Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Modest Proposal

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time might be thinking that I've gone soft in my old age. I mean, this blog used to provide at least a modicum of comic culture commentary, now it's just leftfield indie reviews buffeted by weird photoshop projects. I can definitely see why I may have slipped down a notch from the ring of "A-List" bloggers -- not that I'm bitter, no. You kids today, with your Dave's Long Box and your When Fangirls Attack. Why I remember when all we had was Neilalien, and a rock, and sometimes when we were really lucky Neilalien would link to the rock and it would make a hollow "ponk" sound like someone tapping a coconut with their finger.

So yeah. I'm not even going to try to tell you that I have any intention of getting back into the serious commentary business full-time, because you and I both know that would be a God-damned lie. But I guess I do miss being a bit more topical with these posts. You can only sit in a pentacle on the north pole and fast for so long while your friends are killing themselves. And wow, a Doctor Strange reference and a Neilalien shout-out in the same post? Why don't I just mention Ditko and get it over with? Ditko Ditko Ditko Ditko.

So yeah, anyway. Late comics. Late comics are a problem for a number of reasons: 1) assuming anybody wants to read the comic that is late, said people get pissed off that the comic they wish to buy is not available for purchase. 2) assuming the retailers can sell the comic in the first place, said retailers get pissed off when they are unable to sell said comic. 3) in the time it takes for a late comic to ship, readers may decide they have no more interest in reading something, and retailers may decide they have no confidence in trying to sell such a flighty product. Of course, 3) is mostly conjectural to date, considering that massive lateness rarely does anything to slow the enthusiasm of comics fans. A heroin addict doesn't care if their dealer is an hour or six hours late, it just makes them want that sweet, sweet smack all the more. The fact that lateness continues to be a problem puts the comic producers in much the same category as the smack dealer: as long as their audience remains captive, they will suffer relatively no damage, aside from maybe a few swipes from message boards and bloggers. No one is going to be selling Spider-Man comics anytime soon except for Marvel, and as long as that continues to be the case Marvel can probably get away with selling Spider-Man comics on whatever the fuck kind of pre-Gregorian sun cycle schedule they wish. Retailers get their pockets picked every single time a popular comic is released, but they are, if anything, in a worse position than even the readers. A reader can, if they so choose, decide that reading Spider-Man comics isn't worth the trouble. A retailer who decided that stocking Marvels wasn't worth the trouble would go out of business in a month -- yeah, this most likely even goes for the most progressive, future-minded indie retailer you can think of, with maybe a handful of exceptions around the entire country.

The problem then, is not necessarily an economic one for Marvel. I mean, I've been doing this for years, and every single time a comic ships late, it's inevitable that someone, somewhere pipes up and says something to the effect of "there's no way they can keep up these kinds of shoddy business practices without paying the price at some point". Well, here's the thing: they can, and they have. And of course it's not just Marvel: DC has their own problems, but at least in some cases they have the good sense not to solicit issues that haven't been completed (Kevin Smith's Green Arrow springs to mind).

If I were Editor-In-Chief -- heh, how old of a fanboy parlor game is that -- I think the most important thing I could do would be to institute a rule saying that no comic could be solicited until it was done (as in, at least in finished pencils), and no mini-series could be solicited in any way unless it was completely done (as in, at least in finished pencils). Of course, life doesn't work like that. Editorial mandates have a way of slipping even when they are strictly enforced (remember "dead is dead"? remember "Batman as urban legend"?) There is one angle that I don't think I've ever heard anyone propose anymore.

It is in everyone's best interest for comics to ship on time for one very simple reason: it makes people look bad. Sure, when you get down to it, it's all dollars and sense, and bad faith is hard to quantify . . . but look at it this way: a late comic means that, somewhere along the line, someone lied. Someone either knowingly or unknowingly told a fib about how much work they would be able to accomplish, how easy it would be to fit a certain task into an already full workload, how hard it would be to catch up. I am sure many of these instances are total accidents, but I am also sure, from what I know of human nature, that some people -- be they freelancers, editors, publishers -- are just undependable by nature. Not everyone has the wherewithal of Adam Hughes, who knew damn well it takes him forever to draw a comic, and therefore All-Star Wonder-Woman has not, and hopefully will not, be scheduled until it's done. The reality is more like Joe Quesada, who probably believed in good faith that it would be a lot easier to produce a six-issue mini-series in his spare time than it turned out to be. It's a shame because, say what you will about the man shooting off his mouth, I've always liked Quesada's art. He's got a strong sense of design and has always experimented with interesting panel layouts. But I don't think I've ever seen a single reference to Daredevil: Father that wasn't primarily about the book's lateness. I am halfway tempted to by the thing now that it's collected but I'll be damned if I've ever seen an actual review of it anywhere.

You can go on and on -- Daredevil: Target, Ultimate Wolverine & Hulk, All-Star Batman. These are just isolated instances, hardly bank-breakers for most retailers -- but then you've got Civil War, and does anyone remember that the final issues of Infinite Crisis were also very, very late? These are serious problems for retailers, but even if they don't impact the publisher's bottom lines, they do affect the reputations of the people involved.

So, seeing that the best efforts of well-intentioned men and women have failed, there is one recourse: contracts. I have no idea what a standard mainstream contract looks like anymore. I think I saw one years ago. I don't remember it. But I am fairly certain that if it's like any contract that has ever been signed in the history of the world, it is composed of clauses. Considering that this is mainstream comics, those clauses are probably pretty ironclad and weighted towards the publishers in all instances. But there is one very simple clause that would help both publishers and freelancers save a lot of face: the work will not be solicited until it's done. It hurts the creators arguably more than it does the companies, but both parties should theoretically want to fix the mess. How easy would it be? The work will not be solicited until it's done.

Imagine if Kevin Smith had had that written into his contract for Daredevil: Target. Instead of being a running joke and persistent annoyance, the project would simply be one of those, "hey, didn't they say they were going to do this at some point?" myths that gets asked at convention panels. If Quesada had left Daredevil: Father to sit until he was done, the book would probably have been a small success and not, unfortunately, merely another symptom of a larger problem. It frankly amazes me that big tentpole projects like Civil War and Infinite Crisis are being produced by the seat of the companies' proverbial pants. Would it have killed them to have the series done ahead of time? That way not only does the series ship like clockwork, but the crossovers and ancillary products are fully consistent. I mean, come on, Rich Johnston devoted, like, half his freakin' column this week to the discrepancies between Civil War and its spin-offs. When the main thrust of your product is its appeal to long-term continuity buffs, it is probably in your best interests to make sure you get the continuity right. Imagine, just for a second, that all the people involved in Civil War had had access to something as small as photocopied packets of all of Mark Millar's scripts ahead of time. Oh, what's that you say? He didn't have the story finished on time? They probably didn't know how it was going to end until it was over? Hah, that's an entirely different problem.

But how different would the matter be if Steve McNiven had had a clause in his contract forbidding anyone to solicit so much as the first issue of Civil War until he had lifted his pencil from the last page? The series would have shipped on time, the crossovers would all have fit together like a hand in a glove, and people would be free to spend all their time yelling about how everyone is totally out of character instead of splitting their time between complaining about everyone being out of character and the books being so ruinously late. DC One Million was an incredibly complex story and yet somehow they managed to make everything ship on time in the space of a month. It's not impossible.

Just, I know, highly improbable. But I would think it would be in every freelancers' interest to ensure their work be put forward in the most positive light possible. Late books, no matter the reason, may not heavily impact the bottom line for major corporations, but it is indeed possible for them to affect the careers of struggling (and not-so-struggling) freelancers.

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