Thursday, June 02, 2005

Incrementalism As A Way Of Life

Why has the question of "Creator's Rights" returned so suddenly and singularly to the forefront of the conversation? It is no more or less urgent a topic now than it was at any point in the last decade, and yet for some reason a number of stars seem to have aligned just right to resurrect the discussion.

Obviously, it's important that these issues be kept at the forefront of our community and professional discussions. In a very profound way, we should never stop talking about creator's rights: the concept should form the background and bedrock of what we consider to be the moral interactions of any publisher and any creator. But there reaches a point where the current discussion of creator's rights reaches a necessary terminus, and this point occurs at the exact point where the marketplace ceases to function on any rational level. In other words, the concept of creator's rights as they has come to be understood in comics, has reached something of a zenith, at least inasmuch as it is possible under current conditions. While I could be mistaken (anyone who reads this blog knows I've a tendency to step out onto fragile limbs which can ill-support my assertions), a great deal of the current conversation, including the semi-rancorous contributions from the usual suspects, boils down to frustration. Comics is a peculiar medium, and an even more peculiar business, and the fact is that there is only so much more that can be done to further the cause of creator's rights.

At the risk of drowning in aphorism, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. The past few decades has seen a steady and incremental increase in the awareness of creator's rights. But, as some have pointed out, the acknowledgment that creator's have rights is not the end of the discussion, but in some circumstances merely the prelude. The fact that a creator has rights also means that a creator can use these rights as bargaining chips. In a post-Cerebus, post Love & Rockets, post-Image, post-King Cat, post-Bone and post-Achewood world, it's not as if there aren't any options for the discriminating creator. Get a website, publish your own comics, staple your own minis, get good enough to publish with an indie . . . if you want creator's rights, they're there for you to take. No one is stopping you.

The crushing realization for many -- and I count myself firmly among this group -- is that many (most?) people are content not to exercise most of these rights. Many intelligent, articulate and creative people are content, or at least somewhat satisfied, to sign over many of their "rights" in exchange for . . . what? Financial security? Medical benefits? The privilege to work with trademarked characters? All of these are valid reasons (some, admittedly, more than others), and all of these undoubtedly exert a force on different people to different extents. There are a lot of talented people working in mainstream comics who seem perfectly happy to have stepped "up" from self-publishing or creator-owned endeavors and into the realms of company-owned properties. Who is to tell someone like Brian Michael Bendis, who made his name on creator-owned properties (Jinx, Goldfish, Powers), or Mark Millar, who had (I think) the most successful creator-owned book of last year (Wanted), that they don't understand or appreciate their rights as creators?

This is the reason why the current conversation seems slightly anachronistic. To a very real degree, the dialogue has shifted. Now Bendis and Millar, and most creators to a greater or lesser degree, have the option to exercise their rights selectively. The fact that these creators acknowledged these rights meant something, because at the very least it gave them a perception of value, so that they could negotiate from a position of relative strength. They got where they are in the industry -- from a purely economical point of view -- by leveraging their rights as an asset on the bargaining table.

The tacit admission on the part of Marvel and DC that creators can represent a significant -- and in some cases overwhelming -- appeal to the consumer represented another sea-change. Within the living memory of every person reading this blog, regardless of how young you are, the creative personnel on mainstream comics used to be absolutely superfluous to anyone but the fans. The editors and publishers had so many books they had to publish, and so many creators to produce them, and it was all very much like a factory. If one cog slipped, they just replaced it. But now it's been decades since any major publisher has slotted a reprint in place of a late issue, and it's been many years since I've seen a fill-in that wasn't planned: no last-minute substitutions with inventory issues. Used to happen all the time, and when most people were buying their comics off spinner-racks no one could do anything about it. But now when a comic ships with different creators, it's returnable (thanks to Mr. Brian Hibbs for standing up for the enforcement of this rule). The unavoidable implication is that, at some point, the creators themselves became an asset for the corporations, and ceased to be just cogs. For so long as the current system exists, this is undeniably a positive step forward.

But this ultimately brings me back to my main point: the current system isn't going to die anytime soon. The system, as it is represented by the direct market, is built around super-hero comics, and the most popular super-hero properties are owned lock, stock and barrel by Marvel and DC. If they weren't the two biggest companies in comics, this wouldn't really matter. But we have an odd and myopic system that acts according to strange properties which really aren't analogous to any other segment of the entertainment industry. Is there something inherently bad about some of the most talented creators in comics working basically as artisans for the replenishment of corporate trademarks? On a very real level -- and, lets be frank, as someone who still reads a few superhero books -- I think that the answer is yes. But on the other hand I cannot blame anyone for making the economic and creative decisions that they do. It's not like they don't have options. It's not that they haven't seen creators of past generations who got royally screwed by a less-developed version of the same system, and it's not that they haven't seen what the rewards have been for creators who have stepped outside of the system. It's not as if Marvel and DC are conspiring to make sure that none of the "house slaves" get wind of the fact that Frank Miller, Mike Mignola, Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird and Todd McFarlane all became millionaires.

As sad as it is for me to say this, I think that everyone in comics who wants to be doing meaningful work of lasting value (whatever that means), is already doing it. Are there any burgeoning Chris Wares or nascent Phoebe Gloeckners slaving away over uninked pages of Iron Man? I don't know, I honestly don't. But I do know that most of the people who want to create meaningful work in the current climate have found ways to do so. There are many, many cartoonists who live at or near the poverty level in order to be accorded the freedom to create as they want: as horrible as it may be, we don't live in a perfect socialist society, and sometimes if you want something badly enough you have to make sacrifices. Usually, people who want to do it find a way. Sometimes, if they have the talent to match their ambition, they are even remunerated for their efforts. It's hardly a perfect system -- it is in fact a grievously imperfect system in many profound ways -- but for better or worse it's what we got for the time being.

It's easy to imagine Todd MacFarlane's incredulity at seeing a young talent like Brian Michael Bendis cheerfully going to work at Marvel -- willingly submitting to what MacFarlane himself frequently termed called slavery. But there was a sea change in corporate comics in the years between the Image exodus and the beginning of Quesada's tenure as Editor in Chief. The admission that creators were a vital ingredient towards the success or failure of any endeavor was an enormous concession. Of course, they are still only a single ingredient: a Spider-Man comic drawn by John Romita Jr. may sell more than a Spider-Man comic drawn by Joe Blow, but the Joe Blow fill-in still sells more than John Romita Jr's prestigious creator-owned project. The creator isn't all-powerful, but there is at least a recognition of significance. To some like MacFarlane it may smack of being a well-groomed "house slave", and others still might bewail the fact that anyone might willingly subject themselves to those conditions, but can we honestly at this point say the decision isn't made with some degree of foreknowledge? To say otherwise is an insult to the creators.

Ultimately, it all comes back to the current system. If comics had an economic structure that more resembled real publishing, this wouldn't even be an issue. In a bookstore, even the crappiest suspense potboiler belongs to its author. Licensed properties are a perpetual presence in bookstores, but they aren't the rule. People still buy Star Trek novels, Hardy Boys adventures and movie novelizations, but they are nowhere near the be-all-and-end-all of successful prose publishing as their four-color counterparts are in comics. In a perfect world, if the comics industry totally changed overnight and the primacy of the creator was firmly established as the law of the land, I don't think that Marvel or DC would go anywhere. They just wouldn't be the only game in town, or at least the only game in town that lets you pay the rent. In a balanced and healthy marketplace, creators could choose as they want with a minimum of duress or perceived duress. As long as corporate modes of production retain their primacy in the comic book industry, the choice to work for Marvel or DC will always look like exploitation to some. But perhaps, within our lifetime, things shall change, and I don't think there's anyone who can say that wouldn't be a good thing.


And if you read all that, here's the coolest thing ever in the history of the world. Well, not really, but man, do these people have way too much free time or what?

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