Permanent Damage

Wed, May 6th, 2009 at 9:08pm PDT | Updated: May 6th, 2009 at 9:09pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Funny how things come in waves. Lately the topic of professionalism in comics has popped up over and over, in odd forms. Like three different small publishers in the last week asking basically the same question.

"Professionalism" has always been something of a loaded gun in comics. Like a lot of things, traditionally it was defined top down and expected bottom up, meaning publishers, editors & shop owners were the ones who claimed the right to determine what constituted "professional behavior" – not unexpectedly, it was usually practices that benefited them - and talent AKA the worker bees who were expected to behave according to the decreed code. (The code, at any given time, ran something like "Shut up and do what you're told.") It's a lot like loyalty; I've run across a lot of publishers and editors obsessed with loyalty, and interpreting basic business decisions by freelancers – who, you may note, are freelancers, which, by definition, means they may work for anybody - as disloyalty, but never see their own decisions that negatively impact those same freelancers as disloyalty on the basic assumption that whatever is good for them is also good for the freelancer. And, oh, how often that is not true. I've seen editors complain bitterly about "unprofessional" freelancers then blame their own blunders on freelancers to cover their tracks, to the point of badmouthing those freelancers to other editors and companies without a care in the world of how it might impact the freelancer's career.

But that was the old days, which finally petered out altogether sometime in the '90s. A number of things killed them, like companies playing so fast and loose with deadlines that freelancers learned to disregard deadlines almost altogether, "superstar" talent involved in all kinds of behavior previously considered "unprofessional" but basically rewarded for it because companies felt they had more to gain by looking the other way than by punishing it, making "professionalism" that much harder to enforce on anyone else, and companies engaging in the most basic of unprofessional behavior – not paying when they're supposed to – while demanding freelancers keep up their end of things. And by a constantly growing number of venues that, at least for awhile, made it easy for freelancers to jump ship. Nowadays there are pockets of disgruntlement but by and large Marvel and DC, at least, almost religiously adhere to at least making payments when they should. Whatever the minimum level of professionalism publishers want from talent, that's the minimum level of professionalism talent wants from publishers.

The question that came up recently from several smaller publishers was what to do when the talent they're working with behave unprofessionally. Since "professionalism" in comics rarely has an aesthetic element anymore – companies rarely overtly enforce house styles, while publishers and talent alike are eager to call amateurish work professional if it suits their convenience – it's relatively easy to come to a behavioral definition of "professionalism." Basically, it's this, for both sides: what you agree to is what you agree to. The corollaries are equally basic: if you can't fulfill what's agreed to, let the other party know as soon as possible so they can make necessary adjustments, and no unilateral changes allowed. Especially if there's a written contract. That's the point of contracts, to prevent unilateral alterations of agreements.

As far as talent goes, that roughly translates into: if you agree to produce a 24 page human interest story of specific plot by Feb. 3, you produce a 24 page human interest story of specific plot by Feb. 3. If you're going to miss the date, you tell the publisher (or editor) as soon as you know. While minor adjustments are to be expected in the progression from idea to completed work – there are always ideas that look good on paper that just don't fit when all the details are worked out – you don't make major changes to the story without telling the publisher. Unless you have advance, specific permission to do that. You don't suddenly decide to produce a western instead, without asking the publisher or editor. You don't arbitrarily turn in 22 or 25 or 19 pages instead of 24 (and you certainly can't expect to get paid for more pages than you're signed to produce; in fact, you'd better expect to redo the material to fit, since most publishers only have limited space to work with). If you contact the publisher and adjust the arrangements, that's fine, but it has to be by mutual arrangement, and this goes for work-for-hire or creator-owned, barring an arrangement that gives the talent complete control over all those elements. Which, let's face it, is pretty rare and fairly suicidal from a business perspective, unless there's a track record of good sales involved.

On the other hand, this also means a publisher theoretically can't make a deal for a, say, 32 page story, then decide after 28 pages are completed that the story – the same story – should be 20 pages instead. At that point, the publisher owes talent for 28 pages worth of their time, plus, theoretically, another 20 pages when (if) the talent gets done redoing the story, since it would effectively be a different story. Most publishers aren't willing to look at it like that. But a logical rule of thumb, if comics are truly viewed as a business, would be that after a mutual agreement is made, whatever side wants changes to that agreement should bear any financial burden of those changes.

(As I've mentioned before, publishers tend to take a dim view of anything that puts more financial requirements on them – occasionally a publisher has come up with the brilliant idea of putting payment penalties for every block of time an assignment comes in late, in attempts to avoid costly penalties from printers, and I've always said I'm more than happy to sign off on it, if a clause is also included that jacks up my payment for every identical block of time past due date that my check doesn't arrive, which generally shuts down the entire discussion – but I suspect talent would have a similarly vehement response to anything that shifted financial burden their way.)

While I wouldn't consider myself a paragon of professionalism, I'd say there are a few other things that qualify as professional behavior. For talent, especially freelancers, a good rule of thumb is to keep the business of any publisher you're working with to yourself, unless it directly impacts other freelancers. Really, to a large extent professionalism is enlightened self-interest: if you won't tell Publisher B the details of the project you're doing for Publisher A, B can reasonably assume you're not telling A details of B's projects either. On the other hand, if you know a publisher's not paying his bills and trying to keep freelancers from finding out while he ropes them into doing more work (i.e., investing more in his company on false pretenses) I'd call it unprofessional to not let fellow talent know the situation so they can make informed career decisions. I'm sure a lot of people, publishers especially, will contest that, but that's what publishing is: the publisher invests in the talent, and the talent invest in the publisher. If you were making a bad investment based on false information, wouldn't you want to know about it? The trick is in figuring out what's a fluke and what's a condition. But, by and large, "professional behavior" can be brought down to one simple rule:

Don't dick the other party around.

Curiously, there's a new breed of small publisher on the rise that wants to distinguish themselves from mainstream publishers by positioning themselves as the friend of the creator. Which is great, but unfortunately the moment will come when they'll have to make tough editorial decisions because talent has dicked them around. That's part of doing business too, the same way talent has to make tough decisions when editors, publishers or fellow talent dick them around. Get used to it. Don't do it more than necessary, but get used to it.

Finally, speaking of dicking around, our new reprint culture has triggered a number of stories of talent finding their work on licensed properties reprinted without being paid for it. The basic gist, from publishers and journalists alike, has been "You did it work for hire, we don't owe you anything" and license holders demanding talent show them the paperwork where it says they're owed payment. Thing is... unless I'm misunderstanding my copyright law – and it's entirely possibly aspects of it have been upended since I last checked, since American business is always willing to lobby for talent repression, like record companies lobbying for legislation making all recordings work for hire so the companies, not the musicians, own them, so if I should stand corrected by all means correct me – in the absence of paperwork stating otherwise, rights fall naturally to talent. That's why companies like Marvel and Disney like talent to sign all kinds of paperwork ensuring company, not talent, rights in and official authorship of the material. A problem of reprinting material from the '80s is that not too many comics companies were all that good at doing paperwork then, even on licensed properties. Getting the books out was the prime concern, and paperwork was often left for whenever they caught up with it. So it's not really up to the talent to supply paperwork proving they deserve payment when their work is reprinted. It's up to the license holder to provide the paperwork proving they don't, because they can't really cite tradition to strip talent of their rights in the material since, while they may not have any rights to the trademark of the property in question they have to specifically sign away their copyright to the published work. Though obviously the principle is only as good as someone's willingness to go to court to enforce it, and in these cases there's probably not enough money involved to make it worthwhile though if there's no agreement the talent can theoretically demand whatever price for use they want but presumably fair market rates would enter into it somewhere, but if there's no signature on a document saying those rights have been signed over to the licensor or its agent, there's no excuse for not making talent payments. Professional behavior and consideration goes both ways.


1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 101-107), special Free Comic Book Day edition:

While most comics can be reviewed on more or less aesthetic grounds, Free Comic Book Day demands special considerations. While some companies and retailers have used FCBD to preach to the converted, the point of FCBD is actually propaganda, using the event to lure a broader audience into the comics shops and presenting them with material that will grab them enough to keep reading comics, either that specific book or in general, and keep coming back to comics shops to get them. I often wonder whether publishers choose their FCBD books to further those functions, and what the recidivism rate of first-time comics shop visitors/comics readers is as a result of those offerings. With that in mind, let run through a selection of FCBD titles.

From Dark Horse:

ALIENS-PREDATORS by John Arcudi, Zach Howard & Javier Salteres

Not bad. A pair of vignettes serve as teases for new ALIENS and PREDATORS series, written in impressively different styles by Arcudi, whose work is a lot more controlled than the last time I saw it some years ago. ALIENS promises newer possibilities that PREDATORS - the former suggests an attempt of humans, having collided directly with the Aliens on Earth, to understand and possibly co-exist with the invaders, while the latter implies some sort of war between Predator factions with Earth as the battleground – but both still depend heavily on pre-existing interest, something the film franchises have had difficulty maintaining.

From Arcana Studio:

ARCANA STUDIO PRESENTS

Arcana is quietly becoming the little publisher that could, carving out its own little niche of adventure, humor and kid friendly material. This handful of vignettes/chapters culled from recently Arcana publications, doesn't present anything complete enough to be really satisfying, but the range is sufficiently broad to give a good picture of the company's creative identity, and hopefully that will also be sufficiently appealing to a casual audience.

From DC Comics:

BLACKEST NIGHT by Geoff Johns & Ivan Reis

I don't know if I'd have chosen something quite so morbid to draw in the uninitiated – The (Barry Allen) Flash and Green (Hal Jordan) Lantern gather at Batman's unmarked gravesite to pay their respects and meditate on the nature of death and the shifting fortunes of DC superheroes, and then Batman's skull is stolen – but if nothing else this special gives a clear general idea of the current state of the DC Universe. Not sure how effective it is as a come-on for the upcoming big crossover event of the same name, since it just sort of stops, to give way to a slew of pinup pages; it needed something more striking than a text page from Johns promising huge superchanges for the DCU. But it's okay, and I like Reis' updated resurrection of the Neal Adams look.

From Bongo Entertainment Inc.:

BONGO COMICS FREE-FOR-ALL by various

Probably the FCBD offering with the most immediate public appeal, this collects SIMPSONS & FUTURAMA stories, but the problem with Bongo Comics is they've almost never been as smart or savage as the shows are. In fact, the constant references to superhero comics in THE SIMPSONS has gotten outright depressing, while the FUTURAMA short is little more than a cloying cliché about women and shopping. I know these books are aimed at kids, but come on.

From The Toronto Comics Art Festival:

COMICS FESTIVAL by various

Canadian alt-comics, a lovely array of wackiness with nice production work. This is more a come-on for the show than anything else, with a slew of short pieces from a couple dozen different cartoonists like Troy Little, Steve Ralston and Kean Soo. While not all the bits are all that memorable, there are plenty of laughs, and if the idea to generate an image of Canada as a thriving, inventive comics scene, it does a very good job.

From FIRST SALVO:

CONTRACT #1 by Garan Madeiros, Kevin Sharpe & Kirk Outerbridge

Okay, they lost me at the point where some woman on a future outer space world drives a '90s model sports car across the Olde Prairie and wears cowboy hat, boots, gloves, scarf and holster – over a cat suit. It's your basic nonsense comics sci-fi/action story, complete with (reasonably good for what it is) Rob Liefeld knockoff art. Was the point of this to get someone interested in the material or convince the Sci-Fi – I mean Syfy – Channel to turn it into one of their $1.78 movies of the week?

From Archie Comics:

ARCHIE PRESENTS THE MIGHTY ARCHIE ART PLAYERS #1 by George Gladir & Stan Goldberg

Wow. This is what you get when old men do comics for kids, and companies depend excessively on the name value of their franchises. The Archie characters appear in parodies of things that really mean a lot to their intended audience, McCarthy era westerns. HIGH NOON? Really? Plus Archie and Veronica as Anthony and Cleopatra. (Minus all that annoying suicide to avoid capture by the Romans stuff.) Plus Snow White and the 7 Dwarves. Who the hell do they think their audience is? Who the hell do they want their audience to be?


Notes from under the floorboards:

I pick up my mail today and what to my wondering eyes should appear but two recently released trade reprints of my old work: Marvel has issued all the WHAT IF? stories done last fall in trade paperback as WHAT IF? SECRET WARS ($19.99), including the "What If? Spider-Man Back In Black" story I did with Gus Vasquez (and if any publishers are looking for a good artist, I'll be happy to share Gus' contact info if you get in touch); and the CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED adaptation of HAMLET that Tom Mandrake and I did back at First Comics in the early '90s has just been reissued in hardcover ($9.95) by Papercutz. Go buy them and keep those royalties coming! (And thanks.)

Is the swine flu over yet? Anyone remember the great swine flu epidemic of, when was it, 1976? Probably not, because there wasn't one. There was a panic, though, with very strong warnings of highly dangerous disease that everyone should get inoculated against. But the infection never came, at least not on any scale. I like the symptoms we're told to watch out for this time around: coughing, congestion, runny nose, mild fever. What does that tell us? IT'S THE FLU. (To contrast, the important symptoms of the devastating 1918 flu that killed millions were pneumonia and hemorrhaging.) They could have just told everyone: if you feel sick, stay in bed and drink a lot of fluids. But no, they have to go the full bore macabre route. It's understandable; a populace fixated on the impending terror of swine flu will pay a lot less attention to other things going on, like banks successfully lobbying to prevent federal aid for mortgage-challenged homeowners...

Oh, great. The EU has decided it wants to run the Internet. (Currently control, such as it is, rests with the USA, courtesy of ICAAN.) Given the infighting in the EU and the crazy things they periodically decide are in the best interests of society, that's all we need. Ain't America nutty enough?

Congratulations to Keith Giles, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "tools." Keith wishes to point your attention to his sci-fi/comics blog Nut In The Shell. 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. As in most weeks, there's a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but this week it's bad. Real bad. Good luck.

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.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

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.

TAGS:  comics professionalism, fcbd2009

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