A Chat with Scott McCloud
The following interview was conducted via phone on March 3, 2005:
Al Nickerson: You were the genius behind The Creator's Bill of Rights, initially?
Scott McCloud: (Laughs) Not the genius part. I wrote the original draft, yeah. It was mostly in response to the Creative Manifesto which had been put together by the first of those summits. Iím not sure who had penned the original. When I was invited to the Northampton summit, I was given a copy of the Creative Manifesto. Reading it over, I thought it might be more appropriate, since this was a unilateral gesture that we were making, to have it less in the form of a pseudo-contract or statement of principles of the sort that the Creative Manifesto seemed to be striving for and more just a declaration of our intentions as individuals. So, I thought a bill of rights was more appropriate, since thatís the sort of thing you can unilaterally declare. A statement of the way we intended to conduct our business, without any real expectation of how anyone else will behave. I felt at the time that creators had far more power than they gave themselves credit for within the industry.
Nickerson: But that doesnít necessarily mean that the publishers might think itís a good idea.
McCloud: No, not at all.
Nickerson: Especially publishers that thrive on the work-made-for-hire situation.
McCloud: Right. But since there was an alternative at the time, the Bill of Rights could be read as a declaration of intent to work with those publishers that recognized those rights.
Nickerson: Exactly. The importance of the Bill is for creators to be aware of what rights they have and not to be taken advantage of by publishers.
McCloud: Technically speaking, one has an absolute right to control the fate of your property. You can only sign it away. Which is one of the reasons that Dave, at the time, and I think still, is not particularly fond of contracts generally. (Laughs) You start with absolute rights to control your material. You only begin to chip away at those when you expect someone to join in and become part of the process of distributing or publishing or getting it out there in any form. Then thatís the point at which I was saying "Ya know what? Weíre just giving away way too much of our rights in this process and a very severe limit should be put on that".
Nickerson: Did you get any flak from any of the publishers about The Creator's Bill of Rights? Did they even comment on the Bill at all?
McCloud: No. Nobody felt particularly threatened by it in those days. The Bill got very little play in the comics press.
Nickerson: Iíve always been very interested in The Creator's Bill of Rights ever since I first heard about it years ago. I find it very sad that the Bill has been forgotten. Iím sure there are many people and many publishers that are happy that itís forgotten. So, thatís why I want to talk about the Bill a little bit more and bring it back into sight of the comic book industry. So people are aware of the Bill again.
McCloud: Well, I think that the rights that we spoke of are relevant today. There are certainly publishers today who have all sorts of dreams of getting their hooks into properties and controlling the fates of a character long after a creator has left. I donít think that the Bill has any particular relevance to self-publishers or artists putting up their own webcomics because they really donít face that issue at all.
Nickerson: Probably not.
McCloud: If youíre publishing yourself you already have these rights. You certainly donít need a bill of rights to prevent your left hand from taking rights away from your right hand.
McCloud: You know thatís the ideal situation. I thought of the Bill as more of a document to address the relationship of people who chose, for whatever reason, to work with a third party to get their comics published.
Nickerson: Right. Even though there seems to be a lot more creator-owned books out there since the Billís creation, many creators continue to get their rights trampled on by publishers.
McCloud: Sure. I wouldnít want to over-inflate the Billís importance at the time or even now. I donít think that many mainstream publishers gave the Bill much thought at all. I think the Bill was moreÖ
Nickerson: For the creators to be awareÖ
McCloud: It was emblematic of that moment in comics where I think a lot of creators were starting to wake up. The notion that there was a great deal of power in the hands of individual creators was very clearly demonstrated during that period through Eastman and Laird or the whole Image phenomenon.
Nickerson: You donít think that the creation of Image Comics or anyone like that was a direct result of the Bill in any way?
McCloud: Larry Marder would be best able to answer that question. But, as I remember, there was no direct influence there. Image just stemmed from some of the same feelings that were going around at the time.
Nickerson: Right. Thatís very interesting. I am very happy seeing something like Image Comics out there publishing material and working for creators-rights. Thatís wonderful. Also, seeing Online Comics creators out there and controlling their own work, and thatís great, too.
McCloud: Yeah, well, the online phenomena, especially, renders the whole issue moot.
Nickerson: Well, yeah.
McCloud: If youíre just sitting in your bathrobe at the keyboard pushing your comics and selling t-shirts, the Bill has nothing to do with anything. Unless a publisher comes to you and says, "You know, we would like to publish this comic." And then, of course, some of these people may be naÔve and just sign on the dotted line, and only months later realize that they signed away some of the most fundamental rights they have to that creation.
Nickerson: Right. But if they were aware of the Bill they might notÖ
McCloud: It might help in that regard. Yeah. I suppose popularizing the Bill now might at least help to raise the red flag when somebody from the online world or some other protected sphere wanders into the much choppier waters of mainstream print publishing.
Nickerson: Right. Online Comics are certainly a very valid form of entertainment and art, but the whole field seems still very small.
McCloud: WellÖ small in terms of dollars flowing? Sure.
Nickerson: I meant small in terms of readership.
McCloud: Well, the readership is growing considerably. When you have some of the higher circulation webcomics well over a hundred thousand and a very long shallow end of the curve, with a huge number of artists, the sheer number of people reading comics online could be higher than print at this point.
Nickerson: You think so?
McCloud: Itís possible. If you have five-thousand creators publishing online and they have audiences that average only a few thousand each, then the only question left is how much overlap is there? Right now Iím inclined to think that there isnít as much overlap as there would be in print comics.
Nickerson: Yeah, I havenít really been giving that too much thought. I certainly think that Online Comics and the Internet is a great avenue for comic book creators. They donít have to worry about editors breathing down their necks. They can own, control and distribute their material. I think thatís a wonderful, wonderful avenue for people.
McCloud: Online Comics is in its infancy, but lets just not underestimate the size of the baby.
Nickerson: Yeah. However, Marvel and DC Comics, and other print publishers are not really concerned about Online Comics. Or they certainly donít think itís a threat or even an avenue to making any sort of money.
McCloud: No, they donít know what to do with it yet.
Nickerson: Right. But if that does become the case, where they might show some interest in Online ComicsÖ
McCloud: Then in they come with deals and offers. Iíve already seen this. I mean, the Flight anthology,Ö they were looking at a few deals early on, and some of them were better than others. The Image Comicsí deal they were offered was a pretty good deal.
Nickerson: You donít think that if Marvel Comics or DC Comics became interested in the online avenue of creating comics, that they would come into the Online Comics sandbox and stomp on everybody?
McCloud: If Warner Bros. -- when talking about DC Comics, of course, weíre talking about the parent company as well -- if Warner Bros. found some phenomena online and thought it might be good to have a print publication of it they would offer the creators the standard contract first. This isnít an idle speculation. (Laughs) This is certainly imminent. There is interest up there. There have been discussions.
Nickerson: Warner Bros. once had some sort of animated comics online with Catwoman. Gotham Girls,Ö I think it was called?
McCloud: Theyíll sometimes try the multimedia approach.
Nickerson: Right. Yeah.
McCloud: They have to get that out of their system.
Nickerson: Back to The Creatorís Bill of RightsÖ after talking to Dave Sim about it, he seems to have a slightly different spin on the whole thing than you do.
McCloud: Iím shocked to hear that.
Nickerson: The whole subject of The Creatorís Bill of Rights, thereís so much meat to it.
Nickerson: For example, the article in the Bill concerning distribution, where creators having the ability to distribute their own material.
McCloud: They do have that ability.
McCloud: We had a debate about that whether or not to have an article in there about how we have the right to complete control of the way our work is distributed. I donít know. It seemed as if we were talking about two different things. Dave, throughout, I think was thinking in terms of self-publishing. I still maintain that you donít need a bill of rights to self-publish. Itís only really relevant if you are entering into some sort of arrangement with a third party. Otherwise, whatís the point? I mean, do you need a bill of rights to get up in the morning and to the bathroom?
McCloud: If youíre really self-publishing. If you are doing it all yourself, than for anything having to do with publishing, what threats to rights to control that process could there possible be? If you distribute it yourself, than you have absolute control, but if you enter into an agreement with a third party then that control is contractual really. The idea of direct control over distribution, if itís a third party doing the distributingÖ seemed a little odd. I mean itís not as if youíre going to be standing in the Diamond warehouse telling them where to put the boxes, either this way or that way. That was a source of a lot of heated debate between Dave and I but if you look back on it, we were talking about two different things. My fundamental feeling is that you donít need a bill of rights if youíre controlling the process yourself. If you dong it all yourself. If youíre self-publishing and selling at cons or whatever, or by mail order, then itís absurd to even have a Bill of Rights for that process.
Nickerson: But not everybody was doing that.
McCloud: Not everybody was doing that, yeah.
Nickerson: This might be a bad example, but if they was a Creatorís Bill of Rights or an awareness of creatorís rights back in the time of the Golden Age of comics or during Jack Kirby and Steve Ditkoís time at Marvel in the 1960ís, things would be totally different.
McCloud: Well, the Bill wouldnít have made things totally different. If artists had collectively realized how much power they had and acted in concert with one another that would have made the difference.
McCloud: And thatís what people like Neal Adams were trying to accomplish during that period where they were trying to form at least some kind of trade union or guild.
Nickerson: Well, Neal did a lot of stomping around to make sure that publishers were aware that artwork should be returned to artists.
McCloud: Now, in retrospect that seems like common sense. Some of those publishers were bastards.
Nickerson: Can I quote you on that?
McCloud: Yes. Some publishers were bastards in those early days. Just holding onto art for spite, I mean, that was silly.
Nickerson: Well, yeah, and publishers chopping up original artwork into tiny little pieces and throwing it awayÖ
McCloud: Yeah, tearing the art up in front of the artist and saying, "if you come in here again, weíre gonna fire your ass", and that kind of thing.
Nickerson: There were even some cases where they reused the boards so the artists could draw new stories on the back of the boards.
McCloud: Well, the reusing of boards probably comes out of the Depression era. The desire to save a penny. But then they couldíve charged the artist a penny or two for the materials, I suppose, if that was their only concern.
Nickerson: Do you recall, not too long ago, Marvelís attempt to bring back the Epic line and publish creator-owned comics? That was about a year and a half ago, or two years ago.
McCloud: Yeah, you know, it all comes down to the contract. "Creator-owned" is like "All Natural" or "Organic". (Laughs) You can put it on the bottle, but that doesnít tell you anything about the contents until you see them all listed.
Nickerson: That was a really interesting time at Marvel. I was talking with Epic to create a Nihilist-Man series, and they did send me a copy of their contract. I was very hopeful to see Marvel take any initiative in possibly publishing creator-owned comics. Their contract looked quite fair.
McCloud: Well, they all look fair until you pay close attention them.
Nickerson: Thanks for your insight, Scott. I appreciate it.