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.
    Ketchup Kontinued -- Part One for Tuesday/Wednesday

    OK, I'm reconstructing the lost post of Monday AM -- now more relevent than ever, given Mark Martin's engaging with the discussion, thanks to his exchanges with Al Nickerson. Links to follow; I'll be chipping away at this through the day, posting as I go, so please bear with me.

    Dave Sim's latest letter on Al's site touches upon some of my posts on this very blog, and prompts a reply. Mind you, I'll be addressing the broader issues in a longer letter intended for Al's site -- hosting the ongoing discussion of Creator Rights -- but this seems as good a time as any to get into a few issue-specific points.

    Here's an excerpt from Dave's letter, specific to my prior posts on this blog:

    "Yeah, I think this might have done it. Driving away what limited participation we had from the creative community. The mythology that the major company contracts have just been getting better and better (“EVERYthing's fine now.”) takes a direct hit in finding out that seven years earlier Bissette got the same one I got. Plus, for a lot of guys with stars in their eyes the fact that Steve Bissette can't get a foot in the door at Vertigo is like finding out that Paul McCartney can't book recording time at Abbey Road studios. I mean it doesn't surprise me.  There's the “ins” and the “outs” at the companies--'twas ever thus--and the Neil Gaimans are the rare exceptions and not the rule. But it is very hard on the perception that runs very deep in the comic-book soul that all your hard work for DC and Marvel is like money in the bank not only while you're banging out your pages but that there's a Long Term Good Will Jackpot once you've served up a hit for them. “What have you done for us lately?” unfortunately is always more the company attitude. After all, this is the generation (or the generation right after the one: generations come and go so fast these days) that was weaned on Moore, Bissette and Totelben's Swamp Thing and would be starting from the baseline assumption that Bissette is the problem. If he would just get over his crankiness and his belligerence and let bygones be bygones and go and visit Karen Berger and his long-lost Vertigo family he'd be welcomed back with group hugs all around and given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted and a nice fat happy Neil Gaiman contract to boot. I'm not really being facetious, I don't think. The fact that Steve was given the same “take it or leave it” boilerplate contract for his proposed projects that I--as a marginal presence and first time potential participant--was given for the proposed Fables short-short speaks volumes about the non-Neil Gaiman end of Vertigo and of DC and of mainstream comic books in general. And those are volumes that creators don't want to read, unfortunately. I mean, heck, Steve Bissette is the absolute toppermost of the poppermost cutting-edge guy when it comes to comic-book horror--still!--just on the basis of what he did with Swamp Thing and Taboo and he can't get a project green-lighted at Vertigo even under their crap work-made-for-hire terms? That's just too sad. But look at the reaction of the comic-book field: given the choice between thinking badly of Steve Bissette or thinking badly of Vertigo, it's a no-brainer. If Steve Bissette is right (which he obviously is) then the average creator following in his career footsteps is walking into a potential death trap where they could end up as he did--producing hundreds of pages of top-flight well-thought-of work and ending up like Jerry Seigel. Except nobody offered to buy Bissette an overcoat after they kicked him out the door. Maybe if he got a job as a messenger in Manhattan?"

    True enough, Dave. As Dave knows from personal experience, it's no fun being a pariah, but so it goes. With few exceptions, the pro realm of comics was just as glad to see me go. For my own part, I uprooted, I got on with it, found other ways to get by in the world, and have been much happier since. Since being a messenger for DC isn't on my future job agenda (nor is returning to mainstream comics), I'll get by just fine without comics.

    As far as DC goes, from the time I departed from Swamp Thing as penciller, the only door that occasionally opened was as a 'guest writer' for that title in the fairly immediate wake of that departure. I followed that through to the work Keith Giffen and I did on a proposed Eclipso project, which actually got all the way to a contract negotiation -- deep-sixed by a low script rate and DC's negotiation "tactics" of the time (their way or the highway). I persevered nonetheless throughout the late '80s and 1990s; I didn't write off DC. My files harbor a fair number of project proposals I prepared or was involved with (including fairly polished and extensive proposals -- including scripts, full issue breakdowns and completed covers -- prepped with folks like Tom Veitch, Rick Hautala, Michael Zulli, Jack Butterworth, etc.) that were offered to DC and Vertigo, all for naught. Oh, well; no worries. I kept working on other things, up to and including Tyrant, and remained productive until deciding to step away from comics altogether at the end of '99.

    Corporations do hold grudges as well or better than many frail mortals, and aside from the legal redirecting of creator ownership (relevent to the character of John Constantine) that emerged during my DC years, I've never directly benefitted from the hard-fought 'rights' battles fought with DC during the 1980s. As I've said here and elsewhere, I believe my role in those battles is part-and-parcel of the reasons I'll never benefit from the "new DC" era; it's been made quite clear to me there's no open doors there, even when the doors were tentatively teased opened (last in 1997-98). No love lost, but the belief, as Dave so neatly puts it, that if I would just "let bygones be bygones and go and visit Karen Berger and his long-lost Vertigo family [I'd] be welcomed back with group hugs all around and given carte blanche to do whatever [I] wanted and a nice fat happy Neil Gaiman contract to boot" is a tenacious one in comics fandom. It malingers to this day -- I just got an email from a fan to that effect on New Year's Day! -- and my stating otherwise is seen as just further evidence of my crabby disposition, ironically reinforcing the illusion that this is a situation I fomented and somehow cling to.

    But that doesn't change the fundamental issues, nor the comics environment. Though I've been out of the old circles now for over six years, all evidence is that the old status quo holds. The fact that the Vertigo contract I was given a peek at in 1997-98 was something I wouldn't have agreed to on my own pet projects (but would have on the Swamp Thing-related projects I was invited to propose and did propose, including a Nukeface miniseries and an original Swamp Thing miniseries) is relevent, but that wasn't the insurmountable obstacle at that juncture: something "else" was going on, as Neil himself found out when he proposed the one-shot ten-page story we (Neil, John Totleben, and I) eventually completed for Neil's anthology Midnight Days.

    Still, that Vertigo contract is a telling document. With the notable exception of the very different realm of mainstream book publishing, where the newer generations of comics creators are thankfully yielding some measure of acceptance along with venues and benefits denied all prior generations of comic book creators (note, I am citing "comic book", not comic strip) -- a realm closed to most of my generation of creators, and that's just how it is -- the Vertigo contract Dave posted is a pretty eye-opening dose of reality for many.

    Until or unless other Vertigo folks step into the conversation, the contract Dave posted on the Creator Bill of Rights site stands as representative of "the deal," and as previously noted on this blog, that agreement is identical to the sample contract I was mailed in 1997-98.

    [to be continued later today & tomorrow...]