A Saturday Farewell… and a Word of Caution

by  in Comic News Comment
A Saturday Farewell… and a Word of Caution

A couple of news items came to my attention this week that might seem unrelated but there is a common thread that ties them together.

First of all, I was extremely saddened this week to hear of the passing of Ann Crispin.

I had heard she was ill, but I was still taken by surprise when her farewell showed up on the internet earlier this week.

I’ve been hesitant to make this post, but it’s time. I want to thank you all for your good wishes and prayers. I fear my condition is deteriorating. I am doing the best I can to be positive but I probably don’t have an awful lot of time left. I want you all to know that I am receiving excellent care and am surrounded by family and friends.

I wish all aspiring writers the will to finish and a good contract. Please continue to monitor Writer Beware and be careful who you sign with. Victoria Strauss and Richard White are there to help.

I’ve asked Michael to collect and read me your messages. As I don’t know how things will proceed, I don’t know if I’ll have the strength to post on Facebook again.

This was followed a couple of days later with the news of her finally succumbing to her illness.

That was a one-two punch that I took a little harder than expected. I did not know Ann Crispin personally, we had never met at a convention or anything like that. But her work meant a lot to me. Sometimes, reading a particular writer’s books, you find yourself responding to the person beneath the story. Usually it’s because they put so much of themselves into the work that it feels like you know them a little; there’s a sense of friendliness and invitation. Isaac Asimov’s books always struck me that way, and Steve Gerber’s… and Ann Crispin’s.

Part of it for me was the circumstances under which I first read her books, I suppose. In the 1980s I was having a very bad time of it. No need to recount all the details, but there were a lot of days I desperately wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. Often my only way out was through books and comics. Ann Crispin’s books were among the most successful in achieving that escape for me, and even after I got my personal life together I remained quite fond of her writing.

Chances are, if you are on CBR reading this column, you’ve run across her work as well. She did a lot of media tie-in stuff.

Some people sneer at writers who do this kind of licensed thing but I never have. Writing of any kind is hard work, and the added restrictions placed upon someone who is trying to write a new story with a licensed property often cause that writer to flee screaming from the project. It’s extremely difficult to do well.

But whenever I picked up something by “A.C. Crispin,” no matter if it was set in someone else’s fictional universe or one of her own, I knew it was going to be a good story told well, one that read with deceptive ease and simplicity.

Her Star Trek books were my favorites, in particular Yesterday’s Son and its even better sequel Time For Yesterday, but I enjoyed all of them.

But it turns out that Ann Crispin actually did a hell of a lot more for the literary world than just write books that a lot of people liked. She served as a director and then as a vice-president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and worked for years to make sure that writers got treated professionally.

Trust me when I tell you that this is a badly-needed service. For some reason, even today when international media conglomerates are so invested in protecting their intellectual properties, there is still the sense that writing and drawing stories isn’t really a profession worthy of respect and payment. As Melanie Gillman points out here…

Which is why we still need advocates like Ann Crispin. Probably the most important part of the legacy she leaves behind isn’t the writing– it’s the work she did with SFWA on behalf of creator’s rights. In 1998 she co-founded Writer Beware with Victoria Strauss. This is an invaluable online resource for anyone who writes professionally or aspires to.

Writers and artists tend to be bad at business, especially in the beginning when just the joy of seeing your work in print can overshadow everything else, including remembering common-sense financial practices. I’ve actually spent a lot of time in my high school Young Authors classes warning my students about various scams and explaining what they look like. There is an entire predatory industry that is built on parting aspiring writers from their cash with the promise of making them ‘true professionals.’ Sometimes it’s coming from big companies that really ought to know better– looking at you, Amazon— and sometimes it’s a fly-by-night con artist, but it’s something creative people always have had to contend with; predators and con artists and crappy treatment from publishers. The idea persists that this is okay because creating stories is not real work, anyone can do it, so it isn’t worthy of respect or decent pay because it’s just ‘fun’ and not an actual job.

Ann Crispin stood against that idea more than anyone else. She devoted a great deal of her life to rooting out all the crooked publishers and reading-fee agents and vanity-press scams that have suckered so many beginners. She was often threatened with lawsuits for naming names when warning off potential victims from doing business with this or that crook, and displayed the kind of fearlessness and honesty that even a Green Lantern would envy.

I was thinking about that a lot when I was reading about all the Batwoman hubbub and the abrupt departure of J.H. Williams and Hayden Blackman from the title– the other news item that caught my attention this week. There are a lot of reports that have tried to make it about DC being anti-gay or anti-marriage or whatever, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re all missing the point. This latest in DC’s ongoing series of editorial missteps and PR disasters is just one more in a lonnnnng line of cases demonstrating a publisher’s default position: that creators don’t matter.

And from a dollars-and-cents point of view, those publishers aren’t wrong. History has demonstrated, over and over, that no matter how tough fans may talk about creator’s rights online or elsewhere, it never impacts the publisher’s bottom line. At the end of the day everything is subservient to the readers’ need to know what’s going on with Batman or Spider-Man or the Avengers. Superhero comics publishers, especially, treat creators as interchangeable cogs in a machine because that’s what they are as far as fans are concerned. If someone gets screwed over that’s just too damn bad. There’s always the apologists’ argument that “they should have known what they were getting into, it’s work made for hire, they signed a contract. That’s the way the business works.”

But it shouldn’t work that way. It’s not necessary for the publishing world to be a shark tank, not even when it comes to licensed properties and work-made-for-hire. It hurts the work and it chases off talented people when that happens. (Don’t believe me? See this article for the whole depressing list of the people DC has alienated just since the debut of the New 52.)

Creators deserve professional respect from their employers. Ann Crispin knew that. And she made the world of SF and fantasy literature a measurably better place fighting for that idea.

That’s what I was thinking about, reading the news yesterday: how much the SF creative community is going to miss one of its fiercest advocates… and how much the world of superhero comics has suffered because comics creators have never had someone like Ann Crispin fighting for them in the first place.

See you next week.