Master Of The Obvious: Issue #43

Wed, May 24th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Finally got around to watching SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE this week. When I was very young, growing up in Madison WI, I lived in movie theaters in summer. Madison's built on a swamp and it's not unusual in August to see 98 days with 99% humidity for weeks on end. (At least, it wasn't then. Not having lived there in a couple decades, I couldn't say for certain now.) Even if I hadn't loved movies, theaters were the optimal place to be under those conditions. One professor I had in college, for a film appreciation course, was fanatical about theaters being the only place for movies, and how it was our duty as serious film students to get seated before the beginning, sit silent and attentive throughout, and not leave until the last shred of movie has passed the camera gate and the house lights come up.

I wonder what he thinks of DVD.

DVD's now my delivery system of choice for movies. I don't even use a TV; I watch them on my notebook computer's wonderful high resolution brilliant color screen. Beautiful sound. Absolutely crisp visuals. Letterbox ratios. You can watch movies anywhere (though, as I learned today, outside in the bright sun is more trouble than it's worth). And I really like the accessory material - scene maps, director commentaries, deleted scenes, etc. - they like to stuff DVDs with. SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE has gobs of that.

And one of the bits, repeated in a couple different contexts, is an interview with the first writer on the material, Marc Norman. (Tom Stoppard came aboard later.) Who says the story generated out of his sudden realization that William Shakespeare, in many circles considered the greatest playwright and writer ever to make use of the English language, "was a professional writer… as soon as I knew [that] I knew he was broke, he was horny and he was starved for an idea." In other words, he was exactly like us. There's also an amusing little bit where one promoter suggests offering the writer and actors a share of the profits in lieu of pay, knowing there will be no profits. In other words, exactly like us.

This week I also got an e-mail from a friend [specifics deleted]:

"Just wanted to talk to you about freelance writing for a bit, if you have the time. After three years as… I quit my job… to be a freelancer. It's an old story: I was bored out of my mind, spending two hours a day at the most doing my job, waiting the rest of the time for lunch or for the end of the day. It was so mind-numbingly dull that I found it impossible to get any writing done, but I did read quite a few online novels. I was stagnating, an automaton following the same routine at the same time each day. And I couldn't imagine doing this for another 35 years until I retired.

"So here I am. "I'm a freelance writer," I tell myself. "Hm? Oh, I'm self-employed," I tell the bank. "Out of college, money spent, see no future, pay no rent" say the Beatles. Well I was smart enough to save up some money before I quit, enough to tide over rent and groceries for a while. My fiance will be ringing in some income as well, though like me she's reading most afternoons. Money's not a concern, yet. But it will be if I can't find any paying gigs.

"Any advice for getting by, or should I just move to Southern California and be done with it?"

Normally I'd just write back, but since I get a dozen similar letters a week…

This isn't advice so much as an observation: you're screwed, pal.

We all are.

First off, scratch any romantic notions you may have of freelancing as a writer. (I'm speaking specifically of fiction in its various forms, but it applies broadly.) It's tough. It's a miserable, chronically grim way to make a living. Most novelists make their money teaching or speaking tours or doing something other than writing; no less an author than John Irving has said he has never been able to support himself on the sales of his books, and he's considered one of America's premier novelists. Technical writers do better, but while technical writing is an art in itself, for many it's the same sort of work they became writers to get away from, and many companies have in-house tech writers and only use freelancers when they're desperate.

The freelance life mainly consists of bills, or spouses with jobs that pay well. Freelancers are independent contractors, but many clients (that's technically what the people who pay you to write are: clients) tend to view them as day laborers. The comics business in particular is used to thinking of writers (once you're below the top echelon, anyway, and even they're not immune to it) the way big farms view migrant workers, and it's not unheard of for publishers to resort to the equivalent of trotting down to the corner to select warm bodies off a flatbed truck for day work, though that rarely works out well.

"The comics business in particular is used to thinking of writers the way big farms view migrant workers …"

And, as I've mentioned before, there's still the widespread presumption that freelancers of any stripe are freelancers because they don't have the discipline and "people skills" to do "real" work. Like what we do is one endless holiday.

Freelance writing in comics presents special obstacles. Writing novels is relatively cut and dried: you write a book (or sample chapters thereof), you send it to an editor. They send you a contract or a rejection letter. (The oversimplified version.) In book publishing, as in screenwriting, there's someone paid to at least try to read your work. In comics, forget it. The "first reader" concept is unheard of. Breaking in becomes a song and dance show, and there are always a million others nipping at your heals if by some chance you do manage to get an editor's attention and an assignment. An editor's attention is easier got via social mingling than samples. Or you can become an entrepreneur and publish your own work and hope for the best.

Again, as I've mentioned before, Marvel and DC have one advantage: they usually get the checks there on time. The disadvantage is their desire that you mold everything to their specifications. (Smaller companies, to convince themselves they stand on an equal professional footing with Marvel and DC, often like to behave the same way; unless they're willing to put out the same way, don't put up with it.) But we're in a era of cutbacks, cancellations and shrinking opportunities. 1959 may have been a harder time to break into comics, but not by much. Smaller companies often seem more intimate and personal, but while the publisher or editor may be cooperative and friendly, ultimately in the dark, barren core of most smaller companies there seems to be some asshole comptroller - I'm starting to think someone clones and markets them - who pays staff salaries first, the bill collectors second, and, maybe a month or five after the check was promised, the freelancers. If it happens to be convenient. Editors always want the work right on schedule, of course; financial matters they tell you to talk to the comptrollers about. (This isn't anything new. Small companies have been operating like this ever since I entered the business. If you have some idea when the money's going to come in, you can plan your budget around it, but most companies seem to translate a term of 30 days after delivery to "sometime after 30 days, we'll start the paperwork to process your check, and it will be cut sometime after that, and sometime after that we'll put it in an envelope and sometime after that we'll mail it. I'm still paying off credit card bills I racked up waiting for checks from First Comics to materialize, ten years ago.)

Meanwhile you can't tell your creditors they have to wait a month or five. They want their money now, and they're perfectly willing to wreck your credit rating, take your house and repossess your stereo to get it. This is where the working spouse comes in.

Not that this is particularly different from most markets freelancer writers work in. I hear dozens of horror stories from screenwriters I know. Despite claims for years that cable and various other new technologies were going to open up new opportunities for writers, the result has been the opposite. Cable has become a haven for reruns, not new programming. (Comics started much the same way, reprinting old newspaper strips until those ran out, then switching to new material to fill the void, but old TV shows just rerun forever.) I received a note from a screenwriter friend of mine about the angst among writers because networks are increasingly filling their schedules with game shows and football games, things that don't exactly create market opportunities for writers. There are other interesting trends: most outlets insist on working with writers through their agents, but I know very few writers who feel their agents actually do anything besides step in at the 11th hour to sell out their interests and pocket 10%. Agents are a dying breed anyway; the latest Hollywood innovation is the "personal manager," a cheat on California's stringent agent law. The "personal manager" is the agent gone berserk, taking 15% or more of earnings while finally doing away with the messy business of creative freedom and putting himself in the position of actually being able to tell the writer what to write. There's a whole crop of them finessing their way into power in Hollywood now, trying to become the new power brokers. In the TV/movie business, everyone wants to be known as the creative one. Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die, so they keep the writers around to handle that end of it.

Overlooking the literally thousands of capable writers already not able to find work in the television and film industry, I can understand the urge to move to Los Angeles. If you want to work in film or TV, you've pretty much got to be there. Novels and comics you can write anywhere, though comics, particularly among the "Big Two," have been taking on much more of the "meeting" culture saturating the media business, meaning, for the first time in a long time, comics writers who leave near Manhattan have some advantage over those who don't. You must live in Los Angeles to make contacts, and to be able to show up at meetings at a moment's notice.

But thirty years ago, it was fun and funky to live in Los Angeles. People still lived well on the cheap there. No more. Woody Guthrie wrote a song in the 30s about California that went "but believe it or not, you won't find it so hot, if you ain't got that do-re-mi." Though it was just as true in the dustbowl era, today it seems precognitive. Los Angeles is a lot of fun if you have a lot of money, and pretty much a depressing hellhole if you don't. Which puts the would-be writer in a very bad situation. Harlan Ellison once advised writers to work for a couple years and live with their parents to store up a few grand before making the transition to Los Angeles so you could live six months to a year there without having to worry about making money. Today we're talking tens of thousands, more money than you could collect in a decade of living with your parents.

"Los Angeles is a lot of fun if you have a lot of money, and pretty much a depressing hellhole if you don't."

If you do decide to move there, the best "out of the blue" conduit for making contacts seems to be the UCLA film school, if you can get in. For short story and novel writing, there are still reputable fiction workshops around the country that can gain you access to markets. There's no similar thing in comics, though the Joe Kubert school somewhat fulfills that function for artists. Perhaps there should be.

This may sound to some like I'm grousing. I'm not. (I save that for the bastards who don't send my checks on time.) I'm simply saying: this is how it is. If you're going to write material that expresses only what you want to express, be ready for a lot of roadblocks and write really, really well, because moneymen don't really want to hear what you have to say, they want to hear you say what they think you should be saying - unless you dazzle them saying in, in which case you can get away with quite a bit. If you're lucky, you'll run across a publisher or producer who has always wanted to say what you have to say but didn't know that until you said it. If not, and if you can't write best sellers, and you want to make your living writing, learn to write fast and to order. If you write fast enough and your spirit can take the prefab confines, you may end up with enough time to write what you really want to say. If you can manage to remember what that was at the end of the day. Ultimately what people really buy when they buy your work is your point of view, so don't be afraid to have one. It may cost you work, but it might balance out in the long run. All you need is talent, flexibility, desire and inhuman patience.

"If you're going to write material that expresses only what you want to express, be ready for a lot of roadblocks and write really, really well…"

So, yeah, freelancing for any medium (and probably in any discipline, though I can only speak comfortably about this one) is a very dodgy life. There's not much favorable I can say about it but this:

There's an old joke that democracy is a terrible form of government redeemed only by the fact that it's better than any other. Freelancing really only has one thing in its favor: it beats the hell out of any other way to earn a living.

Face it, work sucks. Having a job sucks. (As Patti Smith put it in the ineffable "Piss Factory": "Every afternoon like the last one. Every afternoon like a rerun.") The whole concept of work, past a certain point, is borderline idiotic. For most people it means surrendering huge chunks of their time to someone else's whims, for no particular satisfaction aside from ensuring their bills get paid, and no matter how much they earn it isn't enough to cover their monthly nut, while their jobs mainly prevent them from spending sufficient amounts of time with their families. (Which may be a plus, in some instances.) There's a reason fascism is based on a corporate model. The larger the company, the more coglike each individual employee becomes, and the more fascistic the nature of the organization. Even if they're nice about it. (Before anyone wants to argue this, I'd recommend reading Bertram Gross' FRIENDLY FASCISM: The New Face Of Power In America.) And y'know what? Compared to what they do, what we do is an endless holiday. Just a largely unpaid one.

Hell, who wouldn't want to be freelance?

So here's my one bit of advice: freelance writing is like tightrope walking. Without a net.

Keep walking and never look down.

X-MAN #65 should be out today. Do me a favor and pick up a copy. Lovely work by Ariel Olivetti and some guy named Warren Ellis, with me mucking it all up.

The question of the week on the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: what do you feel is the most embarrassing comic in your collection, how did you end up with it and why do you keep it? If you no longer collect comics but still read them, what's the most embarrassing comic you can remember reading? (And I mean "appalled to let anyone know you read comics"-level embarrassing, so bad you considered walking away from comics because of it.) Let the frivolity begin!

New material on @VENTURE: new Anna Passenger by Adisakdi Tantimedh! New Hodag by Mike Baron! More "Comeback" by Michel Lacombe! Short stories by Marc Bryant, Scot Snow and Rick Beckley! Aside: anyone got any suggestions for a zero-budget, high-focus promotional blitz of @VENTURE on the Internet, particularly to agents, producers, editors, book publishers, that kind of thing? We've got enough material online now that it's time to kick it up to phase II. And for those waiting for more Tequila (and, boy, I sure am) I've just had way too much to do to finish the next couple chapters, but I'm almost there so hold on. Thanks. And for those who dig Adi Tantimedh's Anna Passenger, check out his new culture column at the Themestream site, called Culture Mash. You may find a column or two by one Warren Ellis there as well.

Turns out I have a question of the week jr. Speaking of writing schools: a lot of people have been asking if I'm going to be in San Diego this year. At the moment, it's looking improbable, but… a few years back, I held a seminar on writing comics. The concept was to simulate in 12 hours - albeit with a mob of people collaborating on a single story - the pressure cooker conditions under which comics are often produced. We started from scratch in the evening and, as the cock crowed, left with a five page story that was later published in DARK HORSE PRESENTS. It was an interesting experiment. At least one "graduate," Doselle Young, has since gone on to bigger and better things. The question: were I to be at San Diego this year and were I to hold another overnight seminar on writing comics, how much would people be willing to pay to attend it? Would anyone even want to attend it? Since it's all hypothetical and you're not committing to anything anyway, let me know.

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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