Stuart Moore:
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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

That Old Work for Hire Thing

This is one of the strangest arguments for creator-owned comics I've ever read. I don't know Noah Berlatsky, but he's obviously a keen observer of the comics industry. Still, his comparison with the music industry is a little misleading. I get checks from both Marvel and DC on an irregular basis for past work done with both of them. "Work for Hire" does not automatically mean "one check and then nothing, ever, for your work again." Both major companies have structures in place to pay for reprints down the line, though neither system is perfect.

But that's a side issue. The main thrust of this piece seems to be that creator ownership is desirable because it allows the creator to keep tight control of the "brand" and make sure the characters stay consistent and on-point. I'll grant that there have been creators (Berke Breathed comes to mind) who've exercised very tight control over the licensing of their popular characters over the years. But traditionally, major entertainment companies have had an enormous interest in keeping characters "on-model" and consistent, to the point of having entire quality-control departments to ensure this. If it isn't happening in one or two cases in the comics industry, that might be a glitch in the machinery, not an overall trend.

And I can certainly cite you independent comics that went off the rails -- for a large part of their readership, anyway -- as they went along. All respect to the creators' right to do whatever they want with their creations -- that's the whole point here -- but CEREBUS is probably the biggest example. FISH POLICE was a little rough toward the end, too. I'm sure there are others.

More to the point, though: Why do we care about branding anyway? Don't we want creator-owned work because it leads to original, inspired comics, not because it means the Joker will look the same every time he appears?

As a writer and occasional editor, I wish the market were more open to original properties. It takes a hell of a lot of work and time to get a creator-owned project going these days. But work for hire can be sharp, clever work too. It all depends on what you bring to it.

Thanks to Dirk Deppey for the link.

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