The last few days have been a swirl of controversy for Marvel Comics and artist Ardian Syaf. “X-Men Gold” #1, illustrated by Syaf, included various numbers and letters in the art that were references to a controversy in Syaf’s home country of Indonesia involving the Christian Governor of Jakarta, who claimed that his opponents were misusing a verse from the Quran to argue that people should not vote for a Christian as their Governor.
Most prominently in the comic were references to the Quran verse in question, Quran Surah 5:51, which Syaf drew on Colossus’ t-shirt. In response to the outpouring of anger against his actions, Syaf has released a statement stating, “My career is over.”
While free speech protections certainly protect Marvel from incurring any actual legal liability from Syaf’s actions, it is clear that major publishers are not interested in dealing with artists who sneak in political messages into their comics like this, especially when done in such a way that the editors of the issue would be hard-pressed to even get what he was referring to. The inclusion of “212” as a reference to the December 2 protests against the Jakarta Governor, is a good example. As the number is also the area code for New York City, and the X-Men live in New York, it would be very difficult for anyone to see it and say, “Oh, that must be a reference to a protest in Indonesia — that I didn’t know happened.” So Syaf might be accurate when he says that his career is over.
If so, it would not be a matter of Marvel Comics actually “firing” him, since Syaf was a freelancer who Marvel just contracted for a certain amount of issues of “X-Men: Gold.” They terminated his contract, but he was always an independent contractor and not a Marvel employee (unlike other artists who have signed Exclusive deals with Marvel or DC Comics. Syaf had previously worked for DC under an Exclusive deal. These artists are more like employees, as they receive employment benefits like health care from Marvel and DC like any other staffer).
Since most artists are freelancers, you very rarely have an instance of someone being actually fired over the use of hidden messages, especially since very rarely are hidden messages quite this controversial. Ethan Van Sciver trying to sneak the word “sex” into every page of an issue of “New X-Men,” for example, is a lot different than political protests. If the company is mad at them, they just won’t give them more work rather than “firing” them.
However, there is at least one other Marvel creator who actually was fired over a hidden message he put into a comic book.
Al Milgrom was a longtime Marvel staffer when “Universe X: Spidey” #1 was released in 2001. He had been an editor for a number of years (he famously edited “Marvel Fanfare” in the 1980s), as well as a writer and penciler, but he was best known for his work as an inker (he was part of Jim Starlin’s legendary “Warlock” run as Starlin’s inker on the series). By 2001, Milgrom had long stopped working in editorial, but he had a contract with Marvel for a staff inking job. He was one of three inkers on the “Universe X: Spidey” one-shot, working over Jackson Guice’s pencils (it was Milgrom, John Romita and John Stanisci).
On one of the pages, there was a bookcase in the background (this is from the corrected edition)…
On the bookcase, Milgrom surreptiously wrote a message along the spines of the books. It read, “Harras, ha ha, he’s gone! Good riddance to bad rubbish, he was a nasty S.O.B.”
This was a reference to Bob Harras, who had recently been terminated from his job as Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, a position he had held since 1995 following a long run as the editor of the “X-Men” titles and a brief stint of one of five “co-Editors-in-Chief” that Marvel tried in 1994.
Amusingly enough, Milgrom’s actions had actually been caught and erased by his editor, but when the files had been reverted to use an earlier color scheme, they inadvertently used a version where Milgrom’s message was still there. Back in those days, Marvel and DC had a program called “First Look,” where retailers would get access to comics a week before they were released, presumably to see if they wanted to submit advance re-orders based on the content of the comic book. When the early copies went out, the message was discovered, Marvel halted the release of the comic, pulped it on their end and then re-published the comic without the offending message. Unlike Syaf’s messages, however, Milgrom’s message could have theoretically opened Marvel up to accusations of libel against Harras. It’s extremely unlikely, but at least possible. As such, Marvel was upset with Milgrom and he was fired from his staff job.
While he was fired from his staff job, however, Milgrom was still allowed to work for Marvel as a freelance inker, though he had to pay for the cost of the pulped comics, with the cost coming out of his paychecks. Milgrom’s old friend, Jim Starlin, made sure to have Milgrom ink him on a few fill-in issue of “Captain Marvel” Starlin was doing, as well as every other project Starlin did for Marvel in the early 2000s. Milgrom, though, mostly went to work at Archie Comics as an inker on a variety of titles, including a gig as Stan Goldberg’s main inker on “Betty and Veronica.” His last work for Marvel seems to be back in 2007, when he was one of many inkers on “Daredevil” #100, where he inked John Romita’s part of the issue.
As a hilarious follow-up, when the “Spidey” issue was eventually collected into a trade paperback, Marvel once again accidentally used the files with Milgrom’s message in it!
“Yep. We printed the wrong page,” Marvel Editor Dave Bogart told Rich Johnston. “As to what happened, it appears that the wrong version of the page was archived when the original comic was printed. Who’s fault is it? I couldn’t even begin to tell you, the book was printed well over a year ago. Should we have known better? Yes. But truth be told, no one who works in our trades program was even at Marvel at the time. And believe me, no disrespect was intended. I hope this clears things up.”
I suppose we’ll have to wait until “X-Men Gold” is collected to see if lightning strikes twice.