Come In Alone: Issue #49

Fri, November 24th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Warren Ellis, Columnist

Bollocks to comics.

I spent last weekend on Rathlin Island. It's an L-shaped piece of rock - three miles on the long arm, two on the short - off the coast of Antrim, Northern Ireland. I was there because Garth Ennis said so. I got a fax from him a few months ago announcing his impending marriage to the plainly brain-damaged Ruth Cole inviting me to his stag bash. Actually, stag weekend. The plan was that he'd rent a shitload of rooms in the Rathlin Island hotel and we'd go to the pub two minutes down the harbour walk from the hotel and we'd drink til we stopped. To his credit, the words STUPID and DANGEROUS were writ large in the invitation. Niki came into my office to read the fax. She said, "Are you going?" Of course I am, I said. Garth's one of my closest friends. Wouldn't miss this for anything. She did not smile and said, "Didn't you see the bits where he said it was STUPID and DANGEROUS?"

Her last words to me as I left for the airport were, "You did get that big new life insurance policy that makes you worth a million pounds dead, right? RIGHT?"

Fifty minutes to Stansted Airport, an hour and ten across England and over the Irish Sea, twenty minutes in a cab to central Belfast, an hour up the coast to Ballycastle - and then the ferry ride.

I found out on the web that the ferry ride from Ballycastle to Rathlin traverses five miles and takes an hour. Bloody hell, I thought. That can't be right. Not unless the ferry is a one-eyed bloke in a coracle. Turns out that the North Atlantic and the Irish Sea meet right here. Four currents going this way, three currents going that way, hitting at each other right down this line from Ballycastle to Rathlin.

[The Perfect Storm]You remember the poster for PERFECT STORM? Little tiny boat down here, fucking great wave up there? That was our hour to Rathlin. Garth Ennis up near the front, foot up on a stanchion, steel rigging cable in one hand, laughing maniacally into the surf. Once we were on dry land, he turned to me and said, " That's how I wanted this trip to be." What, fucking apocalyptic? I said. "Yes!" he grinned.

The hotel was a National Trust building, maintaining the old Rathlin manor house by renting out its rooms. Facilities were limited. To get online, I had to go into the lobby and yank the payphone out of the wall to get at the main landline jack. I got the piss ripped out of me all weekend for getting online several times a day (I was in the middle of working and closing several other-media deals and couldn't afford to remain out of touch) using the Handspring and its modem as well as my WAP internet phone. Of course, once people realised I could get the weather on my phone and therefore predict whether or not we were going to die on the ferry ride home, suddenly they were my friends again. Leaning forward in their chairs as I waited for the AP local weather to load up on the phone screen: "And we're going toooo…. live."

The WAP phone was also a barometer of how fucked-up we were by the end. I mean, my skimming the AP entertainment news is one thing, but I'd never normally be caught reading out the sales figures for the new Spice Girls CD (10,000. Heh.). And I don't think any of us would normally be caught launching a long conversation off it that ended up on the subject of Kevin Rowland's legs. Have you seen his legs? He's the ex-frontman of Dexy's Midnight Runners, and his recent CD MY BEAUTY was his comeback album. He is no longer young. The CD cover shows him lifting the black dress he's wearing to show us his legs in black stockings. He also wears pearls and thick red lipstick. And not in a good way. MY BEAUTY has evidently sold slightly less than 800 copies worldwide.

The roll call was a couple of Garth's best friends from Belfast plus me, Steve Dillon, John McCrea, Glenn Fabry, Mal Coney, Darick Robertson, Dave Gibbons, Matt Hollingsworth and Liam McCormack-Sharp. Following the appalling trip over, the nature of the group naturally led to speculation on the effect on comics if the boat had gone down with all hands. I still maintain it'd be negligible, since our friends the editors and publishers would simply hire the next available set of wannabees to take over our jobs. That's why we can never go on strike; because the audience is chock-full of people who'd give a kidney to be scab labour. I've met some of them online. People who have actually admitted to my face that this is the case.

"That's why [comic creators] can never go on strike; because the audience is chock-full of people who'd give a kidney to be scab labour."

Of course, if the boat had gone down, Rathlin would become a point of pilgrimage for comics aficionados. Grave markers would be placed in an arc around the bay for the faithful to attend. Women would weep at our gravestones and strong men would struggle for control against the crashing waves of grief as they stood at the place where the great and the good are remembered. I kind of spoiled this by pointing out that people would come to our markers with "Oh, I loved his DARKNESS so much… Let me lay this copy of CAR WARRIORS by Steve Dillon's grave… let me decorate Warren's grave with copies of CELESTINE, and strew McCrea's place with pages from that issue of HITMAN that was coloured in shocking pink and snot green all the way through…"

"What's that, out in the water beyond the bay? That sudden spray? Yes, it's their bodies spinning in their watery graves!"

But, you know, I left their company sad. The weekend was punctuated by horror stories from the industry - as such gatherings always are. But look back on that list. These are serious people. Matt Hollingsworth is one of the best and most important colourists in the American medium (and also a multiple-award-winning brewer of beer and an official judge at the annual Amsterdam dope-growing contest), and the crap he has to deal with just to get his job done right is astonishing. The same held true all around the table. And yet they all stay in comics. They stay in comics and half of them do jobs that are clearly below them and they eat shit from scum every damn week because they love comics and they want to continue making comics. These aren't people without other skills. Most of us have training in other fields. All of us can and do ply our creative skills in areas other than comics. And yet here is where they stay. As indicated by other people in previous editions of this column: comics are a first love affair, the one that sinks its teeth into you and won't let go, because of its freedoms and its glories. The sex is great, but everything else is shit. And I'm reminded of a quote from Neil Gaiman: "I stopped doing comics because I wanted it to continue being fun, I wanted to continue to love and care for comics, and I wanted to leave while I was still in love."

And it's looking at these people, my friends, that make me want to stop doing comics.

In closing, here's an illustration. A freeware circular from comics artist Liam McCormack Sharp.

Pitfalls and how not to avoid them.


or "a brief history of the naive freelance comics illustrator."


by Liam R. McCormack-Sharp.

There's not an artist in the industry, that I'm aware of, who doesn't want to do their absolute best. It's commonly known that success in the field can bring great rewards, and that requires commitment and hard work. Talent alone is not enough. To truly make it in comic art you have to firstly be able to draw anything.

AND make it look good.

But that's just the easy bit. Next you realise you're never drawing what you really want to draw, and you have to learn to be able to do that over and over again. On your own. Day after day.

Then there's Deadlines to meet. Critics to face. Cancellation of titles.

Finding yourself in the strange situation of being a product. And a product has to be sold.

Artists, on the whole, don't like anything they've drawn. It's a good thing too as it keeps us constantly trying to improve ourselves. But there are associated problems with this, and they're almost all to do with selling oneself. Promotion. How do you go about that when invariably you know that nothing you've done lives up to your own expectation of yourself? Despite the apparent proliferation of super-egos throughout the industry, the vast majority of creators are content to let the various publishing houses do their promoting for them.

Your other option is to find yourself an agent.

Actually, it's more likely that an agent will find you.

There are manifold reasons why having an agent can seem appealing. It comes as a great relief to think that there's someone out there constantly fighting your corner. To no longer feel like you're chasing an elusive industry Quested Beast that can never be caught, that one big job that will make you a comic book immortal. That's how an agent will sell it to you: They'll find these profile raising jobs for you. They'll get you interviews in all the right magazines announcing your upcoming projects with great gusto. All YOU have to do is give up 10% of your earnings and do the work and they will do all the rest for you.

Well, no. Not really. That's not quite how that works either. For a start you are usually only one of many creators on an agency's books, and all of you want the same thing. The chances are something big will break for one of their clients and all their energies will go into promoting that person. There's also a strong likelihood that they have already got you on the first job that came along, that is IF any jobs came along, so you're tied into that, waiting for that call from Wizard, that offer to draw a new X-Men series, that opportunity to develop a movie.....

In some ways I was lucky. When the Creative Interests Agency (C.I.A.) tracked me down I already had a head start. The Death's Head 11 series had been very popular for a time and I'd drawn a Venom mini series, a couple of X-Men and Spiderman issues. Plus I'd done a run on the Hulk. What the agency was offering seemed fantastic. There was this new company called Verotik who were working with some of the true greats of all time in my opinion, and they loved my work.

Funnily enough it was Steve Wardlaw, then an editor at Verotik, who first phoned with an offer of work while I was still drawing the Hulk. When Steve Donnelly of the C.I.A phoned some months later with the same offer I thought they were the same person, so my whole initial reason for getting involved with an agency was based on a mistake.

Nonetheless I allowed myself to be wooed with talk of promotions and raised profiles.

The job I got was a book called G.O.T.H. A kind of no-holds-barred Hulk on steroids. It was a fast moving adrenaline-fuelled romp of little intellectual content, but I'd had a lot of fun cutting loose drawing it.

This was followed by, unbelievably for me, the chance to draw Frank Frazetta's Death Dealer. Not just that, but I was following on from Simon Bizley, a great favourite of mine, and finally, I thought, getting the chance to draw the kind of comic in which I could really excel. Frazetta had always been a primary motivating factor in my getting involved in the chance to draw the kind of comic in which I could really excel. Frazetta had always been a primary motivating factor in my getting involved in the medium, so it was an incredible honour to be asked to interpret his character in comic form, and not a little bit daunting too.

I was, to coin that famously unpopular phrase, "the King of the World!" So five years on what happened? With such a promising start did my agents succeed in raising my profile?

Well, things turned a little sour with Verotik. There's always two sides to every story, but from my point of view it just got increasingly hard to please them. Communication broke down. I was very unhappy. They were very unhappy. I quit them after my second Death Dealer issue and a difficult three issue Jaguar God run.

And this is the point where we get back to agents and their mysterious modus operandi.

A cautionary note to ANYONE who is thinking about being, or is already represented by an agent: Look hard and long at your contract. At the moment I'm in a peculiar kind of limbo with regard to some unresolved issues that date back to this time, and they all centre round what an agent should, shouldn't, can or can't do. When I left Verotik I asked the C.I.A. to secure the return of my Death Dealer and Jaguar God artwork. Verotik had purchased all the G.O.T.H. artwork off me. But for the obvious reason that it was Frazetta related, and my best work up until that time, I had not wanted to sell the Death Dealer material.

Following my period with Verotic I managed to secure myself a run on the Manthing for Marvel. It was with this work that I stopped going through the C.I.A. as I'd done lots of work with Marvel prior to my involvement with them. They reluctantly conceded to this and continued to get me the occasional unrelated job for which I was happy to give up my 10% agency fee. For a while I continued to pester them as to the whereabouts of my Verotik artwork. Three years later I still don't have it.

Sometimes things just become too much of a big pain in the proverbial, and with the passage of time one is inclined to just let it go. Luckily I've been in pretty constant work. I got married, had two kids. In the great scheme of things it just didn't seem that big a deal. Well not big enough to go round shouting about it, threatening legal suits I hadnt a hope of financing against people much wealthier than me. But equally sometimes something happens that just seems so unfair that if you walk away from it you know you can never look at yourself in the mirror again with any semblance of self-respect.

This is how I felt when I recently found out that one of my pages from the Death Dealer was up for sale on the internet for $1000. When I contacted the unfortunate dealer who had purchased the piece in good faith I had an even bigger shock. It had been bought from the internet auction site eBay where it had been put up for sale by, wait for it, the C.I.A. I immediately checked the Creative Interests website and found two more examples of my artwork displayed on there. They had never even told me they got any of that artwork back from Verotik.

Steve Donnelly always seemed to me to be a decent guy, if a little harassed and over-stretched. I really felt there must be a mistake. I emailed and phoned right away that he get in touch regarding this.

The next day I did the same again.

A week later I had still heard nothing despite my increasingly insistent requests for an explanation. Then I heard from the dealer who bought the artwork that the C.I.A had told him they didn't know who I was. This prompted even more outraged messages from me. I even waited up until 1.30am UK time to try and talk in person with the California based agency but still just got their answer phone.

So what could I do? I emailed everyone I knew in the industry explaining what had happened and seeking some advice and assistance on how to get these 140 or so pages back. I was unprepared for the storm of mail that returned, is still returning, regarding similar problems, specifically with the C.I.A.

The problem is, and here's one of the pitfalls, I've looked it over and there's nothing directly relating to art returns in their contract anyway.

Now how stupid do I feel for not spotting that?

As things stand at the moment it has been related to me through a third party that the C.I.A now claims I still owe them some money on commissions. Quite how this works I don't know since they were responsible for invoicing. They also say I am responsible for the cost of shipping it back. That seems to me to be very unreasonable. The publishers always cover the cost of shipping. It should be an issue between agent and publishers, not me. Besides, not once in six years have they said any of this to me personally. Though once again there's no reference to shipping in the contract so far as I can see.

Duh.

Read your contracts very carefully!

At the end of the day all I want is my artwork back and the price of the page(s) sold. No more. No less.

Why I can't have them back I don't know. Nobody will tell me. Steve's email address has now become unavailable. My bio has vanished from their site. I suspect my artwork will be gone soon too, if not already. If they burnt it all who would know? This has cost me five working days so far. Whole days. So my point is this: Be very careful what you sign. I'm sure there are many great agents out there, I don't want to tarnish them all with the same brush, but protect yourself, and make sure your contract is water-tight.

Or just don't have one.

Somebody could make a lot of money setting up a course for artists on how to promote oneself effectively. I'd sign up! They could show us, for say 10% of our page rate, how to...

Wait a minute, what the hell am I saying?

Just another gaping pit waiting for me to blindly stumble into it.

And will I ever get that artwork back? Right now it's not looking very likely, but at least it may be hard to sell it if everyone knows I never once agreed that it could be sold.

Whatever the reasons, my profile prior to my connection with the C.I.A was higher than it was at the end. It has since become higher again. When working in this industry there's really nothing equal to cultivating a good working relationship directly with the editor, and all the people involved in producing the title. I may not have dominated the covers of the various trade magazines. I may not make the Wizard top 10 every month. What I do get, though, are some really great titles to draw and generally a quiet sense of mutual respect. I'm enjoying my job again, and that, for most of us, is about as much as we should really expect.

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