Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Creators Bill Of Rights 25th Anniversary: Denis Kitchen

Art by Denis Kitchen (left) & Will Eisner (right)
(from The Creators Bill Of Rights, May 2005)
[Will Eisner and I] spoke of it briefly on a couple of occasions. It was not something that, frankly, we took very seriously, though we understood and appreciated the sincerity and idealism behind its creation. There was a point in my early career when I would have unhesitatingly signed it. Will's autobiography of getting onto the business is appropriately called "The Dreamer." Most of us have been dreamers, but at some point you have to face the realities of art, life and commerce. I was so anxious to be fair to other creators when I started Kitchen Sink Press in 1969-70 that I literally gave all my profits to other artists and was unable to draw a penny in salary for the first couple of years. So I know very well what it's like to be both a starving artist and a starving publisher.

I think Will's quote below comes from pragmatism; from being on both sides of the equation (being a creator, running a packaging house, and being a publisher) and from a long life of observing human nature, particularly with respect to employees, free-lancers, partners and competitors. Of course he believed in creators' rights. No one was fiercer in demanding them for himself, way before almost anyone else in the field. But he understood that there has to be a balance of rights. The C.B.R. was a political statement without a real effort at balance.

In the "old days" of the industry, publishers had all the power and often used it ruthlessly. If the Creators' Bill of Rights was actually enforced, you'd have a very tough time finding anyone who would want to be a publisher. Will and I both saw the original (has it been updated?) CBR as generally naive and unrealistic.

You earlier asked me a question about Will's religion or lack of. It is my experience and observation that there are both moral people who go to church and moral atheists. There are hypocritical Christians, Muslims and Jews and there are amoral non-believers. My point is that mere titles are often meaningless. Creators (look at Todd McFarlane) are just as capable of mistreating other creators and there are many publishers (William Gaines, for example, or, I dare say, Kitchen Sink Press) who were fair and equitable with creators. There are publishers who are creative and creators who are uncreative. There are creators who rip off publishers just as there will be retailers who rip off distributors. I believe that creators will gravitate toward publishers who give them fair deals, pay them properly, provide a creative environment, respect their innate rights, give marketing support. and other tangible benefits in what ideally is a partnership to bring ideas to the marketplace. Supporting such publishers and avoiding whenever possible bad publishers is a realistic strategy for creators; and, likewise, smart publishers will find it in their best interests to nurture, support and reward good creators. It doesn't have to resemble class warfare.

The Creators' Bill of Rights is an interesting concept, and one worth healthy philosophical debate, but at the end of the day it is pie-in-the-sky. Pragmatists like Will and myself, who have seen all sides of the business, assiduously protected our own rights, and understood that both creators and publishers need rights and incentives. It's all about balance.

Denis Kitchen is an American underground cartoonist, publisher, author and agent, and the founder of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Will Eisner (1917-2005) is the writer/artist of The Spirit, A Contract With God and many other fine graphic novels.


Anonymous said...

Eisner's opinion can be expected to be a bit self-serving, as he had no problem exploiting creators when he was a packager and publisher; that was just how you did business.

But it is interesting to compare him with Dave Sim as a businessperson. Many times, Eisner sought new markets or ways of selling comics, whereas Dave always remained firmly within the Direct Market, going so far as to actively refuse bookstore distribution. Even Dave's major campaigns for Cerebus specifically and independent comics generally always remained within the confines of the Direct Market.

With the benefit of hindsight, would Dave's time have been better spent finding new avenues through which to sell Cerebus (and subsequent projects), or might he have succeeded in making independent comics a significant presence in comics shops?

-- Damian T. Lloyd, btu

Anonymous said...

I think Eisner and Kitchen make a fair and reasonable criticism of the Bill. The Bill does nothing more than restate existing legal rights. If you want to make money, then legal rights, and especially the property rights that are the primary subject of the Bill, are nothing more than the foundation for negotiation. So Eisner and Kitchen are right that the Bill doesn’t provide much of anything in the way of practical guidance or solutions to industry problems.

Having read about this all week, I think that much of the Bill was ultimately just high-minded rhetoric that obscures the central conflict: Dave’s dispute with Diamond over distribution.

Dave quickly made $100,000 profit on High Society by cutting out Diamond and the retail stores as distributors. This was about money. Dave must have seen that he could keep doing that for every Cerebus phonebook. That is hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars at play.

But Dave risked a confrontation with the retailers. Dave didn’t want to be isolated, so he enlisted support. He started with Eastman and Laird, who were basically in Dave’s position. In fact, after Dave defeated Diamond, Eastman-Laird sold Turtles collections direct to their readers. Then Dave brought in other creators, who, I think, identified with Dave primarily as a fellow creator, and not so much in his role as publisher. Or perhaps they aspired to be publishers, I don’t know.

Eisner and Kitchen are right that the Bill is pie in the sky because this was never really about creator versus publisher. That was peripheral. Dave and Eastman-Laird were both creator and publisher in one. They weren’t really affected by that conflict. And as for Dave, the record shows that his view was that creators should become publishers and do as Dave was doing as a solution to that problem.

No, this was about publisher versus distributor. And in a way, Dave was applying his publishing solution to distributing: become the distributor. Dave went from creator-publisher to creator-publisher-distributor. Dave then controlled every step in his business.

I think I understand why the Bill is a “puzzle” to Erik Larsen (see below). Unless Larsen is interested in selling directly to readers, bypassing the distributors, then the importance of the Bill and Summit would be of no interest to him as a precedent. Or maybe the Bill obscures that selling trade paperbacks directly to readers was the main issue.

-Reginald P.

Anonymous said...

It's also worth pointing out that most of the signatories to the Bill had business relationships with either Eastman and Laird at Mirage Studios or with Dave Sim. Many were employees.

While that doesn't mean that the signatories were insincere, it shows that the Summit was not representative of the wider industry, but instead represented only a few key players -- primarily Mirage and Aardvaark-Vanaheim.

The Bill would have been more compelling if instead those signatories had been at arm's length from one another or all from different companies, especially since they were claiming to draft a document that was to represent or be a beacon for "creators" in the entire industry.

I think the Summit's lack of broader representation supports Erik Larsen's point that nobody "put them in charge of anything" and that it was primarily applicable to its signatories. It's fair criticism to say that the Bill has no legitimacy.

-Reginald P