14 September, 2011

Response to Steve Bissette

Swamp Thing artist and Tyrant creator Steve Bissette writes "Draw My Graphic Novel! Storyboard My Movie!" at http://srbissette.com/?p=13107&cpage=1#comment-7257

For (1), I think there needs to be an agree-on definition for "graphic novel", and I don't pretend to have one. Some sort of page count/time equivalence would apply I think. Some of Marvel's "Essential Volumes" contain more 'one long story that builds to a strong climax' than the more-acclaimed comic books. If we're talking a lifetime devoted to telling one story, Garry Trudeau is possibly the greatest graphic novelist alive. A month's worth of productivity creates X number of pages.

I'll get back to (2) as it dovetails with what what I have to say below.

(3) Legal distinctions could be made specifying the Writer and the Artist. The Artist is responsible for the finished page, and is roughly as important to the process as ten acres of prime soil is to running a farm. Extending the metaphor, every row must be hoed from dawn until dusk every day for months before you see anything and years before you really have things growing.

(a) I'm basing most of my arguments on the assumption of human nature that once an answer or two has been found, everybody will stampede in that direction like... like lemmings would stampede if lemmings were the sort of creatures that could stampede.

As far as where the money to do this will come from, I'd have to say I think it'll wind up being some Max Gaines/Major Malcom Wheeler-Nicholson type, or Larry Flynt (I honestly think if Lindsey Lohan or one of the other burned-out sex bombs of recent memory sponsored an R-rated comic/magazine, it would take off).

Once people who know what they're doing start building something, people who want to invest will show up. I don't know how many dozens of artists churning out pages for nothing it will take to build a profitable company that will pay them what they're worth.

One thing that would help is if there were studio systems competing. Will Eisner and Jerry Iger were pioneers in this, as were Simon and Kirby. That punk kid Jules Feiffer could write a "Spirit" script a lot faster than the artists would draw it, but it kept them all employed.

(b) As I said earlier, my definition of the Artist is the one responsible for the Finished Page. As far as I'm concerned, after expenses are paid it should be a 50/50 split between Writer and Artist. As far as any sort of studio system, either a group of people contract as the ones to do the art (Eastman and Laird farming out the work on TMNT) or similar to what Marvel/DC editors do, matching people on a title. Either way, I would suggest starting at a 50/50 split and going on a sliding scale to include tone, lettering, coloring as part of that system creating a Finished Page. If it takes three or six people to make that Finished Page, those three people or six who act as The Artist need to be paid enough as a group that among themselves they are satisfied.

Most Finished Pages that were created usually had fewer than six or seven primary creators, unless they're a general mish-mash of stuff anyway. If a dozen different people contributed to a page, unless it was a jam piece you could put on ebay, I think more time would be wasted delineating creator's rights in that direction.

I think the principles of creators ownership in comics have been established firmly enough into the soil that stories like Bill Finger will thankfully not need to be told. If you contribute that much to someone else's character, they owe you big time.

That said, I think the Artist should be the least concerned with ownership as far as control of the property. The idea of using agents is a good one. Either the Writer acts as the Agent ("I keep you happy, you keep drawing") or people are hired to negotiate individual books. The former would probably be most likely for the time being, the latter would evolve as a business system once twenty or thirty successes have come along.

A variation of work-for-hire perhaps, where the Artist does not surrender 50% of the proceeds once expenses are paid, but isn't encouraged to interfere in the day-to-day business. The Artist's Time is ninety-something percent of the expense, because the Artist is responsible for creating the Finished Page. Without that, there is nothing.

Which is the opposite of the Writer whose Time is the least valuable. I have written scripts in less than a half-hour which would take a good artist a week to make look good. In some cases, I stayed up late, drew the scripts then and there and I kinda like having the finished comics to show for it.

The Writer is responsible for everything that isn't the Finished Page, basically. The one who looks at the Finished Page and didn't do anything on it, but told those who did this Finished Page what to do. The Writer's time is worth the least.

There should be a sliding scale, or a series of them in the long-term or short-term. At the end of that scale the Writer should reach the 50% part of the profits.

By "profits", this could also be done as a package by editors at Marvel or DC. If the Fables crew will keep producing issues, keep them doing it and budget the company's money wisely to keep them. The ones who make the Finished Page are the jobs to create. If the Writer has given them something to do, his work is done.

The Writer gets the Intellectual part and splits the Property with The Artist.

(c) The exception to the previous sentence. I don't pretend to have a good answer but it's clearly work that goes on the Finished Page. The only thing I could suggest is a distinction between books where The Artist doesn't change and books where people replace others (letterers, guest-artists) I don't have any suggestions for bridging the divide in ownership between Writer and Artist on that one. I still think the Artist should have proprietary rights while the Writer (agent, editor, whoever's footing the bill) steers the overall ship. If making t-shirts of some cool images will bring in money, the t-shirts are going to get made. Unless the artist is paying to make the shirts, I don't think a creator's veto is necessary. The visual look of the characters as intellectual property will only matter when other artists join in or there's a tv/movie option. For that, I don't have any suggestions.

(d) The point is to pay for the Artist's Time. Since I'm hypothesizing out of thin air, I'll assume that the page rates will be large, depending on the competition. Once the Page is Finished, the time it took to create it is gone forever, how much will it take to compensate for that? That's the point where the sliding scale begins to move in the Writer's direction, eventually to resolve in the 50/50 split. If further collaborators (tone, colors, letters, replacement artists) are involved, the overall division shifts more equitably.

Since royalties are nothing to count on, the upfront page rate for the Artist's Time needs to be big enough to accomodate multiple people making the Finished Page. Obviously it's in an artist's self-interest to be able to do all the work his or herself, either because it's more 'jobs' and a larger pay-rate or because it means there's fewer expenses to recoup before the last guy in line, the Writer, gets paid.

I've been picking up John Byrne's Next Men, including the collection. I have only a vague memory of what came before, or who the characters are or what they're doing now, which doesn't make them much different from the superheroes, come to think of it. But I've realized the art is worth it. Byrne draws prehistoric scenes and modern cityscapes and future cityscapes and the pre-Civil War South and various imaginative landscapes and it all looks really good. It's great that he was able to do it, and so quickly.

The problem is that there isn't any incentive for the hungry artist. Not the starving artist who's usually just posing, but the hungry one. The ones who can turn out many Finished Pages in a short period of time. That's a quality that comics have lost and not for the better. The comic book medium wasn't made in its early decades by people who felt entitled to work slowly.

Going along with your (2) I think this is a (probably-unresolvable) conflict in basic working conditions. The Writer wants an art robot and The Artist is not a robot. The Artist's time is the most important but buying out his investment needs to be made as cheap as possible. It's safe to say Matt Groening was paid for that hour he spent drawing new characters so he could keep rights to "Life In Hell".

Sequential entertainment is our strength and our weakness. Daily strips, weekly strips, monthly pamphlets and larger tpb's look like our best bet. We need finished work to get somewhere, and I don't see an immediate outlet for that.

I mean, Take the Lindsey Lohan idea from earlier. I'm becoming a big advocate of a return to the ideas of pulp magazines. A few photographs of LL, dishy fantasy text pieces, ads and 50 or 60 pages of LL stories, as a pirate or astronaut or drug-riddled washed-up sex bomb in her mid-20s, whatever. A lot of people would probably pay 5 bucks for that, or thinly-veiled fictionalized versions of the celebrity scene. The latest Conan movie has already passed, but Slam Bradley still has a future.

[I actually worked out a plot for a 12-part Hawkman/Green Arrow miniseries, where they're arguing politics every issue and on page 2 a building explodes like a Lethal Weapon movie. One guy uses a bow and arrow, the other has wings and uses a mace. They kill people and make smart-ass quips as they fight the social issue du jour. In several issues, they meet non-powered DC characters. Slam Bradley is in a violent racist brawl, the Human Target, James Corrigan, the Question and others all make appearances, illustrating philosophical conflicts that (I like to think) would appeal to readers who have no interest in superheroes. I'm not even sure how often Hawkman would put on the wings, except for when Muslim terrorists take over planes]

[On a similar note, from what little I see of DC's recent publishings, you can't tell me this is all they can think of. Zatanna's failed series features a splash page of her getting slashed in the throat with an arrow. Is that the only thing they can think of? She's a busty chick in fishnets whose gimmick is magically talking backwards. The first issue should have a flaming demon tying her to an altar and then she picks up a sword and hacks him to bits. In later issues, she's a single girl living in the city, dark powers inhabiting nearby buildings. She fights other demons and magicians and evil people, gets tied up every issue or two. Bring me a few dozen pages of that every month, I'll write up dialogue and captions for it. The comic book writer's time is almost worthless. Text pieces could be generated for an overall package.]

The biggest obstacle is that an art robot is just as qualified as an artist brimming with enthusiasm for his or her own ideas. More qualified arguably because of the simplicity of the Time=Finished Pages arrangement. Gil Kane once complained that he suggested to Marv Wolfman that they take (whatever book they were doing) and structure it like a novel so that plots would slowly build over many issues, basically what a lot of people have done since. Wolfman wasn't interested, saying he'd rather just pick up his paycheck, but just think of what Kane could have contributed to if he'd had any modern writers to take him up on the offer.

If an artist loves the book he's hired to do, or if it's designed for what he wants to draw, great. If not, I have to say his feelings would have to be outvoted. The letterer and colorists, tones, they don't work if the artist doesn't produce pages and are probably less picky about whatever's ticking the artist off. The Writer needs to be the last one in line to share in the successful completion, and the Artist needs to be encouraged to Finish the Page and Move On To The Next Page.

I guess I'm saying both sides need to get over some large pretentions about themselves. These are the pages the Artist is being paid to finish, that needs to happen as quickly as possible. EC not only pioneered crediting the artists, but Bill Gaines would stop whatever he was doing - including eating! - to write a check whenever they brought in finished work.

If the artist has work he or she would rather be doing, I don't know what to say. It's the Artist's Time for sale. At what point does a job get created?

I also don't know how it should be handled when the artists contribute story ideas. Creative partnerships are rarely frictionless.

So basically the idea is that someone to be determined makes a large investment in paying a few people for a few years to draw a ton of pages. Here are the thumbnails for my 800-page Mucous Man graphic novel and a new car.

With Gaiman and Vess, or other partnerships you cite, it's obviously in the writer's interest to cultivate good relationships with an artist.

In this age of photoshop, it might be worthwhile to see if an artist could find ways to market his or her style. Writers who can use their own computer enough to manipulate images might provide character descriptions and money in exchange for twenty poses they can use.

In the long term, I think comics are becoming prevalent enough that an Agent system will help provide more work, as well as a return of the studio system.

The writer needs to move to the back of the line and the artist needs to be encouraged to crank out as much material as possible. The Time will be gone forever, so it's in everybody's interests (including the fans) that there as many Finished Pages as possible to show for it.

Unfortunately, I don't see that happening without a radical reorganization of the publishing industry - allowing thousands of people with money to spend to see these wonderful comics and buy them - or a surplus of artists who would be churning out drawings for free because it's what they do.

I wonder if the writers could be employed to design a franchise. Hire artists who really like, say, space opera, and get a writer to generate a few hundred pages of material for them. DC has tried to build franchises from Neil Gaiman's work thanks to Sandman, Preacher didn't lend itself to any spin-offs and came to The End without a hitch. Fables is lending itself to spin-offs, with the 50-issue Jack of Fables (which I think will intersect the main Fables title again, two Cinderella miniseries [which don't interest me], the upcoming Fairest series which I won't read beyond Bill Willingham's initial arc, but maybe others will, regular guest-artist stories which are packaged along with main artist Mark Buckingham's issues.

As I keep saying, I think we should take another look back at the Depression-era pulp characters and scenes. I get the feeling there's a market for stories like that again.

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