Getting Screwed, by Mike Gold
We’re all familiar with the story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They created Superman but nobody would buy it so it sat in a drawer for a few years until an editor remembered seeing the submission and thought it would fill out the first issue of a new title that was lacking a lead story. Siegel and Shuster signed away their rights for something slightly in excess of a hundred bucks, although over the next decade they earned hundreds of thousands off of the property. The trouble is, the publisher was making millions.
Siegel and Shuster were getting screwed. They raised a stink about it and found themselves out of jobs. Later, after several publishing failures Siegel limped back to the offending publisher to work-for-hire for page-rate; Shuster was blind and couldn’t work for anybody.
Batman co-creator Bob Kane saw what was going on and offered to negotiate a contract that would: a) cover himself financially, b) somehow guarantee him sole creator credit, and c) screw the people who made Batman truly unique, people like co-creator Bill Finger and artists such as Jerry Robinson and Dick Sprang. This scenario was repeated by a number of creators who became publishers or intellectual property owners years and years later.
So the moral standard is rather flexible. That’s business. That’s human nature – most businessmen aren’t all that different from Al Capone, who, in fact, was generally more appreciative of his end-users than he was of his competitors. Now, everybody cooperates benignly, being careful to operate out of a sense of mutual self-interest instead of an actual conspiracy that might constitute anti-trust. We’ve just endured eight years of a government that was totally dedicated to this concept.
I would have rather had Al Capone running things.
Today, most freelancers really aren’t much better off than their counterparts in the so-called Golden Age. Perhaps they’re a bit better paid; a few most certainly are, but such is always the case. No retirement, no health insurance, few benefits; you can be at the top of the heap one day and, as John Ostrander pointed out last week, you turn 50 and are considered “too old” to know what’s going on.
Hell, folks, these comic books are barely attracting 10,000 buyers. By sound financial logic, NOBODY knows what’s going on. Japanese publishers wouldn’t get out of bed for these kind of numbers, and Japan’s a much smaller nation.
The smaller publishers have serious cash-flow problems and probably always will. Producing comic books is a very money-intensive proposition: it takes a long time for publishers to recoup their page rates, and not everything is going to make a profit. So, inadvertently, they are going to screw the freelancers simply by doing their business.
Because the comic book world, well, the American comic book nation, has allowed itself to be reduced to the size of a donut shop, rumors and outright lies are rampant. There’s a lot of folks who don’t get out much, and it’s easier to cover one’s own inadequacies with thick green smoke. Freelancers compete for the same jobs; despite several efforts, they’ve never been able to organize. Freelancers screw themselves, and it’s the owners who have the orgasm.
Will this change? Can this change? Well, you can’t change human nature, but maybe someday writers and artists will be able to get together and organize. Maybe publishers will develop new markets – certainly, that’s what we’re trying to do here at ComicMix. But we’ve got to learn the lesson that it takes more than a love for the medium to make things work – it takes cooperation, innovation and, most of all, something we don’t see much of in businessmen today.
It takes ethics.
Mike Gold is editor-in-chief of ComicMix.