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The Creator's Bill of Rights:
Dave Sim's letter to Erik Larsen

Below is a letter from Dave Sim to Erik Larsen concerning creator's rights and publishing. -Al Nickerson

27 July 05


Oh, no, the apology is all mine. Man, be careful you donít turn into Jimmy Carter micro-managing everything in the vicinity that you know how to do. The purpose of a CEO is to get things done, not to do everything himself. In fact, thatís one of the big drawbacks to being the boss is that you spend all your time setting things in motion and then not really getting to be hands-on again until the whole thing is done and you get to tweak it here and there. I hope Howard appreciates what youíve done with Flagg. The Image publisher fixing the film on his book! The mind boggles.

And no problem on waiting on the Cerebus collection but (see above) I now have terrible visions of you spending two weeks at Graphitti sorting all of Bobís junk just so you can find the negatives for the colour Cerebus stories and neglecting your Image duties in the process.

Can I get you to e-mail your side of the dialogue to Al Nickerson? This latest stuff is very good, I think, and I go no higher on the electronics evolutionary chain than the fax machineówhich would mean Al would have to retype it (besides which he doesnít have a fax machine).

My reply:

I tend to be the same way about contributing wherever I can see a need and where I have an interest. I certainly didnít make sure that I had a rock-solid contract with Howard Shum before volunteering to jam on an issue of Gun Fu and I never asked Todd if I was going to get paid for the issue of Spawn, let alone what I was going to get paid. Kevin presented the Turtles crossover as a complete package with minimal work on my part and big bucks on the back end. Looks like fun. Letís do it.

But I think one of the problems with the two of us discussing this is that we areóand can beóvery productive guys and we are reasonably far along in our respective careers. That means that weíve really got our own needs more than looked after with our own creativity so we can afford to take a philosophical attitude towards working with other people, offering suggestions, etc. where and when the opportunity presents itself. In fact, Iím pretty sure that youíre like me in the fact that thatís one of the major job perks. I like sticking my head under the hood and dinking around on someone elseís car. Iíd never let someone else do it to my car, but there you go, thatís a fundamental difference. But I do like making suggestions whether someone uses them or not.

Even when Scott McCloud presented us all with the draft Bill of Rights back in 1988, it really had very little to do with me personally but I did see it as a valuable step in the right direction ofófirst and foremostódefining what "creators rights" even are since we had been using the term pretty extensively since 1974 or so. The guys that I have in mind are a) the sloooowww guys who are lucky to do an issue of something in a good year. Thatís a very different kind of creativity so that every page represents a weekís work or so. For someone like that, he can work five or six years on one short 100-page graphic novel and, if he has no idea how the game is played, he can lose that five or six years worth of work in an eyeblink. When Cerebus was on schedule, Ger and I were producing 100 pages in five months. Even if we had been taking it to market we could afford to be a lot more philosophical about getting ripped off for those 100 pages. It was "only" five months. I also think of b) the publishers who have been losing the stake in their companies as work-made-for-hire has been collapsing as a viable alternative. As Gary Groth said elsewhere in this discussion, "What did Kitchen Sink own? Nothing?" It wasnít too far from the truth. I was certainly one of the guys who was pushing hard for more creators to become publishers and I couldnít be happier that Image still exists as a residue of what it started asóand that Larryís "free movement" clause is firmly entrenched at Image Centralóbut it does become a tough template for non-creative publishers to match. The Image partners are able to make their money from their creativity so that publishing is really something of a sideline rather than the do-or-die proposition it is for smaller publishers. It does make it tough to get non-creator publishers into the game along the lines of Fantagraphics and Top Shelf, letís say. Giving editors/publishers small percentages of books they help to shape, to me, would help bring back a balance that has, possibly, skewed too far in favour of the creators. And Iím also thinking of c) fans and retailers. I mean, it mustíve occurred to you at various times thatóparticularly in the case of a fan with a dead-end jobóthatís all the money they can make. And, letís face it, if itís a hardcore comic-book fan, heís giving us virtually all of his disposable income, one way or another, and usually for years on end. And, to me, itís not like Hollywood where we can say, Oh, well, itís 50 million people scattered all over the globe. How are you going to give something back to the little people? Creators, publishers and retailers, weíre all in one little rowboat compared to Big Time Entertainment. I canít see anything wrong with dealing someone in on the game for 1% or 2% of revenues if you establish right up front that thatís whatís going on and they make a genuine contribution. Likewise a retailer. A lot of these guys are getting up 4 am on Wednesday to drive to a drop-off or freight forwarding place to pick up the books and get them back to the store and sorted and on the shelf by opening time. They have to guess whatís going to sell out of a five hundred page catalogue EVERY month and eat what doesnít sell. To me, another instance where the gravy train has ended up parked in front of the creators when it comes to the level of risk. We get paid for every book we sell and if the retailers canít sell our books, itís the retailerís problem. If, in addition to buying 500 copies of the first issue of Cerebus, Harry Kremer had made a suggestion for the book that was just too good not to use and I had to admit that it boosted sales and interest, maybe getting 1% of the Cerebus gross or net over thirty years wouldíve gotten him over some of the tough stretches. I dare say the tough stretches the retailers go through are a lot tougher than the tough stretches that creators go through. Let me put it this way, Do you want to switch jobs with a retailer? When youíre in a privileged (blessed by God as I would see it) position like we are, I think you have to have an awareness and bring the same level of helpfulness to the table in considering just how much of the worldóand in this case our world, our collective worldwide ever-diminishing Comic-Book Nation has a very fixed income and that 1% of Cerebus or Savage Dragon would be like winning the lottery for these folks. Better from their standpoint because it would give them a sense of having contributed something besides all of their disposable income to the comic-book field. Itís not something I would have doneóI never asked for help, advice or suggestions. I did my work and Ger did his work. But in a field where most of the work is already done by collaboration I donít see anything wrong with acknowledging valuable contributions with a piece of the action.

Not coming from the super-hero end of things, youíre right. Such a program does cause a lot of problems when a lot of the content is perceived to be made up of "What if Iron Man and Thor had a big fight?" And, no, I canít really see cutting someone in for a share of the action on that. But Iím more talking about the point of creation, or the period between the creation and the signing of the contract. Remember, I conceded your point on Medieval Spawn. Even though a court of law said Neil had a case, I donít think it serves the comic-book fieldís best interests to see that as a precedentóor, perhaps, more accuratelyóthat it proves that those things need to be established by the publishing creator. "I donít go in for that. If you want to take back Medieval Spawn, go ahead, but I donít see variations as innovations and I canít concede ownership of something thatís just a modification of my own intellectual property". I think it was a very badly-reasoned verdict in the Neil vs. Todd trial that would make very bad case lawóall you have to do is reverse it to see that: what if Neil had created Medieval Spawn and sold it to Vertigo? Would anyone in their right mind think he was entitled to do so?óand just between you me and the lamppost I think it had more to do with the all-female jury at the trial. It wouldnít matter what Todd and Neil were disagreeing about, an all-female jury was going to find Todd in the wrong and Neil in the right just because Todd is Todd and Neil is Neil. Had the judge asked them, Iím sure the all-female jury would have been happy to give Neil the rights to Spawn, Toddís house and cars, Madonnaís uniform from A League of Their Own and the Mark McGwire baseball and anything else Neil expressed an interest in.
Angela, I would maintain was a different matter entirely and I would think that all of these "well after the point of creation" items could be better handled on an issue-by-issue basis. It would seem to me that Neil was entitled to a royalty on each appearance of Angela and on the action figure and if that seemed unreasonable to Toddóand, as Iíve said, I can certainly see Todd thinking that $100,000 should be you some considerationóthen the easy answer, it seems to me, is to write Angela out of the book and discontinue the action figure. And I quite agree with you on who was driving the Spawn bus. As far as I know the sales on Spawn 9 were probably higher than on Sandman to a factor of ten. Just as the sales of Spawn 10 were higher than on Cerebus to a factor of 100.

"Ultimately, this comes down to people needing to get stuff in printóto create contractsóbecause you never know beforehand whether youíll end up dealing with an Erik Larsen or a Neil Gaiman." Well put. I guess the only place that I differ on that is in my seeing that what is needed is not contracts in general which requires each creator to reinvent the wheel each time out, but a template contract or, put another way, an absolute contract. "If you sign this contract, you wonít lose a thing." Something that gives recommended guidelines on royalties, covers all forms of licensing and merchandising, control issues, decision-making and from there you can frame any contract you want out of that raw material. Not to protect Neil. As I said before I donít think any of these discussions apply to Neil or Frank Miller or Todd McFarlane or Dave Sim or any well-established guy (apart from giving me an idea if Iím underpaying or overpaying Rick Veitch and Bob Burden on royalties). But I do think it would be very useful if future generations had a template contract, an absolute contract that they could measure against whatever contract they were offered and particularly for those guys who have a lot of trouble "racking up pages" and consequently have a higher-than-usual stake in a given page, a given issue and a given graphic novel.

Yes, Ger and I are both interested in proceeding with some kind of Cerebus project at Image. Itís certainly incredibly attractive that if we decide to pull the project and go elsewhere after the first printing, Image Central will just happily wave goodbye. It seems to me that that makes it more likely that the Cerebus colour volume would find a permanent home at Image. If you know you can leave at anytime, youíre usually less inclined to.

Hope to see you join in on this little discussion group the next time you can grab a few minutes.

And delegate, Erik, delegate. If anyone else can do the job as well as you can get them to do it and save "the buck stops here" stuff for yourself.

Dave Sim

Next: A Letter from Steve Bissette 4 Steve Bissette addresses Erik Larsen and Dave Sim's letters concerning creator's rights and publishing.