13 Instances in Which Comic Writers and Artists Inserted Potshots, Playful or Otherwise, at Marvel Management or Each Other
1. “The opportunistic spoiler without character or values, who preys on all things like a cannibal!!!” (Mister Miracle #6, 01-02/72)
For all the fist-flying action that Marvel has delivered over the years, those fight scenes are nothing compared to some of the feuds that happened behind the scenes. And when creative types clash, you can bet some of that anger will show up in their work in interesting ways. Take Jack Kirby, long recognized by comic fans as co-creator of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and a whole lot more. Kirby left Marvel in 1970 feeling underpaid and unappreciated for the sizable profits his work had earned for Marvel, but he held a particular grudge against Stan Lee, whom he felt took more credit for creating Marvel’s heroes than he deserved. How do we know Kirby harbored hard feelings for his ex-partner? In an issue of Mister Miracle, one of the books Kirby wrote and drew for DC after leaving Marvel, he introduced Funky Flashman, a smooth-talking, alliteration-spouting, in-love-with-his-voice con artist who tries to cash in on Mister Miracle’s talents. The resemblance to Lee (balding, bearded, perpetually grinning) was more than a little obvious, to say nothing of the decision to give him a simpering sidekick named “Houseroy” (after Roy Thomas, Lee’s right-hand man and successor as Marvel’s editor-in-chief). Publicly, Lee laughed off the obvious caricature — but there’s a reason why he’s sported just a mustache ever since.
2. “What I wish…is! Such genius conquers all!” (Star*Reach #1, 04/74)
During his time as editor-in-chief, Lee credited his books’ success to “the illusion of change” — inserting drama and excitement into the heroes’ lives, but always making sure they return to their status quo by the end of the tale (thereby preserving the characters’ value as licensed properties). A lot of the newer writers/artists that came on board in the late ’60s and ’70s chafed under the “nothing ever changes” edict, perhaps none more so than Jim Starlin. One of the rising young stars of Marvel’s bullpen in the early ’70s, he was growing disillusioned with his job when an old writing partner who had moved to California called him up and offered him the chance to contribute to an independently published book. In “Death Building,” an artist enters a foreboding New York skyscraper, drops acid as he rides the elevator, and beheads a cloaked figure of Death as he proclaims himself “a being of imagination” whose “genius conquers all.” But alas, the artist is killed by the fake Death’s final act, and another — “My name is Starlin, Jim Starlin!” — shows up at the end of the story, ready to repeat the process, in an endless cycle. You don’t have to be Fellini to figure out the symbolism.
3. “I want nothing to do with a world populated by clowns that waste their lives building towers of rubbish!” (Strange Tales #181, 08/75)
As a member of the first generation that grew up with Marvel’s early Silver Age stories, Starlin came on board eager to put his own stamp on the company’s characters. When he inherited Warlock, a cosmic Christ figure, he inserted some subtle commentary on organized religion into his stories… but it wasn’t long until Marvel’s restrictive house style gave Starlin another form of authority to rebel against. In this trippy issue, Warlock is confronted on a Ditko-esque plane of reality by a pair of literal clowns named Lentean and Jan Hatroomi; stare at the names long enough and you’ll get it (hint: Stan Lee, John Romita). At one point, Warlock watches as Lentean’s minions build swaying towers of trash, then finds a diamond when one of the towers collapses atop the perpetually trash-piling clowns. “Oh, that stuff! We can’t seem to keep it out of our refuse!” Lentean says. “Someone keeps putting it in while we’re not looking!” To the average reader, it was all just more of the wild and crazy “cosmic” stuff readers had come to expect from a mid-’70s Marvel comic… but it wasn’t too hard for those in the know to figure out what Starlin was really talking about.
4. “I’m a New Yorker. Who learns to drive in Manhattan?” (The Amazing Spider-Man #126, 11/73)
When a toy company approached Marvel in the early ’70s about a licensing deal to sell Spider-Man cars, Lee ordered Amazing Spider-Man writer Gerry Conway to promote the deal by putting a Spider-Mobile into the book. As you can imagine, Conway thought the idea was ludicrous: why would a hero who can swing through the air on his webs choose to fight New York traffic in a car? With no choice but to go along, Conway clearly decided to have some fun with it, first by having the oily advertisers bear an uncanny resemblance to Lee and Thomas, and then by placing Marvel’s actual street address on their business card. Later, when the licensing deal was done, writer Len Wein dispatched the Spider-Mobile in the most humiliating ways possible, dumping it in the Hudson River and then turning it into a remote-controlled death trap targeting our hero. Spidey won the day and left the car’s remains webbed up outside the advertisers’ window. No one has thought of bringing it back since.
5. “I am leaving because this is no longer the team-spirited ‘one big happy family’ I once loved working for.” (Iron Man #127, 10/79)
Jim Shooter’s ascension as editor-in-chief in 1978 had a definite impact on Marvel’s operations; almost immediately, he overhauled the editorial division by hiring, firing and reassigning people as he saw fit, all in the name of bringing more efficiency to the operation. From his perspective, his job was to instill the discipline needed to get the books out to the printers on time… but not everyone on staff welcomed his approach, especially when his emphasis on formula clashed with the writers’ ideas for the books. When Dave Cockrum, on staff as a cover designer, decided to quit, he sent a blunt letter to Lee explaining why he was leaving… a letter that somehow ended up reprinted in a story (with a few judicious changes) in which the Avengers’ butler tenders his own resignation to Tony Stark. (A note from the editor in a future issue apologized for the mix-up but declined to explain where the wrong resignation letter came from.) Was it a swipe at Cockrum? A middle finger at Shooter’s style of leadership? A playful prank that went too far? Hard to say, but one thing’s for sure: no one would mistake Marvel for “one big happy family” after a stunt like that.
6. “They’re thugs, Duke…! Gangsters with expense accounts!” (Destroyer Duck #1, 05/82)
To be honest, finding the potshots against Marvel in this story from the first issue of Eclipse’s Destroyer Duck is kind of like pointing out the Christ imagery in The Passion of the Christ; the whole point of the exercise was to take shots at Marvel and its corporate tactics. Some background: Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber left Marvel in the late ’70s over a dispute concerning ownership rights, and he published this comic to raise money for a lawsuit that he brought against Marvel. Kirby — who had his own reasons for sticking it to his former employer — happily jumped on board. The two of them concocted a tale about Duke “Destroyer” Duck swearing revenge for his “little buddy,” who was mysteriously sucked into “another space-time continuum” and abused and humiliated in a world run by “pink primates.” Gerber and Kirby carefully avoided mentioning Howard by name to avoid any further lawsuits, but it was pretty obvious who the “little guy” duck was meant to be, and which company “Entertainment Concepts, a division of GodCorp” was standing in for.
7. “Make me rewrite my scripts, will you? Purveyors of pablum! Take that!” (Secret Wars II #1, 00/85)
In the first issue of Shooter’s Secret Wars II, readers met Stewart Cadwall, a Hollywood screenwriter who hypocritically rails against the “mindless zombies” and the studios that pay for his very comfortable, McBurger-fueled lifestyle. Attracting the attention of the omnipotent Beyonder, Cadwall is transformed into a being with enough power to destroy a good portion of Los Angeles, including the studio that employed him (much to his chagrin when his powers go away). Shooter later confirmed Cadwall was intended as a parody of Gerber, who ended up working in TV animation after he left Marvel (“Cadwall” rhymes with “gadwall,” a type of duck). It was, Shooter insisted, just a way of poking fun at Gerber, who apparently saw the humor in it and wrote a letter to Shooter saying as much. “Later, when things got contentious between Steve and Marvel again, his lawyers rattled their sabers about my lampooning Steve,” Shooter wrote on his blog in 2011. “We showed them Steve’s letter and that ended that.”
8. “From this day forward I will show you all how power is meant to be used! I will remake this sorry world in my own image!” (Legends #5, 03/87)
Shooter’s time as editor-in-chief (1978-87) is regarded by many as one of the company’s most creatively fertile periods, but his autocratic (some would say micro-managing) style of leadership and insistence on following a formula didn’t win him a lot of friends among the creative staff. In fact, quite a few big names left Marvel in a huff during Shooter’s tenure, including John Byrne, who made a big impression on readers of Uncanny X-Men, Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight before jumping ship to tackle a revamped Superman for DC. While there, Byrne also found time to write and pencil DC’s Legends mini-series, which featured this scene between Guy Gardner and a hapless super-villain who shoots himself in the foot (subtle!) while trying to escape. The megalomania (“Don’t you know who I am — what I am?!?”) and physical resemblance to Shooter could have been just coincidence, but the “Sunspot” name and the “power to create a new universe” line are obvious digs at Shooter and his critically ravaged “New Universe” line of comics (including one titled Star Brand, a book about a hero with a mark on his hand who is very similar to this sorry excuse for a villain). Any job where you get to draw your old boss looking like that can’t be a bad gig.
9. “I’ll try, but it might take a better man than me to straighten out this mess!” (Fantastic Four #333, 11/89)
Steve Englehart took over scripting chores for Fantastic Four in the late 1980s, and while his tenure on the title isn’t remembered as one of the title’s high points, he deserves credit for trying to shake things up, mainly in the form of changing up the team’s roster (Reed and Susan Richards were replaced by newer members) and bringing in new threats for the team to deal with. But not long after he took over the title, changes in Marvel’s upper management meant changes in the direction the company wanted the book to go. First, he was asked to drop characters and storylines deemed too “out there” for the team, then he was ordered to bring Reed and Susan back to the book and take it back to the look and feel of the Lee/Kirby days (“the illusion of change,” etc.). Englehart registered his protest by going under the pseudonym “John Harkness” for the remainder of his time on the title, and by coming up with a storyline that screamed, “Fine. You want to just copy the classic Lee/Kirby characters? I’ll GIVE you the classic Lee/Kirby characters!” In a nutshell, the “real” FF team is forced into a dreamlike state by an alien interloper while a fake FF team (looking exactly like the original team) go around causing trouble in the real world. In the end, the evil doubles are vanquished and young Franklin heads to Oakland, Calif., to ask the writer of the FF book within the Marvel universe (who looks a lot like Englehart) to “write a comic to let everyone know my daddy’s really a good guy.” You can see “Harkness’s” response above.
10. “Cruz swipes again!” (Uncanny X-Men #325, 10/95)
“Swiping” in the comics business means the same thing it does everywhere else, the only difference being the thing being swiped is another artist’s layouts. It was a common practice in the old days when artists were under a lot of pressure to pump out pages, and back then nobody cared too much if, say, a speeding car drawn by Batman artist Bob Kane (a notorious swiper) looked exactly the same as a speeding car drawn by another artist. These days, though, that kind of thing can get an artist in trouble with fans who tend to be very protective of their favorite artists. Joe Madureira, the penciller on Uncanny X-Men in the mid-’90s, attracted a lot of attention with his manga-influenced artwork… and it wasn’t long before fans noticed a lot of similarities between his layouts and those of Roger Cruz, another young artist whose artwork was discussed frequently on the (now defunct) Swipe of the Week website. (For his part, Cruz says he taught himself to draw primarily by copying pencillers like Madureira and Jim Lee; he’s gotten a lot better since.) Looking at the evidence, it’s pretty easy to see how Madureira might have felt Cruz was swiping his work, even if Cruz wasn’t doing it intentionally, and Madureira got a small measure of revenge by way of a newspaper headline held up by a background character proclaiming “CRUZ SWIPES AGAIN.”
11. “Its long-term integrity would suffer under corporate connivers like you…” (Spider-Man Unlimited #14, 12/96)
In one 1996 issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker arrives at the Daily Bugle to learn he’s among the hundred or so employees receiving layoff notices; in the above scene from Spider-Man Unlimited, J. Jonah Jameson is approached by a businessman who says the Bugle’s financial woes could be solved by taking his company public — a suggestion that Jameson angrily shoots down for the reasons expressed here. The U.S. economy was humming along nicely in 1996 and the still-in-its-infancy Internet was in no position to threaten the old-school media companies, so why did Spider-Man’s writers decide to put the financial struggles of a major metropolitan newspaper in their stories? Most likely, it was a case of “writing what you know” — by mid-1996, Marvel’s financial woes were no secret to its employees. After several rounds of layoffs gutted the staff, the only-recently-gone-public Marvel posted losses of $400 million in the fourth quarter of 1996, around the same time it filed for Chapter 11 protection — not too long after Marvel’s own IPO. In light of that, it’s hard not to see Jameson’s reaction above as direct jab at the corporate raiders who inflated Marvel’s paper value and brought it to the brink of bankruptcy — just as it’s hard not to see Jameson speaking on behalf of every Marvel staffer who got stiffed by the money guys in charge.
12. “Good riddance to bad rubbish” (Universe X: Spidey #1, 01/2001)
Bob Harras was Marvel’s editor-in-chief from 1995 to 2000 — not exactly banner years for the House of Ideas. While the lawyers and business tycoons fought over who got to own Marvel in a nasty public battle, the creative staff saw title cancellations, mass layoffs and circulation numbers on top-selling titles like The Amazing Spider-Man drop by as much as 50 per cent — hardly good news at a time when Marvel was trying desperately to get its characters made into movies. Opinions vary on how well Harras dealt with the changing and challenging times — his conceding ground to the marketing people, turning what was intended to be a four-month “Spider-Clone” crossover into a two-year-long morass that nearly sunk the character, certainly didn’t help matters — but we can guess his replacement by Joe Quesada was approved by at least one Marvel staffer. In this alternate-universe Spider-Man book, artist Al Milgrom hid a nasty message about Harras in the background of one panel, using titles on book spines to spell out a harsh farewell note to the exiting EIC. The comic was printed, sent out to retailers and instantly recalled when someone spotted the hidden farewell message; Milgrom was fired and quietly rehired a few weeks later.
13. “If Edison’s experiments had worked out as badly as this one, I’d be penning this letter by gaslight.” (Howard the Duck #16, 09/77)
Finally, the rarest of potshots: a writer using a story to take a potshot at… himself. Steve Gerber will always be remembered for the absurdity he put into every one of his stories, but sometimes that absurdity was born out of desperation. At one point in 1977, Gerber was writing a monthly Howard book, a syndicated Howard newspaper strip, and a Howard annual, on top of packing up his life and moving from New York to Las Vegas. This issue, written as Gerber drove cross-country, was 17 pages of illustrations surrounded by thousands of words of typewritten text, mostly talking about the difficulties he faced meeting his deadlines. There are imaginary conversations between Gerber and Howard; a critique on the ubiquity of “BRAIN-BUSTING BATTLE SCENES” in comics using an ostrich, a chorus girl, and a lamp as combatants in a street fight; and a short story about domestic life, followed by a self-loathing critique of that story in the form of a classroom discussion led by Howard in professorial garb. At the end of the book, Gerber sends himself a fan letter, offering praise for the willingness to innovate but also criticizing the “self-conscious self-effacement” in the story: “Okay, so maybe you’ll never grow up to be another Tom Robbins or Thomas Pynchon… your material may always consist more of invective than inventiveness… but that’s no reason to see yourself as a tree that can’t take root! Come on, Gerber! Get with it!” It was overly long, it was too self-indulgent, it was wholly pessimistic — and Gerber berated himself for it before anyone else got the chance. As an old Marvel cover blurb would have put it: “Was it madness, was it genius or… was it both??”