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Hidden messages in comic art are surprisingly common

Artists are clever, and editors aren’t perfect

The cover of Universe X: Spidey
Marvel Comics

Last night, Marvel artist Ardyan Syaf apologized on Facebook for “all the noise” he created by inserting several hidden references into the art of X-Men Gold #1, though he didn’t seem particularly repentant about inserting them in the first place.

The numerals are linked to a controversial verse of the Koran — which some see as religious evidence against trusting non-Muslims, specifically followers of Christianity and Judaism — and the protest group that has focused on the verse in Syaf’s native Indonesia, in their campaign against a Christian governor.

In only it’s latest response to a series of recent controversies, Marvel Comics has pulled the digital edition of X-Men Gold #1 and will be changing the art in all future digital and print editions (existing print copies of the comic are now selling on Ebay for up to $30). The company has said that Syaf will face “disciplinary action,” and It’s hard to imagine this not ending in the artist losing his freelance work with Marvel.

OK, but how did this happen?

As I discussed all of this with my colleagues in the process of getting the story up on Polygon, they kept having one question: How big of a screw up is this? How hard is it for an artist to put a coded message into the art of a comic book at one of the biggest comic publishers in America?

The answer is that it’s not so much that it’s hard, as it is unlikely. On the one side, you’ve got the considerable editorial oversight of a major publisher. And the other you’ve got the fact that anybody who tries to sneak something by their editor is going to get in trouble. And if it’s something that has a potential for big public blowback, they’re going to get in a lot of trouble. Career-ending trouble, as Syaf has found himself in.

The process of making a comic at DC or Marvel is one with a lot of cooks in the kitchen. You’ve got a writer; a penciller, who is generally credited as “artist” on the book; an inker, who inks over the penciller’s lines and any indicated black spaces; a colorist, who may work with a flatter who preps the inked pages for digital color; and a letterer. Sometimes the artist inks their own work. Sometimes a company uses digital fonts instead of a letterer. Sometimes a colorist flats their own work instead of using a flatter. Sometimes an artist does pencils, inks, colors and lettering, or any combination of those roles.

The editor’s job includes a lot of things, but they’re also the person who serves as the connecting tissue between all of these roles, looking over the art and script each step of the way. Getting a hidden message into the art requires two unlikely things: an editor who makes a mistake — and take it from me, a writer and an editor, it is not unrealistic to stop seeing the trees and only see the forest when you’ve been editing the same piece over and over again — and an artist who is willing to face the potential consequences.

So there’s plenty of examples of artists sneaking things past their editor in the history of comics — but usually the examples are far more innocuous, something more likely to get an artist slapped on the wrist than fired.

From New X-Men #118
Ethan Van Sciver/Marvel Comics

Al Milgrom famously called former Marvel editor Bob Harras a “nasty S.O.B.” in a short message. You would have had to turn the Universe X: Spidey one-shot sideways and read the spines of a shelf of books in the background of one panel of to see it. About a year later, Ethan Van Sciver attempted to hide the word “sex” somewhere in the art of in every page of New X-Men #118, and, on a lot of pages, he succeeded.

And although it’s not strictly an example of an artist sneaking something by an editor, it serves as a good example of exactly what wild things can go wrong when a comic goes to print: In 2008, Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All-Star Batman and Robin #10 was recalled because an error caused the black blocks that were supposed to cover all of the expletives in the comic’s dialogue to be printed in a color that was lighter than the black text beneath, making Miller’s liberal use of words like “fuck” and “cunt” in a comic featuring Batgirl entirely legible.

Syaf’s hidden messages are, of course, a significant step beyond allowing Jean Grey’s hair to spell out “sex.” And while it’s unlikely, all it takes to get a hidden message into the art of a comic is for an artist to want it bad enough, and for an editor to be a little over-extended or under-vigilant. And that’s without picking up on obscure references to the language of another country’s local protest movement.

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