Who's Who In the SBCU Update 2003

In his dreams Alan Donald is a multi-award winning writer of comic books, animation, theme park shows and rides, children’s books, novels, television, internet animation and more.

In real life Alan writes this column, which has been described as more than a lifestyle than a weekly column. He used to write SBC's All The Rage.


Do Comics Cost Too Much?
Tuesday, December 30

Why Should People Read Comics?
Tuesday, December 23

Best Thing In Comics Over Last Ten Years?
Tuesday, December 16

To Toe Or Not To Toe
Tuesday, December 9

Superheroes And A World In Crisis
Tuesday, December 2




To Toe Or Not To Toe

By Dawn Donald
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Calling all fan persons out there don’t miss out on your chance ask the big guns a question or two, send them in now to: [email protected]. Where else do you get the chance to see YOUR questions in print? We are coming up to our 25th anniversary very shortly, will your question be THE question to be asked for this landmark Panel? Put your thinking caps on and email me.

Most of the Panelists should be known to you but if not, don’t panic I’ve got a few details on them at the end of the column.

This week’s question comes from Gemma a bubbly young lady who loves this industry and thinks this column rocks! Her question is:

“How important do you feel it is for creators/comicbook employees to ‘toe the company line’? How much leeway should they have to speak their mind?”

Lee Dawson: “I think one should always be careful not to bite the hand that feeds! And ultimately, if you aren't in line with the companies practices or philosophies then you probably shouldn't be working there or freelancing for them. It drives me crazy when I see creators who have had huge success with certain companies then later bad mouth them. What purpose does that serve? I say take the high road and quietly move on....a classier move by far.”

Alonzo Washington: “That is why I own my own comic book company so that I can say what I want to say. However, everyone can't be me. So those who work for major companies better be able to follow directions or they won't be there long. Although, the suits at the big companies should give it's workers an opportunity to express themselves as well. I think it should be some give & take on both sides of the fence. Ultimately whoever owns the company has the most say. I don't toe anyone's line. I say what other won't say and do what others won't. I may be the worst person to answer this question. Back in the ninety when The Black comic book group ANIA came out I was apart of it. They wanted to shake up the industry. However, I was such a live wire and did not want to be controlled I left the group. ANIA feared me. My company Omega7 Inc. existed before ANIA. My point is that I don't want to be controlled by anyone. I feel it kills creativity & intellect. Although, if you want to work for the majors be prepared to become a zombie.”

Devin Grayson: “There's no question that creativity is best served by creators who feel completely free to express themselves -- to explore and experiment and even kvetch. That said, the current reality is that almost any company you work for almost anywhere in the world is going to need, expect, and demand a certain level of cooperation and discretion from you.

In our industry, when we don't self-publish, we're asking other individuals to take on the financial risk of publication for us, and will therefore become subject to many of their decisions about what may and may not be profitable ... even -- yes -- some dreadfully wrong decisions. It becomes immediately evident to anyone who has ever had a job outside of comics, though, that this is true pretty much everywhere. Also true is the nearly universal preponderance of crazy managers and bosses over sane and helpful ones, and the inevitability of the occasional friction with deluded and megalomaniacal coworkers.

Personally, what I most wish is not that the companies I work for would never place demands upon my discretion and loyalty, but rather that readers and members of the industry press would understand that those demands are in place. In other words, even better than everybody being able to say whatever they wanted whenever they wanted would be everybody understanding that they don't have immediate access to all the information or decisions being made behind the scenes. Not so long ago, for example, I had someone ask me, in an email interview, a very politically sensitive question, followed by the friendly reassurance, "don't worry, you can tell us the truth!" Well, no, I couldn't. The proprietors of that website where in absolutely no position to either protect me from the powers that be at the company for which I worked at the time, or to provide alternate employment for me. It was fine for them to ask as long as they understood that I may not have been able to answer as fully as I might have liked to.

There do seem to be creators -- celebrities, to some extent -- who can get away with saying whatever they want. I find it just as entertaining as anyone else to watch them burn bridges, and certainly I love hearing people responsible for bad decisions called out on them. And god bless them, these soapbox preachers have a kind of talent that assures them a job at the very same company they've bad mouthed mere months later, but that's not true of most of the business world (or even of most of us in this industry). Readers have a right to know "the truth," but not to expect it to roll easily off the tongues of those of us making a living in the institutions they want to critique, the exception being when company actions are immoral and call for whistle-blowers. And, in all honesty, that doesn't happen very often in comics. When it does, I think it's imperative for everyone to speak up. In everyday circumstances, well...a good journalist certainly doesn't have to stop digging when a vulnerable source declines to comment. ;-)”

Alan Grant: “When it comes to work-for-hire, creators have little option but to toe the line. Even if toeing the line has adverse impacts on sales and readers, companies can insist on it. Any stepping out of line could lead to loss of job. If the company owns the characters, they have the right to alter stories/artwork/anything they choose, if they don't like what you've done. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, if the editorial employees know what they're doing (which isn't always the case). There's no automatic right to speak your mind when somebody else is paying the cheques and owns your work. You can argue with them, but at the end of the day the power is theirs.”

Gary Spencer Millidge: ”As a self-publisher, I must say that I have the perfect relationship with my employer .Having dabbled recently in the wicked world of work-for-hire though, I don't necessarily agree with (or understand, even) everything the publisher has insisted upon in terms of contracts and editorial decision-making. But they paid me money to do a job, so it was my decision whether to accept those working conditions or not. From a publisher's point of view, I think they should nurture their talent carefully and deal with them fairly and conscientiously. But it's the publisher's money and it's their choice to impose any kind of restrictions that they wish, whether it benefits them or not. Comics are no different from any other business in that respect. In direct response to the question, I'm not sure I would continue to employ someone if they were speaking out against me.”

Fiona Avery: “For the most part I've had plenty of creative leeway to tell the stories I need to tell. The worst case of notes I ever received from a comic book company came from my most recent project. It was a classic example of too many chefs in the kitchen and as a result it took over two years to develop a mini-series. Some of those notes were specifically asking if flies could be buzzing around corpses and so on. But as far as telling the story, we were able to tell it without many plot or character notes as interference. Still, notes can be a very frustrating part of any creative development. Many times notes come in requesting things a creator has already determined won't work and then the creator has to take valuable time off the project to explain to someone (who usually isn't a writer -- and sorry -- English lit degrees don't count) why something will not work in a particular piece. I've also had unprofessional notes from one or two people with story ideas they want to put in the work, instead of sticking to basic editorial notes. (By the way, my frame of reference for comparison is the actual print publishing industry -- short story and novel editors have a strict code they edit by.) So yeah, it can be a pain in the ass, but sometimes it's what you put up with if you want someone else to publish your comic and also pay you for the privilege. On the whole, I've found that the larger houses give good notes and are more professional during the process. Wildstorm and Marvel have been terrific in this way and it's something a creator always appreciates.”

Vince Moore: “As a freelancer, a creator is working for the company on the property the company owns. Any leeway the creator has is a gift from the company and can be taken away at any time. Therefore, either explicitly or implicitly, the creator will toe the company line in his or her work, or he or she will not have a job. If a creator wants total freedom of expression, he or she is free to pursue the avenues of independent or self publishing, where the ownership of the property lies with the creator. In other words, if a creator wants to speak his or her mind on any topic, any way desired, do creator owned projects. On company owned projects, the company is your client and boss, and all you owe them is your best efforts to enact the company's desires. Not necessarily your best ideas or thoughts.”

Peter David: “I don't think it's important at all for creators and comic book freelancers to toe the company line, because they aren't company men. Working on various characters doesn't mean the freelancer has given up his right to speak out on things that matter to him. I know what it's like to have to toe the company line, because I once was in a position in which that was required. That position came with an office, an assistant, an expense account, medical benefits and paid vacation. I don't have any of those things now, so I don't see why the obligation to wave the flag of "my company, right or wrong" is mandatory...especially since it's not a two-way street. Comic book comapnies have a long and proud history of using up creators and then tossing them aside, so looking for explicit loyalty now from the creative field seems a bit unreasonable.

That said, I *do* think that a creator is obliged not to bad-mouth the material he himself is working on because it undercuts the company's attempts to sell it and strikes me as bad faith. For instance, if someone is working on an X-Men title, I think it would be poor form to say something like, "I think Marvel is just trying to milk the whole mutant thing for every buck they can get out of it, and my only goal is to help them, but I really don't give a crap about mutants." (And no, that's not what *I* think, I'm just giving a fer instance.) I think the creators are obliged to cooperate in selling the titles they're working on, not trash them.

Nor do I think that creators should take stuff they heard about in confidence or behind closed doors and vent about that to the general public. That's just rude. But if a company says and does something publicly, I think a creator should have every right to comment on it. Of course, you run the risk of company executives taking offense. Not that that's ever happened to *me*, of course...

Dawn Donald:” Well, just being a little ol’ fan girl I don’t have any personal experience of this but as a fan girl I do have an opinion. It does seem a shame that some of these creative types should effectively be muzzled from expressing themselves, I am sure there must be some great stories out there that never made it past the editor’s table. But then when they sign up for these gigs they should be aware of the company’s restrictions. If some one really has a yen to tell a story that does not follow the company line then they should look for someone else to publish it or self publish. Though it would be nice if a creator has worked for a company for a certain time that they would give them a little more latitude to tell their stories.”

This Week’s Panel: Alonzo Washington is the creator of Omega Man and noted black campaigner. Alan Grant has had his hands in many pies including Batman and Judge Anderson. Vince Moore’s work for Platinum Studios can be checked out via the link on his name above. Fiona Avery who plays in the Marvel Universe, and with Wildstorm at DC and is also the creator of No Honor. Gary Spencer Millidge has been self-publishing his acclaimed Strangehaven comic book series for eight years. Devin Grayson is currently scribing Nightwing and has just had a prestige format Batman book called Switch released. Lee Dawson edits those wonderful Dark Horse books. Peter David among other things has written novels, tv series, movie adaptations, Supes the web slinger and ol’ canuckle head.

Next Week’s Question: “Joe Boggs is standing next to you in a store and says ‘why should people read comics?’ What do you say to him?”

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