Had an interesting chat with a writer friend of mine last week. Seems he got a very nice e-mail from a fan-turned-pro who, to cash in on the ’80s revival fever gripping the business lately (to the point where one gossip columnist took at least semi-seriously the spurious “rumor,” concocted especially for him, that Wildstorm had bought the rights to THE SMURFS and planned a realistic “dark” version), was trying to license my friend’s creation from the company that owns it, and intended to write the new version as an “homage” to my friend.
My friend’s dilemma: how to tell the obviously pleasant and well-meaning e-mailer that such things were tantamount to insults.
This concept is somewhat anathema to the comics industry. To modern American culture, really. We’re trained to separate the creator from the creation, and not in the “my work speaks for itself” way. (In fact, creators only really have status in our culture when they’re transformed into stars, which is separating the creator from the creation in a different way.)
There’s an element of hypocrisy in what I’m saying now, and I freely admit that. Like most people in this business, I got my start writing work-for-hire (and still make the bulk of my income that way). This means the characters you work on, whether you’re a writer or artist, are owned by the company. In some cases, you created the character you write, but once you accept the work-for-hire proposition, that character belongs to the company and they get to determine its fate, not you. Once you’ve decided the immediate money, or the glory of working for that particular company, or simply getting published at all, or whatever perk induced you to accept the agreement, is worth more to you than continued legal claim (as opposed to, say, the acknowledgement of fans or critics) to your creation, it’s too late to cry about it. The company can do whatever they want with it, have whoever they want work on it (barring contractual obligations to the contrary, of course) and there’s nothing you can do about it. Or, frankly, have a right to do about it. Once you make that decision, you don’t get to come in later and complain that the company’s doing something you don’t like with your creation – or even that you have an innate right to write or draw it over all other comers. You sold it. It’s not yours anymore.
That’s the basic principle that underlies most comics publishing today. Most media operations, in fact. Most entertainment companies in whatever media depend on it. For a brief time, it was different in comics and specific creators were strongly identified with their creations, the idea of creator-ownership was spreading, and both concepts met with enough acceptance and encouragement from readers that even companies were going along with them. Now there seems to be a fair amount of resentment and backlash against creator-ownership, which isn’t surprising.
But none of that is really what I’m talking about.
I’ve done lots of work-for-hire. Except in a couple of cases, I’ve never done it with any delusions that I was honoring the creators by doing it. (The two exceptions were an Adam Strange story I did as a Gardner Fox pastiche, drawn by Mike Zeck, and a Green Lantern-Atom two-parter drawn by the characters’ co-revamper Gil Kane done in the style of the original Julie Schwartz-edited Gardner Fox/John Broome stories. But both Fox and Broome were dead by that time.)
Now imagine you’re a starting writer. There’s a character you loved when you were “just” a reader, and you’ve decided to get the rights to that character. Or the assignment, if someone else owns the rights. Fine. Your business, your privilege.
What you don’t do, under most circumstances, is contact the original writer/creator to tell him you’re going to be writing the character as an homage to him!
Here’s why: particularly in our field, the creator is likely to still be working. What you’re really saying is that you feel you’re better equipped to handle his creation than he is. You probably don’t realize that’s what you’re saying, but that’s what you’re saying.
We’re to the point, in American culture, where we consider there to be something wrong with a character that can’t be separated from its creator. Characters are supposed to live on with a life of their own, to spawn offshoots, sequels, revivals, etc. But characters are created through stories, and stories are expressions of the personalities of the creators. Characters are expressions of the personalities of their creators, of their personal styles. Is there really a point to Sherlock Holmes without Arthur Conan Doyle, Conan without Robert E. Howard, Tarzan without Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip Marlowe without Raymond Chandler? The latter’s maybe the best example: so totally bound to Chandler’s worldview and rhythms that any other version comes off as mushy, watered down knockoff. (Or embarrassing; for all its technical virtuosity and decent story, Disney’s recent release TREASURE PLANET, “adapted” from the classic Robert Lewis Stevenson novel, is laughable with its anachronistic portrayal of 17th century pirate ships cruising through space – an image that has periodically recurred in comics for decades, with similarly risible results. And I’m sure the project was conceived as an “homage” to Stevenson.)
Yet there have been new stories of all those characters beyond the creators. The results fall into two categories: thin rehashes or significant variation. I’m not saying there can’t be good stories done with characters by people not their creators, but usually those make significant innovations, or the new talent “puts its stamp” on the material to make it, essentially, not what the creator created.
Which, usually, is hardly likely to please the creator. But the other way, the conscious imitation, is often more insulting. I mean, would you rather hear a band or the bar band knock-off of the band? The simple fact is this: homage is theft. I know a lot of people don’t like to hear this or admit it, but homage is theft. It’s claiming someone else’s ideas, or style, as your own. Which isn’t to say it’s not done. It’s done all the time. Fans think it’s a way to honor someone. Publishers often encourage it, particularly if what’s being “homaged” was financially successful for them.
But it’s not a compliment to creators. Someone asked if what I’m saying means all the stories done after them with characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are insults to Stan and Jack. My guess is probably not. They’re just business. Stan, at least, has continued in some way to profit from his creations, so there’s no real loss to him: he gets rewarded (maybe not as much as his contract calls for, but he gets rewarded) while other people do all the work. Jack, on the other hand… the issue of profit aside, I know Jack Kirby, the subject of many, many “homages” while he was alive, felt if people truly wanted to honor him, they’d create their own original characters.
That people like our creations is something everyone in the comics business lives for. It’s flattering to think someone likes our work well enough that they come up with their own stories for our characters. It’s less flattering for people to emerge from their fan days hellbound to work on other people’s characters instead of their own creations. I think Jack was right: if you want to honor creators whose work you love, be inspired by them to create your own original work, not to duplicate/water down theirs.
The continuity of characters beyond the original creator is a bi-product of the mass media age anyway. It’s an economic decision, prompted by the concept people will be most likely to pay money for what they’re most familiar with. And I can’t say it doesn’t seem to hold true in most cases, particularly now that American mass media has spent several decades dedicating itself to that proposition and training audiences to believe nostalgia is better than originality. TV is run like that, film is run like that, the comics business and (periodically) the music business is run like that. It’s economically beneficial for companies to keep properties in play rather than generating new ones. (To a point. Too many regenerated properties start to make companies just look old.)
So it’s an economic fact that if you plan to make a living in comics, odds are you’re going to end up working for a company that wants you to work on characters it owns, work-for-hire. (At least until the next wave of change washes over the industry, and hopefully we can make it stick next time. But later on that.) No one’s blames incoming talent for that. I’ve done it and still do it. Almost all of the biggest names in the business have done it. The situation’s not likely to change anytime soon.
Just don’t pretend you’re honoring anyone by doing it. Particularly if they’re available and capable of doing it themselves.
It’s no surprise the Hand Puppet’s economic brain trust was swept out en masse last week; I’ve been hearing pundits talk about how ill-equipped Paul O’Neill was for the job since the president took office. Drawn from the ranks of big business and Wall Street, they didn’t bring any credibility or competency in dealing with the administration’s big economic scandals so far, from Enron to insider trading to creative corporate bookkeeping and collusion with stockbrokers. If the Hand Puppet hadn’t had the war on terrorism and the war with Iraq to distract Americans from the almost daily revelations of economic hanky-panky, he’d had to invent them. (Wait a minute…) Well, now that the old crew is out, things’ll be better, right?
Except they’ve already put out the message: new faces, same old policies. Which, as many noted last week during the sweeping, is no policies. The current administration has no domestic policy of any kind. Except tax cuts, more of which most Americans don’t want, according to polls. (Seems everyone outside the Beltway has figured out you can’t keep drastically slashing taxes and raise spending. Well, you can, but somebody’s going to pay for it in the long run, and that somebody will most likely be same people who’ll now be paying insurance companies if they have to pay out more than they’d prefer: us.) And where are the Hand Puppet’s new advisors coming from? Big business and Wall Street. Meet the new boobs, same as the old boobs.
Enjoy the depression.
Meanwhile, Bill Clinton resurfaced last week to maintain his position as de facto head of the Democratic Party, meaning the only one among them who can seem to concoct and voice a coherent thought. In a post-mortem on the November elections, Clinton mentioned there are trigger issues that dominate other ones and where the Democrats made their mistake was harping on the economy at a time when a major issue on many voters’ minds was security, and by not presenting a “Democratic vision” of security first, followed by a strong vision of the economy.
Bill was half-right. The Democrats should have presented a vision for American security. Of course, they’d’ve had to come up with one. Bill’s error is in pretending the Democrats presented a vision of anything. In the absence of your own identity, you become whatever your opponents say you are, but even in the absence of that, the best you can hope to come across as is a vacuum. That’s what the Democrats better get through their heads by 2004.
Speaking of old characters redone by new people, took the time out recently to see DIE ANOTHER DAY. I’ve never hidden that I think Pierce Brosnan is the best James Bond on film, believable both as charming rogue and as conscienceless killing machine; it was always hard for me to accept Sean Connery’s thuggish Bond as someone anyone would trust for even a second. Brosnan plays the character also as two separate but cooperative personalities.
DIE ANOTHER DAY, however, is showing the character’s age, something that can’t be hidden by dropping in a more youthful Bond every few movies or so. (Not that Brosnan is anywhere near the smutty grandfather version perfected by Roger Moore. Brosnan continues to radiate toughness and relative youth – he makes it easy to buy him doing what he does.) If Brosnan’s Bond is a split personality, DIE ANOTHER DAY is a split movie: John Le Carré in the first half, MOONRAKER in the second. Bond’s always best when dealing with more or less down to earth menaces, and the movie launches a wonderfully staged “Bond-against-all-odds” opener into a different area entirely; caught by the enemy on a mission, the world’s greatest spy is tortured for information throughout the opening credits – which last 16 months (during which he misses 9/11, which neatly answers the question of why the superspy didn’t stop it). Released but cut off from his M6 support group and usual futuretech arsenal because of suspicions he broke and gave away the farm during his incarceration, Bond starts a solo world tour to find the real culprit and redeem his reputation. Which suddenly makes the character more real and vulnerable than he has been in years.
Unfortunately, in the aftermath of a terrific sword fight, they switch gears into more standard Bond fare. Not that the movie doesn’t have its moments; among others, Michael Madsen unexpectedly shows up – always good to see him – and Bond escapes a scenery-scorching heat ray by cannibalizing a race car into a para-surfing rig. But by that point the plot’s well back into Roger Moore territory, turning on sci-fi gimmickry. I’m of mixed minds on the series now: I really hope Brosnan sticks around, since I love watching him play Bond, but the franchise seems to be sliding into one of its periodic depressions, and I’d rather he wasn’t around to tumble with it.
Theatrical side note: before the film, they showed a trailer for DAREDEVIL. I’ve seen a few trailers for it now. This one made it look good. But I’ve noticed something about all of them: when he’s in costume, he never stops moving long enough for us to actually see it. Whether they’re trying to get across the idea of fast action or whether the costume is (as has been reported) hilarious looking enough that they don’t want us to get a good look at it, I couldn’t say.
Over in TV, THE SOPRANOS have finished their fourth season, and the debate begins. Was this season an exercise in character study, fleshing out personae and pathologies against a neutral, almost non-existent backdrop actionwise? Or was it writers, producers and actors treading water while making a series originally intended to last three seasons go five? Me, I could read it either way, but I can sum up the season in one word: inconsequential.
Which is probably not a word David Chase nor HBO want associated with the series. Gandolfini claims he’s out after five, HBO’s reportedly pushing for season 6 or even 7. At least OZ looms on the horizon to wake me up. This is OZ’s last season, which should be climactic enough to shake off their season 4 doldrums. If so, I hope THE SOPRANOS take the hint. Given the state of network TV, the fact that THE SOPRANOS at all but its lowest points this seas is still far better than network fare should be of scant comfort to Chase et al at best.
But is Anthony Jr. not the dumbest male on television? I have this fantasy that he somehow hooks up with TV’s dumbest female, 24‘s Kim Bauer. And all their children get careers as doorstops.
Should’ve read a bunch of comics this week. Didn’t. Read a novel instead. GUNS, DRUGS AND MONSTERS by Steve Niles (IDW Publishing, 2645 Financial Court, Suite E, San Diego CA 92117; $15.99). Wasn’t planning to, but this is a slick piece of pop fiction that gets under your skin and keeps calling you back. P.I. Cal Macdonald sheds his Washington DC digs for sunny California, in a modern noir America where human beings and strange creatures generally co-exist side-by-side, and McDonald has a rep for hunting monsters human and supernatural. I haven’t read much of Niles’ writing since his earliest comics work (which seemed a little too influenced by Bendis, whose work I generally like but whose worst aspects, as when he lurches into his patented “Hemingway-on-Alzheimer’s” repetitions, get on my nerves) but here he’s got a strong voice and a real flair for pacing, rhythm and language, and barely a moment in the book tests our credulity (quite a feat for a semi-flippant book about monsters). It sings. It begs to be made into movies. It begs to sit on a shelf full of Steve Niles novels. It’s good. Read it.
Recent comments from readers:
“This week’s column made me think of a quote:
“‘Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.’ – Hermann Goering, at the Nuremberg Trials.
“I knew Ashcroft was a fascist…
“And this one, a little closer to home…
“‘Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear– kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fever–with the cry of grave national emergency. Always ther ahs been some terrible evil at home or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it.’ – General Douglas McArthur, 1957.
“(Taken from Derailing Democracy: The America The Media Don’t Want You To See by David McGowan, Common Courage Press)”
“‘Speaking of ‘Terrorist Identifiers’, I was recently chatting with a friend of mine who works for the state forestry service. During the summer months, he and his co-workers are often called upon to volunteer for fire fighter duty, usually in the more western states where forest fires can run rampant, destroying thousands of acres. It seems that a ‘trigger’ for stepped up security searches at the airport are one-way tickets that are ‘recently’ purchased. My friend noted that he and his co-workers were stopped at every checkpoint. He reported that one fire fighter he talked to was searched no less than 7 times on a single trip from East to West.
“Now, I’m all for stepped up security, and the price we pay for freedom (to an extent), but it seems a little ridiculous to me that these folks, who are on the Federal paycheck, taking the time to help save the nations resources, have to be subjected to this kind of scrutiny. My friend took it in stride, but it kind of ticked me off that he and others like him received this kind of treatment. There has to be a better way.”
Finally, another comment on the Jesus Castillo case:
“Being from the Dallas area, this entire case sickens me to the core. One of the reasons for the bus was that Keith’s Comics was near an elementary school; did anyone say it was for a school for deaf children who are rarely if ever let out? I lived near that school for two years and never once saw any children on the playground. This whole problem came up when a ‘concerned PTA member’ decided they didn’t want a comic store near their school. They went into Keith’s comics, went into the Adults Only section (which is clearly marked and supervised), and dug through bins till they eventually found OVERFIEND. Once they found it they called vice and had Keith’s busted.
“Keith and his crew are great people and don’t deserve this.”
It seems to me that there are enough progressive, First Amendment-positive people in the Dallas area – hell, in the country – that if they’d simply organize they’d easily have the numbers, and hopefully the political clout, to counterbalance the regressives and put an end to nonsense like this. (I think that’s how I’ll start breaking down political differences: progressives and regressives. Of course, the vast bulk of the population are somewhere in between.) I know the Hand Puppet Sr. tried rephrasing them as the New Communist Party, and the current Hand Puppet probably thinks they’re in league with terrorists, and they’re not a perfect organization by any stretch, but I think a good initial step would be to join the American Civil Liberties Union. It’s really important to swell those numbers now.
Mistakenly identified my forthcoming Sabretooth story (art by David Finch) as being in Marvel’s X-MEN UNLIMITED #39, which came out filled with Storm stories. It isn’t. It’s in #40, and the Lockheed The Dragon story drawn by Paul Smith is in #41. Sorry about that. Both stories are worth it for the art alone. Good thing you get so much more than art alone.
Those planning to get the MORTAL SOULS trade paperback with art by Philip Xavier out from Avatar Press in February will be happy to know at least two online dealers are selling the title at big savings. Andrew Goletz of Preorder Comics/Grayhaven wrote to tell me they’ve made the MORTAL SOULS tpb a Spotlight Discount: 40% off, for a price of $5.97. But wait! That’s not all! (Ah. Infomercials.) For a limited time only, anyone who says “PERMANENT DAMAGE sent me!” can only MORTAL SOULS for only $4.99! That’s with free shipping for US residents. Wow! And Brian at Khepri.Com tells me anyone who goes to their Steven Grant page to pre-order MORTAL SOULS will get a 30% discount. Is the whole world going MORTAL SOULS wild or what?
One last thing: I’ve been getting a ton of announcements in e-mail lately. Please stop sending them. I don’t really do announcements. (Once in a blue moon, if it’s something I think is really important, but not often.) Send them to The Pulse or Newsarama or CBR News instead. You have to be smart with these things and aim them where they’re appreciated. Thanks.
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. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. 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. Be warned that this site is functionally dead – I’ve switched to a different server and am prepping a new page – but it’s still up and the backstory details are still germane even if the news page is a bit dated.
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