A Letter from Dave Sim 4
Below is a letter from Dave Sim where Dave addresses (mostly) Steve Bissette's previous letter and a few points from my previous letter. -Al Nickerson
Dave Sim responds 30 May 05 –
Having just waded through all 42 pages I don’t think I can remember the early material clearly enough to comment on it intelligently here at the other end. It is a thorough piece and it seems to me to at least confirm for Steve and me that we are still "on the same page" while disagreeing about net effects and implications. 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.
Steve confuses High Society with Church & State volume one as the pioneering effort. It was presented to him as our most recent price quote from Preney for a 592-page package and the Swords quote for a 104-page package to give him an idea of the economies of scale, which he grasped right away. Taboo was closer to the Swords model than the C&S model as a direct result. I had Karen send him the figures in answer to the question "Why make it 130 pages? Why not make it 300 pages or 500 pages?" I got my UK Comic Art Conventions mixed up. We met at the 1985 version (where I accused the pregnant Nancy/pre-Marlene of smuggling basketballs) in September—if we met in 1984 as Steve maintains, I have no recollection of it—and by November of ‘85 I was sufficiently aware of Steve’s and John’s abilities, enthusiasm, marketability and sensible natures to offer to publish any horror book they were interested in putting together (there were many decisions that were made in tandem with Deni that I hadn’t agreed with and I wanted one more kick at the can publishing on my own—Taboo and the Puma Blues). I made the offer, as Steve correctly recalls, at the Friday night party at Tony Isabella’s house which used to be and for all I know still is a tradition at Mid-Ohio Con.
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. Either we’re all still successfully making and selling our buggy whips, or we aren’t in the buggy whip business. I think the evidence supports the latter.
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. 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. Witness the fact that Jeff and Terry Moore and Colleen took their books to Image at the first opportunity—an action that never would have occurred to me. Self-publishing, to them, was just part of a spectrum of options and the people who were self-publishing and who cleaved to that view were more simpatico with the direct market in general which would have been as happy to have Dave Sim writing Howard the Duck as writing and drawing Cerebus. It’s not something I was unaware of but it was something that I thought (and think of) as counter-productive. If I established Cerebus only to go and write and draw Howard the Duck, there would be no tension between "inside" and "outside" which I think always contributes to improved circumstances in both venues. 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!" Jeff went from self-publishing to Image and back to self-publishing and then to Scholastic. I have no idea what his Scholastic contract looks like but I’d be surprised if it was as open-ended as the Image contract where, when Image proved not to be what he was looking for, he could pick up his book and go home. I hope there is some kind of reversion clause if Scholastic proves not to be what he was looking for (as Image proved not to be what he was looking for). Self-publishing and the Direct Market in general have benefited in innumerable ways from the core presence of Bone since 1993 when it first started making waves and it would be nice to have to all-in-one volume as a perennial cash cow in the field (from what I understand the Scholastic contract means that the all-in-one volume won’t be available after July). 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). 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. I was certainly aware that when Jeff and Terry and Colleen took their books to Image that there was a counter-impetus abroad in the land to try to make that "the next thing" ("we had self publishing when that was necessary but now that Image is here, self-publishing is no longer necessary," ‘co-publishing’ as Colleen christened it being touted as the wave of the future). That only made me dig in a little deeper with the Spirits stops as a home for the counter-counter-impetus. As I said to everyone early on—Jeff and Martin and James and Colleen—when they would remark on how much time and energy I was taking on their behalf (and which Steve documents here—I took every phone call and talked exhaustively on every subject the seminal self-publishers wanted to discuss even though it was all "old news" to me by that point) "all I ask is that when the time comes you pass on to others whatever I’ve given to you." In other words, your day will come when you’ll be getting a lot of cranky phone calls from some newcomer who wants to do things his or her way and frankly doesn’t like your "been there, done that" attitude and is bound and determined to go walk off that cliff that they don’t really believe is a cliff and if you’re going to talk them out of it it’s going to take a good forty minutes of actual examples of others having tried the same trick. Overall it was an unhappy situation for me because Martin disappeared owing people money and both he and James proved to be completely unreliable which left Jeff and Colleen to champion the "Dave Sim is crazy" view of self-publishing. Fortunately, Terry and Jeff both went back to self-publishing which validated self-publishing (while still leaving "crazy Dave Sim" as a core belief in the comic-book field) and others came along and took the place of Colleen. I was glad to have a few minutes to talk to Carla Speed McNeil at TCAF this past weekend and to express to her my sincere appreciation that she has stuck with self-publishing and become a landmark success at it with Finder. By the time she was starting there was enough information circulating that she didn’t have to come to me for advice. And, of course, I finally figured out that The Guide to Self-Publishing was a far more valuable means of passing on the information that I passed on than filtering it through five other people ever could have been. Had I know that in 1993, I’m pretty sure that I would’ve avoided Martin and James and Jeff and Colleen like the plague and insisted on a mail correspondence (as I do today) with no personal interaction—shared appearances, joint signings in my suite, endless repetitive phone calls—at all. In a world where personalities supersede ideas, "in print" is the only way to go.
Sorry to hear that "The Kingdom" devoured Steve’s "The Swamp". I get a glimmering here of the concern exhibited by the Yahoos as to how to preserve the Cerebus Newsgroup/Mailing List vehicle from comparable cyberspace takeovers and other auto-destruct fates worse than death.
I was aware that AOL-Time Warner had finally figured out that that had been the most ill-advised merger in history—essentially paying billions of dollars for a company that would otherwise have disappeared in the dot-com boom and bust, but I was under the impression that all of that was still pretty internalized except for those of us who read the Financial Section of the newspaper critically. If they’re back calling it Time Warner that is at least a baby step in the right direction: to whatever extent they are willing to divest themselves of AOL and pretend that it never existed, in my view, that is exactly how valuable a company they will become. But, at essence, I think my criticism is still valid. Warner Bros. is a "talk to the hand" puppet show if it is owned by Time Warner ne AOL Time Warner. I think it is important to strip away the puppet show façade i.e. don’t refer to Warner Bros. as Warner Bros. but as a "Time Warner front" or Forbes magazine as Forbes magazine. It is, more accurately, a Time Warner magazine. The reality of the overarching situation becomes more self-evident at that point in your own example, Steve: "A Time Warner magazine recently asked, ‘Will Wall Street Ever Forgive Time Warner’?". If you maintain the Forbes façade, then you miss the core multi-national corporation psychopathology which applies: Time Warner referring to itself in the third person as if someone else was discussing the merits and demerits of its hoped-for NYSE redemption.
Still, I do apologize for mixing up Rick and Steve that way. No offence intended. And no offence against Rare Bit Fiends. Each book does what it does in the direct market. Rare Bit was a book that I wished I had been able to write and draw myself. I still have in the Cerebus Archive the earliest strips that Rick gave me (his 24-hour comic, I believe) when he was using a Moebius drawing style which I adopted for my guest appearance in his first issue with "The Zelda Café". I was staggered when I saw the full drawing approach he was taking with the book and wished in retrospect that I had done the same with "Zelda Café". And certainly no one is getting their hands on my complete set of Rare Bit.
If I had, as Steve asserts, reduced what was wrong with Tundra to "the productivity of the contracted freelancers" I certainly misspoke. I still think that the primary problem was that Kevin, at the time, never met a comic book he didn’t like. I remember one of the Tundra UK chaps telling me about Kevin’s first trip across the water and being presented with a steamer trunk full of proposals (or perhaps a suitcase) and Kevin going through them one at a time and at the end of a few hours virtually every project had been green-lighted. Again, I think this issued from a noble sentiment—"we will leave no graphic novel, mini-series, one-shot or portfolio behind’—but the problem with that theory is the same with comics that it is with the education system. In order to leave no one behind you have to slow everything to a snail’s pace which guarantees that extremes of mediocrity will always prevail over merit. People like Mark Martin who were actually doing the production on the books were being inundated even by the small percentage of books that started moving ahead and nothing was really being discussed in terms of production, promotion or even whether it was a good fit. And, of course, later on when Kevin would do things like ‘Lost Girls’ animation samples without asking Alan’s permission the whole thing was definitely off the rails. Steve and Rick were far more inside parties at that point, privy to each new strange twist and turn. I came to dread the phone calls on unrelated subjects because what was going on and what wasn’t going on at Tundra was always coming up. I was persona non grata from the time I told Kevin I thought the whole idea was unworkable (when he made the trip up here to discuss it with me and in a multi-page letter that I sent him on the subject which is also in the Cerebus Archive) so it was sort of agonizing to see it hatching out the way it did and to know that my opinions and advice were no longer welcome. And then later when I was dating Susan Alston for four years—she had been Kevin’s gatekeeper/traffic manager/executive assistant: significantly he bought her a bullwhip and suspended it over her desk—I got a whole other snapshot of what had been going on: "My Nightmare Job" that just happened to be Tundra.
If everyone had actually delivered pages who got paid to and if each project had come in on time I don’t think it’s far off the mark to say that Kevin would have had to throw probably five times as much money at the problem in salaried production people and production facilities and space as he did—millions of dollars—as the devoured books made their way through the snake’s digestive tract.
Is it possible to have the Tundra material scanned and posted with appropriate commentaries? Or does that venture into inappropriate areas? I never know: even at the time that Kevin pulled the plug
[the same day I was scheduled to give my Pro-Con speech reprinted in The Guide to Self-publishing, April 1, 1993. I remember because Larry Marder’s phone call woke me out of sound sleep early that morning when he heard that Kitchen Sink had "bought" Tundra, in case the announcement was going to have a negative effect on the contents of my speech—just that seriously did we all take what we were doing at that time]
…I would’ve said that it was best to just leave it as a noble experiment that failed and move in with as few recriminations and reexaminations as possible. But, of course, Image which was in ascendance even as Tundra was coming to a close proceeded to make a lot the same kind of mistakes. Very little central authority, a too-rapid expansion of the line, everyone missing their deadlines, etc. etc. Toynbee’s "Those who forget the past are condemned to relive it" seems to apply in this case although it is far more likely that everyone will get offended at the analogy, ignore what’s being said (whether Steve posts the information or not) and consequently the next newly minted millionaire or group of millionaires are apt to make the same mistakes inventing—or, rather, deconstructing—the same wheel. Arguably that is where we are now as a worldwide comic-book nation. We had two chances to get it right and failed on both of them. I would think it unlikely that we’ll get another chance unless we get the structure right. My own conclusion as to how we "get it right"—which the rest of the environment will, I’m sure, disagree—is that the creator has to stick with his or her own book and not look to "share the wealth"—a choice I made with Aardvark One and Kevin made with Tundra—no matter how tempted to do so because no good comes of it, just a diffusion of resources and focus. As Steve points out, the Image partners’ books started out selling a million copies and quickly dropped to 70,000 and then down to wherever they are now. Would that precipitous drop have been as dramatic if they had just sat down and written and drawn their books and kept them on schedule? Was the Hollywood route and the expansion of work-made-for-hire titles and the massive number of late books an avoidable or an inevitable problem? We still don’t have answers to these questions but there is definitely a greater caution exhibited by the new publishing companies starting up, a realization that you have to start—and stay small—and stay focused. Far easier said than done.
In examining my own situation with Aardvark-Vanaheim and Aardvark One, I certainly have no shortage of things to indict myself for. My ignorance of how cash flow worked back in the early 80s led me to endorse Deni’s program to expand as a means of attempting to get ahead of the cash flow curve even though my gut instinct told me that wasn’t going to help. It actually became a core bone of contention between Deni and myself. She wanted to publish normalman because cat yronwode had persuaded her that it would be this great cash cow book that would solve our problems. At the time she had persuaded Dean Mullaney of the same thing: publish colour comics and use the greater profits from the colour comics to put out the smaller-selling black-and-whites. The problem wasn’t that the black-and-whites weren’t selling it was that there wasn’t enough cash flow to keep the company afloat without siphoning large amounts out of the Cerebus profits. The cash flow crunch was only exacerbated by doing more expensive comic books. In terms of hard cash normalman generated more revenue than Cerebus did, two or three times as much, but it cost three or four times more to put out. The economies of scale on a colour book meant that as long as you were selling 60,000 of them and it was coming out monthly and you had a line of credit at the bank, yes, it would begin generating revenue, as long as sales stayed in the 60,000 range. But, of course, they didn’t. To the extent that normalman was an alternative comic masquerading as a mainstream comic with the parody covers it was an interesting untested theory. It certainly looked like a sure-fire hit to cat yronwode and she persuaded Deni to publish it largely on the basis that "if you don’t, we will" and this convinced Deni that we would be missing a good chance to salvage the company if we didn’t jump on the opportunity. But Valentino didn’t have the drawing chops to sustain the "eye candy" required to draw in the mainstream readers and keep them coming back. And once sales dropped from 30,000 down to around 20,000 the book was costing more to produce than it could bring in once you factored in all of the related costs. To Deni, there were only two sensible options at that point, we had to start putting out several colour books to generate enough money to pay hers and Karen’s salaries or we had to print as many black and white books as we could and make a little bit from each one. Neither choice addressed the core problem of cash flow. Whether we put out one big mega-selling book like normalman or three or ten more Neil the Horses that sold two or three thousand copies twice a year at best, you need cash for start-up, cash for promotion, cash for printing, cash for the artist, cash to bridge the gaps between distributor cheques etc. etc. Her conclusion, reading between the lines, was that I was jealous of the fact that she was becoming a strong, independent businesswoman like cat yronwode and I was holding her back because I wanted Aardvark-Vanaheim to revolve around Cerebus. My point was that—whether I wanted it to or not—Aardvark-Vanaheim did revolve around Cerebus. Cerebus outsold the other books by a wide margin. What little cash flow we had came from Cerebus and Swords of Cerebus. Cerebus was what paid all the salaries because it actually came out on time and, unlike the other titles, Deni owned 49% of Cerebus and was paid a commensurate salary. Whatever she was making—200 or 300 a week take-home pay—certainly dwarfed what Bill Loebs and Bob Burden and Arn Saba were making. That certainly bothered me as a second-generation creator’s rights person that the business people earned a salary and the creators got, basically, a piece-work rate (although "royalties" sounds a lot better than "piece-work"). And Aardvark-Vanaheim only took in 25% of the revenue on the non-Cerebus books which barely covered the publishing costs: a smaller percentage of a smaller circulation on books that came out less frequently and that 25% was 25% of the wholesale price which was 60-65% off the cover price. When Renegade went out of business—Deni having applied without interference from me her theories of an expanded line of small books—it owed Preney Print & Litho half a million dollars. That’s what happens if you ignore the cash-flow conundrum and just count on volume of sales to surmount the hurdle.
This was the reason that—when I decided to try my own publishing arm, Aardvark One International and only publish two books, Taboo and Puma Blues—it was with the idea of seeing if outside books could actually sustain themselves. Aardvark One was its own company with its own set of financial records, tax obligations and so on. It proved unsustainable. The Puma Blues sold well and came out pretty close to monthly (a lot closer than most monthlies get to monthly) but we simply weren’t retaining enough of the revenues to actually have it paying its own way—particularly when we were flying Michael and Stephen to the occasional convention and doing a promotional poster and so on. As soon as you do that—provide material benefits that aren’t factored into the bottom line (the airfare wasn’t deducted from their royalties) you set up unrealistic expectations and the success or failure of the book becomes divorced from hard reality. Or, put another way, the creators are getting paid more than they’re entitled to based on the numbers. When Deni and I started Cerebus, we went to Toronto conventions and paid our own way or we went to conventions that paid for us to go there. We knew we were hanging on by our fingernails so that was the way we conducted the business side. When there is an alternative source of money outside of your own, part of you is always aware of that and you don’t bring your best game to the table. There’s always someone who can stake you to another round. I certainly remain proud of being the first person to publish Michael Zulli’s work and proud of the run he and Stephen had on the book but my nagging thought is always that if I had just given them the (then nonexistent) Guide to Self-publishing and told them to sink or swim on their own as I did with Steve, they would’ve been better served and the book might still be going today.
With Taboo, I knew already that an anthology title was a shaky proposition and that a large anthology title was an even shakier proposition. But, again, it was something I wanted to give the benefit of the doubt. Steve was definitely proposing something new in the anthology line and so there was a Normalman Effect which obtained in the planning stage. No one had attempted anything quite like this so there is an inclination to believe that the novelty of the approach will translate into unprecedented sales. Taboo was the first anthology to also have a scholarly aspect, a sense of history within comic books and within the horror genre. Steve brought intelligence and a cutting-edge sensibility to the books and a line-up of marquee names (unfortunately more "critics’ choice" marquee names than "bankable mainstream" marquee names, one of the flies in the ointment). I’m sure Alan Moore never gave it a second thought when he embarked on his longest and most ambitious work for Steve’s publication. It was a hill to die on and anyone who held themselves close to horror traditions in the comic-book field—and my first sales had been to Skywald and Warren’s respective horror lines—knew this was a matter of ‘If not Steve, who? If not now, when?" Basically I had a rough dollar amount in my mind and when we hit that dollar amount, I was going to kick Steve out of the nest and he would have to learn to fly on his own. I don’t even remember how much it was. I’m sure Steve could tell you. Every other day, it seemed, I would go up to the office on the sixth floor of 47 King W. (the studio was on the third floor) and Karen would tell me that Steve needed another cheque. Somebody really great had volunteered to do a story but he needed to get paid if he was going to work on it. Steve didn’t have nearly the problem of getting work out of people after pre-paying them that Kevin did. I think that was because of Steve’s impeccable credentials in the horror field. It wouldn’t just be Steve they would be letting down, it would be the chance to move horror comics into the present-day and away from the EC formula. What Steve probably couldn’t tell you is that he hit the dollar amount I had in mind about two volumes in, instead of four or five volumes in. It was as valuable and instructive a lesson as it was when I told Alan Moore that I’d be willing to front him enough money to see Mad Love through to the first cheques coming in on Big Numbers. And he told me, several days later, that £60,000 should do the trick (at the time about $150,000 Canadian). Salaries for him and his wife, Phyllis, and his/her/their girlfriend Deb, front money for Bill Sienkiewicz. I told him that if he was looking for that kind of money he’d have to go to DC which stung him, I think, as it was meant to. Very little could be said about the propriety of Phyllis and Deb drawing a salary at that early date because of the intimacy of the relationship(s) involved. And for me that was another valuable and instructive lesson in the extent to which marriage and the heart created black holes in business relationships—what Steve adroitly refers to as the elephant in the room that no one can discuss but everyone knows is there.
I began to be more conservative around that time, as a result of what I saw as the inescapable evidence before me. The only money you treat with the proper respect is your own. Any spigot of someone else’s that’s open to you, you just treat as a spigot, whatever intention you might have otherwise. It’s the reason, to me, that grants don’t work, foreign aid doesn’t work. The only level that charity works at is for basic human necessities for those who don’t have them: food and shelter, the Islamic concept of the zakat, the entitlement of the community to a share of your wealth for the feeding of the poor. Shelter in terms of community-organized environments where you can get a bed for the night because it is only sensible and compassionate that everyone in a civilized society have a bed for the night—not the prevalent notion in Marxist countries like Canada of shelter in terms of affordable housing where you conceal the hard realities of what an apartment costs and what necessities are (as opposed to luxuries) by opening a spigot for someone and subsidizing him or her indefinitely.
Bill Loebs is a good example of the kind of overlapping jurisdictions involved in publishing other people. I just ran across the letter the other day that I got from Wilf Jenkins when I asked him to give me a judgment call on whether Bill was in breach of contract or not. He was. There was nothing served in suing him. The reason he was making the jump to Fantagraphics is because he thought we weren’t promoting him enough and weren’t paying him what we owed him. I also ran across the invoices for all of Aardvark Vanaheim’s advertising for that year and the year before with Karen’s handwriting showing what percentage of each ad had been devoted to Journey and how much we had paid for the ads. The money was all accounted for and, if anything, we had paid Bill more than he had been entitled to and we certainly didn’t deduct airfare or hotel rooms for flying him to the occasional convention. It was particularly difficult because one of the situations had occurred when he had decided to do a double-sized issue—a Journey Annual—and keep the price the same. I told him I thought it was a bad idea on a book with a small circulation to begin with and, sure enough, the book sold about the same but took twice as long to draw and cost about 30% more to print. That definitely put him behind the eight ball. And it’s a good example of what happens when the rubber of creators rights hits the road of market realities. Bill had the right to tell me that he wanted to do a double-sized issue and charge a single issue price for it. I could warn him against it as much as I wanted, if that was what he thought was a sensible gamble, it was his gamble to make. But, he was also the one who had to bear the cost of the decision if it didn’t pan out. Which it didn’t. And I don’t think he ever really recovered from that point on. It was a lose-lose situation—either I let Bill do something unwise and take the blame for the resulting financial consequences or I forbid him to do it and undermine my claim to being a champion of creative freedom.
Ms. Tree was the same kind of deal. Terry and Max just didn’t think they were getting the push from Eclipse that they wanted, that they were being treated as second and third stringers as the colour books were starting to come out (which they were—cat’s publishing theory being that DNAgents would be the cash cow that would subsidize books like Ms. Tree) so they saw Aardvark-Vanaheim as a haven where they might get more attention as one of six books rather than one of however many books Eclipse were publishing at that time.
[Digression: If you’re Frank Miller or Mike Mignola, hey, good for you. My advice here isn’t intended for Frank. "Hey, Frank, I’d have Mike Richardson ship all of his Sin City inventory to your apartment, pronto." Dark Horse had major problems getting the Sin City stuff into print in sufficient quantities to support the movie release, but then that’s an unenviable task to make those calls in the first place. If the movie is a mid-sized hit like Hellboy was, you want to be able to service the demand. But Mike Richardson was also aware that you don’t bet the farm on things like that. In a lot of ways, Denis Kitchen bet the Kitchen Sink farm on The Crow sequel and the movie tanked and left him with a pile of unsaleable inventory. It’s a very unenviable guessing game. From outside of the game, I think it went pretty well. Sin City held down the top five places in the graphic novel re-order list. When the stores weren’t able to get as much restock as they wanted, they started moving a lot of back issues that had just been sitting there. Overall, I think that would have to be judged the best of all possible worlds when you can move new books and old inventory at the same time, even though most retailers would, I know, prefer to have the new books. My point is that the problems that need to be negotiated ahead of time in contracts need to be negotiated in frames of reference which apply to marginal books, not Mega-Hits. Even if you knew the contents of DC’s contract with Neil Gaiman for Sandman, it’s not going to be of much use to you if you don’t end up being the next Neil Gaiman. Neil, too, is never going to have to worry about how many Sandman back issues DC has and has little to gain by buying them from DC at 10 cents on the dollar.]
But when you are talking about, say, the Brothers Hernandez and whatever the circulation is today on Love & Rockets, a disproportionate amount of the book value of their contract with Fantagraphics is going to be taken up with inventory that is being carried over from year to year. Depending on how the books are being kept and what the tax code looks like in Washington state, the inventory is considered a Fantagraphics asset and Fantagraphics can borrow money against the inventory which the Brothers Hernandez can’t do under any kind of conventional publishing agreement. Likewise if los Bros. decided to take Love & Rockets to, say, Image. Do they just start at a zero sum of assets and write off the inventory at Fantagraphics? They’ve been with Gary a long time and they have a fair amount of inventory. As Steve points out, something clenches inside of us when we hear about Fantagraphics flirting with bankruptcy and finding out that the creators are behind in getting paid and are actually having to donate artwork for auction to help bail the company out. It isn’t malfeasance, although people unfamiliar with business realities are always inclined to jump to that conclusion, it’s cash flow. Can you meet your payroll and your basic obligations? Yes or no? I don’t know how many people on the Fantagraphics masthead are on salary but if it’s even a third of them that’s a mighty big payroll for a company supported by books that come out once or twice a year. Dirk Deppey said in his interview with Bob Burden that the Complete Peanuts books account for 50% of Fantagraphics’ revenues. If the books keep selling at that rate, they should be able to get ahead of the cash flow curve at some point (although Gary sounded doubtful when discussing the issue and seems to have accepted that they’ll always be in the situation of having to muster all the running they can not to stay in one spot, like Alice, but to keep from slipping further behind), but there’s going to be a bulge at some point where the first, say, five volumes are still selling at the same rate and then saturation point will be hit and there’ll be a drop off—
[or there won’t. The Complete Peanuts is in the Normalman Syndrome category. Never has a more universally popular strip been reprinted in its entirety at the exact point where the comic-book field is interacting with the real world both schools and libraries. If any series of books are apt to keep selling in their tens and hundreds of thousands, it’s those books. Gary and Kim won’t know if there’s a bulge and a resultant drop-off until they get to that point. Either the bulge will keep bulging or the bubble will burst]
That’s what happened with Mike Friedrich on a much smaller scale with the Star*Reach publications. Around issue six or seven, all of the issues were selling at the same rate and generating a revenue bulge which led him to expand and go to colour because his pool of cash kept expanding.
[I advised him not to, because I had seen the same decision-making at Orb magazine in Toronto. James Waley who is currently coordinating the Shuster Awards joked over the phone that I learned everything from him about publishing by seeing what not to do. I didn’t laugh. As I told him it was a major contribution in the same sense that if you are in a war zone and crossing a minefield, someone getting blown up ten feet away from you gives you a very valuable piece of information—don’t walk there. In the case of Jim it was: don’t publish irregularly, don’t do anthology titles, don’t change formats or logos from issue to issue, don’t do a colour section—because it adds expense without attracting new readers: people who won’t buy your book because it’s in black and white aren’t going to buy it because there’s some colour. Warren ended up doing the same thing, adding a colour section that elevated their costs without elevating their circulation and were gone in pretty short order. When that happened it was carved in stone in my brain; Don’t do colour, do black and white]
But then he was bringing issues back into print and they weren’t selling at the same rate. Around issue twelve or thirteen, the current issue sold a large amount and the earlier ones in dribs and drabs.
It was this experience that made me wary of reprinting the early issues of Cerebus. I didn’t want to get fooled by the artificial bulge and I didn’t want the attendant loss of confidence of the marketplace that results from the consequent glut and then drop-off—complete runs of your book getting progressively more dusty and dog-eared on the store shelves. This infuriated Phil Seuling who only had one model for independent comics, The Furry Freak Brothers where each issue was into its eighth or ninth printing and always sold well. The difference was The Furry Freak Brothers only came out once every three years. Along the same lines, Zap #13 just came out and the first one came out in 1968 for cryin’ out loud. 13 issues in thirty-seven years, no, you don’t have to worry about a sales bulge and a drop off.
I told him I wasn’t going to reprint the early issues and that was when he said his famous Filgate line I used in High Society, "Fine, fine. Live on nuts and berries for the rest of your life"]
A couple of long digressions there, but my key point is the same. If you are doing a marginal book ——and most books in the comic-book field range from marginal to non-existent, so you are in good company—you are the only one, as the creator of that book, that has a sufficient stake in the inventory to warrant the effort required to move some of it. Even a mid-sized publisher, even just to send out an e-mail to his list of retailers asking if they want to buy your back issues is apt to generate PO’s (purchase orders) of $1.73 which isn’t going to pay for his time, the time of the person wrapping boxes or the person doing his bookkeeping. Whether a mid-sized publisher admits it or not, there is the release date of the book, the Diamond PO and then there is (or isn’t)/are (or aren’t) reorders. If there isn’t/aren’t reorders, whether the mid-sized publisher admits it or not, that’s all that he or she can do for you. He/she threw it against the Direct Market wall and it didn’t stick. If he’s a decent publisher (and most of them are these days for the exact reason that there’s so little money in it that the only reason to publish comic books is because you love them to a point that faileth human understanding) he’ll let you keep going and leave it up to you to pull the plug. If you worked for four months and made $28 off of the book and the orders went south from there, you might stick with it for two or three more issues, but you will probably take the hint sooner rather than later. But, at that point, it is worth having a mechanism in place for the disposition of your back issues. It depends on whether you’re giving up or shifting gears. If you’re giving up, you’re really not going to care what happens to the back issues. If you plan to stay in the game, but switch to mini-comics for the time being or self-publishing or on-line publication, you have the largest stake in those back issues in terms of the time you invested in them and there is a valid contention—an overlapping jurisdiction involved as was (and IS) the case with your negatives. It cost your publisher x amount of dollars to print those books that didn’t sell. If he paid a printing bill of $700 for 1500 copies and sold 218 of them, to just give you the back issues is like handing you several hundred dollars that he usually can’t afford. This is another area that I think needs to be negotiated. I don’t know how the Ms. Tree back issue situation was solved, but in the letter I ran across the other day, Dean is proposing to Deni that he sell her a certain number of back issues at a fixed cost well below the standard wholesale price. After she sells those, she can get more. This is sensible, I think. Substitute the creator of the book for Deni and I think you have a rough template for the creator who is shifting gears. If you still have confidence in your book, well, having sold 218 through Diamond you’re probably not going to need all 1100 remaining copies, like, tomorrow. You should (in a perfect world, in my view) be able to buy them back over a reasonable period of time—which leads to another overlapping jurisdiction. Publishers have warehouse space that they pay for on a monthly basis, just like rent. It’s cheaper than rent, but it still costs money. You can’t reasonably expect your publisher to store 1100 comic books (or 5500 if you made it to issue 5) without compensation from now until Doomsday. If you get 100 copies of each of the 5 and two years later you still haven’t sold the 500 comic books (and in fact keep having to figure out where to store your own copies) at some point, you should stop shifting gears and actually give up on those books and let your publisher recycle them. In my opinion.
How long should a publisher be expected to hang onto dead inventory? We’ve got ten or twenty copies of each issue of the Puma Blues in the basement. Once a year or so, someone writes and asks if we have an issue or five that they’re missing from their collections. I send them to them and give them Michael Zulli’s address and ask them to write to him and send him a cheque for whatever they think is fair. That’s seventeen years later on. Of course that’s only one book and that makes a big difference. A publisher who actually needs all of his warehouse space that he can get shouldn’t be expected to hang onto inventory for seventeen years, I don’t think. Even Michael Zulli told me to burn them. Just haven’t got the heart to do that. They’re gorgeous books. Good faith negotiation is much easier to say than to do, but I think this is another overlapping jurisdiction that needs to be addressed—fair compensation for publishers on dead inventory and fair compensation for publishers for storage costs on dead inventory coupled with access for creators to dead inventory of their own work commensurate with the book value of dead inventory. The per unit cost of the books discounted on a sliding scale (i.e. if they cost 23 cents each to print and none of them have sold in the last six months you could probably justify selling them at cost plus shipping charges. If none of them have sold in the last two years, you are probably moving into "a nickel apiece" territory plus shipping charges. If none of them have sold in the last eight years, you can probably justify selling them for the cost of shipping them) seems sensible and a way for both parties to salvage something from a demonstrably unfruitful business relationship.
That’s about all I have to contribute in the way of the wisdom derived from my experiences as a publisher.
And, yes, I do have a dissenting opinion on the Spawn scripting. Todd called and asked if I would write an issue of Spawn and I said sure. I didn’t ask him how much I was getting paid because I didn’t think I was getting paid. I thought the Image boys were getting a bum rap from the comic-book field which was awash in cash all of a sudden largely through their efforts. If I could be seen as endorsing the experiment by writing a script, I’d be glad to do it as I had already done by giving Todd a pin-up of Cerebus in a Spawn costume for issue 4. The timing was critical. A year later I wouldn’t have because the work-made-for-hire thing was off the leash at that point. But at the time that I agreed, Image was still seven guys doing seven books with work-made-for-hire creeping in from the margins. I gave them the benefit of the doubt, hoping that they would say, "Wait a minute. Work-made-for-hire sucks. That’s why we left Marvel. What were we thinking?" But they never said that. If it gives Todd’s lawyers artillery against Neil, then it gives Todd’s lawyers artillery against Neil. I’m not going to lie and say that I honestly believe—having paid me $100,000 for a comic-book story—that Todd has to ask my permission over anything he wants to do with it. To me, it’s a matter of maintaining perspective and understanding that $100,000 is a LOT of money. It is not just a LOT of money for a comic book script—$1,000 is a LOT for a comic-book script—it’s remembering that many novelists don’t get an advance of $100,000 on a contract for their first three novels.
Al, this, I hope, also answers your same inquiries on the same question. I can certainly understand someone saying that the amount of money being paid is irrelevant, but I tend not to think that way. If Todd was to say to me, "Listen, if you ever want to reprint the story just give me a shout and I’ll send you dupes of the negatives" that would certainly be cool, but I don’t think he does business that way. If you’re paying me $100,000 for a script you get to do business whatever way you want. If you were paying me $100,000 to create a character for you, that would be a different matter. That character might be worth a billion so I wouldn’t do that. But if you have x character that you own and you want me to write a story involving that character—and I certainly didn’t create any new characters for Todd—give me a call, I’m sure we can do business. I did take the trouble to coordinate my story with Alan by finding out what he was doing and getting him to plant the story point about the level of hell I would be working and got Neil to send me his script and thumbnail breakdowns to coordinate with his issue and then sent a copy of script to Frank Miller so he could incorporate anything into his script that he wanted to. I don’t think that was an excessive amount of effort for $100,000.
I can also understand someone not agreeing with that and saying that it doesn’t matter how much you get paid, it is still your work and you’re still entitled to reproduce it. If we ever get to them point of actually getting a template agreement on paper that establishes what rights are implicit in creating a piece of work it will be interesting to see how many people agree with you.
If you’re talking about "caps and floors" on rates the only way that you’re going to get there is full disclosure. I went public with being paid $100,000 for the Spawn story. No one else did. I know you 1963 guys got a chunk of change as well. Chester Brown told me that he made $18,000 just for inking one of the stories. That’s off the radar screen relative to today’s market. If you’re interested in better rates, the only way you’re going to get them is if the top level guys are willing to go on the record. What did Frank get for DK 2? A million? Two hundred thousand? How many points? How much on the front end and how much on the back end? What were the thresholds for a higher percentage? Signing bonus? Time Warner stock options? If you have that information you have a basis for how much each guy is worth—half of Frank Miller, a tenth of Frank Miller in today’s market. It makes it a lot harder to get the hot young turk to work for $75 a page—assuming there are guys who are making that—as soon as he starts making a name for himself if he knows that that puts him in the 1/100th of Frank Miller bracket. And using professional sports as a guideline where salaries have also become public knowledge it will put DC and Marvel in the same catbird seat as the New York Yankees, buying up whoever they want who’s for sale when they come on the free-agent market. And it makes being "for sale" a core part of the "sport"s pecking order. i.e. I’m the top-paid penciler in the business. But only until the next contract is negotiated. Arguably it could throw a lot of guys out of work if they had to pay serious money to everyone working on a graphic novel. I’m not sure how bad a thing that would be. Instead of fifty crap books they could be forced to do ten or twenty gems. If it’s performance-based—you get Frank Miller salary for Frank Miller numbers—it would certainly be one step up on professional sports where guys get paid millions to screw up on the field or the ice or the court. Since there’s no team involved where racking up personal numbers instead of being part of a team effort would hurt the team, performance-based incentives wouldn’t hurt the overall effort. But it would be a "giant sucking sound" situation where anyone who established his bona fides at Fantagraphics or Top Shelf would be on the DC and Marvel menu. Since glutting the market hasn’t eliminated the smaller publishers it might be worth the investment from DC and Marvel’s perspective to invest 50 or a 100 million dollars into a free agency war figuring that they’ll recoup that once the competition has been eliminated. Of course the Yankees don’t win the World Series every year, so the direct correlation between deep pockets and guaranteed wins isn’t as direct as your average multi-national mega-corporation would like to think it is and there’s no guarantee that Chris Ware could move any more books for DC than he does for Fantagraphics just because he was being paid twenty times as much. At some point Paul Levitz would be accountable to his Time Warner division head if he didn’t win the free agency war quickly enough (i.e. DC is down by 25 million and they still have the same market share).
I read you somewhere saying that you saw Dave several times put together these coalitions and then breaks them apart. Can’t remember where. It was a letter someplace. Maybe Eddie Campell’s Bacchus or the Comics Journal? I’m willing to withdraw the charge (what if it was Rick Veitch and I’m getting you guys mixed up again?) if you say that it isn’t something you believe and is nothing that you would say as long as you agree to revisit the issue if I ever run across the quote again. How’s that?
I think you misunderstood—as a lot of people did—my military analogy through the mid-nineties shake-out that cost us Capital City. I portrayed Larry Marder as a general, but that was Larry. His own metaphorical term was consiglieri at Image. I didn’t think generals or consiglieris were a viable option—it made Larry into the Image spin doctor so we stopped hearing what the Image guys actually thought and only heard what Larry advised them to say. All public announcements went through Larry, so you ended up with this very smooth and professional glossing-over of differences and actual opinions, but Rob Liefeld still got forced out, the books were all late and work-made-for-hire was rampant. Ultimately all Larry did was to throw a blanket over everything from a public standpoint which—I hope—this exercise can serve to undo. In retrospect I never should’ve given him that much of a pass but he held the trump card with the fact that Image as an experiment was unlikely to come around again. And I was always careful to portray myself as just another grunt in the trenches trying to figure out how the whole thing was going to shake out and hoping that it didn’t spell the end of Aardvark Vanaheim and Cerebus. In retrospect I think if Larry hadn’t been there to do his usual impeccable job, it would’ve more actively demonstrated how badly the experiment had gone wrong to have (to use an example that we now know was there but which wasn’t publicly knows at the time) Marc Silvestri and Rob Liefeld, say, screaming at each other in the middle of the San Diego Con or better yet in the pages of the Comics Journal about raiding each other’s talent pools rather than doing so to Larry Marder and to have a false united front presented, papering over the cracks in the plaster. It would’ve been much closer to the point of what Image ultimately chose, collectively, to become—these guys are just seven little Marvel Comics at heart, now, if they are reacting as if "their" studios have a proprietary interest in "their" artists—but I was till giving Larry the benefit of the doubt. He had instituted the policy of free movement. You could bring your book to Image and publish for as long as you wanted and then leave without consequence. No small achievement. But why didn’t that apply to the studios? How did an artist suddenly become Marc Silvestri’s artist? And, of course, ultimately Larry took my benefit of the doubt of not calling his administration at Image into question and just signed on with Todd’s studio and Valentino took over with very little publicity because by that time whatever buzz there was about Image had dropped to such a low threshold that it wasn’t even much of a news story. Nor was it when Valentino was moved out and replaced by Erik. It was to ME, because Erik was the guy who wrote and drew his own book—one out of seven—so he seemed like a good guy to talk about where Image is now relative to work-made-for-hire—the public conversation I never got to have with Larry because I was still giving him the benefit of the doubt that there were larger interests at stake in continuing to cut Image ‘Creator’s rights’ slack. I haven’t heard back from Erik since our first exchange, but that’s the way these discussions tend to go. Fine until you hit a raw nerve and then radio silence. If Erik has just gotten busy—or hopefully is starting to discuss these things with Todd—then I apologize, but that tends not to be the case. I won’t name names but several guys have approached me about really hashing out some issues—creators rights, religion, editors, companies vs. self-publishing—they give me their best shot and challenge me to answer them, I do, and that’s the end of that.
So getting to the sensitive area of your own letter where you give me the option of addressing the point or evading it, naturally I’ll address it. Yes, I had a lot of problems with gender through the course of what I was trying to facilitate. I remember in particular the afternoon session at the Northampton Summit and you brought Nancy/Marlene in. Who was not a creator, but in good John and Yoko mode, you insisted that your significant other had to be there because anything that affected you affected her. So of course, then Michael Zulli had to bring Deborah in on the same basis. I had no objection to either of them as people and had, in fact, had many pleasant conversations with both of them—never saw Nancy/Marlene after your split which was only natural—but Deborah was certainly always invited anywhere Michael was, to the barbecues at Susan’s and what-not else and I always enjoyed her company. Now that she and Michael have split, I don’t expect I’ll ever hear from her again, either. That’s just how those things go.
Socially. But this was not socially. This was business. Our business. It was a great disappointment that Wendy Pini wasn’t there, but she was the only female, in my view, that had a place there. Because she was a creator. I realized that was going to get a whole lot worse before it got any better and it was a big motivating factor in my choosing to opt out of any future summits. The next one would have been wives with the kids. And then we’d be trying to discuss serious issues over the kids squalling. To me it was too serious a discussion to make it into a day care center. Put another way, I’m sure I would’ve had many good ideas as to how to run Smith College when Susan Alston was there and we were going out, but there was no way that I belonged at any of the meetings she was attending. I think the John and Yoko syndrome is unhealthy wherever it occurs and is particularly unhealthy in creator environments. I could certainly see a pressing need for husband-and-wife creator/spouse publisher meetings (David and Maria Lapham, Batton Lash and Jackie Estrada, etc.) but that wasn’t what we were doing. The subject of the Summit meetings was the Work (the Manifesto) and then the Creator (the Creator Bill of Rights). I still think the one side of the equation (creators/self-publishers) needs to be worked on before presenting it to the other side (publishers/distributors) but I could certainly see the validity of input from publishers and spouse-publishers when it comes to overlapping jurisdictions as long as the creator remains the focus and doesn’t become a sloppy afterthought.
And yes, there was the situation with the artist-writer and his girlfriend and the self-publisher and his wife. That was social but it was also business—the night after the ICE show in Chicago—and the fact that the artist’s girlfriend and the self-publisher’s wife were sitting on the couch with their arms wrapped tightly around each other was more than a little weird to me. And I made my lesbian comment. I think I could’ve let it go if they had been holding hands. Or if they had had their arms locked together or if they were dressing each other’s hair or any of those "chick" things. But they were sitting on the couch side-by-side with their arms wrapped around each other. And that was another break point for me like having the wives and girlfriends come into a meeting where they don’t belong. My reaction can be summed up as: if you think I’m going to pretend that this is normal behaviour, you are very much mistaken. I certainly don’t want to discuss this, but if you’re going to bring it up in an either/or "address or evade" context, I’m certainly not going to evade it. When you and I discussed it the next day—and I think it’s an exaggeration to say that you confronted me about it—you brought up Deb and Phyllis, as in "I know, we’ve just gone through this with Deb and Phyllis," which to me was a good point. I don’t think Deb and Phyllis were altogether helpful when it came to what I assumed Alan was trying to do with Mad Love and I suspect they didn’t exactly grease the wheels with Bill Sienkiewicz as the artist on Big Numbers. I have no idea if the artist-writer’s girlfriend or the self-publisher’s wife are lesbians or bisexual. I really couldn’t care less. Had I been in either of their rooms, I wouldn’t have said anything. I would’ve seen them with their arms wrapped around each other and figured that it was time for me to leave and I would’ve left the four of them to do and be whomever they might be.
But they were in MY room.
I really have to question your motives here, as you questioned Gary’s. For what reason do you dredge up all this ancient and largely irrelevant and salacious and titillating history? Except, for me, I think the answer is obvious. Like Gary you don’t want to stay on topic. You’re offended that I pointed out the obvious—that the direct market didn’t collapse, you did—and you decided you had to get back at me on a subject unrelated to creator’s rights. This was Gary’s motive, as well, in my view. Hit the ground swinging for the fence and hope to discredit you before the subject of his own track record of paying his people came up. If, at some point in his many cash-poor epochs he had compensated an employee with a used car I don’t really see anything wrong with that myself if the employee was owed money, Gary had a used car and the employee needed a car, but I would agree with Gary insofar as it being anecdotally irrelevant and expressed in a tone to try and make Gary and Fantagraphics sound unprofessional. I also think that Gary dredging up such an anecdote at this late date was a diversionary tactic, as you indicate, to make it sound as if all of Bissette’s accusations against Gary and Fantagraphics are unfounded because they are all "of a piece" with the used car accusation. What seems relevant to me in my decades-long disputes with Gary in these areas is that he was caught with his pants down having to admit that he was that far behind on paying his creators when Fantagraphics issued their plea for help from the comic-book community for $70,000 to keep the doors open. At the very least it seemed to indicate that self-publishing might be more viable in the long term for creators who are in the game in the long term. At least you’re calling your own shots in self-publishing, win, lose or draw, whereas Jaime and Gilbert and Chris Ware and Dan Clowes are relying on the fact that Gary and Kim know what they’re doing—an article of faith that I think might be undermined by finding out that the $70,000 shortfall just sort of snuck up on Gary and Kim and caught them unawares by their own admission. This seems to me analogous to your relationship with Alan where he said, "Do whatever you think is best, Steve." It’s certainly the right of the Fantagraphics creators to stick by Gary and Kim through thick and thin but I think it is something that should be weighed in the balance by would-be creators who haven’t signed with them yet. Do you really want to hitch your star to the Fantagraphics wagon because you have a fundamental belief in the company or is it that you don’t want to be responsible for your own livelihood and want to leave all of your business decisions in the hands of others? Given that Fantagraphics’ actual financial situation is hidden from view and is, literally, "none of our business" at the very least signing on with them would have to constitute buying a pig in a poke. Was the borderline bankruptcy a temporary situation and a one-off or a recurrent one? How recurrent? Only the Fantagraphics creators can answer that question and, as you say, the threat of the Comics Journal’s influence as a magazine and on its message boards means that it is unlikely that we are going to hear any hard information anytime soon. I think that, in itself, would make a worthwhile warning for those thinking of signing on with the "Publishers of the World’s Greatest Cartoonists" given that all you are ever likely to know about Fantagraphics’ situation is what they themselves are going to tell you through their own magazine. What is Fantagraphics’ policy on ownership of inventory and negatives? Are both covered in their standard contracts? Do they have a standard contract? Again, without this information all that we have with Fantagraphics is the same accurate level of knowledge that we have in the field in general, that is: little more than the nebulous and shifting winds of perception which hold that "things were bad a while ago but now everything is okay" in terms of financial stability and relative to creators’ rights. Given that we have no idea what agreements are being signed by whom and whether or not those agreements are being honoured or not it’s hard to reckon how we are supposed to know if we are in the best of times or the worst of times and how much work remains to be done to improve the overall situation. Don’t rock the boat is fine but if it’s sinking, I think it’s worth determining that rather than holding stock still as it slips beneath the waves.
And I think you probably said some inopportune things in your discussion with Jeff Smith and Paul Pope and mistook the fact that they didn’t need any guidance or help for a generational thing—having thrown them by your own idiosyncratic view that self-publishing was a movement i.e. a monolithic thought police model along the lines of 1920’s and 30s Communism as Gary put it, something that was attempting to convert them to another way of thinking. With both guys, self-publishing is just one way of doing it. Jeff Smith is doing Captain Marvel, Paul Pope is doing Batman. I’m very enthusiastic about both projects and look forward to reading them both. But that’s very different from Carla Speed McNeil doing Finder or Terry Moore doing Strangers in Paradise. But it took a lot of years for that to become apparent. It seems to me that it isn’t a matter that Jeff and Paul represented, as you say, a new generation of self-publisher who didn’t need mentors or advice, it seems to me that they were cartoonists who saw self-publishing as something they wanted to do when that seemed appropriate and who worked for the companies when that seemed appropriate and for whom there was—and is—no great difference between the two. Jeff and I spoke for the first time in years outside the Beguiling at TCAF last week, both of us tip-toeing very carefully around each other. I remarked on the great coverage he got in USA Today. About the Scholastic Books deal, he said, "It was time." I’m not like that but I certainly don’t think ill of someone who does think like that—and I try to help other people who I think are not like that. When we were discussing his deal with DC on my last visit with Will Eisner, I’m pretty sure if I had said, "I’m thinking about the same thing, Will—what should I ask them for? What do you think I could get?" I’m pretty sure he would’ve told me as much about his deal as I would need to know to get what he got or close to it: at eighty-seven he certainly didn’t have any great urge to make sure he was the only one to get a great deal from DC. But I really, sincerely wasn’t interested apart from being gratified that he was obviously happy about the deal that he got. Only time will tell you which kind of cartoonist you are. I did a Gun Fu story with Howard Shum in the same spirit that I did the Turtles and Spawn. I hope Gun Fu doesn’t go the Turtles or Spawn route but I certainly wouldn’t think less of Howard if it did. My reaction would be more along the lines of, "Oh, I didn’t know that was who you were. No sweat. Enjoyed doing the story with you when I thought you were someone else. Have a great life." Colleen Doran is in the same category. Self-publishing if necessary but not necessarily self-publishing. The vast majority are like that if the Image experiment is anything to go by. As I say, I only took offence to a degree when I sensed that I was being sold a bill of goods—that self-publishing was now being cast as irrelevant and passé and "second rate" and all really smart cartoonists would do well to jump back and forth between self-publishing and working in the mainstream. All I was looking for was a reciprocal acknowledgement that seeing self-publishing as the be-all and end-all isn’t any more misapprehended than seeing pan-publishing as the be-all and end-all.
Yes, a lot of the problems, in retrospect, did result from the impression that I was a social being and trying to create a social group/political movement through the Spirits stops. I had no idea that most cartoonists are lonely instead of alone and that so many of them had jumped to the conclusion that I was the same and that so many of you saw this as the reason I was creating the Spirits stops: to help them alleviate (however briefly) this unhappy condition in which they find themselves and which is a source of unremitting emotional agony for them. I talked to a lot of cartoonists about many subjects last weekend at the Toronto Comic Art Festival—Jeffrey Brown, Paul Pope, Gary Panter, Carla Speed McNeil, Andy Runton, Seth, Kagan McLeod, Jeff Smith to drop a few names—in a cocktail party cosmetic kind of way but I don’t think of myself as having a great deal in common with most of them apart from an interest in comic books. Nor do I feel staggeringly bereft of their company now that TCAF is over and plunged into the black depths of despair that I’m now (sob) all alone. I didn’t put on the Spirits stops so people could "network’ in the conventional sense or form life-long friendships. That happened and good for those who like that sort of thing. The reason I put on the Spirits stops was to give anyone interested a taste of what this is about—selling yourself and your book, making your own choices and discussing creative and business elements with each other. People were bombarding me for advice—the relentless phone calls—and the honest answer to a lot of their questions was that the market was a lot different than it had been in 1977 and they were better off talking to each other since they were all facing similar problems of not being established and trying to become established in 1995. When I would get a suite at a Con and invite self-publishers up that was the idea I had in mind. They can’t all talk to me so it will be a way to get them to talk to each other. I still think that way. Ger and I buy everyone dinner after SPACE every year. Out of eighty people I’ll maybe talk to a half dozen and I’ll get a thank you note from Jim Rugg of Street Angel. Which is nice—particularly now that he’s getting really, really famous—but that’s not why I do it. I do it so that they’ll be talking about what they just went through while it’s fresh in their minds and with people who shared the experience so they can trade ideas and observations what’s going on right now—and, at the very least, not feel bad that their last Diamond purchase order was for 208 copies. A guy who started self-publishing in 1977 couldn’t be less relevant to the discussion. In 1995 that was the big motive. These guys will show up hoping to get some time with me to discuss self-publishing and find out all the secret knowledge. They won’t get that but what they do get will be more valuable. The Columbus Spirits stop got absorbed by Mid-Ohio Con at some point so Bob Corby decided to do his own called SPACE. My working model is that there are probably ten exhibitors in any given year for whom self-publishing means something and a hundred and ten who would give it up and draw Spider-man tomorrow if that was what was on offer, or become editorial cartoonists or storyboard guys at an animation studio. Or if they did have a hit would quickly hire some kid to draw their book so they could move to Hollywood to work on the film version. I don’t "feel" deceived by them. I take the Image ratio as a given, now. 1:7 of guys interested in writing and drawing their funnybook: guys who are at essence George Lucas wannabes and, experience has shown me that only time will tell who is who. The George Lucas wannabes all claim to want nothing more than to write and draw their funnybooks. I suspect most of them even believe that.
The medical coverage issue is an awkward one. I think it’s far more a matter of using common sense and keeping your nose clean. I think most people make themselves sick through duplicity and venality in other areas. George Harrison, as an example, died of brain cancer shortly after agreeing to get back together with Paul and Ringo for one of Paul’s vanity projects something which had always been abhorrent to him before. I don’t see that as an accident, nor did I see John Lennon getting shot as a random act of violence. To me, both were the result of bad choices made at the summit of whatever it was that they were, John Lennon’s toppermost of the poppermost where Instant (and severe) Karma is the rule rather than the exception. Triangulate that with George C. Scott’s "We cure NOTHING!" in Paddy Chayevsky’s The Hospital and you have my ‘cut to the chase’ best assessment of medical "science". I reserve my own admiration for people like Barb Rausch who found out she had cancer, told no one and just lived what remained of her life without taking any treatment whatsoever. As I said at the time in my letter to the Comics Buyer’s Guide, that’s who I hope I am and that is certainly who I aspire to being. It is a core element of my belief in God that I think it a preeminent necessity to always have your bags packed and be sitting mentally in the departure lounge. I can honestly say if I found out I was leaving on the 8:10 "train" tomorrow morning it would be a great relief and I would spend my last hours answering the mail or assembling the Cerebus Archive and look forward to leaving without a backward glance. If you don’t do things that are objectively wrong—and perceiving objective wrong is, I grant you, a tricky proposition—I don’t think you suffer ill effects. If you’re living a lie I think that lie will become cancerous sooner rather than later and that’s all personal choice. Likewise thinking that medical science is going to save you. I understand everyone besides myself thinks that, but I’ve never seen medical science save anyone. Gene Day was given a clean bill of health weeks before he dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of 31. Shame on me from where you sit, Steve, but—from my vantage point—shame on you for falling for a carnival sideshow masquerading as a science and for using that as a cudgel to frighten potential self-publishers.
You’re welcome for everything that I helped you to see by giving you the experience of being a publisher. I’m sorry that the net result is that you are out of the game, the rip tides at the "summit" are nothing if not sincerely daunting and I count myself lucky that I was able to stick it out through to 300 and I’m sorry you got torn loose by the forces which obtain.
My comments aren’t personal and I’m sorry you took them that way except in the sense that these are the nuances of consequence that we all experience in forging new paths and hacking into the brush around various borderlands. I think there is something centrally unhealthy in a society where your lawyer told you to only do work-made-for-hire projects while the ownership of your copyrights and trademarks and Nancy/Marlene’s claim to them was sorted out. You might very well take that personally but, again, it isn’t intended that way. I think a society that keeps going in those directions (as ours is doing) will get sicker and sicker—again, bad choices at the summit—but the societal aspect of it, to me, far outweighs yours and Nancy/Marlene’s anecdotal participation in the relentless farce of what passes for family law these days.
I don’t mean it personally when I say that I think your own experience with Tyrant is analogous with Chester Brown’s on Underwater. I think it is instructive to look closely at a situation where a promising project came to a premature end. Both seem to me to be instances of the implications of complete creative freedom. Chet tried to apply the freewheeling ‘make it up as you go along’ sensibility which had worked with Ed the Happy Clown to Underwater—overlooking that Ed never really came to a natural and satisfying end on that basis. He has a hundred pages of material that he abandoned, cutting the project back to the point where it seemed to him like a completed work. At the point that he abandoned Underwater he realized that he had been working on the project for a couple of years and he was only a small fraction of the way through what he intended to say. It went from being a finite project of a year or two or three to being of Cerebus proportions when he did the mental math. At his rate of production it would’ve taken him twenty years to finish Underwater. He was interested in it, but he wasn’t that interested in it. Not to the extent of devoting the rest of his creative life to it. Louis Riel he sat down and wrote a script for ten issues and didn’t start drawing until he had the whole project mapped out and he kept it confined to that and, in my view, turned out a gem that certainly interested me more than Underwater did.
That to me isn’t an anecdote, that’s an overarching template. Call it the Underwater Syndrome, I think Chet was just the first person to go through it who had the public stature for it to be a reasonably big deal. It is an implication of creative freedom and something that creators need to be warned about. Producing comic books is very time-consuming and it is very easy for a project to expand from a year to two years to ten years to twenty years, mentally, without a great deal of conscious awareness that that is what is going on. You can imagine another ten years of work in a millisecond but ten years of work is ten years of work if you don’t reconsider the decisions made in that millisecond. If you want to do a number of different projects during your time on this earth you have to watch out for this because it becomes an either/or proposition. EITHER I’m going to finish this story and never get to do any other story OR I have to put this story aside for the time being and watch myself and set boundaries so it doesn’t happen again or else my oeuvre is going to end up consisting of the first tenth of five different graphic novels that spun out of my control.
Like the Underwater Syndrome, I think you were the first one to experience the Tyrant Syndrome which was comparable. You discovered that issue one was actually issue three, discovered that the story was growing organically from within and a given sequence was going from being ten pages long to fifty pages long as you fleshed out the content in your mind and then on paper. And then the problem compounded itself when you became obsessive about your research. As you say, every kind of flora and fauna had to be 100% accurate. It would have been comparable to Ger and I saying at the mid-point of Latter Days, "Okay, now we are going to have the Sanctuary in this part of the story so what I need you to do, Gerhard, is to build a model of a church merging St. Paul’s Cathedral and St. Peter’s Basilica. I want you to find the original plans for both and I want you to get every detail exact right down to the number of window panes and as soon as you have the model finished, I want you to transcribe it onto a computer model in three dimensions. Meanwhile, I’m going to be building models of Woody Allen and Cerebus with twenty-eight points of articulation, life size. And then I’m going to photograph them in every imaginable configuration from every possible angle, also as a three dimensional computer model and then we’ll reduce them down to an inch or so high and incorporate them into your computer model set designs" That would be Research Berserk. And that, to me, is the core of the Tyrant Syndrome. You aren’t a trained paleontologist. Your job description is very different. You’re a storyteller. It’s your job to come up with an interesting story, throw some fences around it so that you aren’t careening off in a hundred different directions and instead are turning out the pages. If you get a shrub wrong by eight hundred years, it is not the end of the world. If you were a paleontologist, yes. But you’re not. You’re a comic-book guy.
Diamond made a mistake in saying that they wouldn’t do relists and they recognized it—as you acknowledge—just about right away, but you didn’t change your thinking and say, "Oh, okay. Tyrant is viable again if I can relist." To this day you are still claiming that the Direct Market collapsed. It just isn’t true. You fell victim to the Tyrant Syndrome and to you the only way was out. That’s a choice. Chester could’ve made the same choice after Underwater. "Graphic novels just aren’t viable—I’m quitting the comic-book field." But Chester recognized that his own decisions were the core of the Underwater Syndrome and made a better one, the Louis Riel Syndrome wherein you don’t start to draw your comic book until you have a finished script and you keep the book confined to the space you’ve allotted for it.
With all due respect, Steve, what I think you need to do is to find a Louis Riel solution to your Tyrant Syndrome. Choosing not to is entirely up to you…
[and this is the last I’m going to say on the subject and I’m only saying this not to badger you but because I’m reasonably certain that the Underwater Syndrome and the Tyrant Syndrome are going to be pretty common as we continue along developing the first generation of graphic novelists]
solution. Don’t do what we—any of us—tell you to do. Do what you tell you to do. Be your own tyrant. If you have no alimony payments and Maia and Danny are up and gone there really isn’t anything logistically keeping you from doing your book. I can understand you sticking to your resolution to stay out of the comic-book field. All I’m really calling into question is the spirit of defeatism I infer from your remarks that I think is unhealthy. The first couple of issues of Tyrant if they weren’t exactly on schedule they weren’t exactly at the one issue a year pace, either. I saw you produce great pages in a short space of time just by getting out of your own way and sitting down and doing the work. The sound of you penciling with your lap board over behind me was extremely theatrical but it was not the sound of a pathologically slow artist. In the eight hours or so that I listened to it, there were a handful of breaks of perhaps ten to fifteen seconds. I think you did that because there was no way out. If you put the lap-board down at any point you would have to justify it to yourself and—perhaps more to the point—have justify it mentally to me. "Dave and Ger haven’t budged, they’re sitting there drawing for eight hours a day. I’ll show Sim, I’ll match him every step of the way." And, in a comparable way, as you admit yourself you picked up speed dramatically after the 24-hour comic experiment. Sure it was on material you were making up out of your own head but there are reasonable compromises that can be achieved between making up a dino book out of whole cloth and doing a dino book that paleontologists will be using for visual reference for the next hundred years. Paleontology is a fragmented and argumentative science to begin with and there are—and I assume always will be—contending viewpoints and the more information and the greater the fine-tuning of the carbon dating and what-not only exacerbates that rather than clarifying it. It seems to me that what you originally set out to do you lost sight of: to do a comic book that would do a good job of representing dinosaurs and be everything that you thought Jurassic Park could have been and wasn’t. But in the midst of doing a book centered as it is in a contentious science like paleontology, that is, more often than not, going to come down to a personal vision. Jurassic Park was Spielberg’s dino movie. Tyrant was Bissette’s dino comic book. You connected with the audience you wanted to connect with and then disconnected.
I’m glad that you at least addressed the people reading this directly and emphasized that they shouldn’t look at your choices and decide that everything is hopeless. All I’ve tried to do here at the end of this part of the discussion is to illustrate the practical application of that viewpoint by venturing my own opinions, not only on where Bissette went wrong with Tyrant but the Syndrome that I see exhibited when historical material is presented in comic-book form. Research is just one of the elements of a comic book that needs to be confined if the work is ever to be accomplished and degrees of research are no different from other decisions. You could, for instance, have decided to do Tyrant in pointillism which would’ve added another three weeks worth of work to each page. Pointillism, ergo, is an unwise choice when it comes to inking your work. It’s great that we have Drew Friedman to do that but it is something that I think most would-be artists should be dissuaded from. Pointillism and obsessive research are two sides of the same coin, in my view, and both have a place in this discussion if what we are talking about is helping to make things easier for the next generation. i.e. "Be aware that doing a graphic novel is such a labour-intensive proposition that obsessive research can be as much of an impediment to getting your book done as anything else. If you get to the point where there is a ten hours or twenty hours or thirty hours of research ‘required’ for each page, you are setting yourself up for a situation where it becomes a given that your book will never get done and it is just a matter of time until you’re forced to give up."
It’s all decision-making and the balance always needs to be struck between the perfect ideal and the practical necessity. I’m glad I have Louis Riel to read as constituted. If Chet had done one installment a year because he was painstakingly labouring to get every detail of every rifle accurate I don’t think it would be a better book. And I think that’s a lesson worth teaching the next generation coming along.
"I’m not even sure how much real disagreement there was over most of the Bill between you guys. I’ve never read anyone taking a position that’s directly opposed to what made it into the Bill."
I haven’t been especially vocal about it, but the first clause about "We have the right to fully own what we fully create" I definitely take issue with. The "fully’s" were concessions at the behest of Richard Pini and Pete Laird, as I recall. The original language "We have the right to own what we create" seems indivisible to me when coupled with "we have the right to sell what we own." The best example I can cite is my authorizing the reprinting of the Cerebus Jam story in the Will Eisner tribute issue of Following Cerebus without asking permission of Will Eisner’s estate. That’s bookend of the situation when Denis was getting ready to reprint the Spirit Jam and has someone phone and ask my permission to reprint the Cerebus Jam story. I told them they didn’t need my permission, it was Will’s work on the page and in my view a creator has the right to reprint his own work unless he’s specifically sold that right which Will obviously hadn’t done. It got very awkward because whoever-she-was was under strict instructions to get specific permission. To give specific permission in my view would be to concede a point that I don’t concede—that I have a veto over the use of a story that includes my artwork and writing. Will’s right to reprint his own work supersedes my right to choose where my work is reprinted or not reprinted. As I believe that my right to reprint my work supersedes Will’s estate’s choice of where his work is reprinted or not reprinted. What Richard and Pete were saying was "Unless you created every aspect of the page and story, your claim to ownership and control is negligible," which is a natural conclusion for someone using work-made-for-hire. The Elfquest teams which didn’t include Richard orWendy, under that clause, would be deemed to have only as much ownership or control over the pages they worked on as Richard was willing to give them which I assume would be "virtually none". Likewise Turtles pages that Ryan Brown or Michael Zulli worked on. By contrast, I think Marshall Rogers has the right to reprint "The Name of the Game is Diamondback" without my permission. He laid it out. If I don’t want to share my proprietary interest over the story (not the intellectual property rights to Cerebus, obviously that isn’t included) then all I have to do is not work with other people. Likewise, if someone wants to sign a contract with Mirage saying that they relinquish all claim to any work they do that Mirage pays them for, I have no problem with that. I might want to have a nice, long talk with the kid, but I have no problem with that. But I think it needs to be specified. I think Scott’s original intention with the Bill’s first clause (and mine as well) was that you own it until you sell it. Which implies to me that if you work on a page you have a proprietary interest in it as a page of your own work unless you specifically sell that right. In other words, you have to specifically opt out of ownership, it shouldn’t be taken as a given that you surrender ownership as soon as you do work on someone else’s book.
The right to consult an attorney makes me laugh a bit since it sounds like the Miranda rights. We haven’t committed a crime, we’ve drawn a comic-book story. And, again, I thought the intention of the Bill was "pre-lawyer"—that is, as soon as you work on a comic book story you have these inalienable rights, each of which you are free to negotiate away when the "pre-lawyer, pre-agreement" phase comes to an end, but that these are the rights that are inherent the moment that an intellectual property comes into being, these are the things that you own the moment you write and draw a comic-book page or work on a comic-book page with someone else. Which hearkens back to the Manifesto you’ve expressed curiosity about, Tom. It begins with The Work and then charts the implications of The Work that are inherent whatever The Work in any given situation happens to be.
Those were the major disagreements that I had.
I’d agree with you that most creators sign contracts because of whatever carrot they see in the equation. I think the Bill of Rights can help with that if it can keep confined to implicit rights which exist at the point of creation and if specific examples can be cited of where you can trade your cow for some magic beans (as it were) and only find out later that it was the goose that lays the golden eggs (to seriously mix a metaphor). It’s a valid viewpoint. John Byrne built a lot of his career on the idea that there was an inherent nobility and wisdom in being just another cog in the Marvel machinery and—very late in the day—I’ve come to the conclusion that the health of the industry probably relies to a great extent on the majority of creators holding that viewpoint. Without bankable names disinterested and dismissive of their rights it’s very difficult to find people willing to wear themselves down to a nub for a page rate which has always been the engine that drove the industry. There is no way, as an example, that the comic-book field could run if artists were being paid the hourly rate of top commercial illustrators who charge thousands of dollars to draw a single toaster. The budget on a book by a commercial illustrator would be in the millions on the basis of the working standards there. It really is only the allure of drawing Batman or the Thing that compels guys who could make thousands of dollars drawing a single toaster work for thirty-seven hours straight for a couple of hundred dollars a page.
That hooks up with your argument about Siegel and Shuster and Jack Kirby. If you’re comparing what they were paid to other people in the field and in a comparable time period, yes, they were not as criminally exploited as has been portrayed. If, however, you view their contribution as the core elements of the engine driving an entire industry then they definitely got the short end of the stick.
In my negotiations with DC for the rights to Cerebus back in ’88 or so, the basis of my negotiation was: What if you were presented with Superman today? What would be a fair contract? What I proposed was a Superman Contract where DC could pick the thresholds in dollar amounts but at some point the same 50-50 basis as newspaper strips would kick in. I’d get 50 cents of every dollar that came in. The core of my thinking was that—no matter how greedy they were—at some point 50% is worth settling for if Cerebus was bringing in, say $80 million a year. You don’t get the whole 80 mil but you get 40 mil. It was a no-go. I could get a flat $100,000 advance and 10% of all revenues on all merchandise, TV, Movies, etc. It seemed very short-sighted to me. I was letting them pick the thresholds. Had they set it at a billion dollars, I would’ve considered it. At least it was there if Cerebus turned out to be that big a hit. And yes the core of my thinking was that when your intellectual property starts generating $80 million a year, you are not just an employee or a piece-worker, you are one of the engines driving the DC economy and you should be compensated as such. Just as the main engine on a battleship gets more consideration than the coffee maker in the officer’s mess even though they are both machines owned by the US Navy.
And you’re right, very few of us were conscious of the over-arching decisions that we made or any checklist of rights. I was, however. I understood that you don’t sign something with anyone unless it accounts for all eventualities—foremost among them the possibility of the property generating billions of dollars in revenue. To me, the promise is implicit in every intellectual property that is produced from a mini-comic to a hardcover graphic novel. The possibility exists that any intellectual property is capable of generating billions of dollars in revenue unless proved otherwise and that any creator should be aware of that when they are negotiating. Remember that George Lucas only got the exclusive merchandising rights to Star Wars because he knew the studio wasn’t going to promote it properly and he wanted that side of it to be covered and he knew he needed those rights if he was going to promote his own film. It never even occurred to him that those rights had value beyond controlling the legal ability to promote his movie and it certainly never occurred to him that they were worth a billion dollars.
But they were.
Next: A Letter from Steve Bissette 3 Steve Bissette addesses Dave Sim's above letter.