Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Coming Comic Book Strike

Earlier this week, Multiversity Comics' David Harper wrote an excellent column about Comics and the Diminishing Role of Artists in a Visual Medium. It's been making the rounds on social media as many artists have been sharing it in a rare example of solidarity. I immediately wrote to David to praise him, and put forth a little theory of my own about exactly when this power shift (form artist to writer) took place. I've been criticizing it vocally for years, and it's in-house continuity.

Publishers like Marvel and DC have been relying on company-wide story lines which are heavily dependent on continuity. That places the greatest responsibility in the hands of the story architects. People like Brian Michael Bendis and Geoff Johns have been given the reigns of not just one or two characters but entire universes. This blocks the use of any character involved in even a limited capacity, which disallows their use for the type of incredible reboots that marked the Vertigo boom of the late 80s and early 90s. Imagine a comic book world without Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, or Peter Milligan if Marv Wolfman had the power back then at DC that Bendis now has at Marvel. What if he chose to veto new writers from using throwaway characters like Sandman, Animal Man, Doom Patrol and Shade the Changing Man because he might have had plans to include them in company-wide crossover. Marv isn't the type of guy who would have blocked new creators, but his Crisis on Infinite Earths did force a curmudgeonly Alan Moore to begrudgingly include Martian Manhunter and Batman into a Swamp Thing story to fit the company-wide continuity. 

The power of the few crossover architects prevents new writers from breaking into the business. It also either alienates casual fans or requires them to bulk up on their monthly purchases (even though they may only be interested in one or two titles) because the massive-multi-book tie-ins place favorite characters in other books in which important events may (but usually don't) take place. This eventually leads to fan drop-off.

Company-wide crossovers were the beginning of the end of artist power. The double shipping that David Harper mentions in his article was the nail in the coffin.

Of course, many artists were their own worst enemies. The Multiversity blog mentioned the notoriously late Frank Quitely and John Cassaday, who really are the last two superstar artists in the comic book biz. Before fans cry Adam Hughes, it's important to remember that he is much better known for his covers than interior work, and therefore less likely to be in a position to hold up the publishing schedule. The business requires consistent ship dates, and artists who can't deliver on time will become marginalized. Remember that it took the better part of five years for three issues of Neal Adams' Ms. Mystic to see the light of day, and he had a whole stable of artists at his Continuity Graphics. In the end, this is an editorial problem. Editors are on the front lines with artists and know how many pages these guys can do in a month. If the artists got a head-start of half-a-year before street date on the first issue, Astonishing X-Men and All Star Superman probably still would've been late. OK. Bad example. Nothing can get those two to deliver on time, the knowing of which should instill a healthier respect for the great artists of the 70s like John Byrne, George Perez and Gene Colan who routinely worked on multiple titles that were 32 pages or more each month. And these were no mere journeymen. They produced top notch work on a regular basis. If they'd had the luxury of time that today's artists have, I can't even imagine how beautiful the finished art would've been–as long as Vince Colletta didn't ink it.

Harper referenced the work of Charlie Adlard and Ryan Ottley (ironically on titles both written by Robert Kirkman) as examples of consistent and long running series that have relied on just one artist. These guys have the luxury of working on one title because they are co-creators and are getting royalties based on that. Most "house" and freelance artists (not co-creators or superstars) aren't getting any royalties regardless of how many issues of a particular issue sell. The numbers may be up from where they were last year, but compared to the early Image launch numbers, most books are at 10% of where they were in the pre-videogame, early 90s. The long runs of Salvador Larocca on Iron Man and Mark Bagley's record-breaking, uninterrupted run on Ultimate Spiderman are flukes that have a lot to do with their relationships with the superstar writers they teamed with. Bendis clearly had Bagley's back. I don't know if it was out of superstition or camaraderie, but I don't think Bagley was making a lot of money, and therefore wasn't a liability to the company. I confess total ignorance on this matter of pay, and mean no disrespect one way or the other. Even if Bagley was getting $500 per page, considering the sales on that title, he was grossly underpaid–and such rates would put him in the top 1% of comic artist salaries.

A good friend of mine whose covers were recycled by Marvel for bound collections of the series they worked on didn't even get paid for the reuse of their art on these additional editions, each of which had high circulation. The art was also recycled for in-house ads for which no payment was made. I think they got $600 per cover. When DC launched a new indie line they offered this same artist even less for covers, even though the approach started on DC's end. This was at the same time that our mutual friend Dave Johnson was getting a couple thousand dollars for his covers to 100 Bullets and then selling the original art for between seven and ten thousand dollars each. But digital artists have no original art to sell, which is how comic artists in the past had been able to subsidize their shitty income. It's disgraceful, but it's nothing new. I haven't seen many Dave Johnson covers since 100 Bullets came to an end, and it wouldn't surprise me to find out that current cover rates preclude that possibility now.

Bob Layton, who should be getting some serious Iron Man movie money right now, probably isn't. He's completely left comics for Hollywood, choosing project development over slave wages. Who could blame him? The aforementioned Gene Colan died in poverty and it was the Hero Initiative that paid the medical bills that kept him alive for his last couple of years, not residuals from Marvel for the many titles he created or contributed to. Marv Wolfman and George Perez are a couple of the very few creators from the 70s who've managed to do really well for properties that they created, and probably only because timing was on their side. New Teen Titans was the first Baxter edition book and the circulation numbers in the 80s were huge. DC cut them a reasonable deal and when the animated series took off years later, they were sitting pretty. Marv makes his living writing animated series instead of comic books these days, which means he gets Screen Writers Guild money instead of the non-union, funny-book shaft. George still gets his royalty checks but the only new income he's generating comes from working on comics from the big two. I don't know how much he gets paid but I really hope it's more than the flat rate.

The only viable future in the comics business for artists is in creating and self-publishing, unless they all wise up and unionize. The problem with organizing a union, is that it would require cooperation from the writers and most of them are already signed to lucrative (sometimes lifetime) contracts. I doubt very much they'll rock the boat. Since most artists live below the poverty line, they're already living hand-to-mouth and it's difficult to ask someone to risk losing that for a greater good. This isn't the 1940s or 50s and union busting is business as usual now.

Of course, on the flip side, when you're standing on the bottom rung, the fall won't kill you. It's the rush of new legs that trample you on their way up to the bottom rung that does the damage. As long as new artists are willing to be mistreated it will never get better. There is virtually no solidarity among artists who often refuse to talk rates out of pride or embarrassment or both.

Writers have more power because they can be working on far more projects at the same time and capitalize on a success almost immediately, whereas an artist has to labor over work that a writer may have finished a year ago or more. It's much more likely that a writer will have multiple titles on the stands at the same time, which raises their stock among fans and accountants. In instances where writers really are writing more than one series at a time (rather than benefiting from the prolonged publishing schedule), the quality of the writing is often diluted over all titles. Few writers have been able to do their best work on multiple titles at the same time, because their attention is shifted. I can see how this would make crossovers very attractive to the industrious writer, though, as they can remain focused on the big picture while drifting focus across multiple characters and reassigning the writing chores for characters they don't have a head for. Some writers have had greater success than others in this endeavor, but with pay as it is, you can't blame them for picking up as many titles as possible. Fans are very forgiving, and opportunity is rare.

At least the powers-that-be are recognizing that new ideas and creativity have a currency that can't be reduced to formula if success is the goal. That has lifted writers from the canyon, but that doesn't mean that artists have to dive into the canyon in their place. If they stand their ground, they'll eventually rise, too. An industry-wide strike would cripple DC and Marvel. There is no way they're going to turn to their entertainment divisions to bail them out, ether, because those employees make real money. Perhaps the solution isn't for comic artists to start their own union, but to join an existing one. That would be a much more feasible scenario and the benefits (literal and figurative) would be incredible. Under current Writer's Guild definitions, most comic book artists as 50% contributors to the story would qualify for membership. And getting those definitions altered and more inclusive is a fight worth launching, as long as there exists a clear and certain path for new writers and artists to enter the business.

The irony of course, is that after a strike ended, the press and excitement wouldn't just reclaim the drop-off in casual readership, it would probably expand it exponentially because the reputation of the unions behind the workers would send a message that the quality is now somehow higher.

Now you know what to do, comic creators. Go forth in rage and return in prosperity.


*I want to be clear that I am in no way criticizing Brian Michael Bendis or Geoff Johns who have worked incredibly hard and written thousands of pages of the best work in the medium to get to their current positions of power. More power to them. It's the system and the power structure with which I take issue.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Clive Barker NEEDS Your Help

Clive Barker is without doubt an Imaginer. His work as a writer has been universally praised across multiple genres, be it dark, adult fantasy or children's literature. His work as a filmaker in the horror arena has garnered millions of fans worldwide. Yet, while the hardcore Fifth Dominion fanbase has been aware of his painting talent for years, much of the rest of the world are less acquainted with the thousands of original works he has produced via pen or paint or camera for fine art galleries, private collectors and museums.

Today is the last day of the Clive Barker kickstarter.

Century Guild director Tom Negovan has assembled an amazing creative team to archive and edit the massive collection of the artist's works to produce a broadly encompassing volume. It will be limited edition, immaculately packaged and required a tremendous amount of hours and labor. The gifts you'll get for pledging are extraordinary, and as of this writing there are plenty of incentives still available. I would be remiss if I didn't state that Barker's health invites speculation about how much more work he'll be able to produce in this lifetime. I don't claim to have more information than anyone else, but I highly recommend that you appreciate the man while he is still with us, and contributing to this kickstarter campaign offers just such an opportunity.

Clive Barker has been an incredibly important contributor to the comics medium, and that alone would warrant coverage in this column, but it is with no minor pride that I report to have been party to one of the first American exhibitions of his work over fifteen years ago at La Luz de Jesus Gallery.  I've met him on several occasions and found him to be kind, articulate and encouraging not only to his friends and fans but also to his detractors.

Below is a video explaining the perks of support. You can get cool swag for as little as $14.

I didn't realize until today that this column has become a quarterly concern, rather than a bi-weekly blog. I'll be rectifying that for sure, and hope you stay tuned.