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WGA Strike: How will it affect comics?

Ever since the Writer's Guild of America (WGA) began negotiations with the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) in July of this year to revise the existing Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA), the entertainment industry has been abuzz with the possibility of a writer's strike. Those fears became all the more founded as the October 31st expiration of the current MBA grew ever nearer with little to no movement on either side of the negotiations. The WGA's pattern of demands for the Contract 2007 negotiations include increases in residuals from the growing Home Video/DVD market, an equitable share of the profits derived from distribution of writers' work on new media (Internet, cell phones, etc.) and bringing reality and animated programming under the WGA's jurisdiction. But ultimately, the writers and the studios could not see eye to eye, and the WGA strike officially began on November 5th, 2007. In recent years, there has been increasing cross pollination between the mediums of television and comic books. CBR News sat down with a number of WGA members who have enjoyed success in both mediums to talk about what implications the strike has for the comic book industry.

Since WGA members are forbidden to ply their trade for the TV studios until the strike is resolved, will this development result in a marked increase in their comics output? Marc Guggenheim - whose TV credits include "Law and Order," "CSI Miami," "Brothers & Sisters" and the upcoming "Eli Stone," along with runs on "Blade," "The Flash" and an upcoming stint on "Amazing Spider-Man" - told CBR News that the writer's strike is "the best thing that could happen" to his comics schedule. "Obviously, comics (and some videogame work) would be the only thing I could work on in the event of a strike," Guggenheim said. "That having been said, I'd rather use the additional time to get ahead of all my deadlines rather than take on new projects."

-- Daniel Knauf

Daniel Knauf (creator of HBO's "Carnivale" and current writer of "Iron Man") told CBR News that fans could absolutely expect his comics output to increase in the coming months, but that that has more to do with the "creative oppression endemic to television" than it has to do with the strike. "The truth is, I've been much happier with the creative freedom I have experienced with comics for some time, and have considered redirecting my efforts toward graphic storytelling rather than television series creation," Knauf said. "An idiosyncratic show like 'Carnivale' would never be greenlit today. Comics, on the other hand, are much more willing to gamble on fresh concepts."

Another WGA member and comics writer, who wished to speak anonymously, said it was TV writers who would be most affected by the work stoppage. "They're actually walking away from very time-intensive jobs and thus may end up with more free time to write comics, depending on how long the strike might last," the writer said. "Freelancers or part-time writers and movie writers are more able to work their writing schedule around their comics schedule, so they should see less of a day-to-day change. If a comics writer is also writing a movie screenplay, they can't get notes or turn in drafts during the strike, so they may have time to get more comics work done, but from what I hear, the last strike in 1988 didn't stop people from working on screenplays on their own in anticipation of the strike ending, so then again, there may not be much difference."

Since writing comic books does not fall under the jurisdiction of the WGA, can we expect to see more entertainment industry vets trying their hands at graphic literature? Knauf thinks so, but with one big caveat. "The truth is, writing even a passable comic book is much harder than writing a television script," Knauf said. "This is a very unforgiving medium, and requires an ability to crunch story and make each frame convey a lot of information with very little dialogue - virtually the opposite of television, which is 80-90% talking heads. The vast majority of television writers are not visual storytellers. So the answer is yes, some TV writers might want to turn to comics, but very few will have the talent and craft to pull it off."

-- Anonymous

The unnamed writer does not anticipate the strike lasting long enough to get new comics projects off the ground. "The longest WGA strike in history (in 1988) lasted 5 months," the writer said. "Given the lead time it takes to get a comic produced and released, writers would probably just wait it out. I'd think any TV writers working in comics would be doing so because they feel it's the right medium for their story."

Guggenheim told CBR News that comics, like all mediums, come with both pros and cons. "I think that creator-owned comics can provide a good launching pad for a feature or TV project, but it comes at the expense of 100% financial participation for the writer because they now have to share the sales price of the intellectual property with the publisher and, in some cases, artist(s) in question," Guggenheim said. "So it's a double-edged sword. I don't believe that either edge gets blunter or sharper in the event of a strike. By the time a book was pitched, developed, written, drawn and published, the strike would probably be over."

Exactly how much do the mediums of comic books and television have in common? "Certain writing rules - good storytelling, solid characterization, good dialogue - apply, or should apply, across all mediums," Guggenheim said. "The biggest difference is budgetary: First, comics have a theoretically limitless 'budget' in terms of the story you can tell; the story is only limited by the creators' imagination and ability to execute. On the other hand, it is far, far, far less expensive to produce a comic than produce a television show. With that lesser expense comes less need for corporate oversight which means more creative freedom."

The unnamed writer said that while comics have more in common with television than they do with classic literature, there are still distinct differences between the two. "With comics, you have to be more visual and provide more action, while TV is more talky, more dialogue and character oriented. In TV, a big special effect is a major drain on the

-- Marc Guggenheim

budget of the show, so you stay away from it or use it judiciously; in comics, it's what you gravitate toward." The writer posits that the superhero genre has maintained such a choke-hold on the comics marketplace precisely because no other media can do it as well. "Take the romance genre, for instance; a TV soap opera or a romantic movie could deliver a similar product as a comic. But with the last 'Fantastic Four' movie, even with today's technology, they couldn't create both the Silver Surfer and Galactus - it just wasn't feasible. In comics, there are no such limits."

Knauf agreed that there are significant differences between the comics and television mediums. "They both are visual and convey story and character utilizing dialogue and action, but that's it," Knauf said. "The differences between the two are as big as, say, those between a city bus and an airliner. Sure, they both have steering wheels, engines, windows, seats and passengers. But beyond that, no one would mistake one for the other."

It is the differences between the two mediums that leads Knauf to believe that WGA will not be representing comic writers anytime soon. "They don't represent novelists or playwrights, so I can't see them reaching out to comic writers."

Guggenheim foresees the possibility that comic books might one day fall under the jurisdiction of the WGA, but acknowledges that the medium is decidedly low on the totem pole. "Ahead of line of comic books is reality TV, animation, work written for the Internet, Videogames and theatre," Guggenheim said. "On the one hand, comic books have publishers and 'production' costs, like TV and film; on the other hand, they don't have actors, cameramen, etc."

The unnamed writer agreed. "Historically, the WGA has focused on electronic media like TV, film and radio," he said. "Since comics are currently primarily a print medium, I don't see much overlap, but maybe if comics move more toward an internet model in the future, that could change."

Writer Brian K. Vaughan ("Lost," "Y The Last Man," "Ex Machina") answered these questions and more in a F.A.Q. he posted on his website, and gave CBR permission to repost it here. More information on the strike can be found at www.wga.org.

CBR's Jonah Weiland contributed to this story.

By Brian K. Vaughan

***Why is the WGA striking?

Because writers believe we deserve a fair share of the revenue generated by the stuff we helped to create, crazy as that sounds.

There's an excellent summary of what I consider to be our very reasonable demands at this blog, which has been a consistently dependable source of good information about the strike: http://www.unitedhollywood.com/

But basically, writers are looking to negotiate modest residuals and protections for use of our TV shows and movies on the internet, where most of us will likely be getting the majority of our entertainment from in the not-too-distant future.

We're are also asking for a share of about 8 cents--that's eight stinkin' pennies--for every DVD of our work sold, as opposed to the criminally insane 4 cents we receive today.

I read that Warren Ellis was concerned about possibly being barred from writing for animation (which is largely outside the jurisdiction of the WGA) during the strike, and while I think his concerns were absolutely valid (the strike rules have since been amended), I believe those initial guidelines were born out of the fact that this negotiation is also about fighting to extend the same health benefits, pension, and other protections that writers like I enjoy to our equally important colleagues in animation (as well as those in "reality" television, which employs more writers than you can imagine).

I got to hear firsthand how hard the Writers Guild worked to negotiate a fair deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, but after more than three months of talks, the AMPTP still hasn't come close to even meeting the WGA halfway on its most important proposals.

It sucks.

***Do you support the strike?

Yeah, a hundred percent.

A few months ago, I was thrilled to start my second season as a writer and now a co-producer over at LOST, and have been unbelievably fortunate enough to help write a few scripts for what I think could end up being the show's best season.

And much as it breaks my heart for my colleagues and I to have to walk away from a job we love, we all think it's vitally important to the future of our industry.

At least in the short term, my friends and I stand to lose a great deal both creatively and financially in this strike, but every working writer I've ever met feels a responsibility to help protect those writers less fortunate than we are, as well as the next generation of creators to follow in our footsteps.

These last few weeks have been a real crash-course in unionization for me, and I've come away a bigger supporter than ever.

When we first started talking about a strike, I figured the Teamsters (our faithful truck drivers, location managers, etc.) would hate us "spoiled, overpaid typists" if we threatened their livelihoods with a work stoppage. But instead, they've been incredibly supportive of us at every turn, with many vowing not to cross our picket lines.

I know I sound like a second-rate Norma Rae (or Chief Tyrol from Battlestar for you young hipsters out there), but seeing all kinds of laborers, regardless of our different crafts, treat each other like brothers and sisters during the negotiations with the powerful corporations that employ so many of us has been one of the best experiences of my selling-out time here in Los Angeles.

***What does this mean for your comics work?

-- Brian K. Vaughan

Comics are not covered by the WGA.

I'm lucky that my phone started ringing from editors at Marvel and DC as soon as the threat of the strike materialized, and while I've gotten some cool offers to work on existing books, I think I'm going to take however long the strike lasts (which could be anywhere between a day and forever) to concentrate on making Ex Machina kick as much ass as possible as we start to head into that series' final year, and to continue to develop my next big creator-owned projects now that I've finished all my scripts for Y: The Last Man, Runaways, Buffy, The Escapists, Doctor Strange, and the upcoming Logan mini with Eduardo Risso. (Sorry, gratuitous plugging isn't prohibited by the WGA during the strike.)

But this isn't a vacation. I'll be walking the picket line every single day, so if you're visiting sunny Burbank, drive past and honk your support for the pasty bald kid, won't you?

***Does this mean there's going to be a flood of Hollywood writers coming into comics?

Maybe? I know a few creators--and a lot of readers--are sometimes annoyed by carpet-bagging movie/television writers swooping into comics to steal "their" jobs, but film/TV writers have been enormously generous about letting me into their world, and I think we should return the favor. Art is not a competition, and there's always room for talented creators.

That said, no one wants these screenwriters to just try to shoehorn their unsold pitches and scripts into comic form. But trust me, the many writers out here who truly love comics already know that it's a totally unique medium, one that deserves unique stories.

I guess I'd be a hypocrite to completely frown on translating existing movies/shows into comics (I had an awesome time doing that with Buffy) or translating existing comics into movies/shows (happily done it with Y and Ex Machina), but I think what each medium really needs is NEW ideas specifically created to play to the strengths of that particular artform.

***What does this mean for your comic-book movies?

Like I said, I've written adaptations of both Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina for New Line, and while they could conceivably move either or both of those drafts of mine into production during the strike (without any rewrites or other contributions from me), that seems pretty unlikely for lots of different reasons. As with most comic-to-screen adaptations currently "in development," I imagine they'll stay in limbo as long as the strike lasts.

I was also about to begin work on a particularly exciting new comic-to-screen adaptation that I can't really talk about, and while I'm hopeful the gig will still be waiting for me if/when the strike ends, who knows? That's one of the many risks that comes with this very necessary strike.

***Will comic writers ever unionize?

I certainly hope so, though I'm sure that makes many of my beloved employers cringe.

I talked about this when Whedon interviewed me over at CBR a few months back, but I think it's worth repeating here…

When I used the great Cloak and Dagger in Runaways, Bill Mantlo, the man who helped create them, didn't get anything, to the best of my knowledge. Not even a credit. And I'm not blaming my friends at Marvel (or DC, for that matter), all of whom are good people who've always been beyond fair with me. It's just indicative of the broken system, one that I'm very much a part of.

For the record, Bill Mantlo was struck by a hit-and-run driver a few years ago, and now requires expensive daily care that's way beyond what modest means he was left with after dedicating much of his life to our industry. And while things like The Hero Initiative, an absolutely worthwhile cause that I totally support, exist to help comic creators in financial need, THOSE CREATORS SHOULD NOT BE IN FINANCIAL NEED.

I know the Writers Guild of America isn't a perfect union, but I was afforded more benefits and protections in my first few months with the WGA as a work-for-hire screenwriter than I was ever given in a decade of working in comics. And again, I've been treated pretty honorably throughout my career, and have made more money than I ever deserved doing this "job," but that doesn't mean that I can't still be concerned about the generations of writers and artists before and after me.

Anyway, I know that smarter people than I have tried and failed to unionize in the past, so for now, we'll have to help creators like Bill Mantlo by donating directly to organizations like The Mantlo Project, or to the aforementioned The Hero Initiative. But it would be nice to see the day when they weren't necessary:

***I'm not in the WGA, but I support the cause. What can I do to help?

Thanks for asking! At this stage, I suppose the best thing you can do is to think critically about everything you're going to hear regarding the strike, especially because so many of the news outlets we all rely on are owned and controlled by the very people against whom we writers are striking.

None of us wanted this strike, and we all hope it'll be over before any of you loyal viewers even notice we were gone… but in the very likely scenario that this is going to be a long, tough slog, I'll try to check back in with more thoughts.

For now, wish us luck!

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