Saturday, 24 June 2017

Dave Sim: Warhol, Hal Foster & The Right Of First Refusal

26 February 06

Dear Robert:

Thanks for your letter of 15 February.

I always have to temper my criticism of Warhol with the fact that he did, indeed, make a mark and that he had to swim upstream a fair distance to do so. He certainly ultimately got marketplace revenge on everyone who said that paintings of Campbell’s soup cans couldn’t under any circumstances be considered art (if nothing else) and it IS almost fifty years later which is quite a span to still have credibility. Same with bringing High and Low and Pop and Fine Art within hailing distance of each other with some interesting net effects. It did a disservice to comic books by marginalizing them as “camp” -- a catch-all category for homosexuals to put things they thought to be beneath them. But it meant that we were still there (with our pasted-on clown nose) when irony became unfashionable in the post-9/11 and comic books proved to be one of the few non-ironic environments left: A whole subculture of people who believed (and believe!) in the intrinsic nobility of guys in leotards wearing their underwear on the outside of their clothes and behaving like vigilantes. You can’t get much more UN-ironic than that.

I didn’t know that Roy Lichtenstein had served under Irv Novick and I agree that would have made an interesting interview. It might worth tracking down family members and guys he worked with to see if he ever mentioned anything. It must’ve come up on a semi-regular basis from the 1960s on, you would guess.

I had no idea that Brian Kane was doing a book on Bob Peak. I was very hard on Brian, I’m afraid, at a SPACE party at the Laughing Ogre a couple (a few?) years back, going through the Foster book page by page and critiquing his choice of illustrations using a number of pieces when he didn’t have either the original or a good copy to shoot from -- the whole point of the book for me was to see Foster’s actual pen and brush strokes on slick paper and any page where he had a 5th generation copy or a bad stat instead of an original or a proof was just like an ice pick in my brain and, of course, there was too much family stuff in there for my taste. I read the book again when I was asked to deliver the acceptance speech for Foster's Shuster Hall of Fame Award last year and I realized that it was actually a very good book. It wasn’t my kind of book but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t any good. And Foster was enough of a family man (or a good husband, anyway) that Brian’s book would probably be a lot closer to how he saw himself than anything that I could have put together. So all I can do is to hope that Bob Peak is represented only by originals and clear proof copies and that I’ll get to find out the names of his children and see what his Christmas cards looked like and maybe some vacation snaps with his wife. I’ll buy it on the same basis as the Foster book. If there are only ten clear images with world-class reproduction, that will tell me how much each of them cost. I think the Foster book proved to be about five dollars a page for me. And I agree about your assessment of Arn Saba’s interview of Foster being superior. I’ve really got to dig up my copy [The Comics Journal #102, September 1985] and reread it now that you’ve mentioned it.

As regards your question of "right of first refusal" I don’t think that was really the issue that Gary addressed as directly as he did. Basically what he was saying is “Look, if the creators as a general rule don’t feel obligated to live up to their side of the bargain, there’s not much purpose in fine-tuning the bargain or inventing a new form of bargain. The problem isn’t the nature of the bargain, the problem is the unwillingness to observe the terms of the bargain.” Which I have to say was pretty astute and miles beyond my own thinking. “What are we trying not to tell ourselves here?” The answer was, as far as I can see, “Creators are generally dishonest and dishonourable people” for a number of understandable reasons. The urge to be published, period, when you aren’t being published outweighs everything else. The average creator will literally sign anything just to get his book green-lighted. Once the book is out there, the creator finds out that he could get more. He could be published by a larger publisher, he could get better terms and he goes from abjectly grateful to bitterly resentful. He thinks of himself as having been fooled into agreeing to too little. His incompetent publisher is standing in the way of his success. A little vanity goes a long way with most creators, too. No matter what his book is selling he always believes it would sell more if it was advertised more or if there was more promotion and he becomes a sucker for people who promise that. There’s no such thing as impunity, though, and I think we’ve ended up in the situation we’re in because of those collective creator decisions. Having that many creators act that extensively in bad faith over that many years brought about what it brought about -- the smaller publishers like Gary Reed folded their tents and now all the creators have is Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Image none of which are known for taking a chance on unproven or marginalised talent. What Gary showed me was that the question isn’t “How can we keep the Big Four from exploiting creators?” so much as “We have no choice but to start over at square one and see if the creators behave better this time.” So far it doesn’t look very good. Using your own example, if non-famous Frank Miller becomes famous Frank Miller, he’s going to do whatever he damn well pleases and Dark Horse is going to have to just bite down on the fact that if Frank chooses to screw them there’s nothing they can do about it without looking like the heartless exploitative corporation. Where there is no way for the company to keep from being treated disadvantageously they get forced into a corner where they have to treat every project and every relationship as temporary so as to keep from getting caught with their pants down as Gary Reed was just for playing fair and square. It’s a real problem because too many of the ‘givens’ are working at cross-purposes. Creator vanity and desperation are built in to the equation. “If it’s in the best interests of my own creativity and longevity to cripple you, I’ll just have to cripple you. Sorry.” As Larry Marder once said to me “The comic-book field is filled with charming, ruthless people.” Which is really true and also built in. It can take five years to finish a decent graphic novel and the creator is going to be charming and ruthless about doing the best for himself and this book it took him five years to finish and the publishers are going to be charming and ruthless because so few projects are “in play” at any given time. A viable finished graphic novel is like bleeding meat in the water in an environment largely made up of various breeds of shark.

I’m waiting to see what else Al sends me once he has a website exclusively dedicated to Creator’s rights issues, but right now the Gary Reed model seems like the most accurate one. If the creators aren’t going to demonstrate a fundamental loyalty over fixed periods of time and a “playing fair” approach with the guys who took a chance on them -- in a general behavioural sense -- then they will have gotten what they deserved, however unhappy that makes them.

Thanks again for writing.

Best,

Dave

From "Dave Sim's Collected Letters 2006", a Cerebus Archive Kickstarter reward.

1 comment:

Damian T. Lloyd, Esq. said...

Interesting evolution of Dave's views from when he was telling Gary Groth that creators are more moral than publishers. It doesn't seem to be publishing others' work that changed his mind; I wonder what did?

-- Damian