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The Creator's Bill of Rights:
A Letter from Steve Bissette 3

The following June 13, 2005 e-mail letter is Steve Bissette’s response to Dave Sim's previous letter concerning creator's rights. -Al Nickerson

Morning, Dave and all,

Well, we’ll see if I can keep my responses brief. I’ll do my best.

Re: "I was glad to see that Steve kept the Creators Rights aspects of the discussion to one part of his letter and the personal side to another part. It indicates to me that we have both learned some hard lessons over the last decade or so about how easy it is for an important general discussion to get waylaid by personal considerations and we are both attempting to be scrupulous in keeping the two separate. We’ll see how sustainable that is in the long term but this seems to me a good first start."

With the notable exception of the confusion I inadvertantly caused with the passage I suggested we NOT address, I will continue to observe the separation of Creator Rights and personal issues. It just seems the most practical way of doing this, given the tangled interpersonal and professional histories we all share.

Let’s see, skating a bit: Sorry about the confusion of High Society and Church & State; point made, point clarified, thanks! I can only say in hindsight, I am grateful beyond words Taboo didn’t become a 330-500 monster. It lost enough money and caused enough heartbreak as it is, though it accomplished its goals and did much good.

We indeed met at UK ‘84. I’m not surprised you wouldn’t remember, as it was one of the parties, and you weren’t the only party three-sheets to the wind (I met Cam Kennedy by essentially holding him up for 30 minutes). No matter: by the Mid-Ohio con of ‘85, you indeed extended the invite at Tony’s party that led directly to Taboo, and that’s all that matters in the chronology.

Re: "I would really recommend that Steve avoid using the phrase "collapse of the direct market". I’m not going to insist on it since his perceptions are his perceptions, but the fact that the direct market is functioning just fine in 2005 does make the reference look more solipsistic than I think would serve Steve’s otherwise astute perceptions in a public forum like this... [etc]"

Dave, I did not say "destruction of the direct market," I adopted the term "collapse," though "implosion of the direct market" would serve the same truth. It DID collapse and implode, and the measurable consequences (the barometer of Spawn’s 700,000 to 70,000 while maintaining its position in the Diamond top-sellers list is sound) reflect a collapse. My only ongoing non-anecdotal professional barometer remains my quarterly DC statements, which haven’t indicated any measurable upswing; nor does anecdotal evidence occasionally offered by friends and associates still in the market. And as I have repeatedly confirmed, yes, I collapsed and imploded, too, as a result of the many issues we’ve now discussed. As I articulated, had I been further along in my self-publishing ventures, with a collected, perhaps, I might have been able to weather and sustain, though that would have been just as mitigated by the divorce issues. Either way, I made my decisions, I’m gone, and I’m not coming back, having poured my energies in other directions.

My reason for discussing distribution, however, is not to "make excuses," but to show how distribution as a functional necessity of earning a living from two of my many professions (here, comics and video, respectively) indeed impacts upon aspects of the Bill of Rights. With that as a context (rather than my own case history per se), I believe I’ve stated my perceptions as best I can at the present time, though I may try again.

Re: "Steve’s late-night tet-a-tet with Jeff Smith and Paul Pope possibly explains the origin of the "self-publishing movement" term that so offended Jeff and which he referred to distastefully in his Trilogy Tour interview in TCJ.... [etc.]"

Correct me if I’m wrong, Dave, but you seem to be attributing the origin of the term "self-publishing movement" to me, suggesting it might have been codified at one late-night chat between three cartoonists. You’re giving too much weight to an evening conversation that hasn’t entered the communal conversation until my reference to it in my TCJ #185 interview and never again until now, a full decade later. I’ve never seen, heard, or read Jeff or Paul refer to it, so it seems of consequence only to me. Re: "As I’ve said elsewhere, I never saw self-publishing as a "movement" (and I hope it wasn’t Steve who introduced the inopportune term, though in light of his mention of the late night discussion in Jeff’s studio, I now suspect it was)...." No, that wasn’t the case, and I have no particular interest in codifying anything here. I have no idea where that term originated, but it was in use months before my one-and-only visit to Columbus. However, it wasn’t any more up to you than it was to Paul or Jeff or I to define for one and all what self-publishing was or wasn’t: by the year of the Spirits tour, it was being perceived as a movement or wave, and given the relative explosion of self-publishing from all corners including industry vets like Rick Veitch and myself, and Larry Marder’s claims for Image being a self-publisher coalition, it was perceived as reality.

Re: "I thought self-publishing needed a little help here and there to entrench itself and I was willing to help where I could for a fixed period of time with the Spirits stops and then the Guide to Self-Publishing but at that point I was definitely of the view that self-publishing would either stand or fall on its own without my help." Dave, your help was perceived as a form of leadership, like it or not. The fixed time frame was something you had in mind, and even articulated to a few of us at the time, but the Spirits tours, the Cerebus writings, and the Guide to Self-Publishing nevertheless maintained your prominent stature in a perceived movement, wave, or community of the moment, and that was and still is relevent to the discussion at hand.

My clear memory of the thrust of that meaty conversation with Jeff and Paul was, as stated, their determination to proceed as individuals, questioning the entire Spirits tour as inherently a collectivist endeavor they had decided, on their own, to not participate in. My only argument with that point was that, historically, their work did appear during a blossoming of self-publishers, had already achieved prominence, and that we cannot choose the historic context our work appears within (my specific example was my own considerable body of work with, and association with, DC Comics and Swamp Thing, at that time already subsumed in the accurate context of ‘the DC renaissance’ chronologically linked with Frank’s The Dark Knight Returns, Watchman, etc., and specifically Alan’s body of work, which indeed remains the prominent historic reference point of interest). Whatever their motives at the time, their decision to distance themselves from the tour and, by proxy, any perceived movement didn’t emerge from our conversation that night; the conversation emerged from, and was about, their decision. And a pretty in-depth discussion it was, too. As Jeff said to Paul and I, Bone was ABOUT individual vs. collectivism, community vs. mob rule, and that was the springboard of the conversation. Though Bone wasn’t far enough along as a series for me to identify everything Jeff was referring to in his own creation at that point in time, Jeff was in part bristling at being identified with a group not of his own making or association, and in part refuting the militaristic tenor of your editorials and updates about the Spirits tour.

The considerable benefits of profering a collective market presence or wedge was also discussed, and that became the most constructive direction the conversation explored. It was interesting to me that Jeff subsequently embraced just such a smaller, genre-defined ‘communal’ market presence when Bone, Castle Waiting, and Charles Vess shared a booth at (I think) San Diego (that Bone found shelter with Image for a time likewise linked Jeff and Bone with that perceived community, and as such validated Image as a safe haven for other self-publishers seeking shelter, and enhanced Image’s ‘creator-friendly’ facade even as studio-productivity and work-for-hire insinuated itself in cumulative ways among some of the primary partners’s titles -- but I’m getting off-track a bit). Each self-publisher was seeking their own natural gravitational orbits and overlaps with other like-minded self-publishers (the communal path), and that’s just human nature for many, however contrary it may be to the pure self-publishing ethic (the alone path). This, it seems to me, reflects Jeff’s constructive and real-world orientation to these matters -- individual vs. collective -- as I’ve described them, and as they relate to self-publishing (I’m not presuming I’m correct, just trying to articulate what I see at core issues), and the very-human-nature, and very-self-publisher, determination to do things on one’s own terms.

Without belaboring this reply, you’re on-the-money when you cite the various experiments with self-publishing/sorta-self-publishing/being published that defined the mid-90s. Pragmatically, it was as much a result of "people who were not either by nature or inclination self-publishers" as it was self-publishers reacting to (a) the volatility of the market (seeking some form of shelter in the wake of Capital’s collapse), (b) opportunistic (however well-intentioned) publishers seeing a window of opportunity to expand their own respective lines via ‘fishing’ in troubled waters, and (c) the confusions and temptations presented by the ‘blurring’ we’ve discussed in terms of Image. This was fueled by Larry and Scott’s arguments for the viability of the ‘Image umbrella’ (if you will), and that it was merely an extension of their own ‘Eclipse umbrella’ publishing histories; this is a point I’ll address more fully, below.

I recall my own participation in some pretty heated discussions of these matters, in which my own experiences with Eclipse, Tundra, and Image came to bear -- but by then, I was seen as being squarely in ‘the Dave Sim camp,’ which sums up the factionalism that had already been nurtured and/or asserted itself. Larry sure made the Eclipse Beanworld relationship and the ‘safety’ Image offered sound inviting, especially to a few who were justifiably shaken by the implosion of the market threatened, and manifested, by Capital City’s dire situation and eventual collapse. To me, at that point in my life and career, self-publishing wasn’t just one option among many; it was the only venue. I had no illusions about any of the publishers fishing, and no desire to work with any umbrella publisher, though I was courted. Before I’d do that, I’d return to the Friday-paycheck work force, which is what I subsequently did (I also worked to acquire a book agent, pursuing that steadily for a full year, but that proved fruitless). My own personal-life situation led to complete withdrawal from the circus, while others experimented with various safety nets and high-wire acts, which you’ve detailed quite succinctly.

It seems to me trying to assign ‘blame’ for who termed or codified the "self-publishing movement" (if that’s what’s being pursued; it may not be, and again, correct me if I’ve misunderstood you, Dave) to either you or Larry or Jeff or me or Paul or anyone on these matters is a fool’s errand. Once there were enough self-publishers dotting the landscape to count, it was perceived by the industry as a movement, a community, an army, a new wave, a potential being realized, a threat, a new hope -- choose your moniker. "Movement" stuck, for a time at least, and those involved rarely have much say about how they collectively are referred to. Once that 1990s development was ‘tagged,’ and you were perceived as its eldest practicing member most passionate about articulating the parameters of self-publishing, you were perceived as its leader. That’s just how these things work, and always have, in every conceivable permutation. Even those artistic coalitions that refute labels are inevitably given them, if only to identify ‘that bunch’ as ‘that bunch.’ Both impulses (and it seems to me your ‘struggle’ with the terminology and your respective role reflect this) are completely rational: resisting the urge to codify is a refusal to be contained or defined by any outside party, while labeling by definition is a means of containing, creating boundaries to and for, and even trivializing collective action.

Furthermore, appointing ‘leader’ status to any individual in such a labelled collective, particularly one founded on individual initiative, is a triple-edged sword. It cuts deeply before one realizes the strokes have been delivered. It (a) defines the initiatives of that ‘leader’ individual as being, by proxy, the initiatives of the collective; (b) measures and judges the effectiveness of the collective against the terms of the defined/prescribed ‘leader,’ sure to be found wanting (particularly when judgement is rendered by those whose self-interests are in polar opposition to those of self-publishers; e.g., publishers, publisher-journalists, fans who identify their identities by affiliation/devotion to publishers, etc.); and (c) splinters the collective by elevating the ‘leader’ initiative to the position of being ‘the initiative,’ an untenable conundrum. In the case of "the self-publishing movement," the pragmatic urge to self-define "the movement" in market terms via the Spirits of Independence tour -- create a marketing wedge -- and the dynamic behind that collective activity, in which you, Dave, and Cerebus became the focal point of that wedge, created the scenarios you have for some time been struggling with. Once the Spirits tour was announced as such, the tour inevitably manifest (or confirmed) you as ‘leader.’ Whatever your self-defined intentions, agenda, or reasons, Dave, that you appeared to embrace the position at the time is all that remains relevent to many. The militaristic tenor of your editorials and updates, and your using those vehicles to define and refine the parameters of self-publishing as a venue/option (my terms, not yours) -- largely because nobody else was or did -- created ripple effects you never intended. Still, that doesn’t make those ripples any less real or telling; whatever your motive for "playing leader," if you will, via the Spirits editorials and updates, you can’t fault folks for perceiving the "playing" as "being," and completing missing the invisible intent that distinguishes the two. I’m interested in your ongoing analysis of your intentions, but can fully understand why others would cry "Foul!"

(An aside: This also led inevitably to editorials like Gary Groth’s "The Time of the Toad" in The Comics Journal #220. Of course, by holding you personally culpable for the perceived "failure" of the perceived "movement," that editorial in the industry’s only sustained journalistic venue handily dispatched an ill-defined but clearly-perceived foe while slyly elevating its own value, longevity, and prominence in the industry as an ethical publisher. Fantagraphics thus claimed historical high ground by proclaiming itself victor over the lost wars of self-publishing, if you will, in which Image and Dave Sim were the culprits. I think this same imperative drove much of the rhetoric directed against you, Dave, in the wake of "Reads" -- and you were such an inviting target at that point. It was an ad hominem strategy: relentlessly attack the man based upon a clear moral judgement and sense of outrage, thus attack the perceived movement; belittle/trivialize the man, belittle/trivialize him as ‘leader,’ and thus belittle/trivialize ‘the movement’ he led without once refering to it, directly or indirectly.)

Completing this line of thought, while addressing the section of your letter that begins, "I would say that as things unfolded in 1993-94, I became marginalized not only because of issue 186 but because a number of people were self-publishing who were not either by nature or inclination self-publishers.... [etc.]", I put it to you that marginalization was prompted by your own actions, personal and professional, as much as the label applied to you and "the movement" and assessments of both by outside parties prominent within the industry. The labeling process would have gone much differently had you rigorously maintained your distance, but you saw a valid opportunity, as did many of us, to present a viable alternative to the too-long status quo of comics publisher empires, and you rose to the occasion. I see no dishonor or cause for recriminations for that, Dave, but it’s clearly a point of contention, and one bandied about in discussion of creator rights and self-publishing because of your earned distinction and vital role in both areas.

There is a zen parable in which a master notes that if one hears the song of a thrush but identifies it solely with the label, "that is a thrush," one has heard nothing; only by hearing the song, sans identification, is the thrush heard. Labeling you and the movement became a way of not hearing the songs -- or, more to the point, seeing/reading/evaluating the work -- each of which was distinctive, individual, and utterly unique. Likewise, the individual case histories, which you’ve explored with considerable insight in your letter (the primary reason I remain willing to talk about my own case history in this context).

Yes, Image was central to how much of this played out (in the case of Jeff Smith, Terry Moore, Colleen Doran, and their respective creations), but none of this happened in a vacuum. The implosion of the direct sales market was central to all that went down -- how it went down, when it went down, and what umbrellas seemed most inviting when the shitstorm hit -- and it serves nothing to ignore the immediacy and urgency of that vital context. Of all the standing publishers who had signed exclusivity deals, Image alone offered the kind of option that allowed the freedom of movement necessary to those self-publishers seeking (temporary) shelter. It was presented (and, by most accounts, was in practice) a "hands off" deal that minimized financial risk in a time of frightening instability.

Ironically, it also offered an alternative to the "self-publishing movement" associated with the Spirits tour, while aligning oneself with an even more prominent marketing wedge -- Image Comics -- thus presenting an alternative to the alternative that made "more sense" in terms of the insane market.

Larry Marder’s role in this situation, along with Jim Valentino’s, is not to be underestimated: Larry was the ‘white hat’ at Image, the voice and balance of reason against the mounting irrationality of the primary Image partners. Larry’s apparent prominence in self-publishing circles the year of the Spirits tour played a key role, too: his visibility, the respect many of us held for him (despite the fact he had never self-published Beanworld), and the near-mythic resonance of his "Nexus" stature, along with his promotion of the Eclipse/Image model of ‘publishing self-publishers’ lent great validity to Image as the umbrella-of-choice. Just as you posit Jeff Smith as a perceived ‘godsend’ in contrast with yourself ("...The consequence of that view in the mid-90s was to just make me look disagreeable to people in the One Big Happy Family camp and made Jeff Smith look like a godsend. "Finally, a sensible self-publisher who’s not a raving ideologue like that Dave Sim character who’s always making a stink about everything!"...[etc.]"), Larry was a ‘godsend’ for the confusing and ‘disagreeable’ extremes represented by Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen, etc. at Image, and just as essential to "the One Big Happy Family camp" across the board. Larry was an attentive, benevolent, intelligent, patient, articulate patriarchal figure presenting a sane face for the otherwise inchoate energy, rage, lunacy, and chaos of Image, and that’s all I’ll say about that for now.

I do see value in trying to sort out these remembered chronologies and determine some measure of cause-and-effect, if only to understand how creators and creators rights and the attendent issues interact in reality. It was a heady time, and one well worth discussing in greater detail, as almost every conceivable scenario played itself out with various consequences, beneficial and ill. Our tendency to discuss these issues via defining the problems we saw and still see as evidence of the Bill’s ongoing relevence should not be misconstrued as necessarily negative: it’s not all doom and gloom, "beware the thorny dark woods," etc.

In discussing our respective roles in all this history, I think it is vital to never forget the many shining examples of the principles of the Bill of Rights, and of self-publishing, embodied with the great success of key works: Dave Lapham’s Stray Bullets enjoying a commemorative anniversary set of hard-cover collecteds, still self-published by the Laphams; Jeff Smith completing Bone and its current incarnation as a complete, self-contained graphic novel; the complete Cerebus in print and always available in the format you desired and pioneered.

Focusing on creator issues per se, apart from self-publishing, I think the most productive aspect of your current letter is defining the issues relevent to Chester Brown’s case histories of Underwater on the one hand, and Riel on the other -- which, I must say, jive with my own current thoughts on how I might approach the years left to me to write and draw. Knowing one’s limitations involves learning one’s limitations, and your analysis of Underwater vs. Riel neatly sums up the point in the most constructive way imaginable.

Enough for now -- more later, thanks.


Next: A Letter from Dave Sim 5. Dave Sim addesses The Pulse thread and the topic of Colleen Doran's "What Your Publisher Won’t Tell You" pamphlet.

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