Master Of The Obvious: Issue #36

Wed, April 5th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

[Captain America & Nick Fury]

Jim Steranko seems to be on the warpath against Marvel these days.

For those who came in late, Jim Steranko was one of the two main terrorists who upended American comics in a big way in the late '60s. Neal Adams was the other. They made an interesting contrast. Neal drew on commercial and magazine illustration. Jim's work, a stylistic mélange of Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, Will Eisner and Peter Max, was pure comics. Neal's breakthrough centered on layout and rendering. Jim's focused on storytelling, returning a filmic sensibility to modern comics that had been mostly lost in the tedium of the 50s and 60s. Neal, at DC, was mostly stuck with the same old staid DC material of the time. Jim, at Marvel, wrote most of his own material, becoming one of the few writer-artists of the day. His influence perhaps isn't as noticeable as Neal's because his style was much more difficult to duplicate, but it's pretty clear Jim Starlin, Paul Gulacy and Frank Miller, at least, read Steranko. (Well, everyone read him back then; Starlin, Gulacy and Miller, to one degree or another, opted to follow in his footsteps.) Originally a performer and as much con man as genius, Steranko was the only talent to rival Stan Lee in his ability to sell himself as the talent behind the work, but while Stan played Sammy Glick, Jim played Houdini.

He was also the guy who made Nick Fury a household word. Out went the ever-so-vaguely modernized Sgt. Fury as Napoleon Solo that Lee & Kirby invented, in came Matt Helm with an eyepatch: suave, smart and occasionally brutal. (While Steranko never quite turned Fury into James Bond, he taught him to shave and dressed him in Italian suits.) Steranko's run on Nick Fury Agent Of SHIELD lasted 18 issues of STRANGE TALES and four issues of Fury's own book, and blew away anything else being done at the time. Besides being the most exciting art going at the time (in the 60s, Steranko was the Jimi Hendrix of art; you felt there was nothing he couldn't go with a pen in his hand), he had the first post-Stan Lee writing style in comics, crisp and direct, with characters who acted like adults. Had Jim stayed with comics, instead of going into book and magazine publishing (on Jim Warren's Captain Comics model, the publishing underwritten by merchandise and back issue sales), he might have actually changed the face of what came later, instead of giving it a little facelift.

"While Steranko never quite turned Fury into James Bond, he taught him to shave and dressed him in Italian suits."

But Jim's no dummy. He saw what comes to talent in this business: nada. I remember he told me years later (I worked for him briefly in the early 80s, writing a comics news column for his MEDIASCENE magazine) that he had asked for a piece of the action on his own work, and was told no. So he left to make his own action, which took him further and further from the medium. A legendary, pivotal talent, but, his work mostly out of print, only a rumor to many of today's fans.

Which is why Marvel is bringing out a collection of his Nick Fury stories, marketing it mainly on the strength of Steranko's name. In an Italian reprint book.

Apparently, Jim's a bit peeved by this, and has called on buyers to boycott the book.

Marvel refused any aid from Jim in prepping his work for press, despite Jim's expertise and resources (he still has reportedly excellent stats of the original material). Marvel's publishing the book in Italy, making it a foreign reprint, gutting any question of residual payments. The company has since announced they'll give Jim a reprint fee - on the copies sold in America only.

In Marvel's defense, their policies on these matters have always been murky. I've had a couple run-ins with them on these matters myself. In 1983, I wrote THE LIFE OF POPE JOHN PAUL II, which, at the time, was the bestselling title they'd ever done (helped by the Catholic Church in some form buying gobs of them). At some point it was decided to go back to press with them. By that time Marvel had been forced by royalty schemes at companies like DC and Eclipse to institute some sort of residual plan to avoid hemorrhaging talent, and had come up with an "incentive" plan that allowed for back end payments without locking the company into the legal obligations "royalties" entailed. But when it was decided to go back to print with the POPE book, some executive (this was above the editorial level) suggested calling the book a reprint, which would give me a (set and minimal) reprint fee instead of an incentive payment (the size of which would be tied to sales). I've never yet been able to determine if I got payments on those books or not. After Mike Zeck and I did the PUNISHER MINI-SERIES, Marvel collected the books in UK editions that were then imported to the States, something like the Steranko collection. Marvel paid no fees to talent for foreign reprints, though American reprints they'd've had to pay for. We weren't pleased.

So I understand of Steranko's point of view.

I know there are people out there who say that Steranko knew the job was dangerous when he took it, and Marvel owes him nothing for that work. And that's true. Is Marvel acting unethically? Not really. Depending on what Steranko actually signed as terms of producing the work (not that Marvel would know, having reportedly flushed all that information recently) - just for the sake of argument, let's presume it was the standard Marvel deal of the time ("Here's enough fer bus fare, kid, it's all mine now, stop bodderin' me") - he more than likely surrendered any legal rights in the matter long ago. Is Marvel acting badly?

Well… yes.

More to the point, they're acting to industry standard. The same standard that encouraged Steranko's departure from the field 30 years ago. The business has always been geared toward stripmining talent. Which is why Jerry Siegel's family is now suing for Superman, why Joe Simon is suing for Captain America. Why so many great talents die in debt and relative obscurity. Why so many others can only speak of their time in comics with a strange mixture of fondness and bitterness. Does Jim have a legal leg to stand on? Without seeing his contracts, I couldn't say. Should he call a boycott of the book? Sure, particularly if he wants to make it clear he doesn't endorse the product. Should Marvel be treating him better? Of course. Should we expect this from Marvel? Probably not.

"The business has always been geared toward stripmining talent. Which is why Jerry Siegel's family is now suing for Superman, why Joe Simon is suing for Captain America."

Gary Groth had a stinging indictment of comics professionals in THE COMICS JOURNAL #220, assessing the collapse of the creator rights movement in the 90s. (Those who brought this article to my attention seem to think I'll argue with him about it, but Gary's essay is fairly dead-on - I have a couple quibbles, but nothing serious - and worth reading.) The whole notion of creator rights evolved in the vacuum left by Steranko in the 70s, and by the late '80s there'd been at least the appearance of considerable progress in many areas - incentives/royalties, creator ownership of properties, etc. - that corresponded to a rise in public interest in comics and seemed to presage major changes in the industry. Much of it was illusory. "Creator ownership" was largely euphemistic, companies keeping control of many, if not all, property rights, and often of content. The illusion of creator power in the 80s, however, re-energized the field enough to create the corporate comics culture of the 90s, which established the dominance of property rights uber alles, ultimately gutting what the creator rights movement was trying to achieve: creator equity in their own work. Particularly when media companies enter the picture; they've come to insist on total control if not ownership, often not only of the adaptation but of the source property. Which makes comics company ownership of the source property imperative.

Gary and I may disagree on points of commerce. I don't think decisions involving one's career can ever be purely aesthetic (unless you're independently wealthy to begin with, something not particularly common among comics talent). Most people who enter comics do so not only to create, but to earn a living with their talents. Talent must be businessmen, as it's the "let us worry about business" attitude of most companies, too often too readily accepted by talent (for, really, what are you going to do about it if it's their show?), that has resulted in most of the inequities in the business. There's no reason our children should starve while the publisher's children should go to college on profits from our work. At some point, most comics talent dream of publishing their own creations (whether self-publishing or through a standard publisher), of having creative control over and equity in those creations (often creative control, in an industry that prizes editorial browbeating, is more important than equity) and making enough money from them to support themselves and their families reasonably well without having to scramble for NIGHTWING fill-ins or work the night shift at Borders to make ends meet. You can't do that without developing some sort of business acumen first.

There are many out there who believe this is just so much bitching. That this is the natural state of freelancers and you know it going in. For the most part, that's true. Many would-be writers and artists, it seems, feel the talent working on beloved characters like, oh, Ka-Zar, just don't appreciate what a dream life they're living. (Comics companies have depended that that attitude since the early 70s, since it provides both a sword to dangle over the heads of existing freelancers, particularly in the current market, and a steady supply of at least temporarily complacent talent if the need arises.)

The dream scheme that's been sold for years is this: 1) Enter "mainstream" comics, and develop your craft/gain attention working on "secondary" characters. 2) Jump to a "major" character to cement your reputation. 3) Finesse your success into creator-owned material, whether self-published or fronted by an existing company. 4) Watch the world lap up your genius while living in luxury.

Aside from Todd McFarlane (and Todd pretty much abandoned the creative side altogether) this scheme has never worked very well. On the one hand, working the salt mines simply reinforces biases one has already picked up unquestioningly reading comics in the first place. Often when talent goes to create "their own" properties, they regurgitate existing concepts and formulae because that's what they've been taught, and they want to be "commercial." (That no one knows what's going to be commercial until a sufficient number of people have bought it is an argument the industry religiously sloughs off.) If they're associated with a major character, it often locks them into an audience for those characters, and rather than carrying the audience to new books (particularly if the new books are dissimilar to the existing object of affection) they often create a former audience lamenting their absence. (I love Frank Miller's work but I can't believe after 15 years people still go weak at the knees over periodic rumors that Frank will return to Batman.)

Today companies are steadily undermining whatever advances talent gained in the 80s and early 90s, and they're often aided by a fandom increasingly hostile to the notion that talent should take umbrage at their treatment. (On the MOTO message board recently, one writer suggested Grant Morrison, in expressing dismay with his conflicts with DC, was "biting the hand that feeds him," expressing a growing feudal view among certain sectors of fandom that freelancing is a matter of company handouts instead of some degree of value exchange, and that freelancers should be grateful for their lot and quietly accept whatever companies deign to give them. Those ungrateful, uppity freelancers. If I didn't know many freelancers who also think this way, I'd almost find that amusing.) I know one major current success (no, not me) who has been negotiating deals with several major companies only to have them all fall through when the companies starting demanding rights in the material that as late as a year ago they never would have insisted on. Companies are increasingly flat out antagonistic toward even lip service to creator ownership and creator rights, as their existence depends more and more on property rights than publishing. And (again, Todd McFarlane aside) while some talent might be able to eke out a comfortable living, virtually no freelancer today makes enough to both support himself and underwrite a competitive self-publishing concern long enough to get one off the ground, effectively trapping top talent on work-for-hire books, making them beg for "creator-owned" crumbs from existing companies, or forcing them out of the business altogether.

"Today companies are steadily undermining whatever advances talent gained in the 80s and early 90s, and they're often aided by a fandom increasingly hostile to the notion that talent should take umbrage at their treatment."

Of the many interesting statements in Groth's piece, this one is perhaps most pertinent: "Effecting change by 'working within the system' is one of the popular strategies among well-intentioned middle-of-the-road reformers but which should now be seen for what it is: counter-productive and self-serving. The individual doesn't so much 'work within the system' so much as the system works within the individual, and the two reach a compromise that is always to the advantage of an adaptable but fundamentally unchanging system. Seeing those who profit by 'working within the system' encourages others to 'work within the system' until everyone is working for the well-oiled machine and when everyone is working for the machine the idea of subversion from within is a bad joke."

Yet, in comics, what other option is there, except to leave? Image was originally touted to be a break from the machine, but, as they rapidly shifted to a work-for-hire economy and factories of assistants pumping out house styles, it became pretty clear change wasn't their agenda; children of the machine, they wanted to be the machine. And ultimately got eaten by the machine for it. Just as Jim Steranko, Joe Simon, Jerry Siegel and countless others have been eaten by the machine.

And the content of comics has become static and inbred; the talent is itchy but cowed with whatever once passed for personal vision spindled and mutilated into existing holes; the readership clings to the familiar like Alzheimer's patients recalling the distant past with crystal clarity but unable to even focus on the modern world.

As Dylan once sang, there must be some kind of way out of here. Are our only options assimilation or abandonment?

Independently financed talent pursuing visions not corporately rubberstamped remain our best hope for resuscitating the business. True, independent creators are capable of just as much crap as companies are, but the companies have made such a bollocks of the market in the corporate comics era that creators couldn't possibly do any worse. Even here, there aren't a lot of practical options. Self-publishing is doomed as long as the material is self-indulgent and neither financial nor distribution support structures exist. With the newer companies pushing into the business (e.g. Cross/Gen) rigidly focusing on work-for-hire (Cross/Gen has taken it to a new level, recreating the factory town), a well-financed company dedicated to creator-owned properties in which the company has only publication rights is unlikely to arise.

"Independently financed talent pursuing visions not corporately rubberstamped remain our best hope for resuscitating the business."

All that's left is that somehow talent has to underwrite and publish their own work, whether self-publishing or cooperatively, and use the opportunity not to pursue the "commercial" (a notion that's always at least a step behind the times and ultimately calcifies into nostalgia) but to develop a coherent creative vision. And, hopefully, a more functional business vision.

Believe it or not, you have an easy way to make this happen. Warren and I both get paid by the hit for our CBR columns. (It appeals to our crime comics natures.) So all you have to do is tell everyone you know with a computer to hit MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS on Wednesdays and COME IN ALONE on Fridays, and tell them to tell everyone they know, and on and on. Doesn't matter if they like comics or not; it doesn't cost them anything either. It's a victimless pyramid scheme. If we each get half a million hits per week, we'll have plenty of money to put where our mouths are. Because we would. Whether it would take or not's another question, but you play it as it lays, know what I mean?

You're welcome to take this as self-serving. It is. But it's my experiment, and I know what I want to do in comics that I haven't done. I know what Warren wants to do. And I know he's on the side of the angels. So.

So that's what it comes down to: you could change the face of comics. Today. Just like that. It's within your means. Seriously.

You really could.

All you have to do is do it.

Ed Brubaker, writer of DEADENDERS and BATMAN, spoke on his Delphi forum a couple weeks ago of "comics Cassandras," those predicting gloom and doom and bad tidings for the business if it doesn't change its evil ways, baby. While I'm reasonably sure he wasn't talking about me and probably didn't even have me in mind while writing, I felt compelled to make a literary comment: while "Cassandra" is now commonly used as a euphemism for "naysayer," in Greek mythology, Cassandra as the daughter of Priam, King Of Troy. She made the mistake of rebuffing the god Apollo who cursed her to be able to see the future but have no one ever believe her prophecies. So she gets taken (in all senses of the word) as a spoil of war by Agamemnon, High King of the Greeks, and on his way home warns him that his wife will kill both of them when they get there. He pooh-poohs this, of course, and his better half Clytemnestra butchers both of them soon after arrival. Cassandra's problem isn't that she's negative, but that she's right and nobody wants to hear it.

The opposite of the Cassandra is the Pollyanna, after the character who oozes so much positivity that she cracks open a town of life-hating old fogeys who, to that point, are just sitting around waiting to die, and gets them dancing, among other things.

While I tend toward Cassandraism, right now this business needs both Cassandras and Pollyannas. (My little proposition above is a venture into Pollyannaism.) We need to take care of those problems but we need enthusiasm, too. We need a vision of what we want the future to be.

Here's some good news: next week the Pollyannas get to strike back. The deal is I'm out of town next week and won't be in position to write a column. I have a few options. Reprint a column. Well, one shouldn't use up one's last resorts first. I could always pull a Warren and ask Mark Millar or someone to write a column in my stead. Know what? Let 'em get their own column. I could pull a long long night and double shift a second column this week. Too much hassle, man.

So. Being the why-can't-we-be-friends two-sides-to-every-story I-may-not-agree-with-what-you-say-but open-minded kind of guy that I am (at heart), I would like one of you to write next week's column. Particularly someone who's convinced the industry is brimming over with Good Things. I'm not talking about a dissertation on why you thought the latest issue of SAVAGE DRAGON or whatever was manna from heaven, I mean what you think is good about the comics industry. You can be as unqualified as you want, though being literate is a consummation devoutly to be wish'd. You don't have to worry about me stepping in to challenge or ravage your statement. I won't comment at all. It's carte blanche, baby. I'll be accepting submissions thought Sunday April 9, noon Pacific Daylight Savings Time. 1500-2000 words. The lucky winner will appear here next Wednesday. I'm the judge, of course, and my decision in final, but don't feel you have to suck up to my prejudices. I've got no problem with people speaking their minds. But that's the theme: what's good about the comics industry today. Here's your big chance at web stardom. Do what thou wilt be the whole of the law.

I'll just be over here listening to Magazine doing "My Mind Ain't So Open That Anything Could Crawl Right In." And if no one wants a piece of this, hey, I can always reprint a column. We'll see.

New stories up at @VENTURE. More Anna Passenger by Adi Tantimedh. More of the continuing saga of THE HODAG by Mike Baron. The start of a new crime novel called TEQUILA by… let's see… that'd be me. And maybe a couple more stories if I have the chance to get them up today. Check it out.

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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