A Letter from Steve Bissette 2
The following e-mail letter is Steve Bissette’s response to the previous chats, online discussions, and letters concerning The Creator's Bill of Rights.
May 21, 2005:
Per my arrangement with Al, and in the spirit of continuing this as a constructive conversation about the Creator Bill of Rights, here’s my responses to Dave’s statement of April 23:
Concerning Dave’s detailed recall of the events leading up to the summit (in his response to Scott McCloud’s interview), which begins: "The first draft of the Creative Manifesto was a communal effort on the part of Kevin Eastman, Pete Laird, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Michael Zulli and Stephen Murphy and myself—with supplemental input from Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Dave Gibbons, Steven Grant and others—in response to Diamond raising the possibility of not carrying the Puma Blues..."
This is absolutely in synch with my own memories of all events, though I of course did not at the time grasp what the fundamental issue was for Dave (as he makes clear in his letter). I learned. FYI, coincidentally enough, before this whole matter cropped up, I was interviewed by Richard Arndt for his online history of horror comics site, and got into this very matter (in the context of Taboo’s history). If you care to read my memories of this period (though Dave’s are far more insightful), Richard’s site is at: http://www.enjolrasworld.com (once there, look for Richard's Page & the Taboo section).
Also FYI, Dave’s comment, "This was the first time that a creator who was also a publisher had had a serious contretemps in dealing with a distributor...," is a modest understatement at best. The fact is, Dave’s head-on engagement with the issue broke the glass ceiling on graphic novels: Church & State, Vol. 1, at 592 pages for $25, was the first expansion of the graphic novel format that made an impact on the market, and hence created the new template for true graphic novels that everyone takes for granted today. That is a fact. My memory is that after Dave’s breakthrough, and Kevin and Peter’s prompt response with their first hardcover collected, DC was first among the mainstream NYC publishers to take advantage of this, with the hardcover and paperback collected The Dark Knight Returns. This was received in the market as given wisdom after Dave’s arduous struggle with said market, and it’s been what it is ($25 seems quite the bargain today!) since then. But never forget: Dave broke the trail.
[For anyone who cares: until Dave’s papers find a permanent home, my own papers at Henderson State University’s HUIE Library Special Collections already contain extensive documentation of this period, including a file I submitted as (to quote my notes) "1986-89: Taboo/Aardvark One International documents -- photocopies of bookkeeping, letters, notes, etc. and misc. documents on the earliest years of Taboo, starting with the 1986 bookkeeping of "Untitled Horror Project"..." Among the documents therein are "the estimates from Preney Print & Litho, Dave’s Cerebus printer of choice (who I later worked with on Tyrant), on projected costs for printing Taboo, including a breakdown of costs on the Cerebus volumes Church and State Vol. 1 (592 pages) and Swords [of Cerebus] Vol. 5 (104 pages). Very interesting, and a key moment in comics publishing history..." At the time, the market was so locked into the by-then standardized ‘graphic novel’ format of 64-100 pgs., represented here by 104-page format of Swords, and Dave was so intent on the 592-page format of Church and State, that enormous tension, friction, and strife reached critical mass in the manner described by Dave and myself.]
Re: Dave wrote:
"The issue was a dispute about how business was conducted between creator-publishers and distributors and retailers. It became complicated because we had to dissect the problem into its component parts in a way that was nearly Biblical: "In the beginning there is the Work…" and then to follow the Work from the point of creation through to the time that it’s purchased by a consumer. The fact that Steve Bissette, a DC freelancer, came into the discussion early on meant that we got distracted from what we were talking about and drawn into a much larger discussion. I was willing participate in the larger discussion as long as the larger discussion also addressed the question of the borderline between creating, publishing and distributing."
Recent filing of my papers for the Henderson State University/HUIE collection coincidentally turned up many relevant documents from this period. Lest a blank reading of Dave’s comment make it sound like I intrusively asserted myself into this matter, the fact is by 1986 I was well into the process of working with Dave, Gerhard, and Karen McKiel (then bookkeeper/secretary at Aardvark-Vanaheim, Inc.) on "Untitled Horror Project," which two years later emerged as Taboo 1. Thus, I was into a very steep learning curve initiated by Dave’s invitation to John Totleben and I (extended at Mid-Ohio con in November of 1985) to publish anything we wished to do; for a variety of reasons I didn’t understand then but grasp in spades now, Dave was disappointed that we chose not to self-publish something of our own creation, but instead publish a communal venture, "Untitled Horror Project." So, yes, in 1986, I was still "a DC freelancer" in part, but I was well into work on what was to be Taboo, and thus learning the ropes of being a publisher as I gradually worked my way out of ‘work for hire’ servitude. Caught midstream between two rivers, if you will, I was in a rather unique position which, at the time, Dave seemed quite cognizant of, if his occasional late-night phone calls to my home were any barometer. Personally and professionally, I desperately needed "the larger discussion," not as a freelancer per se, but as someone moving into a whole new arena, trying to get my bearings from both sides of publishing. I’m eternally grateful that I was indulged in this process.
"When Scott showed up with his Bill of Rights it made the process a lot simpler from my standpoint. All I had to do was to get a right included that said "We have the right to control the means of distribution of our work." That got watered down to "We have the right to choose the means of distribution of our work" which was fine by me. That was the answer that I had been looking for when the process got started...."
An aside on this point: By the time of the summit, my engagement as a publisher outstripped my engagement as a freelancer: Taboo was that far along. Thus, the distribution issue was key for me, for very different reasons. It seemed self-evident to me by that time that distribution was absolutely critical, and I recall getting pretty assertive and angry at one point when Scott, during the summit, continued to dismiss this an unimportant. His statements today continue to reflect that attitude, which I find naive and blinkered, at best. As the collapse of the direct-sales market demonstrated (and my minor but active role in very similar battles in the much larger arena of the North American video market from 1998-2002), distribution is absolutely central to the viability of any creator’s ability to earn a living from their work. The same battles are ongoing outside of comics (in the music, video, and book industries, for instance), and in all cases, distribution becomes central to the creator’s ability to maintain their livelihood in a culture and market increasingly constricted by concentration of corporate control of distribution. Placing oneself in the freelance position, buffered by a publisher, does not eliminate the issue, though it does perpetuate a remove, a distance, from the issue that can make it seem unimportant. Don’t fool yourself; for instance, as corporate consolidation of web venues increases, the relevance will become obvious. "Contractual trickery," as Dave refers to it, won’t be the crux: control of the means of distribution, and implicit contracts via new ‘marketplace standards,’ will.
Thus, Dave’s succinct assessment of the key point should not be ignored. Dave wrote, regarding the distribution situation that precipitated his engagement with the summits:
"Had it been established that the retailer and distributor viewpoint must always prevail where it conflicts with the viewpoint of the creator-publisher the net effect would have been the same: the loss of fundamental rights that would be difficult if not impossible to recover once the precedent had been set."
These kinds of essentially-invisible settings of precedent -- to the reader, and to the freelancer, by and large -- are indeed critical. Dave fought the right battle at the right time, though none of us saw it as clearly as he did at the time, though all have reaped the benefits since. But as distribution continues to consolidate in all media, these sorts of precedents are constantly being challenged, shifting, or (particularly in entirely new ‘markets’) being set. If anything like a contract is involved, it’s usually buried in the statement of terms on the back of an invoice or order form that passes hands between distributors and retailers, which neither those packing the boxes in the warehouses or those opening the boxes on the retail end care a whit about -- and few others, outside of bookkeeping, ever see. We are extremely fortunate, in hindsight, that Dave as a creator was on the supply end of the equation, and grasped the essential issue that was at hand. No one else did, or would have, until it was too late, had they perceived the core issue, problem, and juncture at all (which is highly unlikely).
Maintaining that such matters are relevant only to relations with some "third party" is the blindspot, indeed. It requires one remain a freelancer, while the fact is the environment has been reshaped by self-publishing in many modes, including the internet comics Scott cites. We turned that corner in the 1990s: it became clear to me during the Spirits of Independence tour that we were seeing a new generation of self-publishers (including Jeff Smith, David Lapham, Paul Pope -- at the time -- and others) who weren’t self-publishing because of the example set by Dave or the Pinis or the Turtles, but because it was logically the most direct route to the market. They, in fact, rather resented being associated by proxy with those-who-came-before, and felt no debt to those trailblazers, which became central to the aftermath of the Spirits tours (which I’ll get into later). There is no "third party" in the post-1995 environment for many creators, lest they choose that route (as Paul Pope has, for instance). Thus, it is even more frustrating to me that Scott still doesn’t grasp distribution as a vital issue, and seems willfully blind to how such matters impact upon the exercise of one’s creator rights and the ability to earn a living.
If I may explore a bit of speculation: To quote Scott, if one is "just sitting in your bathrobe at the keyboard pushing your comics and selling t-shirts," I would not only agree with Dave’s response (you have that right only because Dave fought the battle he did in ‘86), but point out that one is willfully ignoring that the keyboard and computer is NOT the functionary: the server and inexpensive access to the internet is. And in the world of hands-on servicing of supply-and-demand publishing/distribution/retail, precedent is contract, determining often barely-discernible changes in the terms of transaction printed on the back of shipping paperwork and invoices -- terms most freelancers have never laid eyes on in their lives, and that self-publishers ignore at their own peril. It’s even more invisible in the realm of internet transactions, and that is the Achilles heel in your argument. That Scott then states, "If you distribute it yourself, then you have absolute control" makes it clear he has little grasp of the core issues. One has ‘absolute control’ over very little if that means of distribution one is dependent upon ups and moves, collapses, or changes shape -- as it can and does on the web. Yes, you still control your choices (as I did concerning Tyrant), difficult as they may become, and that is relevant. But your ongoing dismissal of this issue indicates you are blithely assuming a perpetual state of trouble-free distribution of goods via open venues. For me, the devastating lesson came in the immediate wake of Capital City’s collapse (more on that, below); to a far, far lesser degree, the twice-over disappearance of the online site "The Kingdom," where my own discussion board "The Swamp" existed, was another lesson (all that information -- irrevocably gone!). In the case of the internet, you’re assuming a trouble-free, open-range venue as a given, while mighty forces and minuscule entities are struggling to consolidate and control or simply maintain those venues.
For instance, how many cartoonists clicking the "I Accept" button in the statements of terms for some sites, venues, boards, etc. actually read those terms? How many print them out, keep them on file, dated and retained in case the terms shift? Clicking "I Accept" is agreeing to a contract, and I’m waiting for the case in which clicking "I Accept" deeds rights to a creative property to an online venue; it may have already happened, a case history may already exist, and I’m just not aware of it as yet.
Maintaining the illusion that the means of distribution that seem omnipresent are indeed invisible, and hence of no consequence, is ignoring the hard realities of business and this world (AOL/Time Warner, anyone?). To be glib: change or take away that server, shift access to the venues, insert the middlemen that are working very hard to insert themselves, and you might not be so easily able to self-distribute, much less afford that bathrobe or keyboard. Proprietary issues relevant to online content and distribution will become a more visible reality in the coming years, and online comics may indeed become desirable commodities worth appropriating, seizing, or fighting over in this "brave new world."
Re: Scott’s comment, "You know, it all comes down to the contract...", etc., and Dave’s reply that begins, "Yes, this is very astutely put. I think in this Internet age it would be worth having a website somewhere where people could anonymously post the contracts that they’re presented with and have some comic fan lawyers who were willing, pro bono, to post their best assessment of where the loopholes and pitfalls and snares are...." is compelling. However, it will take a mighty motivated individual or group to launch such an invaluable site, and -- well, we’ll see. For what it’s worth (not much), I already post at least one contract on my own site (the original Heavy Metal agreement, circa 1978, in the context of clarifying the issues in the 1999 HM CD-Rom debacle), and am donating complete copies of my contracts to Henderson State University/HUIE, in hopes that will provide some measure of access. But Dave’s suggestion is a good one, and well worth pursuing.
Re: Dave wrote:
"It’s kind of funny that Scott and Rick Veitch both refer to DC’s parent company as Warner Bros. rather than the more accurate AOL-Time-Warner. It hasn’t been called Warner Bros. since the late 1960s when it devoured the Kinney conglomerate. It is several orders of magnitude larger and more monolithic on the corporate scale today than it was in 1968 when it was called Warner Bros. Mistaking the DC of 1968 for the DC of 2005 seems to me to exhibit, if Scott and Rick will forgive my bluntness, a core level of foolishness about where we are now relative to the corporate world as opposed to where we were in 1968."
BTW, Dave, it wasn’t Rick, it was I who referred to Warner Bros., in my first letter of response. There was one reference only, and I wrote:
"[DC Comics’] own business is based upon countless options to other media; you bet your ass DC isn’t required to reimburse Warner Brothers [sic] for investment monies paid on one of their properties when an option lapses or a property goes into turnaround."
I referred to that division as I did knowingly, referring very specifically to AOL/Time Warner’s film division, Warner Bros., in the manner the parent corporation itself does, which was utterly appropriate to the point I was making. I was referring very specifically to the MOTION PICTURE division of that vast corporate entity -- it was, in that very specific context, a correct reference to that division, whose most recent logo (which I saw on a theater screen just last week, labeling their most recent theatrical release as their property) remains the venerable 1950s shield-like Warner Bros. logo (‘Bros.,’ mind you, not ‘Brothers’), with "A Time Warner Corporation" modestly scribed beneath it. There! I can’t possibly restate that point another way.
Trying to keep track of how the octopus refers to each of its tentacles can be a low-level source of amusement. As of this week’s issue of Fortune magazine (published by Time Warner), there is an article entitled, "Will Wall Street Ever Trust Time Warner?" (Fortune, May 30, 2005, pp. 76-84), in which Time Warner refers to itself as Time Warner, and in fact contextualizes the ‘now-old’ moniker you’re evoking, Dave: "When [CEO Dick Parsons] took over three years ago, the company, then known as AOL Time Warner, was reeling from the worst merger in business history" (Ibid, pg. 76). I’ve no idea when exactly or why this shift in corporate monikers took place: in 2002, the octopus referred to its own online publishing site as "Go to the AOL Time Warner Book Group Home Page." If you go there now (http://www.twbookmark.com/), it reads (as of 6/10/05) "A Time Warner Book Group Company." In any case, I am painfully aware, as are Rick and Scott, I presume, of "where we are now relative to the corporate world as opposed to where we were in 1968."
That you keep confusing Rick and I after all these years, however, is "kind of funny" and reveals "a core level of foolishness," but then again, Al himself just confused us last week, referring to the posting Rick’s reply as "Steve Veitch’s post." Rick is the Vermonter still working in comics; I’m not. Which, if you "will forgive my bluntness," is as graceless a transition as I can concoct to:
Re: Rick’s comments, and Dave’s responses:
Rick wrote: "I knew loads of artists and writers who just assumed if they were being paid the company owned whatever they did. This was especially the situation at the big comic book companies who had a history of assuming everything; often without any paper being passed." Dave replied: "It’s a good point that people forget."
Seems to me those who maintain their dismissal or disinterest in the Creator’s Bill of Rights forget that fact, or just choose to ignore or dismiss it. Some, perhaps, would even like to go back to those ‘bad old days,’ I’m sure. As one of DC’s own legal council said to me with considerable exasperation during the negotiations over Hellblazer creator shares, "It was so much easier when we just owned everything!" I also remember vividly a statement from Kevin Eastman during the final days of Tundra: "There should be a Publishers’ Bill of Rights!" There is -- and the contract attorneys remain predominantly stacked on the publisher’s side. Those who continue to pooh-pooh the Creator Bill of Rights share an attitude which seems to be, "unless you’re either a creator or a publisher, why care?" When the creators and publishers themselves don’t care, it’s more troubling still.
Dave continued: "It’s something of a cliché that creators reiterate decade after decade that they know what they’re doing—they’re going in to the situation of working on corporate controlled comic books with their eyes open and understand that the companies need to maintain absolute control over the characters and all their fiscal implications in order to remain viable.... As I mentioned to you on the phone, Al, most of the time young guys have stars in their eyes at the prospect of drawing Thor or writing Batman and they’ll sign anything just to get in the door at Marvel or DC. That’s where and how the trouble starts."
Just last month, I got such an email from a very good young cartoonist eager to find work. His dream: To draw Swamp Thing. What character figures prominently in his sample pages? Batman. Whatever I have to say (and I said it) usually falls on deaf ears.
Re: Rick wrote:
"Tundra was originally set up along the Bill’s guidelines and [Kevin] wasn’t able to make it work." Dave replied: "Tundra was definitely a cautionary tale but it seems as if Rick is saying here that Tundra didn’t work because Kevin set it up along the lines of the Bill of Rights. Tundra failed because Kevin never met a comic book he didn’t want to publish... [etc.]."
Tundra failed for a MULTITUDE of reasons. It’s clear that Peter Laird grasped the primal issues better than his ex-partner Kevin. Peter set up the Xeric Foundation, a hands-off, ‘you’re on your own, good luck!’ vehicle which still supports serious, self-motivated self-publishing ventures; Kevin set up Tundra, which was a tragedy of monumental proportions. It wasn’t the Enron of comics (before Enron was Enron), but it was nevertheless worthy of serious scrutiny. The lessons still to be learned remain by-and-large ignored, distorted, and/or denied. Dave’s response simplifies the truth as tidily as Rick’s side-stepping serves as a form of denial. Dave puts it all in terms of productivity of the contracted freelancers, appropriately enough given his path and own accomplishments. That’s a part of it, yes, but just part; had every commitment been honored in a timely fashion by every contracted or non-contracted player, grievous mismanagement and internal conflicts still would have taken their toll. Neither summary is sufficient, and both completely fail to engage with the thorny issues relevant to Tundra, the Bill of Rights, and what happened. Tundra was a complex, multi-limbed tar-baby. Its failure deserves closer scrutiny and analysis. I’ve said all I care to about it at considerable length in other venues, at considerable personal cost; for those interested in pursuing it further, my papers at Henderson State University include every scrap of Tundra material that crossed my desk and board. I disposed of nothing.
Tundra has been a popular whipping-boy, in part because of the vast quantities of money squandered so visibly in such short order, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I look forward to Dave’s own ongoing discussions/analysis of his own experiments with publishing, via Aardvark-Vanaheim and the short-lived Aardvark One International. Equally relevant to any discussion of the Bill and its ramifications and practicalities are the respective histories of so many post-underground comix era legacies: Pacific, Eclipse, First, Fantagraphics, Mirage Studios (unrecorded and by-and-large uninvestigated), Kitchen Sink (pre-and post-Eastman), Image, Heavy Metal (pre-and post-Eastman), Penthouse Comix, the various DC and Marvel attempts to mount ‘creator rights’ imprints (Marvel Graphic Novels, Epic, Piranha Press, Vertigo, Helix, etc.), RAW, Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf, etc. There’s lots of case histories worthy of analysis and discussion, pre- and post-Creator Bill of Rights, while those individuals with experiences who are willing to talk are still with us.
Re: Dave’s statements:
"...unless we start talking publicly about specific contracts and specific clauses in those contracts that need to be watched for, then I have to assume that we’re right back where we were in the 1970’s with the companies basically locking up every right that it isn’t nailed down and arbitrarily paying the creative teams widely differing amounts for their work."
Clearly there have been significant advances, especially with the mainstream book publishers entering the scene with increasing visibility. I maintain that Stuart Moore’s role at DC went a long ways toward changing DC policies (particularly regarding working with artist’s representatives, agents, and attorneys as a matter of due course, per the book market), but that belief is only sustained by anecdotal evidence at best; I cannot state it as fact, and my tenure with DC ended a couple of years before Stuart’s entrance. But the fundamental shift among mainstream comics publishers regarding creator treatment and payment favored writers over artists in the post-Moore era -- this seems to be a critical part of the landscape, based on more than anecdotal evidence (some first-hand evidence) -- and that is worthy of analysis and discussion, should anyone wish to engage. As for what rights are or aren’t reflected in contracts with publishers like Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf, etc., that would also be worth serious scrutiny, and even more compelling would be study of Dark Horse’s dealings; surely, the ongoing Hollywood factor (with feature films being spawned from sources as divergent as THE CROW, GHOST WORLD, AMERICAN SPLENDOR, and SIN CITY) has had considerable impact. I suspect these are all idiosyncratic, case-by-case histories, and the relative clout of a Clowes, Pekar, or Miller (just to stick to three of the films I’ve cited) differ according to their respective positions. A mix of venerability and perceived ‘low market value’ might end up being as invaluable in retaining one’s rights as strong sales and aggressive negotiating skills, though the ability to simply say ‘no’ and make it stick remains the defining virtue (the greatest skill of all at the negotiating table is the ability to simply walk away). It would be interesting to see how far we’ve come, collectively, from the era in which Eclipse Comics brokered Bill Wray’s comics adaptation of the short story that John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE! was based upon, incorporating unique elements Bill had brought to the comic version that were not in the short story he was adapting; according to Bill at the time, Eclipse rigorously kept Bill ‘out of the loop,’ relegating him to non-player (entitled to nothing), though it was key elements he had brought to the table that caught Carpenter’s interest in the first place. This is difficult stuff to sort out, much less discuss, particularly when the devil may linger in the minutiae of details.
Eclipse is history, but I’m as uncomfortable today with the perceived ‘values’ of ‘creator friendly’ publishers as I was a decade or more ago. There’s certainly clear progress in having moved from "The House of Ideas!" illusion of a happy bullpen to "The Best Cartoonists in the World!" marketing of publisher-as-entity. Creators and their works are still the coin of the realm without anyone knowing what, exactly, that means for those respective creators whose work appears under a given publishing umbrella. The illusion, still, is that of an apparently "happy household" where all the best cartoonists love to work, or at least have their work published. As the events of the post-Capital City collapse have shown, it’s still a problematic business environment at best, banking more than ever before on narrow margins in a chillingly narrow market and the good will of patient, tolerant freelancers whose royalties can seemingly be postponed when necessary or convenient. The recent (within the last five years) semi-public revelations of unpaid royalties following the collapse of key book market distributors certainly made clear that publishers are still banking on the backs of creators, however ‘friendly’ their contractual arrangements. The subsequent online scrambles (imitating Top Shelf’s then-innovative appeal to its reader and customer base) to make up lost income with sales of current stock obviously leaves some form of royalties unpaid, from either ‘lost’ (e.g., books sold but unpaid for by the distributor who went under) or current stock. Whether the publisher is over-or-under staffed, well-heeled or not, is beside the point: if catalogues are being maintained with a floating debtload as massive as those implied by the various news stories, online discussions, emails, and blogs imply (and in some cases detail), robbing Peter to pay Paul is still a norm, with the freelancer whose work drives the entire market still the last to be paid (if at all). It also means that fundamental rights (i.e., terms agreed to by contract) are still casualties of a terribly unstable marketplace, with the brunt inevitably falling on the backs of freelancers. After all, whatever the situation, they don’t take home a paycheck every Friday or enjoy work-related benefits (insurance, health plans, etc.) -- not from their comics work, anyway. "Printers paid first, creators last" remains a viable norm, and in most cases editors and publisher staff enjoy a more dependable income (however meager) than do the creators. I am vilifying no one personally -- I understand the how and why of it, but I still can’t champion it. On the other hand, though, as the examples already cited demonstrate (Cages, MaxiMortal, etc.), at least the option for a creator to retain rights to their work and profit from its long-term viability is more the norm than the exception now, allowing them to earn long after those (for instance) weekly Tundra or Kitchen Sink paychecks and benefits are less than dust. So, we’re clearly NOT "right back where we were in the 1970’s."
Rick says, "Getting real upfront money, health insurance, royalties, reprint fees and sharing in film and TV revenue is a reasonable way to work." "Reasonable," maybe, but scarce as hen’s teeth, effectively narrowing one’s possibilities to working for/with DC, maybe Marvel. Can any other standing publishers offer these terms to creators? I mean, really? Dave would like to "add foreign licensing and foreign reprint rights to that list" -- agreed, add that to the list, though I can testify from personal experience circa 2004 pseudo-negotiations that’s still not a given. Dave then begins discussing advances and different quantities of compensation. All of this is specifically creator/job/publisher related, differing case-by-case, and that’s just the reality of it. Thus, we’re still in ‘art vs. labor’ turf, or ‘labor vs. Creator Rights,’ since the parties most likely to enjoy regular income and health insurance are publishing and editorial staff, really. All these factors are as dependent on a freelancer’s relative clout and negotiating skills as any intrinsic value a given creator or project or contract might have. It must be tougher now for entry-level creators, now that freelancers are effectively competing with filmmakers (Kevin Smith, et al) and multi-award-winning best-selling novelists (Michael Chambon) for gigs. Could any 1970s comics writer have gotten their foot in the door if Mario Puzo, Sterling Silliphant, or Ira Levin had been in the running? I recall a dinner Rick Veitch and I had with Joe Kubert during our last public event at Kevin’s Northampton, MA Words & Pictures comics museum; Joe seemed genuinely taken aback that Dark Horse would have treated him more favorably than they treated other freelancers, to which I replied, "Joe, you’re JOE KUBERT! Of course you get better treatment!" I recall similar conversations with Frank Miller in the 1990s -- "but Frank, you’re FRANK MILLER!" It’s the nature of the beast in any media or business, whether it’s the favorable terms going to the veteran whose deservedly earned it with years of solid work (e.g., Joe and Frank), or the young turk hotshot who’s the flavor of the year (e.g., Rob Liefeld). These aren’t issues of creator rights, these are realities of the industry, of any industry, of all industries.
Dave says, "I think the amounts paid could—and should—vary according to how many rights are being purchased," which I certainly agree with and practice myself. This means, however, one must always be ready to make a ‘no’ stick and simply walk away. In the depleted marketplace, it’s amazing how low those amounts offered are these days, with the expectation of extensive rights in exchange (I can and will give examples, if needed -- the amounts aren’t just low, they’re laughable). In that regard, we are back in the ‘70s, and even proposed ‘70s and ‘60s rates. On the other hand, rumors of expansive advances from mainstream book publishers for graphic novels are circulating; I’ve no idea if these are true, but the amounts quoted are sometimes staggering, and further imbalance the kinds of scales you are proposing, Dave.
Dave then launches back into his Todd McFarlane Spawn #10 example -- again -- my problem being, if the rights being purchased aren’t specified and spelled out (as they clearly were not in the case of the ‘guest writer/artist’ Spawn issues of 1993, since Dave, Alan, and Neil all interpret the ‘deal’ differently, as does Todd), it’s a pretty sorry example to keep returning to in this discussion, Dave. So, please, stop it. I am too stunned by your exchange with Erik to get into it. Briefly, off the top of my head: in a 1993 Wizard interview about his understanding of his deal with Todd, Alan contended that his assumption was that Todd would have to deal with Alan again if anything he’d come up with for those issues were used elsewhere (I can excavate that issue if you wish and provide an accurate quote and citation of source). As the various accounts of the Neil Gaiman/Angela legal matters detail, Neil clearly had a similar understanding. But the payment you earned prompted a very different assumption: "to me that put it into the category of ownership of absolutely all rights to that particular story." The consistent component here is ‘assumption’ (my term, not Dave, Alan, or Neil’s, mind you), and that all still seem to be trying to divine Todd’s will and intent. The self-evident problem is there was no clear agreement, and that you, Neil, Alan, and Todd are all working with different yardsticks. The agreement is nonexistent; it isn’t worth the paper it isn’t written on, and (by the way) you’ve just handed Todd’s attorneys a very sweet set of quotes to counter Neil’s attorney’s arguments in this ongoing struggle. I’m glad this discussion wasn’t happening five years ago.
Then Dave goes on to say, "I think there should be minimum amounts that you are required to pay if you are acquiring all rights and minimum amounts that you are required to pay if you are acquiring no rights." Well, OK, but who determines those caps or floors? There are no industry standards, distorted on the one hand by the Image paydays and Tundra deals of the 1990s and (rumors of) big-ticket mainstream book publisher advances, and on the other by the low-ball offers the current depressed market cultivates. Enforcement is still completely dependent on the skill or non-skill of the respective creators and publishers involved, or their representatives. It’s still a case-by-case issue, and hence creator/publisher/project specific, and tough to discuss without getting into case histories. For instance, you evoke the venerable Superman case history, which is plagued with variables from all sides, including whether any legal settlement at any point in time wasn’t tainted by deceit from National Periodicals and failure to live up to promised terms. It seems too much to assume, even for the sake of argument, that particular case history is as simple as you make it out to be, though I take your point. From my own experience, John Totleben, Alan Moore, and I signed away what we signed away on our Swamp Thing work in 1983, issue by issue (the issue invoices were contracts), and yes, we have to live with that, Swamp Thing movie sequels, merchandising, and all. We’re thankful for DC’s upgrading of terms over the years, but have no control over it, and certainly are in no position to renegotiate (‘upgraded’ DC contracts for the reprint terms occasionally surface in the mail, offering ‘either-or’ revisions; that’s not negotiation, but it is welcome when it improves our respective position and returns). Better to evoke, for instance, Bob Kane’s Batman dealings (clouded, too, by the ill treatment of Bill Finger), or Joe Kubert’s deal with St. John Publishing concerning Tor (clean and neat, at least: one creator, one property), or Will Eisner’s Spirit contracts (arguably muddied by studio issues). As time bore out, those respective contracts/agreements were honored whatever the fortunes of the properties, though only Batman is comparable in any way to Superman’s phenomenal market longevity and clout.
Ah, I should move on --
Re: Rick’s comments about the ‘Aardvark/Turtles coalition’ and your response: I’ll leave it to the reader to go back and reread that material. The only point I care to add is, Dave is right when he says, "The problem as I saw—and see it—is that, because the Bill came about because of a very large discussion about ethics (again, there was nothing illegal about my selling High Society direct, the only question was ‘Was it ethical to do so?’) we got into awkward areas very quickly by discussing things on the same level of ethics as opposed to legalities." As we all know (and Tom DeLay should stand as a pretty large example of this just now), what’s legal ain’t necessarily ethical, and that became the elephant-in-the-room throughout EVERY stage of the meetings and summits. It’s still the elephant in the room.
To be blunt: Unspecified employment terms in studio situations are a particularly toxic ethical quicksand, and Dave and Gerhard were the only ones spelling out clear solutions to those ethical dilemmas. Mirage Studios wasn’t (in fact, I’d argue in hindsight that everyone at Mirage was too early in the supremely uncomfortable transition of working "for fun" to work-for-hire to even articulate the issues, had they been so disposed), and the lack of clearly-defined solutions became increasingly apparent. The Pinis may have resolved those issues via work-for-hire contracts (I don’t know or presume to know), but that wasn’t really being made clear, was rigorously kept off the table, and discussion kept skirting the relevant issues. For those of us in or emerging from freelance life, ‘work for hire’ as a term and legal concept was still an overly-loaded, toxic term. All this avoiding-the-elephant-in-the-room is human nature, I suppose, but it was more than just somewhat cowardly -- but then again, when it’s your hosts who are among the parties most likely to be outraged or injured by a properly thorough and confrontational discussion, nobody wants to shit where they eat. Besides, we all liked one another -- and while the Turtle creative teams were present, the Elfquest teams were not, further complicating the situation. I’ll leave the rest well enough alone, if only for the sake of brevity. It’s enough for now to state that Dave’s recall and assessment is identical to my own, for whatever that’s worth.
I don’t think any of us involved in this debate have gotten past that, to this day. A few are still willing to do the necessary dissection, while most are still tip-toeing around, not wanting to offend one another (unless its those doing the dissections), or uncannily quick to express outrage for any perceived ‘slight’ or implied alignment with an unethical position. Old pecking orders are maintained with verbal slights, digs, or stabs, keeping one another "in place" as we feel necessary in order to maintain dignity, decorum be damned. So we circle like panthers, by turns growling or pausing to lick our paws as if nothing were askew -- or like chickens, maintaining said pecking order with wary glances at the cock of the walk -- thus skirting key, core ethical discussions.
In short, Dave, your solutions have stood the major test: Gerhard did stick around until issue 300. Re: "How many people in 2004 were still working on Elfquest and the Turtles who were working on them in 1988?" Well, a significant number of the Mirage core crew is still in place; I get together with them all once in a while, grand fellows all. But I agree with your key point, and certainly agree that your confrontational willingness to get into ethics-based conversations that led to many withdrawing, or alienating you, or some combination of both. I know it well myself, now, from personal experience.
Re: "This happened a lot. Steve Bissette used to say that I just went around forming these coalitions and then blowing them up."
I didn’t say that, to my knowledge -- please correct me if you have something in hand or in reach. It may have been misrepresented to you in that manner, but please, let me know. It sounds like you’re saying I’m talking behind your back, or even back-stabbing, when I’ve never said anything to anyone I wouldn’t say to you. In fact any such mischaracterization of anything I might have said post-1996 was actually an extension of conversations cultivated by yourself with me. I tend to do that, you know -- as I am here: extend old conversations (they’re at times so much more interesting than what passes for ‘new’ ones). There is a certain comfort level in at last conversing with you again on these matters, via this venue. As you know, I’ve never withdrawn from such conversations, Dave, nor do I intend to.
Since I have no idea what, specifically, you are referring to my having said or not said, for the sake of this conversation I’ll note I may have been referring to some of the events in the Spirits of Independence tour. Your own Cerebus editorials presented the tour as a sort of military campaign, discussing the parameters of a perceived (and in many ways, at that time, quite real) coalition of self-publishers. Certain excitement was building around the possibilities of the new, young self-publishers most visible in the market -- specifically, Jeff Smith, Paul Pope, and Dave Lapham -- being part of that collective movement, when in fact they saw themselves as part of no such coalition or collective. Jeff and Paul and I had a long, long evening-into-wee-hours-of-the-morning conversation about all this in Jeff’s Columbus, OH studio, and the issue of willing participation vs. historical context was central. Like it or not, I argued, Jeff and Paul were self-publishing at that point in time, thus the historic context of their individual efforts would inevitably be associated with contemporaries who were also publishing at that point in time. It was a fascinating conversation: Individual vs. collective goals; individual reality vs. collectively-perceived reality; individual intent & action vs. collective context & one’s historical position within the larger perceived movement, which cannot be rationally defined or contained by individual will. It was a defining evening for me, crystallizing much that was going on.
[Note to DAVE -- this specific bracketed paragraph we can keep, cut, or pursue, it’s up to YOU: I did and I have referred twice in online posts to the telling close of the Spirits tour, in which you ‘blew up’ at (the writer’s girlfriend) and (the self-publisher’s wife) with Larry Marder and I present, as a critical juncture in what I then perceived as a possible coalition taking shape, but that event was so entangled with sexual politics and other interpersonal issues that I wouldn’t cite it as emblematic of any such characterization of you, Dave. I raised it online in the context of the gender issues, as an example of the dead-serious reality of that conflict for you, and its impact on some of us during the tour. If you recall, I in fact confronted you about it the very next morning, and we talked at great length. It was and remains a critical moment in my relations with you and the coalition/community I felt drove the Spirits tour, and I’m happy to discuss it, if you wish, or DROP IT, if you wish. Your call -- it’s not at all necessary to the points we’re discussing here.]
In hindsight, there was no such coalition likely at that point in any case. In the end, the significance of the Spirits tour for me was the realization that a generational shift had occurred, we were on the other side of the axis in which self-publishing was manifesting as the most natural and viable option, rather than as a result of emulating specific examples such as yourself or the first cycle of Elfquest. My generation needed mentors, the new generation didn’t, and in some cases they didn’t even really know what Cerebus was or who you might be: in short, a generation of self-publishers had appeared who needed no mentor and rather resented being associated with any given ‘movement.’ This was, as I’ve already cited above in another context, quite significant to me, representing a major turning point -- and is very relevant to the whole ongoing ‘individual vs. collective’ discussion. It’s also, to my mind, a good thing, and clear evidence of the truth of much of what you’ve advocated over the decades.
I’ll leave it to you, Dave, to discuss whether the perceived ‘backlash’ was a result of others imposing a ‘proprietary’ role onto you as leader of this perceived movement, or whether you indeed were in your own mind leading such a coalition; I have no way of knowing, and won’t presume. At the time, I was very involved in what felt like a very real community, but I am a social being by nature. Talking with Jeff and Paul, however, redefined much of what I’d perceived to that point in time, and served me well in sorting out the entanglement of various issues.
Furthermore, the desire -- need, perhaps -- for what passes for journalists in this industry, and specifically publisher/journalists, to see any such ‘movement’ fail, to caricature Sim as a risible John Brown zealot, was another component that cannot be overlooked. In a ‘community’ dominated still by publishers, and readers happy to define their preferences in terms of publishers (I mean, really, has any adult reader ever gone into a book store seeking the new Viking Press or Signet paperback?), the collective need to disavow self-publishing as viable was and is great. It is a vindication of emotional and market economies utterly invested in and dependent on creators willingly maintaining freelancer status. How else can we have "The House of Ideas," much less "The Best Cartoonists in the World in One Catalog"? And you were such an available target, Dave. Just as distributors tried to enforce their perception of you as a traditional publisher in the Puma Blues/Church and State debacle, leading to the ethical decision to dissolve Aardvark One International as an entity and abandon publishing, I took much of the blather that followed the Spirits tour as outside market forces and individuals still trying to shoehorn you into a variation of the ‘traditional publisher’ template -- ‘leader’ of the self-publishing movement of the 1990s! -- a leadership role you later clarified (some said ‘disavowed’), though your Spirit-related Cerebus editorials preceding and contemporary to the tour made that difficult. Making you the target provided a convenient means of dismissing the validity of self-publishing as a principle, which by its nature is antithetical to a publisher’s agenda. If Dave Lapham doesn’t need a publisher, is that inherently a threat to a publisher’s well-being? (And what, pray tell, if he’s one of "The Best Cartoonists in the World"?) "Dave Sim" is a much more visible, and hence desirable, target: eccentricities and all, if you attack the man, and thereby deflate his principles, by proxy deflating/defanging the perception of self-publishing as a viable option, all the better.
The confusion of individual vs. collective issues fueled that perception. The confusion of many self-publishers who had eagerly embraced the perceived mutual-support-network of that year’s Spirit tour community inevitably led to disappointment when they found themselves alone after. Again, this was just human nature, and thus central to the dilemma of individual vs. collective effort -- all of which is key to grasping the true nature of self-publishing ("yer own your own, Bunkie!"). Trying to form enough of a market wedge to establish self-publishers AS a market force is a tough act: it is by its very nature doomed, as the independence of each self-publisher strains at any sustained collective action or goal, however beneficial the results (I saw the same kamikaze instincts at work first-hand in the video industry, as an activist member of one regional buying group among many regional buying groups composed of independent video retailers, vying for buying power via collective organizations, if only to counter the massive domination imposed by Blockbuster as a chain and monolithic corporate retailers like Walmart; I won’t digress into that here, save to mention it). Economies, changing markets, personal situations (such as my own: I do not recommend anyone caught mid-divorce with children pursue self-publishing until your situation stabilizes), etc. further fray the collective efforts, and there is much pressure to seize upon any perceived vulnerability or ‘drop out’ as evidence of an inherently flawed philosophy. Thus, the individual case histories reflects upon the perceived collective -- in this case, ironically, the principle of self-publishing -- as ipso facto suspect and untenable. Superficial reading of these arguments and attacks makes publishers appear necessary, then, though nothing could be further from the truth.
I’ll spare you the Pogo quote: self-publishers indeed became the movement’s worst enemy, save for those who kept their focus sharp and goals in sight. Like wounded sharks, the spectacle of a few self-publishers trading on the blood spilled as some of us folded up our tents exacerbated the confusion, ignoring the individuality of each creators ‘case history’ to attack (consciously or unconsciously) the principle itself. My situation took its toll (a Hepcats collected introduction contemporary with Tyrant’s withdrawal from the market cited my demise with some ire), but my situation was quite individual -- I’m happy to get into it, if anyone wishes. But you do the principle of self-publishing no favors by taking me to task publicly to elevate Tyrant as a salvageable commodity when I have, in fact, formally retired from the industry. My decision, my failure -- whichever you care to characterize it as -- in no way reflects upon the validity of self-publishing as a principle. Forget Tyrant: there’s Cerebus, Bone, Stray Bullets, and countless other examples to cite and celebrate instead. I can articulate the benefits and perils of self-publishing as well as anyone, from experience, but Tyrant is a poster child for neither success nor failure, nor is my own career.
I have talked at some length in various venues about individual vs. communal goals as it related to and relates to self-publishing vs. publishing and Creator Rights. I’ve done so in conversation and in a couple of online venues, and certainly cited you there, Dave, but not in terms of you "just [going] around forming these coalitions and then blowing them up." I saw and see it in terms of the friction between individual needs/goals/paths and collective/communal needs/goals/paths, and as such all this is an extension of precisely the kinds of conversations you and I used to have, emerging naturally from your experiences and my own. They were initially driven by my hunger and need at that time for information and guidance, and, by the mid-90s, my contrasting the divergent paths of Taboo (collective) and Tyrant (individual) -- not to mention the other ‘T’, Tundra (collective), which was also tied into my tangled individual vs. collective schisms and history.
Back to your letter: Dave, you wrote:
"I think the record shows that I would stick to what I considered the more ethical position and when people saw that I couldn’t be persuaded to see things their way, they abandoned all discussions with me. And the reason, most times, that they abandoned all discussions with me was because they didn’t want to think of themselves as people who made unethical or less ethical choices. The point to me was always the overriding ethic that was under discussion, not how unhappy it made someone else feel when I disagreed with them or how happy it would make them feel if I would abandon my position and agree with them. It didn’t matter to me who was happy with me or unhappy with me. I had a larger obligation to make sure that I was setting what I saw as good ethical precedents for future creator-publishers to follow or to ignore as they chose."
Agreed, and appreciated -- at least by this fellow.
Now, at last (on page 16 on my computer!), to the section of your letter addressing my interview and comments. If you’ll permit me, I am going to keep the comments relevant to the broader conversation up front, and back load all the personalized comments concerning me, my work, and my situation to the end of this reply. This will keep the Creator Bill of Rights discussion front-and-center, and allow anyone who care to simply ignore the personalized discussion to simply stop reading when we get to those passages. Fair enough? This may and will make maintaining a chronological flow of conversation problematic, but it seems far preferable to tit-for-tat retort derailing the larger and more important debate. Here we go:
Understood, agreed. You’d never articulated that at the time, that I recall.
Re: The health care discussion: "Well, in all fairness, I wasn’t talking about the Marxist form of health care we have in Canada. Ger and I both have supplemental health care coverage through an insurance company, which I think is just a basic grown-up thing to have. As Rick points out, health insurance is a big selling point for the Big Company Contract these days, so I don’t think it’s quite as laughable as Steve pretends it is. I think grown-ups should have insurance and health insurance. Buy five fewer beers a week or a few less horror videos and put the money towards health insurance."
The sarcasm was inadvertent. I have health-care coverage, and have had it for years, for whatever that’s worth. The vagaries of the problem are vast and almost impossible to coherently discuss. It’s a chore at best to maintain here in the States, and I have no idea how freelancers can possibly sustain health insurance in the current climate. When one missed payment can bump a client from a policy, effectively dissolving whatever payments/investment preceded it, in an environment where even the most reliable freelancer can’t count on the arrival time of a single paycheck, you can see the problem. Unless one is under contract to a single publisher, it’s damn near impossible, and moving from publisher-to-publisher (the more likely scenario for any freelancer) creates other problems, not to mention simple incompetence, ill-will, or outright deceit, which I survived at one point or another regarding freelancing and health-insurance over my 24 years in the industry. Even where there is the will, good intentions, and prompt and fair action, there’s the quagmire of state-to-state legalities: the best freelance health care I ever enjoyed was brief, as what was standard policy in Massachusetts was suddenly rendered illegal in Vermont (i.e., a law passed requiring any insurance company offering health insurance to offer equitable insurance terms to all eligible clients, rather than cherry-picking), and both my publisher at the time and I were left scrambling to pick up the pieces. It was only Vermont’s "Marxist form of health care" that allowed Maia and Danny to be covered from birth to turning 19, and thank the Gods of Vermont (which Ethan Allen reminded all were not the Gods who governed elsewhere) for that, or life would have truly been hell. It all got much simpler after I left comics: I was fully covered via my manager and shareholder status at First Run Video, and now am covered via my second wife Marj’s work insurance plan, which allows me to return to freelancing as of last month). It may be "a grown-up thing to have" -- the kind of aside that belittles those unable to afford health-insurance and places them instantly in the ‘bad" or ‘stupid child’ position, shame on you for that, Dave -- but the health-insurance and health-care crisis in the US is very real. Coughing up more than folks pay for rent or mortgage on a monthly basis to meet endlessly-escalating insurance premiums for ever-diminishing benefits even as employers are cutting back or bailing on supporting health-care for workers is a major clusterfuck -- but none of this is relevant to what I said that prompted your response. Regarding that, as you might recall, I struggled to sustain health insurance for myself and my family since 1983, and it became central to my soured relations with DC when my daughter Maia suffered a very serious illness. I didn’t consider it then, and don’t consider it now, laughable, Dave, nor was I mocking you. I was recalling my memory of that point of the conversation in the summit, which had some folks laughing; we interpreted it at the time as a Canada/US thing, that’s all I was saying. Besides, I don’t drink beer, and I can and do sell my horror videos when I’m done with them, thank you. Which folks who drink beer can’t do. With their old beer, that is.
Re: The Manifesto ‘sprawl’ -- I agree wholeheartedly with your point:
"Also, the Manifesto was a sprawl largely because of Bissette and Totleben because they were coming from a freelancer background—and to a degree with Kevin and Peter because they were starting to deal with their own freelancers—so they wanted to discuss the overall shape of the comic-book industry rather than staying focused on where the demarcation existed between creator-publisher obligations and rights and distributor obligations and rights. As I said, I had no problem opening the whole thing up to these larger questions as long as I got an answer to my question out of it."
Yes, all true. At the time, I was in an odd limbo between the two polarities of freelance and publishing -- it’s been very enlightening, reading your articulation of those issues and providing the context I couldn’t fully grasp at the time, Dave. Thanks for that.
"It was only later when Steve was publishing Taboo on his own that he actually got interested in the question of demarcation—in that case where did a publishers obligations and rights leave off and where did a freelancer’s obligations and rights begin?—and the end of his friendship with Alan Moore was a good example. Steve was publishing the serialized "From Hell" in Taboo and wanted—needed, more like—to engage Alan in the questions that were coming up about ancillary rights. People were contacting Steve about reprinting the story and doing other things and he was asking Alan what he wanted to do and Alan was saying, "You do whatever you think is best, Steve." And Steve realized that that was, yes, unethical. It was Alan’s work, it was a matter of what Alan wanted done with it, not Steve. For Steve to make the decisions was to cross the line from being Alan’s publisher to controlling more than the first North American rights he was paying for and to be guilty of infringing on Alan’s rights as the proprietor of the material. Steve could have made a lot of money representing himself as the proprietor of "From Hell" just by going along—with Alan’s blessing—but he realized that that was unethical. There were things that, ethically, Alan and Eddie Campbell needed to decide between them about their own work. If they wanted to sell the whole thing to DC for a mess of pottage, that was up to them not up to Steve. When Steve used the example as an illustration of these issues of demarcation in The Comics Journal Alan got all emotional and made his "never darken my crypt" phone call to Steve."
Thanks for that, Dave. Though I’m forever reduced to speculation, since Alan won’t speak to me, and those who can either chastise me for treating Alan "like shit" for daring to speak of such matters and then refuse to discuss the matter further, or shrug and remain wisely out of all this grief, I also think the painful resolution of the From Hell: The Compleat Scripts situation terminally aggravated the situation. More to the point, my discussion of that resolution in that same Comics Journal interview further antagonized Alan. Eddie and I settled our hash, and remain on good speaking terms.
In a nutshell: to help Alan at a time when he appealed to me because he was in a tight financial spot, and had no time to produce any further work, I proposed publishing the scripts of From Hell. I convinced Tom and Elizabeth Monteleone of Borderlands Press, Inc., to co-publish the venture, as they had built a rather prestigious, lucrative line of limited-edition signed-and-numbered hardcover and trade-edition paperback books, and their involvement would (a) provide more of an advance for Alan and (b) Borderlands would guarantee selling the book outside of just the comics market, again maximizing income for all concerned. Alan and Eddie agreed, and we signed contracts for the project which were one-time-only publishing ventures, all rights to the scripts remaining with Alan and all rights to the illustrations remaining with Eddie. An advance was immediately sent to Alan; Eddie preferred to receive his more modest payment once he completed his illustrations, canny Scotsman that he is. Signature sheets for books one and two were printed and mailed to Alan and Eddie; Alan and Eddie signed them all, and Borderlands had enough in hand for both volumes. There was no additional work for Alan whatsoever, as we were working with the scripts I already had or that Eddie would provide photocopies of (for the post-Taboo chapters, which didn’t yet exist at that point in time). Book One came out and sold out, very tidy profits were immediately divided; Borderlands completely typeset and I proofed book two. Then -- Denis Kitchen asked for a copy of Book One for his library in the Kitchen Sink offices, which I hand-delivered to Denis when we met at the new Northampton, MA Kitchen Sink offices post-Tundra ‘dissolution’ to discuss the possibility of Kitchen Sink publishing Taboo 8 and Taboo 9. Denis’s legal counsel was in the room, and went ballistic when he saw From Hell: The Compleat Scripts Vol. 1 -- they had just ‘sown up’ the difficult negotiations for the movie option, and neither Alan nor Eddie had mentioned the book project. Kitchen Sink’s legal counsel immediately made legal threats, and it all culminated in a three-way conversation between myself, Tom and Elizabeth at Borderlands, and Kitchen Sink’s legal council -- significantly, Alan and Eddie weren’t participating -- with Borderland’s attorney advising that they sue Alan and Eddie and proceed with publishing volume 2. Ethically, the only clear solution -- which is what I advised -- was for SpiderBaby and Borderlands to suck up the broken contracts and lost work on Vol. 2 and just bag the project. I was not going to keep Alan or Eddie from an option what was, after all, their property, and I certainly was not going to sue them or condone suing them. From Hell was their property. Period. Ethically, Alan and Eddie had an obligation to honor their agreement with us, but chose not to. It was, if you will, comparable to your own situation with Bill Loebs and Journey, when Aardvark-Vanaheim was publishing Journey and Bill moved to Fantagraphics mid-issue, per your own description of the event in your editorial in Cerebus #141; as you said then, "there was nothing to be served taking corrective legal action... or punitive legal action... [although] Legally it was an open and shut case." Alan and Eddie were legally in the wrong, but morally and artistically they were in the right (as you believed Bill was). From Hell was their property, their creation, and if they’d changed their minds, so be it. Though no fault of Borderlands or myself, The Compleat Scripts had become a potential threat to the movie option -- it had been initiated as a means to solve Alan’s financial crisis, and the movie option was a far healthier relief for that. So, like it or not, the simplest thing for all concerned was for ourselves and The Compleat Scripts project to just... go away. We did. For me, though, there were dire consequences, beyond the monetary, time, and credibility losses for Borderlands and SpiderBaby Grafix: The constant queries (via mail, FAX, and every single personal appearance at a shop or convention) about the whereabouts of book 2 and the project as a whole was part of what prompted me to discuss the matter in TCJ interview. It worked, no one asked me again, and the pressure was also immediately off Tom and Elizabeth at Borderlands, who really got the short end of the stick from all this. So, the interview solved that problem , but alas, it unavoidably called into question Alan’s ethics in a public venue, so I was "cast out." I’ve paid the price with lifelong exile (so what’s to lose, detailing it once again in hopes everyone reading this understands what went down?).
"So Steve found out what I had found out: people react emotionally to ethical questions as a means of avoiding addressing ethical questions. I do, however, wish that Steve would’ve just taken it at face value as I’ve tried to do and to just accept that you’re never going to have very many friends but you will, at least, have done the right thing in terms of setting precedents. Steve himself took the reaction too personally instead of realizing that—looking on the bright side, as I did when the field shunned me for different reasons—getting shunned by so many people meant that he would have a lot of uninterrupted time to work on Tyrant."
Well, actually, others took my interview and discussion of ethics "too personally," and still do. I lived with it and live with it, and have no regrets: I stand by everything said in there. Tough shit for anyone who didn’t like it. The shunning wasn’t the issue, Dave, though it sucked. The TCJ interview and Alan Moore exile had nothing really to do with my Tyrant decision, or my decision to retire from comics -- if anything, it might have made it a bit easier, perhaps, since I was already a pariah. But I would have gladly been a profitable pariah drawing dinosaurs the rest of my life. The harsh realities of my personal existence after ‘97 fueled my decision -- including my slow production schedule and personal demons at the drawing board, which I will get into, below.
"Those criticisms aside, Steve is the only person I know who is still able to understand what the debate is composed of. Witness his lengthy response to your "So, you think that the Bill is still relevant today?" question. He goes through chapter and verse to explain why the Bill is still relevant, citing all of the examples that no one else wants to talk about, citing the contractual abuses that take place under the "no harm in trying" basis that the publishers bring to it. If the kid’s stupid enough to sign a blanket agreement agreeing that even if we don’t buy his proposal we can use what he has in there by claiming that we were already discussing something like that. This is what happens when the debate lapses and everyone just agrees that things are a lot better now. Unless you’re vocal about these sorts of encroachments on basic ethical business behaviour, they’re just going to get worse and worse. There’s nothing magical about the guys who chose to discuss all this back in 1988, it was more a matter of "SOMEONE has to start discussing this stuff" just as Neal Adams seemed to have the same sense back in the 70s. At a certain point if you’re the only one talking about it everyone just screens you out, which is why it’s important that new voices chime in wherever they see a need. And which is why I’ve spent this much time on it with you, Al. You’re the only person in seventeen years to express an interest. It’s probably your turn now. Don’t be surprised if it loses you every friend you have. It still needs to be done."
Ditto, and thanks, Al, for opening up this discussion anew. Dave, I’m in for the duration of the discussion, as long as Al will have me.
Agreed on the Fantagraphics comments -- which, by the way, includes the unwillingness of their own freelance cartoonists to discuss their respective situations for fear of retaliation, since work is hard to find and TCJ and TCJ’s online presence still dominates the field -- and that brings us to: Re:
"Steve’s also bang on the money in this section in describing all of the fairy tales that the publishers use to justify their entirely legal contractual piracy. ‘It was self-evident to many of us that we did NOT know our implicit rights as creators, and the need for such a document was urgent." This was one of the reasons that I was willing to widen the debate. I could see that these guys desperately wanted something that would tell them that there was another side to the story that the publishers were telling. However, it also became obvious very quickly that the need to see Marvel and DC as shining cities on the hill among the retailers, fans, readers and wannabe creators made it a largely futile effort. They just don’t want to believe that working for Marvel or DC is anything but a 24-hour a day trip to the circus. It’s a circus all right but not in the way they think of it. As I was fond of saying at the time, "There is no cure for willful stupidity." From then on, I was happy to discuss these things, but I did come to realized that it is likely discussing heroin with a junkie. The overwhelming need for the heroin means that you can’t communicate with them on the subject in any really meaningful way. For most freelance comic book artists Batman and Spider-man and the mainstream super-heroes are the heroin that blind them to the way that they’re being treated by the companies. That hasn’t changed much that I can see in the last thirty years."
THIS POINT CANNOT BE EMPHASIZED ENOUGH -- the current generation of cartoonists are arguably less addicted to this heroin, having many more rich examples of other works to draw inspiration from for a couple of decades now, but there’s still plenty of untapped veins eager to line up for DC/Marvel/Image/Dark Horse mainlining. Wizard has bred another willing generation, as have DC and Marvel and Dark Horse and Image and George Lucas et al, and damn them for that. To paraphrase Brecht’s Arturo Ui (on a much larger issue, the demise of Hitler and inevitability of war), "the bitch that bore [them] is in heat again." The addiction is forever one the publishers and fans feed upon, and freelancers willingly throw themselves on their swords for: too many still worship the same four-color deities.
Re: My comments in my first letter, stating: "I mean the whole studio system is fraught with peril by its very nature. Unless you absolutely define the legal territory, it can be disastrous." To which Dave’s response was: "As I say, I don’t think Steve understood the idea of "demarcation" through the Summit processes, but once he had experienced it with Taboo—‘Where do my rights and obligations stop and yours begin?"—he never lost sight of it. He and I are in complete agreement. What is needed is clearly defined boundaries which guarantee the optimal number of rights being preserved for all parties concerned."
Agreed. In spades. I must add, given the influx of manga into North America over the past five years as an industry and fresh influence, I fear the temptations of the studio system as a viable means of "self-expression" (meaning, one proprietary ‘creator’ overseeing the ‘work’ by supervising many subservient illustrative laborers) and streamlined production will assert itself anew, on a scale undreamed of in North America since the 1940s and ‘50s. If anything comes of resurrecting discussion of the Creator Bill of Rights, I hope engaged debate, conversation, and proposed templates for ethical and legal guidelines for studio situations will top the list.
Re: My comments on Image, being: "The Image experiment—what does ‘publishing’ mean with this coalition? What does ‘a studio’ mean? ‘Who owns all that Rob Liefeld work if Rob is not the one writing and drawing all of it?’ All of these core issues that were relevant to the Creators Bill of Rights were being glossed over." To which Dave replied: "Exactly. Glossing things over is the exact opposite of clarifying where the lines of demarcation are."
It’s high time these issues were engaged with by the community at large. To pretend that all that has happened since the Creator Bill of Rights was proposed, ratified, and publicized isn’t relevant -- Tundra, Tundra’s collapse, Image, Todd McFarlane, Vertigo, Helix, Eclipse’s collapse (and primarily the Marvelman/Miracleman debacle), the post-BATMAN superhero and comics movie renaissance, Dark Horse’s expansion and aggressive move into media development, Top Shelf, Drawn & Quarterly, the Capital City and direct sales market implosion, the Diamond monopolization of the direct sales market, the expansion of the Fantagraphics empire, the half-hearted revival of Marvel’s Epic line, internet and online comics, the manga explosion, the expansion and contraction of a key phase in book market distribution, mainstream book publishing’s embrace of the graphic novel, etc. -- is foolishness of the highest order.
To pretend the Creator Bill of Rights isn’t or won’t be relevant to what lies ahead in an era of deregulated global corporation consolidation of power, imprints, venues, distribution and interests in intellectual properties is fucking insane.
Wake up, people.