Last week apparently left some people thinking I oppose the abolition of work-for-hire in the comics industry, so let me correct that misassumption: I am completely in favor of abolishing work-for-hire.
Like this afternoon. Fine with me. Let's do it.
What I deny is the presumption of apparently many, at least in the blogosphere (and, no, I'm not knocking blogs either; mazel tov), that abolishing work-for-hire will result in better comic books. It won't. It won't even encourage them.
Which is not an argument against abolishing work-for-hire.
What work-for-hire says, and as I understand it it's a legal construct in the 1976 copyright revision law that was never intended to be applied to things like comic books, is that the company is the true author of the work and possessor of all rights deriving from it, and the writer, artist, etc., are in effect robot hands carrying out the company's artistic vision: the paint brush rather than the painter. In some cases this is an appropriate comparison; there are editors (and publishers) who obsess over story minutiae and effectively dictate every choice to the talent, but most editors who have tried this for any length of time and over any significant number of titles usually end up experiencing paranoia, monomania, nervous collapse and, eventually, utter disillusionment with the job. (On the other hand, most editors who don't do it eventually end up utterly disillusioned with the job, so maybe that's just a byproduct of editing comics.)
It's ridiculous to think, however, that DC dictates what Frank Miller and Jim Lee put in ALL-STAR BATMAN & ROBIN THE BOY WONDER, or that Marvel told Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr. what to put in THE ETERNALS, or any number of other examples. That sort of thing — which is how mainstream comics mostly operates, with writers, or writers and artists in tandem, coming up with the stories then getting the necessary permissions from editors/publishers — may barely come within the technical requirements of work-for-hire but misses its spirit by a country mile.
In effect, most talent working in comics today, even for Marvel or DC or their subsidiary lines, is not producing work-for-hire creatively. Even among franchise characters like Batman or Spider-Man where multiple creators are involved and editors are theoretically required to diligently coordinate - even with massive crossovers like SECRET INVASION and FINAL CRISIS, which are Brian Bendis' and Grant Morrison's brainchildren, respectively — creativity frequently, if not usually, derives from the talent, not the company. In effect, DC doesn't control Frank Miller's content on ASB&RTBW or Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely's content on ALL-STAR SUPERMAN or even Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray's content on JONAH HEX, it simply loans out its trademarks.
Which means in many cases the company only vaguely controls the work, rubberstamping or rejecting or adjusting the end result much the same way a book editor does with a completed manuscript. Which means in many, maybe most, cases, the talent is already producing exactly the kinds of comics the talent wishes to produce.
Again, don't get me wrong. Work-for-hire is a vile concoction that has, as Joe Quesada so kindly (if unintentionally) pointed out, poisoned virtually every entertainment medium in existence. It's an extension of the 19th century workhouse mentality, which holds that all benefits of labor and all ownership should accrue to the overseer, not the worker, as a condition of employment, and it's basically the worker's own damn fault if he lives in misery and squalor. That the man on top would be incapable of producing on his own what the laborer beneath him provides for him never enters the equation. (Which is not to suggest that, say, Joe Quesada, who's an excellent artist and not bad writer couldn't produce his own comic book, but he certainly couldn't produce the entire Marvel line. I suspect most of his bosses are far less capable of carrying on were they suddenly in the position of having to produce the books themselves.)
But if work-for-hire were to vanish this afternoon, it wouldn't visibly change the complexion of American comics.
What film and TV and comics developed to protect themselves against the demands of talent who suddenly decided that maybe since everything ultimately derives from their imaginations, they deserve a bigger, maybe much bigger, cut is the concept of interchangeability. James Garner decides he deserves more money for MAVERICK, hey, there's always Roger Moore waiting in the wings. Steve Ditko wants more control over AMAZING SPIDER-MAN or he'll quit? No problem, there's John Romita waiting in the wings. In the original Hollywood studio system, even the biggest film stars were told what films they'd be doing, as terms of employment, and leave your own opinions at the door. Interchangeability is the concept that pits talent against talent and holds economic survival over their heads like a sword of Damocles: if you don't like how things are, there's the door, and let's show the next sucker in. The comics industry has been making full use of the concept since its inception, until it's pretty much ingrained.
Interchangeability is what work-for-hire, as the term is applied in American media, was invoked to protect.
What's fascinating is that even the talent accepts the concept of interchangeability, especially in comics, especially talent with a lust to write stories for existing trademarks. It's odd even for media types. Assistants on newspaper comic strips almost always harbored the dream of selling their own strip one day. While most screenwriters are used to the phenomenon — made commonplace in the '90s, partly as a means of keeping writers in their "place" — of a producer buying a screenplay, then immediately bringing in some other writer, maybe more, to almost totally rewrite it, and most screenwriters don't turn down rewriting work, most also harbor the dream of selling an original screenplay rather than doing rewrite work, and, if they're really ambitious, directing their own screenplay. While few TV writers achieve it, as far as I know it's still the main dream among TV writers to create, sell and showrun their own show, rather than continue to labor in the bullpen of shows they simply hired on for. The work that all these talents do is done with the aim of polishing their craft while earning a living, and building their credentials in order to, in a perfect world, pursue their main goals.
Only in comics, really, do you find a substantial volume of talent whose main aspiration is to extrapolate other people's creations.
The fact is that Marvel and DC, despite their reliance on work-for-hire, could get along perfectly well without it, since it's unlikely that abandoning work-for-hire would harm their control of existing trademarks. There's not a doubt in my mind that they'd still be awash with talent wanting to extrapolate stories for those trademarks, and not a doubt that in the absence of work-for-hire they'd almost immediately have a workable setup for new creations — creator-owned trademarks — that would make all parties happy enough. (Boom! has that setup now.) As someone somewhere pointed out, 50% of something is still a lot better than 50% of nothing, and "marking up" the value of the creator to the creative process could easily result in corporate savings elsewhere, like in increasingly unnecessary staff jobs.
It might, however, mean that if Walt Simonson didn't want to do a new STAR SLAMMERS series, the company publishing STAR SLAMMERS wouldn't be able to hire James Robinson and Rob Liefeld to produce one. That's the danger of associating one or two talents too closely to a specific trademark, you lose the power of interchangeability. The main effect of dumping work-for-hire would be an improvement of talents' negotiating power.
It would not necessarily suggest an improvement in their economic prospects. Comics freelancers tend to be their own worst enemies, approaching the world with happy delusions and eventually getting — there's that word again — disillusionment slapped into them. Many comics talents aren't especially good idea people (though most are convinced they are) and having to operate from their own inspiration instead of someone else's would cripple them.
But the key problem is that work-for-hire or not, we will always be at the mercy of publishers, distributors and retailers. That's just the nature of publishing. It's publishers, not the public, who determine what will be published, distributors who determine what will be distributed, retailers who determine what will be sold. At each juncture lies a diminution of possibilities, and what's left over on the other end the public decides on. It's not malice (not usually, though it's sometimes cowardice) but simple economic survival; everyone along the line will focus most on what they believe will not lose them money, and will hopefully earn them money. Even the new surge is graphic novel publishing by book companies is controlled by the publishers' prejudices of what constitutes "salable" content. Talent producing work that doesn't fall within those boundaries is pretty much just out of luck, and work-for-hire has nothing to do with it. Eliminating work-for-hire is extremely unlikely to significantly alter the market for new comics properties beyond what exists today, or broaden any editor's/publisher's taste in material.
So how do we have an effect?
As the saying goes, nothing exceeds like success.
Here's the thing about media, any media including comics: everyone loves a winner. Most companies of any kind are congenitally incapable of any real creativity. If they weren't they wouldn't have to hire on people to do their creating for them. (Which is also why the whole principle of work-for-hire in comics is a complete sham.) Film companies will resolutely proclaim that, say, horror movies no longer sell, but a horror movie arrives and does big box office, and suddenly the mantra is "America wants horror movies!" and all the companies are pumping out mountains of them. In the early '80s, the TV industry declared America dead for sitcoms, until THE COSBY SHOW got all the networks grinding them out like mad. (The sitcom is currently officially dead again, but there's no COSBY SHOW in sight for this era, so far.) Creator-owned comics? Death on wheels.
At least until they're not. Things like THE WALKING DEAD are doing fine, but there's no current galvanizing force, not like, say, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, in lockstep with a sudden eruption of competing distributors looking for ways to attract retailers to their services, was in the '80s. Even if there were, comics is as susceptible as any other economic segment of our society to the delusion that success is a goal that, once achieved, is a permanent fixture and a part of nature, rather than an ongoing Sisyphusian struggle that must be constantly fought. History has shown us that there's no triumph that talent, or later generations of talent, can't callously piss away.
How do we make comics better? Making conditions, both creative and financial, is always a great start, but probably a better place to start is at a consensus, which currently isn't anywhere near existing, that comics even need to be better, and what better means, exactly. It's one of those words that everyone who uses it takes to be self-evident, whether the speaker means comics done only by one talent rather than two or more, or comics more closely emulating the spirit and ethos of '60s superhero comics, or comics freed from the deathgrip of superhero comics, or comics modernizing once-beloved classic trademarks, or "personal" comics, or comics more classically written and drawn, or comics more idiosyncratically written and drawn, or whatever. Everyone's got their own taste and their own take, and a consensus on the meaning of better is never going to happen, so what we really need is a system by which all specific visions of what a comic should be can be tried and tested by an audience, so that we can make a real determination of what's currently "commercial" (in the sense that it will attract a significant audience, not that it panders to what's assumed to be public taste) since we don't know. The standards that pass for "success" in comics - any type of comics, except maybe WATCHMEN trades and more elevated manga like NARUTO - are so deflated as to be meaningless. Not that this is necessarily a commercial consideration either, since smaller publishers can make do on books that sell as few as 5000 copies, which puts them roughly on a level with poetry publishers, but it's not in any way indicative of what an audience large enough to stabilize a publication or the industry are most hungry for.
The big problem, as with any major effort, is as always who'd underwrite it, because while I personally believe change on a massive scale is necessary, it's tough and stupid to ignore the huge risks involved. Even were we to make comics as a rule "better," regardless of specific definition, history has proven that quality and sales are fickle companions, at best. (In fact, comics fans and pros alike delight in perversely deciding specific titles failed because they were too good, presumably for the other riff-raff who buy comics, thus both soothing bruised egos and justifying cynical "commercial" projects in the aftermath.) While there's anecdotal evidence to suggest a possibly large audience for comics (or, rather, graphic novels) out there in genpop, proving it is likely to be an expensive and risky affair. As I mentioned last week, we're not likely to find out for sure until someone sticks their neck out, and those most demanding of change are also those least likely to have the cash to pay for it, while those most likely to have the cash are also most likely to be profiting nicely off the current system, and their idea of desirable change is likely to be change that accrues more profit their way, and nothing else. Work-for-hire is a problem, at least if you're talent, but at this point it's far from our greatest problem.
When people talk about "changing comics," or "saving comics, in virtually every instance it translates into "I want the comics that I want." Because that's how almost everyone defines "good," when it comes to comics: what they like and what they want. Anyone with that strong a sense of what they want should go make their own comics, because from a creative perspective, anyone telling you what you should be creating is exactly like anyone else telling you what you should be creating. The only thing that varies is the pay scale.
Reviews from Hell:
From Tripwire Publishing Ltd:
TRIPWIRE ANNUAL 2008 ed. Joel Meadows ($14.95)
Back again for another year, TRIPWIRE is, aside from an indicia page desperately in need of graphic design, slicker, richer and more focused on general pop culture than ever. DR. WHO and SUPERMAN are the twin cores of this issue, but there are also good articles on PRIMEVAL (currently my favorite sci-fi show), the FUTURAMA movies, HEROES, and the Brit sequel to LIFE ON MARSas well as a good interview with the enormously influential sci-fantasy author Michael Moorcock, a perceptive piece on how 1968 Marvel changed the course of comics art, lots of comics and comics reviews, and even humorous silly features like the Comics Power List 2008. (No offense, but Tom Spurgeon? And citing Gilbert Shelton, whom I'd love to say is a power in the business but, because WEEDS is successful on Showtime? My friend Mark Verheiden, who's a great guy and a terrific writer and everything but, as a bigger power in the business than Frank Miller, Dan Didio or Joe Quesada? Really? Who's smoking what here?) Considering the ground they cover, the intelligence of the writing, and the professionalism of the design (mostly), TRIPWIRE might be the best franchise culture magazine going today. Too bad it's only an annual.
From Archaia Studio Press:
ROBOTIKA: FOR A FEW RUBLES MORE #1 by Alex Sheikman & David Moran ($3.95)
Had an interesting encounter with Alex Sheikman while doing a signing at San Diego; he handed me the latest issue of ROBOTIKA and mentioned that my constant complaints about the writing on the book partially prompted him to hook up with a writer, David Moran. So it'd be a bit tacky of me to complain about the writing again. Fortunately I don't have to. It ain't half bad. Shiekman's art has always been, for lack of a better term, a delight, and here it's better and more confident than ever before, its occasional tendency toward wispiness virtually obliterated. The story — a cyber-samurai and his Magnificent Seven-ish crew of gunfighters and other pop culture motifs (there's even a cyborg cowboy Yul Brynner) on a mysterious journey through a radically altered quasi-feudalistic hi-tech future — is still a little too elliptical for its own good, but at least the culture is starting to make sense, intriguing new adversaries are introduced, and the storytelling has sharpened up dramatically. Easily the most improved series of the year, so far, and for the first time ever it leaves me wanting more.
I've still got a sizable stack to go, but y'know what? It's 10 PM, I'm beat and I've got work to do in the morning, so more reviews next week, okay?
What a difference a couple of days makes. As I mentioned last week, last Monday I heard John McCain on TV, stating how the mortgage system got out of control and Wall Street was on the verge of collapse not because they fell into the hands of conscienceless, avaricious scumbags but because government regulation was crippling their ability to respond to crises, so government regulation over financial institutions had to go. (Even though it pretty much did go during the "Reagan Revolution.") By Wednesday, McCain had done a total 180, calling for "strong and effective regulation," citing "failed regulation, reckless management and a casino culture on Wall St." So is this the McCain who claims to be an expert on economic matters, or the McCain who says he really knows nothing about the economy?
At any rate, I'd say he'd been reading my column if his second statement hadn't predated the column's release by half a day. What's obvious is that one of the dozens of lobbyists running his campaign suddenly realized that it's more important to play to the millions of Americans who have been financially struggling for several years than to the relatively small (if politically powerful) number of financiers who will either work with or ignore whoever becomes president. The bigger question, though, for both McCain and Obama, is whether they'll vote in favor of the massive bailout the Ghost is trying to ram through Congress, or against it?
It's interesting that Republicans keep shoving bailouts through (again, recall the Savings & Loan crisis brought on by Reagan Revolution deregulation of S&Ls to allow them to "compete" with banks, which they were never intended to do) when bailouts are a total negation of standard Republican economic philosophy, which is basically that any government interference in the free market economy — such as, you know, inspecting to see that hamburgers and avocados aren't loaded with e coli, or that the chemical sludge being dumped into ground water isn't generating widespread cancer, not to mention seeing that banks aren't taking investors' money down to the roulette tables at Caesar's Palace — is a sin against nature. And despite their often rabid hatred of welfare programs. What is a "bailout" but welfare, free money to, in this case, the patently undeserving? The word itself is so self-explanatory — these clowns managed to screw up so badly that their boat will sink if someone doesn't bail them out.
Someone, I forget who, once called the Democratic Party the party of banks and the Republican Party the party of real estate, and I'm not sure if that still holds true, but certainly this would seem to be an issue they'd ultimately see eye-to-eye on, so a bailout is probably inevitable. Without huge personal penalties attached to those who got the financial markets into this mess with their Blackadder-esque "cunning plans," it's also criminal. What Washington is really talking about here is patting the perpetrators on the head and ensuring the scam artists walk away with their fortunes born of shoddy practices intact, leaving the American public to shoulder the burden twice, once by being suckered in by the schemes in the first place (and, sure, you can shout "caveat emptor" and blame them for stupidity, and that's certainly true enough, but when supposedly established and honorable financial institutions are constantly badgering us with what a great idea the schemes are and how nothing can go wrong, Americans can't really be faulted for taking them at their word) and now for paying for it all — to the tune of almost a trillion and a half dollars. (Despite paying no more than lip service to those over the last couple of years who have been losing their homes over the scams.) Since once Washington started mentioning "bailout" everyone's jumping on the gravy train.
And it's true that a bailout is most likely necessary; an all-out stock market crash would likely take much of the country down with it. (Possibly the world, since the stock markets are really international, though as far as I know no other countries have offered any bailouts of their own.) As with crappy American foreign policy that we're all stuck with despite our assent or lack of it, the markets pretty much hold America hostage in that regard. Wait, isn't there a word now for people who threaten our way of life and try to hold the country hostage while pursuing a nationally damaging agenda? Isn't it... terrorist? That's really what the bailout is: giving in to terrorism.
If there must be a bailout, let's see all those financiers who caused it stripped of their homes, their possessions, their bank accounts, except for those things protected by the average bankruptcy, let's see all those things liquidated and applied toward the bailout fund just like in a bankruptcy, let's see them all have to live on fixed incomes. There should not be one single person allowed to profit from any of this, since we're all going to be paying for it for a long time. (I like the rationale that all those mortgages we'd be buying up will pay off in the long run as the housing market recovers; isn't that the sort of futures trading that triggered this crap in the first place?) This administration's foreign policy has pretty much boiled down to "**** with America and we'll **** you up." Are they willing to do the same with Wall St., or will they again go for a cheap target rather than the real problem?
(This just in: the Treasury Dept. now wants to include student loans and credit card debt in the bailout, presumably because they're expecting current economic conditions to lead to slew of new defaults, though technically it's extremely hard to legally default on student loans now.)
Notes from under the floorboards:
Don't forget that my ODYSSEUS THE REBEL webcomic drawn by Scott Bieser is currently running at Big Head Press, while Boom! Studios continues to run TWO GUNS online. Both are free, so you're out of excuses. Go! And Image still has the action-adventure graphic novel THE SAFEST PLACE available, with maybe Tom Mandrake's best art ever, so pester your retailer for it if you haven't got it already.
So tell me: how many retailers actually returned or destroyed their copies of ALL-STAR BATMAN & ROBIN THE BOY WONDER #10? (News reports were a bit fuzzy on the details. Had the books already been released by Diamond to the stores when the pulping was announced? Wouldn't Diamond theoretically know how many copies were shipped to which store, and couldn't DC retaliate for non-compliance if it chose to?) How many retailers were dumb enough to sell the series to kids in the first place? Why was DC that concerned about the F-Bomb when Batman having outdoor crime scene sex with the Black Canary didn't seem to faze them at all? No frontal nudity, I suppose...
If you're interested in seeing Michael Moore's new film, SLACKER UPRISING, you can watch it free with a click here. It's legal and everything.
Hmmm... apparently the big new growing computer threat is viruses spread via the Adobe .pdf format, which is now commonplace. That's not good, though I imagine virus scanners are being updated to scan for .pdf viruses even as we speak... Meanwhile it turns out cyberattacks originate in the United States (over 20 million in the last year!) at a rate almost 3:1 greater than its nearest international competition, China, and the rest of the top 10 — Brazil, South Korea, Poland, Japan, Russia, Taiwan, Germany, Canada — barely break into the low six figures each. We're #1!
Seems that following its knockout victory over rival DVD-HD, Sony's BluRay videodisk standard is getting killed by a bigger enemy: consumer indifference.
Also seems that worrying about global warming may be a thing of the past, since there seems adequate scientific proof that sudden, cataclysmic climate change has occurred regularly in the past and could also hit at any time. Of course, there's also the long-known prospect that global warming could trigger abrupt climate change by shutting down the gulf stream (good news, Northern Europe: you're only getting 300 feet of snow for the rest of the century; and bad news: it's coming next month) so people aren't likely to stop talking about it altogether. Meanwhile, another global warming problem looks to be on the horizon: seems underneath the Arctic ice cap, which is slowly thawing out, there's a potentially climate altering ocean of frozen methane. Which is also slowly thawing out. If it's not one thing or another...
By the way, turns out the reason we didn't all vanish into a black hole during that Swiss experiment last week is it never took place. The equipment broke down first. They're repairing it now, so Black Hole Day has been rescheduled for a couple months down the line. That's the problem with the end of the world, people are always putting it off...
Spain seems to have decided that websites listing available bit torrents, like Demonoid and Pirate Bay, aren't guilty of infringement themselves. No doubt agents of the RIAA and MPAA will descend on the Spanish in droves to attempt to convince them otherwise...
Hmmm... also seems MediaDefender, an operation working for the entertainment industry to extort huge sums from bit torrenters, is also making some serious cash peddling porn via the Internet. Not that there's anything wrong with that...
The much-touted new Britcom NO HEROICS, about superheroes hanging around a bar in their civilian clothes, finally arrived last week, and boy, does it suck. Nothing but mindless, pandering sex jokes (would-be jokes, anyway) and The Beano level schoolboy shenanigans. As Blackadder would say, utter crap, and the short-lived TICK TV show already covered all this satiric ground, save for the sex jokes, much, much better years ago. Skip it.
Also caught STREET KINGS, the Keanu Reeves flick from a James Ellroy story and partial screenplay. The plot synopsis made it sound like Ellroy recycling his story bits — a emotionally tormented but badass rulebreaker cop who gets the job done learns he has been supporting very bad things inside the department and his mushrooming conscience makes him a target (okay, that is Ellroy recycling story bits, esp. L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and DARK BLUE) — but it turns out to be a fairly decent B-movie cop thriller, with decent acting by Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie and Chris Evans, who gets more interesting the more I see him. The plot twists are obvious but satisfying enough, but the film's main problem is David Ayer's languorous directing, sucking the life out of the film with endlessly lingering transition and establishing shots when he could be clipping things really tightly and pumping in tension and energy. But no. But it doesn't stink.
Congratulations to local boy Justin Newberry, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "punch." Justin wishes to point your attention to indie publisher Aberrant Press. Check it out.
For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme — it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. Most weeks I cleverly hide a secret clue somewhere in the column, but this week there's a host of them. Good luck.
TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my "Master Of The Obvious" columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.
IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.
HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.
IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.
Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I'm reviewing comics sent to me — I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them — at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.