Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Amalgamated Madness

February, 1996 was very special for comics fanboys (and fangirls). It was the month when DC Versus Marvel, a four-issue weekly series co-produced by the two rival publishers appeared, pitting the greatest heroes against one another with some of the battles being determined by the votes of the readers.

What the fanboys did not know was the surprise planned for the week between issue #s 3 and 4, that for the week of February 28th, DC and Marvel would cease to exist and be replaced by Amalgam Comics. This hybrid company would issue twelve titles that week, and as part of the gag, everyone would pretend that Amalgam had been in business since the dawn of comics.

Despite the fact that this effort would involved dozens of staff members and freelancers, the powers-that-be were determined to keep it a secret. I don't know how it was handled at Marvel, but at DC it meant that any information involving Amalgam Week was dispensed on a "need-to-know" basis.

And that is where the trouble began.

Since the premise of Amalgam Week was that DC and Marvel did not exist, there could be no house ads for the individual companies' books in the Amalgam titles. "Not a problem," said our advertising director, certain that he could sell all the ad space to paying customers.

Well, it was a problem, presumably because he couldn't tell any of the potential advertisers what the big surprise was going to be. Much of the ad space remained unsold.

In a "normal" week, any unsold ad pages would be filled with house ads for DC books. These were generated on a regular basis and would be slotted in as needed. Which is exactly what happened with the Amalgam books because the people setting up the ad schedules were not on the "need-to-know" list and were unaware of the potential problem.

But the problem should have been caught because the ad schedules had to be signed off on by the ad director, the marketing director, and the editorial director, all of whom were in on the secret. For whatever reasons, none of the three actually reviewed the schedules. In each case, it was an assistant that reviewed and okayed them... and, in each case, the assistant was not aware of the Amalgam gimmick.

This "perfect storm" doesn't stop there.

Before a book goes on the press, a set of blueprint proofs are sent from the printer to be reviewed and okayed. Usually, these would be delivered to the production department and distributed to the appropriate editors who would make sure the story pages were in the proper order, etc. Someone in production would then check the ad pages against the schedule to make sure they were also correct and the proofs would be sent back to the printer.

The Amalgam books, because they had been shoehorned into the regular schedules of the writers and artists, were running very late. The film separations arrived that the printer over the weekend. The proofs were generated and would have been delivered to DC that Monday morning for an instant turnaround. But, as fate would have it, Monday was Presidents Day, so the office was closed. (Not the case at the printer in Canada, however.) To solve this dilemma, it was decided that the proofs would be FedExed to the individual editors, who would review them, call in any corrections directly to the printer's rep, and FedEx the proofs back the same day.

Well, six different DC editors reviewed proofs and not one of them said anything about there being DC house ads in them. (Two later denied that there had been any ads in the proofs they looked at, despite the fact that their signatures are on them.) Whatever the level of "need-to-know" secrecy was deemed necessary to be in on it, you know these guys had to have it.

And so the books got printed with DC house ads in them.

Printed samples arrived in the office a couple of days later and, as with all samples, copies landed on my desk. As I had been away on vacation the previous week and hadn't seen most of the finished stories (and, frankly, being a fanboy at heart), I was especially interested in looking at them. I was told that they heard me yell "Holy $#!+" at the other end of the hall.

After a couple of in-house calls to advise the powers-that-be, I was on the phone with the printer to find out the status of the six books. Then, in a quickly convened meeting, it was determined that we would have to reprint the books on a crash schedule using a cobbled-together collection of paid ads, arrange special shipping to the distributor so they would be able to make the delivery date, and trash everything that had already been produced.

Needless to say, the cost of doing this was astronomical, but it was done and the books came out on schedule, with the readers being none the wiser.

In the DC offices, however, there was plenty of finger-pointing as to who should have caught the error and when. At least one person lost his job as a result and a number of others were chastised for allowing it to happen. A meeting was held to set up procedures so that it would not happen again, but what was never addressed was the fact that the decision to keep Amalgam a secret from the staff was ultimately to blame.

As it turned out, the Amalgam mess was only the tip of the iceberg. There were so many other mistakes, many of them resulting in more shredding and reprinting, that we started referring to 1996 as "The Year of Being Stupid."

As the saying goes, "You ain't seen nothing yet!"


One postscript to Amalgam: A couple of weeks later, I had lunch with Gene and Alison, my Production Director counterparts from Marvel, and we were discussing what had happened. "You realize," said Gene after listening to the story, "that if we had made that mistake, we would have called you up and said, 'Oops, sorry!' and let it go."


  1. Wow, that was a problem and a half. Maybe that had to do with the nature of any later DC/Marvel crossovers?

    I mean, come on - DC published "All Access Comics", redoes Superman and Spider-Man, and has an EXTRA LARGE issue with the JLA vs. the X-Men - and there was barely a peep about it!

    And personally, I wasn't happy about some of the internal consistency of the Amalgam books. Some characters/situations seemed to get handled doubly - and not so well at that.

    I'm curious - was there any consideration with DC contacting Marvel about this and asking them to insert house ads? If the Marvel books hadn't gone to production by that time, maybe that would have been a little easier.

    I remain,
    Eric L. Sofer
    The Silver Age Fogey

  2. The Marvel books, as I recall, had already been printed. In any case, calling them and saying, "We screwed up." was not something the powers-that-be would have even considered. If anything, they were hoping Marvel would not find out what happened.

  3. One of my favorite books is "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman," the memoirs of noted physicist Richard Feynman. In one chapter ("Los Alamos From Below"), he describes his time working on the Manhattan Project. The Army had everything on a strict need-to-know basis. As a result, a large quantity of uranium nitrate solution (dangerously radioactive, and explosive above a certain critical mass) was being carelessly stored in glass carboys. The physicists gave the Army officers an ultimatum, that they could not continue working unless all the personnel were fully informed about what was going on. The officers reluctantly agreed, and the informed cooperation of the workers helped the project move along much more efficiently.

    I just kept remembering that as I was reading this. Of course, the possible consequences weren't quite on the same scale, but still...