Saturday, 18 April 2015

Work For Hire: "Open Up Your Eyes To What’s Going On Here!"

Comic Book Creator #6: Swampmen
Edited by Jon Cooke & George Khoury
Cover art by Frank Cho

(from an interview conducted in 2003, printed in Comic Book Creator #6 in 2014)
...But that was what had me ultimately walk away from the [Swamp Thing] series. I just couldn’t stomach working with the company [DC Comics] any longer. Part of it was the awakening to what "work-for-hire" really meant, what the real impact of that was… that all of the work the three of us had done meant, in legal terms, that Alan [Moore] was not the writer, I was not the penciler, John [Totleben] was not the inker, but pairs of hands slaving for this corporate entity of DC and that they, DC Comics, was the creator of the property. That’s the legal conceit of work-for-hire.

At the time -- and it took a while to get my head around that -- there were a number of factors and one of them was John and I were really getting to know Dave Sim over this period. Dave knew what the life of a freelancer was because of his friendship with Gene Day, and Gene was one of the great tragedies of comics. Gene wanted to work for Marvel with every fiber of his being, got to work for Marvel, and ended up dying as a result of just allowing himself to be siphoned away. You know, made all of his deadlines, got everything done, but lived on coffee and cigarettes until physically, he was incapable of living any more. One time in particular, when Rick Veitch and myself spent a number of hours with Dave at some convention we were at, Dave just spilled the whole story of Gene Day. What his friendship was with Gene, how important their friendship was, what Gene meant to Dave, and how, in Dave's view, Marvel killed Gene Day; and that he, Dave, was living for the day that he could dance on the grave of Marvel. Dave really radicalized me over time. What DC did during this period, the event that I won’t discuss, definitely pushed me into the wake-up call of realizing that Dave Sim was right.

Dave has given some very eloquent testimonials, spoken at various gatherings, a lot of that material has been transcribed and written down and published in Cerebus, and that is a body of work that should be collected and studied, because he is right. By and large, the relationship between the creative people and the publishers can be a very dangerous one. Things changed a lot in the wake of what happened to us, and the fights that my generation fought at places like DC. The people who really scored were the bigger names, people like Frank Miller. Frank really broke ground with his Ronin and Dark Knight contracts. The fact is that when Alan walked away from DC, they lost him forever. I mean he really walked. He wasn’t coming back. (It's very telling to me about what Machiavellian maneuvers had to go on for the ABC line to end up at DC, but I won't even get into that, because that’s a separate conversation for a separate venue.)

Creators like Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison and Garth Ennis benefited from the real hard-fought battles that were fought. And, in my small way, I was involved in a number of those battles. Around the time of Swamp Thing #35, as we’re getting up to #40, my personal conflicts with DC over a legal matter came to a head, and my political reorientation to the whole nature of making a living as a freelancer was affected a great deal by my friendship with Dave Sim. It wasn’t like was Dave was ranting at me. It was that DC would prove Dave’s points almost every time.

John Totleben went every year to Mid-Ohio Con, a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. We would donate art to the auction, do sketches, and it was a great communal event. It was a lot of fun. Dave was at Mid-Ohio where we first met him, and Dave showed up one day at our hotel with a limo and said, "Boys, get in." And I didn’t know what to do. I didn't even know that you weren't supposed to open the door yourself when you got to where you were going, that you’re supposed to wait until the guy comes around. You know, Dave's whole thing was, "Guys, this is how the executives at the company you work for travel. [Jon laughs] Get a taste of it."

There's something wrong when the pyramid is reversed. There’s something wrong when you're the guys shelling out for taxicab fare or hitchhiking to conventions and staying three and four in a room, all the while the publishers are coming here in the limos and getting Presidential suites. Dave's whole orientation was to open our eyes to what the power dynamic was, what the reverse pyramid was, as he put it, where the whole power structure was built on the back of the freelancers, and we got a real taste of that with the success of Swamp Thing, you know? We got a glimpse that suddenly made sense to us.

We all went to New York City to meet Alan and Phyllis for the first time. There's Dave Gibbons, delivering the first pages of Watchmen, Alan and Phyllis are put up in one of the best hotels in New York City, and Dave ends up in a dive on 42nd Street where his room is broken into because he's the artist [laughs] and Watchmen is just in the early stages. It was hard to ignore the favoritism going on, and it was getting harder to ignore it any longer.

If I was called in to the Marvel office, Marvel footed the bill. If I brought in receipts for the train ticket and cab fare, I was reimbursed. But when DC called John and I in, we had to pay for travel. It took me longer to wake up to it because of the fun I was experiencing doing the work, the fun of doing the comics. So had it not been for people like Dave saying, "Listen, open up your eyes to what's going on here!" I would have remained blissfully ignorant.

I bring all that up, Jon, because that’s part of what also soured my passion of staying with the book. By the time we got to American Gothic, where it was all schematically laid out for the next 10 issues where we were going and what was going to be in what issue, the ride was over. It was that I knew 12 months down the road where we were going so there was no fun to it any longer. I remember the metaphor John used, and John’s great with this stuff. He says, "You know, we put the car on the road and now they want us to ride in the backseat." [laughs] And it was true. It wasn't a power thing. That wasn't what it was about. It was that everything the book had become was through our energy and drive and concepts; and suddenly, there was this road map and we were part of the machine. It just wasn't as fun any more, but the personal side cannot be downplayed and I take full responsibility, and always have, for my issues of deadlines, and so on, but it’s still tough to hear some of the stuff said at DC. It's pretty easy to ignore their culpability in a lot of events that went on, but that's what they did...

Stephen R. Bissette is best known for his collaboration with Alan Moore on Saga of the Swamp Thing from 1983-87, and for his self-published Tyrant comic, the portrait of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the late Cretaceous period. He also edited the ground-breaking horror comics anthology Taboo, which launched From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. He co-authored the books Comic Book Rebels and The Monster Book: Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and his novella Aliens: Tribes, illustrated by Dave Dorman, won a Bram Stoker Award in 1993. More recently his articles on horror films have been collected in the Blur series published by Black Coat Press and Steve currently serves on the faculty of The Center For Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. 

With SWAMPMEN out this week (from Jon B. Cooke, George Khoury, TwoMorrows, 2014), it's time to remind everyone in the community that the painted cover art to SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING #34 and the final page of that issue (Rites of Spring) are STILL STOLEN PROPERTY.

These belong to John Totleben and yours truly, Stephen Bissette -- only they don't, because they were stolen right out of the DC Comics offices in 1984-85.

These are STILL STOLEN PROPERTY. Anyone owning, trafficking, trading, or harboring this original art -- SOTST #34 cover painting and the final story page -- is involved (knowingly or unknowingly) in criminal activity.

John and I also have children; mine are now adults. They are looking, too. Even after we're dead and gone, this will be sought-after STOLEN PROPERTY.

This is not going to "go away."

Stephen R. Bissette, 2014


CerebusTV said...

The corporatism's only gotten bigger with acquisition into Time Warner and Disney.

Jeff Seiler said...

Amen to that.

Boggles the mind, it does.

Every superhero movie nowadays is mede by a publishing or Mickey Mouse corporation.

So.go see Avengers: Age of Ultron, but do it knowing that Walt Disney still gets a huge chunk of that money.

Tony Dunlop said...

In the larger picture, what Stephen is describing here is called "capitalism." The people who actually do the work that creates all that wealth, the assembly line workers, the cooks, the cashiers; it's their time, sweat, and energy that pays for the limos, the penthouse suites, the private jets. Captialism is evil, pure and simple. It's theft.

Steve said...

Don Rosa tells his own story of finally reaching the end of his own rope with Disney:

I spent three days with Don in 2014 at a local comic con; he's one of my 'comic heroes' and it was a tremendous privilege to visit with him.

Given Don's huge popularity in Europe, Disney's own work-for-hire system bilked Don out of huge sums of income from reprints of his stories.

Like Dave, Don is also a gifted writer on the medium of comics and the corporate ... crushing which the gifted creators suffer through.


Max West said...

I submitted my own creation, Sunnyville Stories, to corporate entities - they passed on the project. To be honest, I feel relieved. These horror stories I hear from big companies like DC and Marvel reinforce Dave Sim's view that you should go it alone and have full creative control over your own work!

CerebusTV said...

Why patronize any of the egregious corporate gatekeepers? If you simply must have their lawyer-designed products, why not wait until they are available used, when they'll get none of the income you can direct instead to where creators are paid fairly, receive fair royalties, and retain ownership of their work instead of being exploited? Used bookstores, yard and garage sales are your friends for corporate product.

The Rosa story is surely a wakeup call.