Residual Effects, by Elayne Riggs
I was going to continue my review of art I like, but since last week the new DC comp box arrived and I want to catch up before I write any more about that. Plus, I had a fairly major lifestyle change, more about which later. Meantime, the Writers Guild of America strike is into its second week and, while a resolution still seems fairly far away, I think it’s done a lot of good already in terms of consciousness raising. As with other recent revelations a lot of Americans have had, many people are starting to question why such a modern and powerful country seems so backwards when it comes to its citizens fairly sharing its bounty, whether that means providing health care for all or living up to its humane ideals in its treatment of captives or celebrating and supporting the collective strength of productive workers.
I think the WGA strike has resulted in a lot of folks who’ve never heard anything but anti-union talk since before Ronald Reagan fired the PATCO workers rethinking that knee-jerk (but craftily cultivated) attitude. They’ve learned that about half of WGA members are unemployed or underemployed in a given year, and they don’t buy the studios’ insistence that the strike is “millionaires versus billionaires.” They’ve learned that professional writing, like a lot of other entertainment-related professions that seem all-fun from the outside looking in, in fact represents a lot of hard work and long hours. They’re learning to deeply mistrust the line they’ve been fed for so long, a version of the famous Peter Stone dialogue from 1776 that “most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor.” Nowadays it’s become imperative to protect the reality of being able to survive. And they understand that residual payments are the way most WGA members survive between the relatively few successful gigs they’re able to score.
The most encouraging thing I’ve seen has been the creation of fan-based sites like Fans4Writers where viewers express their support for those cult-of-personality writers whose work they so love. It’s a delightful irony that the medium at the crux of the WGA’s struggle for fair residuals is the medium whereby so many rally to their cause. I remember decrying the cult of personality phenomenon when it arose in the comics industry about 10-15 years ago in the wake of Image, as I thought it often led to egos becoming more important than storytelling, and critics giving too much slack to those creators whose success they secretly wanted to emulate. But in the long run, what I think CofP has done is made many comics fans keenly aware that there are real people hard at work telling the stories they love to read, and the quality of those stories is highly dependent on those specific people, who also work long hours doing something that only appears easy but in actuality requires a pretty specialized talent.
As with WGA members, the actual percentage of comic book creators who can make a living solely from their writing or artwork is fairly small; that’s one reason that writers who are on the ascendant take advantage of their spotlights to work on multiple books. (As art is more time- and labor-intensive than writing, most artists are not able to work on more than one monthly title.) And like WGA members, comic book creators receive payments when their work is reprinted. These payments are called royalties, and in recent years they’ve lived up to their name. Only the top-tier creators receive them in any sort of substantial quantities. Back in the days of the speculeeches, I knew of at least one freelance comic book writer who made so much money from royalties that they were used to pay major expenses like rent. Those days are long gone for most people whose names don’t begin with Jim and end with Lee. Still, we delight in occasional checks for reprints of work that Robin has inked which show up in foreign translations or graphic novels; while we can’t count on them as routinely as other freelancers, they’ve certainly helped pay the bills from time to time.
When Robin doesn’t work, he doesn’t get paid. And like most working comics professionals, he doesn’t have a lot of job security. A miniseries is cause for much rejoicing in the Riggs Residence, it means guaranteed income for a set period of time. We were incredibly lucky that Robin was able to ink Supergirl for four and a half years; we knew that was the exception to the current freelancer condition. As illusory as job security is in the 9to5 world (and as someone who’s now between jobs after ten years at my previous position, I know this well), it’s even more so if you choose the freelance life. It’s a calling, it’s a passion, but it’s not easy and it’s damn risky.
Nobody knows how things will shake out now that digital downloads have been added to the freelancer equation. Our own beloved editor-in-chief spoke to this yesterday in our news item about Marvel’s forays into for-pay online archives, when he asked “how much cash do the writers and artists get?” A more than fair question, considering that new media is at the heart of the WGA strike, as well as at the heart of what we do here at ComicMix. The intangibles of fame and acclaim are wonderful perks whether you’re a budding screenwriter or a digital comic strip artist, but your lovin’ don’t pay the bills. And as more and more citizens find it harder to make ends meet, it becomes easier to put themselves in the shoes of others striving for basic dignity and fair pay.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s news editor, and will be in attendance along with a lot of your other ComicMix favorites at this weekend’s National expo in the heart of midtown Manhattan. See you there!