Looking for Magic Carpets
An Open Letter to My Fellow Writers (& Artists)
“Love the artwork. I have a project that I need an artist for — it’s a ——- for a screenplay I wrote about ———-. It will be entered into a contest with a big money prize for the winner. Would you be interested? If not, do you know someone who might be?”
Coincidentally, during the same week, I was asked by not one but two filmmakers/writers whose work I love if I wanted to consider doing graphic novel adaptations of a script they could picture as a Bissette-drawn graphic novel.
They could practically see it in their head…
Here’s an edited version of my long, and definitely loving and well-intentioned, reply to one of the above.
I post it here to share, to make it clear what the core issues are, and why I gracefully (I hope) decline every time…
First of all, never be afraid to ask me anything. There are no bad or stupid questions.
On to graphic novels and novelizations: short answer: I’m flattered, but if I had such time/wherewithal, I’d pour it into getting back to work on Tyrant, my dream project (I managed to get four issues done and self-published before the market/marriage collapsed in the mid-1990s; happy to mail you a set).
Long answer: I am literally asked what you’ve asked me WEEKLY, seeking either me to engage or for me to steer some other cartoonist or CCS student (as if they’ve nothing better to do, like, oh, their own work plus the education they’ve paid for) to a similar task, and have been since about 2006.
What nobody (or precious few) seem to realize:
(1) It takes years to do a good graphic novel; Maus took over a decade to complete, as did From Hell; Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby was one of the faster ones at 5+ years, and all required multiple funding sources, grants, and/or multiple publishers to complete. It’s a bear.
Yes, many lesser graphic novels are done in months; most of those show it.
(2) Cartoonists have their own projects they’d dearly love to afford to do, many of those lengthy works.
We rarely get to them due to the eternal question: How do I eat/pay rent/mortgage while dedicating my life to this venture?
(3) Now, taking on adapted and/or collaborative graphic novels, sans a publisher footing the financing, complicates it all multifold. I now have to introduce letter sections into the outline answer:
(a) Who owns it? Co-ownership is sticky: if you are the source author (as in this case), you’re not going to want to give up ownership/proprietary rights; but if I’m not in for 50%, why pick up the pencil?
If we co-own, what’s the split of ownership (just ownership, mind you—we’ll get to payment and royalty sharing shortly)?
(b) Drawing—not counting lettering, toning, coloring—is, necessarily, a more time-consuming/demanding proposition than writing.
I’m not being judgmental or unfair—remember, I’m a writer myself, with many books to my name in print/in stores—I’ve written as much or more than I’ve drawn for print, and take my word for it, it’s the fact: the drawing takes more time.
For instance, when John Totleben and I were doing Swamp Thing, it was all we had time for. Alan Moore finished a script for Swamp Thing, for the most part, in one week; that gave him three weeks per month to do, oh, Watchmen, V For Vendetta, various one-shots and back-up stories, etc., and build a formidable career during three-four years in which John and I could only do Swamp Thing.
Few writers understand or want to understand (much less concede) that point.
And in the legal ownership negotiations, many writers resent the artist pushing for even 50/50 split of ownership.
In adapted works, this is even more problematic: the author does have a firm claim to greater rights (there would be nothing to adapt without their source material existing). For you, as a filmmaker, you legally must maintain a greater ownership share, so you’re free to negotiate for funding without the complications of an equal partner butting in. But then, again, why would any artist pick up a pencil, given their lesser earning/proprietary claim to work yet to be done?
I’ve seen many collaborations break down over this. Recently, an ongoing collaboration in progress is about to terminate because the writer is now demanding, mid-way, a higher percentage of page rate and ownership (as any good attorney would advise)—but, hey, it’s a two-edged sword. Without an artist, you don’t have a comic page to publish.
Yes, the words are primary, essential.
But the time-factor involved, and the fact that in most cases a credible art job on something as substantial as a graphic novel (again, not even counting the time-consuming rigors of lettering, toning, coloring, book design, and all the other graphic elements) will always take more time than the writing, can and often is a very real issue—for the artist, and, inevitably, one way or another, for the writer.
(c) Visual design of characters/environments/”the look” presents another ownership issue. In short, once an artist brings their visual design skills to the characters, settings, etc., they are fully co-creators—and, arguably, more essential to the sale of a given story property as a film than the writer is.
(d) Even when ownership issues are settled, how to divvy up page rate can also be problematic—when, that is, there is a page rate (see 4, below). Royalties are another issue, but royalties are also nothing to count on, ever (any more than “winning contests” are to be counted upon for payment in the end run).
Yes, there’s nothing to draw without the script. Remember, I am a writer; I grasp the arguments, I’ve heard them, I acknowledge them.
But having done all parts of comics—including publishing—I know how unforgivably (1), (2), and (3, b) assert themselves in short order. I’ve even seen the long-term results: my late writer friend Steve Perry convinced one artist/collaborator in the 1980s that he (the writer, and initial creator of the concept) should be paid higher than industry standard as writer of the project. The artist agreed.
However, the longer time it took to physically draw an issue Steve could write in two weeks took a toll quickly: the artist needed to hire assistants to keep up the schedule (bimonthly), and his much lower pay rate meant the artist was paid little and earned less to continue working on the title.
In the end, Steve‘s fond plan for a group of us collaborating on one issue led to difficulties when all involved saw the bigger bite Steve had claimed of the page rates—everyone still saw it through, but it left a sour taste that really cost Steve professionally in the short and long run.
Decades later, this continued to be an issue. Believe me, it’s bad voodoo.
In the case of one of the writers who offered me an original script for Taboo needing an artist to work with, the initially amicable relations frayed over minor issues. They resolved those, but after the second installment, the artist very acrimoniously terminated the collaboration (it came down to, “I don’t want this in my head any longer!”). The writer asked me to help him find a new partner to draw his scripts, and I did, but after one installment (and a great one), that artist also severed ties abruptly. The author was gobsmacked; he’d done nothing wrong, he’d been forthright and friendly, but it just wasn’t working.
I advised him immediately to give up the serialized graphic novel (already truncated and fragmented by the striking difference in art styles), and just write it as a novel—something he fully controlled, fully owned, and could see through without such eternal strife.
If what you write is near and dear to you, don’t seek collaboration in other media. If you do, be prepared for anything.
(e) In the case of a filmmaker/author, I’d assert the legal need for a work-for-hire relationship with an artist—to move on a film, you can’t have complicated, compromised legal proprietorship—but that leads to many ethical issues and conflicts inherent in any such working relationship, immediately and most emphatically to:
(4) WHO PAYS to make a script into a graphic novel?
Taking all of the above into account, how does even the most enthusiastic/passionate/committed-to-your-vision artistic partner afford the time necessary to draw an adaptation graphic novel?
We’re talking about a major investment of money to sustain even rudimentary living while working—you know it well from making movies. All the same issues apply.
If the writer has a publisher willing to fund such a venture, that can be resolved.
And we’re not talking, oh, a few hundred dollars. Can you or the publisher really, really properly fund six months of work? A year of work? Two? More? Can you spare that time without a book out, recouping that investment and money?
An artist can’t provide dedicated focus of energies and time for nothing.
And if they say (fantasize) they can, believe me, reality comes knocking on the door with the landlord/bank/bills, every three to four weeks.
(5) But then: who OWNS the work? If the writer lands the sale, shouldn’t they claim a larger share? Their agent (who likely would play some role in landing a publisher, in many cases) would argue that—immediately making the artist the hired hand, and little more.
That’s fine, too. That’s how most cartoonists working the graphic novel field are doing the work these days—negotiating for the highest “page rate” they can, knowing nine times out of ten that’s all they’ll ever see, anyways.
These things do have solutions. There are agents. There are publishers. There are template contracts for every imaginable variation, from complete and fully equitable co-ownership to the most direct work-for-hire-lock-down-all-rights possible.
My friend Neil Gaiman has been a terrific, ethical partner even with his book illustrators (note Charles Vess, another friend of mine, being treated incredibly fairly, in terms of participation, rights, and payment—including equal share of the movie rights/earning—on Stardust, for instance).
It can be done, and it is done.
But it takes care, clarity, attention to detail, the desire and ability to do the tough business and negotiations with skill, diplomacy, and aplomb, and sticking by your partners.
That’s rare, I’m afraid.
But I’m glad it can and is done.
(6) Trust me: in most cases, making the graphic novel see light of day is as hard and fraught with obstacles as making a movie from the same script.
You would think otherwise: I mean, filmmaking requires the collaborative effort of way more professionals, way more volunteers, and WAY more money (even at dirt level filmmaking, budget-wise). I have no illusions about that.
But in some ways it’s tougher to initiate, sustain, and maintain to completion (publication) the relationship and bankrolling of one collaborative artist’s undivided attention/work time for the time it takes to create a decent graphic novel. Four months, ten months, two years, ten years—how does the artist (not to mention the writer) eat to sustain that work effort?
If subsidized by a day job, the work slows, the duration extends—it’s all math, in one way, measured in days and dollars… just like filmmaking.
Please, understand, I am not being adversarial, but I rarely get to discuss this with someone asking who has really thought it through.
I’ve spent way longer doing so with you than I ever do.
(7) There is a fond, very persuasive, very pervasive fantasy right now in the minds of writers, agents, editors, publishers, and the public that graphic novels are magic carpets.
That they are magic carpets easily, cheaply, quickly woven.
And that artists are (a) dying to do them, (b) dying to do them working from other’s scripts, or in collaboration with others, and (c) DYING to do them for little or no money up front, and that (d) graphic novels=movie deals, so just saying, “Hey, I’ll let you adapt my idea into a graphic novel and we’ll share the money from the movie!” is somehow inviting to starving artists, and we should be thankful to partake of such sterling opportunities (instead of, like, continuing to plow away on our own projects we subsidize by working dayjobs, teaching, or working freelance on other projects to buy a day a week to work on our pet personal projects).
Most of us who draw comics have no shortage of our own ideas.
(Maybe we’d rather hire you to write our idea, or help us do so. In that case, see all of the above; it cuts both ways!)
Even if we agree that yours are better, more attractive, alluring, visionary, and/or sellable, circumstances must be unusually fertile for us to be able, willing, and truly dedicated to seeing through your project, whatever its scale (however modest or grandiose), instead of ours.
So, make it worth our while.
Make it worth the reason you’re asking for our talents to fuse with yours.
And don’t expect any free magic carpet ride.
And please, don’t waste our time.
We do that just fine ourselves, left to our own devices, without any problem.
(8) We have our own ways of seeing, doing things.
We are rarely “just” hired hands.
We are certainly never just your pair of hands, to be ordered to adhere to your vision.
In fact, I presume you’re asking because you want my particular way of seeing, doing things.
Understand, it may not be the graphic novel you have in your head (much less whatever your agent has in their head).
Collaboration is a two-way relationship—if it isn’t, you’d best be prepared to (a) pay way more money than you initially intend, (b) make sure you’re not presenting any obstacles to seeing “your” vision through, and (c) have a back-up plan if and when the artist you start with finds more lucrative, attractive, or less troublesome collaborative or solo work elsewhere.
(9) Legally, morally, ethically, it’s way easier to just be responsible for our own babies.
Trust me on that.
That’s a lot of work in and of itself.
But there are solutions; there are countless solutions, any number of relationships ratified by contracts that are completed and seen through, as countless comics and graphic novels are collaborated on, created by creative teams. It is possible. It happens every minute of every day.
Your request/invite (which, again, is flattering, and I am honored you thought to even ask me) is one I’ve often been approached with (no kidding) almost every other month.
I’d love to read the script.
But, frankly, if I had the time (which I don’t), I’d be working on my own baby, Tyrant, which I had to dock in 1997.
Forgive me for going on at length, but I want you to completely understand the issue(s) at hand, and my reasons for gracefully declining.
And believe you me, I’ve been brief.
There’s more, lots more, that needs to be sorted out, were we to collaborate.
Of course, writing out this long-form answer also takes care of my blog post for today (without citing/naming you, or your invite; this isn’t meant to embarrass, just explain in detail).
Thanks much, much love, and never be afraid to ask me anything.
Just be ready for the possible answer…
Essay ©2011 Stephen R. Bissette, all rights reserved. Permission to reprint/link, in full, granted, only with proper copyright notice (my own, and that below) visible and in place.
Photos are from two classic movie versions of The Thief of Bagdad (1924, 1940), © their respective current owners; used for metaphoric illustrative/educational purposes only.