Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Comic Book Biz

Musings on the comic book business:  Well, the writing side of it, that is.

I've worked just about every side of the comic book business. Retail. Comic supplies wholesale. Creator. Even (self)publisher. When I walked away from it, I really walked away.

For a time I worked as a writer in comics, for several publishers. During that time I wrote scripts for a host of indie comic book publishers, plus more well known companies like Kitchen Sink and Marvel Comics. It's a very weird industry in which to work. Sometimes things go well, but almost always there are things about it that are indeed strange and poisonous.

Part of the problem is that the industry lends itself to the exploitation of those who work in it. Both the writers and artists are often victims of the theft of their intellectual property. What was done to the likes of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, and, of course, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko is a how-to when it comes to committing acts of crime against the powerless.

Because the industry has been so well rewarded for the rape of the creators, it remains to this day a place where the abuse of the men and women who create the ideas and images continues. It's no wonder that, for a while, those creators rebelled and went into self-publishing. Of course that option has largely faded with the creation of distribution monopoly--but that's not really the point of today's essay and example.

What I wanted to write about was my own experience of working in comics. It's hard to toil in the industry without creating new characters for any company who cuts you a check (or promises you a check which could very well never come--another tale). Even peripheral characters can take up a life of their own and become bankable. And such "properties" will likely be stolen the second they become a marketable commodity for the publisher.

I'm also not here to argue or bemoan work-for-hire. That has been argued well and with passion by many others. I'll leave that to the more qualified folk. There are lawyers and businessmen and essayists who can plead those various cases with passion and intelligence that eclipse my own. (But work-for-hire sucks, just to make clear where I stand.)

I created characters even for Marvel Comics when I worked there briefly. One, in particular, was a fellow named "Hunger" who was a monster (called a cenobite) in the anthology series CLIVE BARKER'S HELLRAISER. He was used by other writers. One of them told me how he was going to write the character's origin. Imagine that. Long story short: unless you are very careful you lose everything the minute you agree to write for any comics company, big or small, famous or obscure.

At Marvel I soon discovered that my work was being reprinted without payment to me for various murky legal reasons. I moved on.

I figured at last that I'd receive better treatment at smaller publishing houses. Because they were out there struggling like I was and fighting the good fight. Why would they do the wrong thing? I reasoned that such companies would be free of the kinds of poison creators faced at the big publishing houses.

I was wrong.

At one point I was approached to write a continuing series for a certain smaller publisher. (I'm not going to name the publisher or the imprint because that would be advertising and I'm not going to do this slime any favors.) A page rate was offered and I deemed it fair and proceeded. Scripts were delivered, some checks arrived, I continued to write more scripts. And then...checks ceased to arrive. I stopped delivering scripts. Fair enough.

Eventually, the publisher became upset that I would be annoyed that I had not been paid for work done. This is always the path taken by those who exploit others. It's the same wherever the scam is repeated. At last, I told the publisher not to publish my scripts unless I was paid the rate promised. This was, of course, not done. I never received payment for most of the work I'd done, and the scripts were rendered into art, and the art was published. I never saw the published work, but I have heard that my name was not on it. I haven't seen what was done to that script, but I can only assume that I would be very happy that my name was left off.

(At the time, the artist slated to illustrate this script was, like me, an unknown creator. Today, I'm still largely an unknown. He, however, went on to become quite well known in the industry and is now something of a fan favorite with a large following.)

After I delivered this script, I have seen some of my ideas lifted by other writers. They would probably plead coincidence, but.... The comic book business is a poisonous one. Work in it only if your eyes are wide open and your expectations are greatly diminished.

Here, then, is a portion of the script I delivered many years ago for a silly little horror comic, and for which I was never paid. 

 Issue One 

Page One

This page is a series of panels of a pair of shadowy figures having a conversation. One figure, smaller should be kept vague. The other is a man who is slowly dressing as the conversation takes place. The guy is putting on jeans and a t-shirt and a leather jacket. In one panel, he's slicking his hair back with a comb. Leave a fair amount of space for word balloons. Basically, what they're saying is that "the shit has hit the fan". The figure who's getting dressed is going to do something about it. The other one, basically, is sick of struggling, sick of existing. I'll fill in the conversation after the artwork is done. Keep everything shadowy. You can't even tell what sex the other figure is. The one you can see is the character we will know as the Old Man, even though he looks no older than twenty-four or so. Dress him the way you'd expect a tough from the 50's to look--like Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONE.

Page Two

Splash Page : This shot is of a woman and a guy at a table. There's a candle burning to the left of the woman. She's in a dress that's cut to reveal her cleavage...lots of beads, couple rings on her left hand. The room is full of arcana...witch stuff. The guy is punk-looking (kind of like Johnny Rotten). The woman has her hands on the tabletop. The guy's arms are crossed as he looks down.

Guy: "What do the cards say?"

Page Three

Panel One: POV is from above the table. We can see the layout of the tarot cards on the tabletop. (Examine diagram I'm sending along). The scene should be of the entire table, with the characters visible.

Witch: "It looks close, Dag. But I think you'll succeed."

Dag: "Tell me, witch. Will they find him tonight?"

Panel Two: Closeup of the witch poiting to card #6--it is the card, The Tower. Her finger, pointing, and the card.

Witch: "This is before you. Tonight. It's the current that is coming into action."

Panel Three: Beside Panel Three. A shot of a brick building, three stories. It's a goth/punk club. Crowd outside. Door open.

Caption: "Yeah. The Dungeon. That's where I told them to go."

Panel Four: Her hand is now pointing to the card, The Lovers. In the layout of the cards, it's card #4.

Witch: "These are your tools. These are what you have to work with. They are good. A good sign."

Panel Five: Beside Panel Five. A guy and a girl. They are scary looking. He is tall and lean. His face is gaunt. Both of them have shaded their eyes with mascara. The guy is in black leather, hair black, very short, some chains. The girl is shorter. She's wearing black pants, a black shirt that reveals her midrift. Her hair, too, is black. They are coming into the crowd of the dance club, side by side. Their faces are blank, intense.

Caption: "Willa and Freddie. They'll find him."

Page Four

Panel One: The witch is now pointing at card #3, the Page of Cups. Witch: "This is your goal, your connection to your success."

Panel Two: Beside Panel One. In the crowd, but sitting alone, is a blond kid. He's at a table, looking into his mug of beer. (much like the card figure who's looking into the cup)
Caption: "I knew it. He's there."

Panel Three: The witch is pointing at card #2, The Hermit.

Witch: "This is your obstacle. A powerful obstacle. This is not good. Treason, corruption..."

Panel Four: Standing in the club, apart from the crowd, is a young man, maybe twenty-five years old. Light hair and powerful build. Not as tall as Freddie, but stouter, stronger looking. He's got a leather jacket, jeans, with pants rolled up (like they did in the fifties), white t-shirt under the jacket. He's got a cigarette in his mouth. He looks, basically, like a character right out of some fifties thug movie.

Caption: "The Old Man. I was afraid he'd try something. Damn."

Panel Five: Closeup of the guy at the table with the witch. He's slamming his fist down on the table. His face shows rage. His lips are peeled back, showing his vampire fangs, his eyes glowing with anger.

Dag: "Damn!"

Panel Six: He's standing now, so violently that he's upended the table, the witch flinching back. He's become almost inhuman in appearance, revealing his vampire side.

Dag: "Damn!" Really big balloon, this time, to emphasize his anger.

Page Five

Panel One: Back at The Dungeon. Freddie, tall above the dancing crowd, the band behind him on the stage. He's glaring at the blonde kid across the room.

Panel Two: The Old Man is also peering across the room at the kid. To the Old Man's left, we can see Freddie (about thirty feet away, dancers between them).

Panel Three: Willa is beside at the kid's booth. She's standing there looking down at him.

Willa: "Hello. I'm Willa. What's your name?"

Kid: "Jack. Siddown if you want."

Panel Four: She's slid in right next to him, not across.

Willa: "I like the way you look, Jack. How'd you like to go for a walk?"

Jack: "No thanks. I'm waiting for the next band. They're going to let me do the vocals on a set. I'm tryin' out."

Panel Five: Closeup of Willa's hand gripping Jack's wrist.

Panel Six: Jack is trying to pull away, but can't.

Jack: "Hey! That hurts!"

Willa: "You're coming with me, Jack."

Page Six

Panel One: The Old Man is now standing beside the table, blocking Willa from standing up. His left hand is on the tabletop, his right one on the back of the booth seat, locking them in. Willa looks pissed. Jack looks confused, still trying to get his hand loose.

Old Man: "Hello, Willa. I don't think you'll be going anywhere. Leave the boy alone."

Panel Two: There's a clawed hand on the Old Man's jacket, a fistful of leather gathered up in it.

Panel Three: The Old Man has turned to face Freddie, who is holding onto him and staring down. Freddie's face is going all crazy, his eyes glaring, his teeth forming into fangs.

Freddie: "I think the kid's going with us, Old Man."

Old Man: "You fool! Not here. They'll see you like that!"

Panel Four: Freddie now has the Old Man drawn away from the booth, both hands gripping the other's jacket. He's really inhuman looking now.

Freddie: "Who cares? Soon, it won't matter what they see!"

Panel Five: Willa is up, dragging Jack with her, pulling him away from the booth and into the crowd, many of whom are now looking toward Freddie and the Old Man.
Willa: "C'mon, Jack. We're outta here."
Jack: "Wait! No!"

Page Seven

Panel One: Freddie has thrown the Old Man to the floor, now. Behind them, the band is still playing. Some of the crowd is now looking at Freddie and the Old Man. Willa and Jack are gone.
Freddie: "Give it up, Old Man. Your days are past."

Panel Two: Closeup of the Old Man's face. He's on the floor, gathering himself up. His hands are clenched in rage. His eyes are wide, glowing. His teeth gritting, just beginning to show his canines.

Old Man: Small balloon, to indicate a whisper. "All right, then..."

Panel Three: Big, splashy panel. The Old Man is up, his human guise mainly gone. His hands are claws. His face is almost a muzzle, revealing teeth like a true predator.

Old Man: "You want it! You got it!"

Some of the crowd around them see what's going on. Some of them are pointing, staring--kind of an 'Oh, Fuck!' look on their faces...think what you'd say and do if you saw something like that in your dance club.

Page Eight

Basically, this page is a fight scene. The two vampires battle across the floor of slamdancing, pogoing kids. Two monster tearing it up amidst all these goth/punks. Have fun. I'll fill in the blanks, later, but don't worry about much space for words or captions. This is kickass fighting. Just have them end up on the street, with the Old Man winning, but Freddie not really that concerned.

Page Nine

Panel One: Willa is literally dragging Jack by the hand. They are at a door with an "EXIT" sign overhead, obviously a back door. Jack's free hand is gripping the doorjamb, Willa already out the door.

Jack: "Let me GO!"

Panel Two: Willa has turned, her face twisted in anger, but still human.

Willa: "Listen, you. I'm here to keep that other guy away from you. If you want to get out of here alive, then you'll come with me. Fight me if you want to, but it want do you any good!"

Panel Three: We see Jack being dragged out the door.

Panel Four: The empty doorway. Door standing open.

Page Ten
Panel One: Jack and Willa are running down the street now. It's mainly deserted, since it's night, but there are some people out.

Willa: "I know what you're thinking. You're thinking you can yell for help. Don't do it."

Jack: "Where are you taking me? Who were those other guys? What were they?"

Panel Two: They've ducked down an alleyway, and they're no longer running, but she still has Jack by the hand.

Willa: "They're vampires. The tall one is named Freddie. The other one we call The Old Man. He used to lead us. Not anymore."

Jeff: "You're crazy."

Panel Three: Will has turned to face Jack. Her face is not human.

Willa: "Does this look like crazy to you?"

Panel Four: Jack has his free arm up to shield himself, and he's backed against a brick wall.

Jack: "Jesus."

Willa: "Hardly."

Panel Five: Willa has released Jack's hand, now. She's just standing there, pointing toward the end of the alley. Jack is staring at her.

Willa: "We're going down there and through the park. Then we're going to grab my car and we're going to meet someone. You aren't going to try to run away or you're going to piss me off and I promise you don't want me pissed off."

Jack: "What...whatever you say."

Panel Six: We see the pair retreating down the alleyway.

Page Eleven

I want this page to be a series of panels of Jack and Willa climbing a hill in the park they're going through. As they climb the hill and speak, Jack goes, in the eyes of Willa, from looking like a normal human to becoming a webwork of veins and arteries. This signifies her growing bloodlust and hunger for him. At the top of the hill, he looks just like some kind of medical diagram--all veins and arteries, with his heart glowing in the center.

Panel One: Jack and Willa are now in a park. They're at the bottom of a grassy hill.

Jack: "At least you can tell me what's going on. Why are you so strong?"

Willa: "What's going on is that you're going to meet Dag." Thought balloon: 'And I'm so strong because I'm a vampire.'

Jack: "Who's Dag?"

Panel Two: They're now partway up the hill.

Willa: "Dag is our leader. He told us to get you. Don't ask me why he wants you or how he knew where you'd be, because I don't know. I only know you're special, in his eyes."

Jack: "I've never met anyone named Dag. I've never heard of anyone named Dag. Why don't you just let me go?"

Panel Three: They're almost at the top of the hill, and there are trees looming around them, naked limbs drooping down like gnarled fingers. No leaves.

Willa: "Don't be...stupid, kid. I'm not going to let you go. You're...important to Dag. That's all...that's all I know."

Jack: "What's wrong with you?"

Panel Four: They're now at the top of the hill. The trees around them really look menacing. Jack is now, in Willa's view, just something to feast upon. Her vampire facing is partially revealed.

Willa: "Gosh, you look good. You know that? You really, really look good!"

Jack: "Don't look at me like that. You're making me nervous."

Panel Five: Willa has her hands over her face.

Willa: 'Be strong, girl. Be strong. This one's for Dag.'

Panel Six: From the top of the hill, you can see a parking lot that Willa is pointing to.

Willa: "There. My car's over there. Let's go."


MarkGelbart said...

It's always been curious to me how comic book companies could get away with creating superheroes with the exact same powers as superheroes created by other comic books.

There's Plastic Man-Elongated Man-Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards).


Tarzan-and the Marvel character (I can't remember his name) who wandered around with a pet Saber-tooth. That was such an obvious rip-off.

There was a Legion of Superhero character called the Spider who predated the creation of Spiderman.

There are more, I'm sure, I just can't think of them off the top of my head.

James Smith said...

An idea is hard to copyright. An icon is easily copyrighted and trademarked.

DC did successfully sue Fawcett over perceived Superman/Capt. Marvel similarities. They did so based on the fact that writer Manly Wade Wellman explained how the character was concocted: basically, an editor tossed a copy of Superman Comics in front of Wellman and the other writers and said: "Create something like this for us to publish". And they did. Thus, DC was able to take possession of Capt. Marvel and all related titles, which effectively shut down Fawcett Comics, destroying DC's primary competitor in the comic book marketplace.

But that example is unique.

The Marvel character you are thinking of is Ka-Zar. When Burroughs created Tarzan and it was a huge hit, the pulp fiction market exploded with obvious copies of Tarzan. You just can't copyright a theme--it's only the name of Tarzan and the supporting characters that Burroughs was able to trademark. Which is why, to this day, despite the fact that most of Burroughs' fiction is in the public domain, you can't merchandise any of his works without paying for the privilege through the Burroughs Family which still owns (and viciously protects) the trademark.

MarkGelbart said...

I didn't realize Manly Wade Wellman created Captain Marvel.

He was a great short story writer.

I think a lot of his work is hard to find these days.

HemlockMan said...

Wellman was brilliant. He was working at Fawcett when the publisher decided to get into the "hero-suit" business. Copies of ACTION COMICS were provided to the team of writers and artists so that they could concoct something similar to Superman. I once got to hold the physical books they were given--ACTION COMICS issues 2 through 10. They all had "Superior Court Evidence" stamped on the covers, but were otherwise in near mint condition. The pages were so pure white that we figured that they'd been treated somehow to make them so bright. Turns out that they'd never undergone any kind of restoration at all--they had just been kept in low humidity and no light for so long that they were flawless (except for the ink-stamped court IDs). The guy I was with was offered the books but he turned them down, thinking they'd been restored. He later very much regretted that decision--as the books not only hadn't ever been restored, they were historically important items.

At any rate, Wellman didn't create Capt. Marvel alone. It was done by several fellows working together, among them Wellman and CC Beck. I think the Binder brothers might have been involved? I can't recall for sure, but they might have been part of the intellectual brew that came up with Billy Batson and Captain Marvel. I do remember that they all decided that his physical appearance would be based on Fred MacMurry, which is obvious once it's been pointed out.