Chatting With Dave Sim in the 21st-and-a-Half Century!

Creator’s Rights & Wrongs, Balancing Acts

See yesterday’s post for the launch of this odd (but hopefully engaging) online/FAX exchange twixt Dave Sim and myself. I ended yesterday with, “As for Creator’s Rights and your other two comments on this first page—allow me to address that at length tomorrow.”

Here’s the relevent part of yesterday’s FAX I’m responding to here:

Where to begin?

* Creator responsibility: I’m the last person who should be talking about this, given my reputation for missed deadlines (particularly when monthly comics were the norm, in the 1980s, and it took me five-six weeks to pencil a monthly title), the lies I used to tell editors (poor Karen Berger!) to squeeze out another day or week of work, and worse.

In my generation, precious few of my peers boast the kind of reputations Rick Veitch, Tim Truman, Jim Lawson, and a few others justifiably have earned for never missing a deadline (to my knowledge, in any case). They should be the ones responding to your points concerning creator responsibility, since they’ve got sterling reps. But those are the folks who rarely talk about such issues in public venues.

So, here goes, best shot:

I think I catch your drift, Dave, but that’s a loaded paragraph in which you cite Erik and Savage Dragon and other cartoonists working on Savage Dragon as somehow “living the dream.”

Whose dream? Erik‘s?

If it’s Erik‘s character/title, and this involved others working on the character or title, that’s not exactly the same as “living the dream” in terms of self-creation, self-publishing, or creating something one wholly owns for a publisher offering a paying venue, much less anything corresponding with the Direct Sales market as it existed from 1977-1997 (when one could build a viable creative vehicle with minimal risks: printing and shipping with orders in hand, knowing it was non-returnable if one had honored one’s solicitation terms and shipped on time).

This ties right into the whole “employee/employer” dynamic I discussed in detail in The Comics Journal interview (which may have been, in fact, what so upset some people back then). Erik is the employer; the creator working on Dragon is the employee, and the dynamic brings out the worst in many who work in comics. It’s inexcusable, but that’s what Erik was dealing with, I suspect.

Allow me to address this in context of my own experiences.

My Taboo experience—in which I was the editor/packager/publisher or co-publisher—proved time and time again it was a case-by-case issue. Some creators were reliable, some were not. Sometimes, as with Tim Lucas and “Throat Sprockets,” the writer was absolutely reliable, the artists fomented or created issues insurmountable for Tim, and I got involved to solve them as best I could.

I worked with it all, did my best to skirt the traps of “employer/employee” dynamics (and failed at times), and chalked up the hard lessons as editor to karma backback for the troubles I’d caused editors in the past. It was gold to land a Jeff Nicholson and “Through the Habitrails,” where Jeff took full and absolute advantage of the opportunity presented to him ($100 per page for all completed and accepted pages for one-time printing rights only). Jeff alone ran with the ball, actually completing his serialized Habitrails graphic novel before Taboo folded; Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell were pretty damned dependable, too, though Eddie still grouses about Taboo‘s slow schedule (every issue a new nightmare) and dismisses Taboo Especial not featuring From Hell as somehow my fault (rather than lateness of that single, lengthy chapter—understandably, given its length and what they were up against for precious little pay—and pressure from Tundra to print/ship close to our quarterly gameplan necessitating an “Especial” one-shot to give From Hell the needed breathing space at that juncture; ah, who cares? It’s all water long under London Bridge).

Point being: Jeff was the exception, not the rule, as were Michael Zulli, Neil GaimanAlan and Eddie and Melinda (Gebbie), when we were working together, and others. Most of the folks I was lucky enough to work with were terrific. A few walked away with advances paid and no work delivered, ever; fewer still played head games; precious few lied. Again, I took it as karma when I was confronted with such matters. I’d done such things, much to my regret.

Still, a lot of creators came through with sterling work to fill ten 100+ page volumes of Taboo: that’s the legacy, not who ran with advance money and never delivered, or who took more time to do their work. By and large, far more creators were honorable and came through than didn’t.

On the other hand, Eddie‘s complaints were and are sound in that he was flustered at a publisher who wasn’t (in his mind) delivering on the publisher’s obligation (though Eddie never wanted for, or waited more than a week for, payment on work he’d done, or advances required). The fact Taboo was only quarterly as planned for a single year of its entire run (the year that yielded Taboo Especial to meet that quarterly schedule) was and remains a thorn in Eddie‘s side. In his mind, then and now, SpiderBaby and (later) its co-publishing partner (Tundra) didn’t fulfill an expectation, an obligation; and that’s relevent to responsibility, too, Dave.

Then again, they owned their own work.

That’s not the case in the example you built your paragraph around, is it?

When Jim Valentino called me to see if Alan and I wanted to work on his title and character Shadowhawk, we declined, and responded instead with Alan, Rick, and I counterproposing what became 1963, which we co-owned; it wasn’t Jim‘s, in the way that a Shadowhawk anything would have been. That’s very different from, say, my contracting creators to work on something of mine, or Erik contracting someone to work on Savage Dragon.

As for Erik‘s experiences on Savage Dragon with other creators, I would have thought (stupid me) the Tundra experience would have hammered home the hard realities of creators fumbling the ball too often when really given free reign, failing obligations, dashing expectations, and tardy or no delivery, even when paid, but then again, the Tundra experience seems to have been widely ignored even as it was happening.

That, one would think, was more “living the dream” opportunity knocking than the option to work on Savage Dragon, Batman, or any character/property owned by someone or something else.

Of course, those, by and large, were creator-owned works Tundra juggled; I’ve no idea what kind of contract or deal Erik was offering, but since he owns Savage Dragon, I presume it was some form of work-for-hire or assignment of copyright (if it wasn’t, it should have been, to protect Erik‘s ownership, copyrights, and trademarks). That’s Erik‘s business, I can’t address it here (and I’m not sure why you brought it up in that context), and a can of worms I will humbly reserve for discussion of N-Man, The Fury, Hypernaut, and Sky Solo a little bit down the road, Dave, and my own experiences thus far in that creative and legal sandbox.

[Addendum note: Please, see the comment thread; it looks like I confused or conflated Erik's time as publisher at Image with Erik's longevity as Savage Dragon creator/publisher. Read on, below, and apologies to Erik and Dave for my confusion. My point remains, I think; and in that case, the Tundra reference is even more appropriate.]

Finally, I think we’ve got to deal with the loaded presumption of “creator responsibility” in a Vertigo and post-Vertigo universe, where contracts from outfits like Vertigo (and the many publishers who have since adopted that language, in which the publisher is in effect purchasing not reproduction rights, but an open-ended option supplanting standard rights reversion language for an obligation for the creator to “buy out” the option, even after the option has elapsed) require creator responsibility while dispensing with traditional publisher responsibilities. Productive, responsible creators have been gambling for almost three decades now against a contract clearly stating that the publisher isn’t even responsible to publish the completed-on-time, accepted-by-the-publisher work. We’re now in a universe where publishers aren’t even obligated to pay creators; the risks are insane, but desperate, hungry creators are playing along. That’s a tall tangent I won’t chase here, in this reply, but it’s a conversation we’ll have in a day or two once I get to the appropriate portion of your letter to get into those matters.

[* On your work week: A response and aside: For what it's worth, I work similar work weeks to yours, Dave; I know my non-comics work doesn't count in the equation for many folks (yourself included), but teaching, writing, drawing, writing and/or illustrating at least one book project per year, and still posting something to Myrant daily (with precious few misses) since 2005 has been my discipline and pleasure.]

* The need to “balance income against the Ideal Work”: I suspected this was what you’d arrived at, post-Cerebus.

It’s the eternal freelancer tightwire act, isn’t it?

I never miss a day of work, but I’m forever stretched thin. WE make ourselves the tightwire, not the walkers, all too often; no wonder “the pressure is palpable.”

[Another aside: Thanks to you, though, I've long, long ago been out of the "advance" vicious circles since about 1992, and never plunged back into that insane cycle of behavior too many creators embrace (as I once did). It's a neat metaphor for the "living on credit" mindset and reality that's dragging down the entire world economy, and nowhere is it more manifest than in the US—but that's another topic, or another venue or time.]

At least you “beat it” for three full decades, while Cerebus was the income and the Ideal Work. Since then, you’re closer to the ballpark the rest of us have always labored within (though having Cerebus behind you will forever mean you’re in a very, very different ballpark than we’ll ever be in).

Thanks to you, and to 1963, I at least got to taste it fully for two years of my life while Tyrant was a reality; the Ideal Work, paying all my bills, feeding my family, for two full years. That was sweet. My loss, my fault (to a point; I didn’t precipitate the Direct Market implosion of ’96-’97, after all).

CCS has presented a new Ideal, and it’s been fulfilling and an adventure every single day.

Of course, were I doing Tyrant, I never would have had time or inclination or opportunity to teach, and that, I know, is the best possible use of my life and time and energy I could possibly, possibly be enjoying at this point in my life. As ever, I go with the flow, and follow my paths as they present themselves or as I carve them out. I don’t expect anyone else to make sense of them; they’re my paths, after all.

Anyhoot, what’s important, really, is what now, Dave?

Let’s get into what you are doing now, and how you’re doing it, the current marketplace, the new publishing/printing/distribution venues, and the juggling act…


Some promised links, covering past turf between Dave Sim and myself:

I: Taboo Origins, Creator Rights, Puma Blues, and the Dave’s Diamond Debacle!

  • SpiderBaby Archives: Taboo Origins, Part 1,
  • Part 2,
  • Part 3,
  • Part 4,
  • Part 5,
  • Part 6,
  • Part 7,
  • Part 8,
  • and Part 9 (the conclusion).
  • Tomorrow: Part 3 of Dave’s Chat with Moi…

    Discussion (14) ¬

    1. Erik Larsen

      I’m confused. I write and draw Savage Dragon myself. I’ve written and drawn every issue.

    2. Roger Green

      I think about this a LOT actually, not just in terms of artists/writers, but the whole dynamic of labor and management (or labor v. mgmt). The whole idea of labor unions came as a result of mgmt not doing the minimal things for human safety and dignity. Yet, listening to the conversation, the labor unions are considered the fat cats blocking the way of innovation; my wife belongs to a teachers’ union, and I know whereof I speak.
      Back in my FantaCo days, we realized there were people you just had to lie to in order for their work to get done on time, including our own Raoul Vezina, who literally worked on his artwork on the bus to the printers at least once. Tricky stuff and I have no answers.

    3. srbissette

      HELLO, Erik!

      Ya, I’m confused, too (as you can see). Not sure what Dave is saying here; so I addressed it as best I could. I thought you wrote and drew every SAVAGE DRAGON, and recall Larry Marder pointing out you once saying that “no one could draw the fin on his head correctly,” so you didn’t even entertain others doing it.

      Roger; I used to lie to myself, above all others, about “how much I could get done” in an impossible timeframe. This inevitably led to lying about what was done, or would be done, “in time.” I don’t miss it.

    4. David Branstetter

      Erik, I think in the interview you were speaking from the point of view of a publisher (and with your creator owned properties not illustrated by you) , where creators and illustrators would lie to you all the time. I think Steve is assuming that you work like this on Savage Dragon, which is not the case.

      “If it’s Erik’s character/title, and this involved others working on the character or title, that’s not exactly the same as “living the dream” in terms of self-creation, self-publishing, or creating something one wholly owns for a publisher offering a paying venue”

      Erik essential does everything himself– but does work with a letterer and colorist. Those guys may not be “living the dream” but I guarantee you Erik is.

    5. M Kitchen

      My hunch was that the original quote maybe had something to do when you (Erik) were publisher 2004-2008? I remember Dave quoting (and I’m paraphrasing) a line about how you didn’t realise “how many freelancers lie” from a book he was reading on Cerebus TV. I remember Savage Dragon was never mentioned in the original quote. I think that was extrapolated into it.

    6. srbissette

      Ah, that makes sense; Erik as Image publisher, not Savage Dragon creator/publisher. My apologies.

      Then again, I could go on about Jim Lee and the big 1963 Annual “lie”—as my author friend Joe Citro says regularly about publishers, “They LIE!” And yes, they do. I’ve a lifetime of experience with that one, including (alas) with Image honchos (though never Erik, by my experience, nor Jim Valentino, who was a prince to work with and deal with, and still is).

    7. JayWicky

      I think the confusion stems from the 2007 book “Image Comics – The Road to Independance”, published by Twomorrows. Dave wrote the foreword to this book, so I assume he read it. It was not about Erik’s time as Image publisher in the 2000s, either. It goes back to the early days of Image. Erik has always produced the main feature in Savage Dragon on his own and continues to do so (he even did the colors and letters for a time), but in the early days, sometimes there would be back-ups written by him and drawn by other artists that would serve as a springboard for mini-series based on other characters created by Erik, such as SuperPatriot or Freak Force. Those spin-offs all eventually came to an end, but still there was a time when Erik had to deal with freelancers working on his creations. It’s on page 33 : “I didn’t know how freelancers lied so much”. Dave just confused “Savage Dragon” with “some spin-offs of Savage Dragon”. For the record, I know there are cases in which freelancers created variations on some of Erik’s characters (SuperPatriot comes to mind) and Erik granted them co-ownership.

      Mystery solved, I think.

    8. srbissette

      Oh, there ya go. It comes down to: Dave shorthand referenced something none of us (including Erik!) can be sure of what, precisely, he was referencing.

      (Just wait till we get to Todd McFarlane and Neil Gaiman. Now, that’ll be fun, won’t it?)

    9. M Kitchen

      Well, I think it will be fun!

    10. M Kitchen

      Thanks for the page reference Jay.
      I managed to find it via amazon and screen cap it.

      Now we at least know the exact context.

    11. JayWicky

      It’s sheer luck that I started reading that book a mere fortnight ago or so, and remembered that bit !

    12. srbissette

      OK, NOW, Erik, what do you have to say?

      I think Jay’s nailed it; your interview in the TwoMorrows book jives with Dave’s comments completely.

    13. Erik Larsen

      Ah. Well, “living the dream” were Dave’s words, not mine, but regardless, for many the dream is to simply draw comics and get paid for it. As strange as it may seem there are a large body of creative people (and I use the term loosely) who don’t want to create–they just want to be a happy cog and work with people they like on characters they like and get well-paid for their efforts (I’d put Sal Buscema in that camp) so if that was what they wanted–then yes they were “living the dream.”

      I guess I was taken back by how many people were simply unprofessional. I got a lot of “the dog ate my homework” type excuses and it was disheartening, to say the least. We had this tremendous momentum going and one by one guys dropped off and it all ground to a halt. If this situation had presented itself ten years earlier, and I was in their shoes, I’d have produced like a motherfucker to establish my reputation and make some decent scratch but that was not the case with a lot of people who came through our doors. A lot of guys got that first check and thought, “Oh, sweet–I don’t have to work for a year” instead of realizing that this might not last forever and that second check may never materialize if they didn’t bust their ass while the busting was good.

      And yes, when I had guys do spin off books I did have them sign work-for-hire contracts.

    14. srbissette

      Thanks, Erik, for weighing in; much appreciated.

      Having labored mightily for years on SWAMP THING under far, far less well-paying conditions (sans any royalties, until years later when the paperback collections began to come out), I can appreciate your statements here.

      I’ll also note it was when the checks began to arrive on 1963 that the whole project collapsed; it was, in fact, Alan’s SPAWN check that precipitated the subsequent lack of ongoing contact with Alan. I stand by my experience/perception that it was that the complete absence of an Image “godfather” for the Annual (the position Jim Lee had proudly taken at San Diego Comicon’s Image panel in 1992) that killed the project, but now that you mention it, the implosion began (including Rick and I picking up much of the slack on letters page and editorial page text, etc., on the last three issues of the series) after Alan got the SPAWN check(s).

      For what it’s worth at this late date, Rick never took his hand off the steering wheel, but as Larry Marder put it to me at the time, “You and Rick are tugboats; nobody’s paying any attention to you guys. You won’t bring this ship into harbor without either Jim or Alan driving the luxury liner.”

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