter who was removed from the title for having a ‘dated’ look, art wise. Decades later, in the early 1990s, Hulk artist Herb Trimpe was similarly forced out of Marvel in a very public manner. After being told to draw like Rob Liefeld (with disastrous results), Trimpe was given less and less work until the soul destroying day when his dismissal papers were Fed-Ex’d to him under the guise of it being a script for him to draw. The script turned up at the same time, Trimpe drew it, it never saw print. Then there was the veteran artist who wondered why he had not been given work for months on end. Upon phoning the company he was surprised to learn that an order had been issued to stop sending scripts, art and indeed royalty payments to the artist because he was believed to be dead. That was back in 1989, the artist is still alive today and going strong, but not working in comic books anymore and amazingly enough his career ended right when the company in question declared him deceased. After his amazing ‘resurrection’ the artist found regular work with another company. Over the years I’ve interviewed a lot of artists and have raised this very topic. Jerry Bingham was frank about the reasons why he doesn’t draw comic books anymore. “If you’re not conforming to the house style then a lot of times you’re just pushed out of the loop,” he told me. “I feel really feel sorry for some of these guys, especially those who got pushed out of comics later on in life and had nowhere else to take their talent. Who wants to try out a guy who’s already fifty years old? It’s a too-common story. It’s sad.”4 Bob Hall was also upfront when the topic of ageism in comic books was raised. “Denny O’Neil and I were talking about it the last time I saw him,” he said, “and he told me he was getting a lot of it from people he knew, and he knows a hell of a lot more people than I know, of people who were not even really that old, people in their 40s who were feeling that the editors were so young and, again, it’s pretty common for you not to hire someone a hell of a lot older than you are. So editors were hiring people who they felt were their contemporaries. That’s just always the case and unless you somehow become one of those people who not only feel indispensable but really are, you’re going to have those difficulties.”5 As bad as any of those stories sound, they’re not an aberration. Even Joe Quesada isn’t immune, if you believe his own words. “I know that there will come a day for me, and for every creator, where people lose interest in your work. You lose your voice, whatever that may be. It happens to everybody. It will happen to me, it will happen to the best of us. Essentially, it's Darwinism. It happens, and you just have to move on. If the comic book industry has passed you by, it has passed you by. We need to rely on new, young voices. If we're not hiring people, it's because, traditionally, their styles are not going to sell.” 6
Let me run some names past you. Bob Budiansky, Norm Breyfogle, Jon Bogdanove, Brett Blevins, Bob Hall, Jerry Bingham, Mark Bright, Brett Breeding, Steve Mitchell, Alan Kupperberg, Bob McLeod, Rich Buckler, Dick Ayers, Mike Ploog, Jim Mooney, Alex Saviuk, Al Milgrom, Mark Badger, Paul Ryan, John Beatty, Sam DeLaRosa, Mike Zeck, Michael Netzer, Rick Levins, James Fry, Terry Austin, Josef Rubinsein, Brent Anderson, Pablo Marcos, Dave Hunt, Larry Lieber – this list can go on for pages. They’re all artists who were prominent at both Marvel and DC in the 1970s and ‘80s and who, as near as I can tell, aren’t working for either company anymore. Some have found work with smaller, independent companies; some ply their wares doing commissions and recreations. Some, like Saviuk and Ryan, work in the world of newspaper strips. Others, such as Milgrom, Breyfogle and Austin who, along with veteran DC inker Bob Smith, work for companies such as Archie and First Salvo. And then there are those, like McLeod and Zeck, who appear to have totally given up on comic books due to politics, McLeod now works as an editor for the highly regarded Rough Stuff magazine and teaches, Zeck works in licensing. There are exceptions to any rule, however, and that’s true for this situation as well. Neal Adams, George Perez, Jim Starlin, Frank Miller, John Byrne, Walt Simonson, Joe Kubert and Howard Chaykin appear to always be able to get work, and virtually all of those artists work on their own terms or not at all. So why do some get work and others don’t even get the courtesy of a phone call telling them, officially, that their careers are dead?
I recently had a series of (at times heated) discussions with a senior editor at a major comic book company over this very topic. He was insistent that no-one is ‘let go’ or not given work due to age alone. The excuse given was that, “no-one is owed work by anyone.” The claim that had been put to him was that editors at companies, if faced with hiring an established talent at a set page rate or a newer (read younger) talent just breaking in at a lower rate, will always plump for the cheaper option. It’s not an unreasonable statement to make and from a purely financial stance is both sound and logical. Editors are beholden to the companies they work for to make as much profit as quickly as possible. They have to be efficient, and efficiency often means both saving and making as much money as can be done in order to keep the company in business. Success in both fields ultimately enables the editor to retain their job. Much like the time honoured adage with the movie business, friendships are a liability, as is loyalty to any one person. The editor disagreed, as I said, at times almost with a violence that took me by surprise. “Every artist has to prove with every job that they’re the best guy for the assignment, better than everybody else in the industry and better than all of the young artists clamouring to get into the industry,” I was told, “at no point is anyone considered to be safe.” I replied with the obvious response, how can anyone prove that they’re good enough if they stop getting assignments? There was no answer to that question.
An older artist attempting to gain work in today’s climate will often be asked to submit samples of their work. The problem here is that it’s often seen as an insult to some who’ve worked their lives at various companies and believe that their body of work should speak for itself, for better or for worse. This isn’t a new problem, showing samples has always been the best way to enter the industry, but when you’ve spent eight years drawing a Spider-Man title alone, not to mention the other assignments you picked up along the way, are samples really necessary? The argument here is yes, the editor needs to see if the artist can still cut it. Twenty years ago an unknown artist stated, "It's damned embarrassing, that's what it is. I worked for that company for twenty -odd years, did thousands of pages. And now, when I call up and try to get work, some Editor asks me how to spell my name and tells me to send samples of my work. They tell me my work doesn't sell but when I ask them what does, they show me stuff that is very badly drawn in some cases.”7 It’s amazing that nothing has changed in twenty years since that quote. I recently had an exchange with an artist who spent a good number of years working on a flagship title for one of the Big Two. He won awards and is well respected in the comic book community and industry. Writers have told me that they’d love to work with him (“I thought he retired?” was one question I received, to which I replied, “No, he hasn’t.”) and other artists adore his work. However he can’t buy a job at either of the major companies, despite his many years of producing high quality work and some of the best sales figures seen in ages. He’s been asked to submit samples, despite his working constantly for smaller companies in recent years. When I mentioned to an editor that an artists work was featured in books at the stores now and as such all he had to do was buy a copy, I was told, “No, he (the artist) has to send me samples (my emphasis).” It almost felt as if I were assaulting the editor’s intellect by daring suggest that he go and source a book from another company showcasing the artists work. However the artist did take this as an insult and has now all but given up doing any work for either of the major companies. I wonder what the reply would be if the editor in question was asked to submit samples to retain his job.
It’s the age old argument, you can’t have the job as you don’t have any recent experience, but you can’t get any experience without the job. Thus an artist who hasn’t worked at a major company for, let’s say five years, will find it near impossible to break back in. Editors will leave and each new editor coming in seems more determined to discover the next Jim Lee than they are hiring established talent. Also, if an editor gives a break to a younger talent, then they can establish a relationship with the artist, thus hopefully securing their job (“If you sack me then I’ll take Johnny Sixpack with me!”). During my discussions with the editor in question a comment really leapt out to me, “This industry is littered with the bodies of people who once worked in it, but were kicked to the curb at some point (editors as well as artists and writers).” I’m not sure about you, but to me that’s a cold statement, and as close to the truth I think anyone can get. What the editor could have said is that the industry is lettered with the bodies of people who once worked in it, but were kicked to the curb due to an inability or unwillingness to play the political game successfully. For a lot of people, in this day and age, a kind of unrelated nepotism exists in the industry, call it cronyism if you will, but it comes down to who knows you and who likes you. You can be one of the worst artists that ever picked up a pencil, but if you’ve kept your nose tanned then you’ll always be in work. Again, this isn’t anything new. People have often wondered how an artist like Vinnie Colletta managed to get as much work at Marvel in the 1980s as he did. Other than he appears to have never missed a deadline in his life (good or bad, his work was always on time) he was also a close personal friend (and supporter of) former Marvel Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter. It’s now a well known fact that once Shooter was ousted from Marvel, Colletta followed shortly after.
Keeping the books fresh and an issue with reliability are other arguments that you’ll hear. The classic examples used in recent times are the return of Peter David to the Hulk and John Byrne to the X-Men. David had been removed previously, Byrne had written and often drawn the X-Men throughout his career but hadn’t done a regular run on any X-Title as an artist since he left Uncanny X-Men in the early 1980s. In both cases Marvel have claimed that sales actually went down with the return of the creators, something I do find hard to swallow, but then they have the sales reports to back it up. But why does one project sell more than another, and would a new artist sell more copies of Batman than Neal Adams? “There's the fact that almost anyone sells if they're hyped enough,” said Norm Breyfogle when asked this very question, “I've always maintained that the ethical path for a comics company is to consciously hype the best talent. It's obvious that Marvel and DC only very inconsistently do this.”8 Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers were originally signed up to create two six issue mini-series for DC. The first mini-series was hyped as the triumphant return to Batman by the legendary creative team (totally ignoring that both men had linked up previously for a story arc on the Legend Of The Dark Knight title). However when the sales on the first mini-series came in under what was expected the second series was put on indefinite hold. Sales are a factor, which brings me back to a previous point, editors and publishers exist to ensure profit rules over anything else, including creativity. Having said that, without creativity profit might well fade, but what excuse can be given for DC asking Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle to submit a Batman proposal only to reject it outright (which happened as recently as 2007, a proposal that Grant later told me was the strongest Batman story he’d had in years 9)? It can’t be sales or a fading popularity as sales were at an all time high when Grant, Breyfogle and Mitchell were the creative team on Batman, and there’s been sustained support and calls for Grant and Breyfogle to return to Batman since the last time the duo worked on the character, the one shot Batman: Dreamland, published in 2000. Oddly enough Breyfogle is 47 years old, Grant is 58. And remember, Herb Trimpe was selling over 500,000 copies of the Hulk when he worked on it and that didn't stop Marvel from throwing him out like an old tube of Crest. When you reach a certain point in time, a certain age, sales mean nothing. Like anything a publisher can reach into the past to use what they want, when they want, for whatever benefit they can get.
So is it ageism or discrimination? It smacks of both to most outside observers and also to a lot of insiders. There are those who insist that the removal of an artists ability to work in their chosen field has nothing to do with age, it’s down to taste, personality, the ability to hustle successfully for a job or a willingness to engage in politics. Luckily there are schemes set up to assist comic book creators who find themselves out of work for extended periods of time and in need of money, but age shouldn’t prevent a person from being hired.
Is it a case of changing trends and taste? Possibly. Consider though that a number of artists would be more than willing to evolve and change their styles if given the chance, but those chances are rarely given. Taste is a subjective thing and largely dictated by the companies themselves, via their editors. A person sitting at a desk will decide what people want to read and act accordingly. A friend of mine recently commented that, “Mainstream comics producers seem to be obsessed with capturing some elusive youth demographic, to the exclusion of all others, which ignores who buys most of their stuff (not necessarily youths) and what most youths buy (not necessarily comics).”
Is it a case of reliability? Reliability can be a curse for some artists. Some can hit their deadlines each and every time; others can’t manage to no matter the incentive. An editor will claim that some artists are denied work due to issues with reliability; again, a publisher is in the business to make as much money as possible. It doesn’t make any sense to hire an artist (or a writer) that cannot produce work to a deadline. With Marvel, at least, this argument appears to be null and void to a degree. Marvel has a recent history of naming and shaming those who fail to produce work to deadline. While this appears to be a sound practice on the surface, consider that the company is very selective with whom they name and shame. The artist who worked on the relaunched Daredevil series managed to produce twelve issues of a regular, monthly, comic book between December 1998 and May 2000. The same artist then went to launch the title Daredevil: Father, as a six issue mini series in 2004. This series was concluded in 2007. The artist still gets work and is actively employed at Marvel currently, in the capacity of Editor-In-Chief. Still, it’s no use at all blaming the EIC for the current policies. Ageism and discrimination against creators begins at the entry level, editor wise. Most EICs will remove themselves from the drudgery of day-to-day comic books (unless they’re working on a title) and don’t hire, or really fire, the talent. However when an editor at that company denies a creator work and uses reliability and a concern for a failure to meet deadlines as an excuse, more than likely it’s merely a smokescreen of an excuse as concessions are routinely given. Taking three years to produce a six issue mini-series would be enough to have any other artist removed from the project entirely.
Why is more not said publicly? Is there a blacklist against creators who speak out against such practices? I can answer that only with a response that I received from an artist who I’d contacted about this very topic. “Look, I know why I don’t get work,” he wrote, “it’s because I’m 55 years old and they want young guys. They’re cheaper.” I asked would he go on record only to be told, “No. You can use the quote but don’t attribute it to me, because someone might read it and then I’ll definitely never get work. As it is if I’m quiet then someone might relent and hire me, eventually.” The fear of total removal from the comic book industry I’m sure has more than one person living in a minor state of uncertainty about who to speak to. I’m not convinced that an official blacklist exists, alternately no-one can convince me other than that an unofficial blacklist not only exists but is utilised when decisions are made as to who to hire for a job. Again, it’s an age old problem, if you blow the whistle, or speak out publicly, then be ready to never work again because you’re going to upset someone along the line. This is why creators are prepared to speak about these topics, ageism and blacklisting, but will not allow attribution to their comments or observations. However some people are prepared to speak, probably because they believe that they no longer have anything to lose as their comic book careers are all but officially finished. Steve Mitchell recently told me, on the record, “When I got into the business I was always told that if you did your job well, on time, and you sort of lived up to your end of the bargain, their end of the bargain was you were part of the business and the business would then take care of you. It was said, sort of in those words to me by a couple of editors back in the day, but never like officially stated.”10 Eventually Mitchell was also let go. “Nobody wanted to give me work,” he said, “it was kind of like you would get fired off a regular book and it was in essence a pink slip from the company and the business.”
Comic books are supposed to be a happy medium, for the most part, and creators are interchangeable. Batman exists not because Bob Kane and Bill Finger wrote and drew the character in 1939, but because of all those who have come since. Ask young people who created Batman today and they’re likely to say Jim Lee or Frank Miller (for better or worse). That’s the way of the world. However in my time I’ve come across more than one artist who is convinced that they’re on a blacklist for whatever crime that they’ve committed against the industry, or the people within.
Are any of the artists I’ve mentioned, and the numerous others I’ve not mentioned, any good? It does depend on taste, but give me a Dick Ayers Sgt Fury any day. Give me a Breyfogle Batman, with or without Steve Mitchell. Steve Leialoha’s art still excites me. However some artists have given into the inevitable and gone into full time retirement as they know that the phone will never ring. Regardless I seriously doubt we’ll be seeing any of them in the near future, if at all, displaying their talents on anything published by Marvel or DC outside of reprints. The best advice I’d give to anyone breaking into comic books today is to make as much money as fast as possible and to make very wise investments, because when you reach that certain point in your life, the work will vanish, unless you are the next Neal Adams or Jim Lee. Completely. And you’ll be the one wondering why the phone not only doesn’t ring, but it doesn’t answer at the other end when you make the call.
1 Interview with Frank Springer, 06/12/2007
2 ‘Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me?’ W.A.P. Issue #4, July 1988, editors Frank Miller, Steven Grant, Steven Gerber
3 Partners For Life; Mike Esposito/Daniel Best, 2007 Hermes Press
4 Interview with Jerry Bingham, January 2005
5 Interview with Bob Hall, 30/01/2004
6 Darwinism In Comics by Lee Nordling, Silver Bullet Comics.com
7 ‘Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me?’ W.A.P. Issue #4, July 1988, editors Frank Miller, Steven Grant, Steven Gerber
8 Email from Norm Breyfogle, 09/12/2007
9 Email from Alan Grant, January 2007
10 Interview with Steve Mitchell, July 2007