Chris Roberson On Creators' Rights, "iZombie" & "Memorial"

Comic book writer Chris Roberson has spent the past few years making a name for himself in the industry, initially gaining fan attention as the writer behind Vertigo's popular "Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love" miniseries, then cementing it as the man who took over from J. Michael Straczynski on DC Comics' "Superman: Grounded." After his initial splash at DC, Roberson continued to create buzz as his creator-owned series with veteran artist Mike Allred, "iZombie," was nominated for a 2011 Eisner, and again when the writer was seemingly passed over by DC during the New 52 relaunch.

But last week Roberson hit the headlines in a different way when, via Twitter, the creator distanced himself from DC Comics over the ethical treatment of creators, sparked by the current controversy over Alan Moore and this summer's "Before Watchmen" event.

Soon after he made his announcement, DC severed the rest of their ties with Roberson, removing him as the writer for the upcoming Cinderella issues of the "Fables" spinoff "Fairest," DC Co-Publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio speaking briefly about Roberson's comments at the Los Angeles Times Festival Of Books.

CBR reached out to the creator to speak in-depth about his stance on working for DC, as well as catch up on his ongoing creator-owned comic "Memorial" and the cancellation of "iZombie." Roberson spoke candidly with CBR about everything from his experience with DC contracts while working at Vertigo to the not-to-be-used plots of his now cancelled issues of "Fairest" and "iZombie."

CBR News: Creator-owned work and creators' rights are something that we've talked about before and something you obviously have always felt strongly about. At what point did creator rights and creator-owned work stop living in the abstract and became something you thought about in your relation to DC Comics?

Chris Roberson: Well, I can tell you that creator rights and the role of creators and their responsibilities and the benefits due to them have always been very important to me. I was born in the early '70s, so by the time I became a very serious comic book reader, just around middle school time, it was a time in the early '80s when creator-owned comics were really exploding. The conversation in "Amazing Heroes," "Comics Journal" and everywhere was very much focused on the role of creators and creator rights and what creators granted to publishers and what publishers owed to creators. So by the time I was an adult in the late '80s, early '90s I really felt those were battles that had already been fought and won. Many of my favorite comics -- "Zot" and "Mage" and "Elementals" and "Madman" and "Grendel" -- were all books that fell under that rubric.

So it's been kind of disheartening over the course of the last twenty years or so to see that, periodically it seems, a lot of those lessons are forgotten and people have to relearn them. If anything, over the course of the last couple of years as I became a working professional in comics, it seemed like I was seeing a lot of the same discussions happen that I had grown up on, and a lot of people struggling to come to answers I thought we already had. Just over the course of the last couple of months it came to a breaking point where I felt the need to make some sort of public declaration.

When you made your Twitter declaration, did you go in thinking, "Well, DC's not going to react well to this, and even though 'iZombie' is done they might take me off 'Fairest' for saying something like this."

To be entirely honest, I considered that there might be negative repercussions to me saying things for at least the last four months, and in slightly less imperative terms, at least for the last year. I mean, I've been saying things that a cannier creator might not say if they were concerned about their position, for a while now! So it wasn't that I didn't think there would be repercussions, it's that I had gotten to a point where I felt that skirting around the edges of things wasn't satisfying my need to settle my own piece of mind. I would have to just be really blunt, because clearly making Tumblr posts and Tweets and comments and podcasts was not getting my point across.

One of the things you cited was the treatment of Alan Moore with "Before Watchmen." It's been interesting to see that while there are people who are upset about it, there have also been fans taking DC's side against Moore, and creators like J. Michael Straczynski have come out and basically said, while Moore may have had a crummy contract, others have had it worse. Do you feel that, though there have been strides forward in creators' rights issues, there's an ingrained idea in comics culture among fans and creators that it's always publishers first, creators second?

It's kind of a pendulum that swings back and forth, but it does so irregularly, with stutter steps. As with any social or cultural progress, there will be movement forward and then, inevitably, there will be kind of a little bit of backtracking and a reaction to any kind of forward motion, and people become more entrenched and retrenched. I hesitate to say that people who oppose creators' rights are reactionary; I think they have a different set of priorities, which I understand. I understand that creators are after different things than some readers are and some creators don't necessarily have the same priorities as others. But it can be frustrating, yes.

You've also talked about the Creator's Bill Of Rights. With creator rights conversations, a lot of the focus gets put on specifically whether or not creators get paid for their work, or paid for this or that. For you, do you think the moral rights of creators goes beyond just discussing financial remuneration?

Yeah, I think that exactly. Sadly I'm not as well versed in the distinction here that I'm about to bring up as I should be, but there's a difference between the copyright has been traditionally handled in the United States and the way it's handled in Europe, in that in the United States copyright largely surrounds who owns the thing, who has the rights to exploit a property, who is due money. Whereas in England, and elsewhere in Europe, there's an additional layer that's referred to as "moral rights," which has to deal with a whole host of other issues like how is the work to be used, how is the name of the creator to be employed to promote the thing, does the creator have the right to have their name on it, things of that nature.

The Creator's Bill Of Rights that was drafted by a whole host of people, I recall Dave Sim and Scott McCloud and Alan Moore and other people were involved with it, if you go back and look, it breaks into both questions of ownership and remuneration, but also into matters into exploitation that could fall under moral rights, like how is it to be packaged, how is it to be sold, what is to be done with it? I think that to their credit, all the larger corporations -- and in particular DC, I think DC really spearheaded the charge to try to address a lot of those concerns in the late '80s, early '90s in order to maintain their talent base and did, I think, really good service in improving the financial remuneration piece of things, both in terms of creator-owned books but also in work for hire. The structure that now exists is far and away fairer to work for hire creators in terms of both paying them for their labors and paying them for the fruits of their labors that might be exploited further down the road, than every existed before. But what has lagged behind in terms of improvement is those moral rights, like having any kind of real say over how things are exploited and how things are used and what's done with it.

One of the thing DC did in the '90s was establish Vertigo, doing creator-owned books and working directly with creative teams. While you were at Vertigo, you also got to write for DC; did you feel that the Vertigo idea of more creators rights, more creator-owned books was something that was crossing over with DC as well, or did you feel Vertigo was its own little bubble, still pushing things forward but detached from the rest of the publisher?

Well, I think as with the contract for "Watchmen" and for "V For Vendetta" and all manner of other things that preceded Vertigo, that the Vertigo contract has been drafted with the best intentions. For example, the current configuration of the contract, which has changed in relatively recent years, stipulates that the copyright is owned entirely by the creators; there's a fair division of money that comes in, both from sales of the book and from any exploitation in different media, television, film, things like that. But the way it's constructed, DC has the right of negotiation to sell those things. So with the best of intentions, it's a deal that, if a TV show or movie is made of a comic, or just is optioned to be made into a TV show or film, that the creators get half the money, which sounds like a great deal. Except when you factor in that DC itself is part of an entertainment company that makes TV and film, and that it's beneficial for DC to be able to point to unrealized or still potential properties that might be turned into things.

With the specific example of "iZombie," DC simply refused to sell the rights; there were at least four instances that I know of where people have wanted to make "iZombie" a TV show and were told the rights were not available for sale because DC was thinking about doing something with them. So how it works in actual practice is, DC gets the option on those things without spending any money for it because they're the ones who sell it, and the creators are left with no remuneration for that because they have no say in whether or not their thing is sold. That would definitely fall under the category of moral rights because in an ideal world the creator would have some influence over how those things are exercised.

I certainly didn't see that from the outside as a reader, or from the inside during my brief time working for DC as a work for hire writer, if there was a similar kind of move with work for hire stuff in the DC Universe. There, the solution has been financial. The solution in almost all these cases is, if there's any kind of ethical question or possible disagreement about how things are used, if you give money to the creators, that absolves all sins, when in at least the case with Moore for example, Moore doesn't want money. He just doesn't want these things to be used, he doesn't want those rights to be exploited in terms of movies or prequels or what have you. Money is good, but it's not the answer to everything.

Because it seems that on a pure moneymaking basis it's in companies' best interest to do things like "Before Watchmen," how do we, as reader and creators, change that and help influence the adoption of moral rights?

As far as what creators or readers could do to influence that, I don't know if there's a lot. The only thing creators can do is take their creations elsewhere or refuse to take contracts that don't stipulate in every possible specific how they would like them to be exploited. The only thing that readers can do is vote with their dollars. If there's a thing that you think reflects the way you want comics to be, you should support it with your money, and if there is a thing that does not reflect the way things should be, you should not. Far be it from me to tell anyone how they should exercise their talents and spend their money, but I think the use of talent/money is the only thing that's going to influence the decisions of a large company.

Alongside your issue with DC's handling of Alan Moore and "Watchmen," you mentioned that you were also upset about "Avengers" and Marvel's treatment of those creators. Since you and DC are parting over the ethical treatment of creators, would you consider working for Marvel Comics, either in a work for hire capacity or working on something in their Icon Comics line?

In as much as Icon appears to exist to be a creator-owned outlet for the big Marvel writers, that's probably not likely. The question of work for hire for Marvel is largely a moot point because I've not been offered at this point, and having clearly established myself as a loose cannon, I'm probably not going to be offered. But I would find it very difficult to reconcile with my principles the notion of working on a book that made use of characters and concepts that had been created by somebody who either personally or the family did not receive commercial benefit from the use of the character or concept. Unless the situation would change significantly, I would more than likely decline any kind of job offer I got.

When people talk about creators making it big independently with creator-owned work, Mike Allred is always a name that comes up. Did you and Mike have a lot of conversations after you made your announcement, or even before, about your feelings on creators' rights and "iZombie?"

We have talked a bit about creator's rights. I don't want to speak for Mike, but there wasn't a lot of disagreement. I didn't warn him before I made my public declaration, but we had talked about similar matters in the past, and I don't think he was terribly surprised. But we have spoken since, and he's not sworn a blood vendetta against me or anything, so I think we'll be OK! [Laughs]

How long had you known about the cancellation of "iZombie?" Had you always planned this arc with the idea that it would end around thirty issues or so?

Having been a somewhat careful observer of how long books last and how things work and just general sales trends from the outside, for at least the last year I anticipated that the moment might well come some point in the near future where "iZombie" might be cancelled. It was a conversation I had quite a bit with our editor, "Realistically, how much more time do we have?" because there was a bigger story that we were telling. There was an endpoint in mind and I wanted to pace things as such that it would make sense to get there. I was the only person asking the question because everybody else thought, it's well regarded, it just got nominated for an Eisner, people like it. I was like, "Yeah, but, you know, we're going to be cancelled soon." And so, starting about a year ago, last summer I suppose, I structured a longer storyline that would get us to the end point, not just for the series but for each of the characters and the relationships by around issue #30, thinking that worse case scenario, if we can get within a few issues plus or minus issue #30, I can bring this to a satisfying close and the readers won't feel cheated because questions have been left unanswered. We'll solve the questions, we'll get to a satisfying endpoint, and then, if we managed to make it past issue #30, we'll just do more stuff, we'll figure out a new story to start. I think it was in December of 2011 that I got the call, and the call was very brief. Tthe editor called me up and said, "I think you're probably expecting this call," and I said, "How many issues do we have?" The answer was issue #28, and at that point I had a good four issue lead on issue #28 so I could make that work. You don't get as much time spent on things as if I'd been able to get to issue #30, but I'll still get everything wrapped up.

I have to ask --

Except for, I have to interrupt you, the giant kaiju monster!

[Laughs] I was about to ask, except for the giant kaiju monster, right?

[Laughs] It was there up until the point I wrote the next to last script. He was on the outline. But I will tell you this -- I don't even have to promise this, because it's been written and drawn -- the first script of my next creator-owned project has the giant monster in it!

Talking more about "iZombie," beyond the monsters you've infused each arc, the series has had a lot of pop culture references and mash-ups, including in the most recent issue combining Lovecraft with rock and roll. What made you decide that Lovecraft would naturally go with this David Bowie-like, Starman figure and rock band?

I don't know that I can point to a specific reason to it; in my head, that was just natural, I think that's sort of how my brain works! Glam rock plus giant Lovecraftian monsters was the perfect combination! I will say, as with one other instance in the recent issues, I had I scale back my original idea considerably. In my original outline we were going to spend an entire five issues on the skee ball tournament and we were going to spend five issues with this '70s band. The original idea was that the band from the '70s was going to be on a reunion tour and Gwen was going to follow them around, having eaten the brain of one of their super fans, this old, dead hippie. That issue was actually solicited, that it was about her following this band across the country. Luckily, saner heads prevailed and I realized I really can't spend five months doing this when we probably don't have a whole lot of time left. So that one issue's what we got.

Besides the kaiju monster, were there any threads or characters you regret you didn't get to introduce or spend more time on?

Absolutely, and the main one is actually related to the kaiju monster, which is my Native American fish guy, who was briefly glimpsed in the second "House Of Mystery" annual where we flashback to Gwen in high school at band camp. We see this weird fish guy in the water and he's just kind of a punch line, but I had his whole story worked out -- in fact, his origin is told in a fairly fanciful way in the "Elle" one-shot about the Pacific Northwest Native American who fights a giant monster and then turns into a fish. That was kind of a poetic version of this guy's real back story. There was going to be this whole big thing and I spent, I don't know how much time, I read like five books of reference getting it all worked out, and no one will ever see it. It's sad!

You and Mike Allred are the co-creators and co-owners of "iZombie." Rights-wise, would you two be able to publish further stories somewhere else or publish it yourselves?

It's not impossible, and it's something that we've talked about the possibility of. It wouldn't be any time soon because it would at least need to wait, even if it wasn't called "iZombie" and didn't have exactly the same formulation, we would need to wait a few years for the rights for "iZombie" to revert to us. It's not impossible, it has been discussed, but I would not mark it on your calendar just yet.

Talking about your own creator-owned work naturally brings us to "Memorial," which is almost done with the first six issue miniseries in your larger story. After issue #6 comes out, are you going right into writing the next installment of "Memorial?"

I just today started writing the next "Memorial" script. It's not exactly the next miniseries. There will be another miniseries, but this is kind of something else in the interim. I'll have to remain a little bit cryptic because exactly what it's going to be won't be public knowledge for a while yet, and I'll get in trouble with my wife if I say! So yes, there's more "Memorial," it's already been started and it'll be a little while before people see it.

Will the plot threads of the current mini be wrapped up in such a way that the next miniseries is focused on a different protagonist? Or will this still be the story of Em?

Em will remain kind of the focal point of "Memorial," but she will not always be on every page. There's some storylines that are planned where Em is brought into either conflict with or association with someone else, some regular person perhaps, who's dealing with the intrusion of this strange other world into the real world and she is helping them figure their thing out. We would spend a lot of time with this other person who wouldn't really be the main character, they're kind of the special guest star for that particular storyline. Em is in it, she's certainly one of the prime movers of the story, but we start the story with somebody else whose life is in a state of disarray because of the various conflicts between Maybe, Moment and Memory.

You've built a very large fantasy world that's pulling from fairy tales and legends. Will subsequent miniseries keep the same mash-up fantasy tone or would each one have a new tone and characters as you go along?

It's a little bit of both because all of them, in terms of the story elements they use, will be drawn from fairly diverse sources and kind of woven together in one thing. Tonally, the stories can be fairly different, and so the next one is a bit more emotional and serious than the first one is, with the occasional light moments. There is a talking cat, still. Spoilers -- the talking cat does not die!

You've also incorporated some more obscure legends like Mulan and Scáthach. Are you bringing in even more fairly unknown heroes and fairy tales moving forward?

Yeah, a little bit. "Memorial" basically exists to do, not every kind of story I want to tell, but a huge majority of the stories I would like to tell. Dealing with these various legendary characters, I realized very early on I didn't want it to be just the usual suspects from Western culture. There's a whole planet of people who have stories. I was a big fan in college of Irish mythology and Celtic mythology in general and there were a few I thought about using. I was also a big fan of Etain who keeps changing bodies, but I settled with the big warrior woman who trains other warriors as well. I didn't anticipate that [artist] Rich [Ellis] would make her quite so physically imposing; I mentioned in the script that she was big but she's like Hulk big, which I think is kind of awesome.

While you have long-term plans for "Memorial," do you have an end point in mind that you can reach if it goes shorter?

Yeah, I think in large part I learned the lesson of "iZombie" in making things a lot more modular; there's a certain endpoint for Em's story that we can drop in with relatively short notice at any point. It wouldn't make sense for this first miniseries, but as long as we go past two, at any point past that, I can make that end work. But it's structured in such a way it allows for more story to be told after it, so if there's enough interest in readers for more, I know what to do after that. I'm a little more prepared this time, I think! [Laughs]

What has the reader response been to "Memorial?" Has it met or exceeded your expectations?

You know, it's hard to say. One of the most flattering things about "Memorial" has been the positive response I've gotten from other creators whose work I really admire. Kurt Busiek said some really flattering things about the book, as did Bill Willingham. Willingham could be tricking me, but Busiek -- I think he really means it!

I've been really overjoyed to see the overwhelming positive response the art of Rich Ellis has gotten since before this he hadn't done much that most people had seen. He'd done some fill-ins and one shots and short stories for Marvel, and he's done some of his own work, but this was really the first long form thing anybody had ever seen. One of the questions I get asked frequently is, "Where did you find this guy?" I asked [friend and writer] Paul Tobin to recommend somebody and he introduced me to Rich, so that's the answer.

While you're working on "Memorial" now, career-wise where do you go from here? Is the focus going to be entirely creator-owned and no more work for hire?

I wouldn't draw a line in the sand. I'd say my emphasis will be on creator-owned stuff, of which I have a number of things coming up, but I won't rule out the possibility of doing work for hire with a couple of provisos. One would be that a project, which luckily everything I've done work for hire to this date has fallen under this rubric, needs to be something I'd enjoy doing. I wouldn't take a work for hire job that would just be work. Everything I've gotten to do so far in comics has been something that I've really enjoyed. Don't tell anybody, but I'd probably have done most of it for free anyway! By the way, telling editors that that's your yardstick probably means you don't get offered a lot of jobs, which I discovered! [Laughs]

The other this is, the way my attitude towards work for hire has evolved over the course of the last couple of years, with two exceptions, everything I've done work for hire to this date has been for the person that owns the character or concept or estate. Whether it's the work I've done for the "Fables" universe or the book I did for the Philip K. Dick estate or the Elric stuff for the Moorcocks, they were ethically unchallenged work for hire projects because I knew the person who created that thing or their heirs benefitted directly from what I was doing. As much as possible, in an ideal world, I would like to continue to do that kind of work for hire, where there was no kind of money chain of ownership -- it's either in the public domain or I'm using properties that were themselves very clearly work for hire, or I'm working for someone who had licensed the right from the person that created and owns it.

What you're doing right now is obviously a risky move as, while there's been a lot of talk of creator's rights, you are one of the few people who have stepped out and actively distanced yourself from a major comic book publisher. While you were thinking about making your declaration, did you struggle back and forth with the idea that while ethically you didn't want to do these things, at the same time, you're still establishing yourself in the comic book world?

Not really. Not at all. I didn't really consider the financial aspect of it in the slightest. My wife and I did discuss it, but there was nothing that gave me pause because I would much rather go back to a day job than use whatever creative talents I have to do work that, much less not satisfying me, would make me unhappy. My last day job I quit over ethical concerns. I have a history of doing this! [Laughs] I used to work at a large computer company and was being groomed for management and quit because I didn't agree with the way they were off shoring jobs overseas and laying off all the people I was working with. I would much rather go be a receptionist for somebody than do stories that were under conditions I found ethically dubious or even repugnant. So it doesn't bother me at all. I wrote before I was getting paid for it, and if I got to the point where I wrecked things professionally to such that no one was paying me anymore, I would have to go get some other job and then start writing in the evenings again. I don't have a problem with that.

You've also mentioned another creator-owned project you have in the pipeline -- are there any projects you're working on now that you can announce or companies you're talking to about doing work for hire or other properties with?

I wish I could answer! The answer is yes to all of those. I'm talking to one company about a work for hire project that would be really cool if it came together, I'm talking to other companies about creator-owned projects and I'm also doing some creator-owned projects that don't have a company with them at all. One book will be announced at San Diego with a publisher; another will be announced right before that. Unfortunately, I have nothing interesting to say for the next two months! [Laughs]

Finally, from your work on the Cinderella miniseries to your work on "Superman: Grounded," the "Star Trek/Legion" series and beyond, you've garnered a devoted following of readers. What would you like to say to those fans who have followed you from book to book?

The main thing is, I apologize to all readers of the Cinderella books that I wasn't able to show you that Cinderella's ex-boyfriend was really a talking monkey! The big reveal of the next one was going to be Sun Wukong, the monkey from the Chinese epic "Journey To The West," was her ex-boyfriend who was a secret agent for the Chinese Fables. It was going to be awesome. I had written just the first of six scripts; I turned in one script -- we found out what Cindy does with the Silver Slippers and then reunite her with her lost love who can transform himself into human form. I won't get to make Bill slightly uncomfortable by yet again introducing the idea of bestiality into the "Fables" world!

Though you aren't doing the Cinderella arc, have you and Willingham talked about doing things in the future outside of Vertigo?

Not so much co-writing, but working together, partnering with things. Bill is one of my favorite people on the planet, Bill is one of the best people on the planet, and the fact that I have managed to earn and keep his respect over the course of thirteen or fourteen years is probably one of my proudest accomplishments.

Issue #25 of "iZombie" hits stands May 9; "Memorial" #6 releases in May from IDW.

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