Master Of The Obvious: Issue #57

Wed, August 30th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Probably my favorite character in the bible is Esau. Esau's the grandson of Abraham, ancestral patriarch of the Hebrews, and the eldest son of Isaac. Practically a treatise on dysfunctional families, the Bible doesn't treat older brothers particularly well. Cain murders his younger brother Abel and is condemned to wander forever. Ishmael is Abraham's son by an Egyptian handmaid, and supposed to be a sacrifice to God (as in "God told Abraham, "kill me a son" / Abe said, "Man, you must be puttin' me on") but when Abraham's wife Sarah miraculously gives birth to Isaac, Ishmael and his mom are cast into the desert like a Judas goat, and all the glory falls on Isaac instead. Since Esau is the first heir to Isaac, and Isaac is heir to the covenant God made with Abraham, Esau is da man. But he's got this mama's boy little brother, Jacob, who's actually his twin but born second, but they're not really twins because Esau's got red hair - lots of red hair - so there's definitely something hinky going on there, and Jacob wants what Esau's supposed to get, i.e., God's blessing.

So Esau's out hunting - Isaac loves that deer meat stew - and after some time comes home empty-handed. He hasn't eaten in days. Jacob, apparently a conniver from the word go and egged on by Mommy, has just made some lentil stew. (Note the vegetation vs. animal flesh sub-theme.) Esau, who needs to eat badly, asks for some. Jacob says, "Okay, bro… but in exchange for a bowl of my stew and a hunk of bread, you have to trade me your birthright." I assume in all the years Jacob has been eating venison stew that Esau's labor put on the table, Esau has never asked for anything in return, but that's not mentioned in the story, so who knows?

Esau replies - pay attention, because this is the single best short description of the human situation in all of literature - "I am about to die. What good is the birthright to me?"

Thing is: he's right! He's boxed in. He has two choices: give up his birthright, eat and stay alive, or keep his birthright, die of starvation, and the birthright passes to the next heir (Jacob) anyway. So he surrenders his birthright, Jacob feeds him, and he gets to live another day. The Bible casts it as a stupid decision, just the sort of thing you'd expect from a hairy red brute, and from a theological viewpoint perhaps it is; they don't specifically make an issue of it, but there's that whole faith in God thing. Esau doesn't deserve his birthright because he doesn't have faith that God will see him through his time of acute malnourishment. Or maybe he'd read the Bible, saw how older brothers tend to take it on the chin, and figured it was better to take him chances. (In some versions, the lentil stew is also red, curiously suggesting sympathetic magic at work.)

But maybe, just maybe, Esau's not as dumb as all that. See, when he makes that trade, he doesn't have a birthright! Sure, he's the eldest, so he's the heir apparent, but until the old man actually lays on hands and gives him the right blessing, the birthright doesn't exist. Unless Isaac is told of the trade, there ain't no way to enforce it, and since telling would be a good way to get them both disowned, Isaac, on his deathbed, is all ready to bless Esau anyway, making the whole lentil stew thing moot.

Fortunately for Jacob, old Isaac's blind, so Jacob and his mom mix up their own stew (presumably Isaac's taste buds are shot as well) and dress Jacob in Esau's clothes and goat skins (for convincing hairiness) so Isaac blesses Jacob, thinking he's Esau, and when Esau comes back with a deer to chop into stew, Isaac realizes he's been tricked but by then all he can give Esau is bad news. (A coda where God consoles Esau with hundreds of kids and the two brothers cheerfully reconcile years later when Esau apparently has Jacob at his mercy seems tacked on, like a Hollywood ending: to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, a solution so clever only a half-wit would think of it.)

"I am about to die. What good is the birthright to me?"

I doubt there's a freelancer alive who doesn't ask themselves that question in some form every day. Nobody becomes a freelancer unless they either want to follow their own path and instincts or they want to reap the majority of the fruits of their own labors themselves instead of (which is the case in most work situations) watching them go to someone else. Particularly where creative matters are involved. Paradoxically, freelancers are considered in many professions among those most coercible and exploitable. Freelancers are islands, ununionized, generally without support or pressure groups of any kind. The government couldn't care less about them, the IRS actively frowns on freelancing since it makes their job tougher. Particularly in the commerce of ideas, people become freelancers in order to turn their ideas into gold but rarely have direct access to the end markets for those ideas: the public. In most instances, only those who have that access profit from ideas, the intermediaries like publishers and studios. Because they control that access, they often feel they have the right to control, even own, the ideas. And they may be right.

"…freelancers are considered in many professions among those most coercible and exploitable. Freelancers are islands, ununionized, generally without support or pressure groups of any kind."

Our ideas are our birthright. This is unassailably true. Particularly in the age of mass media, any idea, brilliant or dumb, could generate billions, could create fortunes and change the face of our culture. Look at Superman, the brainchild of a couple of kids from Cleveland. Or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which spawned a small merchandise empire and generated money that, briefly, altered the concept of how comics should be done in this country. Our ideas are ours. We have a right to them. Even copyright law specifies that. Unless we sign them away. That's the loophole: like Esau, we can sign it all away. That's the first thing the intermediaries insist on, usually: sign it all away. There are usually good reasons to sign it away. Beginning freelancers can view the trade-off as a stepping stone, surrender one good idea for a shot at making the public aware of your name and talent and the possibility of owning the next idea (and, mostly relegated to the far side of consciousness, the gamble there will be a next idea). Intermediaries, in fact, bank that freelancers will believe this. The fascinating thing about the intermediary mind is that they can't seem to conceive that anyone would want to do things any other way. Their view is that they provide money and opportunity, what you do with it is up to you, and all you have to do to get it is give up claim to your own ideas, or ignore your own ideas and wear the suit they cut for you.

This goes for experienced freelancers as well as beginners. But will the money appear in anything but dribs and drabs? Will anyone even recognize your name, particularly after the idea you sold has been mutilated by divers hands into something even you don't recognize, and would you even want your name associated with it at that point? (This admittedly is more a Hollywood scenario, but it's becoming increasingly familiar in comics as editorial micromanagement becomes more prevalent.)

So that's the choice: do you surrender your birthright, or do you hold onto it? I'm reminded of Abel Ferrara's remake of the '56 sci-fi horror flick, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, in which plant aliens from outer space replace an entire military base with soothingly menacing pod people, Gabrielle Anwar and Billy Wirth are about to escape when pod person Meg Tilly asks them in an annoyingly insistent matter-of-fact voice, "Where're you gonna go? Huh? Everyone's like us now. Where're you gonna go? Where're you gonna go?" If you go the noble artist route and zealously refuse to hand your daughters to the Romans, what are you going to do with them? What good are ideas if you can't get them out there? If you don't cut a deal with intermediaries, you run the risk of ending up dead anyway, without reputation or career, unable to translate your ideas to value. As Esau wondered, what does birthright really matter anyway?

Last year I was approached by a new company that insisted on everything being work-for-hire (with some creator equity, which means better than royalty participation in the back end) but offered in return the means to do books you really want to do and can't get done anywhere else. Now I knew what the deal was going in, and I have an idea that I want to get out there, so I figured I'd give them a test run, and I pitched them the idea. Which they're interested in. We're doing it as a graphic novel, as far as I know. I'm still iffy about the deal, but there are enough potential perks and cachet involved if all goes well that it's worth the risk. It took a year to get the contracts finalized, but that was mostly my fault. But it wasn't two days after I finally signed the contract that the first little eruption came: they suddenly wanted me to change the name.

To be fair, they have good reasons for wanting a name change. It's not a matter of trademark infringement, which is the main reason names get changed, but due to the influence of outside forces that have nothing to do with the project I want to get done. And I have my own reasons for not wanting a name change. So the question was: do I want to acquiesce and come up with a different title, or do I choose to risk the budding relationship and refuse to alter a title I like very much and which describes the book on a couple different levels? And possibly kill the project altogether? Do I stick with my own creative instincts or give way before their business instincts? Birthright or pottage?

I'm not trying to demonize anyone here, or justify my decision. These are fairly typical concerns in the course of a project. The editor on the project has been very supportive, though I think my refusal to change the name caught him off-guard. I haven't heard an official response from the company yet. Possibly they have to make their own decisions now. That's the way the business works.

We normally pretend in this industry that there's something intrinsically noble about sticking to your creative guns in the face of crass company commercial desires. Frankly, I've never found it to mean anything one way or another. In situations where I've stood pat, it's never had any particular beneficial effect on my career. I walked away from the PUNISHER mini-series when Marvel took Mike Zeck off the art. Mike and I had made a deal that if one of us was removed the other would leave, and while I always thought it would be me to get thrown off, I stuck by my word and by Mike. Two years later, another friend of mine, when we were sitting around the Mattel lobby, blithely told me that reasons were irrelevant, and all that really mattered was my image would always be "the man who didn't finish the Punisher mini-series." I've had series killed when I didn't want to change them. In my experiences, not accommodating the whims of the publisher usually results in enterprises of great pith and moment turning awry.

"In my experiences, not accommodating the whims of the publisher usually results in enterprises of great pith and moment turning awry."

[Psychoblast #1]But accommodation rarely gives better results. I did a short-lived series called PSYCHOBLAST for First Comics in the 80s. I intended it as an explosive sci-fi/psychological epic with superhero overtones; they saw it as their answer to UNCANNY X-MEN. In the pitch, I stated that if the series didn't have radical art along the lines of Bill Sienkiewicz (I didn't think for a second we could get Bill to draw it, but he was the best example) it would fail miserably. First ultimately brought it down to a new guy, Robb Phipps, who was a good artist but much more in the style of Jerry Ordway. Jerry Ordway is a terrific superhero artist but it's not likely anyone's going to mistake his work for cutting edge. This isn't a criticism of Jerry's art. (One doesn't criticize Beethoven for not being Schonberg.) It isn't a criticism of Robb's art; Robb tried mightily. The book did fail miserably, but because I didn't stick to my creative instincts; the fact was I instinctively recognized the inherent deficiencies of the concept could only be sufficiently masked by hyperkinetic artwork, said so up front, and then chose pottage. I wanted another book out, and First was willing to do that. It was more important to me at the time to go with the best available choice for artist and get the book off the ground than to wait for the best possible choice and risk never getting the book off the ground. Looking back, the series was pottage from the start: I pitched it not because it was any breakthrough concept, but because I knew I could sell it.

One last story. In '93, I did a book at Dark Horse called ENEMY. I held it close. I retained all rights. Another political crime book in the spirit of WHISPER, it might have clicked. As it was, it never got the chance. Caught in a turf war between editor Bob Schreck and Dark Horse's marketing department, it was virtually swept under the rug by the company. Six months before San Diego that year, Bob and I started prepping materials. When I got to San Diego, I found one scrap of promotion for ENEMY, a postage stamp of the first issue cover on a wall amid mostly larger covers from dozens of other Dark Horse titles, the whole thing overshadowed by a monstrous Easter Island head statue promoting the then-new Legend line. But I'm still proud of the story. In that case, I held onto my birthright and faith failed me. The book might have failed anyway, but in this instance it never really got a chance.

[Enemy]However, in '96 ENEMY was bought as a Tri-Star TV show for Fox TV. In that case, I chose lentil soup. Fact was I had only one Enemy story in me and I'd done it, so further exploitation of the property only had monetary value to me - and the possibility of spinning a supporting character, FBI agent Ace Quillan into her own series because I do have an Ace Quillan story in me. Tri-Star wanted all the rights, but if things had gone smoothly, it would have put several hundred grand in my pocket and if the series lasted long enough to be syndicated, it would have amounted to millions. But the first thing I had to give up was the screenplay; David Goyer wrote it, cribbing a lot from the comic. (And I would have been pissed off if he hadn't.) The pilot got made, but ultimately Fox passed in favor of Chris Carter's MILLENNIUM. The millions turned into pocket money, and the Enemy rights currently sit in some dusty drawer at Sony-Columbia, which Tri-Star was absorbed into.

So which choice amounted to anything?

Choose birthright and hope God will step in before you die, or choose pottage and rationalize the choice. Neither seems to have particularly better or worse results than the other. And we all continue to dream of some fantastic middle ground, where the choices can be somehow reconciled. It doesn't matter which choice you make. Alan Moore abandons work-for-hire comics for creator-owned comics and gets criticized for it. John Byrne abandons creator-owned comics for work-for-hire and takes heat for it. They both have their reasons, and my friend in the Mattel lobby was right: ultimately reasons don't matter. The only way to know if you've made the right choice is how the choice turns out.

I don't pretend to have an answer to the dilemma, or even a conclusion. Every answer is situational. In theory, faith is always the preferable option, but when you need lentil soup you need lentil soup.

At @VENTURE this week we're happy to begin serializing a new horror novel by renowned comics writer Jan Strnad. Jan's behind lots of 80s fan favorites like DALGODA and SWORD OF THE ATOM, and the new novel veers way into Stephen King territory. We've also got a short story by Christopher Mills, as well as more HODAG by Mike Baron and another chapter of my novel TEQUILA. (I'm currently finishing a short story called "What We Really Want" that should be up by next week.) Jan's novel can also be sampled at his own website, ATOMBRAIN.

For those who want the skinny on my upcoming WHISPER graphic novel (for those who came in late, Whisper was a femme fatale mired in the world of shadow politics I created and wrote in the 80s; this will be her first appearance in nearly a decade), the first communiqu from the WHISPER PROPAGANDA BUREAU goes out this week. To sign up, click here. Those who've already signed up - and you know who you are - no need to sign up again. You're on my list, at least. (And probably on the FBI's, now that they're snooping in everyone's e-mail. Or just want to, if you take their word for it. Carnivore: what an appropriate name for nazi behavior.) (Don't mind me… I'm just getting in the WHISPER mood.)

The French comics publishing house Semic (I think I can now safely number editor-in-chief Thierry Mornet among my friends) is collecting the two issue LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE story I did with Gil Kane into a high class edition (Semic has some of the best production values I've ever seen) with a new intro by me. I don't know if it'll get to stores on these shores, but I'm looking forward to it.

This week's Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: if the comics industry were to finally crash and burn totally, what one publishing company - I don't necessarily mean a big company, or even your favorite company - would you most like to see survive to ascend post-apocalyptically and reshape the business in its own image? Why?

Haven't mentioned the hit parade lately, but keep up the good work. Hit counts are rising monthly. Still not enough to translate into revenue to publish comics with, but Rome was built in a day and all that. Keep spreading the word and convincing I-hoppers, whether comics fans or not, to check out this column and Warren Ellis' COME IN ALONE weekly. Thanks.

At @VENTURE later this week, I'll have a new crime story, "What We Really Want," as well as more chapters of Jan Strnad's horror novel RISEN and Mike Baron's thriller THE HODAG. Who knows what else will pop up in the meantime? If you haven't heard, @VENTURE is the online pulp magazine where comics writers show their prose fiction chops. With dozens of stories in all kinds of genres, it's endless entertainment.

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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