Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Ketchup Kontinued: Creator Bill of Rights Discussion Redux, Part Two (for Tuesday/Wednesday)

[Please see today's first post for the beginning of this piece.]

The problem lies, in part, in the fact that in the 1980s, when I first met Dave, most creators in my neophyte shoes were still dealing with -- and on the losing end of -- what is called in economist circles information asymmetry. That is, a situation in which one party involved in a given transaction has "better information" than another party. Dave was the first person I crossed paths with who not only knew this, but who was already dedicated to discussing that gross imbalance and addressing the information asymmetry by trying to arm the uninformed party -- creators -- with some measure of information from the other party's side (the publishers) in hopes of redressing the balance.

There was nothing in this for Dave, mind you, save for the possible search for true peers in a community wherein he had few, if any, peers, and the hope of enlightening a portion of that community. Some (primarily Fantagraphics pundits) have passionately argued this was Dave's campaign to solicit and swell the ranks of self-publishers, as if there were some inherent stake in that for Dave. In cold pragmatic light of day, that argument holds little water: the urge to breed competitors where there are few makes little sense in capitalist terms, and there's never been a demonstratable market clout inherent in the formation of any such block, due in large part to the fact that truly independent market forces (which self-publishers are, by definition) are unable to pull together effectively in economic terms. Hell, even small independent self-publishers have failed at that effort, as some of us saw in the late 1980s when the impossibility of competing direct sales comicbook publishers/volatile personalities arriving at common goals, much less common action, was amply demonstrated.

My personal experience with Dave was that waking some of us the fuck up seemed to be the be-all and end-all of his effort. Dave gave a great deal to John Totleben and I to realize Taboo; Dave gave a great deal of time, knowledge and conversation to me over the years. There was nothing in it for him; in fact, all of this must have been quite draining and depleting.

In the matter of standard comicbook industry terms circa 1983-86, there can be no doubt that information asymmetry was the status quo. Publishers -- and I'm not just talking about DC and Marvel here, but even 'creator friendly' publishers like Eclipse, First Comics, and Dark Horse -- did their best to maintain a "healthy" information asymmetry that served their needs while habitually pulling the wool over the eyes of a majority of the creative freelance community. At that time, remember, publishers not only discouraged the involvement of agents and attornies as representatives for creators: by my own experience (and events I witnessed), they would cut off negotiations at the first hint of such representation, with the noteworthy exception of Mike Friedrich, who was an 'accepted' enough member of the comics community with a defined-enough talent pool to be tolerated. I can attest from personal experience, circa 1977-1987, that not only was active discussion of creator rights issues discouraged in most social gatherings beyond personal kitchen or convention hotel room conversations, it was considered ill manners to even go there.

This may make some sense of the uproar over Marvel's refusal to return Jack Kirby's artwork, and the vehemence with which the creator community expressed their outrage, but also the venom with which publishers (with the significant exception of a few: Fantagraphics, who actively 'led' the charge by providing coverage and activist involvement, was the notable exception) retaliated. The latter aspect of the furor is forgotten today, but I remember well the retribution exacted against a select few, and the pathetic nature of the comics community's reaction to that (again, with the notable exception of the Comics Journal). Tacked up on my studio wall for a time was the cover of an issue of The Comics Buyers' Guide from that fateful few months, which featured the headline "Captain America Fired!" as the prominent feature, and tucked into the lower left corner of the same cover, the tiny byline "Marv Wolfman Fired" -- that summed it up in a nutshell for me. Fantasy comics character fired: BIG news. Real-life creator fired (in part over Marv having signed the TCJ petition supporting Kirby): who cares?

I'm afraid the same goes in the contemporary environment, with a few twists and turns. Just as publishers like First Comics, Eclipse Comics, Continuity, WaRP, etc. presented a facade of "creator ownership" to obfuscate their true dealings with way-too-many of the freelancers they dealt with, especially as the lucrative allure of licensing (from both ends: publishing licensed properties, and licensing published work to outside media) asserted itself, we have arrived since the mid-1990s at a similar "it's all OK here" facade for prominent publishers and imprints pretending to be something other than what they are. Dark Horse, Vertigo, Image, et al profer one face within the community, and another in their contracts and actual dealings: the former, public, the latter, behind closed-door and sealed in binding non-disclosure agreements.

Not that the legal clauses are necessary (and never binding until one signs on the dotted line). As in the 1980s, those who dare to publicly address this information asymmetry are most efficiently dealt with via ostracization, passive and aggressive.

I'm quite used to it, after 20 something years of it. Whether it's the distance one-time friends maintained and defended in the late 1990s, or the dismissal from Warren Ellis on his forum (caricaturing those willing to engage in such discussion -- read, Dave and I -- as mentally suspect), it's a fact of life I accepted long ago. Whether one is a pro unwilling to get into the real ethics inherent in ongoing transactions with the compromised environment, or an entry-level or aspiring pro adverse to being lumped in with the mental deficients engaged in such conversation over creator rights, ethics, etc. matters not at all to me: it's all the same. An unwillingness to engage for the greater good; an "I got mine" or "God, I'll never get mine if I speak up" atmosphere of repression and dread.

The few left standing in the direct sales comic market professional community are either pros dependent on existing venues or publishers providing those venues, and the information asymmetry necessary to maintaining that delicate balance among so few players musn't be upset. I'm given, privately in conversation or via email, occasional industry updates and assessments I'm told not to share; after my retirement from comics in 1999, it became much easier to honestly say, "Look, I'm not going to say a thing, I really don't care," and mean it.

Dave neatly sums up the current dirth of discussion of the key issues in his opening paragraph:

"I think we should have expected things to slow down--it's pretty discouraging stuff for guys who are trying to stay optimistic and I don't think the fact that the comic-book field once again resolves pretty much exclusively around Marvel and DC's super-heroes can be underrated as a factor. If you can get a hold of a copy of Comics & Games Retailer and read the Market Report that's in every issue where retailers chart the hits and misses in their stores there is only the very, very, very rare mention of any title that isn't a Marvel or DC super-hero title. Marvel and DC have a very specific relationship with Creator's Rights that definitely puts those rights a distant second to their preferred method of owning things outright. So if your interest is to make a splash in the field, Marvel and DC are the doorway and that doorway tends to lead in one direction. I'm sure for most creators reading these discussions it must be like finding out the roulette wheel is rigged. What do you want to stick around for? You're really down to the compulsive gamblers at that point (in this case the creators who have grown up in an environment where Marvel and DC are the defining environments and who consequently have to, one way or the other--either by lying to themselves or lying to others--adjust their thinking to believing that the Marvel and DC way of doing things is the best way of doing things). “Hey, it's the only game in town.” Which is not to say that it's completely rigged. I'm sure Neil Gaiman would be the first to tell you that Paul Levitz does carve you out a fairer deal if you start charting Gaiman-sized numbers and that definitely needs to be acknowledged as a step up from Siegel and Shuster's treatment. But it's a long way from the comic-book Nirvana that everyone seems to have a compulsive need to see every step along the way. “Everything's fine now.” Obviously these discussions tend to view it as “Some things have improved but everything is far from fine.” If you don't want to see that--and I would maintain that probably 98% of creators really don't want to see that--you're not going to stick around and read about or contribute to a discussion of creator's rights. Hence the sound of crickets chirping."

Indeed, it's finally time to begin posting legal documents and airing the core issues -- with the goal of not only shining light into some deliberately darkened nooks and crannies, but to propose some viable alternatives.

[to be continued...]

Before I continue with this line of discussion, I hasten to point out that Mark Martin is joining the conversation, and he's already opened up a fresh vein of discussion: What were the expectations of those who participated in the historic summit that yielded the Creator Bill of Rights?

This is something Dave Sim has addressed from his point of view, as has Scott McCloud, Rick Veitch, and yours truly in our initial posts to Al Nickerson's site. Until now, though, participants like Mark haven't gone on the public record, and this is important. Check it out from the get-go on Mark's site
  • Jabberous: New CBR/Summit Insights --
  • -- which begins with Mark's January 10th post. Be sure to check out the stream of comments on that (those) threads, too, and the conversation continues there.


    Blogger arni beck said...

    Hey Steve,

    excellent discussion.

    Hope you got my mail, cause I really want you to answer it.


    Blogger Marky Mark said...


    So it was REBECCA's fault!

    Blogger SRBissette said...

    Arni -- Mail?

    Mark -- Rebecca??

    Blogger Marky Mark said...

    Sunnybrook Farms

    Blogger arni beck said...

    Mail, yes.

    I sent an email to your yahoo account, don't know if you're still using it though.
    Let me know if you want me to send it elsewhere.



    Post a Comment

    Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

    << Home