Gary may very well be right that Cerebus was just a fluke, suggesting that the only reason that it was successful was because it came out in 1978 and if I had tried to publish it starting in 1985, 1990, 1995 I would’ve lost my shirt even as Love & Rockets and Eightball soared to the lofty heights of their non-fluke irrefutable quality and commercial viability. There is no control group for that. Any more than there’s a control group if I was to suggest that if Jaime and Gilbert had self-published Love & Rockets they would have a much more solid commercial hit on their hands and a more regular and reliable income than what they are able to get—in actual, rather than on-paper dollars—from Fantagraphics.
I would like to apologize—very sincerely and very abjectly—for misreading Dirk Deppey’s interview with Bob Burden. I keep forgetting that this is the Internet and, as Gary says, these things go like wildfire once they "catch". I am curious about a variety of questions that that would lead to—are the returns factored in as part of that 50% of income being from mainstream bookstores or are you just comparing the initial orders, what is the track record for mainstream bookstores reordering a given title and how many times do they reorder and how does that compare with their orders for new titles? The impression that I get is that the impetus is towards new material—as Gary says, the fifty new trade editions they publish every year—because of the limited shelf space. Most mainstream bookstores cram all of their graphic novels into one or two six-foot shelves that I’ve seen and the net effect for a given cartoonist is the same as a movie deal. There’s an artificial bulge when the movie hits and then a dramatic tapering off of interest as soon as you aren’t the novelty du jour anymore and that this skews the publisher’s attentions toward "getting fresh meat out in front of the shark" (so to speak)—ten or twelve new books per season—rather than focusing on each cartoonist’s backlist.
I think there is an interesting domino effect that seems to have taken place with the comic-book stores not having focused sufficient attention to Fantagraphics titles over the years (and I think that was very short-sighted of them even if Fantagraphics is the "Home of Some Really, Really Good Cartoonists" and not necessarily "The World’s Greatest Cartoonists") which has led Fantagraphics to seek other venues which has left the comic book stores having to split the avant garde business with the mainstream bookstores. Which in turn knocked over the domino of Fantagraphics having a monopoly on "The World’s Greatest Cartoonists" because trolling in deeper waters has attracted the attentions of bigger sharks. If it’s any consolation to Gary, I think that’s very much a temporary effect. The mainstream publishers have no idea how to market graphic novels in the first place and through Diamond in the second place and can’t seem to get it through their thick skulls that, so far as 99% of comic retailers are concerned, if it isn’t in Diamond Previews or if the Diamond website says that it’s unavailable then, as far as comic book stores are concerned, it’s unavailable. There was one cartoonist who told me about his mainstream publisher putting an ad in Diamond Previews for his new title the month that it was shipping. And, of course, got miserable orders as a result. From the standpoint of the direct market the ad had come out three months late. Telling tales out of school, Peter Birkemoe at the Beguiling was telling me about his experiences with buying Tintin which is one of the top-selling comics series of all time if not THE top-selling series. He buys direct from the North American publisher and—because Diamond doesn’t stock Tintin—his store basically has the exclusive rights to Tintin in Southern Ontario and much of Canada (because if you type Tintin in on the Diamond website, it comes up as unavailable) something that would be completely unaffordable if he were to apply for those rights through conventional means. The net effect, unless mainstream publishers put some effort into understanding how the direct market works and working with it, is that a mainstream book publishing deal divides you from your core audience that you’ve built up in the comic-book field. Because comic-book stores buy exclusively from Diamond, you’re suddenly just GONE! And the mainstream publisher has to build the new audience from scratch. I’ve even heard anecdotal evidence of people seeing books they’ve never heard of by favourite cartoonists in Barnes & Noble and not picking them up because they want to support their local comic-book store. I even had that same experience with Will Eisner’s The Plot which the Beguiling has had for about six weeks or more because of buying direct from the publisher. I saw it at the Beguiling and decided to wait to buy it at Now & Then Books—which still hasn’t gotten their copies through Diamond so I finally bought it at the Beguiling last Thursday. Gary and Kim have put in a lot of time and made a lot of sacrifices building a market for some of the cartoonists that they can no longer afford to offer competitive advances to. But, unless Random House is able to manufacture new audiences out of thin air—which I doubt—then I think those cartoonists might be back sooner rather than later with a few new faces in their audiences when Random House finds out that—as geese go—their golden eggs just aren’t of the size that Random House needs to maintain a spot for them in the Random House chicken coop.
In the interests of fairness and the health of the worldwide comic-book nation, let’s hope so, anyway.
I haven’t reread my Guide to Self-Publishing recently—eight years and several printings later, it’s way overdue for revisions—but as far as I remember the only reference that I made to self-publishers applying for bank loans was actually a reference to self-publishers applying for revolving lines of credit at their banks if they’ve been self-publishing for a while and they hit the cash flow wall. A line of credit is really just a safety net if there’s a danger of your dipping a few thousand dollars into the red on a regular basis. What I suggested was that the self-publisher show their banker the orders that they have from Diamond and explain how the comic-book field works—that there are no solid returns, so each of their purchase orders from Diamond is going to turn into cash in 30 days—and as I think about it, it had more to do with making the leap from periodical to trade paperback. If you got paid for eight issues of your comic book and you had orders for the collection of those eight issues, a good banker will be able to see the logic in extending you credit of some kind to step up to the next level if all that’s in your way is the cost of a printing bill. Obviously if you’re just starting out, approaching any bank with just a copy of your self-published comic book (which, if Gary is right and that was what I was suggesting, I was certainly wrong in doing so) is more than a little problematic because there’s no track record for the banker to look at. In our own case, as far as I remember, the bank offered the revolving line of credit as an alternative to giving us a loan because they couldn’t secure receivables from a company in a foreign country. At the same time, they could look at the history of our account and see that every 30 days good cheques of comparable sizes had been clearing for a period of years. That’s all I was trying to get across. And my advice was addressed to people who had a comparable successful track record to show a banker: that they paid all of their bills on time and kept their spending to what they could afford. If you’ve done two issues in the last three years and you’ve bounced five cheques with a face value of 50% of your account, no I don’t think they’ll give you a loan or offer you a line of credit. They’re going to make their money off of you making good on your mistakes and have already written you off in the long term as a credit-worthy customer.
The changing of the rules regarding inventory I think goes across the whole G-8 and was introduced as a means of tightening up the general global economy. The less inventory there is the clearer a snapshot you have at any given moment of whether the global economy for x widgets is operating at capacity or has capacity left over, which in the 1990s was something that that IMF and the World Bank were deeply concerned about for reasons known only to their executives. As Gary says, that "tightening up" works a lot better for widgets most of the time than it does for things like book publishing.
"I spoke to Steven Grant and asked him to clarify that one passage Steve brought up. Basically he told me that it’s his understanding that among the mainstream wannabes (like IDW and AIT/Planet and Dark Horse), the publisher wants to CONTROL the movie rights. The creator still gets a cut (presumably depending upon what he can negotiate), but the publisher wants to be able to sell it. This is apparently how Hellboy got made and I have no idea if Mignola is happy about this arrangement, but I never heard any squawking."
I think this is a very salient point and I have to commend Gary for the fact that Fantagraphics takes what I would consider an ethical stand on these things—if you don’t have any expertise in Hollywood it is just this side of fraudulent to be mucking in on a creator’s Hollywood rights. I know very little about it as well, but I do know that the participants in a movie deal can multiply exponentially in very short order if a certain actor or a certain director gets interested. The actor has his own company, the director has his own company, they have a distribution deal with another company who has a distribution deal with another company—if you’re at a movie and the opening computer animation features five different company names, that’s the situation that you’re looking at—and they’ve all carved up the turkey which leaves a few crumbs to compensate for the acquisition of the intellectual property. If your comic book publisher is in the situation of representing your property, then you’re likely to get micro-crumbs as part of your share. $10 million goes to the actor, $5 million to the director, 20% to the distributor, 15% to the other distributor your publisher gets $500,000 off the top or $300,000 of the $500,000 if they’ve jumped into bed with some corporate entity to get the deal done and you get $80,000 of that $500,000 or $50,000 of that $300,000. As with my earlier observations about the Licensing Corporation of America relative to DC, if you are one step removed from Ground Zero then you are effectively out of the loop when it comes to reaping the benefits of any deal. It might look like a much smaller deal from Fantagraphics but if it only covers publication rights and Gary just forwards all inquiries about licensing and media to you or to your lawyer and recommends an entertainment lawyer to you, then that puts you at Ground Zero instead of once removed which I would guess you are going to be with Random House or a mainstream publisher (I could be wrong). At least once removed, unless you make sure that you retain your most potentially lucrative rights and maintain your proximity to the property contractually (i.e. no new entity can be brought in on the deal without your authorization and any new entity takes their share out of someone else’s pie slice besides yours). Which leads us back to getting all of those potential rights down on paper so that each creator knows what they are potentially giving up. I don’t think you accomplish anything by just writing "movie rights" as if it’s that simple. Until you sign an agreement otherwise, you have the right to any credit on the film that you want and can mandate that contractually according to Screenwriter’s Guild guidelines. This is the slice of the pie that I get and everyone else has to fight over what’s left over. If I was interested in Hollywood which I’m not, I would have the same demand that I had for foreign licensors. You have to form a separate company that I’ll co-own so that I get the same paperwork as any of the other co-owners and I can see if someone is trying to cut into my slice of the pie or engage in artistic bookkeeping where the expenses of other films are coming out of my film in order to create a deficit bottom line. The fact that no movie studio, so far as I know, would ever sign such a deal doesn’t contradict the fact that to me that’s the only way around the impediment. I like to point in the right direction. Who knows? Maybe fifty years from now there’ll actually be an intellectual comic-book property that’s hot enough—because it became associated with a gruesome headline news story, say—so that a movie studio will break precedent and actually be willing to sign such a deal and if the creator involved got the idea by reading what I had to say in the 2005 files of the Cerebus Archive, I can get a little gold star in my notebook ten or twenty years after I’m dead.
I can’t speak for Steve, but no, in answer to Gary’s speculation, I don’t really have any time on my hands at all. I’ve chosen to include discussion of these creator’s rights issues as part of my regular correspondence, correspondence which is still taking up most of every day of my life except the Sabbath. As an example, it’s three o’clock on the Saturday of the Canada Day weekend and I’ve been working on this since 10 o’clock this morning. Part of me would really rather just be out enjoying the Canada Day weekend. There are a lot of times I could kick myself for doing this since I know that all it does is lead to more vilification and more ostracism and I would be much better served spending the two days that I’ve spent on this contribution coming up with ways to sell more Cerebus trade paperbacks. And I’ve made that resolution before in the aftermath of the Dave Sim backlash post-issue 186 when everyone abandoned me. "Promote Cerebus and just let everyone else go hang" but…
I don’t know, I’m beginning to suspect that this is just who I am and that God picked me for this job for exactly that reason, because He knew that the comic-book medium would always be more important to me than anything that the members of the comic-book industry could ever do to me. When one generation turns its back, I just switch my attentions to the next generation, and if they aren’t interested, then to the generation after that. I had a kind of a unique background in that I’ve been participating in every comic-book debate that interested me since I was fifteen. Frequent Comics Journal and Drawn & Quarterly contributor Jeet Heer remarked to me a couple of days ago that he found Comic Art News & Reviews in one of the branches of the Toronto Library and was reading the fifteen-year old Dave Sim mouthing off about his opinions on Jack Kirby leaving Marvel for DC. I forget that for most of the industry that’s a mythological moment in comics history and not a personal memory. I also had the unique experience of interviewing professionals through that 1972-1975 time period when a lot was going on and things like creator’s rights were first being publicly discussed on panels and at conventions and in fanzines and that, as an aspiring creator I got help from comic-book professionals in the way of encouragement. Frank Thorne especially. When I look back at the number of letters that he sent—and DRAWINGS!—over the course of the first year or two of Cerebus and how much that convinced me that I must be on the right track and that this was worth sticking with (the same with Gene Day who was doing a lot better than I was as a freelancer and was a lot more developed in his style and a lot more commercially viable) what I tend always to see is a debt that increases as the years go by so that I can never repay it no matter how many guys I help in the same way, because I’m still making a living in a field that they gave me an unearned "leg up" into. As I say, that was always what I told anyone who wanted my own help. Make sure you pass it on to someone else. It’s sad to me that so many of them don’t especially since if you ask them about any contact they had with a professional, showing them their portfolio of whatever, even twenty years later they can quote to you word-for-word how the conversation went. How can you not see the weight of obligation there? Twenty years later and you remember word-for-word what someone said to you that was just a quickly-forgotten-part-of-their-day at a convention where they talked to a hundred people and probably gave the same advice to a dozen or two dozen of them. But what they told you helped you to get through the next five years of your, at the time, virtually non-existent career. And then I remind them, Remember how bad your work was that you were showing them! And they found something positive to say about it! If they had told you what they really thought—what you would be inclined to say about work of that level of quality if someone brought it up to you at a convention—you’d have probably quit.
It’s frustrating, a lot of times, but—as I’m getting towards my senior citizen years—with an amusing and fatalistic edge to it. I was just down in Toronto on Thursday for Seth’s "Present Tense" artist’s talk at the Art Gallery of Ontario (the first comic book creator to be exhibited at the AGO!) and Chester Brown and I had lunch and I told him that it always happens that just when I’m getting to this peak level of frustration—"WHY am I spending days writing pages and pages and pages of this stuff when the audience is obviously just made up of Gary Groth and whoever has come over from the Comics Journal message boards to sneer at me and the hundreds of people who are reading it as a freak show: ‘Hey, let’s go check out Dave Sim at Al Nickerson’s site so we can sneer at him along with everyone from the Comics Journal or at least get a first-hand look at this freak who keeps showing up with his freaky opinions where people can sneer at him’—and then Steve Bissette signals that I had an impact on his thinking with my Underwater versus Louis Riel analogy and I’m reminded that this is how this has always worked and will always work and I pass it on for what it’s worth: it’s no different from high school. If you do what you think is right instead of what’s popular you’re going to have most people sneering at you and you have to let those people sneer at you because otherwise the person you are (unbeknownst to you) intended to influence and in whose life you are going to make a valuable contribution is never going to hear what you have to say.
The odds seem lousy (er—check that, actually the odds ARE lousy) but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. Just the opposite. The more worthwhile a contribution is, in my experience, the lousier the odds against anyone giving it a fair hearing in the short term.
And given that it was Steve Bissette who introduced me to Chet at the Toronto Summit in 1988 and given that Chet and I are both major fans of Steve’s work, even the possibility that Steve might come out with some new work before he’s six-feet under really does make this all worthwhile even if it eats up days and days of my time with very little to show for it.
Okay, I still have to send some comments to James Turner on the first two issues of Rex Libris (coming soon from Slave Labor) and the first half of Rob Walton’s Ragmop graphic novel (soon to be self-published in one or two volumes), both of which I was given in Toronto in photocopy form for that express purpose.
Maybe I’ll take a day off next Canada Day weekend, eh?
15 July 05
Thanks for the latest batch, this answer to which is going to end up arriving at the same time as the June 29 reply. If you have a minute please attach an explanation so the visitors to your site don’t think I’ve lost my mind.
To start with your own disagreement with me on whether Chris and Rob at Top Shelf should be considered co-creators for suggesting that Owly be a graphic novel, I’m certainly open to dissenting viewpoints but I would point out that in my own mind what I am doing is searching for the source of the comic-book river and that my viewpoints come from the closest proximity that I can get to it. It is there that the decisions are made as to who gets compensated for what. I have no problem with a "0" and "1" option but I think it needs to be decided as an industry-wide concern. That is, at least potentially, the moment that you enter into negotiations with a publisher you need something comparable to the Miranda warning: if you are talking to a publisher and he makes a suggestion that you go along with then that publisher has participation in the property apart from his cut as a publisher. If you go to Marvel with a character called The Clock and you have a bunch of pages and you are more than amenable to having it be a mini-series or a graphic novel or a Free Comic Book Day offering that is very different from saying that The Clock is a three-issue mini-series, no ancillary rights being offered. In the first instance you are certainly more apt to make the sale—if Marvel can make it into whatever they want they are more apt to find a place for it on their roster—but that also means that you are admitting that you don’t have a fixed idea of what it is that you are selling and there should be compensation that acknowledges that. If you are giving up decision-making and control you should also give up a percentage commensurate with someone else filling in the blanks.
I apologize to Steve for getting the story wrong about his sales of his Swamp Thing artwork. It would’ve come up in conversation around the time that the price of Cerebus pages was making the jump from $300 to the $700 vicinity that happened overnight on eBay. I don’t know why I take it as a given that what people are telling me is the truth, but it is one of the reasons that I try to be as open as I can be about "what I’ve heard". That way the misinformation gets corrected as it was here.
The net effect, I hope is a positive one since Steve and I are in complete agreement—the most valuable thing that a creator is apt to own is the original artwork from the hit book that he worked on in his prime which is something a lot of young guys don’t understand (which is in itself understandable: while the goose is laying the golden eggs it’s very difficult to understand that there are apt to be a fixed number of them. The Beatles must’ve thought in 1964 and 65 that they could just go on indefinitely writing incredibly lucrative chart-topping hit records in their sleep). And Steve also makes the good point of the "one brief shining moment" collaboration which I wasn’t taking into account (while the later Cerebus pages are considered less desirable from a market standpoint than the "early, funnier ones" the later the Dave and Ger pages are the ones that I think are the best and, however remote, there does exist the possibility of further collaborations at least on the cover of Following Cerebus). For a multitude of reasons in any successful collaboration there is usually going to be a finite number of pages. In the case of Swamp Thing there are a finite number of Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson pages and a finite number of Moore/Bissette/Totelben pages.
And we’re also on the same page when it comes to preserving our own archives of material. I would assume that at some future date—given that the Moore/Bissette/Totelben collaboration holds up as a high water mark in the genesis of the graphic novel, which I do take as a given—posterity will thank Steve that all of the paperwork has been preserved so that an accurate history can be written and a coffee table edition of pencilled and inked pages can be produced. For most artists it seems that preserving their own history is just "in the way" of creating new material and they dispense with their own past compulsively as a means of staying focused on the future and unattached to the past. I threw away a lot of stuff for years for that reason, as a means of focusing my attentions in my freelance days. The catharsis of junking a pile of artwork I deemed to be second-rate appalled Gene Day who had every drawing he ever produced going back to high school. I came around to his way of thinking but relatively late in the day (my mid-twenties).
I’m happy enough to discuss the Miracleman situation in the same context of the preservation of work through originals and negatives. We have about half of the Cerebus originals and through the network of Cerebus art buyers probably indirect access to a good portion of the other half and we also have all of the original negatives which we continue to use to reprint the Cerebus trade paperbacks. This came up earlier in these discussions where Gary sort of dismissed me as a doddering old idiot because I was still talking in terms of negatives and that the vast majority of Fantagraphics’ material was being done (presumably) via the computerized "direct to plate" method. To reiterate, my problem with the brave new world is that computers purport to be able to scan detail that they really aren’t quite able to scan yet (when you are talking about the kind of fine-line detail that John Totelben and Gerhard use in their inking which certainly wouldn’t be as much of a problem with the work of, say, the Brothers Hernandez or Jeff Smith). At this point we are planning to experiment with a single signature in the one the trades (the 32 page sections that make up the totality of the book) with "direct to plate" converted from the negatives and/or "direct to plate" shot from the original artwork (probably one of each). I think we’ll be able to see if the process is far enough along in development to warrant closer examination. But, again, one of the problems that I have is that software tends to get outdated and, with a 6,000-page project like Cerebus you don’t want to have to be converting 6,000 pages to a new software format every year or two because that’s how the software outfits seem to make a lot of their money along the same lines as forcing everyone to go out and buy DVD players because VHS has been made null and void. Right now it seems to me that we’re on the cusp of the change where the time it takes to scan something is directly proportional to the results that you get. The more dpi you want in the stored information (and Ger’s linework requires a lot of dpi information) the longer the scanning time. Somewhere up ahead, I’m sure that scanning will take about as much time as photocopying—it will be virtually instantaneous. But where we put our money and our time and our energy will depend on whether that change takes place in 2008 or 2060. If I’m still alive, in 2060 I’ll be 104 and I’m sure scanning time and dpi will be the least of my worries.
I do think most creators tend to be evasive on the subject of negatives—either because of Gary’s brand of brave new world faith ("I scan all of my artwork—negatives are SO 20th century") or because it just seems a complete side issue to them. Which is fine: we all ignore or confront issues to our own benefit or detriment. Chester Brown, as an example keeps all of his originals. Which is fine, except that each panel is a separate piece of artwork, so he copies the panels and then tapes them together into their comic-page formats. When it came time for his current reissue of Ed the Happy Clown, he dug out the original paste-ups and all of the tape, of course, had yellowed in the interim. As a result he was faced with either re-copying all of the panels and making a new set of paste-ups or going through and whiting out all the yellowing where it intruded into the image. If he had kept track of the negatives and made sure he had custody of them (rather than, as I assume was the case, Vortex having custody of them and their going the way of all flesh when Chet left Vortex for Drawn & Quarterly) then he wouldn’t have that either/or amount of trouble. And, of course, in the case of Leach and Totelben’s Miracleman artwork which you cite as probably lost even the photocopy backstop isn’t going to work as we found several times when we attempted to use photocopies to duplicate panels and what not. As Kim Preney explained it to me, the photocopy LOOKS fine and as a "one-off" reproduction it is fine, but it is actually produced by the same sort of electro-magnetic process that causes iron filings to be attracted to a magnet. On a first-generation photocopy, it looks as if all of John Totelben’s fine lines are there, but under even minor magnification you’ll see that the lines actually "fuzz out" where the powdered developer was attracted electromagnetically into place. As soon as you try to scan that or shoot that with a camera the mere fact of making a second generation copy reduced to comic page size will cause "the fuzz to fuzz" and you’ll get the finer linework either filling in (if you try to capture all of them) or dropping out to nothing (if you go for the overall look). You’d have a shot if you were willing to print the pages "size as" but once you attempt to shoot fine line photocopies and reduce them, each step removed from the first generation photocopy is going to cause you major reproduction problems. At minimum you’re looking at quality that is four steps removed from the artwork. The photocopy is one step removed, the reduction is two steps removed, the camera shot is three steps removed and the mass printing is four steps removed. Take your first generation photocopy and reduce it on a photocopier and then shoot another photocopy of that reduced photocopy and then shoot a hundred copies of that one and look at your one hundredth photocopy and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The fine pen lines made by Hunt crow quill and speedball nibs are about 100 times more difficult to reproduce than even the smallest type. It’s the original art or a first generation negative or nothing.
So at the very least, I would add the cautionary note: if you use fine lines in your work extensively you’re going to be ill-served when it comes to reproduction by anything other than the original artwork or photographic negatives at least until the computer scanning technology achieves a standard of reproduction that it doesn’t presently possess.
The problem that I see with the Miracleman discussion being held to a "damn Todd McFarlane’s eyes" level—good guy/bad guy—is that it overlooks that Neil has custody of the negatives and, so far as I can see, either has no plans for them or is not particularly forthcoming about the plans that he has. I don’t imagine Neil has any experience with negatives but (just as Steve says) given their storied history of knockabout travel and what-not, I think it is worth calling in some experts in the Minnesota/Wisconsin area to take a look. At the very least to make sure that whatever damage there might be is halted in its present state and not allowed further deterioration. It seems to me that by accepting custody of the negatives, Neil also accepted the responsibility of not only proprietorship but that of preservation custodian. Steve heard that the negatives are under a bed, I heard they’re in his basement. Neither seems to me to be something the Smithsonian would recommend when it comes to archival preservation. And, if I’m not mistaken, Neil is claiming ownership of Miracleman as an intellectual property which is a very different thing (to me anyway) from saying that he owns the Miracleman material that he did. If it’s just your own work (leaving aside the artist’s contribution) then there’s no ethical obligation to bring the work back into print. But being the guy holding the negatives, at the very least, seems to imply a larger obligation to everyone else who worked on the character, up to and very possibly including the responsibility to publish a Complete Miracleman volume so everyone who worked on the character can make money off of the work that they did or a series of Miracleman volumes so specific creators can make money off of what they did or (my own solution, offered to Neil and presumably rejected by Neil) of giving all the creators copies of the negatives of their work so they can choose to publish or not publish what they did, including Neil. Of course that also risks provoking Todd into taking legal action but that, it seems to me, is part and parcel of declaring yourself the owner of an intellectual property which, so far as I know, Neil is attempting to do. Alan Moore, having given (or "given") his entitlement (or "entitlement") to his share (or his "share") of Miracleman, to Neil can ethically just sit back and see what happens. He’s washed his hands of it. But that makes Neil the custodian not only of his own work but of Alan’s and Gary’s and John’s and everyone else’s. Not an enviable situation but one which makes "Damn Todd McFarlane’s eyes" seem like a more than simplistic assessment of the status quo implying that Neil has no recourse when, from where I sit, Neil is holding all the significant cards. All he has to do is decide which card(s) to play. I still think the best bet is to put Miracleman into the public domain and then test Todd’s resolve by publishing a volume of Neil’s own work or persuade someone else to put out a volume of their own work on Miracleman. Publishers are going to be leery of signing on because the legal questions are up in the air, which implies to me that self-publishing is the way to go. How would the courts react to a unilateral declaration that Miracleman is in the public domain from the guy who has the largest claim to ownership, coupled with publication of that public domain material that he wrote himself published by himself? Beats hell out of me but it seems to me that it would actually move in the direction of resolving the situation rather than just sitting there feeding a nest full of lawyers—who also have no clear idea how the courts would react—year after year.
Yes, I think we’re at the point of "let sleeping dogs lie" when it comes to the Fantagraphics vs. Comics Journal conflict(s) of interest.
"I would love to know how independent, non-corporate publishers from Fantagraphics to Drawn & Quarterly and Top Shelf manage to remain solvent."
Well, yes, I would too, but I think we have to accept the fact that that isn’t going to happen. My concern is the creators involved—and the future creators, not the present ones who I think are content to make do with the situation they have—so I think all that we can do is to keep discussing the issues in general terms and hope that this communicates to younger creators that when you get paid is very much relevant to how you are doing and that there’s a world of difference between getting a cheque for $800 in 30 days rather than a cheque for $800 in 120 days. If I was in the situation of, say, presenting a mini-series to Dark Horse and Fantagraphics, let’s say, I think I’d be inclined to track down people who are doing work for them and ask, you know, strictly on the QT, how are they at paying on time? I was never in that situation, but I was certainly at a lot of tables in bars and hotel rooms at conventions with guys who were strictly freelancers where the subject came up and, again, strictly on the QT most guys were willing to answer honestly how their relationship was with a company and how the company was doing in fulfilling their obligations. For the ones that saw a conflict in discussing their publisher’s business they would speak euphemistically, but in such a way that there couldn’t be much mistaking of the message. "How is Publisher Y to work for? I was thinking of taking my book over there." "Uh, all I can say is ‘watch yourself’." At one level completely meaningless, but at another level tells you just about everything you need to know. The recurrent motif was that even when a creator had nothing bad to say about his publisher they usually added, "I have heard horror stories from other guys, but, personally I have no problems." The few instances of the latter and the multiplicity of instances of the former meant that I never thought seriously of giving up self-publishing for the freelance or contract life. But, then I never played slot machines when I was in a casino, either. I always played blackjack. The odds playing blackjack are lousy, but they’re dramatically less lousy than the slots.
"That Fantagraphics has nurtured long-term relations with many of its key creators speaks volumes about said creators’ ongoing faith, tolerance and patience and upon that Fantagraphics has build a rather monolithic pantheon."
I think it also needs to be said that that monolithic pantheon is still, arguably—depending on your preferences in material—if not the "Greatest", at least "Publishers of Some of The World’s Really, Really Well Regarded Comic Book Creators" and that there are many factors which go into that hard-won status, not the least of which is simple mystique and stature which Fantagraphics has built since the early 1980s. How the trick is accomplished and sustained (and if it can be sustained) is another question entirely—not altogether different from "How can Dave Sim still be in business when everyone knows that his work is nothing but misogynistic crap and everyone justifiably hates his guts?" Everyone has their audience that sustains them for a while and then doesn’t or sustains them over the long-term, come what may. That’s decided incrementally on a daily basis. One way or the other, I always hope that Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly and Top Shelf can make a go of it. Prestige Art House Publishers tend to be the canary in the mineshaft. Whether in the comic-book field or in mainstream publishing and distribution, if you can’t keep them alive, the whole structure is in serious jeopardy. Which seems to be the case with Big Box Book Retail. It’s only able to sustain a fraction of the book market and is starving the rest of that market foremost among the rest being the Prestige Art House Publishers.
I cited George Lucas and Star Wars only in the context of the licensing bonanza he lucked onto because he knew from hard-won experience that Twentieth-Century Fox wasn’t going to promote his movie properly. I try to keep good decisions made early on separate from the ethical atrocities which come later on. George Lucas in 1977 is interesting. George Lucas in 2005, to me anyway, far less so. As an example, I don’t think Image has evolved into anything much different from Eclipse, but considering that given is very different from considering the potential which exists, in my mind anyway, in the seven most marketable creators in any given moment breaking away from a mainstream company to go it alone. Image in 1992 I think there’s a lot of grist for the discussion mill there, a lot of decisions that were good and a lot of decisions that were bad that anyone contemplating the same kind of move could learn from. Image in 2005, no, essentially I would say that it’s too late to learn anything by studying the operation as is.
I quite agree that Neil and Alan provided Todd with concepts that benefited the Spawn Universe. I think that argues in favour of what I’m trying to do here which is to get back as close to the Source of the Comic-Book River as we can. If Neil and Alan had both had a template agreement which consisted of everything that any comic book has ever been made into ever, and if Todd had said, "Yes, I am a Manifesto Employer—the Manifesto is my template agreement" then they could just go through the checklist and say, Todd you can have these rights, Todd you can’t have these rights. Or Todd you can have these rights, but every time you mention the ‘levels of hell’ in a comic book script, Alan gets x number of dollars or x percentage of the print run times the cover price or the Diamond orders times the cover price. Likewise with Neil and Angela™. If you care about the character then you should set up the parameters right from the get-go and I think a template agreement would allow you to do that. I don’t think I was particularly "canny" or particularly a "smart cookie" in my dealings with Todd (thanks for the compliment, though) but I am always aware of what it is that I’m doing. In the case of Spawn 10, what I was doing was supporting the Image experiment—giving Image the same "benefit of the doubt" that I gave Kevin and Peter—and trying to think what sort of a Spawn story I would have to tell that would be worth reproducing a million times (give or take 100,000) given that Todd gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted. As he said, "If you want to do twenty-pages of Spawn sitting on the toilet, I’ll do it." So, that was when I got the idea of basically doing a political cartoon about creators’ rights in the form of a super-hero comic book. That, it seemed to me—if I was able to do it as effectively as I wanted to—would be worth murdering however many trees you have to murder to print a million copies of a comic book for an environment that only really had about 100,000 readers. If that.
Those were my concerns and interests. The only thing that Alan and Neil’s respective experiences with Todd suggest is that it is valuable to have everything understood and down on paper at the outset so that no one can change their mind or his mind later on and decide that it was all done on a different basis. Had a template Manifesto agreement existed at the time and Todd was interested in the stature that adhering to it would confer upon him, then it would’ve been a simple matter to just sign a blanket agreement. All 681 property rights implied by the creation of a comic book story are attached to anything that Alan or Neil created/added to the Spawn universe. Since "action figure" would be on the list, then all you would have to do is plug the template numbers into the accounting for Todd McFarlane Productions’ "Medieval Spawn" figure or "Angela" figure or animated cartoon or spin-off series and that would tell you how much Neil was owed. It would be built-in. You would have three options basically: 1. Anything that you create Todd owns outright in exchange for the $100,000 he paid you for the story (my perception) 2. Anything you create you get a fixed compensation for on your checklist that Todd agreed to—across the spectrum of checklist options and negotiated percentages (Todd’s perception: no checklist, no obligation on his part) and 3. Anything you create you get a fixed compensation for if it appears anywhere on the list of 681 property rights (Alan and Neil’s perception of what they thought they were being offered).
Either Alan or Neil or someone in their employ would be delegated to keep track of their respective stakes in Todd McFarlane Productions. If anything you created is solicited for in Diamond Previews then you notify Todd by e-mail or fax that you’ll be expecting a cheque and accounting 30 days after the date the item ships. I would also think that it would be worth having in the template agreement (just to leap waaay ahead of the rhetorical curve here) an automatic "cannibal clause" (suitably gruesome name chosen in your honour, Steve) which essentially compels the signatory publisher to finance a legal claim against himself in the event that the cheque doesn’t show up within 60 days. It would involve drawing up whatever the local paperwork was required for small claims court in (in this case) Phoenix, Arizona and having that on file with your attorney (that is, Alan or Neil’s attorney) and if the cheque doesn’t show up and there’s no explanation then the claim is activated by your lawyer automatically at the publisher’s own expense. So Todd has the choice to keep fighting himself in small claims court or throw in the towel and write a cheque. This might seem excessive—as would my view that to do a foreign license of Cerebus, the publisher would have to form a separate entity of which I was the co-owner—but then my motto has always been "Trust no one." The companion to that being "Give everyone the benefit of the doubt up to a point, but make sure you don’t hang yourself out to dry in the process." I was glad to work with Todd. It was a great experience and certainly tied with the experience with Kevin and Peter for top experiences that I’ve had "jamming" in the comic-book field. But that’s very different from trusting Todd with anything. And that’s nothing against Todd. I don’t trust anyone. I think it’s inherently stupid to trust anyone—well, I mean, besides God, I trust in God 100% but I just take it as a given that most people reading this are atheists. Not trusting anyone is where I see the value in a template Manifesto-based agreement which can be modified or cut or negotiated into whatever form you and the publisher want but which at least starts with the foundational understanding that there are rights inherent and potentially inherent in any unpublished intellectual property and that any agreement entered into which does not take that into account amounts to buying a pig in a poke which is what I think Neil and Alan ended up doing. They took Todd at his word, which is something I would never do with anyone.
And, yes, I do think it’s worth discussing Angela, Cagliostro and "Medieval Spawn" as separate considerations because they do seem to be three different kinds of intellectual property. Way back when Erik Larsen was still participating here, he made a point that he thought it was ridiculous that Neil would claim to own "Medieval Spawn" and I have to admit that I tend to come down on that side of the argument. It would be as if DC had to not only defend its trademark of Jimmy Olsen but would also have to trademark "Jimmy Olsen, Turtleman" and "Jimmy Olsen, Gangster" and all that other Mort Weisinger stuff or—to be ethical—keep track of who wrote all those stories and send them a check every time "Jimmy Olsen, Turtleman" showed up in Superman or Action Comics or a reprint. Or that I owed BWS a cheque every time that Cerebus dreamed in the comic book because he was the first to do "Cerebus Dreams" as a short story. I’m not saying that that isn’t possible or strictly within ethical hair-splitting confines (I certainly can’t arbitrarily limit the number of hairs being split once we start doing so). But, again, if what you are talking about doing is finding some means of establishing guidelines of fairness then I think you come closest by having a template agreement. I would assume that a template agreement would draw distinctions between concepts which are new and concepts which are variations on a theme. Introducing Krug the hedgehog into the Cerebus storyline being different from doing Cerebus the Half Turtle Half Aardvark. With a template agreement and Todd signing off on it in advance of Alan and Neil submitting their scripts, it would all be covered in there. Neil would get x number of dollars anytime Angela was used in any form, y number of dollars anytime Cagliostro was used in any form, z number of dollars anytime "Medieval Spawn" was used. Todd could have explicitly said that the agreement only applies to comic books and when it comes to toys or animated cartoons he owns everything outright and Alan and Neil could have each decided on their own how they felt about that and whether they could live with that agreement having been promised $100,000 for their respective scripts. Again, I think it’s the height of foolishness to just take someone at his word, though, having spoken to Neil I understand that he did it from what he saw as the highest of pure motives—that he wanted to participate in this creator revolution and I have no doubt that whatever Todd may have said to Alan and Neil on the phone led them to believe that their rights would be protected. Just as I’m sure that Todd actually believes that he did protect their rights and that they were more than fairly compensated for their scripts and I’ve gone on record as saying that, as far as I’m concerned, I think $100,000 is a very fair—actually excessively generous—price for a comic-book script either considered independently or graded against whatever curve you want to grade it against. This is, again, why I think the argument in favour of a template agreement is so strong. It bypasses opinion—what Neil thinks constitutes fair treatment and what Todd thinks constitutes fair treatment—and starts from a factual basis that has nothing to do with anyone’s opinions. Here. Here is the template agreement. If you just sign it, everything else follows from there automatically. This is what you make for the creation of a new character, this is what you make from an action figure, this is what you make from the character being used in an animated cartoon under five minutes long. If the publisher doesn’t pay you, a small claim at his own expense gets filed against him in his own jurisdiction and he’s obligated to pay to fight himself court for as long as he wants. Don’t sweat it. Just sit down and write and draw.
Re: lack of archiving materials in the Internet realm
Yes, I’m slowly coming to understand that message boards are really just mid-point communications which occur halfway between conversation and print and that most people are happy to treat it that way and think nothing of devoting several hours to hashing out a discussion on something and then having that discussion deleted and gone forever some short period afterward. I think the best analogy I can come up with in my own life was all of the talking about self-publishing that I did at various conventions, trade shows and Spirits stops over the course of several years and the final realization that it was really an impractical waste of my own time to keep having the same discussion over and over and over and over again and instead to just sit down and put as much of it on paper as I could in the Guide to Self-Publishing (shameless plug: I’m presently revising it for the first time since 1997 now that the second or third printing has sold out) and just give a copy to anyone who wanted to engage me in a two-hour discussion. Here. Here is what I’ve got to say about it. If you have any questions at the end, write to me. As a result, I haven’t had to discuss self-publishing even the smallest fraction of what I did between 1992 and 1996.
So, I withdraw my charge of censorship, which really wasn’t so much a charge of censorship as a kind of wonderment that Rick and Gary would devote that amount of time to discussing a subject and then just let it dissipate into the ether. But, as you say, Steve, we are both archivists by nature and most people aren’t. It also seems to me to be a major difference in a view of communication where I communicate to arrive at distinctions or to achieve consensus or a mixture of the two. In order to do that you need a record of the communication. I do realize that most people just see communication as being no different whether you are mounting a sustained argument (so that you’re just seen as this colossal wind-bag) or just beating your gums at a cocktail party.
I’ll save further observations on the nature of the Internet for my reply to Ed Gauthier.
I’m pleased that Steve agreed with my "cost and cash issues" observations and that he was able to cite so many instances of the wastefulness of advertising revenues. As someone who has always been a distanced observer in anything in which I was also a participant and who has a business partnership with someone who is of a comparable nature, Gerhard, I have to say that the conclusion that we both came to back in the mid-90s was that you would usually recoup between 75 and 85% of any investment in promotion. That is, if you bought a $1,000 booth at a trade show, you could count on sales going up by about $750 to $850 over the next quarter. If you spent $10,000 on a 26-city tour of the United States, you could count on sales going up by about $7,500 to $8,500—and then dropping back down to where they were as soon as you stopped touring. On the one hand, you had the actual experience of what touring was like: petal to the metal putting the book out on time while also doing back-to-back-to-back interviews with newspapers (student, alternative weekly and aboveground daily), radio, television, the comics press, specialty artwork for various publications, doing the groundwork for Detroit while you were actually signing autographs in Indianapolis. The promotion firm that Steve is alluding to, Lekas & Levine did all of the promotion for Moondog’s in Chicago, under Larry Marder’s direction, and we hired them—with Moondog’s owner Gary Colabuono’s blessing—to do the same thing nationally. They gave us a good price for the experience and the contacts that they would get out of it. I got to see myself on television and in newspapers, listen to myself on radio and the whole thing really didn’t add up to much. Comic books are just "below the salt" media-wise. It’s like tiddly-winks or Monopoly. You read the paper and you find out that they’re holding a Monopoly tournament in town that weekend. You find out that the champion Monopoly player di tutti champion Monopoly players is going to be there. Monopoly players swoon at the very sound of his name. You might even read the article all the way through. But when you get to the end, the odds are you’re not going to say to yourself, "Damn. I have GOT to go out to the Airport Marriott and see this guy for myself." On a percentage basis, out of the 50,000 or 75,000 people who are going to read the article you are going to be extremely, mind-bogglingly lucky if .00001% have that reaction—if 2 or 3 people who are not crazed Monopoly junkies actually make the trek out there. It’s not as if the reaction is a given in everything. Anything having to do with television, the track record is going to be a lot higher. Tina Louise who played Ginger on Gilligan’s Island is going to be out at the Airport Marriott. You’re apt to get a few dozen people. For the world’s greatest Monopoly champion? 2 or 3. What we have to face is that in terms of the comic-book field we are a lot closer to being Monopoly than we are to being Tina Louise. So if you spent $800 on publicists for Chicago and the coverage they get you persuades three more people to come out and see you and get your autograph, then you basically spent about $270 per person. At that point it would be more cost effective to offer passersby on the street $50 a head to fatten up your line. At $50 a pop you could get 16 people for $800.
This was the conclusion that we came to, anyway. You are never going to make your money back on advertising and promotion so it’s best to just deal with your sales such as they are and adjust your way of life accordingly and save yourself both the money and the wear-and-tear involved in flying all around the country promoting, promoting, promoting.
Steve makes a good point about Neil, though. Neil understood that you could scaffold your successes and took the risk that it would be worth his while to do so. That is, he did the same thing that Steve and John did with Swamp Thing — ran himself ragged promoting Sandman and taking it from the same depths of low sales that Swamp Thing was at to the same heights that Swamp Thing ended up at, but he also wrote a book with a best-selling genre author, Terry Pratchett (Good Omens) and worked the whole fantasy and science fiction side of things as well. Basically he established different audiences who all showed up at his signings and his readings and created a buzz about himself and his work. As far as I know he was the first comic-book guy to do so, but then in a lot of ways, he was the only comic-book guy who was interested in doing that (apart from the comic-book people who wrote and write Star Wars novelizations and things of that kind). Alan wrote Voice of the Fire but no one really thought that he was about to leave comics to become a genre author (at least I didn’t) and, unlike Neil he was and is—vehemently— disinterested in writing or directing movies or even participating in the movie adaptations of his comic books. So Neil’s template is definitely there for those who are interested. As Steve says it’s a lot of hard work—it doesn’t just happen (although that’s the popular illusion about these things: one day you’re signing funny books for six people and the next day eight hundred people are wrapped around the block twice to get an autograph at Barnes & Noble in midtown Manhattan) and it’s basically harder work on top of hard work because you have to push the limits of your popularity in comics and while that’s cresting start putting the same amount of time and energy in on science fiction and fantasy and then on top of that put in twice as much work on a mainstream level where they really run you around the circle of interviews, signings, lectures, etc. etc. from morning until night on a crushingly tight schedule (which Neil documented very effectively in the early days of his blog which I read in one of his books: if this looks like fun to you, dive in). I certainly enjoyed trying for the brass ring on the 26-city tour in ’92 and the energy level it required but I can say unequivocally that I’ve never missed it. It’s impossible to "miss" work that is that relentlessly debilitating. If nothing else pretending to be tickled pink to be awake and chipper at 6:00 in the morning doing twelve minutes on a "morning commute" radio show in a drab office building out in the industrial basin of some city or other and then arriving back at your hotel with the choice of grabbing another hour’s sleep before you have to be at the next interview or staring through glazed eyes at the television. Neil is the only one who made sense of the process—you do that so you can parlay those gains into larger gains successively closer to the real world. Comic books and then fantasy and science fiction and then New York Times best-seller and then screenwriter and director. If you just want to stay in comic books (as I did) you’re better off staying home and writing and drawing comic books.
All that having been said, Steve is right that the only other sensible branch from that model that I can see is the regional approach and (what’s more) your own region. With Lekas & Levine’s expertise in Chicago—they lived there and they had been at it for years—we got the best coverage: two of the three major dailies, a colour cover on the hot local weekly newspaper, some radio and some television. But, there was no way to follow that up and make it into something else. Two weeks later we were in Miami or Atlanta getting basically the same coverage. 500,000 people were aware of my name for as long as it took them to read whichever article they read and we still only had thirty or forty people at the peak Moondog’s store and a dozen or two dozen at the other outlets. Facing facts, the problem was that I didn’t want a movie or an animated cartoon. If you don’t want that, then the media has nowhere to put you (except perhaps "Freakshow") (C’mon out and see the nutcase who wouldn’t take a call from Lucasfilms!). I’m not trying to be funny. I’m being accurate. The reaction was the same as if the Monopoly champion had turned down a chance to star in a movie or to get his own talk show. He might be asked politely about it by reporters (as I was) but the thought balloon over their heads was "Freak! Nutcase!" which would’ve been roughly the reaction of everyone who read in the article that I wasn’t interested in a movie deal. In the popular imagination of Joe and Jane Lunchbucket, Hollywood is heaven and if you get a chance to go you go. Not going just puts you on "serious disconnect" with them. If you’re not by nature someone attuned to Joe and Jane Lunchbucket then you are just wasting money if you’re buying access to their attention.
But the models that Steve discusses that he is aware of in New England are very good and very applicable to the comic-book field. Kevin and Peter saturated the New Hampshire area they lived in with the first issue of the Turtles. From there you can take it any direction you want because you have the base to build on. Everything outside of the controllable core can be considered just gravy. Basically what Kevin and Peter did was to build the core audience in New Hampshire and then in the comic-book field and then let Mark Freedman, their agent, take it up to the next level. But then the difference between Kevin and Peter and Neil was that Kevin and Peter were selling the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as an intellectual property and Neil was selling Neil’s writing by selling Neil. Some of his writing was on Sandman and some was in short stories and some was in essays and some was in television and some was in movies. Neil was the only common denominator. I do think that it requires signing with larger entities. It is possible, as Neil demonstrated, to go from DC Comics to Random House. I’m not sure if it’s possible to do the same thing self-publishing without handing the reigns over to someone like Mark Freedman on the way and retaining approval rights over whatever he turns up. Neil’s way you can end up writing and directing your own movie if you pass all the tests and deliver the expected sales. I’m not sure that you could Kevin and Peter’s way. You retain control but you don’t build the scaffold of opportunities for yourself that Neil did his way.
And I agree with Steve that all roads do lead to Rome-on-the-Pacific at this point. At least until Hollywood starts getting some perspective on how many films are losing tens of millions of dollars, the Hollywood table is still the one where the high stakes players are playing at all levels, agents, writers, directors, artists, lawyers, computer geeks, freakshow headline makers. If there’s 75 million floating around and you can get 2% of it by being in the right place at the right time and—as seems to be the case with most people—money is all that really matters to you then that means that virtually all contracts are going to start aligning themselves with Hollywood in such a way that all contracts become "feeder" constructs just looking for an intake/outtake valve in Hollywood to hook onto. If you don’t actively position yourself in your contracts as the guy closest to the intake/outtake valve—that is between your publisher and the money fountain—then you are going to get dealt out of the game faster than you can say "Siegel and Shuster."
And I appreciate Steve posting the contract that he got after the fact since it’s always easier to see a syndrome if you have a clear example. And this one’s a beaut. My suggestion would be that the template contract that we are talking about here (or, at least, that I’m talking about here) would cover that base by stating that the template contract supersedes any subsequent blanket agreement instituted by the company in question and any agreement whereby the company gets taken over or merges with another entity. You can’t have a counter blanket agreement, but you can make yourself into a "poison pill lifeboat" that warns away sharks in the vicinity particularly if the template agreement is framed in such a way that any attempt to change the terms retroactively or through merger or through takeover would result in the property reverting to the creator. As I say, you couldn’t frame an agreement that would apply to everything DC is publishing, let’s say, but you could apply it to your own contract. And I think it would be worth questioning why a company would be unwilling to include a clause in a contract saying that if they attempt to change or negate the terms that the intellectual property returns to you. It seems to me there’s only one answer to that one: they don’t intend to abide by the terms of their own agreement.
I think the fact that this is a new contract certainly points to things having eroded rather than improved since 1988—particularly the part about putting the onus on the creator to explicitly state what they can’t do with your work. This is one of the reasons that I think a template Manifesto contract makes sense because it establishes all of those 681 implicit rights in one place. You can either check off the ones that are relevant in your view or allow them to check off the ones that are relevant in their view, but at least it’s there in black-and-white without having to reinvent the wheel every time you want to negotiate with someone about something or catch them with their hands in the cookie jar.
And it is interesting, as Steve points out, the use of quotation marks on "publication rights" which certainly allows of the inadvertently comical inference that what they think they are discussing is hypothetical (so-called publications rights) rather than something concrete and over-arching (Publication Rights). Again, if you had had a template agreement with the original publisher before they got taken over by a larger media concern you’d have a much more solid foundation for being the exception to their rules. Essentially they would’ve bought a contract which would exclude their own participation except under the original terms. Thus, my reference to a "poison pill lifeboat".
Having read all of Steve’s observations on regional distribution and "self-help" distribution for creators I think it is a key point that you should always have your books there and available and on sale if you are going to try the regional personal promotion approach. Unfortunately this runs afoul of the deeply held conviction in the comic-book field that it is unethical to compete with retailers with your own books. It is a really deeply held conviction so that at this point I think it has to be taken as a given. Ger and I don’t sell our own books at signings or conventions anymore for exactly that reason (coupled with the fact that, at SPACE, most of the guys are fighting to make back their table costs. Given that we’re doing fine it seems unethical to be stripping $30 here and $40 out of the room that could otherwise be spent at the tables of guys and girls who need it more). Whatever we might make in cash sales for the day is going to be more than off-set by the ill will this will create with retailers (even when a lot of them don’t stock all of the trades). In a situation where I was trying to promote a new title on a regional basis through personal appearances I would make a real effort to contact every comic-book store in the area and find out how they felt about it before forging ahead and doing it. I’d probably even go so far as to sell the books to a retailer and get a retailer to sell them at the appearance rather than cross what is viewed by the retailers as a strictly controlled ethical boundary. What I have been advocating to self-publishers writing to me in the last while is that they get into travelling salesman mode and develop a route in their area where they can restock retailers who carry their title(s) and keep track of where they’re generating the most interest. This ties in with the building the core audience that Kevin and Peter did in New Hampshire. Offer the books on consignment and make them your own responsibility to keep track of. If you service a dozen stores and each of them has ten copies of your book and three months later each of them still has ten copies of your book then it’s worth considering that what you are doing just isn’t commercially viable and to re-think your creative choices and publishing choices rather than chalking up your low sales to retailer apathy or Evil Diamond the Distributor.
And I completely agree with Steve that if you are with a publisher who is completely averse to you taking the initiative to promote your own work at your own expense, you are probably with the wrong publisher. It is the leap of faith I referred to in a previous response. I just can’t make the leap of faith that the publisher has my best interests at heart: that it isn’t worth thinking about the distribution side and that it’s always better to leave that entirely up to the publisher. If you can sleep easy at night having signed on with such a publisher, I can only hope for your sake that it works out better for you than I think it’s going to.
I suppose if you think that the publishers can see any incentive in taking over the Manifesto and doing their own take on it, I can’t see any reason why that wouldn’t be "do-able" as Dick Giordano used to say. My personal view is that blanket categories—like "all licensing" and "all electronic media"—suit the publisher’s purposes, nicely compacted into a single clause far more than would an exhaustive list of everything that a comic book had ever been turned into—681 inherent property rights or whatever the number turns out to be. As can be seen from my clause-by-clause views on the Bill of Rights last time around I don’t think you could implement the Bill without essentially allowing each creator to run his side of your business the way he thinks fitting let alone getting the major publishers to "acknowledge an expanded ‘Bill of Rights’".
And I do disagree with your assessment of the Manifesto as "a good start but of no real use for day-to-day business". To reiterate, I’m trying to get as close to the Source of the Comic-Book River as possible because that’s where I think all of the relevant decisions and choices are made. Essentially what I’m saying is that if you don’t have "a good start" you don’t have anything and that the key to developing something effective and useful is to keep returning to the point of origin. In order to avoid collaborative conflicts, you need to establish at the outset whether it is a collaboration or whether you are hiring someone to fulfill a function on your book so there are no unpleasant surprises down the line. I think that in creator/creator and publisher/creator relations too often the actual nitty-gritty of agreements is left far too late in the day with everyone philosophically agreeing that they have the "good faith to work something out". You can have poured six months of your life into something before you find out that "good faith to work something out" is a polite euphemism for getting you to sign a "take it or leave it" contract that you thought you were negotiating and which turned out to be as carved in stone when you sign it six months down the line as when you started talking about six months before. If nothing else, at least a template agreement allows you to see where and what you are giving up and where and what the disagreements are rather than having them "sprung" on you six months or a year into the project.
I would assume that the template agreement could be written in computer code or in the form of a software package that could be incorporated into any company’s accounting system. Essentially your agreement would have its own DNA that would instruct the company where and when to issue you a cheque and what categories are to be included on the cheque and then the company would just plug in the numbers. "This is how much the company signed for on their action figures deal, this is how many action figures are based on your characters, this is the ratio of that number of action figures to the total number of action figures done by the company, this is the percentage you get on action figures, ergo this is the dollar amount entered in that line on your royalty cheque." I mean let’s not pretend that we’re still back in the day and age when someone had to burn the midnight oil with a sharpened pencil and an adding machine calculating all of this by hand. Whatever accounting software Time-Warner is using is not going to seize up because it has to take into account fixed percentages and specific dollar amounts on action figures, coffee mugs, animated cartoons and bed linen. Each Time-Warner division is already crunching those numbers internally down to the fourth decimal place I’d be willing to bet. Accounting software is accounting software. You find out what the company is using and give them a Manifesto template in that format.
I would agree with Neal Adams completely that the artist deserves more pay for the length of time and the amount of work it requires to draw a comic book page as opposed to the length of time it takes to write one. It’s one of the reasons that I have great difficulty seeing myself as being hard done by getting paid $100,000 for what amounted to (MAYBE) two days work stretched out over a week. I started in the business as a scripter at Skywald and Warren and my experience with writing scripts was that a lot of what you were getting paid for was doing all the stultifying description and having to keep track of "Page four, panel three" and setting your tabs so they would indent to type the person’s name and then having to type the person’s name for each separate word balloon. The writing I did for free—it was the typing I was charging them for. At $25 for a finished script that wasn’t too far from the truth. If you are drawing at all realistically, it is an unbelievable amount of work to produce a usable comic-book page. There isn’t enough money in the Chase Manhattan Bank, as an example, to pay a commercial artist to draw a comic book at his commercial rates. As Gene Day used to say, one of the freelancers on Dark Fantasy who was a commercial artist got paid more to draw a toaster than Gene got paid to pencil and ink an entire issue of Master of Kung Fu. Neal Adams alludes to this in his Comic Book Artist interview when discussing Alex Ross. It’s only because the top rates in the field—thanks to Neal Adams and others—have shot up that it is feasible for Alex Ross to paint comic books. Neal Adams came close in his story in Creepy #14, doing a highly polished commercial finish in washes but, as he says, they were only paying $50 a page. In the amount of time it took him to do one of those pages, he could’ve made hundreds of dollars doing commercial work or—conversely—$350 doing ten pages of Bob Hope or Jerry Lewis a day. Even though we are at the point where the top guys can earn an advance that is probably six or seven times what Neal Adams was paid in a one-time lump sum and then earn royalties on top of that, we are still at the point where you could not pay a commercial artist of Alex Ross’s calibre to draw the X-men. One picture of the X-men, yes, if you were willing to pay him the entire editorial budget on the book, but nothing beyond one picture. Conversely, back when I was getting paid $25 for a script that I could produce in a few hours once the outline was accepted, I was getting roughly what professional short story writers were getting paid for a short-short story they could turn out in a comparable length of time, including rewrites. I don’t imagine that that’s changed. Most professional writers wouldn’t write comic books back then because it meant they had given up on the dream of being a Real Writer and had chosen to just be a hack. That has changed because guys like Denny O’Neil and Steve Gerber chose to make comic books a career. And then, of course, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman came along and made it really, really difficult to equate writing comic books with choosing to be a hack.
I don’t think you can arbitrarily just say that it has to be 50-50: that the artist and the writer have to be paid the same. If that’s the case I would definitely choose to be the writer on a book. I could get paid for three days work what the other guy was getting paid for three weeks’ work. I couldn’t really justify drawing at that point.
I do think that some sort of gradated pay scale as you suggest makes a LOT of sense—that however you divide up the advance or the page rate it would be based on the amount of time each had invested: the writer being paid for three days work and the artist being paid for three weeks’ work but that that would shift as you moved into the royalty end of things and further away from the "sweat of the brow" immediate consideration. I can picture something comparable to my Superman contract that I was pushing with DC where, at a specific threshold it becomes a 50-50 proposition. If the pie is made up of $500,000 or $5,000,000 at some point the artist has to be content with half because it’s no longer a matter of who put the three days in, and who put the three weeks in, it’s a matter of "there’s more than enough to go around and we should share equally in the bounty". Where those thresholds are is another consideration and one that I think should be decided by the artists—at what dollar amount would you agree you and the writer should split 50-50? And just hope that the artists can see the logic in the argument and realize that the higher the threshold the more they’re letting their inner "oink-oink" show.
"I’m trying to think in terms of building blocks, simple economic elements where some hybrid of agent/consultant/finder’s fee could grease wheels."
Yes, I think that’s a very good way of putting it. Speaking as the guy who is upstream looking for the Source of the Comic-Book River, we’re seriously mixing our metaphors here, but I think that’s one of the images that resonates with me. At the point of seminal creation, "building blocks, simple economic elements" automatically come into existence either as implications of the individual’s creator’s brainstorm or brainstorms or as implications of his own creativity wedded to implications supplied by others. It would be my conviction that—whether you call it the Hand of God or karma or hubris—what is done with (and to!) those "building blocks, those simple economic elements" in the very earliest stages predetermines the level of success that they are able to achieve. Just as you say, Fantagraphics is better because of Jim Shooter than because of the New Yorker (although I’m sure Gary would rather die than admit such a thing) and that’s a core element of what I’m talking about in seeking a construct which would implicitly ascribe "share value" to those who make a meaningful contribution even if they aren’t artists and writers.
In my own case it would make me compulsively isolationist. If I was to start back in doing anew project, under new rules like these I wouldn’t even show anything to anyone until it was fully fleshed out, beginning middle and end, because even an inadvertent comment ("Say what if she was a stewardess?") could ethically obligate me to include someone else in my equation which I would be loathe to do…"Trust no one."
I started thinking about all this a while back when I started doing the interviews for Following Cerebus No.5’s cover feature "Editing the Graphic Novel". I realized I was definitely in the minority in the comic-book field in not wanting feedback on my work before publication. Listening to all of the creators who actively consult with others was what triggered my idea that there should be compensation of some kind for "comic book consultants"—which could be waived, of course, but would be there if a cartoonist wanted to be scrupulously ethical about how he or she conducts his or her business and could, just as you say, provide a nice little windfall for x number of people who might never catch the brass ring themselves but might have put the "Mutant" in the next "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" or something comparable. Editors, publishers, retailers, fans. You could make $6.81 total off of the 2.5% you get on one title and $281,000 off of the .001% you get on another title.
I’m afraid that I agree with ChrisW on this one. If you’re talking about speed relative to other people in the same discipline, fast artists and slow artists, fast writers and slow writers, the market tends to sort that one out. A fast artist is apt to make more a year on a lower page rate just by pumping out more pages, but there’s usually a revenue ceiling on that where you can only draw so fast and you’re only going to get so popular because you’re essentially using a fixed number of drawing tricks over and over and over. You get faster, but beyond a specific point you don’t get any better. "Eye candy" is what moves you up to the next level most of the time. It’s like the difference between a superstar and a utility player in baseball. If you need someone competent to plug a hole in your line-up you go for the utility player but the utility player is never going to make as much as the superstar. A guy who can turn out twenty pages in twelve days no questions asked is someone that an editor is going to want to know where to find if the editor has a book that’s behind schedule. Arguably we need more utility players in this league and fewer superstars. You hire Neil Gaiman for one reason and a guy who can turn a script around in three days for another reason. You need both but you’re not going to pay them comparable amounts.
The ChrisW dynasty continues. I certainly allow for your example of the Mort Walker factory, but that has more to do with the minimalist brand of art that they’re producing. It just doesn’t take that long to draw characters that consist of six lines that you’ve drawn a hundred thousand times already. And it is a comic strip rather than comic book kind of distinction. If you picked 100 comic books off the rack in a comic book store at random 98 of them are going to take longer to draw than a comparable number of instalments of Beetle Bailey. I cite again, Neal Adams’ examples: that he could economically justify putting in a full day drawing 10 pages of Jerry Lewis—$350 a day back in the 60s was pretty good money but drawing Batman wasn’t in that category. Those pages couldn’t be done much beyond a page-a-day pace and maintain the quality. At $35-$50 per and paying Manhattan studio rents he would be losing money on every page he drew. We’re all just lucky that he was that firmly hooked on the comic book form that he was willing to absorb the loss over such an extended period or my own comic-book collection, for one (dating from the late 60s to the mid-70s) would have been about fifty or sixty books lighter.
The OC II
Again, I think it’s difficult to discuss the generalities of an across-the-board template contract in terms of Alan Moore if you’re discussing writers and Alex Ross if you’re discussing artists. They’re not apt to need any kind of foundational basis for their agreements since they’re obviously going to be offered amounts and terms that exist in the rarefied atmosphere of the Comic Book Everest (although I assume that they or their agents or lawyers would be interested in seeing the finished version of the template agreement in case there’s a trick that they’re missing). To varying degrees, anyone with a track record is in the same situation—he or she will get an agreement based on proven marketability. More than anything else, what I’m trying to point towards is a seminal construct not only in terms of the very earliest stages of economic implications in a creative property but the earliest stages in any given artist or writer’s career. To bring home the idea that even if you’ve never been published and have no track record, you can always get that one-in-a-million Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lottery ticket and that it’s worth having a structure in place that provides some assurance that—if the next time someone comes up with the lottery ticket it ends up being in a work-made-for-hire context—that not only that someone is compensated fairly but so is everyone else who participated in the creation whomever those hypothetical individuals turn out to be.
First of all let me thank Dirk for his kind words in the midst of The Journal’s Eric Shanower interview. Of all the places that kind words about Dave Sim and/or Cerebus might be imagined to occur, The Journal is always the last place any of us would pick, so thanks.
1. I had forgotten the thing about Neal Adams pointing out that if Marvel had any claim to the artwork they had to pay sales tax on it. Made me laugh when I reread it and recalled it. Yes, I would agree with Dirk that that was probably the turning point in the decision-making process to return the originals. As Neal Adams said in his Comic Book Artist interview, he realized early on in his comic-book career that either he was going to have to change or the companies were and that really left him only one choice. It’s very easy to forget the extent to which he single-handedly changed the way things were done.
2. See above for the extent of my ignorance of how this whole "thread" thing works. I’m interested enough to wish that maybe Rick or Gary could do a "post-game show" on how the discussion went but I do have enough of an education in Internet realities at this point to recognize that the vast majority of what is on the Internet is just evaporating out one end as it’s coming into existence at the other. My mental image of it was as a repository of massive amounts of material preserved for all time (confusing it with the fact that you can get all of the Library of Congress onto one disk or twenty disks or whatever it is) and that was what recommended it to everyone. If I had Internet access and Rick Veitch and I had a lengthy discussion in 1991, I could just type in a few code words and there it would be in 2005. When someone told me a couple of years back that they regularly trash all of their e-mails (even telling me about the little trash can icon) I was gob-smacked, I confess. I thought everyone just saved everything electronically the same as I save it physically. Live and learn.
Yes, it’s a good point. Not a TV show, but the fact that the Comics Journal—in real world terms—has a marketable cachet in the comic-book field as a "brand" and consequently would have a monetary value if some magazine publisher wanted to make a bid for it. Those sorts of things always seem to me to illustrate more the way the comic-book field operates on a different wavelength from the "real" world than it does pointing out obvious marketable moves that we aren’t aware of as poor, dumb comic-book geeks. Whatever Conde Nast (or whomever) paid for the name, I can’t imagine that there would be any value to them buying it unless Gary and Kim were still in charge. I mean, picture it. The New Improved Comics Journal with a big launch party in San Diego introducing the new Hot Young Editorial Team. You can’t get much funnier than that. Tina Brown is the new editor and she’s going to do more feature stories on the Clintons with lots of big glossy photos about their favourite comic books.
Dirk Deppey II
Well, that’s why I was asking. I had heard that the Eros line was work-made-for-hire and that you guys paid $30 a page. So you do pay royalties on the Eros Comics? Is it a comparable royalty to what an artist makes on the Fantagraphics titles or am I at least on safe ground in saying that you probably can’t find a lower paying deal in comics?
Yes, that’s very true. "That’s the comics biz for you—just a bunch of kids wanting to believe in a fantasy."
But at the same time (see above) Neal Adams believed in a fantasy that he could get the companies to stop chopping the artwork up and instead give it back to the artists and that he could create little pressures here and there to push the page rates up to the point where talented guys who could make it in the commercial field could justify getting paid less just because they’d rather draw comics. And it turned out not to be a fantasy at all. He did what he set out to do. So, yes, I do think it’s worth putting some time in on my own fantasy of a template contract which could serve as the jumping off point for all comic-book contractual agreements in the future.
Who knows? Maybe my fantasy will come true, too.
Ed Gauthier II
No, no. Sorry. You misunderstood. I have a computer—or, rather, Aardvark-Vanaheim does—and that’s what I use to input all of this stuff. What I don’t have is Internet access. My problem was the opposite one to what you seem to infer. I was spending two to four hours a night channel-surfing when I finally decided to throw my TV away back in July of 2001. As far as I could see the Internet was just the same as television only with multi-millions of "channels". I was looking to cure my addiction to channel-surfing, not find a way to add more "channels". The same way that when I quit smoking cigarettes, I didn’t go back to smoking pot and add pipes and cigars into the mix. When I quit smoking in 1999, I quit smoking. When I quit channel-surfing in 2001, I quit channel-surfing. I occasionally lapse if I’m staying in a hotel room (I put the TV on just to see how the Blue Jays did and there I am surfing away at three o’clock in the morning).
My "usual huge long [careful of redundancies, Ed] dull columns of typed twaddle" are my best effort to frame my viewpoints in such a way that they can be understood since I always tend to be the "minority of one" guy in any discussion. I see things very differently, so I not only have to explain how I see things, I also have to explain, much of the time, how I arrived at the conclusions that I did as well as explaining that I understand the viewpoints opposing my own and where and why I think my own viewpoint is closer to an accurate perception of reality.
I like to think the Internet can be made useful for far-ranging discussions where everyone has as much room to make their points as they think they need. I think, as an example, that it would be useful to have candidates for Prime Minister sit at a computer console in public for twelve hours and explain how they intend to run the country without repeating themselves with a hundred citizens rating them as they go along: "Jargon" and "Not Jargon".
Certainly the idea of the Toronto and Northampton Summits proved unworkable. There are only so many hours in a day and you spend as much time with everyone talking as you do having to write down what everyone said as you do actually exchanging viewpoints. You tend to go over the same ground several times. This way, I can spend two hours or so reading the material Al’s forwarded to me and then spend the ensuing eight hours answering all of the points directed at me (while taking time out for prayer times and for going out in the great summer day that we have going today whenever I was inclined to because no one is paying me to write all this stuff and I’m not punching a time clock). The last lengthy post I sent to Al was two weeks ago, Canada Day weekend. That’s about the level of devotion I’m willing to give the subject of the Bill of Rights. I don’t want to disown it, but I also don’t want to have to get up every morning and check my e-mail and find out that I have eight different people busting my chops over my latest contribution and then have to dive in and devote hours to explaining what I actually meant and apologizing for any unintended inferences that have been drawn. Answering my regular mail is still, most days, a full time job. I can’t picture adding another "access point" that I’m obligated to stay current with.
I’ve tried to include more (however arbitrary) paragraph breaks in the hopes of making you a happier camper.
"He knows full well that if he ever dared to set foot online (without using sock puppets as he no doubt already has, that is), he’d be torn to shreds in less than two minutes."
I laughed at this because the image was pretty funny, picturing myself carefully setting foot online with sock puppets on my hands. I’m just guessing but, are sock puppets, like, fake names or something so you can participate in a discussion without anyone knowing who you are? Trust me, if you’d seen Gerhard having to guide me through the basics of the Internet to do the post-issue 300 real time interview with the Cerebus Yahoos you’d know better. He ended up having to do most of the "clicking around" stuff himself so that all I had to do was sit there and type my answers. I’ve tried to find things on the Internet at the library—Yad Vashem I made it into no problem—but most of the time I just end up at a Truck Rental site or a little box comes up on the screen to tell me that I’ve made an inapplicable command or designated an irretrievable function or mandated an un-legitimized inquiry and do I wish to continue? At that point it just seems ludicrous to be wrestling with HAL when there are 15,000 books I’ve never read surrounding me on all sides so I just walk away and go look up whatever I have to look up in a book.
Still I’ll take your word for it that I’d be torn to shreds in two minutes of setting cybernetic foot which seems to me both an accurate indictment of the Internet—halfway between a high school clique and a lynch mob—and a good reason for thinking people to avoid it in its present form.
Thanks again for doing this, Al. Glad to hear you’re getting a lot of work from Archie.