Master Of The Obvious: Issue #68

Wed, November 15th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

A few weeks ago I did an interview for Silver Bullet Comics. I have a lot of sympathy for interviewers, having been on that side of the mike for a number of years. On the one hand, there's the urge, particularly if you've interviewed for some time, to impress the subject with piercing questions they've never been asked before. On the other, there's pressure to ask questions the audience would most likely ask if they could, usually the same old questions the subject gets every interview. In most cases, the subject politely suffers through, regularly checking his watch. Groups like The Killing Joke were notorious for hanging bad interviewers out hotel windows and such (fortunately I dodged that particular bullet during our interview). I suspect more behavior like that would make for more interesting interviews.

I became a very wonky interviewer, partly because my income didn't depend on it, partly to suppress my own boredom with the job. I asked The Eurythmics exactly one question: what do you think you bring American audiences that they can't get anywhere else? During a press junket for a lecture tour - basically a gang interview with dozens of interviewers crammed into a hotel suite, each cribbing the answers to everyone else's questions - I caught Wm. Burroughs' attention with one semi-frivolous question that proved I'd read one of his more obscure books. An interview with Harry Dean Stanton turned into an afternoon debating the best English translation of the I-Ching. (Unfortunately, after I'd steered clear of overblown tales of Stanton's "violent" Hollywood past, the editor clipped the same from some San Francisco newspaper and inserted them into the piece, leaving Stanton furious with me.) During another junket for one of the million Star Trek movies, I horrified all the other interviewers in attendance by getting the first word in and asking William Shatner for the secret of eternal youth. (We'd been jokingly discussing it before he got there.) Shatner was so amused he spent the interview answering directly to me regardless of who asked the question, and afterwards came over to shake my hand. (And I don't even like Star Trek, further infuriating the Trekkies among the interviewers… which was most of them…)

I was told at least once this was not how a professional interviewer comports himself. There seems to be a number of people - professional interviewers, mostly - under the delusion that interviewing is a noble profession, with distinctive separation of professional and unprofessional conduct, even as they misquote, gaff grammatical errors that transform thoughts into their opposites, insinuate, twist words to fit preexisting expectations of what the finished piece should be, and put themselves over at their subjects' expense. None of this happened to me in my interview, and there are a handful of really good interviewers (no names leap to mind), but, frankly, interviewers who take themselves seriously are twits. A chimp trained to turn on a tape recorder and hand out a prefab question sheet could do pretty much the same job in most cases, for all it would make a difference in the final piece. Tell an interviewer that if you want to see someone get all red and puffy. This may sound like I hold interviewers in contempt. I don't. Most I've known or dealt with have been fairly nice. But I've been there. I've done the job. They can serve valid functions, like investigative journalism. Mostly they don't. Mostly they exist to serve the purposes of flack. They're cheap advertising.

Which is okay. I mean, why not? But a noble profession? I don't think so.

I'm not singling out the guy who interviewed me. I'm not aiming at him at all. He did fine. And he asked one fairly interesting question: when I write negatively about Marvel in this column while writing a book for them, am I biting the hand that feeds me?

The answer: of course.

Underlying the question was the suggestion, intended or otherwise, that I'm doing something vaguely unprofessional. I haven't thought about what constitutes professionalism in comics for a long time. When I first entered the business, professionals tossed "professional" around all the time. This was an era when pros who had entered the business five years earlier during the first major influx of young talent into comics since the 50s were muttering like old men about those coming in after them: how the newcomers didn't have the training and experience to do the work properly, how they had no work ethic, how they didn't understand the business, etc. Mainly how they were "unprofessional."

Professionalism is one of those words whose meaning changes with who you talk to. In many professions (lawyer, doctor, stockbroker, cop, etc.) what constitutes professional conduct is laboriously spelled out. (That the practitioners often ignore those injunctions is another matter.) In a field like comics, I'm not sure the term "professional conduct" has any meaning at all.

"In a field like comics, I'm not sure the term "professional conduct" has any meaning at all."

For most of the history of comics, "true professionals" were defined by certain traits: they produced commercially acceptable work quickly, cheaply, and meekly, doing whatever they were told when they were told, and within whatever standards of quality the publisher chose to enforce. (Legend has it Jack Kirby was banished from DC in the late 50s for producing substandard work - which then became the house style at Marvel.) While artists in particular had a tendency to judge "professionalism" in terms of craft, most applicable definitions weighed heavily to the benefit of publisher. It wasn't so long ago companies considered it unprofessional, and a breach of good faith, for a freelancer to have a lawyer look over a contract.

In most instances in comics, professionalism is a one way street. Companies have traditionally demanded (or, more recently, asked or even begged) it from talent, while being ambivalent about returning it. In the 60s, Marvel and DC regularly swapped page rate information to keep talent from jumping ship to earn more at the other company. A reason so many new talents were able to break in at DC in the early 70s was that companies banishing of established talent - some of whom had been working there exclusively for decades - because they banded together in an attempt to get higher page rates. "Professionals" are supposed to be loyal. I remember at the Epic offices one day running into an unnerved inker (working then at Marvel, DC and for independents) who had just returned from lunch with a high-ranking member of the Marvel editorial staff, who had told the inker the pecking order for assignments at Marvel: those on staff, then those on contract, then those who weren't on contract but who worked exclusively for Marvel anyway, then "the scum who'll work for anyone." It was said as a joke, but the inker told me he had no doubt it had also been a warning. It wasn't uncommon throughout the 80s when pros started considering greener fields at DC for the rumor to bubble up "on the q.t." that Marvel was in "top secret" negotiations to buy DC (always a possibility, if a distant one, in the early 80s when DC was particularly shaky and Marvel was a runaway train) and those who were already working for Marvel would get the plums of DC assignments after the purchase. Talent stayed at Marvel; Marvel somehow never completed their secret negotiations. While Marvel and DC have grown accustomed over the years to talent heading elsewhere at the drop of a hat, there's still a vestigial tendency in the business to equate loyalty with professionalism, particularly the type of loyalty that always gives and never takes.

In fact, "professional" has never been used as praise so much as "unprofessional" is used as a cudgel to keep the troops in line. Certainly no one trying to make a living in comics wants an "unprofessional" rep; it wasn't very long ago that an editor could functionally put a talent out of business by labeling him "unprofessional," which was the code word for: he was trouble for me, he'll be trouble for you. When the fan press (cf. The Comics Journal) provided a public forum, really for the first time in the field, for talent to air grievances against comics companies, it quickly became considered "unprofessional" to do so - even while talent, editors and even publishers were scrambling to promote themselves in the fan press via interviews and press releases. If professional ever meant anything in terms of the content, that was shattered by the influx of small publishers looking to fill pages, and the swamp of styles that followed; you can cite a work as amateurish, but all "unprofessional" has come to mean is 'it doesn't fit my notion of what comics should be.' There are still those who tout "professional standards," which mostly seem geared toward ensuring their work gets published rather than someone else's.

""...professional" has never been used as praise so much as "unprofessional" is used as a cudgel to keep the troops in line."

It's make the assumption that the following is "professional behavior": work is produced on schedule and to predetermined standards of quality; if the work cannot be completed on time, talent notifies the editor early enough for other arrangements to be made; disputes are settled between the affected parties, without publicity; talent agrees to follow editorial dictate regarding content; talent doesn't hold the company/editor accountable for changes in policy; parties interact pleasantly with the audience at all times. Even if all this were true, even if these were the minimum standards for "professional conduct" as some think they ought to be, since the early 80s the business has consistently rewarded those who have behaved otherwise while generally disregarding those who played by "the rules" - if their work sells well enough. (Conversely, the dungheap of those who tried behaving that way without the sales to justify it continues to grow and grow.) The emphasis on "stars" skews the same way "stars" skew in rock music and other pop culture: they are the ones with a license to get away with it. In this business, that's considered acceptable, a perk of popularity, a business expense. This is neither good nor bad. The point isn't that those who can achieve such privilege are unworthy, but that those who demonstrate a willingness to take it lying down, and feel better about it by touting it as "professionalism," are going to take it lying down.

So am I biting the hand that feeds me? The question's based on an erroneous assumption: I, as a freelancer, feed myself. My professional relationship with Marvel (or any other company) isn't as a welfare recipient but as an independent contractor. As professionals, we don't work for companies (unless specifically contracted to them) we work with them. We're not samurai beholden to lords; we provide services, and that doesn't negate the right to speak our minds.

To the extent it even exists, "professionalism" in comics has nothing at all to do with companies. Everyone has to determine what they mean by professionalism, and realize their definition applies only to themselves. We each have to decide how bad we're willing to let our behavior become; the trick, if you're going to behave badly, is to sell well enough to justify it. Until behavior becomes bad enough, the companies won't give it more weight than their profits.

X-MAN #71 should be out this week or next, from Marvel, beginning a new four-issue storyline introducing a major new villain and what some may consider some semi-familiar faces, so it's a good place to jump in. I know many of you are still concerned about the threatened X-cancellations, and, yes, X-MAN was on the hit list and probably still is, but at least as of this morning cancellation doesn't seem imminent. I really don't know. Bob Weinberg, who writes CABLE, has started a mail campaign to save that book, and I wish him luck, but I'm not convinced mail campaigns can influence the situation. We might be able to help X-MAN by doubling the sales, but sales don't seem to be a consideration here either. What's really going on is an attempt by Marvel to reposition itself in the marketplace, and by that I mean the marketplace beyond the direct sales market. The survival chances of X-MAN or CABLE or various other X-books depend on how well they fit in with the new strategy, and that's something only a handful of people at the core of Marvel can figure out right now.

I again want to apologize to all those who've e-mailed me asking for help on papers, articles, etc. The fact is I'm really strapped for time now and can't get take on such things. Many of the e-mails ask for the same thing: my take on the current state of the industry, that sort of thing. May I suggest: research. Pretty much everything I have to say about the business exists in the last year and a quarter's worth of columns, all available in the MOTO archives. I know it's a lot to wade through, but it's all there, and if you want a quote from me, that's where to find it, because you'll find it hard to get quotes from me any other way for the near future.

While I'm out of comics to sell (for the moment) many people have been writing asking to buy copies of scripts. I'm considering selling script copies for $8/pop, sent either snailmail or e-mail according to preference, all shipping costs inclusive. (Foreign sales would have to be strictly e-mail.) Email me if you're interested and give me some idea what scripts you might want, so I can narrow the field.

Question Of The Week: what one comics talent would you most like to have lunch with? Pay close attention. This isn't just a question of who you'd love to talk with for an hour or two, all by yourself. Remember you'd also have to sit and watch this person eat, and that ain't always pretty.

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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