Sunday, 10 June 2012

Boycott Wonder

Or My Thoughts On Creators Rights and Boycotts

DC comics, owned by Times Warner, and Marvel comics, owned by Disney, are soulless corporations with dubious track records. DC comics is notorious for screwing over their comic book creators from Siegel and Shuster of Superman fame to, more recently, Alan Moore of Watchmen renown. Marvel has a similar track record of being unethical in its dealings with creators, notably the with their treatment of Jack Kirby, a comics legend who co-created the majority of their properties.1 Let me be clear, this kind of behaviour is deplorable and is a big part of why I try to spend the majority of my comics budget on creator owned-er-ish books. That said, large corporations are phsychopathic hive-mind organisms designed only for profit2 so this kind of behaviour is to be kind of expected, not okay, but expected.

So in response to the fact DC and Marvel are unapologetically kind of horrible, people have decided that the best response is to boycott all association with these companies. Writers Chris Roberson and Roger Langridge have very publicly broken all professional ties with DC and Marvel comics. Similarly, I have encountered a number of people online who have decided to boycott these publishers as well the consumer side.3 To a certain extent, I think these are laudable decisions: making principled judgments and being conscientious of your spending habits are pretty impressive things. It’s especially ambitious for the Roberson and Langridge, as their principled choices may have long term consequences for their careers.
Also, and I can’t state it enough, it’s very much not okay what Marvel and DC have done, and vocal advocacy for creator rights is important to ensuring a future of great comics.

But here’s the thing, I’m not convinced boycotting Marvel and DC is the best solution. And here’s why:

1. It probably won’t work. When I was in high school I decided to boycott McDonalds in a very I-am-a-young-person-with-pretentions kind of way.4  The boycott lasted for 2 or 3 years and, based on the continued existence of the same ol’ McDonalds, didn’t work all that well. The reason for this is pretty obvious: the majority of people kept patronizing McDonalds. For boycotts to affect change a lot of people have to agree, all at once, to stop buying a particular business’ products. I get the impression that the majority of comic book readers are either ignorant of creator rights issues, have decided that a boycott is too drastic, or just don’t care about creators rights. I’m inclined to believe that ignorance is the largest issue.5 Knowledge about creator rights controversies isn’t something a new comics reader is instantly imbued with. It took me reading a lot of comic books to appreciate creators as talented individuals and it took being exposed to comics journalism and punditry to understand that creative rights are an issue. I doubt that everyone makes that journey.  Therefore, I am unconvinced that a boycott will have enough of an impact on comics sales to change how Marvel and DC treat creators.

2. Access to living wage. Before Before Watchmen created a broad internet discussion6 of creator’s rights on the internet, the corners of the comics blogosphere I followed were discussing women in mainstream comics: how sexist the portrayals of female characters are and the shortage of women creators at DC and Marvel.7 The fact female creators are not employed in great numbers at the big two was considered to be a barrier to women working in comics: work-for-hire at Marvel and DC is a reliable source of income and carriers fewer risks than independent publishing. Not to mention the pure economics of it: Marvel and DC command ~65% of the marketshare in April 20128 meaning that ALL independent comics, which have more creator costs associated with them, account for only ~35% sales in the direct market. Moreover much of that ~35% is from established writers. This leads me to infer that most comic book writers who work for Marvel/DC and do creator owned-er-ish work are paying their mortgages and feeding their kids primarily with Marvel/DC paychecks. Sort of a case in point in my mind is the career path of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, who had to cancel/put-on-hiatus Phonogram, a stellar series, due to the difficulty in making enough money via independent publishing.

In an interview about the end of phonogram Gillen stated:

There's a difference between making only a little money and starving. We're very much in the latter. Jamie's lucky to get a couple of hundred dollars from an issue. While he didn't tell me about this until after it was all done, there were three occasions when Jamie was seriously considering throwing in the towel. The problem is that Image's deal is a back-end one. Will we make some money off the trade? Maybe.  And that's a big maybe. But that means Jamie not earning any money for the six months it would take to draw it, which is the main reason why we took over a year to do 7 issues. As in, every time Jamie ran out of money, he had to stop and do something else. A couple of hundred dollars doesn't cover rent or pay for his fashionable haircuts. And doing this bitty work f--ks up the production anyway, because you can't concentrate or plan. You just spend your entire life in low-level money panic.

Frankly, Jamie is just shy of thirty and one of the most talented illustrators of his generation. Even I'm not a big a bastard enough to want him to spend another year in "Phonogram"'s brand of hell. He deserves a paycheck.
-Kieron Gillen, from an interview with John Parker at ComicsAlliance.9

Now both of these awesome creators have found work-for-hire gigs at Marvel which has allowed them to continue to make comic books full time. Moreover, the financial security in writing for Marvel seems to have provided the safety net to do more creator owned work since Gillen has 4 independent books upcoming, one of which is a third chapter of Phonogram drawn by McKelvie.10 It seems to me then that boycotting Marvel and DC is taking away an avenue for creators to make a living. Unless of course the boycott comes with an equal amount of money spent on creator-owned-er-ish comics.

3. Cultivating an audience. It seems to me that employment at Marvel and DC is a way to raise ones profile as a creator and to attract new readers. The first independent comic I ever bought was an issue of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal, an epically good crime noir series. I was motivated to try Criminal because I was already familiar with (and enjoying) Ed Brubaker’s writing on Captain America and The Immortal Ironfist. In fact, this process of finding talented authors through mainstream cape comics and then trying their independent works is what convinced me to try a lot of books: I read Matt Fraction before Casanova, Joe Kelly before Four Eyes, Kathryn and Stuart Immonen before Moving Pictures, Jason Aaron before Scalped and Brian K Vaughan before Y the Last Man. I suspect this is typical of how many readers decide which creator owned comics to try.

In an interview about his work at Marvel, Jonathon Hickman said:

“… Eric Stephenson [said:]… "This is what everyone should be doing: Books you own. Be men of your own destiny and whatnot." And I get it, I agree. But also, it would be foolish for me to pretend that the numbers I was doing on, say, Pax Romana and the numbers we're doing on Red Wing, that the gap between [during which Hickman started at Marvel] had no effect on it, especially since they increased by quite a bit. So it's good for Marvel for me to be writing Marvel books, and it's good for me to be writing Marvel books, and I continue to be successful there. I love all those guys, man. They're fantastic.”
-Jonathon Hickman, from an interview with Chris Sims at ComicsAlliance.11

This indicates to me that employment at Marvel and DC is an effective way to increase sales of creator owned works. It also suggests to me that Jonathon Hickman knows this and is working at Marvel for the advertisement as much as for the paychecks.  I’m also tempted to speculate about the return of Phonogram, which as I discussed in the last section, was originally ended for economic reasons.

On the decision to make more Phonogram Kieron Gillen had this to say:

“And finally: we said we couldn’t do any further Phonogram. We’re doing more Phonogram. What’s changed? Circumstances have changed. Sorry to play enigmatic, but it’s just financial stuff and the day when the most important thing about Phonogram are lines on a graph is the day the little Phonofairy dies.”
-Kieron Gillen, from his Workblog12

So it would seem the decision to resurrect the title has a financial element. I would speculate that Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s work for Marvel has, besides providing paychecks, advertised their prowess as creators to readers that had previously been unaware of them. This newly cultivated readership may have bought the trade paperbacks of previous Phonogram collections and might be counted on to buy new issues of Phonogram, and this could be why the title is now sufficiently financially viable for a third chapter to be made. Speculation, speculation, speculation. So, boycotting Marvel and DC comics would seem to be detrimental to the ability of creators to advertise their independent works.

4. Creator owned imprints and company owned classics. This point is rather small, and probably the weakest in the list, but, DC and Marvel publish creator owned-er-ish comics through imprints like Vertigo and Icon. From what I can tell, these imprints offer additional support to creators that they might not get from other independent publishing houses or at least a more established audience. The unethical corporations that own Marvel and DC profit from these companies, however so do the creators, who to a certain extent own their work at these imprints. So, I would argue these imprints are worth patronizing as purchasing Vertigo and Icon comics does put money directly into the hands of creators. In a similar vein, many amazing comics are owned in some part by Marvel or DC. It’s nearly impossible to read Alan Moore comics (and give Alan Moore money) without giving DC comics money as they own his DC work, his Wildstorm work, and his America’s Best Comics work. Also, great comics like Scalped, Casanova, Criminal, Transmetropolitan, and Y the Last Man (which is the ultimate gateway comic for new readers in my experience) are all tied up with either Marvel or DC. Even if all you read is creator-owned-er-ish comics in an effort to put money in the hands of creators, it’s tough not to give DC or Marvel at least some of your money.

5. It gets better… A sad reality of many long term injustices is that things don’t suddenly become just. When things do improve its generally pretty gradual… which is really pretty tragic. The borderline theft of Superman from Siegel and Shuster and the screwing over of Jack Kirby, and to a lesser extent Stan Lee, by DC and Marvel were worse than the screwing over of Alan Moore and company, as their contract at least kind of allowed for their retention of creator rights and royalties. I’d also argue that if Watchmen and V for Vendetta were not foisted by the petard of their commercial and critical success Moore and company would have gotten complete ownership of their creations13, something that would never happen for Simon, Shuster and Kirby.

Warren Ellis, when discussing the use of his Extremis Ironman storyline in the upcoming Iornman 3 movie stated:

“FAQ: yes, IRON MAN 3 is apparently using elements of my IRON MAN: EXTREMIS comics serial. No, I don't get money or credit… That's how work-for-hire works: Marvel owns the work. I knew it when I signed the vouchers [and] made the decision, [and] I can live with it… Also, RED 2, based on work I *do* own (with artist [Cully Hamner]!) will be in cinemas next year! And my new novel will be out next January… (Also also: this is one reason why I've spent the majority of my career in comics doing more creator-owned work than work-for-hire.)”
-Warren Ellis, from a series of Tweets14

This indicates to me that DC and Marvel in the modern world are very explicit about what constitutes work-for-hire and what is creator owned. Now, it is kind of sad that creators (Ellis) won’t see financial reward for their work (Extremis) in a work-for-hire scheme, but if it’s honest and above board, it is as I’ve discussed above a mutually beneficial relationship. As a Science Graduate student (which is kind of like being a Science Apprentice), my supervisor (boss/principal investigator) owns all of the work I do (if it leads to a nobel prize, which is very unlikely, he will be the one to receive it), as such I am essentially work for hire. That said, I get mentorship, a paycheck, access to reagents and apparatuses, as well as authorship credentials from all my published work which will assist in my career development. This is a reality of most intellectual and creative employment gigs, I suspect. To expect Marvel and DC not to do explicit work-for-hire employing is a little bit unrealistic and as long as any such work is explicitly stated as such it is not unethical.

On getting the rights to iZombie back from DC following his severing ties to the company Chris Roberson said:

No, it’s actually tied to new work no longer being commissioned, which is suggestive in and of itself that the creator-owned contracts within DC have been changed, so that going out of print is no longer the trigger. Suggesting that someone at DC realized that that maybe wasn’t the best way to go. So now withiZombie, the rights will revert a certain amount of time after Mike Allred and I are no longer commissioned to do new work.”
-Chris Roberson, from an interview with Tim Hodler at The Comics Journal15

Roberson also stated:

“…now if you work for DC and you create a character that appears in one of their books, and then years down the line it’s an action figure or it appears in a movie or appears in a TV show or gets republished or whatever the case may be, the person that created that character gets a check.”
-Chris Roberson, from an interview with Tim Hodler at The Comics Journal16

This quotes explicitly states that creator owned works, at least at DC, are tied to a fairer system for creators: a period of not working for DC. Roberson and artist Mike Allred, or their estates, will regain the rights to iZombie regardless of its publication status. Also, it would appear that creations within DCs main line also come with a remuneration process for creators. So things might not be perfect… but they are better. I’d argue continued advocacy for creators rights could make things better within the existing system.

So, yeah, I’m not convinced that boycotting DC and Marvel is the best solution to their crappy behaviour. I think the key to improving things for creators relies instead on more proactive solutions, namely spending more of one’s comics budget on creator owned comics (even those owned by Marvel and DC) and educating readers to the importance of respecting creators rights. Corporations are organisms that feed on profits and they make decisions to maximize profits. Therefore, I’d suggest that the key to making Marvel and DC behave better is to convince them that there is more profit in being mindful to treat their artists and writers with respect and to have avenues for creators to share in the success of their creations. Advocacy for creators rights from comics journalists, creators, shop owners, and readers can help change the public perception, which would create a publicity incentive for Marvel/DC to do right by creators. Increasing the market share of independent comics would work even better as it would provide freedom for creators and create a financial insentive for Marvel and DC to pursue more creator owned works. I imagine that if 50% of comics sales were independent, Marvel and DC would be very interested in building a mechanism to tap into those profits1 Moreover, if the market for independent books was that healthy the talented people who make comics could choose, without threat of financial ruin, not to work with Marvel and DC and pursue a totally independent publishing career. In such a market new writers could use independent comics publishing as a livelihood, instead of an audition for the big two. Moreover, that kind of freedom would force Marvel and DC to treat creators better to attract the kind of A-list talent that they currently enjoy. It would probably also lead to an increase in the diversity of comics stories in North America.

To go back to an earlier idea: look at McDonalds, which is trying very hard to convince us that it has healthier options. It certainly didn’t do this because it cares about peoples’ health. It’s a corporation, so this choice was entirely profit driven: McDonalds has a PR problem with being very unhealthy and healthier seeming fast food options like Subway have gained massive market share. Therefore, it would seem that the hive-mind collective of McDonalds have decided that there are profits to be had in appearing healthy. I think something like this is how we trick Marvel and DC into being better companies.

So, I won’t be going out of my way to not spend money at DC or Marvel. Instead I’m going to make sure I spend the majority of comics budget on creator owned comics and advocate for creators as much as my tiny internet soapbox will allow me. Hopefully, that way things will get better and the people who make the awesome comics I love will be able to continue to make a living without being screwed.

1: And his estate…
2: P.H.O.D.O.P. You’re welcome Marvel.
3: Have you read David Brothers amazing essays on the subject?
4: I had problems with the way their “I’m lovin’ it!” campaign seemed designed to target particular urban demographics that, due in large part to economic pressure, have issues with access to proper nutrition. I have since come to conclusion that “I’m lovin’ it!” was more of an effort to appear more modern and cool, and that my earlier conclusions were, well, kind of racist. High school me was a pretentious shit head who didn’t know very much and lacked the good sense to be honest about it. Adultish me still maintains that the way fast food companies target the economically pressured and children is deplorable and is contributing to a plague of metabolic disorders (I research heart disease for a living in a diabetes lab and I have an axe to grind). Adultish me also thinks, for the sake of good health, EVERYONE should eat less fast food.
5: Brouhaha, if you will.
6: I think ignorance is the problem in all kinds of different sectors of life.
7: This is still very much a problem. Methinks  I’ll probably write about it at some point.
8: Source: 
10: Source: 
12: Source:
13: Outside of the works of Alan Moore.
14: In a fair and perfect world Moore and company would have never lost complete creative control of their properties.
15: Source: 
16: Source:

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