Sunday, 17 November 2013

Creators Bill Of Rights 25th Anniversary: Scott McCloud

The Northampton Summit Participants
Left to Right: Ken Mitchroney, Mark Martin, Michael Dooney, Steve Lavigne, Peter Laird (sitting)
Kevin Eastman, Ryan Brown, Michael Zulli, Richard Pini, Scott McCloud, Larry Marder
Dave Sim, Rick Veitch, and Steve Bissette. (Not pictured: Eric Talbot and Gerhard).
Art by Scott McCloud
(taken from Scott
The Creators Bill Of Rights was written in November 1988 for a two day "Summit" of comic book artists held in Northampton, Massachusetts. The meeting had been suggested by Cerebus creator Dave Sim and hosted by local heroes Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Summit was a follow-up to a July meeting in Toronto which produced a "Creative Manifesto." Some of us found the Manifesto a bit scattered, so I wrote a rough draft of a proposed replacement. That replacement, "A Bill of Rights for Comics Creators" was accepted quickly at Sim's suggestion. The rest of that day was a non-stop argument about the document's wording.

The Bill never generated much noise in the industry and I wouldn't want to exaggerate its influence, but it provides an interesting snapshot of our attitudes at the time, and of the climate that was fueling self-publishers, progressive business people, and artists trying to reinvent the comics industry. A few years later, several top-selling Marvel artists would break from the pack and form a new company called Image, shifting the debate from rights and principles to clout and competition, but both developments would share a common premise, still relevant today: that comics creators already have the right to control their art if they want it; all they have to do is not sign it away.

I was invited in large part because I knew Laird and others through an APA I'd created called The Frying Pan. At my suggestion, Beanworld creator and "Nexus of all Comic Book Realities" Larry Marder was invited too. Larry flew out from Chicago to our place in Arlington, Massachusetts shortly before the meeting. I had the rough draft of the Bill ready but not typed yet. I vividly remember hammering it out on my old manual typewriter as Larry read my notes back to me, right before we rushed out the door to catch a succession of buses and trains to Northampton. While waiting for the bus in Springfield, we found a copy shop and photocopied my hastily typed hand-out. It was also on that trip that I showed Larry my notes for a comic book about comics that I had been working on for a few years.

After the first day of debates, everyone stumbled out of the Hotel Northampton into the cold New England air to walk the five or so blocks to dinner. I remember Larry and I lagged behind a little. I had argued with Dave Sim about every imaginable issue that day as if my life depended on it, but walking to dinner, it all seemed pretty distant already. Larry and I talked more about my notes for the comic book about comics. I asked him if he thought those ideas would mean a lot more in the long run than anything I could accomplish in Northampton. He said yeah, they probably would.

When those notes became Understanding Comics it was Kevin Eastman's money that paid me to finish it - money he and Peter had earned because they refused to give away their creation the way so many artists had before them.

Scott McCloud is a cartoonist and comics theorist best known for his comic series ZOT! and his non-fiction books about comics theory: Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000) and Making Comics (2006).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the “Bill of Rights” was no challenge to the status quo. The Bill of Rights mostly restated existing copyright law, thereby affirming its legitimacy, but without explicitly acknowledging that the Bill of Rights was mostly restating existing copyright law.

And existing copyright law was and is good for the publishers. The Bill of Rights was never going to challenge the major publishers, as in fact the rights stated therein were and continue to be the basis of the publisher's power.

"comics creators already have the right to control their art if they want it; all they have to do is not sign it away."

It seems to me that this is exactly the basis on which DC would justify their ownership of Superman: Siegel and Shuster had their rights at first, they chose not to keep those rights, and so signed those rights away. Now DC is the legitimate owner. Everyone had a choice and acted in their interests as they saw them.

Basically, McCloud agrees that it's up to the creators to watch out for themselves (though preferably with legal advice), because they are basically on their own. Jim Shooter couldn’t have put it better.

The "Bill of Rights" simply affirms the legitimacy of that arrangement. To acknowledge that reality affirms that creators have little power and moneyed corporations have a lot of power.

A rights-based system basically leaves the creator at the mercy of the market, meaning that creators can thrive primarily when the market is very strong. For comics creators, that strong-market window closed in the 1990s and doesn't look to reopen for the foreseeable future.

I also think it would be wrong to say that the Bill in any way prompted the emergence of alternative publishers. The creator's rights movement began in earnest earlier, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and was, to my memory, pioneered by companies like Pacific, Eclipse, Fantagraphics, Kitchen Sink, First, and of course Aardvark-Vanaheim (and probably others), founded on the principle of creator's rights.

These companies I’m sure were driven by personal conviction and a love of the medium; but they also positioned themselves as creator-friendly alternatives to Marvel and DC in order to attract talent because they believed that was how they could make money. To say that the Bill prompted the emergence of alternative publishers negates the contributions of these earlier publishers and that misses that most of them emerged earlier.

If anything, the Bill of Rights occurred near the end of the heyday of independent publishers. The summit and Bill suggest to me an abortive attempt by creators to come together for some larger purpose that failed because they had no alternative paradigm and there wasn’t enough common interest or common cause to hold everyone together. This seems consistent with Steve Bissette’s view that Dave formed coalitions and then blew them up. It seems consistent with Dave's view that his positions were "ethically superior". It also seems consistent with some of the bitter debate among the participants even many years later. It suggests fundamental division among the creators that precluded any meaningful success.

It also suggests that the alternative publishing industry, which was in its heyday at the time, perhaps at its very pinnacle, was good for some but was never a panacea for most creators, still left inequalities and injustices in the field, and left many creative people dissatisfied.

-Reginald P