Tuesday, September 16, 2008

In Discussion Of: Work for Hire and Working the Workers

Noah Berlatsky makes some interesting points in his Who Watches the Super Serfs post in reaction to Joe Quesada's comments on work for hire. Joe, for those who simply don't wish to click about 5 layers down to get to the quotes, points out that Work for Hire is just life under capitalism and that we should all just shut up about it.

And yet, there are very few other artistic forms where the creator is expected to give and give and give and get nothing back. The music industry is one, at least in the old days, where only the publishing was important. (Does it not depress anyone to know that a song, pick any song that has achieved a certain level of cultural fame, for all those times that you've heard it on the radio growing up, nothing goes back to artist's pocket book if he or she didn't write it? Music that we consider the soundtrack of our lives sometimes is created by an artist who receives nothing for the continued radio airplay. In Europe, at least, there has been a "performer credit" that paid the performing artist for decades).

By anyone's estimation, Siegel and Shuster should have been millionaires, but they didn't even get the working wage as they were fired off of the Superman books relatively quickly so that DC didn't to worry about fighting with two men who had an emotional investment. DC stole the greatest idea in the history of the medium and bailed on the inventors.

Is this any better or worse than some of what Tom Crippen points out in his rather depressing self-examination of his younger comic reading days, when he discovered that Romita and Buscema were not inspired artists gearing up for another exciting issue of Marvel Team Up, but were, in fact, workhorses, churning out yet another issue? Perhaps not. Since the result, in any case, is a depressingly mediocre product for the reader.

That workhorse/work-for-hire mentality has stuck us with a level of mediocrity that is rather hard to surpass unless one looks at television with a long lens. Another medium that started out in the mud and never climbed up any higher until recently and only by:
  • rock star mentality where one creator occasionally gets enough power to actually force through something interesting and innovative
  • sheer accident.
Whatever interesting work that a John Buscema might have done was long since crushed out of him. When teaching younger artists, "Hack away boys!" was what he told them. Joe Kubert is one of those few who came out the other side, with decades of work for hire, he still turned out Fax From Sarajevo late in his career.

Is there incentive for the creator to actually give a Marvel or DC anything other than to get a paycheck? Unfortunately, yes, there is, and much of it rests on the heart fulfulling its wishes to go play in the sandbox with all the favorite toys that one had growing up: The X-Men, The Avengers, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman. and the dream of getting a paycheck for actually sitting around doing what your parents told you was a waste of time: drawing.

But neither of them leads to a happy old age, to a pension, to anything other than a bad back. Ask Gene Colan where his long term health benefits are, or Dave Cockrum where his were. The lived the dream, but like the hourly employee at Taco Bell, the first day that they don't show up and make tacos, they don't get paid. And, as we all know, Gene and Dave made a hell of a lot more than tacos.

Tom makes the point, late in his essay, that he found himself "ground down" by the relentless quality of reading all the Marvels, til staring at the carpet was the equivalent of reading yet another issue of Thor. Many of the artists who have worked on a monthly schedule can attest to that feeling, and I realize that this has long since been about getting the product out on the stands, as opposed to getting a good product out on the stands. Would any other market want to actually cheapen their goods at that level? I guess if your business plan includes a built-in turnover of consumers, especially consumers who you consider to have no taste differential, then yes, cheapen the product all you want.

But not in this day and age. The business model has changed, or it should. Work can stay in print and, like an actual book, continue to entertain. Good creators should get paid well, great creators even better. And if the idea lives on, and there is money to be made, then the creators should continue to get paid. Quesada's idea of work for hire being the only way to go only works if you're going backwards from here. And I think that we're going anywhere but.

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