Friday, December 28, 2007

What do the Comics owe you? Anything? Nothing?

I've been thinking long and hard about this for a while now, and while of course the answer is obviously "nothing", the matter is more personal for those of us who became so infatuated with the smell of ink on cheap newsprint. We, the aforementioned addicted people, have obviously looked around and tried to figure out ways to make a living off of what we love, whether it meant becoming a dealer, a comic artist, editor or writer, or perhaps a publisher of fan related material. It makes sense to try to find a way to make money doing what you love.

The only problem is that comics is a brutal business. And as I type that, I struggle with how that sounds, yet it is the truth. Every bit of experience I have tells me that is the truth, every interaction that I had with other professionals, from Gene Colan, George Tuska, Herb Trimpe and Dave Cockrum to the modern era artists tells the same story. The American comic business has a relentless series of deadlines on work for hire that will burn a person into the ground unless they are (and I know someone who is) almost inhumanly fast with their pencilling.

Valerie has a list of quotes that she has heard, over her years in editorial, that are chilling, and worth going to read over at her site when you're done here.

So what does comics owe me? Will it give me back my sanity after working two 22-hour days in a row on Good Guys #1 (and still having the book come out late)? Will it give me back my dignity after having to kiss ass to get the next shitty job that was running late out of a company, so that you can get blamed on the work, when the "star" penciller is the one screwing all the others down the line from him? Of course not. But we make our choices. Comics did give me the rush of walking into any comics shop in Manhattan and seeing my name on the cover of the Batman book. That is as singular a thrill as many of us will ever get. Just as any job has the good with the bad, this is the story of what bad you'll take to get the good.

"The problem is that they think comic books owes them. That's the problem with hiring fans."

And the problem with hiring editors that are fans, hiring fans to work on the books. The word professional was bandied about pretty casually inside the industry, when, typically, the industry is anything but. The same people who would complain that an artist didn't handle his or her work professionally, were most likely the same people who begged the artist to take the late job and bring it in on time. The cardinal rule of doing unto others doesn't seem to play out here very well.

One problem is that the comics industry, from Weisinger and Donenfeld in the 40's to now, has been its smallness. Even when the books were selling in the millions, they weren't supported by advertising the way the traditional periodicals were, and so the money being paid out was small, enough to keep an indentured servant class that either didn't know how to do anything else, or didn't want to leave because this what they loved. In the last decade, I know that I did a back flip when I saw the first Mazuchelli cover on the New Yorker. At last we had the chance to go uptown. As anyone, in any career can tell you, options are leverage, and leverage is good. Otherwise, you're in a small industry that has more people, far more people, than work. That is not good.

"And I asked them why I wasn't being hired anymore, give me a reason. I mean, what else am I good at?"

The piecemeal way that American comics are done has also done its share of damage to artists, trapping them into a niche that doesn't allow for them to do anything else, and certainly not to have skills that would allow them other options. In the age of scanned pencils (and Lenil Yu, I'm looking at you) where does the inker go? In the age of Comicraft, where does the letterer go? I somehow doubt that any of us thought, "when I grow up, I'm going to get trapped in a niche!" but that is what happens, and its sad. The artist should, and usually does, go into things will a series of skills, some more developed than others. Just working in one area shouldn't preclude getting the opportunity to show the others. Of course, many times, it does.

Back to choices however. I made the choices that allowed me to get into comics back in 1992 in a niche position, because I couldn't bear to live without seeing my name on that cover. I did make the right choice back then, no matter how many sleepless nights it involved, no matter how much sciatica came from sitting in the same position in the same Brooklyn apartment night after night after night. Because the same shit exists in every profession. So we had all better really enjoy the highs because the lows are the same crappy lows, and we only go around once.

Comics doesn't owe me anything, but it gave me plenty.

1 comment:

Alan McK said...

A very interesting piece. But just the title of this blog entry makes me think of JFK's immortal words, "Ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country."

Comics is not different to any other business. Management has no emotional investment in the people they manage or those people's lives. Long after I'd stopped relying on the comics business for my main income, I was working at a UK television conglomerate. I'd become quite friendly with my department head, I'd sat at his table with his wife and kids and mine, and we'd eaten together. But a year or two later, he cut me loose without even blinking. It's not unique to comics. Though it might seem that way if comics is the only business you've ever worked in.

And Mazuchelli is by no means the first comic person to cross over into mainstream publishing. Long before him, there was Jack Cole, who moved into illustrating for the "slicks" then for reasons best known to himself, committed suicide. Jack Davis fared a little better in mainstream publishing. There's others, but you get my drift.

And whenever technology makes production cheaper for publishers of any stripe - be it the introduction of DTP saving newspapers the cost of typesetting, or Photoshop, saving comic publishers the costs of tricky film-making and reverse-outs and so on - did any of them share the savings with any of the folk picking up that work? Even worse, comic letterers and colourists are expected to buy their own copies of Illustrator, Fontographer and Photoshop so the publishers can save thousands of dollars in the production process.

It always the folks at the bottom of the foodchain that get screwed.