VOUCHERS!!! Let me say that again: VOUCHERS!!!
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“I signed it, but it went up after 4 so you won’t get a check until 2 weeks from now.”
“Shooter had to counter-sign this “Combat Pay” and he’s in California, so it won’t go in until he’s back.”
“Last week’s voucher fell behind my desk so it won’t go up till next week.”
“Last week was a three-day weekend, your voucher didn’t make it. Don’t worry, it’ll go in next week.”
Voucher. Such a simple word— Remember… you can’t spell voucher without “ouch!” Voucher. These things were the life’s blood of every freelancer in Marveldom. Which included many or most of the Bullpenners, Editors, Assistants and Editors in Chief themselves. Everyone.
Vouchers were money. Money. Freelance writers and artists all filled out vouchers, handed them in, the editors signed them, they all got collected and sent up to Millie Shuriff who did God Alone Knows What with them and if everything went well, a week later you got a check for the amount of money on that voucher. Money. A hell of a way to make it.
A nice theory about professionals and what sets them apart from non-professionals is nomenclature. That pro knows a bunch of words that mean a lot to other pros of the same stripe. Same for comic professionals. Use the word “voucher” and it’s like speaking a whole paragraph to a comic pro.
“Cripes,” one penciler might utter, “Higgins needed me to redraw half a page and I missed the voucher cut-off. Darn.” Or, “Millie bounced my voucher because she couldn’t find the job number, drat the luck!”
To a freelancer (which was pointed out to me by no less than Danny Crespi, also means “free to starve”) vouchers are “it.” Sure, add 30 years to a comic page and it could be like handling a piece of gold. In the meantime, the electric utility wants its grease. But like any good freelancer, one was doing the best one could under the grinding deadline pressure and thinking about the next job in line. This may sound controversial, but “art” was a nice bonus but not what was on the mind. Put another way, if you couldn’t lay down good work (“art”) with little effort you might be in the wrong business.
Here’s a bog standard voucher from back in the day, showing both sides for your delectation, complete with authentic coffee stains:
Good old 11661, I wonder whatever I did with 11660 or 11662? With a bit of Photoshop trickery I can show both sides of the same voucher! Noteworthy is that this was out of a maximum of 99,999 possible vouchers. This is a “contract back” voucher. There were 4 “inkless” copies as part of this. On the back of each piece of chemical-infused paper was the “contract.” This hilarious document made it very clear that your involvement was akin to the pencil you held, the bottle of ink/colors next to you or the typewriter ribbon that helped to make this “Work.”
I am not here to defend Marvel or try to explain what “work for hire” means. That, nor “collective work” (which sure sounds socialist to me, eh, comrade?). I can tell you it meant you handed over that piece of artboard, vellum or color guide with a glad smile on your lips and the full expectation of monies to come, kiss the art goodbye! Those scribbles and smudges that were once a part of your soul are now a part of the giant, faceless Marvel Engine of Forever.
Not that that’s a bad thing! So long as the jobs keep coming what could possibly be wrong with such an arrangement? But, aye, there’s the rub! Between the ebb and flow of Editor personality variables, random fights between billionaires and going bankrupt and the implacable bankers and their ideas about “mortgage payments”… well, a lot can go wrong. Especially when measured over any decade.
As I have pointed out many times, when pages flowed like milk and honey, there was plenty (puh-lenty!) for all. No end in sight, ever upward (Excelsior!) and one could always get something, somewhere! When the False Dawn (which in no way refers to sweet and most beautiful Dawn Geiger, no this refers to the rise of hope and excess that seemed to “lift all boats”) of the mid-90s arrived and there was a rapid increase in the number of titles per month—more work than you could shake a bound volume at!
Marvel went bankrupt sometime in late 1996. This was a time before “all news everywhere all the time” and the internet. If a freelancer watched TV there may have been a mention. The vast majority of freelancers only noticed when none of their calls to editors were answered or returned. Work dried up.
To the point of this little article, what all that meant was that us freelancers would see fewer and fewer of these blessed little bits of paper. No more vouchers!
In the meantime! Let me tell you a tale of my lurking around and sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong! The layout of Marvel’s 10th and 11th floors at 387 Park Ave Sth had three big elevators at the “back” of the building. This was mostly for deliveries. For a little while the Mighty Mail Room was on both floors, but soon retreated exclusively to upstairs. I say all this because I can no longer recall which floor I came across these or even if I was on-staff at the time. No matter, here goes! As I walked out back to take the elevator down, I spotted a chest-high stack of funny-sized boxes piled up rather sloppily. As I moved in, I saw a printer’s name and in the “Re:” field, “vouchers.” On the sides of the boxes were a range of numbers. A quick application of my Swiss Army Knife and bang! These two were topmost:
100000 & 100001 removed from the top box of – perhaps – that many vouchers. Noteworthy is that there were a possible 999,999 vouchers—a million vouchers! Marvel seemed to have plans for growth.
Why so many? Each page of comic artwork represented a possible bewildering number of freelancers at work. Comic stories were usually in two parts, a plot and then a script that included dialog balloon placement on the actual page or a tissue paper overlay or a copy (The “Marvel” Way (vs. the DC Way, which had each page broken down panel-by-panel complete with dialog)). It was normal for one writer to do both functions. But as deadlines wore on, it was possible for two people to do them. Pencilers could save time by doing breakdowns—a rougher, less finished style of art. It was possible for another penciler to “embellish” the breakdowns OR the inker could embellish the pencils so they didn’t have to think so much when working with their inking tools (not a slam, inking needs to be quick and smooth— pausing to think about a line leads to wasted time and quirky ink lines). “Tightening up breakdowns” could be vouchered separately. Under ideal conditions a letterer would work on the actual boards— but throughout the 80s and on, working on see-through vellum over a full-size copy of the page was the norm. Inkers stepped in to put that lush, black line we all know and love—right on the boards. One hoped for one person to do that inking as it meant a consistent look. When I was just a likely lad, learning the ropes, there was no recognition that an inker could have a “background man” (–person, excuse me Amanda!) because that person would be paid sub rosa. Perhaps things changed while I was lounging during my off-staff years! Lastly but not leastly, the colorist would come in to work their magic on copies of the pages. I’ve never heard of more than one colorist per job, but it probably happened.
The possibility of many vouchers for each title is high. It got higher when jerk Editors like me screwed up a book (The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones #21) and additional inkers needed to be brought in at the last minute/second.
A certain book comes to mind that did require mountains of vouchers for each issue, good old The Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe! The only constants were sublimely talented inker Joe Rubinstein who inked every damn page (except mine!) and cover and Mr. Polychrome himself, Andy Yanchus. So that was easy. But there were different pencilers every page. Different writers almost on every page.
Of course a voucher could be used to pay for almost anything, one just had to write really small…
Now It Can Be Revealed!
There were so many vouchers for OHOTMU and certainly, the Deluxe Edition, etc. that Mark “Quagmire” Gruenwald invented a super simple signature that could be aped by his appointed assistants. You see, because dozens of pages could be flying around the country and—at the same time—Mark could be flying around the country… someone needed to make sure the freelancers got paid! Thus the “power signature.”
And Millie never found out. “Vouchers” and “Millie” go hand in hand much like “Higgins” and “Extra Dense.” (Legendary inker Jack Abel’s hilarious comment on Mike Higgins involving the Higgins’ brand of Extra Dense India Ink… I know… if you have to explain them…) Millie Shuriff was one of those characters in comic history that probably deserves a special biography all her own. I can hardly do justice as I accord Millie the status of minor deity and thus never really asked her about her own history. Here are the few facts. Millie had worked for Magazine Management (company that owned Marvel since 1938) for a long time. “Many” years before my mom went to work at K, Q & R (company that had the advertising contract for Mag Management) in 1961. Millie had a loyal devotion to Martin Goodman (owner of Mag Man). Whenever one visited Millie in her small office, her hands were a constant blur. She favored paper-roll adding machines and would be entering numbers and flipping through vouchers at a staggering rate as you spoke to her. Never stopping.
One time, when I was in Special Products, I had submitted a Travel & Entertainment form only to have a check paid out that was 40x what I put in. I knew who to call: Millie! She said come right up. I was ushered into a part of the offices I’d never seen before (this was post 1992 office renovations). Millie praised me (!) for doing the right thing (I think the check was for $13,000 –I could have just dumped it into my account) and went to a safe. A safe, I say. A gigantic, floor safe about 6-foot tall on those little hardened steel wheels. It was crookedly placed on the floor as though the movers left it when their strength ran out and it was never moved again—that kind of safe. Which I did not know Marvel had. The door was ajar and Millie simply reached in and took out a check book. She used her body to shield me from the skeletons, bags of gold, Jack Kirby’s contracts, stacks of cash, deeds to Stan Lee’s mines and other holdings, etc. Apparently I have been paid the amount of money due to one of the executives—who’d had a light T&E… Millie wrote me a check right then and there and off I tootled, my head filled with paradigm changing images…
Millie writing a check out for me. Her ability and power to do so. A check book that was attached to Marvel’s business end. A clunky old-world safe up in Bookkeeping.
Once, Jim Shooter got it into his head to celebrate one of the decadal celebrations of Millie’s employ. He wrote her a voucher for a million dollars and signed it. There was a huge cake and a brass band that “snuck” up on her near her upstairs area. I do believe she shed a tear. I know I did.
Here are the vouchers shown earlier, but 100001 is reversed to show that it is the “contractless back” type. What does this mean? By signing the front of the older ones with a contract, you were neatly acknowledging all the rights forever belong to Marvel and not you. But now… what? Was it possible that one might own something? Hard to say. As I mentioned, these new vouchers were from the middle-to-late 80s. When I did some work for Marvel in the 00s, there was no voucher of any kind at all. “Paperless.” I signed nothing to acknowledge anything. In fact, at a reasonable time after I’d cyber-zipped my work off to Marvel, a check showed up. There was nothing there to suggest that I was signing over my eternal rights either.
But that, as they say, is a story for another time!
For now, I leave you all with…