A Chat with Steve Bissette
The following e-mail letter is Steve Bissetteís response to the previous chats and interviews concerning The Creator's Bill of Rights. I received this e-mail from Steve on April 17, 2005. -Al Nickerson
Howdy, Al and Dave --
I have no idea what this will be used for, or in what context save the two interviews (Scottís and Rickís) and Daveís article.
For the record, my interview presents only my subjective opinions. Anything other than first-hand personal experiences that I refer to in my interview (or herein) should be taken as informed heresay; the truly interested reader would best be illuminated by conversations with the parties directly involved; I cannot speak for them, or to their concerns. Understand, however, many of them chose not to speak, and rather resent these kinds of conversations in the first place (read on, below). If Iíve made any errors of fact, I ask that those directly involved correct me -- please, speak up. However, if you do not agree with opinions that are based upon the publicly-known facts and I have not distorted those facts, well, thatís not my problem. They are just my opinions. If there are mitigating circumstances, itís up to you to clarify or discuss them. I do not pretend to be omniscient, though volatile reactions to past interviews Iíve given presume I have some objective perspective that I cannot and will not pretend to. Iím a human being; I am passionate about these issues, and may not choose to express myself as some might prefer.
My views of Creator Rights are considered extreme by some. It all seems pretty clear to me, but hey, thatís just me. For instance, outside of relevent application of the fair use doctrines (i.e., illustrating an article/interview Iíve written with images from works relevent to the article/interview; see my non-fiction published work) or retail situations (sales of purchased goods, as in my years in the video business), I would never traffic in the creations, property, or work of others as transferable assets. I consider any creator who does so as working contrary to the spirit and intent of the Bill.
What creators choose to do with their own rights to their own work is their business alone. However, I would argue that they should be aware of the potential impact on their heirs, and on generations of creators who follow. I do not villify those who choose to sell or sign away any of their inherent rights; many make their living in this way, as I once did and occasionally do, hopefully earning fair and proper income from the exchange. As long as all concerned can live with the consequences, good or bad, bless Ďem. Those consequences may include depriving heirs of income or conceptual properties; setting fresh legal precedents (positive and negative) for future generations of creators; and perceived extremists like me questioning or criticizing their decisions. In the latter case, any feelings of guilt-by-association is not my problem -- you can engage with, ignore, or resent anything I have to say, it makes no difference to me.
As most anyone reading this knows, I have done my share of work-for-hire during my years in the industry, and no doubt will again. I can address those consequences, positive and negative, having many reflective years of experience to draw from. In some cases, Iím glad some of my collaborative works were work-for-hire jobs under terms that continue to earn me royalties; then again, I did plenty of work-for-hire gigs that never earned me a dime beyond the page or cover rate, remained thereafter out-of-print, and provided corporate entities with some groovy characters and concepts theyíve exploited sans a further nickel to me. By and large, I think work-for-hire is a bad idea (hint: Dave Sim and Gerhard did not earn livings completing and keeping in print 300 issues of CEREBUS under such terms, nor did Frank Miller arrive at co-directing the movie adaptation of SIN CITY under such arrangements). I have tons of work I do own and/or co-own laying fallow, but I always have the option of doing something with that work down the road, as do my children.
For the record, the legal principle of work-for-hire is one I on occasion have and will apply to protect my own legal properties and creations past, present, and future in collaborative ventures involving my creative properties (e.g., ĎThe N-Man Projectí). I am not trying to demonize anyone, or the principle of work-for-hire in and of itself, but Iím here to tell you if "working for the man" suits you, a key to the door, an eight-hour workday, a paycheck every Friday, and some form of subsidized healthcare sure beats freelancing.
That said, I far prefer working on my own creations. Thereís no magic to publishing, and the business of publishing isnít much more difficult than the business of freelancing. With the new print-on-demand technologies and venues, self-publishing is more viable today than ever before (relevent to my own career path, writing rather than drawing, this is true for writers as well as writer/artists. I am writing and/or packaging books I could never find a traditional-model publisher for. Consider the recent success story of writers like Vickie Stringer and her Triple Crown Publications venture in Columbus, Ohio; inevitably, the same principles apply, as she has moved from self-publishing her own work to publishing over a dozen writers -- the Creator Bill of Rights applies to all modes of expression, not just comics). If I must participate in collaborative or editorial relations, I prefer those where each participant fully owns their own work, and once the book sees print and all originals are returned the partyís over (e.g., comics anthologies like TABOO or article anthologies like GREEN MOUNTAIN CINEMA, in which the contributors own their own work entirely, and I purchase only one-time print or reprint rights without laying any further claim to the contributions).
So, there. My cards are on the table. I hasten to add Iím essentially writing off the top of my head here, responding to Daveís letter in what little time I can spare to do so.
I also need to emphasize my belief that distribution was and is among the most critical concerns in implementing the Creator Bill of Rights. As Dave notes, due in part to my own invitation to several people I felt belonged at the summit, the relevence of distribution to creatorís rights was by and large tabled by the summit participants. I was in a minority at the summit pressing for discussion of this issue, but weíre way past the point of no return on this matter, given the import of distribution control to the entirity of comics history (donít believe me? Quick, read Gerard Jonesí MEN OF TOMORROW); given the impact of the mid-to-late 1990s scramble on the part of corporate comics publishers to seize the reins of control on distribution; given how the implosion of the direct sales market impacted on self-publishers like myself, and larger independent publishers; given the irrevocable contraction of the market after powerful mercantile powers consolidated control of distribution; and given how I have subsequently seen those same issues impact on the video market (and on the independent filmmakers dependent on that market, now that the corporations absolutely control theatrical distribution). Alternative means of producing and reading the medium of comics have since emerged (i.e., the internet), presenting fresh potential, perspectives, and problems for the new and next generations of comics creators. I urge them to engage, as we did not, with distribution as a matter of critical importance to the implementation of their and earning of their livelihoods.
Now, on to Daveís letter:
There are inherently moral issues to weigh once creators involve themselves in collective ventures (requiring more than one creative individual to complete a print-ready or reader-ready work). Like Dave, I do consider all parties involved in the creation of a given work -- letterers, colorists, etc. -- who contribute something creative to the product as partners, acknowledging that there are some gray areas here (more often than not, when a work is prepared for foreign publication, lettering/coloring/etc. is supplanted by the work of new collaborative hands). And woe to those who do not see to the necessary nuts-and-bolts of such partnerships.
These issues grow progressively complex when collective ventures involve any variation of the following:
(a) collective publication of individually-owned works (e.g., anthologies), (b) studio situations, in which two or more individuals contribute to a finished work, (c) work-for-hire employer/employee relations, (d) creator-led or owned publishing ventures involving work actually executed by other creators (which are by definition NOT self-publishing), (e) creators publishing/perpetuating their own legal properties (their characters or concepts) via works executed by other creators under work-for-hire conditions -- a more hands-off variation on (d), in which the proprietary creator indeed has no active creative role in the production of the completed work, save applying his/her name to it as proprietor or legal author.
In the interview, I touched on a few case histories I consider relevent that came to mind. Lest anyone think I am picking on any given parties, I hasten to add I could have referenced more:
* In the case of the Image partners and fascinating Image case history, I cited the Jim Lee/Wildstorm issue in my interview, but could have easily gotten into more about Todd McFarlaneís empire, or the Rob Liefeld studios and imprints situation, etc. To my limited knowledge, Liefeldís contracts may have been the most regressive, but at least he had contracts -- my two personal brushes with Toddís ventures were pretty off-putting, and his behavior regarding the MARVELMAN/MIRACLEMAN debacle is likewise chilling. I leave it to either those directly involved or true comics historians to sort all that out. Didnít mean to come off as playing favorites or least-favorites, I just went with the case history that came to mind and was most recent in my memory. These are interviews, not research papers or legal briefs.
* To my mind, the HEAVY METAL/CDRom debacle was a major sign of the fraying of the community that was directly involved in the drafting and ratification of the Creator Bill of Rights. For those working in the New York City comics market, HEAVY METAL represented the first post-WITZEND extension of the underground comix creator-ownership principles into the comics arena, and the first ever in the mainstream newsstand comics arena. The opportunistic 1998 decision to produce an electronic-media collection of all HEAVY METAL material, despite the clarity of contracts and legal matters concerning creator ownership of most material to have been published in HEAVY METAL over the decades, was a sorry turn of events. This decision was based upon the contested Tasini vs. The New York Times case (essentially, at the time based upon a judgeís ruling some publications could implement unspecified electronic rights in reprinting/repackaging work in a manner undefined in contracts, most of which predated the existence of such electronic media or venues); that ruling was overturned within weeks of the HM CDRom debacle, so the HM powers-that-be owe those who objected more than their ongoing contempt. The contracts HM offered as far back as 1977 certainly didnít allow for such grand assumptions of reprint power twenty+ years later; I know, I signed a few (and posted one online at my website, http://www.comicon.com/bissette). The fact that current HM management had not only prepared the product without notification or negotiation of 20+ years of creators and contributors, but in fact had already manufactured, advertised, and were prepared to sell the CDRoms, is critical to understanding why those first alerted to the productís existence responded so quickly and decisively.
I would like to respond to Daveís letter, if I may, and will try to remain brief.
What Dave perceives as "one of the problems" with the Northampton Summit is accurate. While the catalyst for all this furious activity was indeed the then-volatile HIGH SOCIETY/retailers/distributors/direct-mail order situation, it also spilled over into broader publisher/creator/distributor issues with Diamondís decision to "punish" Aardvark-Vanaheim, publisher, by refusing to distribute PUMA BLUES (an expendable commodity in the distributorís accounting, as opposed to CEREBUS, which was a money-maker for them). Once I was myself publishing (with TABOO) and self-publishing (TYRANT), I later understood what Dave "was looking for," but at the time my sympathies were aligned with Steve Murphy and Michael Zulli, the put-upon PUMA creators, who were being unfairly scape-goated by Diamond.
Letting Daveís glib "Good Worker/Bad Worker" analogy stand, Iíll add that the timing of the Summit was amid a tumultuous transitional period for many of us. It seemed vital to include the entire Mirage Studios creative group, those who had experienced both creator-ownership and corporate work-for-hire (Rick Veitch), creator/publishers (the Pinis of ELFQUEST), and those with rather unique creator/publisher relations. Scott was not so much a "Good Worker" as a creator licensing his work to Eclipse for distribution; Eclipse was essentially acting as production/printer/distribution facilitator, as they were for fellow Summit participant Larry Marder (and others), and both Scott and Larry argued that was quite different from standard creator/publisher relations. This was a compelling mix, though in hindsight I see Daveís point (having truly published and self-published, "production/printer/distribution facilitator" pretty well sums up the publisher role, though most interject "legal author" and/or "proprietor of conceptual property" in there somewhere). However, the catalytic event Ė Diamond thrusting PUMA BLUES into jeopardy over a dispute with Dave -- is what spun Daveís proposed Summit into broader labor issues. That the Creator Bill of Rights emerged from that shitstorm is still rather amazing to me.
One of Daveís statements in his third paragraph rings alarmingly true to this day, and I quote:
"In order to really put something useful together, a lot of guys who signed bad contracts would have to be willing to admit that they signed a bad contract and to explain what bases they didnít cover and what sort of a headache it turned into from there.... Fundamentally, what I have discovered, is that most guys would rather get taken to the cleaners and have succeeding generations taken to the cleaners than to participate in any sort of warning system to keep people from getting taken to the cleaners. Itís a privacy issue with them and any contract they sign is a one-on-one intimacy thing like their marriage."
I absolutely agree with Dave on his fundamental statement. As hard experience demonstrated for me, the privacy issue relative to business is in fact regarded as being more intimate (hence more taboo) than discussion of, for instance, marriage for some. To paraphrase Dave, a lot of guys who signed bad contracts donít even want the names of the firms they signed with evoked because, by proxy, it places them in a bad light. As one who actively tried to engage with warning future generations via analysis of business case histories rather than vagaries, I was exiled and have been repeated told I deserved exile to this very day. Indeed: "they just [want] to say what a shame on Siegel and Shusterís behalf and then accept that itís just going to keep happening."
My first taste of this indeed arose during the summit. The tension at the summit around Richard Pini, ELFQUEST, and Mirage Studios was palpable, the white elephants in the room. The issues are, and were, obvious: post-Wendy-and-Richard-Pini and post-Kevin-Eastman-and-Peter-Laird publishing firms thrived thanks due to other creative hands creating the published pages. Studio situations were and are inherently problematic (while interviewing Will Eisner for COMIC BOOK REBELS, the only point in the interview in which he bristled and grew defensive was during my questions about his own studio systems). Given Daveís modest studio arrangement with Gerhard (who was naturally in attendence), he had his own studio dynamic to address -- and throughout the process of the meetings and summits, remained the only studio Ďproprietorí to engage with the discussion and propose solutions without being either furtive or evasive.
Furthermore, everyone in the room knew it was Dave and Gerhard, Kevin and Peter who were hosting the event, the meals, the room, etc., as well as funding travel and lodgings for many participants. Employer/employee tightwire acts aside, basic courtesy in guest/host relations and unspoken tribal "donít shit where you eat" rules further inhibited the conversations that should have ensued. My memory of those long hours included not only Dave "inadvisably let[ting] that go," but everyone in the room letting it go as it meant getting personally confrontational with people we liked and/or respected, some of whom had become close friends and/or associates. The collective will to democratize the Summit was preferable to a closed-door WTO-style Summit (that would have involved only Sim, Eastman & Laird, and perhaps the Pinis), and I canít imagine a document like the Creator Bill of Rights emerging from such a session, but we all skirted many fundamental issues, particularly those ethical quagmires concerning studio and collaborative ventures. The discussion of the modification of language to indoctrinate "fully create" was the substance of confrontation with the issue, and most diplomatic method of skirting the issue. That said, that memorable dance crystallized my own thoughts on the matter toward a career path that would allow me to only work upon that which I indeed fully created, right down to the lettering and production chores.
In fact, a creeping retroactive work-for-hire supposition seems to be taking hold in some quarters, including those managed by individuals who participated in the summit and ratified the Creator Bill of Rights... part and parcel of the community shift I mention in the opening paragraph email excerpt Al (with my permission) placed at the beginning of my interview. I have to laugh when I read Daveís comments on contracts; shit, I was among the last generation to be force-fed the ludicrous Marvel Comics Group back-of-the-check one-paragraph contracts, positioned so as to make endorsement of the check a stab at a legally-binding agreement. Some of us habitually crossed those out and endorsed the other end of the check, responding to bank employees who argued about this, "are you willing to sign this as a witness to a contract?" (that shut Ďem up every time). The retroactive, all-encompassing, blanket in-perpetuity Marvel contract was also foisted upon me in 1978, which I was coerced to sign (after a commissioned, completed job was accepted and my check was literally held away from my hand UNTIL I signed). But Daveís caveat that dollar amounts can be modifiers sans specified contracts or agreements is a slippery slope: as he himself caricatured the situation, "Kevin and Peter are paying my $200 a page to draw... and last week I was working at McDonaldís" is precisely the Depression-era dynamic that fueled the Siegel and Shuster situation. $200 is a lot of money when youíre broke, working all week to bring that home at minimum wage, and dying to be earn income from creative work instead of flipping burgers. Depending on which end of the pyramid (you remember the pyramid, Dave?) youíre on, $200 and $100,000 are relative amounts, and to my mind neither should presume unspecified rights granted. Nice to know money modifies Daveís own presumption of rights unspecified are his to retain, but it neatly sidesteps the fact that Todd, Kevin, and Peter also profited enormously from Daveís (and CEREBUSís) cross-pollination, and neatly choose Ďbottomí in the pyramid in a way I consider counterproductive to Daveís own arguments.
Precedents, legal or non-legal, are set in such cases. In his fleeting conversations with me, Todd cannily used that leverage with his "if youíre good to Toddy, Toddy will be good to you" dismissal of discussion of any business particulars. In the context of Toddís 1993 and later 1997 conversations with me, he didnít have to explicitly evoke Daveís payday: Todd knew I knew, and played that card (ineffectually) when he felt it suitable. Via the donation of Daveís SPAWN portion of that transaction to the Comic Book Legal Defense fund, Todd was able to dangle, sans specification, the potential of such income before a freelancer. That isnít a step forward in my mind Ė in fact, it puts Todd in the identical position DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, et al are in when dealing with freelancers, and his "if youíre good to Toddy, Toddy will be good to you" is a neat echo of Donenfieldís ethic at National Periodical.
In this strange new environment of the early 21st Century, where the dollar is plunging in value and producers and aspiring producers are paying cartoonists tens of thousands of dollars to complete graphic novels intended only for vanity-publication in order to package pitches to studios in the hopes of yielding millions of dollars, it could be argued that $100,000 of 1990s money is comparable to hundreds of dollars of Depression-era income. In a culture where entertainment news reigns supreme and Hollywood product remains one of Americaís most viable exports, the conceptual properties emerging from/attached to comics and graphic novels are the coin of the realm, more valuable as potential-movie-and-licensing-fodder than as publishable entities. As the comics and graphic novel market in-and-of-itself fumbles, it makes increasing sense to simply lock down creative properties sans the messy obligations of publishing: hence, I believe, the institutionalization of clauses like that the Vertigo/DC contract I mentioned in the interview make imminent sense, or, worst-case scenario, the preemptive "sign this before we even look at your proposal because we might already have one just like it in-house" agreement. I know the arguments the publishers have and will make: they have to protect their investments, indemnify themselves against lawsuits, etc. But the end result is the same: Why publish when you can simply subsidize the act of creation and execution, then put a lockhold on the completed work in perpetuity -- or, better yet, appropriate concepts via signed preemptive "thanks, already have one just like it" agreements? "Be careful what you sign away" is a more relevent cautionary statement than ever before.
Re: Daveís "lead by example" statement, and his reference to supplying Marshall Rogers and Joe Rubinstein with negatives of the CEREBUS jam piece they participated in. I find this curious, as it catches Dave in a bit of a quandry. Ownership of negatives/film as a Creator Rights issue was first raised to me in 1993 by Don Simpson when he began actively self publishing his work, and that opened quite a can of worms. In brief, Don needed the film/negatives; having the film to self-publish reprints of past MEGATON MAN material would save him enormous amounts of money, and increase profitable reprints exponentially. It was standard at the time to deduct production costs (including the manufacture of the negatives) from income prior to paying the creator(s) their share; thus, in a way, it could be argued the creator had paid for those films, as the publisher did not absorb those costs as their own. All rights to MEGATON MAN had reverted to Don, and his past publisher had no further use for the film, as the publisher no longer had any rights to reprint the work. Once Don was free to reprint his own work (all prior contracts fulfilled), that film had enormous value to him as a means of cutting self-publishing costs; it had no inherent value to the publisher he had once worked with. Still, the publisher wanted further payment, or no film: it was perceived as a material asset that the publisher owned.
But what, exactly, did the publisher own? The rights to the images, text, and concepts imbedded on the negatives was no longer the publisherís property; the publisher had no right to DO anything with the film. Seeking support on the issue, Don contacted a number of prominent creators hoping for letters of support, including Dave Sim and Will Eisner. Both argued the industry standard of the time weighed against Don: that the publisher indeed owned the negatives, and it was fair to demand payment for access or ownership (of course, the industry standard when I entered the field in the mid-í70s was that some publishers owned the original art, too; another odious Marvel agreement I was forced to sign at times, and it was a pip). Miffed, Don decided to pay for new negatives rather than pay what he considered extortion monies; thus, the MEGATON MAN film in the publisherís possession was arguably of no further value to anyone, least of all the publisher with no rights to publish, and Donís ability to remain viable and profitable as a self-publisher had been needlessly compromised. There were, of course, personal issues -- there are ALWAYS personal issues -- including Willís own relationship with the publisher in question, and Donís stormy history and behavior with the publisher. But that should not have clouded the core issue: WHO owned the film? What, if the property rights were no longer up for grabs, was the film worth to anyone other than Don Simpson? Grief tax?
Personally, I felt then, as I do now, that Don was in the right: his income from the publication of MEGATON MAN was paid only after deducting the cost of production, including the film/negatives necessary at that time for publishing. If the publisher did not absorb that cost, Don had therefore already paid for that material. He understandably resented the presumption that he had to pay for the film AGAIN to gain access to it for reprint purposes. This was indeed standard practice at the time -- interesting, too, how this very issue subsequently complicated immeasurably the entire tar-baby rights issue over who does and doesnít "own" MARVELMAN/MIRACLEMAN, particularly the incarnation by Alan Moore and his myriad artistic collaborators which began in Dez Skinnís WARRIOR magazine in the UK and was picked up and continued by Eclipse Comics in the US. Once those negatives were sold in the auction of Eclipse assets after their collapse, Todd McFarlane acquired -- what? That argument has stretched on for years now, spilling into the courtroom and beyond. In the meantime, Moore and his collaborative partners havenít earned any kind of income from that body of work, though interest and demand has only increased over the decade+ since (check eBay prices on back issues and the collected editions, all long out of print).
"Lead by example": when I acquired the TABOO film from Tundra during the transfer of assets from Tundra to Kitchen Sink (film that was given to me, BTW), I cut the film and mailed the actual film of respective stories to the creators for their future use. Having no rights to any of the material, it seemed the only right and proper thing to do, especially since some of that film reflected extensive and expensive production (as on Elaine Lee and Charles Vessís TABOO 4 story) that would make reprinting the material from the original art prohibitively expensive. In the traditional publisher mode, caretaking the work would be an obligation assumed; but to me, it was and is the creatorís job to protect and preserve their work. Besides, I had seen that role abused too often in my own short life: despite Ďcreator ownershipí contracts with Marvelís EPIC magazine, when I sought film for my EPIC #6 story "Kultz," it turned out the film was gone: Marvel had (illegally) sold the story to foreign publishers for, and used their own negatives to facilitate that (illegal, per their own contract) reprint. When Tundra turned over the TABOO film to me, anything related to FROM HELL had been excised from the film flats (e.g., the original TABOO introduction pages, featuring artwork and material that does not appear in the collected editions, and Alanís own exquisite pair of collage/paintings we ran as inside-cover illustrations). When I mentioned this to Eddie Campbell (who would later have had use for the additional materials, as he rescued FROM HELL and arranged for publication of the definitive complete editions), he regretted the loss.
Of course, the digital production revolution has rendered the issue of film per se moot in many cases; the issues it raises, however, are even more troubling: does ownership of a disc containing creative work imply, in any way, shape, or form, ownership of the creative property? Of course not. But you see, technology is the only defining factor in the argument between ownership-of-film-as-an-asset and ownership-of-digital-reproduction-as-an-asset; both are just means of getting from the original art to the reader, via whatever means is commercially viable or available (printed page, bound book, internet server, monitor screen). I canít see Dave or Will arguing that ownership of a disc extended to any claim on the creative property itself -- yet, in the matter of the MEGATON MAN film, thatís precisely what they were arguing, in terms of the extant reproduction technology.
Other than that caveat, I agree wholeheartedly with Dave on the matter of "if you worked on it, you have the right to reproduce it," and the negotiable value of that right. "If you want to own the whole works, you have to pay a lot more for lettering and inking and pencilling and scripting than you do when the pages are jointly owned by all the participants" makes complete sense to me. This was among the points of contention I struggled with on the Ď1963í project, one that was never properly settled (and hence will necessarily have to be revisited if we or anyone ever reprints that truncated project). Not wanting to reopen old wounds, I wonít articulate that example or issues further; Dave covers the point adequately and admirably.
Re: the relevence of this point "because of all the comic-book movie deals" -- canny choice of MEN IN BLACK as an example, Dave, given how that acquired Malibu property (acquired amid a transfer of assets that got Malibuís owners out of fiscal quicksand and neatly landed Marvel a coveted coloring technology, wherein MEN IN BLACK was less than an afterthought) ended up breaking Marvelís losing streak in adapting their comics properties to theatrical movies and ushered in this whole era of BLADE/X-MEN/SPIDERMAN mega-hits for the House of Work-for-Hire Ideas. We clearly "donít have a template" for dealing with ANY of this, and the studios and publishers involved have enormous vested interests in keeping creators out of the fray.
[An aside: Interesting, donít you think, that the screen credit for 2005ís CONSTANTINE was essentially identical to those of the 1940s SUPERMAN and BATMAN serials? At least we CONSTANTINE co-creators are now receiving $ for our role in creating the original character, and one could argue for perceived progress half-a-century later in having more than one Bob Kane benefiting from the corporate transactions. But my experience thus far has demonstrated the screen credits are enviable poker chips in the game, and the lack of same consigns one to relative oblivion in the public eye (when one of my video-store co-workers mentioned to a friend that he worked with the co-creator of CONSTANTINE, the lack of my name on poster or screen prompted a sarcastic "yeah, right"). So it goes.]
I think weíve now seen at least one enlightened reaction to this situation, at least regarding truly solo-owned ventures: Robert Rodriguezís direct involvement of Frank Miller in SIN CITY is to my mind a breakthrough. The fact that Frank had handled every primary aspect of the comics work, including lettering, elegantly addresses the collaborative ratís nest Dave is speaking of. But itís critical to note that neither the comics industry nor the movie industry WANTS to engage with the attendent issues. For that matter, I can tell you from hard experience most creators donít want to, either. That was true in the Ď30s and Ď40s during the heyday of the studio sweatshops; that was true in the 1970s when Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, and others tried to create a comics creator guild or union that from the outset marginalizied the "lowly" letterers and colorists; that was true in the 1990s, when these very issues were discussed at the summits; and itís true by-and-large today (unless one happens to be married to oneís letterer or colorist, but Iím not going there right now).
Itís telling that Rodriguez parted company with the Directorís Guild so passionately that he resigned from the Guild. Corporate suits prefer dealing with corporate suits in such matters: the aptly-named Troublemaker Studios have tossed a major fucking monkey-wrench into that neat arrangement designed to instantly marginalize the creative individuals without whom there wouldnít be comics/graphic novel source material to adapt or exploit. The authorial "Frank Millerís SIN CITY" was for once more than lip-service. In the age of digital filmmaking, Rodriguez understood that there was no reason NOT to engage Miller fully: whatever had to be learned could be learned, particularly by a creative graphic artist/writer, and as a result we have a dramatic new template that has already sent the powers-that-be in both industries into envious tailspins. Expect to see the legalities make such an event unlikely to be replicated anytime soon, but hopefully this new example will prompt yet another generation of creators to rethink their orientation to their material and their rights; with a Neil Gaiman/Dave McKean feature film already about to break, there may be considerable hope for fundamental changes, though arguably Miller, Gaiman, and McKean are among the perceived aristocracy of the industry, and their treatment may not establish templates for broader enlightened behavior. Such hard-earned superstar status is rare and inherently Ďunmanageableí by publishers and studios, and best left as aberrations rather than mold-breakers.
But such is not the case. It is no longer an aberration that studios have to deal, on some meaningful level, with individual creators in the transfer of published comic/graphic novel to the motion picture screen. Even from the perspective of the movie money-men, we are way beyond the significant shift in the axis when the profitable exploitation of creator-owned properties (TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, THE CROW, SPAWN, MYSTERY MEN, FROM HELL, AMERICAN SPLENDOR, SIN CITY, etc.) outflanks that of the mainstream comics-publisher-owned properties (surely, I neednít name them?). Creator-owned comics properties (or, I should say, non-mainstream comics publisher-based properties, as once the movies are involved creator-ownership is usually modified, compromised, or usurped one way or another) dominate the field, and in fact (as already noted, above, via MEN IN BLACK) led to Marvel finally entering the fray. If one adds into the mix those properties that emerged from mainstream comics publishers attempting to accommodate non-traditional levels of creative ownership and/or participation (e.g., ROAD TO PERDITION, CONSTANTINE, etc.), the balance tips away from the corporate-owned realm. In private conversations in the 1990s, Larry Marder defined this as a major turning point for the corporate comics publishers, a major factor in their kamikaze bids to wrest control of distribution in the direct-sales market; he was right, and we now find ourselves in the even more curious position of established independent movie directors, writers, and actors effortlessly moving from medium to medium, writing comics series between film projects; the cross-pollination in the other direction (arguably launched with Ridley Scottís employ of cartoonists like Ron Cobb and Jean ĎMoebiusí Giraud to do conceptual design work on ALIEN) is also ongoing, though I know this is marginal to Daveís focus on comics alone.
Nevertheless, when Dave calls for using the Screenwriters Guild as a template to create "something analogous in the comic-book field that clearly sets out specific values for the specific contributions in collaborative work and fair compensation for those contributions," I think heís more than onto something: heís calling for the obvious to finally be addressed. But weíre back to the 1970s in a way, and will be fielding the same arguments that kept Adams, Giordano, et al from realizing that generationís dream of organizing creative individuals toward addressing and achieving a collective good that would benefit all. As long as the siren call to swim upstream for the greater good of the species and future generations is problematic for those who just want to be left alone, keeping nose to the grindstone and earning income (however grand or meager) from creative labor, resenting anyone who presents obstacles to that lonely task (however great the potential gain "down the road"), we are trapped in an unresolvable labor dispute.
As I have seen first-hand, there are those who embrace and/or need the artifice of work-for-hire-entrenched pyramids to do their work. The publisher/editor/page rate/writer/penciller/inker/letterer/colorist model offers a comfortable path of least resistance, with rank and roles neatly pre-determined, and that permits one to table or ignore the demands of revamping existing structures or working with more progressive models. New structures necessarily complicates simply sitting down at a typewriter, keyboard, or drawing board and doing what they love to do. I can sympathize, having performed nearly all tasks in the comics field at one time or another in my 24+ years. That some of the best and brightest in the medium prefer the status quo only increases the temptation to leave that status quo unquestioned and in place; after all, we donít want to miss out on whatever theyíre doing now, or will do next, do we? So what if it means those necessary to making their grandest masterworks readable remain mere employees, subservient to a system that reduces comics to the equivalent of an automobile assembly-line?
This is frustrating, indeed, and requires sometimes that one points out that the blinders are in place, that some of the best and brightest are dependent on an exploitative system, whatever their stated positions on creator rights issues. Such observations are resented mightily, and are not to be stated lightly. The movie studios donít want these matters addressed; the publishers donít want these matters addressed; many of the creators (including some of the most successful of those) donít want these matters addressed; and the latter truth is among the greatest societal taboos of the comics community. "Iíve got mine" attitudes, fear of job loss, the imploded marketplace, the publishersí revolving-door policies, etc. further entrench the unwillingness to discuss, much less pragmatically engage with, the unresolved issues the Creator Bill of Rights continues to raise (hell, itís hard enough competing with celebrities like Kevin Smith for work opportunities -- whatís HE need more work for?)
The inherently moral issues one must weigh once creators involve themselves in collective ventures remain uncomfortable, complicated, messy things best avoided if one is to just get on with the necessary task of CREATING stuff, particularly with so many waiting in line for you to get your part of a given job done. There are more pressing matters: bills to be paid, mortgage or rent due, no health insurance, mouths to feed, pages to be done.
That logic, of course, is what keeps the pyramid upended, the creator snugly beneath the apex, balancing unwieldy power structures that would prefer the pyramid remain just as it is.
The question remains:
Where do we go from here?