Riding Magic Carpets

A Rather Threadbare & Careworn Followup to My Open Letter to My Fellow Writers (& Artists)

I’ll be posting a ramble, not a coherent essay, today, to continue my

  • September 7th post, “Looking for Margic Carpets,”
  • which prompted much comment and feedback.

    I’m glad it was of use to somebody.

    * Let me begin this followup by noting “Artist vs Writer” dualism accomplishes nothing (nor was that my point)—and before I’m done, I’ve some concrete examples to cite to demonstrate that artists have often stymied the best-laid plans of ethical, fair, productive writers, too.

    Let’s not use the legitimacy of my arguments in the “Magic Carpets” post to propel a simplistic screed demonizing writers.

    As I’ve emphasized, I’m a writer and an artist—comics needs both, working in harmony and together, whether those functions are embodied in a single cartoonist, or the result of a fruitful collaboration. I was incredibly fortunate to have been able to work with so many wonderful writers over my comics career, from Robert Kanigher to Alan Moore and beyond, and such excellent editors as Joe Kubert, Archie Goodwin, and Karen Berger.

    * Many of my concerns about collaboration on long-form works—graphic novellas or graphic novels, if you will—don’t apply to short works, save for the basics: who owns it? How will you maintain that ownership? How will you divide up income/royalties/page rates/risk? Those must always be resolved, up front and contractually, for best results.

    The short form is simpler, cleaner, quicker, happier, and it’s how we all learn and build our chops. Working short form with a multitude of writers and creative partners taught me almost everything I know about storytelling.

    It’s a pity the anthology format has been essentially abandoned by the “mainstream,” but it’s alive and well in the true independents—and an essential tool at CCS.

    * Since I discussed it at length in my fateful The Comics Journal interview (#185, 1996), I didn’t get into the sometimes crippling dynamic of “employer/employee” that kicks in, too.

    I’m convinced it played a major role in many fecund, marvelous creative partnerships I saw evaporate over the years, and I’ve seen it actively abused in others—whoever is ultimately in control of cutting the checks, or the revenue stream, is inevitably the projected “employer,” whatever the contractual or creative roles actually played.

    In this, we all inevitably project our old baggage/tapes (choose your metaphor) connected to parents, employers, gender roles, etc. It’s no accident that a woman—Karen Berger—got my best work out of me for the longest stretch in my mainstream comics career. None of the old “I’m working for/with my Dad” tapes “played” with Karen, and difficult though those years often were (for my conduct, for DC’s conduct), Karen was steadfast and helped all go smoothly.

    It also meant that in Alan’s and my relations, neither of us was “employer”—a dynamic that changed definitively once it was Taboo and 1963 we were working on, in which it became part of our unconscious dynamic that I became, ipso facto, the “employer.” The rest, alas, is history.

    * I also am not going to drag the recent, infuriating Jack Kirby/Stan Lee/Marvel Comics judgment into this particular conversation. While I’ve made my own views about the Kirby/Lee judgment abundantly clear (and will continue to articulate that view in future posts and possible events), I also don’t want that unique case history to become a launching platform for a general movement against all writers/editors, writers, and editors.

    * My good friend G. Michael Dobbs commented on Facebook,

    “Well, look on the bright side. You have such a fan base and command such respect that people do want to work with you even if it’s really impractical. You should be flattered!”

    As I noted in the essay, I am; that’s not the issue. Yes, it’s flattering, and yes, I am honored.

    Which, in the beginning, only made it tougher to work through the conversation leading the person with high, unrealistic expectations away from the primrose path of those expectations toward some glimpse of the real world, the hard realities associated with what they were asking, and the resulting disappointment and sometimes outright ire and hostility that inevitably followed.

    Rob O., commenting on the Myrant “Magic Carpets” essay, said it nicely:

    “I can attest that I’ve had these offers as an illustrator, and while it’s flattering to be asked, I’ve always felt a bit strange being treated like some sort of rare but fungible commodity instead of as a creative person or even (gasp) collaborator. In the sense of someone writing some superhero story and thinking, ‘I should find some artist to draw this.’

    I’ve actually taken up some people on this kind of offer, however, and my one term for even starting this sort of project has been that they provide a full script for even so much as an issue’s worth of storyline plus clear descriptions of characters and settings. I can tell you that not one person has actually delivered on this.”

    If it was “work”—offering real money, making them real jobs—that would be one thing. But it’s rarely ever that.

    It’s most often, “make my idea a comic!

    Next: “Make my script a comic!” (more there to work with, writing wise, indeed, but not a gig, really, as it’s not a job: I have to find a publisher “for” “us”).

    Next: “Make my script a graphic novel!” (see the whole of “Looking for Magic Carpets,” link provided above).

    Almost never: “Here’s a job! We pay this much. Here’s our contract. It’s negotiable/non-negotiable. Here’s the script: draw it. We’re paying enough for you to just do that, right, but give it the Bissette magic!”

    The latter has happened once in six years.

    Point being: there’s really nothing to envy here, folks.

    I mean, it’s great having a fan base and “commanding respect,” but that doesn’t make these “offers” actually job offers: just expectations for magic carpets I can’t even weave for myself or my own projects.

    * Furthermore, these queries more and more involve the presumption, too, that I (or the given artist who is approached) can also easily sell the project, once it’s drawn—adding to the expectations the job of an agent, again, sans any vaguely realistic understanding of what that entails, what that presumes, and the fact (fact) that agents make livings (livings) from just being agents.

    So, which is the gravy, here: the drawing, or the agenting?

    * Ben Trafford specifically asked, “A lot of what you discuss above speaks to the idea of a 50/50 split — but what if the writer said, “You get paid full page rate and royalties, but I retain full ownership.” Basically, the writer is backing on the idea that he’ll make his money back in merchandising and other forms of IPR sales and such, while the artist gets paid up front. How would that fly? Or is the creative work as much a long-term investment for the typical artist?”

    To which I say, see “Magic Carpets” point #5, “But then: who OWNS the work?,” in which I said,

    “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.”

    I know of arrangements such as those Ben suggested that have yielded published work.

    Anything is possible.

    But the payment must reflect not just scraping-by living, but more than that. Selling off one’s rights completely in work one does has a price tag in and of itself, above and beyond a page rate or advance or fee for the work itself being done.

    And you get what you pay for—and don’t get, in most cases, what you don’t/won’t pay for.

    Again, please remember, I’m daily working on both sides of this fence (and there’s more than two sides: I’m also a packager, working on a collective comprised of work by others on my characters, with Tales of the Uncanny and the N-Man, Fury, Hypernaut, Sky Solo material). I’m not “taking sides.” I’m on all sides, or have been at various times.

    There’s as many way to skin these cats as there are cats, so to speak.

    Just being more aware of the bare-bones issues outline in “Looking for Magic Carpets” is, hopefully, helpful.

    * Reinforcing my points about the differences in time commitment for writers as opposed to the time commitments essential for artists, on precisely the same story or graphic novel, CCS alumni, cartoonist, and professional archeologist and editor Al Wesolowsky shared his insights as a writer/artist:

    “…what you say about the relative speed of writing vs drawing is spot on. I was examining some freshly-inked-and-lettered boards of my own, and realized that one panel just did not work. How could I have missed this earlier? I went through a circus of thoughts about how to fix it via just the lettering, or a small change to the art, but finally bit ye olde bullet and redrew two panels to fix the problem. For a writer, this would have taken ten minutes tops; for the artist, several hours of work with one eye on the ticking deadline clock.”

    That’s it, that says it all in terms of the time-frame arguments.

    In another frame (panel?), vet cartoonist John Severin once said to me (during a conversation during the Northampton, MA Kevin Eastman comics museum celebratory dinner John, Joe Kubert, and others were at):

    “You know, the writer in me takes seconds to type out, ‘the entire Apache nation rides over the hill.’ But the artist in me hates to type the line, because I know how long it’s going to take to research and draw that panel!”

    Which begs the obvious exercise:

    Go ahead, fellow writers, script this image.

    Now, draw it.

    See which takes longer.

    John Severin, “The Eagle Taking Coup” (Limited Edition Print), ©1977, 2011 John Severin; note that John Severin’s “Eagle” debuted in Sojourn #1 (1977), the short-lived (two issues) publication edited and co-published by Joe Kubert—which I also contributed the poster series “Kingdom of the Maggot” to.

    * Cartoonist Brian Belanger noted on Facebook,

    “Earlier this year, I was approached to convert this person’s ‘vision’ into a graphic novel. He’d had this idea for over 20 years, but never written a word of script. That would be MY job, along with drawing all artwork. He was shocked when I told him that I would want a percentage of ownership and royalties of his vision. “But you’re just doing art!”

    Copyright can only be granted on the “expression of an idea.” As the U.S. Copyright Office‘s own literature explains (the obvious), an idea sans expression cannot be copyrighted.

  • Tangible expression of an idea—the expression, not the idea itself, unexpressed—is the absolute coin of the realm.
  • Specifically, “Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression….

    Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “What Works Are Protected.”

    …Copyright protects original works of authorship, while a patent protects inventions or discoveries. Ideas and discoveries are not protected by the copyright law, although the way in which they are expressed may be. A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishing them from those of others.

    Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”

    Sans expression, you have nothing to copyright.

    “Having” an idea is great.

    Expressing an idea is all that matters, though, in real-world terms—and all that is work, and all that is copyrightable, and all that is of value.

    Brian‘s conversation with that person harboring a 20-year-old “vision” is sadly typical; too many think Star Wars was valued intrinsically by George Lucas having a “vision,” a fantasy disconnected from the hard reality of the work, time, money, artists who realized that “vision.”

    You’ve got a “vision” worthy of Star Wars? Do what George did: write a script, a Bible, find a studio to bankroll it, and hire an artist (or two or three hundred), make it a job. Pay them a lot of money, and yes, maybe a graphic novel is possible. But “a lot” doesn’t mean a few hundred dollars; we’re talking $12,000-$30,000 and up (and that’s cheap), or hundreds of thousands and more.

    * Let’s remember, too, that plenty of artists have derailed the hard work of writers in comics. This isn’t intended to fan dualism (artist=good, writer=bad); it’s intended to provoke thinking through relationships, on all levels (personal/creative/ethical/moral/business/legal).

    I can provide a for instance, in filmmaking terms: I twice worked closely with a writer friend on trying to get a film version of his project off the ground (once with funding; once with trying to land funding and filmmakers).

    In both cases, there were frustrating/fascinating turns wherein the prospective filmmakers presented (in the first case, via a rough edit; in the other, via storyboard) sequences they’d worked up in which they completely avoided/inverted something basic, essential, and intrinsic to both stories for the sake of a “cool visual idea” that completely neglected/derailed a narrative essential.

    The fact that, in both cases, we were also collectively working toward a film based on true-life stories only made the deviations more obvious and unfortunate.

    Both were head-smacking moments and demonstrated a basic disconnect that called the whole potential working relationship into question. In short: an attic is not a basement (the first story involved a spectral child finally traced to a basement burial, which was a sad fact of winter life in parts of New England in 19th century and earlier); a rain of stones from a cloudless sky should not cue an Sergei Eisensteinian montage of clouds billowing and a mounting storm before the rocks fall.

    “Oops” doesn’t begin to cover this.

    And, in comics, dare I evoke them:

    the never-completed, never-published 1963 Annual?

    Big Numbers aka The Mandelbrot Set?

    There are others—for those my age, you may recall D’arc Tangent—but I think the point is taken, yes?

    * Cartoonist/teacher Rick Parker added on Facebook:

    “I think writers who want to produce graphic novels should consider learning how to to draw storyboards.”

    Well, maybe; some writers I’ve worked with (Mike Baron, Bob Stine, etc.) actually have written scripts that are in and of themselves stick-figure thumbnails, and that can be a lot of fun to work from. Those writers understand the visual dimension of storytelling in ways other vets who write full scripts sometimes do not; it’s pretty basic and easily dealt with (loved drawing from Bob‘s “scripts” for Bananas and Weird Worlds, which were roughs with dialogue balloons and captions in place; loved Mike‘s thumbnail scripts I saw and almost worked from).

    Since the Image Comics era, I think a very sound argument could be made that we’re now in a generation of comics creators in which the writers grasp the fundamentals of comics storytelling far beyond their contemporaries who are artists.

    Alan‘s scripts were, to me, always wonderfully lucid, clear, precise, and evocative; it was no surprise to see, upon first visit (1985) to his home in Northampton UK, that he actually tacked up little page thumbnails above his typewriter, from which he typed up the final scripts themselves.

    We never saw those thumbnails, but it was evident that the visual storytelling had been impeccably conceived and realized.

    Example of Alan Moore From Hell thumbnails and Eddie Campbell’s finished page, originally serialized in Taboo; from Gary Spencer Millidge’s Alan Moore: Storyteller (2011), just out and highly recommended; see the link to Eddie’s own blog about this material, provided below.

    The Alan Moores of this world are rare; I wasn’t the only former collaborator of Alan‘s to be surprised at his having done thumbnails prior to scripting;

  • for instance, Eddie Campbell recently expressed surprise at seeing Alan‘s thumbnails for From Hell (which I knew existed, but had never seen); scroll down to Eddie‘s July 26 and July 27th, 2011 posts (and Eddie, it’s great to see you blogging again).
  • [For From Hell scholars, note Nigel-63's comment to the September 7, 2011 Myrant essay, "Looking for Magic Carpets": "mm… I was back and forth ‘twixt Brisbane and Sydney in the days when Eddie was doing “From Hell”, and knew him and the guys who were helping to do some of the b/grounds (Westminster/Parliament House, Georgian architecture with lots of shadows and columns and windows, etc) – and, blimey, wasn’t there whinging about “all the work” they did but Eddie got all the credit!..." A situation I also knew existed, noting that Eddie did credit his assistants in the collected graphic novel editions. 'Nuff said, for now.]

    Actually, Alan kickstarted an entire generation of more comics-and-visually-literate writers in the medium (Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, etc.), as the entire Vertigo line materialized quite succinctly.

    Alas, as friends (including artist friends who sometimes write for their livelihoods) who wrote for many of the Image Comics generation of cartoonists found, the opposite wasn’t true:

    many Image-era cartoonists literally don’t/didn’t know how to visually tell a story, and seemed compelled to simply compose “cool pages” rather than tell the story.

    * I bring all this up to reinforce that I’m not seeking to provoke the age-old “writers vs. artists” dualistic warfare, but to push thinking deeply about what collaboration entails and requires.

    In comics, words sans images aren’t effective comics; but the opposite is true, too: images sans narrative cohesion (even non-narrative comics, like Victor Moscoso‘s work, has its internal logics at play) aren’t effective comics.

    In collaborations, both parties are necessary, should be bringing equal energies to bear, and the business relationships must be understood, worked through, and formally agreed upon.

    I’d again cite Mike Baron as a contemporary comics writer who fully understands the medium he works in, when he’s doing comics. Robert Kanigher, Paul Newman (the Dell/Gold Key writer), Gaylord DuBois—I could go on and on; there were and are many masterful comics writers whose extensive bodies of collaborative work simply don’t get the popular recognition that they deserve.

    That said, as I’ve stated before, the construct they most often worked/work within—work-for-hire comics publishers—codifies a simple working arrangement that removes most obstacles and ethical issues that hinder creator-owned collaborations… and that, two, is a sword that cuts many ways.

    Even in “stable” employment situations, there are volatile expectations and presumptions to be dealt with. Jim Shooter recently wrote at some length about a long-forgotten (by all but the immediate participants) chapter in 1970s and early 1980s Marvel Comics history,

  • when some Marvel writers and writer/editors began to presume they had a claim on the original artwork itself (give this a read, it’s ripe for discussion).
  • But that threatens to bring us back to the arena of the recent Marvel Comics/Jack Kirby judgment and injustice, which I promised I wasn’t going to do.

    Suffice to say I’d argue for the material original art remaining the property of the artist (and split 50/50 between the penciler and inker, by those parties: John Totleben and I used to divvy up our returned pages equally, alternating our choices and who went first each time to ensure both of us had a fair shot at favorite pages), just as the original script manuscript should remain the material property of the writer.

    * Finally, this video, recommended to all by “Moeskido” on the comments thread of the “Magic Carpets” essay, who noted that I’d prompted recall of “a little bit of a much less diplomatic presentation given a few months ago by Mule Design cofounder Mike Monteiro about working on spec, among other things. The title is less than polite, as is much of his experience-informed rhetoric.”

  • This comes from the Vimeo collective, and is embedded here with full acknowledgement of their venue and ownership of the actual video.
  • “San Francisco Creative Mornings is a monthly 20-minute breakfast lecture series. Creative Mornings take place in Zurich, Los Angeles and New York. They are a brainchild of Tina Roth Eisenberg a.k.a swissmiss.”

  • Here’s the link to Creative Mornings site.
  • Their introduction to the following reads:

    “Our speaker at the March 2011 San Francisco, CreativeMornings (creativemornings.com) was Mike Monteiro, Design Director, and co-founder of Mule Design Studio (muledesign.com). This event took place on March 25, 2011 and was sponsored by Happy Cog and Typekit (who also hosted the event at their office in the Mission).

    A big giant thank you to Chris Whitmore (whitmoreprod.com) for offering to shoot and edit the video. Photos were graciously provided by Rawle Anders (twitter.com/​rawle42).

    The San Francisco chapter of Creative Mornings is run by Greg Storey (twitter.com/​brilliantcrank).

    Follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/​SanFrancisco_CM”

    Give this a half hour, and let’s talk afterwards, shall we?

    2011/03 Mike Monteiro | F*ck You. Pay Me. from San Francisco Creative Mornings on Vimeo.

    Well, I can’t offer much more after that. Thanks to Creative Mornings, and to Mike Monteiro of Mule Design Studio.

    Well said.

    As I said: a ramble, not an essay, today.

    I’ve poked quite enough bears for one post, and hopefully stirred more thought than tempers in doing so.


    Discussion (12) ¬

    1. srbissette

      Gabe Levine, Mule Design’s lawyer, is gold. He makes some incredibly sound suggestions and offers a rational approach to dealing with many of the core issues artists too often deal with badly.

    2. eric orchard

      I very much wish I had read these amazing and insightful posts years ago. I’ve spent the first 5 years of my career being paid almost nothing for incredible amounts of work for other people. I worked so hard to make these books as good as I could but the strain was terrible. I don’t really expect to get rich from comics but I’ve decided I’d rather be poor drawing my own stories than deal with all the misunderstandings and heartache involved in bringing someone else’s vision to life. And I own none of it. I’m so happy to be doing my own book for Top Shelf now.

    3. srbissette

      Sorry I didn’t post sooner, Eric. I do my best!

    4. eric orchard

      Ha! People tried to warn me, I’ve just had the experience where I’m able to listen now.

    5. msbissette@yahoo.com

      And that, sadly, is indeed how it goes, Eric. Colleen Doran and I were just chatting about that very thing tonight via FB. If only we had known THEN what we knew now… and had the wisdom or courage to act on it.

    6. eric orchard

      I’m friends with Colleen on Facebook and, between you and her a young cartoonist/illustrator is getting a better education than 4 years of school. You’ve both been so brave, open and straight forward. Thank you so much.

      I will stop hogging the comments now…..

    7. patrick ford

      Clicked through and read a bit about Marvel returning a percentage of original art to writers in the 70′s. Beyond belief that something like that happened for a time.

    8. Frank Strysik

      There is the famous story of Marv Wolfman expecting artwork from Craig Russell for scripting a Dr. Strange Annual Craig conceived and drew. Craig didn’t agree with that idea so he scraped off all the lettering and gave that to Wolfman.

    9. Dan Barlow

      When someone says they’ve had an idea for 20 years and haven’t written a word yet – that’s totally a red flag that they are not a serious storyteller (especially when they want another person to do all the actual creative heavy-lifting).

    10. Henry R. Kujawa

      “The fact that, in both cases, we were also collectively working toward a film based on true-life stories only made the deviations more obvious and unfortunate.”

      There’s an episode or two of AS TIME GOES BY where Lionel & Jean go to Hollywood which poked a lot of fun at this sort of thing. For the sake of justifying their jobs, a pair of “script doctors” tried to derail a real-life story in favor of something else, which the studio head didn’t realize would have been an act of plagiarism against an earlier film if it had gone thru.

      “we’re now in a generation of comics creators in which the writers grasp the fundamentals of comics storytelling far beyond their contemporaries who are artists……many Image-era cartoonists literally don’t/didn’t know how to visually tell a story, and seemed compelled to simply compose “cool pages” rather than tell the story.”

      I’m reminded of a run of JUSTICE LEAGUE AMERICA (no “OF”– honestly) where the illustrations were very detailed, though cartoony (cleaned up nicely by a particular inker, but the issues he MISSED looked ‘orrible!). For quite a few issues of this run, I actually had trouble following the story from page to page, and sometimes, from panel to panel, because the artist did not seem to grasp the essentials of panel-to-panel storytelling!

      It really made you miss Keith Giffen, who found a way around the fact that he never REALLY learned how to draw by “simply” (HAH!) being a much better storyteller than the majority of his contemporary “illustrators”. Hook with up with a penciller & inker who are bang-on, and you’ve got something wondrous (and let’s not forget, Adam Hughes was one of those pencillers for a while).

    11. Eddie Campbell

      re ‘The guys who were helping” I chose to ignore it the first time around, but your Nigel-63′s talking bollocks, and I’m not sure why you’re quoting him since it’s not relevant to your thesis. There was only one person helping me draw architectural detail on some pages of From Hell at that time. Either he’s saying Steve S. was complaining or he’s saying a couple of other people who were not involved in any way whatsoever were complaining. I suspect the latter.

    12. Eddie Campbell

      ps. Steve S went on to head his own video game company and had/has a small army of people drawing stuff. When it came that time at school for my kids to get ‘work experience’ by sitting in a workplace for a few days and seeing how things are done, they got to see how video games get made, and were probably the envy of all the other kids in their class.

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