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Issue #280

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #280

For some reason, the topic of creator-publisher relations has popped up in a couple emails lately. Like: why are creators and publishers so hostile toward each other?

The short answer: they aren’t, particularly.

At least at the top level of the American comics industry – Marvel, DC, Wildstorm, etc. – creator-publisher relations are about as cordial as I can remember. Which isn’t to say they’re anywhere near perfect, but the ground rules have stabilized, everyone pretty much knows what they’re getting into, and the people working for them seem more or less happy to be there, within reason. Editorial fiat is still something of an issue – micromanagement and “top down storytelling” have become bigger deals at Marvel and DC than ever before as Big Events have once again taken center stage and its Universes Uber Alles – but anyone who doesn’t recognize that game going in needs to work on their basic perception skills.

And the paychecks generally come when they’re supposed to. Which gets to be a big deal once you’re past the age of, oh, 23. Creator rights aren’t even that great an issue anymore; both Marvel and DC have branches where talent can publish creator-owned properties (like Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips’ CRIMINAL, which you should be reading) with a few restrictions should they convince the respective company they’re worth it. (At least at Marvel it tends to be something you work your way toward; at DC all you really have to do to publish through Vertigo is convince Vertigo to take the project on. Still much easier said than done.)

But you have to understand that both publishers (editors fall under the rubric; while they often function as both, they’re paid to be extensions of the publisher, not ombudsmen for talent) and creators have always viewed each other as necessary evils, and it’s not painting either as evil to say they’d cut the other out of the equation if they could. Both have tried, at times, with very, very few successes on either side. The fact is they’re stuck with each other. Creator rights was more of an issue when both a lot more money was flowing (talent understandably if frustratingly gets interested in getting a bigger share of a bigger pie in good times and holding onto what they’ve got in bad) and publishers maintained their long held view that they held all the power. Now, once past a rarified upper crust, money isn’t flowing very much, and most publishers, while still believing they hold the lion’s share of the power, at least pay lip service to the notion that publishers and talent are partners in creating great comics, something the fairly standard practice of royalties pays lip service to.

Most of the problems these days come under the top level, where there are a lot more people desperate to get published and a lot more publishers with lots of ambition but no resources to speak of. Basically, it’s where the lines are more clearly drawn because each side is aware of the other’s inadequacies and much more tolerant of (if not delusional about) their own. At that level, as far as the publisher is concerned talent exists to establish the publisher’s reputation, and as far as talent is concerned the publisher exists to establish talent’s reputation. And the term “unprofessional” crops up a lot more. This isn’t a business that has ever had clear guidelines on “professionalism”; by and large, beyond grasp of simple craft – which itself has never been an absolute given – “professionalism” is a publisher’s term applied to the behavior of talent that turn in the work on time, accept whatever terms are laid out for them, and keep all complaints to themselves. Needless to say, this definition tends to favor the publisher, and all it usually takes to bump a talent from “professional” to “unprofessional” behavior is to raise an objection. Particularly a public objection.

It’s getting to be a rule of thumb that a really bad publisher is one who responds to public criticism by threatening lawsuits. You might notice large publishers usually don’t do that unless the circumstances are extreme, and in the case of small publishers it always seems to come up when the publisher hasn’t fulfilled the arrangement. Such publishers seem to think the bad publicity of a published news report will cripple their ability to grow their company into a successful one; they seem incapable (though blinding unwilling is probably more accurate) of grasping that if they’re in that situation there’s not going to ever be a successful company.

And for all the threatened lawsuits from small companies, how many actually happen? Have any ever happened? If small publishers can’t afford the terms of their own contracts, can they afford costly torts, or even their lawyers’ hourly fees on a protracted basis?

In a lot of cases, publishers and talent just don’t understand their responsibilities to each other. Talent’s responsible for producing their best work possible, within agreed restrictions, on time. It’s not surprising that a lot of publishers scream deadlines, as a lot of talent don’t get the concept. Blown deadlines cost publishers across the board money, and most of them wouldn’t be in publishing if they weren’t trying to make, not lose, money. I sympathize. If talent can’t produce their best work possible within editorial and time restrictions, or can’t arrange terms under which they can produce their best work, they shouldn’t be in those situations.

On the other hand, publishers and editors on all levels of comics tend to play fast and loose with deadlines themselves, aided by a continuing factory system that subdivides the creative process; if one component of the process – the penciler, say – goes over deadline, the common solution is to make the other components – writer, inker, letterer, colorist – pick up the slack. (I think I’ve mentioned how, in an earlier Marvel regime, I was once faxed pencil pages at noon on a Wednesday and asked if I could get the dialogue in by 2PM because the book was due at the printer on Friday morning and they didn’t want to miss shipping.) The ability to meet deadlines isn’t enough; the ability to meet agreed on deadlines with publishable work is a hallmark of professionalism anywhere.

But the deadline thing goes two ways: an agreed on payment date is also a deadline. If a publisher misses that date, particularly if they don’t give warning of it, that says they actually don’t give a rat’s ass about deadlines. Why should the talent pay attention to any other deadlines? Freelancers aren’t charitable institutions – (Likewise, if talent pays no attention to deadlines, why should publishers feel any compunctions about getting checks out on time? If there are checks, which is another issue entirely.)

Fact is most problems between publishers and talent, across the board, come down to four things: art, money, egos and mis-(or non-)communication. There are always going to be differences of opinion on artistic direction, but the other three are easily avoidable, if parties want to avoid them. But where money exists it often causes strains (for reasons mentioned above, as well as just not enough of it for anyone’s taste) and where it doesn’t exist ego is the only palpable reward. So talent often starts to view the publisher as parasites while publishers begin to think of talent as replaceable cogs. Certainly there are members of both groups who fit the descriptions, but it’s pretty easy to disprove both as general rules: talent that think otherwise can try to publish they’re own work – I know self-publishing is supposed to be the cherished dream of the industry, but it’s usually a landmined road to hell and it takes a special sort of mentality to ford it successfully, which is why most publishers don’t make it for long – and publishers who hold talent in contempt should write and draw their own comics, and both can see how far they get.

What everyone needs to remember is that, whatever other connections, publisher and talent predominantly have a business relationship, and that’s the only way to approach it. Doesn’t matter who you like or dislike, doesn’t matter if you’ve known them since grade school, once you enter a publisher-talent relationship, you’re in business together. That’s something a lot of people who get into comics at all levels seem to miss, because involvement generally springs from fannish behavior and most of us have been badgered into thinking there’s something sacred about “art,” and unbearably tainted about “business.” The best approach to business is to assume the general idea is to make a profit, be cautious about what you agree to, and then live up to it. The best talent and publishers already do that, but making it standard practice across the board on both sides of the aisle would reduce strife in the industry considerably.

Nobody likes to be called a bad artist, but here’s the good news: everyone starts out as one. The better news: it’s possible (not to mention desirable) to become a better artist, even if you’re doing it while being published. (Which in some ways is almost better, if you can make truly dramatic stylistic leaps.)

By way of example, I’ve run across some before and after shots from some of the greats of comics art:

One of Joe Kubert’s earliest pieces was a Sargon The Sorcerer story in SENSATION COMICS in late 1944:

Less than two years later, he briefly returned to the feature, and note the already marked differences in style and confidence:

Then, of course, there’s Joe Kubert’s work today, sixty years later, and he still blows away almost everyone else working in the medium:

In 1944, a very young Gil Kane took over the Sandman series in ADVENTURE COMICS from an army-bound Jack Kirby, with cringeworthy results:

Even Gil freely admitted his early published work was pure crap, and once he figured it out he decided he wasn’t going to settle for being a mediocre artist and pretty much painstakingly re-taught himself how to draw, so that by the 1960s he was among the three or four best artists in the business:

By the end of his life, he had solidified his style into something both totally recognizable and highly influential. If Gil himself was largely eclipsed by newer artists who became more popular in the ’90s, his style and the innovations he developed over his long career became part of the common language of comics that they absorbed and freely utilized:

Then there’s Alex Toth, whose earliest work was crude by our standards but already much more polished than most of the work that surrounded it:

Within ten years, Alex’s work had taken on considerable polish and was already highly influential:

Largely shunned by fans and adored by professionals, Toth continued altering his style to veer away from the ’50s realism he had helped pioneer and into a complex simplicity of caricature and design elements, particularly the interplay of light and shadow:

Early Barry Windsor-Smith (which also wasn’t strictly bad, but was certainly peculiar by the standards of the day):

Later Barry Windsor-Smith:

Most people aren’t geniuses, and some are more innately talented than others, but almost nobody’s hopeless either, if they don’t want to be. So if you’re told your work sucks, don’t get mad, get practicing. (And publishers/editors: it’s been 60 years since the Golden Age Of Comics. What passed for passably publishable art then just isn’t good enough here. If it looks like Joe or Gil’s early work, or even Alex’s, please don’t do it. The whole world is looking at us now, and this is the time to prove that American comics are the stuff. Crappy art doesn’t aid that argument in the least.

Speaking of influential artists…

There are only a handful of artists in comics history that have produced overwhelmingly influential art, the sort that gets absorbed into the common language of the medium and shat out by every tom, dick and harry artist who comes along afterward whether they realize it or not. Some don’t know because they’re not copying the original but an already extant copy. Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff never drew comic books per se, but their styles became the underpinnings of many comics done prior to 1950. Jack Kirby, of course, was the king of influential comics artists, and both in the ’40s and ’60s spawned a horde of imitators. Dan Barry’s clean line and more realistically proportioned figures first made their appearance at DC Comics in the late ’40s and by the early ’50s had become the house style in several editorial offices there, the standard until the late ’60s. By then, Gil Kane had refined and redefined action in comics, and his influence mushroomed in the ’70s as a flood of kids who grew up reading his work poured into the business. By then the other monster influence was Neal Adams, who helped change the face of comics in the late ’60s and became a guru to the next generation of artist. There were many other superb artists in comics, but as good as, say, Joe Kubert or Jim Steranko were, they were too idiosyncratic for others to easily copy, though “Jim Steranko effects” (as Neal Adams once joked in a Deadman story) joined the common language.

The sad byproduct of all this is that the most influential artists also became the ones most easily eclipsed in the long run, with later generations frequently scorning their work because others had long since reduced their innovations to too-frequently repeated clichés. Dan Barry died bitter that his outstanding contribution to the medium had been largely denigrated and forgotten, and Gil was frequently annoyed by reading interviews with people whose work borrowed in huge part from his but who never named him when asked to cite their influences. It’s hard to look at Neal Adams’ new work these days, not because it has decayed in the slightest but because what are Neal’s natural stylistic twitches are now also far too familiar in the bad work of others; it makes his work look derivative and unoriginal when it’s not.

I bring this up because it occurred to me last week that Howard Chaykin is now drawing an awful lot of comics. He isn’t, of course, though he not too long ago got back into the business full time after many years writing for Hollywood, and has been published fairly regularly ever since. Howard was always a decent artist, though he has also claimed to have been, in his words, “the least gifted of my generation” and “pure sweat” rather than talent. Whatever the case, he obviously identified what he perceived to be his shortcomings and calculatedly worked to overcome them. (Among other things, he’s arguably the best colorblind painters the business has ever produced.)

But here’s a little experiment you can try: pick up some of Howard’s work from what’s generally considered his prime – AMERICAN FLAGG! #1 and beyond – and specifically things like TIME SQUARED (if you can find it) and THE SHADOW. Then pick up – well, these days, your choice of half the high end books on the market, at random. EX MACHINA and CIVIL WAR leap to mind, but there are plenty of others out there.

Okay, it’s obviously not him drawing them, but damned if it isn’t Howard Chaykin. Because comics just didn’t look like that before he came along, and Howard’s man enough to cop to all his own influences, but he also filtered them through his own sensibilities, and the product of those sensibilities, the shape and positioning of his figures, the way he designs a page, his use of color and more, whether intentionally or simply by the osmosis that so many comics artists learn by, is now one of the most dominant styles of our era!

And it’s about time we paid some lip service, at the very least, to Howard’s apparently huge influence on modern comics.

I’m just saying.

(And while we’re at it, Howard’s contextual version of what passes for “mature” material is also now the dominant paradigm in “mature” mainstream comics as well… So show the guy some love.)

They don’t call him the Ghost for nothing. (Well, I don’t, anyway.) While everyone, including Congress, was distracted by Iraq, the Ghost used his basically self-proclaimed executive powers to restructure the government. Even as anti-war protesters pleasantly swarmed the streets of Washington, Los Angeles and elsewhere (gee, I seem to recall it was only three or so years ago a number of my conservative friends were chortling that the antiwar movement in America was dead, dead, dead!) the Ghost blithely ignored them, swirling his signature on paper as new defense secretary Robert Gates, who, despite his assurances to Congress during his approval hearings, clearly didn’t take long to come around to the White House POV, reiterated the Administration’s official position that anyone not either fully backing the Ghost’s Iraq plans or opposing them in silence was giving aid and comfort to the enemy – and that includes citizens, journalists and Congressmen.

In other words, the Ghost is the government, and the government is the country, and anyone who doesn’t fall in line is a traitor.

Which is the stance of emperors and kings, not the stuff of a free democratic society where opposition views are part of the fuel that’s supposed to make the whole thing work. But the Ghost’s term in office has most been an exercise in getting around democracy anyway. Presidents of both parties have for some time used the invented powers of executive order and signing statements to circumvent Congress, not to mention the law, but this administration has turned it into a fine, quiet art, essentially rule by secret decree, and conjoined with that is the White House’s obsession with close to total secrecy, to the point of flat out denying the existence of Congressional or judicial oversight except in the most public of instances, and reclassifying many government documents that had already been publicly released. It’d be interesting to see an overt legal challenge to the practices of executive orders and signing statements, since, as far as I can find, both derive from tradition, and fairly recent tradition, rather than law. (And, please, if anyone knows of the statutes which officially authorize these, let me know. Thanks.)

A couple recent incidents do threaten to rearrange the government under our noses, since they’re not getting much attention: an executive order placing all government agencies under direct White House oversight, with apparent veto power over all government regulations. This may not seem like a bad thing on the surface – haven’t we been told by Republican administration after Republican administration that government regulation is the root of all evil, so how wrong can it be to muzzle those foul government bureaucrats? – but scratch a little deeper and it suggests another power grab. You can easily argue the White House has always had oversight over federal government regulations; what makes this order important is that it extends total oversight to “significant guidance documents.” This essentially also gives the White House – which might not necessarily be the president but the little minions, the White House’s own private and largely protected bureaucracy, hustling about beneath him, taking the phone calls from lobbyists and special interests – total control over information provided by any government office to the public.

With this step, the White House has seized both the ability to protect its wealthy and corporate backers by drastically slowing down if not altogether stopping any government action not to their benefit and virtually total control over what you’re allowed to learn from the government. Really unnerving is the White House putting in charge of the newly created Office Of Information And Regulatory Affairs a woman, Susan Dudley, who has proclaimed her faith in unfettered market practices, with the Office following the stated practice of “market failure” as a regulation guideline; basically, regulation is only necessary if unrestrained market forces have already failed to serve the public interest. Given that the Ghost has made it clear he feels the market has only failed if the wealthy are no longer making money from it, given that his White House turned a blind eye toward the energy gutting of California, that he proposes to “reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil” by promoting only gas alternatives like hydrogen and ethanol that their producers can charge even more for than they do for gasoline, we might want a more stringent definition of what exactly constitutes “market failure.”

(It’s a reasonable bet the money behind the Ghost’s idea of “alternative energy,” since his administration already hacked away at funding for energy research based on sources like sun and wind that anyone can fairly easily tap into, will ultimately be the same money behind the oil industry, if it isn’t already, not to mention the Ghost’s primary suggested alternative, ethanol, is already squeezing the corn markets – no pun intended – and resulting in food shortages in Mexico, as well as opening America to a new energy crisis the first time a severe cold snap hits the Midwest.)

It’s a quiet little step, but it effectively amounts to the White House, with the stroke of a pen and without permission from the American people, seizing control of virtually all aspects of American life.

You have to wonder who this is intended to benefit. It’s not likely to be the Ghost; true, he’s still got 23 months to put his stamp on the process but after that he’s gone, unless some crisis appears to rationalize a suspension of elections, and while that’s not entirely out of the question, it’s not very likely. (His approval ratings would have to skyrocket for him to pull it off; I doubt even the military would back a power play that didn’t have widespread popular support.) More probably, it has to do with the Ghost’s twisted obsession with his “legacy,” and he’s putting an awful lot of faith in who’ll end up writing the history books. All he can be reasonably certain of, if his executive order sticks, is that it won’t be any government agency.

The other curious bit of the last few weeks is the new release of The Plum Book, the Senate’s guide to government offices. There’s an odd new addition this year, an appendix about the Vice Presidency with this description:

“The Vice Presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch, but is attached by the Constitution to the latter.”

We can assume, again on the surface, that they’re referring to the Vice President also being the President Of The Senate, though that role rarely comes into play, but, as I don’t remember that description in any civics text I ever read, it seems to be laying the groundwork for the premise that the Vice Presidency is a de facto fourth branch of government. Certainly Dick Cheney (who recently insisted that things aren’t bad in Iraq at all) has been operating for six years on that presumption. Are we staring down the barrel of another situation where tradition, not law, will soon determine legitimacy?

A quick word on the new Iraq plans. Even as the new general in charge of the Iraq mess says that not only does he want the “surge” troops the Ghost has sworn will head for Iraq come hell or high water, he wants tons more, the Ghost’s “surge” is coming under increased fire from Republicans and military men. Mostly at issue isn’t the sending of troops (though many Republican politicians, sensing the government mood and eyeing the rapidly approaching next election, are resistant) but the chain of command; a not-much publicized idea behind the “surge” is to imbed American soldiers with Iraqi forces, basically to train them and oversee them on the battlefield (essentially Nixon’s Vietnamization, revisited). The problem is that the Americans will be subject to American commanders while the Iraqis will be subject to Iraqi commanders – meaning, ultimately, that no one will really be in charge of the situation. It’s a dangerous circumstance to drop our soldiers into, and a little cavalier to say dangerous situations are what they’re for. (The thrust of policy should be to minimize the danger to them, not maximize it.) At any rate, the real idea behind the whole thing is perfectly clear: to bolster Iraqi military and security forces enough so that we can pull out and blame the collapse of the country on them afterwards instead of the blame falling on the Ghost and his legacy. Legacy, after all, is everything. Right?

Notes From Under The Floorboard:

Go buy something at the Paper Movies Bookstore. That’s all I’m saying about it this week.

If anyone else has any Before and After shots of the work of renowned comics artists, send them in. (Just a shot or two.) I’d love to run them.

Congratulations to Matthew Peterson, the first of millions who very quickly figured out last week’s Comics Cover Challenge theme was “adjectives.” I’ll have to start making these a bit harder, but I figured it would be so obvious most people would assume it couldn’t possibly be the answer. Only two or three fell for that. Matthew directs you to his new comics news website, Major Spoilers, where he and friend Stephen tastefully “review and dissect” comics and pop culture. Good site, very tastefully designed. Matthew was concerned the mention might be a conflict of interest with Comic Book Resources, but over here we take the broader view that there’s room enough in the universe for more than one star. Check it out.

For those who came in late: you may notice several comics covers posted in the column. This is what I call the Comics Cover Challenge. The covers are connected by a single secret theme – it could be a concept, a creator, a character, a historical element, pretty much anything – and the first reader who emails me the correct solution may choose a website of their choice (keep it clean!) for promotion in next’s week’s column. If you need any clues beyond what’s here, you can search for them at the online source of our covers, The Grand Comic Book Database, and I usually include a hidden clue somewhere in the column. But you have to wrap your head around it. (The panels in section 2 aren’t part of the challenge, by the way.)

Following up on a couple earlier pieces, I must eat crow when it comes to my assessment of Microsoft’s possible collaboration with government spooks on the new Windows Vista. The NSA has now copped to making unnamed contributions to the software. The kind version is that they were helping Microsoft plug holes to make it the most secure operating system available. The more suspicious version is that the Ghost’s unleashed surveillance teams – and it’s not like they haven’t been plenty active – now have an easy back door into every Vista machine produced. (Before any Mac users start smirking, the NSA provided the same service for your OS, so if they’re spying they’re already spying on you. When was the Macintosh introduced again? 1984?)

I have to get back to doing reviews, but I have to admit, I just haven’t been reading comics for the last month. Hit a wall, I guess; it happens once in awhile. I’ve been grooving on Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, AGAINST THE DAY, instead, and so far – I’m about half done – it’s a very funny amalgam of tons of old pulp genres (scientifiction, westerns, boys adventures, horror, and the latest section is just moving into the swashbuckling adventure genre as some of Pynchon’s heroes search for lost cities in Central Asia) set against a surreal version of the very real politics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and done with gallons of Pynchon’s trademark postmodern absurdism. Lots of complex and interesting characters, weaving in and out, as in most of Pynchon’s novels. I should be reading it a lot faster than I am, but while it would be easily enough to skim, Pynchon’s writing is the sort that I like to read carefully and roll around in my head as I go. So far the book is sort of his CITIES OF THE RED NIGHT and I’m eager to get back to it.

Saved this bit for last, because a lot of people out there just don’t like SPOILERS!:

“Your reaction to THE DESCENT is interesting and falls in line with several who waited until DVD to watch the film. I question how focused you were on actually watching the film (as opposed to surfing the internet while watching, reading a comic, or a plethora of other home-based activities, not to mention having all of the lights out in the room you were viewing it in, and so forth) as you seem to have missed some of the most basic plot points and chalked your lack of even shallow attention to the derision of the film.

The cave the girls were in was not the well-trodden cave on the maps. This is a basic, fundamental plot point that serves several other plot threads throughout the movie.

Just a tip, but In the future when you bring home a horror movie on DVD and you actually want to watch it – make sure you at least give it a try in the right environment before dismissing it? Or even in the wrong environment, put down the blackberry and pay attention if you plan on reviewing it.

THE DESCENT is already scarier than any film in the past several years before any monsters show up (during the period you call “boring”). I would hate to look back and see your reaction to DOOM (an action-packed thrill ride?)”

I don’t recall particularly liking DOOM though I found aspects of it vaguely amusing, but if it’s any consolation I don’t own a Blackberry. I do admit to having faded out (or maybe nodded off) while the explanation about the caves was going on, but I think the real problem may be this: THE DESCENT probably just works a lot better in near pitch darkness on a giant screen than in the glow of a cathode ray tube. Which fits the anecdotal evidence you cite. I just didn’t find it very scary, and even in lieu of the plot point explanation the first half hour plodded. Sorry.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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