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Issue #29

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #29

A dozen or so years ago, editorial lying was epidemic (and I use “editorial” to refer to publishers as well). It was really a problem. Editorial departments were generally a mess, editors were late with everything, books missed shipping schedules right and left (leading to big penalties paid to printers) and freelancers bore the brunt of it because they were the most convenient scapegoats. After all, everyone had experiences with screw-up freelancers; if an editor missed shipping, he could convincingly say “oh, hell, so-and-so didn’t get his work in on time” though the work had been in weeks earlier. As an expedient, well, we all fudge like that when we have to; the bigger problem was that undeserved tales would spread across companies about how so-and-so was an undependable screw-up when it wasn’t true. Freelancer careers would capsize to save editorial asses. (To demonstrate how mismanaged a lot of editorial offices were at the time, one editor was finally fired for being consistently late on shipping a reprint book; and I once had an editor fax me a dozen pages of a book for dialoguing at noon on a Wednesday, asking that I write them all and get them back by 2 PM so the book could be at the printer on Friday.)

The operative editorial philosophy was that freelancers didn’t talk to each other. It wasn’t at all uncommon for editors to cozy up to freelancers by badmouthing other freelancers. In confidence, of course.

These editorial imprudences generally came to a halt when a) they figured out freelancers do talk to one another and b) the companies mandated that it didn’t matter why the books were late, it had to stop, so blaming freelancers wouldn’t save anyone’s ass if the situation didn’t change when the supposedly offending freelancers were replaced. It’s probably no coincidence that the late ’90s saw such a massive changeover of editors at virtually every company.

You wouldn’t get it from the way I usually talk here, but I actually have a lot of sympathy for editors. It’s a rough gig. I know many freelancers who feel trapped by the business, but most editors feel just as trapped. The job of editors is editing, but you can’t tell your boss all the inane and pointless meetings he’s dragging you into are making it impossible to do what you’re supposed to be doing. Editors are theoretically selected for their tastes (and, yes, I know, the moon is made of green cheese) but few editors are actually able to express their tastes in the books they put out. If it’s expected that a good comics writer can quickly produce a story for anything regardless of character and genre as if message, voice and tendency are irrelevancies only egomaniacs would dare take into consideration, it’s expected that a good comics editor can edit anything with equal aplomb. In fact, most editors, if allowed that luxury, desperately try to find that elusive intersection between their own tastes and their boss’ expectations, and, as in most corporate situations, if it comes down to one or the other, the latter wins out.

So, frankly, I think editing is a gruesome, generally thankless existence, and I admire the ability of many editors to thrive in the corporate structure and actually put out some decent comics the same way – this will sound sarcastic, but it’s not meant to be – I admire the ability of certain bacteria to exist in the depths of active volcanoes.

However.

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of complaints from freelancers about editorial lying, which has come strongly back into vogue. “Lying” is maybe a bit strong; in many cases, it’s sins of omission. But current raw deal practices are:

Lying about money. This is less to do with editors in most cases, and more to do with comptrollers and publishers, and it tends to occur more at smaller companies though recently it has become more prevalent at bigger companies as well. To wit: checks don’t go out when freelancers are told they will. It’s no secret that a lot of companies operate on a shoestring and a prayer, and lying about money has been a constant in the business at least since the mid-’80s. The fact is: many companies lie about their ability to pay in order to get work out of freelancers. It’s flat out fraud. “We pay in 30 days,” a common promise from smaller publishers, often means, at best, “30 days after you turn in a voucher, we’ll begin the process of processing your check. Maybe.” Companies that do that clearly place a secondary (at best, if they think about it at all) value on the fact that freelancers earn their livelihoods doing this stuff. (This is where the popular myth of comics as labor of love comes in.) Just like for publishers, if check A doesn’t come in, bill B doesn’t get paid. It would be so easy for a publisher or editor to simply say, “We’re having cash flow problems, I’m sorry, but if we write you a check now it’ll bounce so you should try to make other arrangements while we sort things out.” Painful, but it puts things on an honest basis. Why don’t companies do this? 1) Freelancers have a tendency to stop working, or to go work on something else, when they’re told they’re not being paid. 2) As Dave Olbrich used to love to say, “image is everything” (I don’t think he meant the company), and most companies feel revealing something like a cash flow shortage is a sign of weakness. Which, let’s face it, it is. It doesn’t engender confidence. But neither does checks that come two or three or four or more months after they’re supposed to and only after dozens of phone calls that waste even more money. It’s made worse by the fact that most freelancers only communicate with companies through the editors – generally calling the accounting departments directly is frowned on – which puts the editor in the position of having to lie for the company, meaning the editor bears the brunt of bad will when things finally blow up. (I recommend freelancers in this situation simply sell the debt to a collection agency and go pay their bills.)

Lying about contacts. Whether personally or via answering machines, editors have taken in drove to saying, “I’ll be in touch.” Freelancers aren’t likely to take this lightly, since it usually involves projects or work they want to get off the ground. But then no call. And no call. And no call. It’s a simple principle, really: if you’re not going to get in touch, don’t say you’re going to, and if you say you’re going to, do it. Good new, bad news, no news, doesn’t matter. Do it.

Lying about pitches. This is really a sin of omission, and I’m not talking about the piles of unsolicited pitches editors rack up. I mean the pitches they ask for. That vanish into the morass of their desks and freelancers never hear about; it’s always something they’re “going” to read. This again seems to me to be a pretty simple principle: if you don’t have time to read a pitch, don’t ask for it. If you don’t have room in your schedule for new projects, don’t ask for pitches. If there’s no hope on God’s green earth a project is going to get done, don’t ask for a pitch. I don’t know, maybe editors think they’re maintaining good public relations by telling freelancers to send in pitches, but they’re pissing it and more away by never responding to the damn things.

Lying about work. Let’s face it, for the vast majority of freelancers paid work is difficult to come by these days. One company has unofficially put forth the policy that anyone who has ever had a book cancelled by that company is incapable of having a selling book, an attitude that curiously eliminates all factors except freelancer name values, and, if, say, taken by Wildstorm a couple years ago would’ve resulted in their popular THE AUTHORITY and PLANETARY (still the best superhero comic being done today) never happening. And it’s becoming more common for editors to “half-promise” work to a freelancer who then finds out a couple weeks later on the Internet, not from the editor, that someone else ended up with the gig. Not that there aren’t also a lot of factors involved in those decisions, and freelancers have a tendency to take personally (I mean, to a freelancer it is personal) business decisions based on good sales or creative logic. Again, it leads to bad blood, and there’s such an easy way around it: don’t lie in the first place. Sure, that might cause short term bad blood, but, hey, no one said being an editor meant you’d be loved. Keep freelancers in the loop, or let them know it’s not their loop to be in, and that goes for freelancers already attached to projects as well. I keep hearing from pencilers sitting on their hands when they could be working on something else because a writer’s late with a script and the editor doesn’t want the penciler to know so he won’t start working on something else while waiting, writers waiting and waiting and waiting for pencils to come in to dialogue, etc. The cold hard fact of the freelance life is that you have to make enough money in any given period of time to pay your bills for that given period of time. That’s basic economics. And if time opens up in schedules, it should be the decision of the freelancer, not an editor, as to how they should use that free time. On top of that, it doesn’t happen to me but I get more and more reports about the old problem of editors virtually totally rewriting scripts on writers without telling them. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always believed that if your name is on something, it should be your work. Nobody should have to take flak for someone else’s tastes.

There’s no real reason for any hostility between editors and freelancers. Ideally, we’d all be one reasonably happy, well-oiled machine. Part of the problem is the culture of secrecy the companies have built up over the past few years, where everything’s a closely-held card concealed for the eventual shock value of the revelation (though, in virtually every case, sales are better when the information leaks than they would have been had no one known about it in advance – if anyone cares at all, that is). Or so they think. But there are no “big secrets.” Everybody knows everybody in comics, and information gets around. So what’s the big deal? If people would just be straightforward, even if it’s bad news, it would kill a lot of pain of this business.

By and large, my own dealings with editors have been pretty good. (Nobody rewrites my scripts, for instance.) Most editors don’t operate maliciously, they’re just trying to get through the day. Most freelancers are too. And it’s not like freelancers haven’t generated their share of duplicity. When I discuss this with editors, I’m as likely as not to get the protest, “Well, they lie to us all the time.” But all that means is freelancers have to get their act together as well, and it makes it sound as though editors engage in revenge duplicity, which I’d hate to think was the case. It remains, though, that, certainly in a field that actively enforces the work-for-hire status of talent, publishers and editors affect the livelihoods of freelancers more than freelancers affect the livelihoods of publishers and editors.

Apropos of nothing, this commentary came in from a artist a couple weeks back:

“If I had any writing ability at all, I’d write an article about how we’re in the middle of a revolution in comics. Look at what’s going on around us. For the past ten years, we’ve been dealing with the creative and business repercussions of the speculator boom, it affected what we write and how we draw, and how we perceive ourselves as an industry. A lot of the comics being done today are nearly indistinguishable from comics being floated about seven, eight, ten years ago, at least the ones comics companies are willing to get behind. On the other hand, nobody has anything left to lose, which is why we’re seeing weirder and weirder comics being done, with the companies being dragged kicking and screaming towards a new aesthetic. The biz is run by a bunch of pasty white geeks who can’t bear to leave Hal Jordan behind, so to speak… it’s high time the inmates ran the asylum.

Which is well-written enough for me, but, at least in this column, he’s preaching to the converted.

The world has officially gone mad.

A local radio station switched formats recently. It’s now “All 80s all the time.” The truly horrible thing is that it’s more listenable than any other music station is a town crawling with music stations. (Even the numbers on the Spanish radio stations mostly sound like translated ’80s pop songs.)

Then I finally get around to reading the L.A. WEEKLY I picked up in Los Angeles when I was there, and at the Club London@Vertigo’s (ain’t that a weird conjunction, comics-wise) (801 W Temple St, Los Angeles), they’re running a Smiths & Morrissey Tribute, every 4th Sunday of every month.

The Smiths & Morrissey? Did I miss something? The Smiths & Morrissey?

Scanning the Weekly’s club ads, I see there’s also “the original 80s club,” Clockwork Orange (7070 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood); “alternative, industrial, 80s, Goth” Saturdays at Stigmata (1642 Las Palmas Ave, Hollywood); Every Friday’s New Wave-80s night at Cherry (836 N. Highland, Hollywood) etc. A dozen or more clubs with an ’80s music theme now that I look at them. I knew half the one-hit wonder groups of the ’80s, regardless of genre, have been crawling out of the woodwork for reunion tours, but this enough is enough.

I’m not saying there wasn’t any good music in the ’80s. Just not after ’83. Are we really so desperate we have to get nostalgic about that era? First a Bush in the White House, then Iran-Contra, now this. Next thing you know Marvel‘ll resurrect SECRET WARS and THE PUNISHER and DC‘ll do a sequel to THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Oh, wait…

[Too Much Coffee Man #14]

After his departure from MAD, comics wunderkind Harvey Kurtzman teamed with Hugh Hefner for a breakthrough humor magazine, TRUMP, that combined text, comics and irreverency, and, predictably, it was short-lived and we’ve barely seen its like since. (NATIONAL LAMPOON bordered on it, but the humor in that magazine, coming in a more licentious era, was generally less sophisticated than Kurtzman’s.) Until now. Take a big gulp of steaming hot non-decaf coffee so you can really run, don’t walk, to get the new issue of TOO MUCH COFFEE MAN Magazine (Adhesive Press, Box 14549, Portland OR 97293; $4.95), Shannon Wheeler’s satire mag. Everything’s a target here: politics, big business, social trends, the Devil, personal obsessions, everything. With a lot of focus on beverages. Beer poetry, Why Patriotism Makes You Stupid, plus comics heavyweights like Keiron Dwyer, Tony Millionaire, Rick Geary and more. The last mag I read this cool (sorry, Paul) and diversionary was WET magazine. Oh, yeah: they’ve got comics and movie reviews too, as well as practical advice from inside prison. Stop whatever you’re doing – wait, you’re reading the column, let me rephrase – finish reading the column, then go buy it. If your newsstand fails you, hit the TOO MUCH COFFEE MAN site. But get it.

[Goodbye Chunky Rice]

Craig Thompson’s GOODBYE CHUNKY RICE (Top Shelf Productions, Box 1282, Marietta GA 30061-1282; $14.95) is in its third printing, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a tragicomic romance between a deer mouse and a globehopping turtle, told in a Art Spiegleman-does-Pogo style and underscored with a mythic sensibility. Mostly it’s about how we need each other, and the sad limitations of that. Hard to believe it came in any way, shape or form out of Wisconsin.

Does Rumiko Takahashi pay attention to Japanese film trends? Her first major series, URUSEI YATSURA traded on science fiction, RAMNA ½ went heavy for martial arts, and her latest (to my knowledge), INU-YASHA (Viz Communications, Box 77010, San Francisco CA 94107; $2.95), plays on the feudal Japan mined for so many samurai/ronin epics. Yet they’re all essentially the same story, ultimately coming down to the love between two people and the refusal of at least one of them to cop to it, with comical consequences. INU-YASHA (named for the semi-demonic Ranma stand-in here) is more serious than the other works, but not much more. The story is helped by Takahashi’s open art and breezy dialogue and storytelling. Evidence sword-and-sorcery can still be made to work; it’s all in the attitude.

Those who don’t think the Japanese do superhero comics I point to Kia Asamiya’s SILENT MÖBIUS, (Viz; trade paperbacks $16.95, comics $2.95) which is as post-superhero as anything published in the States. No costumes, and they don’t call them superheroes, but everyone’s got superpowers and they fight demons and superbeings, so let’s not pretend. Pretty much everything you might find in X-MEN, the same superheated emotionality, with more interesting characters and a better storyline. Not that jumping into the middle isn’t just as taxing, which makes the graphic novels, currently on #7, a better bet.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the newly redesigned Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail 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. 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.

Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter should 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.

If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions.

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