A Letter from Dave Sim 14
Below is a letter from Dave Sim where Dave addresses comments from Steve Bissette’s blog, Steve’s iBrattleboro interview, the subject of Tundra, Neal Adams' check from DC Comics, Alan Moore's interview with Heidi MacDonald, and Gary Reed's comments from Comicon.com. -Al Nickerson
Thanks for the phone message. I think we should have expected things to slow down—it’s pretty discouraging stuff for guys who are trying to stay optimistic and I don’t think the fact that the comic-book field once again resolves pretty much exclusively around Marvel and DC’s super-heroes can be underrated as a factor. If you can get a hold of a copy of Comics & Games Retailer and read the Market Report that’s in every issue where retailers chart the hits and misses in their stores there is only the very, very, very rare mention of any title that isn’t a Marvel or DC super-hero title. Marvel and DC have a very specific relationship with Creator’s Rights that definitely puts those rights a distant second to their preferred method of owning things outright. So if your interest is to make a splash in the field, Marvel and DC are the doorway and that doorway tends to lead in one direction. I’m sure for most creators reading these discussions it must be like finding out the roulette wheel is rigged. What do you want to stick around for? You’re really down to the compulsive gamblers at that point (in this case the creators who have grown up in an environment where Marvel and DC are the defining environments and who consequently have to, one way or the other—either by lying to themselves or lying to others—adjust their thinking to believing that the Marvel and DC way of doing things is the best way of doing things). "Hey, it’s the only game in town." Which is not to say that it’s completely rigged. I’m sure Neil Gaiman would be the first to tell you that Paul Levitz does carve you out a fairer deal if you start charting Gaiman-sized numbers and that definitely needs to be acknowledged as a step up from Siegel and Shuster’s treatment. But it’s a long way from the comic-book Nirvana that everyone seems to have a compulsive need to see every step along the way. "Everything’s fine now." Obviously these discussions tend to view it as "Some things have improved but everything is far from fine." If you don’t want to see that—and I would maintain that probably 98% of creators really don’t want to see that—you’re not going to stick around and read about or contribute to a discussion of creator’s rights. Hence the sound of crickets chirping.
I was glad to see your contract with Brandon. Seems pretty straightforward. Of course the only way that we would know if it’s viable is if you two had a major falling out and we could see if the agreement was a help at all in avoiding a messy split at that point. But I do think there are distinct advantages to at least attempting to frame the issues at stake and it seems a good boilerplate form of that (if nothing else) covering the bare essentials—how long does this agreement last, who owns what, etc.
Steve Bissette’s Blog
Yeah, I think this might have done it. Driving away what limited participation we had from the creative community. The mythology that the major company contracts have just been getting better and better ("EVERYthing’s fine now.") takes a direct hit in finding out that seven years earlier Bissette got the same one I got. Plus, for a lot of guys with stars in their eyes the fact that Steve Bissette can’t get a foot in the door at Vertigo is like finding out that Paul McCartney can’t book recording time at Abbey Road studios. I mean it doesn’t surprise me. There’s the "ins" and the "outs" at the companies—‘twas ever thus—and the Neil Gaimans are the rare exceptions and not the rule. But it is very hard on the perception that runs very deep in the comic-book soul that all your hard work for DC and Marvel is like money in the bank not only while you’re banging out your pages but that there’s a Long Term Good Will Jackpot once you’ve served up a hit for them. "What have you done for us lately?" unfortunately is always more the company attitude. After all, this is the generation (or the generation right after the one: generations come and go so fast these days) that was weaned on Moore, Bissette and Totelben’s Swamp Thing and would be starting from the baseline assumption that Bissette is the problem. If he would just get over his crankiness and his belligerence and let bygones be bygones and go and visit Karen Berger and his long-lost Vertigo family he’d be welcomed back with group hugs all around and given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted and a nice fat happy Neil Gaiman contract to boot. I’m not really being facetious, I don’t think. The fact that Steve was given the same "take it or leave it" boilerplate contract for his proposed projects that I—as a marginal presence and first time potential participant—was given for the proposed Fables short-short speaks volumes about the non-Neil Gaiman end of Vertigo and of DC and of mainstream comic books in general. And those are volumes that creators don’t want to read, unfortunately. I mean, heck, Steve Bissette is the absolute toppermost of the poppermost cutting-edge guy when it comes to comic-book horror—still!—just on the basis of what he did with Swamp Thing and Taboo and he can’t get a project green-lighted at Vertigo even under their crap work-made-for-hire terms? That’s just too sad. But look at the reaction of the comic-book field: given the choice between thinking badly of Steve Bissette or thinking badly of Vertigo, it’s a no-brainer. If Steve Bissette is right (which he obviously is) then the average creator following in his career footsteps is walking into a potential death trap where they could end up as he did—producing hundreds of pages of top-flight well-thought-of work and ending up like Jerry Seigel. Except nobody offered to buy Bissette an overcoat after they kicked him out the door. Maybe if he got a job as a messenger in Manhattan?
Interesting on the page rates. Evidently Neal Adams was getting $50 a page in the early 70s, Bissette was getting $65-72 a page in the mid-80s so $350 a page (or the $500 I was offered) certainly represents a jump in rates. What do you want to bet the competition from Image in ’92-’93 kicked everything up a few integers? It must’ve been a nutcracker from the companies’ standpoint. How do you compete with what the Image studios must’ve been paying in that brief period where they were quite literally rolling in money?
So from what I understand we went from 143 posts and 233 posts to basically zip, nada posts in the space of a couple of months. Again, that doesn’t surprise me. There’s nothing like a little unvarnished truth to get people going ballistic when their core mythologies are at stake ("You stop saying bad things about Vertigo! You stop that right now! Lalalalala! I’m not listening!") and then sending them heading for the metaphorical hills. The psychiatrists call it "denial" I believe.
Thanks for the kudos, Steve. It seemed to me that unless we started talking about specifics we weren’t really talking about anything and it seemed a shame to just write off the negotiating time I spent with DC as a complete waste when it could at least make a contribution to the discussions here.
Steve Bissette’s iBrattleboro Interview
Jeez. That over-weaning modesty sounds like Kitchener. Shouldn’t that be "I, Brattleboro!"
Just kidding. It’s an Internet reference of some kind, the little "i", right?
Much appreciated again, the acknowledgement of my contribution to your adult life. You were certainly—along with Alan Moore at one time—the easiest people to actually discuss things with. If I could make a case for my contrary viewpoints, you were always more than willing to change your mind, as was Alan. You would take the discussions with you and ruminate over them and if something that I said was going to happen ended up happening you were always big enough to say, "Well, you were right" particularly with Mirage and Tundra. I still have the N-Man ashcan in the Cerebus Archive that you autographed "To Dave, Who’s Always Right."
But that tendency on your part to take what I said with you and think about it was a big difference. Virtually everyone else would just keep talking around the same circles and getting irritated and I just knew that the moment they were out the door they would stop thinking about whatever we had been discussing. The sure sign was when they would say, "Well, you’ve given me a lot to think about." Which always translated into "You’ve given me a lot to ignore, you bastard, but I’ll show you: I’m going to ignore it." You not only followed the train of thought, you couldn’t wait to explain it to someone else as soon as you saw my point. Rare as hen’s teeth, that was. I had the same reaction to you and Alan. I thought you were kidding. Just pretending to understand what I was saying and just pretending to change your minds. At some point Alan changed back which is how he ended up at Wildstorm and letting Jim Lee own everything he did. More on that later.
Heidi MacDonald Reheats Tundra Leftovers
Well, yes, I think Tundra is always worth revisiting. I have to admit that I always find Heidi’s "high ironic" approach to these subjects more than a little unhelpful. That "Oh, God—we’re not still talking about Tundra, are we?" As if discussing Tundra demonstrates a complete lack of hipness on the part of anyone so un-hip as to do so publicly. Again, the field tends to go ballistic and then head for the metaphorical hills when faced with a substantive discussion about pretty much anything. The problem to me isn’t that we’re still discussing Tundra but, rather, that we never have discussed Tundra. Kevin Eastman lost literally millions of dollars on the comic-book equivalent of The Beatles’ Apple Corp. and we all couldn’t be less interested. Everyone went ballistic and headed for the metaphorical hills and now can we please discuss the merits of bringing back Spidey’s black costume? I really think that Steve and I are the only two who understand how important Tundra was—what happened and why—and where Image was an improvement (unbelievably wealthy creators attempting to create a safe haven for other creators) and that understanding or not understanding those lessons are going to tell us if the third incarnation (if there is a third incarnation up ahead) is going to be a success or a failure. I would argue that Dreamwave was a good example of a potential Image that just vanished like pixy dust because no one has or will talk about these things so the same mistakes were needlessly repeated.
Steve’s experience actually editing Taboo first for Aardvark One International, then for Tundra and then on his own, really helped clarify a lot of things for him and we can see it here with the Taboo Especial vs. Taboo 6 discussion. I hate to sound like a liberal (oh, how I hate to sound like a liberal) but both Steve and Eddie are right as I recall. The problem was that the 40-page chapter was done at the last minute and there was just no way to plan an issue of Taboo on that basis. It would’ve required redoing a lot of the editorial material which was a big part of the package. Steve was the first horror anthology packager to actually deal with the material on a higher intellectual plane than "Pull up a stump, fear freaks, and give a listen to this grue-for-two fable, a little wig-whipper I like to call, etc. etc." which required having the material in hand for at least a period of two or three weeks in order to write all the introductions and make all necessary cross-references, etc. without which, I would maintain, it would not have been an issue of Taboo. Steve made the decision to put the package together with the material he had on hand when that decision needed to be made—well ahead of the print deadline. So Steve’s right. Eddie’s right in that he did get the artwork done while the Especial was still being put together. If Taboo had been the anthology equivalent of Richard Dreyfuss tying off the weighted buoys for Quint in Jaws ("Mr. Hooper?" "Don’t wait for me")—i.e. get the 40 pages to Steve before he can send the book to the printer and he’ll just glue the "From Hell" pages onto the back of the book and glue on forty page numbers in the back of the car on the way to the FedEx office…well, Taboo was always far more finely crafted than that. To do it otherwise would’ve made it something other than the dream project Steve wanted it to be when I granted him his one publishing wish (a good example of "be careful what you wish for"). He always had to balance that hand-crafted quality against what he understood to be the obligation to publish regularly. He could’ve just thrown it together as Eddie wanted but it wouldn’t have been Taboo.
Hey MARK MARTIN! Hey, how are you doing? Still got my Lillian Spencer Drake Catalogue. "Rectangles! Women Love Them!" Easily in the top five sight gags of all time.
I was on a panel with Jim Woodring in New York back in November. Got him to autograph my Frank first printing from 1994. He didn’t exactly strike me as thinking of himself in the "where he is today" terms you seem to mean. To be honest, I don’t think any of us ever get to that point. The wolf is always at the door. Some of us just have thicker doors than others. But it doesn’t matter how thick the door is you’re always aware that some wolf has managed to get through one just as thick.
I can’t think of a better guy to have a hair-brained scheme in the works than Mark "20 Nude Dancers 20" Martin, though. Good luck with Runaway.
Neal Adams Moolah
I would respectfully submit that I think Heidi has missed the more significant aspect of the story in a way that I would attribute to her blind devotion to DC and Marvel which is the industry norm. Neal was given an author royalty on the Batman books, not just a page rate and a penciller or inker royalty. As far as I know, this marks the first time that the distinction was made. If the book you are selling is Neal Adams’ Batman then work-made-for-hire doesn’t apply was Neal’s point. That was an enormous leap for Paul Levitz—who was born and raised within the industry rather than the medium—to make and I agree that Paul deserves a lot of applause for doing so (and for taking Neal’s side in explaining it to the Legal Dept. and making the validity of the interpretation stick in the contract itself when it would have been very easy, I’m sure, for him to just slip into TimeWarnerThink mode). But, then, I can’t think of anyone besides Neal Adams who could get through to Paul Levitz in what has been a cornerstone philosophy in the field from the beginning. But as with all of the discussions we’ve had here, I would warn about drawing too many inferences from "High End" doings. If everyone had Neal Adams’ or Neil Gaiman’s contract everyone would be a lot happier but those are, again, the exceptions rather than the rule. Watch over the next few years and see how many guys get their names above the work-made-for-hire character logo and that will tell you if we have a "new normal" or a Neal Adams is the exception that proves the rule circumstance..
But, again, I think the point that Heidi misses is that structurally just giving Neal Adams—or anyone else—a wad of money doesn’t represent any great improvement over the noblesse oblige Christmas bonuses of yore. Linking that money to an author’s royalty with a fixed percentage and making it retroactive—that takes it out of the realm of moolah for the sake of moolah and into the realm of Let’s Be Like Grown-Up Publishers and acknowledge a partnership with creativity where it exists.
I think it’s worth noting that if anyone should be a happy camper in Heidi’s idealized view of "Moolah for Moolah’s Sake" as win-win, it should be Alan. Clearly Paul Levitz can’t do enough in a corporate-obligation-to-the-Time-Warner-shareholders sense than to try and make Alan Moore happy and clearly no one has had a greater failure rate in his attempts to do so as can be seen by Heidi’s interview with Alan. I really can’t emphasize strongly enough that creators take a hard look at what Alan is saying and actually try to absorb it rather than just going ballistic and heading for the metaphorical hills. As he wrote in the dedication in my copy of the Graphitti Designs hardcover of Watchmen:
"If you want to picture how perfect this would have been without a DC logo anywhere, try to imagine what ‘Workingman’s Dead’ would have sounded like if Jerry Garcia had all his fingers. Best wishes, respect and admiration always Alan Moore"
Note Alan didn’t write anything along the lines of "Just imagine how much money this book brings into my bank account every year, double it and you’re not even close. Much loov, Alan Moore". Although I’m reasonably sure that that would have been accurate as well. I mean, linking this to Colleen Doran’s comments—which are very succinct and very closely reasoned on the subject of work-made-for-hire, its pluses and minuses versus creator ownership and control—I think she misses the point that she owns A Distant Soil and that that makes a lot of difference in areas where neither she nor I have the experience that Alan does where, as he says to Heidi: "it’s whether I’m waking up at four in the morning in a boiling rage or not, and there is no amount of money that can compensate for that." I mean this is a nutcracker for Alan Moore wannabe’s. Do you seriously believe that the writer of Watchmen and V for Vendetta is just, you know, being needlessly cranky and belligerent about his relationship with DC? That he needs to take a hard look at his bank account and realize that DC’s Moolah is the best thing that ever happened to him and to take a downer or smoke a spliff and, you know, chill? I don’t wake up at four in the morning in a boiling rage and I don’t think Colleen Doran wakes up at four in the morning in a boiling rage either and I suspect that it’s for the exact reason that we own a vast amount of our own work. Alan feels as if some of his fingers are missing and I wish more creators would pay attention to that. I have no idea where the balance point is—I have virtually all of my own metaphorical fingers—the work-made-for-hire stuff that I’ve done wouldn’t fill a large business envelope and the Cerebus originals that we own, Gerhard informs me, would reach three storeys in height if they were in one pile—and Colleen has most of her metaphorical fingers and (pretty clearly) all the ones that really matter to her—but clearly there’s a balance that’s not just wanted, but needed. Neither man nor woman lives by work-made-for-hire alone. There came a memorable point in the 1980s where Frank Miller suddenly realized he had been working in comics for (however many) years and all that he owned was one story that he had done in Bizarre Adventures or some such. One five or seven-page story out of the hundreds of pages he had drawn that were largely financing the comic-book field (and which have since founded a Hollywood blockbuster or two). The result, for Frank, was the need to create his own comic book: Sin City.
Well, unfortunately this comes around again to the dispute between Alan and Steve over From Hell when Alan said, "You do whatever you think is best, Steve" and Steve had to put his foot down and say, "No, Alan, this is your work—this isn’t my work. You and Eddie have to make your decisions about your work." It was Alan who sold ABC to Jim Lee. ABC could have been Alan’s Sin City but not after he sold it to somebody. As soon as you sell it somebody it’s behind bars and all you can do is go and visit it wherever it’s imprisoned and work on it with your hands thrust through the bars or leave it to someone else to do so. But, I think I’m safe in saying that that is a leading cause of waking up at four in the morning in a boiling rage. Presumably Frank Miller has those sorts of experiences with Dark Knight Returns and DK2 and presumably he doesn’t with Sin City and 300 and the other things he owns. If you have to go ballistic over my saying that, at least please take it with you when you run for the metaphorical hills and think about it!
I appreciate Gary’s openness on all this. If Bissette and I didn’t drive everyone away, I think this would do it. We were in the same situation when Bill Loebs jumped ship back in the 80s. We had a contract that specified how long he was supposed to do Journey for us and we faced the same situation as Gary did with his creators. What? Are you really going to SUE Bill Loebs? The situation worked the other way with Ms. Tree. Sometimes you’re the old bag at home and sometimes you’re the new hot young thing hanging out on the street-corner (good analogy, by the way, Gary). I think that’s one of the situations that creators have to face head-on as well. If you don’t fulfill your contractual obligations you can’t very well complain when you find there’s a shortage of paying markets and not many publishers who will stick with you while you try to build circulation. I would suspect that even with declining sales in the field, if Gary had had a few more happy experiences with creators instead of always being just a stepping stone to the next hot thing—Tundra or Image or whatever—he would’ve stuck it out. It’s another situation where it’s hard to see where the proper balance point is. On the one hand if you’re slaving over a book—and NO comic book is easy to draw and write—and making baby-sitter wages (been there, done that) doing so, you’re going to have your eyes open for a more secure situation. If you’ve been floating around in a life preserver for eight months even the smallest boat is going to look good. But, of course, the net effect of that is—ultimately—fewer options for creators. I don’t want to torture the metaphor but it does seem there’s something to be said for building the life preserver you’re in INTO a boat rather than just going looking for a boat so you can ditch the lifer preserver.
At that point it does seem as if Image evolved to better suit the nature of the environment. When you’re up to your knees in creators who are basically lying when they pledge or sign any kind of loyalty, it makes sense to just let them come and go as they please and make sure you get a profitable amount of money out of them while they’re there.
It does make me wonder if there’s value in pursuing a template agreement which was my intention here. If I’m evading the fact that—not all creators but a significant number of creators—are basically dishonourable when it comes to fulfilling their side of the bargain (to the extent that it would have to be called fiscally reckless for a marginal publisher to take them at their word) then it seems to me that all I would be doing is contributing (however inadvertently) to an illusory construct: a "let’s pretend" construct where a publisher is apt to lose his shirt by playing along.
It seems to me that one of the distinctions might be between those who understand publishing as a partnership and those who see publishing as a service (i.e. more printing and bookkeeping than publishing) and that that needs to be factored into any template agreement right at the point of origin. If you’re just too lazy to take care of your own business and you want someone to do it for you and it doesn’t much matter to you who that is and if someone will promise you $30 more a month than you’re making now you’ll take it without a backward glance…well, it seems to me that’s one thing. If on the other hand you want expertise and blood, sweat and tears and the Big Push in the catalogues and at conventions and trade shows then I think it’s disingenuous to a) assume that any success that results is from your creative efforts alone and b) to "opt out" before you’ve fulfilled your contractual obligation no matter how green the grass on the other side of the fence looks to you. When you add to that not being able or willing to meet your deadlines, then I think you’ve got a recipe for what we have right now—very few viable publishing houses of various sizes. A handful of big houses and a lot of microscopic houses. Well, forgive me for saying this, but I think we have what we deserve. If, over the next ten years the reliability factor goes way up and 90% of books are shipping on time and 90% of creators are meeting their contractual obligations then ten years from now the field could look very different.
I’m still mulling over my next move, having come up with a series of contract categories from the most Draconian work-made-for-hire to the most insubstantial construct that is virtual self-publishing with someone else doing the nuts and bolts and the paperwork.
One of the things that I’m tempted to recommend is good old-fashioned consequence, a very unfashionable idea in this day-and-age. If we accept that there is the core problem of creator invulnerability to lawsuits (and I think we do have to accept that) then I think you have to find something that will replace the lawsuit as a policing mechanism, something that makes "the dog ate my homework" really, really unpalatable as an option. Some sort of honesty clause which is the core of the contract. "I said I would produce twenty pages in three months. I’ve only produced ten and now the prescribed consequence kicks in."
In Ger’s and my Shareholder Agreement there is a clause governing conflict resolution that, I think, would apply here. In the event of a disagreement that we’re unable to resolve between ourselves, we have agreed to take out an ad page(s) in CBG laying out both sides of the disagreement and then leaving it up to public opinion to tell us which one of us is perceived to have the stronger argument. I think I’m safe in saying that you tend to make more of an effort to understand the other person’s point of view and to make sure that you’re living up to your own commitments if you realize you might have to defend your own perceptions in a public forum. Obviously not a lot of first-time collaborations are going to have the disposable income to do this early on, but I think a comparable method could be instituted on the Internet in some way.
As a corollary of that, you can always designate an arbiter that you both have confidence in who can be brought in if you just can’t come to a resolution of a conflict, to whom you would both present your respective sides of a given argument and whose assessment you would agree to abide by once he or she had informed you as to who was right and who was wrong.
Any thoughts on this?
Next: A Letter from Mark Martin Mark addresses the above letter from Dave Sim.