Master Of The Obvious: Issue #28

Wed, February 9th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

In a recent documentary on Sam Fuller, perhaps the greatest B director this country ever produced, Sam recites a story about the French novelist Honor de Balzac. Paraphrasing, Balzac's is attending the theater one night when he looks over and spies his greatest rival, Alexander Dumas, author of many popular works like THE THREE MUSKETEERS. They hate each other. They quickly hurry with their entourages through different entrances to the theater to avoid speaking with each other.

As Balzac enters, he mutters to his entourage, "That son of a bitch. That son of a bitch. If only I made the money he makes."

In the other door, Dumas mutters to his entourage, "That son of a bitch. That son of a bitch. If only I could write like him."

Every so often, someone will write something along the lines of: "you write in your column about how comics have to change, and the 32 page format is dead, and superheroes are a bad idea, etc. etc., but when I see your name in comics you're always working on things like Vampirella or Green Lantern and The Atom or The Punisher. Isn't that biting the hand that feeds you? Aren't you being a hypocrite?"

The short answer? Sure.

There's a subset of fans that likes to throw the term "hypocrite" around. Warren Ellis recently fended off accusation of hypocrisy for taking on the Counter-X books after stating he had no further interest in working on superheroes past his current commitments. Last week, Mark Waid announced his retirement from THE FLASH, and had old comments about how they'd have to pry the book out of his cold, stiff fingers thrown back in his face. Alan Moore has been chastised for sticking with his ABC line of books following DC's purchase of Wildstorm, as Alan once swore never to work for DC Comics again.

As I've said before, comics - particularly superhero comics, but it's hardly limited to them - tend to emphasize an absolute worldview. Right and wrong. Good and evil. Heroes and villains. Those guys are the Nazis, we're the ones who get to save the world. It's comforting. We identify, we can feel good about ourselves, we get to be the ones who believe in truth, justice and the American Way. Which works great. In fiction. (Though a little of that goes a long way, and there are other, some might argue better, purposes for fiction.)

But we don't live in an absolute world. At best, it's dichotomous. (Though it isn't a word that I'm aware of, polychomotous is a much better description.) And there are few experiences as dichotomous as being a comics freelancer.

When I first entered the business, an editor said to my face that freelancers were freelancers because they didn't have the maturity and discipline to go every day to a real job. Indicating the prevalent view (becoming prevalent in comics companies once again, from the looks of things) that it was editors, not writers, artists and other freelancers, who did the "real" work of comics. I, being young and arrogant, replied I was under the impression that office workers were office workers because they didn't have the balls to be freelancers. I never did work with that editor.

"...an editor [once] said to my face that freelancers were freelancers because they didn't have the maturity and discipline to go every day to a real job."

This notion that freelancing - any type of freelancing - isn't "work" is common. People tend to think since you're not punching a clock, or you work late into the night, or occasionally go see a movie on a Tuesday afternoon, that your time is your own, your personal freedom is boundless. Or that you're on the level of a bum. The IRS periodically embarks on complicated and usually defeated campaigns to prove freelancers aren't even freelancers at all. In comics, there's a romantic notion (particularly among would-be freelancers) that freelancers exist to spread their wise and wonderful series ideas and marvelous characters to benighted editors and publishers.

Here's a hot tip: unless they specifically tell you otherwise, benighted editors and publishers don't want your characters and ideas. They have their own, and your choices are to play in their ballpark or build your own ballpark and believe that if you build it they will come. Except you still have to sell your tickets through Ticketmaster.

"I, being young and arrogant, replied I was under the impression that office workers were office workers because they didn't have the balls to be freelancers. I never did work with that editor."

But it's a wonderful notion. Most of us do get into comics because we have some specific vision we want to pursue, whether it's the ultimate grudge fight between Thor and the Hulk, or a 300-volume epic, or the replacement of common comics lettering with traditional Celtic calligraphy. That's the sort of thing that ought to propel a career, and it would be fitting, given the standard content of comics, if everyone clung to their vision, suffered through the trauma, and eventually emerged triumphant on the strength of their convictions, scattering their enemies like chaff before them and gaining all the riches and sex objects that were rightly theirs all along. I think Ayn Rand wrote a book like that once.

Language is once again a problem: we automatically equate "creator" and "freelancer." They're interrelated but they're not identical. Creating is where vision comes in, if you're lucky. Freelancing is a business decision, a conscious resolution to do a particular something for a living.

We like to view comics as art. Not as in "pencils and inks," but in the larger sense of Art. Or "artform," a curious equivocation that popped up in the 60s. (When I hear someone refer to comics as "an artform," it translates as "okay, we can't really justify saying it's art, but it could be if we just knew how to get it there." A stupid word.) Art is accidental anyway. Even in self-professed "art comics," Art is accidental. No one creates Art, they just create, and if they're lucky it turns out to be Art. Plenty turns out not to be art, but that's no reason for not doing it, because accidents happen all the time.

Historically, freelancing was encouraged in the comics industry not to bring in a wide spectrum of ideas and style, but for the same reason California growers encouraged Okies and Mexicans to come work the fields. It allowed for substandard pay and zero responsibility to a class of people without any real recourse. The money end of it has changed, but by and large comics are still produced with a "put up or get out" attitude regarding freelancers. The notion of talent interchangeability still runs rampant in editorial offices, and for good reason: when the function of the freelancer is strictly to serve the purposes of the editor, freelancers are interchangeable. While there have been good Hulk stories and bad Hulk stories, how much talent, really, does it take to write or draw a publishable issue of INCREDIBLE HULK?

I know of only a few freelancers who aspire to as little as "publishable." Many continue to harbor the secret desires or ideas that lured them to life in comics in the first place. Some - oddly, not as many as you might think - would prefer, in a perfect world, to be working on their own projects. But there was only a brief blip of time where creator-owned projects were actively encouraged and supported, and most publishers are now trying to chip away at what the whole concept of creator-ownership. So comics freelancers are largely left with several less than satisfactory options.

If you intend to earn a living in comics, the fact is that paying opportunities in the field are at their lowest point in decades. It's been put forth that the "correct way" to enter the field is to go through hell and high water to publish your own material, and there's a lot to be said for that, but, given that publishers have developed a strong aversion to creator-owned projects and those that still encourage them offer nothing or close to it up front, the main avenue for "the correct way" is self-publishing, which is expensive and usually made futile by the current distribution field. That dealers these days tend to ignore anything they're unfamiliar with turns the prospects of even recouping costs of self-publishing minimal. It used to be that you'd try to get work with a major comics company in order to get your name known and to gain practical experience, and parlay that into a creator-owned or self-publishing gig in which you'd "follow your vision." Now the general scheme is to suffer through a self-publishing or creator-owned gig long enough to come to the attention of someone who could offer you paying work. The last five years are littered with freelancers who started out wanting to work on creator-owned books and have been forced into the work-for-hire system for sheer economic survival. Some suggest it's sheer hypocrisy to not funnel every last cent into your own ideas if you believe in them; it's funny how landlords and phone company don't see it that way. Until money starts coming back into the field, or until the readership starts giving a lot more support to creator-owned projects, the prospects of getting creator-owned projects going shrink daily.

"If you intend to earn a living in comics, the fact is that paying opportunities in the field are at their lowest point in decades."

A second option, which some purists claim is the only noble course, is to abandon comics altogether. Last one leaving the field turn out the light. If you love comics, this is a painful option at best. No one gets into comics for the money, because there's not a lot of money in it. People get into comics because they love comics, but there's no sin in wanting to make your money doing what you love.

For the freelancer trying to earn a living in comics, Machiavelli remains the best business manual. Machiavelli wrote one thing that has always stuck in my head: in order to exact revenge, one must first win. As Lotto ads say, you gotta be in it to win it. Writing work-for-hire isn't a particularly good option, but it's the practical one. It's not that I'm unwilling to suffer for art, but I don't feel I have the moral superiority to insist other people suffer with me, which would be the case. Working on material other that superhero comics may be preferable to working on superhero comics, but working on superhero comics beats the hell out of working the checkout line at Borders.

I've probably handled my career badly. I had plenty of ideas for comics before I became a professional, but my entry into Marvel was prompted by my desire to live in New York City, and Marvel made that possible. I figured on moving to creator-owned work as soon as possible, but when it takes literally years to get from concept to go-ahead (which has been the case with everything I've created except BADLANDS), it's not difficult to see the flaws in the process. Frankly, I've always been a marginal name at best in terms of popularity, which hasn't made the process any smoother. While I've written in other fields, I've opted to stay in comics mainly because, whatever the other hassles, more of my work ends up showing up in the work than in other media, and I find working in the medium most satisfying. I'm a hired gun, and I made a conscious decision years ago to be just that. There are those moments of inspiration, and I press for my own projects and the genres I'd prefer to work in where I can, but writing comics, whether on your own creations or in your perfect genre or under someone else's watch, is a matter of problem solving. You have a certain amount of ingredients you must organize in just so much space to achieve the desired effect. It sounds more mechanical than it is, but I find that aspect of writing comics very interesting on its own merits, regardless of the specific content. I like being a hired gun. I like working with editors like Bob Schreck. He wanted to edit my creator-owned project ENEMY for Dark Horse and I was there. If he wants me to write Green Lantern stories for him now that he's at DC, I'm there. It's still working with Bob, as far as I'm concerned. There are many artists I love working with and would love to work with who are only comfortable working for companies that can afford to pay them. If that's what I have to do to work with them, I'm there.

That doesn't mean I wouldn't rather be doing things differently. Maybe next year I will be, but current market conditions suggest otherwise. It does mean there are a lot more things I'd rather not be doing, and being a hired gun gives me a way to not do them. It doesn't mean I don't care about the comics I write; every one is a challenge, and if you're sure you know the right way to do comics, then you're doing them wrong. It's up to you to decide whether all this invalidates my opinions or not. Obviously I don't, but that's just my opinion.

So enough about hypocrisy, okay? Anyone who wants to believe I'm a hypocrite is free to do so. It doesn't matter to me in the slightest. If Warren Ellis opts to revamp X-books, that's his business. Do you really want Mark Waid to continue churning out THE FLASH when his interest has flagged, just because once he said he wanted to do it forever? Things change. Situations change. Life throws up all sorts of walls, and you can either bounce or you can splat. The people who work in comics have to live in the real world, just like everyone else, even if the comics aren't set there, and their situations and interests extend far beyond the field and sometimes impact on it. Everything changes all the time, except for the basic underpinnings of the business that keep it from evolving into something we can all be more happy with - unless we bring the problems into the open. But the system we're currently stuck with is still the system we have to work in, if we want to work at all. In order to exact revenge, one must first win.

So pack up those copies of THE FOUNTAINHEAD and get real. And if you've never seen Sam Fuller's PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, now's the time. No one's chin ever bounced like that before or sinceā€¦

Speaking of real, here's the kind of tradeoff I'm talking about. Gary Groth and I live in the same area, and it's not unusual to end up on the same flights to and from the San Diego Convention every year. While we don't sit together on the plane, we've been known to chat in the waiting areas, and a couple of years back he asked if I'd be interested in writing a crime comic for Eros Comix. As my grandmother used to say, any port in a storm. I currently have 1 issues of a three issue series written. What I don't have is an artist.

So if you're an artist who has been trying to break into the business - and you can draw attractive, relatively normally proportioned people - and realistic settings and props - and you don't have any objection to drawing x-rated material - e-mail me gifs or jpgs of your samples. The downside: Eros Comix is one of those companies that pays next to no advance, meaning any real pay comes after publication. I don't have a problem with this because it's a lovely little crime comic and I'm not doing it for the money. The good part: unlike most comics, Eros titles do stand a pretty good chance of paying royalties. No guarantees, though.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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