May
10

With Two Left Feet, It’s Hard To Walk The Straight Path

Posted by Jamaal Thomas on Thursday, May 10th, 2012 at 03:00:24 PM

I. Everybody Talking About Changing the World, the World Ain’t Never Gonna Change

In the summer of 2011, I came up with a plan. I would collaborate with Chris Eckert on a post previewing DC’s relaunch of its line of superhero comics, and write a series of brief posts in subsequent months that would discuss the creative successes and failures of the initiative. I was cautiously optimistic about the initiative in the first few months, despite some early disappointments. Even a month ago, I still cared about five or six of these books. I was going to write a post on Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang and Tony Akins’ Wonder Woman and Francis Manapul’s Flash and follow that up with a post on the two stand-out miniseries of the post-relaunch period at DC – Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray and Jamal Igle’s the Ray and James Robinson’s Shade.

I’m not sure that I can do that anymore without acknowledging my growing concerns about reading books from either publisher. I don’t think I can pretend that controversies about DC’s attitude towards the creators who work on the books it publishes don’t have an impact on whether I will buy (or can recommend) their books.

I’m still fascinated by some of the narratives related to the production of the work. The potential implications of the growing consensus that artists are the primary draw for the new DC books are fascinating. I hope DC (and Marvel for that matter) come to realize that these titles should (and do) reflect the creative vision of the artists on the book. There should be as much thought and consideration behind selecting a fill-in artist as there would be in choosing a fill-in writer. I’m also interested to see the medium term impact of Johns and Lee on the corporate culture – it’s still very early, but I could easily imagine DC finding creative ways to distinguish itself (as an employer) from Marvel. Although it appears that there’s a lot of editorial interference, we don’t hear the same complaints about working conditions or contracts.

I’m just far less interested in the actual product, especially as my options for genre comics without a legacy of exploitation continue to grow.

II. Insisting on a Declaration of Hate

I was never going to purchase or read any of the series in the Before Watchmen event. It’s not just the Moore controversy. If Watchmen taught us anything, its that stories are more important than characters and that the best stories have endings. I don’t care about any details of the Comedian’s biography that don’t appear in the original Watchmen series. When I close the book, I feel a sense of satisfaction, not a hunger for more. I wouldn’t be interested in Before Watchmen if DC got Moore to endorse it and write one of the books. Although the creators’ rights/dignity argument against Before Watchmen was compelling, it wasn’t particularly significant to me, as I would never be part of the audience for a Watchmen prequel. So it didn’t have much of an impact on my feelings about the rest of DC’s line of books.

Quick aside: I’m part of the generation of fans for whom Watchmen was a formative experience. I’ve always been able to define my relationship with superhero comics by my feelings about Watchmen. Sometimes I wonder if its value as a totem exceeds its value as a story. When I was in junior high school, I thought that Watchmen was a masterfully composed story featuring compelling characters that challenged my simplistic notions of right and wrong. In my evangelical phase of comics fandom, I cited Watchmen as an example of what was possible in superhero comics. I thought that its success would be an incentive for publishers to give creators the room to innovate. I believed that the success of Watchmen could be ammunition for the next generation of creators who want to push the envelope from within the system. When I quit reading comics the first time, Watchmen represented the wasted potential of superhero comics and the horrible. I’ve quit and returned to comics a few times since then, and I think that my opinions are a little bit more settled. Watchmen is a great book. I think that’s enough.

Over the last few weeks, everything changed. DC’s promotion of the Before Watchmen event rapidly went from unsavory to downright offensive. It wasn’t the cheesy ‘viral’ marketing tactics or the audience plants. It was the series of interviews where the creators working on the project (most notably J. Michael Straczynski) responded to Moore’s concerns about the use of one of his signature works with mockery and bad faith arguments that pretended to ignore the difference between stealing famous literary characters to create an original new work and expanding on another’s work over their loud protestations. Grant Morrison must have been giving lessons on how to dissemble about the ugly nature of contract negotiations in the American comics industry.

DC’s approach to Before Watchmen indicated that the company remains committed to never missing opportunities to miss an opportunity. I understand that DC Comics has every legal right to publish material based on the original Watchmen series, but it should have renegotiated the contract with Moore/Gibbons out of its own long range rational self-interest. I know that wasn’t an option for DC after the release of the Watchmen movie, but it should’ve been taken care of at some point after his departure from DC in the late 1980s. Moore may have been receptive to a deal exchanging the rights to the book for a commitment to publish material with DC in the future before his well-publicized conflicts with DC over Wildstorm and the Watchmen movie. As Heidi MacDonald noted in her brilliant post on the topic, it’s hard to imagine a creator like Moore (an eccentric genius who creates popular, critically acclaimed work) getting treated this way in any other lucrative culture industry. Although Straczynski’s comments were technically correct, he disregarded one of the practical realities of deal making for top tier creators in any culture industry – everything is subject to renegotiation. We all know that most creators in culture industries don’t have the bargaining power/resources to allocate contract risk in a fair manner, so corporations exploit that comparative advantage to profit from most unforeseeable contingencies (like the unexpected strength of the trade market). At the same time, if a corporation rationally concludes that the benefits from a continued partnership with the creator outweigh the advantages in the original contract, it has an incentive to renegotiate. DC had that incentive. It’s hard to imagine that DC wouldn’t have profited more from a continued partnership with Moore than a Before Watchmen series.

At the same time, I recognize that DC can’t unring this bell, and can’t afford to ignore the potential profits from Watchmen spin offs. I can’t imagine that Alan Moore would be willing to give anything to DC in exchange for ownership rights to Watchmen or even his silence about this project. I also understand that DC made every effort to get the best (most mercenary) talent for this project. I would never presume to judge the creators who decided to work on Before Watchmen (especially if the fees were anywhere close to the ones suggested by Dirk Deppey). At the same time, this controversy reminds me that:

 

“[T]his is just what happens in comics–that this is just the tradition in comics–characters get passed from one creator to another and that’s just how it is–why is it like that? And, where did these characters come from in the first place? Did they all spring from the brow of Zeus, fully-formed? Or, was there somebody who created them at some point? Was there a sort of Jerry Robinson or Bill Finger? Or, was there a Siegel and Schuster? Or a Martin Nodell or a Gardener Fox [sic] who got robbed? And then, of course the attitude–and I probably shared in this when I first started working for American comics–the attitude now is that it’s just toys in the toy box, isn’t it? You get to play with your favorite toys from the DC or Marvel toy box. Yeah, I don’t want to do that anymore. Those toys were pried out of the fingers of dead men, and were pried from their families and their children. That’s just wrong.”

 

Moore was talking about the dilemma of the modern creator, but he might as well have been referring to the unending conflict between Marvel Comics and the heirs of Jack Kirby. Over the last few months, Marvel’s intensive promotion of the Avengers movie served as a constant reminder of its refusal to share any of the profits of Jack’s legacy with his family. A multi-billion dollar franchise and the family of the creator doesn’t even get crumbs from the table. The worst part is that one could easily imagine a scenario in which Marvel resolved this matter in a way that benefited both parties without losing revenue or diluting its claim to Kirby’s creations. I know, I’m the one who wrote that “they’ve always been bastards ”. Marvel’s refusal to resolve the dispute with the Kirby family in an amicable manner should mean any more in 2012 than it did in previous years. It’s just that the endless promotion reminds me that the stakes and rewards are astronomically higher.

This isn’t really about Moore or Kirby, but what they represent. Plenty of other creators, many of whom are far less well known than either man, never received proper credit for their work, signed terrible contracts and will not share in the enormous revenue generated by their creations. This is the original sin of the American comics industry. Let’s stipulate that things have improved. Creators are better compensated, have more options and the age when contracts were on the backs of checks is over. We all have a better appreciation for the potential value of the characters and concepts created in comics. At the same time, the ongoing litigation (with creators and their heirs) and the stories about older creators struggling to survive make it hard to forget that the foundation for Marvel and DC’s wealth was laid by exploited labor.

So what can we do? To what degree are we willing to compromise the pleasure we get from a cultural artifact in order to take an ethical stand? I think the answer depends on how we choose to define our relationship with comics as an art form and an industry.

Are we members of a thriving community dedicated to a unique art form? Or are we simply consumers of entertainment products featuring our favorite characters? There’s something very freeing about being a consumer. You can limit your engagement with the industry to buying comics at your local store, from Amazon or on Comixology. You can care about creator’s rights to the extent that they are protected by criminal and civil law. Your purchasing decisions can be purely defined by the quality/entertainment value of the work. If you’re a customer, it’s all about choice. In contrast, if we self-identify as members of a community, we feel an obligation to assume an expanded sense of responsibility to our own, even if they signed a bad contract.

I’d prefer to be a member of a community. There’s nothing dishonorable about limiting one’s engagement with industry to consuming the product, even though I would hope that readers who make this choice try to be ethical consumers by paying some attention to the conditions under which the books they enjoy are created.

Creators are more important than fictional characters and corporations. They are more important than the fifteen minutes of entertainment that I get from reading a good Marvel/DC superhero comic, or the two hours plus of ‘entertainment’ from a superhero action movie. I don’t know if that means I should stop reading comics published by Marvel or DC yet. I want to continue buying books written and drawn by some of my favorite creators, many of whom don’t publish work independently or for other publishers. I don’t really want to boycott either publisher (though I understand why some do). I like contributing to not-for-profits or other funds that support creators in need of help, but that just doesn’t feel sufficient.

I’m not quite ready to quit, but Moore’s words keep echoing in my mind.

Posted in Articles, Blurbs · Read more by Jamaal Thomas

4 Responses

  1. [...] Instead, you get this gem that Jamaal Thomas wrote over at Funnybook Babylon. [...]

  2. Seriously great! I’ve never seen a more succinct or well-written piece about this common dilemma for superhero/comicbook fans. I try to justify my purchasing of Big Two comics with things like donations and branching out to read as many deserving “indie” books as possible, but it never feels like even close to enough. Thanks for, at any rate, reminding me I’m not the only person wrestling with this.

  3. [...] other pundits have remarked on this — Steve Bissette, Tom Spurgeon, David Brothers, our own Jamaal Thomas to name just a few — and recently Spurgeon provided a handy list of all the creators whose [...]

  4. [...] of their employer, but the baggage associated with an ongoing superhero book published by DC is a bit too heavy. Wonder Woman has potential, and I’m interested in seeing how it evolves, but if a [...]

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