Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Creators Bill Of Rights 25th Anniversary: Stephen R. Bissette

Tyrant & Aardvark (Cerebus #159, June 1992)
Art by Steve Bissette, Dave Sim & Gerhard
(from The Comics Reporter, 4 May 2005)
Personally, I don't find the Creator's Bill of Rights all that fascinating a document, except in a fun, dormitory hallway discussion kind of way. In fact, I've always thought conceiving of rights in that manner a potentially harmful thing, and therefore question its usefulness.

(from The Comics Reporter, 22 May 2005)
Personally and professionally, Tom, those of us who make livings or partial-livings as creators have to move beyond "dormitory hallway" discussions on these matters at SOME point. That you haven't isn't indicative of the relative worth or worthlessness of the Bill. A small group of us did move beyond "dormitory hallway discussions" back in the 1980s, and precious few seem to have taken it much further. That isn't indicative so much of the wisdom of our conclusions or the Bill as it is the paucity of attention or discussion since, which seems to me rather astounding and unconscionable given the accelerated, measurable value of intellectual properties and unslakeable appetite of ever-consolidating corporate entities since 1986.

If you require cultural validation before moving this 'chat' beyond that "dormitory hallway," when as slight a confection as the Malibu-published Men In Black can provide the source material for a feature can finally redirect the entirety of the Marvel stable of properties into the top-ten boxoffice draws in history, the rights and fates of those who conceived of those properties are certainly deserving of scrutiny -- as is the potential of any property. Men In Black was less than a footnote in comics before the movie; how, then, can you rationally argue that "Universality can loosen the tether from historical circumstance in a way that lifts the discussion of rights out of the real-world dialogue that gives it power and immediacy." Hopefully, this discussion is lending some "real-world dialogue," and hence context, to the Bill and its relevance. The fact that there is considerable weight to your next sentence -- "In economically exhausted circumstances, creator rights thus too frequently becomes seen as something to bargain away rather than as effective, worthwhile and even just circumstances for which to fight" -- doesn't mitigate the necessity for discussion and debate; it in fact begs the question, "Why aren't YOU invested in this discussion?"

If nothing else, the lowest common denominator is that the Creator Bill of Rights provides a previously nonexistent 'checklist' of rights sold in most creative/business transactions, and that alone is of great value as a barometer and/or negotiation tool. Pragmatically, you've got a point: still, if "economically exhausted circumstances" lead a creator to sign anything to land the overdue rent check in exchange for work completed (as I did with Marvel's blanket work-for-hire contract in 1978), it's still worthwhile for identifying what one has parted with, and hopefully won't again. In that regard, the only power the freelancer maintains is the power to say "no," and walk, the Creator Bill of Rights be damned.

I'd welcome more discussion of your concluding brush-off -- "I thought it was a somewhat dubious rhetorical tool back in 1988, and still think so today. I'd rather we'd had the manifesto" -- if only to define "rhetorical tool," and why it was and is of dubious value; your just saying so tells me nothing, save your opinion, making you the "rhetorical tool," if you will. I also want to remind you that the manifesto did see print, should you care to revisit it. It was greeted with deafening indifference and silence, outside of those who subsequently joined the fray and rolled up their sleeves to work on the Bill.

Though I know full well I now sound like (shudder) a Republican senator, let's see your manifesto, Tom, please, or at least articulate your views more fully. Your ongoing dismissal of the Creator Bill of Rights as somehow inherently inert and beneath notice, sans meaningful debate or any proposition from anyone of anything comparable in almost twenty years, is indeed typical of "dormitory hallway discussion." After all, we've all been living out of the dorms for decades, haven't we? In the real big bad world, the Creator Bill of Rights is still as valid and relevant as ever.

Stephen R. Bissette is a comics artist, perhaps best know for his collaboration with Alan Moore and John Totleben on the DC comic Swamp Thing in the 1980s. Tom Spurgeon is The Comics Reporter.


Anonymous said...

I understand Bissette's passion for these issues, but I think he comes off as overly defensive here. It's counterproductive and I think undermines critical reflection.

He's wrong for at least two reasons that the Bill provides a previously nonexistent checklist of rights.

First, creators could have called a lawyer or looked up the Copyright Act (they would have had to go to a library at that time) to determine their rights. That would have been at least as easy (probably easier) as tracking down the Creators Bill of Rights.

Second, the Bill is actually an incomplete list of rights. For instance, in Canada, creators have something called "moral rights". No mention of those important rights in the Bill. So, in fact, the Bill is incomplete at best and misleading at worst in terms of the existing rights of creators.

It's also got nothing concrete that a "checklist" should have. For instance, creators should be aware of the importance of the negatives. Nothing on the list about that. I imagine that industry professionals could think of dozens of other important points to put on a checklist for aspiring comics professionals.

So, I think it's fair to say that the Bill is not a checklist at all.

However, at least Bissette acknowledges that the Bill in fact did not spur further debate, attention or discussion, meaning that it was not influential. He seems to believe that this is a failing of others in the industry, rather than of the Bill itself, which seems to be, I think, an ineffective response if you actually believe that more needed to be accomplished.

-Reginald P.

Anonymous said...

Reading Steve's other responses in the discussion (and Dave's responses to those responses) is interesting. The guy is veheminent about this subject, and this particular response is WAY nicer than the one Steve had for Erik Larsen (who has a pretty damn good track record vis a vis creator rights given his contribution to Image Comics).

Of course, Steve's ire on the subject is understandable- Marvel's IP rakes in more money than the net worth of most countries, based on a mythology created by guys who pretty much schlepped by on what a professional artist in any other field would call a slave wage. Every point on that creator's bill of rights isn't there for shits n' giggles- each point is an area where some artist got boned. Either by trusting their publisher, or by signing the back of a paycheck to make sure their kids could eat, or simply by not knowing any better.

All of us benefit from hindsight and the ease with which information is spread nowadays- while the mainstream news media could care less about the trials and tribulations of Gary Friedrich, comic book news and nerdbait websites sure cared, and that legal fight helped spread the word around in comic fandom- don't get caught with your pants down.

Of course, the internet wasn't a gleam in Al Gore's eye back when the Creator's Bill of Rights was written, and before pop culture became all superheroes all the time, NBC, ABC, and CBS couldn't give less of a shit about comics unless it was a slow news day and DC comics sent out a press release with an obituary for some well-known character that died for the twentieth time. Back in those days, I learned about the Creators' Bill of Rights through the TMNT- I was a TMNT fan as a child, and discovered later on that they began life as a comic book. Digging through back-issue bins I found TMNT #8- this, along with borrowing Spawn #10 from a friend- lead me to buying Cerebus. Those books introduced me to said creators' bill of rights. Through that bill of rights, and the subsequent written commentaries in the backs of TMNT and Cerebus, I learned of Jack Kirby and Steve Gerber's struggles with Marvel, and Shuster/Siegel's struggles with DC.

But again, that was pre-internet, and living in a post-internet world renders this kind of moot. For all I know, Bryan Lee O'Malley may not have ever heard of Cerebus or the Creator's Bill of Rights but seems to have done fairly well for himself with Scott Pilgrim's success. Same for those two fellows with the hard-to-remember names that produce Penny Arcade. Even at the time said CBOR was drafted, people who desperately wanted to be in comics knew that DC and Marvel weren't their only choices for employment any more, thanks to the advent of comic shops. In the discussions from which these postings are culled, Dave himself mentions that guys like Jeff Smith were annoyed that their small press indy work was being lumped in with a 'self publishing movement.' I can assume that means Jeff hadn't read that bill before creating his magnum opus.

Still, Enough brilliant people have been hurt that I can't fault Steve Bissette, Dave Sim, Kevin Eastman, Pete Laird, et al. for making a statement like they did. The Hero Initiative unfortunately exists for a reason, even while Warners and Disney suck in record revenues from their intellectual property farms.