Come In Alone: Issue #37

Fri, August 11th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Warren Ellis, Columnist

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X-Men: it doesn't matter who creates it, it'll come out next month anyway. Literally. The creative individuals involved with the books are servicing a corporate asset. If Garth Ennis or Steve Dillon had dropped dead six months ago you'd never have seen another issue of PREACHER. If Kurt Busiek dropped dead tomorrow, you'd never see another SHOCKROCKETS or ASTRO CITY - but AVENGERS will roll on forever. It'll find new bodies to feed it.

This is something that is not clearly understood. In legal terms - as explained once in a court of law by Jim Shooter, when he was still EIC at Marvel - writers of work-for-hire books don't write. In legal terms, the corporation is the author of the work. From the corporation's point of view, creators are workers on the assembly line, building product.

This is brought to mind by today's news that writers Fabian Nicieza and Joseph Harris have been fired off two X-books. What particularly caught my eye was Fabian's statement following the firing, which read in part:

"I was never told why I was fired from 'Gambit' other than being informed by the editor and after-the-fact by the editor-in-chief that they wanted to 'go in new directions,'" Nicieza said. "At no time during my run on the title or after my firing did my editor or the editor-in-chief explain to me what exactly they did not like about the direction I had been going in, discuss what directions they would like me to go in or offer me an opportunity to go in the direction they preferred."

And what you need to understand right now is that this is not an inexplicable form of behavior. It's very simple: every time we sign one of those pay vouchers with the work-for-hire contract printed on the back, we encourage this kind of behavior. We are agreeing to join the assembly line. Would you like to know what that contract says?

In consideration of Marvel Entertainment Group inc. ("MARVEL") commissioning and ordering from SUPPLIER the written material, artwork or services reffered to in this Voucher (the "Work") and paying therefor, SUPPLIER acknowledges, agrees and confirms that the Work was created, prepared or performed by SUPPLER under commission from MARVEL for use as a contribution to a collective work (known as "Marvel Comics") and that as such the Work was and is expressly agreed to be considered a work made for hire for purposes of all copyright laws.

In addition to the foregoing, SUPPLIER expressly conveys and grants to MARVEL forever all rights of any kind and nature with SUPPLIER may have in and to the work (including but not limited to the unrestricted right to make modifications, adaptations and revisions to the Work), and the right to use SUPPLIER's name in connection therewith and agrees that Marvel is the sole and exclusive copyright proprietor thereof having all rights of ownership therein. SUPPLIER agrees never to contest MARVEL's exclusive, complete and unrestricted ownership in and to the Work (including all copyright rights therein), or to claim adverse rights therein.

This agreement shall be binding upon and inure to the benefit of the parties hereto and their respective heirs, successors, administrators and assigns.

By signature on the face thereof, SUPPLIER acknowledges acceptance of the terms herein specified and by tendering payment to SUPPLIER, MARVEL acknowledges receipt of the Work and acceptance of the terms herein specified.

Fabian says, "Basically, several weeks ago, after not hearing from my Editor for a longer period of time than I felt comfortable with, I called him and asked him what was going on and what was wrong." You'll see, above, that Marvel are not required to do anything more than send out his cheque as acknowledgement of receipt of the work. Fabian knows this, of course. He's been around a long time. He also knows that the second paragraph means that whatever he sends in, they can rewrite it to star Got No Legs Boy, Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti in a three-way scene conducted on the lawn of Xavier's New Academy For Horrible Sexy Mutants and by law stick Fabian's name on it anyway. Or my name. Or your name. Because you give them the right to use your name, but you also give up the right to make them use your name. In the front of novels, you'll often find the declaration that the author has asserted the moral right to be identified as author of the work. But when we work for hire, we give up that moral right , along with all the others.

Understand, I'm not just talking about Marvel. I'm not going after Marvel alone here. DC operates work-for-hire contracts almost exactly like this. So do Dark Horse and some Image studios. And some indie companies. These are the rights creators give up for the opportunity to do the work. This could be almost any company in comics I'm talking about.

I sign work-for-hire contracts because I know what I'm signing away and I have made the necessary mental and emotional adjustment. Discourse back in the Eighties made damn sure everyone knew what was going on. Way back in 1988, in response to these practises and a general lack of respect for the creator at the time, a Creator's Bill Of Rights was conjured in a short series of summits. The group that put this together is interesting: Dave Sim, Gerhard, Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, Scott McCloud, Larry Marder, Mark Martin, Steve Murphy, Michael Zulli, Eric Talbot, Ken Mitchroney and (with Mirage Studios) Michael Dooney, Steve Lavigne, Craig Farley, Jim Lawson and Ryan Brown. I believe there were also conversations with people like Alan Moore towards this end. Bissette has made a point of "retiring" from comics after apparently failing at self-publishing, Veitch co-runs a fine website (http://www.comicon.com) and is by his own public admission well-paid for doing work-for-hire on Wildstorm's America's Best Comics line, Eastman's one-time massive publishing and media operation has reduced to the magazine HEAVY METAL, Michael Zulli has a spotty recent career of superhero-comic work-for-hire, Larry Marder now works for Todd McFarlane Productions (hey, Beau), McCloud is showing us how to do online comics on CBR and recently released the compelling comics theory book REINVENTING COMICS, Peter Laird gifts The Xeric Grant, and Dave Sim and Gerhard are doing exactly the same thing they were in 1988.

This Bill Of Rights reads:

  1. The right to full ownership of what we fully create.

  2. The right to full control over the creative execution of that which we fully own.

  3. The right of approval over the reproduction and format of our creative property.

  4. The right of approval over the methods by which our creative property is distributed.

  5. The right to free movement of ourselves and our creative property to and from publishers.

  6. The right to employ legal counsel in any and all business transactions.

  7. The right to offer a proposal to more than one publisher at a time.

  8. The right to prompt payment of a fair and equitable share of profits derived from all of our creative work.

  9. The right to full and accurate accounting of any and all income and disbursements relative to our work.

  10. The right to prompt and complete return of our artwork in its original condition.

  11. The right to full control over the licensing of our creative property.

  12. The right to promote and the right of approval over any and all promotion of ourselves and our creative property.

You can find this, and fascinating annotations by Scott McCloud, at http://www.scottmccloud.com/inventions/bill/rights.html.

Here in 2000, Fabian concluded his statement with:

"I would like to thank the readers of 'Gambit' for having spent two years on the title with me and I hope you continue to buy 'Thunderbolts,' 'X-Men Forever,' 'Spider-Man: Lifeline' and any other projects I might have in the future."

All of which are characters owned by Marvel.

I'm not intending to insult Fabian, whom I know and like. I don't know why Fabian's fucking around with this stuff when he could be creating his own stories, but, hell, things happen. It amused me to go back to the X-books briefly, after all. What I'm doing is pointing out that intelligent people are still signing that voucher - and pointing out what that voucher says - and are somehow still surprised when people act on the powers it gives them. Twelve years after the production of a 12-point bill illustrating exactly what we should be looking for from our publishers.

You need to understand what you're signing and what you're giving away, decide if it's worth it and accept that you give up the right to complain when you are eventually shafted by agency of the legal standing you create for yourself on signature of the document. You, as a creator, will eventually be fired. You own nothing. You possess no rights. The corporate property will outlive you. You need to understand how that voucher affects the comics you see in your stores every week.

X-Men: it doesn't matter who creates it, it'll come out next month anyway. So buy something legally made by people instead. And help comics to live up to a document written in the last century.

I can be contacted by email about this column at warren@comicbookresources.com. My terribly beautiful website, updated this week with a new front-page essay and now containing an online store (carrying most things listed in INSTRUCTIONS) and a 24-hour rolling news service, is http://www.warrenellis.com.

INSTRUCTIONS: Read THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB by Richard Rhodes (1986), listen to PUNISHING KISS by Ute Lemper (Decca, 2000), and hit The Daily Rotten at http://www.dailyrotten.com.

Today's recommended graphic novel is SAFE AREA GORAZDE by Joe Sacco (Fantagraphics Books, 2000).

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