Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fool me seventeen times, shame on me.

A few days back, in my ongoing quest not to do what I really ought to be doing with my time, I came upon the blog of reality TV producers Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina (found it via Chad Gervich's Script Notes.) I haven't had a chance to read much of it yet, but the post "How You Get Your First Job in Hollywood" caught my attention, largely because I haven't gotten my first job in Hollywood yet (and I am looking. That's right, Hollywood, I'm aVAILable...)

There's a parallel between the way they describe their first H'wood job and the way many (including myself) approach(ed) the comics industry.

Regarding the odious terms they were forced to accept to get their first producing credit, Messina says they were "Happy to be screwed out of every single penny ... Why? Because for us, it was the opportunity we’d been begging for. The chance to step it up and prove we could do the job."

Pretty much any time anyone in the portion of the industry where creators receive actual money for their work talks about what it takes to reach the ranks of the full-time professional comics writer, the first thing they say is "You need to get something published somewhere else."

Which makes sense. Independently developing and actually producing a complete comic, even a 22 page one, isn't the easiest thing in the world. Getting it published by someone other than yourself is even harder. Ask any writer who's been kicking around comics for any length of time, and they all have horror stories about artists who flaked out on them. Ask any creator-owned comics publisher and they all have horror stories about creators who flaked out on them. Speakeasy Comics' founder placed a good portion of the blame for that company's demise on creator-owned books that failed to be delivered in a timely manner. I don't know if that was really the cause or not, but I do know that it happened: a lot of creator-owned books were solicited based on creators' promises to meet certain deadlines, and those deadlines got missed, a lot.

I still haven't been paid anything for Age of Kings, the first graphic novel I wrote for Platinum Studios. I didn't even get the standard thousand dollars creators of the bulk of the projects they developed or acquired received for their work. I wrote it, as I did everything I wrote for that company, with the expectation that, more than an actual cheque, the payoff would come in the form of a writing credit and a finished, professional-looking book I could show editors who might be willing to offer me something more than a thousand dollars for 88+ pages (after AoK I did start getting some money).

I did this for a very long time, literally years, without complaint. Because I believed I was paying my dues.

Of course, Platinum never published the majority of the stuff I or anyone else wrote for them, which, honestly, may be a blessing. I was learning how to write (and, as if not more importantly, to edit) comics all the way through the process. While I still like the scripts for JEST CAUSE and THREADS, I'm not at all sure I wouldn't be embarrassed if anything else I worked on for the company actually saw the light of day. I'm certainly not thrilled about the way the one Platinum project I was involved in that actually got published turned out, but then I don't think anyone who was part of the thing was.

On the other hand, I don't have a body of published Platinum-published work to show editors, which was what I (and, I suspect, the bulk of Platinum's other creators) was doing the work for.

If dues are paid in the wood with nobody around to notice you paying them, are the dues truly paid?

Not really. While I've recently gotten some mileage out of having my name associated with the comic currently being developed for film by the guys who wrote Star Trek, the vast majority of whatever progress I've made towards the ultimate goal of carving out a writing career for myself* has come from PARTING WAYS, DONE TO DEATH, and THE HOLIDAY MEN in "The Massacre Memorial Day Sale Massacre". None of which have, to date, made me a cent. In fact, one of them personally cost me upwards of $15,000, and another cost me in less tangible but far more personally traumatizing ways. All that aside, I now have three books I'm happy to show people, secure in the knowledge that, good or bad, they're at least an accurate representation of what I'm capable of as a writer.

While there are some parallels between comics and the first Hollywood job scenario described by Messina, there are also some major differences. Whenever someone in television says they didn't make much money off their creative work, my gut instinct is that they still made a lot more than someone not making much off their work in comics. Many comics creators are desperate to have something published, to the point that many of them, myself ten years ago included, are willing to literally give away their intellectual property for the cost of a printing bill and solicitation text in Previews (and even that's getting iffy, these days.) Too often, these creators see themselves as indebted to a publisher. Way too often the publisher also sees creators as indebted to them, a mindset that's come to absolutely sicken me over time.

Comics have a few things over traditional prose publishing; one of them is a model of successful self-publishers. The notion of a vanity press, if it exists in comics at all, at least doesn't preclude the possibility that someone publishing at their own expense might still be producing something of value. The cost of self-publishing ten years ago was an expense some creators were unwilling or unable to afford (I originally had a plan to self-pub PARTING WAYS, but art took a couple years longer than planned and by the time I had it, I'd run out of the capital I'd intended to use for printing and promotion. Fortunately, Speakeasy sprang into existence around the same time, and the rest is history.)

Though I'm a natural-born luddite, even I have to admit that the internet and print on demand technology's made it easier than ever before for creators to get their work out--and get it out without losing their intellectual property, which is the only thing a frighteningly large number of "comics publishers" are interested in. Granted, most of these creators won't make money off webcomics, but then again, the odds are they aren't going to make money off comics published through anyone who doesn't pay a page rate or advance up-front, either.

And, in the event that Hollywood comes knocking, it'll have to talk to someone for whom a property's creators' goals are the highest priority, rather than a company agenda that, as often as not, places the egos of whoever got his Mom to cough up a couple grand for printing over the well-being of the people who actually created the work. I know tons of people who had the intellectual property they created simply given away for little to no money, by publishers desperate to establish themselves--or at least be perceived as having established themselves, or, worst of all, to delude themselves that they'd established themselves--as movers in Hollywood. They're like many unpublished comics creators, now that I think about it--willing to give away everything in order to hopefully get something slightly better than nothing.

If anyone's going to get slightly more than nothing, it ought to be the creator. But until creators stop accepting the notion that any deal is worth it just to get a book in print**, it's not going to happen. Fortunately (if that's the word for it), the generation of readors coming up now and the one after it will likely see reading comics on-screen as a perfectly normal thing. If and when that happens, intellectual property hoarders (which I've no problem with in principle, providing the principle includes creators getting paid decently at some point) will have to offer a lot more to their marks, er, creative partners than many do today.

It's never been easier to pay dues in the comics industry than it is now. A whole, frustrating, frequently dysfunctional buffer between the creator and the audience is eroding. Now someone just has to figure out how to make what's left over pay, and we'll be onto something.

*More than a lot of people, but not nearly enough.

**And hey, I've been in that position. I understand why people do it, because I did it myself. But, to paraphrase Steven Grant, "I never knew anyone who signed away their rights at 20 who didn't regret it by the time they hit 40."


1 comment:

Biagio Messina said...

First off, thanks for taking the time to visit our blog! I have a lot of respect for fellow creative folk who share their personal journeys.
I have to agree with you, even with the paltry, paltry sum we made on our first job, we probably fared better than anyone starting out in the publishing industry. Breaking into television is certainly a hard nut to crack, but let me tell you, I'm not nearly brave enough to try to take on the publishing world!
You also talked briefly about the decision to produce your own comic. One of the series we did recently at the blog was exploring whether or not to produce your own reality pilot from scratch, on your own dime. While two very different skill sets, I think there is one underlying principle at work whether creating a comic or shooting a pilot: people tend to respect artists willing to take a chance on themselves, and who put their money where their mouth is. That seemed to be a key component of our early success.
Anyway, wish I could offer you your first Hollywood job, but I got nothing yet : ) I'll let you know when we do!