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mygif

“Creators. With no royalties paid, who creates your properties? And why?”

Writers and artists, for money. Same as how Marvel, DC and virtually every other existing comic property was created.

“What’s missing from this model is a strategy for building brand recognition. And without brand recognition, I don’t think the model can work.”

That is a very good point. The indie books either licence existing characters or rely on superstar creators to get interest. You’re intentionally refusing both options.

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mygif

I agree, marketing and distribution are issues I didn’t clarify, but that’s mainly because they’re the same issues that pretty much every business faces. Everyone needs to market their product, everyone needs to get it to consumers. It’s the production approach that would be very different, which is why I emphasized it.

As to royalties, those are a fairly recent development in comics as well (at least, depending on how you define “recent”–within my lifetime, but that may just be me showing my age) and they came about as a response to a lack of other benefits. Creators fought for royalties because they had no job security and no health benefits; by giving them those things, I’d be short-circuiting the demand.

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mygif

I’m actually not seeing the job security in this proposal, John…it sounds like you’re offering to swap creators their potential merchandising rights, for your potential Internet ad revenue. What happens if the ad revenue slips, do you renegotiate all the contracts? Borrow cash from the VC guys? Declare bankruptcy?

If I couldn’t get some kind of ownership/royalty thing going on there, basically I’d want to unionize your shop. Forty grand a year may not be all that much, but it’s a lot less if you can’t get it…plus, I don’t know, Todd McFarlane lives in a mansion because he invented Spawn, eh? Not even Superman or Batman. I don’t see anyone taking salary + benefits in exchange for further rights in 2010, unless the money’s somewhere up around “house in the country” levels.

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mygif

Yeah, um, John, you lost me with the “no royalties” thing. There’s a lot more to royalties than something that’s swapped out for benefits–it’s what artists in pretty much every other medium have come to reasonably expect, and have usually gotten. The artists and writers are the ones who make the stories–or product, as you apparently think of it–and deserve to reap the benefits of it, including making millions of dollars if their creation reaches that level of success. Why on Earth do corporations get to claim that right over artists?

I’m trying very hard not to get angry, here, John, but your comments are pretty much outright insulting to anyone who values art as something more than a means to making money. If you were actually in charge of a comics company, I would at least understand your attitude, while not condoning it. But for you to pitch this as if it’s a great idea that we as comics readers should be celebrating is borderline insane. What you’re advocating is a return to SLIGHTLY better than the status quo of the 70s, a period in which armies of creative, talented people were repeatedly screwed over by bloated corporations who have transformed the comics industry into what it is today. You’re in effect saying that you think the corporate entity “Marvel comics” is better and more important than the actual work of Jack Kirby.

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mygif

I think John meant better than that, myself…but yeah, kinda icky if you look at it close.

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mygif

Let’s turn it around, and help him! Preserve his good intentions, and tweak the rest so it does what he wants it to do! C’mon, folks, John’s not an anti-Siegelite! Let’s imagine this right.

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mygif

On comics contracts and compensating creators:

The elephant in the room isn’t the question of royalties as such, it’s the question of who owns a given character and the associated copyrights and/or trademarks. Generally speaking, the US legal theory of copyright says that the creator of a work (or character) is its owner, and the associated contract law makes it relatively difficult for creators — especially freelance creators — to sign away ownership of a copyright (as opposed to licensing usage rights of various kinds).

That’s where DC’s and Marvel’s troubles have arisen in the courts; their core characters are worth enough money now that it’s worth it for creators and their lawyers to revisit old contracts looking for wiggle room in the drafting — and as often as not, finding it.

A publisher where the writers really are employees (and are managed and supervised like employees) would have a much better case for asserting corporate ownership of the characters created under its auspices. And I wouldn’t expect such a shop to pay creators on a royalty basis.

However — as I suggested originally — I would expect such a publisher’s employment contracts to include bonuses and profit-sharing provisions which rewarded creators in the event of things like movie or TV deals coming to pass. [The corporate precedent here is morally, if not legally, in patent law; it’s worth it in the scientific and engineering worlds for companies to pay inventors handsomely for inventing patentable technologies.]

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mygif

Seems like a good daydream. I don’t mind a house style as such, as long as it’s a clean style that people can adopt without resorting to outright imitation, and would allow for some personal expression by the artist. I mean there is a very large variation between 70’s Batman artists. And, I’d say that if you’re not aiming for the direct market/traditional comic book fans you don’t have to worry about ‘next big thing’-ism that fetishizes a personal artistic style.

But, man, this hypothetical company has a big financial footprint.

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mygif

“No royalties” is also the way the industry worked for its first 40-50 years. The technical term is work-for-hire, and there’s nothing inherently wrong or evil about it.

Otherwise, John’s combining about four different interesting / clever / stupid ideas here; it’s almost too much for one thread.

Doug M.

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mygif

Okay, on the supermarket thing:

There are multiple models around the world for turning comics into something you buy. In Europe, for instance, Marvel and DC comics are packaged as superfloppies. For $7 or $8, you get a big comic book with three or four stories. It’s floppy-sized, with staples instead of a spine, but the cover is heavy stock, and glossy. Often there’s some additional material in there — text, articles, whatever. You see them in airports and some bookstores.

That’s probably not what you’re after. (Who spends $8 at the checkout line?) But there are other models. In the Philippines, they publish reprinted Marvel and DC stories, typically 3-6 months old, in small (digest size) floppies. These don’t look like anything in the States, but… they’re good. One issue is about $2 and contains three stories. There are a LOT of ads, and shrinking a floppy down to 5″ by 8″ or so takes some of the oomph out of two-page spreads and such. But still: $2 for three stories, and they tend to reprint the more popular / critically acclaimed stuff. They seem to sell pretty well — every bookstore and newsstand has them.

Of course, (1) print costs are rather lower in the Philippines, and (2) it still has newsstands.

Doug M.

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mygif

Sure, nothing inherently wrong or evil in it…but nothing says anybody’s got to sign on with it, either. Plenty of jobs out there that pay more than “fuck you”.

Honestly, now. You all seem to think creators are just dying to give it away for free.

UNION NOW.

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mygif

Sorry I didn’t see you there Doug M.

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mygif

John Seavey, you wanted to tick people off. Colour me ticked.

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mygif

Okay, continuing that thought: in the Philippines, a country that still has a lot of newsstands and very low printing costs, a digest-sized color comic book on the stands is just over $2.

But.

These are reprints. They’re stories that have already been written, pencilled, colored, edited and inked. Production costs are — follow closely here — zero.

Okay, the Philippine publisher has to pay licensing fees to DC and Marvel for reprinting. Are they large fees? I don’t know… but I kinda doubt it. Think about it from Marvel and DC’s POV: it’s the Philippines, not a rich country, and anything they get is /pure gravy/ since they’ve already paid to produce these comics. Sure, as businessmen they’ll charge what the market will bear. But I think we can reasonably assume that it’s a small fraction of what it would cost to produce these comics from scratch.

So. What are the implications here for your business plan?

Doug M.

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mygif

I think creators want to pay their bills, same as anyone else.

I don’t think anyone working on Archie today gets royalties. Does that make them hacks? Naifs being exploited by the Man? Or just people doing a job and getting paid for it?

The problem with mainstream American comics from the ’40s through the ’70s was that work-for-hire was the only game in town. That kinda sucked, no question. But a market *without* work-for-hire, where everyone gets royalties, is going to be equally stupid in a different way.

Note that this is an old, old argument; people have been arguing that EVERYTHING SHOULD BE CREATOR-OWNED WORK-FOR-HIRE IS SLAVERY for over thirty years now. It’s never caught on somehow.

Doug M.

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mygif

— Anyway, it’s not really central to the discussion, amirite? John’s saying he wants his model to be work-for-hire. Let’s just stick with that. Play with it, see if it works. I think it doesn’t, but I’m willing to be convinced.

(Also, I totally had this argument for, like, a month back on rec.arts.comics.misc in 1998. Having it again today will just make me sad for the lost glories of Usenet. Let’s don’t make me sad that way.)

Doug M.

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mygif

Work for hire is somewhat defensible if someone is writing or drawing stories for an existing brand name character, though even there they have problems, which I’ll go into below. But it’s a stupid, unethical model for creative work IF THE CREATOR IS DEVELOPING CONCEPTS. I don’t care if it’s how the industry worked for decades, and I don’t care if you can find people to exploit using this model (you always can–creative fields in general and comics in general are loaded with people who are too neurotic about their own self-worth, or desperate to break in, and thus easily exploited). If you create a character or a concept or a story that gets retold, you should get royalties, period. I don’t see how this is even arguable, no matter what contract you sign. (Legally, contracts aren’t usually binding if they’re exploitative or take advantage of the creator’s ignorance, hence the aforementioned wiggle room.)

My problem with work-for-hire even for day-to-day writers and artists who continue to work on established franchise characters is that you can’t just “do your job” as a creative person without creating new things. Any new character or idea has the potential to be a breakout success, and as a writer or artst, you pretty much HAVE to create new characters, scenarios, concepts, etc. just to keep the stories rolling. Imagine if John Byrne had had the “day to day” contract when he was at Marvel back in the day. I don’t think he ever created a new book for them, but he did create the character of Wolverine–you think it would have been fair for him to end up with nothing but a pension for this character that almost single-handedly held up Marvel for a while? Then there’s the issue of revamping existing books to the point where they’re technically a new one (The X-Men were technically created by Lee and Kirby, but the popular version that we all know and love is Claremont, Cockrum and Byrne all the way).

And honestly, I’ve always thought that we take the idea of comic “franchises”, that characters should be continued ad nauseum long after their creators have left, way too much for granted. There are other media franchises that continue without their original creators, but there’s always a strong demarcation between the original work and the corporate-managed continuation. Even if you like the later James Bond movies better than the work of Ian Fleming, you don’t treat them as interchangeable, and Fleming got the respect and money due him. For some reason, in comics we treat the characters as if they were more important than the creator, and since the companies inevitably own the character, we get this ridiculous situation where fanboys are siding with DC comics over the Siegel family (for instance). It makes no sense at all, and it leads to an unhealthy attitude towards comics as a “faceless” medium. You want to talk about why comics aren’t taken seriously, there’s a good starting point.

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mygif

First, let’s start out with a statement of credentials here. I have worked work for hire, as a writer, and I developed ideas during the course of that creative work. At the end of it, I had to sign away the rights to that work and all the ideas within it. And, as an intelligent grown-up, I evaluated the ideas, the contract signing them away, and the money being offered in exchange for signing them away, and I decided that it was worth it. If I had decided it wasn’t worth it, I wouldn’t have sold those ideas. That’s kind of the way that the business of writing works, and honestly, I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for people who don’t think about those things before they sign those contracts. This is not to say that there has not been genuine exploitation in the industry, but the idea that buying intellectual properties is somehow inherently exploitative is frankly naive.

Ultimately, this is what I knew would piss people off–the idea that if I was running a comics business, I would run it as a business. And yes, part of business does involve making decisions in your own self-interest and assuming that the other party in negotiations will do the same thing. Comics fans have come around to the idea that comics companies should look out for the interests of comics creators, mainly aided by comics creators who have shaped the narrative to that effect because their greatest lever in the business process is getting public opinion on their side.

In actual fact, a good job with a decent wage, benefits, and a retirement plan is a pretty good deal, especially if you’re not a superstar creator like a Todd McFarlane or a Warren Ellis. Would they take this deal? No. Would some of the people working for me decide that they could make more money or have more creative fulfillment working on their own properties (or becoming a rockstar at Marvel?) Sure, and they’re free to do so. But I’m pretty confident that there’s always going to be a steady supply of people who want to make a living making comics, and my plan would let them do so. If you think that’s exploitation, you have a lot to learn.

@Prankster: “for you to pitch this as if it’s a great idea that we as comics readers should be celebrating is borderline insane”…did you read the title of the post? 🙂

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mygif

And as an aside…Len Wein, not John Byrne, created Wolverine. If the creator got the intellectual rights, as you insist is the right thing to do, instead of handling it the way I suggest, which is that he’s hired as an employee with a salary and a retirement plan, Byrne would have gotten absolutely nothing for the work he put into the character beyond the page rate. Does that seem more fair?

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mygif

Seriously, man, this is an old, much-hashed argument. More to the point, this is not the venue. Take it to e-mail if you really must, but let’s move on here.

Also, FWIW, John Byrne did not create Wolverine. [/nerd]

Doug M.

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mygif

— missed the two Seavey posts. Well, if the OP wants to discuss it…

But John: I do have trouble seeing how this is financially viable. As others have pointed out, it’s expensive, and I have trouble seeing where you recoup your costs. Advertising on the website… ha, no. Monthly 90-page magazine? Sold where? Newsstands are disappearing. Even 7-11s hardly carry comics any more. Comic shops? Ah ha ha haah.

No offense, but it smacks a little of wish-fulfillment.

Doug M.

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mygif

I should make clear here that I don’t have inherent ethical problems with a work-for-hire business model such as JohnS describes.

Existing media-related WFH contracts, in comics and prose fiction, have been problematic precisely because the law governing WFH is explicitly designed to make it very hard to apply outside a strict employer/employee relationship. (Attorney C. E. Petit has discussed this from time to time at his blawg, Scrivener’s Error.) JohnS’s proposed business model addresses this squarely. So long as he and his employees enter into their relationships in mutual good faith, I see no grounds for legal or ethical complaint.

That’s not to say there’s no room for disagreement. As I’ve indicated above, I think employees in this kind of business should receive a share of that business’s up-side profits — but as Churchill might have said, that’s a discussion of price, not principle. And I have other unrelated reservations about the business model’s viability, also stated above. But where WFH is concerned, JohnS’s approach is, IMO, legally and ethically defensible.

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mygif

For some reason I always get Wein and Byrne mixed up. Apologies?

John, I’m sorry, but you’re coming off as condescending here. I’ve done freelance writing and art myself, and I’ve had to sign away the rights to work I’ve created as well. I went through the same decision-making process, and decided that the potential benefit was minimal enough that it was worth doing so. But I stand by my comment that this is a flawed, exploitative (maybe not inherently) process. Being able to choose between a beating and a stabbing doesn’t make the fact that you do have to choose “OK”.

The whole problem is that, creatively, you’re basically asked to give away the store before you know whether it, or you, are worth anything (and believe me, the comic industry has always been full of people willing to keep their artists’ self-esteem low while profiting off their works). I brought up Wolverine because he was created as a fairly minor character who spun off into a phenomenon; could Wein have been expected to know what was going to happen there? I’ll go a step further and say that Wein was exactly the kind of journeyman writer (I like the guy fine, but he was and is no visionary) that you propose to hire, but he created something that immeasurably enriched Marvel. Practically every other medium would have made him, and Romita, incredibly rich for doing so; the fact that I forgot exactly who created him (and I’m hardly the only one to have done so) just points out how fucked up and exploitative the comics industry is.

As to your business plan, yes, a 401(k) and dental is a better deal than the kick in the teeth most comics creators got, but again, someone has to do the creating, and I really don’t see how it’s unreasonable to say the creator should share in the profits if the company becomes a success. You say you’re going to avoid hiring “rock stars”, but you’re also expressly saying you’re going to build a company around these books, which means someone’s apparently going to come up with ideas good enough to support and enrich your company. So the only conclusion is that you’re going to find people with ideas you think are worth a lot of money, and then pay them less than they’re worth. A standard wage might be a nice deal for a lot of people, but BY DEFINITION these theoretical creators are going to be coming up with multimillion-dollar ideas for you. If you’re proposing to cut them out of those profits, I don’t see how you can call that anything but exploitation, regardless of what people agree to up front.

Again, I might be more understanding if you actually had to put these ideas into practice and there was real money on the line, but you’re talking about this as a fantasy exercise–“plenty of venture capital”–so why not imagine your company acting honourably and ethically? There’s a level of active contempt for creative work coming through in your post. I think you can run a smart business without “rock stars” (I more or less understand what you’re getting at, there, and I agree) while still honouring the artists as creative partners.

By the way, Archie is a legendarily sleazy company that has historically treated its creative employees like shit, so…

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mygif

“No royalties” is also the way the industry worked for its first 40-50 years. The technical term is work-for-hire, and there’s nothing inherently wrong or evil about it.”

Legally, as I understand it, it wasn’t work for hire–it was, in a lot of cases, just assumed that the company had all the rights to everything. Which is why so many lawsuits cropped up, because work for hire has to be identified as such (feel free to correct me if I’m off).
And most of the “work for hire” people were treated like freelancers, not employees as John proposed (that is, they were freelancers with no rights to insurance or benefits, but treated like employees working on company time when it came to assigning rights).

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mygif

By the way, if there’s a mechanism by which artists can look back, weigh options, and say “OK, the character I created has made millions of dollars, please give me a cut of that,” then the work-for-hire model is a great deal more defensible. But I still don’t see why they can’t just sort something out up front when it comes to creators, or even WFH people…like a clause that says “if a character I created gets their own book, I get a share of the profits”, or something.

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Walter Kovacs said on October 3rd, 2010 at 5:54 pm

There is a possibility that deals with the work for hire vs. creators rights issues. The writers may not necessarily come up with the characters. While in most cases, the creator is one of the initial writers/artists (in TV shows, films, or any other media that isn’t basically an adaptation of another existing product) it’s possible that the Editors, or some group that has controlling interest in the company comes up with the characters for the launch titles. Seperate the “writing process” from the “creating process”. If a new main character is to be developped, then whoever is involved with that creation is either given a seperate contract, or it’s handled by someone other than the day to day writing staff, etc …

Consider the Simpsons. Groening basically created the character models and their relationship to each other, etc … but for the most part he’s neither the writer nor artist of the series, he’s in the Editor position (from this model) ensuring that the house style (for both writing and art) is up to snuff. The style makes it easy to syndicate out of order, etc …

I would guess that is the basic concept intended here. Either John himself, or some of the other people “heading” up the company, would break down the various characters, making up a comic book equivalent of a “series bible”, having both character designs and their motivations/relationships/powers written out so that they can be consulted by writers and artists to make sure the characters are consistent from appearance to appearance. Again, with the analogy of cartoon production, the “series bible” is intended to allow for multiple writers to create episodes at the same time without characters being radically different between episodes.

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Walter Kovacs said on October 3rd, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Re: Prankster

However, in terms of the company that is investing the capital.

It takes a risk on 5 new books. 4 of them flop, but the fifth one is widely succesful. The artists on the first 4 books continue on in the company, being moved to other books to work on with no change to their salary or benefits. The ‘idea’ of these contracts is that you are exchanging possible huge success for job security. In the case of the company, they lost money on the flops … the succesful book is basically propping up the rest of the companies books that are less succesful. The artist/writer however have security either way, etc …

I’m not one to defend big business (although this isn’t exactly “big”), but the reason the investors get the most money is because when something fails, they lose a lot of money. IF (and that is a big if considering the company wouldn’t be expected to make money for a long time and would be entirely reliant on investors) the artists and writers have true job security (not something where, as soon as they are no longer spitting out gold they get fired) that protects them from fluctuations in sales or the economy … while there may be compensation, it should be smaller than it would be if risk was high.

The lower the risk of losing money on a potential venture, the lower your reward will be for success. If the company is taking a bigger part of the risk, it should get more of the money when it pays off since rarely are the artists and writers taking much of the brunt of the loses on the other titles.

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mygif

I have no problem, in principle, with including a profit-sharing plan as part of the benefits. It’s uncommon in business, but not unheard of, along with employee stock-purchase plans. I didn’t mention it because let’s face it, I’m already shaky enough on the “making money” side of things without mentioning yet another way that I’m giving money away and not making it. 🙂

I would do that, though, instead of a royalties plan, because that’s an incentive for people to keep working for my company. Royalties tend to be an incentive to sue. 🙂

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mygif

Actually, I think it all sounds pretty soulless and awful, and the company would fold in about eight months.

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MailOrderClone said on October 4th, 2010 at 1:00 pm

As a bit of a struggling comic writer, I’d be very interested in working in a system like the one suggested. The assembly line style and the online readership model sounds really interesting, and with a good online marketing campaign the site and the anthology books could really draw.

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mygif

I think that the house style works to a small extent in that there is a focus on characters looking consistent and there is an attempt to keep a uniform level of quality. But I think artists do need to be able to stretch themselves a bit and add their own style. There should be some sort of compromise.

I also think the idea has merit in that it would cut down on the tendency of some artists to rearrange art to suit their purposes. Todd McFarlane did a horrible job on Batman, Year 2 when he restructured the panels so it ruined the big Reaper reveal so he could have his splash page in the end. He deviated from the breakdown to suit his own purposes and it lessened the overall quality of the product.

So I think more artistic oversight is a good thing, but not at the expense of quashing an artist’s creative energies.

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mygif

HEY! Len Wein, though I love him like crazy, did NOT create the character called “Wolverine”.

FACT.

Also, Mr. Seavey: sort of pisses me off to hear you write stuff and then negotiate on its price with potential buyers. Man, you must be ONE SUCCESSFUL FREELANCER! Hey, I got a rejection notice actally TODAY, but apparently you’re wheeling and dealing, throwing away offers! Dude, come on, you’re killin’ me here. Little respect, PLEASE.

Fact.

Aw, you can delete this comment if you want, I don’t wanna put egg on anybody’s face. Just NOT FUN getting the FOAD, eh? And I had to say it somewhere.

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mygif

Um.

Is this some sort of prank comment? Like a satire on someone else’s comment earlier in the thread? Because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense otherwise.

The first part: Yes, Len Wein did create Wolverine. If you’re trying to suggest that John Romita should get some sort of a co-creator credit based on his work designing the costume, or that Wein’s interpretation of the character bears little resemblance to the one popularized by Claremont and Byrne, fair enough, but simply stating, “Len Wein did not create Wolverine, FACT.” doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the conversation.

As for the second part…um? Again? I pointed out that I read my contracts carefully before signing them, and that I sign them in full understanding of what I’m signing away. I also pointed out that anyone who doesn’t do that really doesn’t have a whole lot of grounds to complain that they lost the rights to something they really wanted to keep.

The whole point of that statement was that I’m not a particularly successful freelancer, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about these things. Being desperate for published work should not trump keeping an idea you want to own the rights to, and there’s nothing wrong with saying, “No thank you, I think I’ll take this idea elsewhere.” I’ve never done that, but I’ve been prepared to, because that’s just common sense. (I’ve also never haggled over the word rate, either. Don’t know where you got that from.)

This was not a, “I’ve published things and you haven’t, so shut up,” statement. It was a, “I’ve published things and I know how it works, and I can tell you that you might not want to blindly believe every claim of exploitation in the industry because a lot of them are just people who didn’t do their due diligence.” (Such as Alan Moore, who sits in a house paid for by the profits of ‘Watchmen’ and insists that DC exploited him.)

I hope this clarification helps with whatever issues caused you to post that.

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mygif

So there’s my idea of the ideal super-hero comic book company. No big stars, heavy emphasis on the characters instead of the creators, self-contained family-friendly stories, and lots of reprinting. In short, the Archie model applied to super-heroes. So who wants to be the first to tell me I’m crazy?

With the exception of the “self-contained family-friendly stories” this is basically just the web comic model that everybody on the internet and his kid brother have been using for the last ten years. Higher budget, perhaps, and more professional. But from a business model, it’s been done and it’s been fairly successful.

Nice to see you’ve finally caught up. But this really isn’t anything new.

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mygif

Terrible, just terrible.

I read comics for the high points created by truly excellent and unique writers and artists. This business model would ensure that there would never be another Alan Moore, J.H. Williams, Grant Morrison, or Eddie Campbell. At least, not at that company.

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