Note From The President, Cerebus 178, January 1994Copyright 1994 Dave Sim
While this will have some application to self-publishing, I'm going to try to write an overview of the single largest creator dilemma in the direct market.
Put as simply as possible, a successful comic book is composed of three elements: creator, creation and a reliable schedule. If you review the histories of those books that have had the greatest success in the direct market since its advent, this becomes indisputable. Moore, Bissette and Totelben on Swamp Thing, Jeff Smith and Bone, Neil Gaiman and Sandman, Peter Bagge and Hate, Frank Miller and Klaus Janson on Daredevil, Chris Claremont on the X-Men, etc. And yet most energy in the direct market is expended in an attempt to disprove this. Creators are separated from their creations (while Alan didn't create Swamp Thing, nor Claremont the X-Men, what they made those characters into became separate from their original creation). Todd McFarlane (among others) is facing the crossroads of success in the direct market; down one road beckons Hollywood, 'real' world merchandising and a life as CEO of Spawn, down another road, continuing as the writer and artist of Spawn. Again, if you examine the history of the direct market, others have confronted the same dilemma. Kevin Eastman and Pete Laird picked Hollywood/merchandising over reinforcing their substantial and lucrative presence in the direct market. Once you choose Hollywood/merchandising over the direct market, the former will flourish at the expense of the latter (assuming you become a 'real' world success). Where the Turtles were once a force to be reckoned with in comic book stores (the single greatest and most visible success story originating in the direct market), their 'real' world success has reduced them to a marginal, virtually inconsequential presence. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this. Creative freedom has to include the freedom to choose the real world over the direct market. A great deal of the problem with Image stems from the inability of its members to choose one over the other; or, ever more dangerously, to recognize that it is a choice; you can't have both. Much of their lateness can be attributed to pursuing the Hollywood brass ring, the Turtles-style success. I'm sure they have the best of intentions of staying on schedule, but negotiating any kind of high-level contract consumes a great deal of attention. If you sign for a movie deal and manage to get a clause in there giving you creative control, the sheer nature of business will dictate that you have to spend most of your time being a businessman. Creative control means that you control other people's creative efforts (in the context of Hollywood), it doesn't mean you spend your time creating. To arrive at a contract you find acceptable requires countless hours of meetings between yourself and your lawyer; yourself, your lawyer and the studio's lawyer; yourself, your lawyer, the studio's lawyer, low level bureaucrats, then higher level bureaucrats and ultimately (maybe) someone who can actually make a decision and who will undo everything you have put together to that point. All the while that you are negotiating, you are not writing and drawing (although I will give Todd points for insisting that the Hollywood types come and visit him at the house and that he works on Spawn pages while he hacks his way through the bureaucratic obfuscation). Fans are returning to the X-men in record numbers, drawn back to the 'hot' characters that Jim Lee and Rob Liefield created under the terms of work- made-for-hire. Why? Because those characters continue to come out on a regular schedule: certainly a schedule a good deal more regular than W.l.L.D.CATS or YOUNGBLOOD. There is a clear message in this. Fans prefer that a creator stay with his creation and bring it out on a regular basis, above anything else. But faced with a choice between creator ownership and control of a character (two elements of the troika) and a character not being done by the creator that comes out on a regular basis (the other two elements of the troika), the creator will come out on the losing end every time. I'm not saying this is right or wrong, I'm just stating a basic fact of the direct market.
Hollywood/merchandising deals are the serpent in the garden, the major stumbling block, the easiest way to distract the averagecomic book creator from turning a small direct market success into a large and firmly entrenched direct market success. Gerhard and I can own and control Cerebus and, by choice, keep the amount of time we spend on the business side to a bare minimum. Once you move into the outside world, the amount of time you spend on the business side is out of your control. A good friend of mine spent a lot of time and ten thousand dollars trying to come up with an equitable wide-ranging contract governing merchandising of his characters. No matter what he did, no matter that there was a clear understanding at the outset that the contract was ONLY for merchandising, that the contract was for a finite period and that film and TV rights were not ncluded, the revised contract always specified the surrendering of rights. He walked away ten thousand dollars poorer, behind schedule and I think (I hope) a little wiser.
Corporations, however big or small, will use up your time and your money, gradually wearing you down until you have to give in or walk away. Since they don't produce anything, they merely own things, this is all they have to do all day. Two meetings or fifty meetings; it makes no difference to them as long as they get their way in the end.
You have a grace period in the direct market where your fans and the retailers will tolerate infrequent publication. Once you have exceeded that grace period (as Image has, in spades), your customer base erodes rapidly and you have to start over again from square one; or you have to start making concessions to the corporations you're negotiating with and just hope that you have that one-in-a-million Turtles-style hit; and not just another movie dud like Rocketeer or Howard the Duck.
Just a word to the wise.
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