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To Steve Bissette on the Creator Bill of Rights as a Rhetorical Tool
posted May 22, 2005
This is a response to Steve Bissette's letter, which is part of a general response at Al Nickerson's site regarding the Creator Bill of Rights
Hi, Steve. I hope you're well.
I'm not sure how much more I can add, but I'm happy to try. I wasn't trying to be curt with a dismissal as much as succinct with my thoughts on the manner. Let me unpack them as best I can on a Sunday morning.
By the way -- I've certainly made a portion of my living as a creator. I could send you the W-2s. I mention that only because I'm inferring a "It doesn't float your boat because it's not for you, journalist-boy" vibe from a couple of your graphs. Forgive me if I'm wrong.
I hope it's clear from the stances I take here on this site and in other venues that I agree with you about the general level of horribleness when it comes to corporate behavior in comics. More than just the deplorable abuses, I think the entire system -- where an executive can gobble up more money in a single year's worth of bonuses for managing a toy line than the creator whose work spawned that toy line, the comic from which the toy is designed and the movie that makes the toys desirable can make in their entire lifetime -- is fundamentally evil. I really do. I allow that as such exploitation may be inherent, or at least strongly encouraged, by the nature of doing business in this society at this juncture in history, you can judge individual businesses by how much they mitigate against this sort of thing. I think nearly every company in comics fails that test, as well. Many of them fail that test frequently.
In other words, I discuss creators rights issues all the time in the course of my work in comics and in other fields; I'm invested in the wider discussion. It's just that I don't think I've ever referred to the Creator Bill of Rights in doing so.
Honestly, my disagreement with the Bill of Rights is with the form through which the ideas were expressed. I don't find checklists useful, but either people might, I guess. As a sum total, it's a pretty good list. I'm interested in the presentational format, which I think is key.
Stating your group's thoughts/conclusions on these issues to the wider comics industry and attendant communities in the form of a Bill of Rights I believe led to two things.
First, I really feel that for most people a Bill of Rights ends talk on the matter rather than sparks them. You say that there wasn't enough follow-up discussion... well, yeah; that's what I'm talking about. Just the way those things are written, there's little left in terms of ideas that rattle and disquiet. I'm not even sure how much real disagreement there was over most of the Bill between you guys. I've never read anyone taking a position that's directly opposed to what made it into the Bill. Correct me if I'm wrong. Did anyone argue an opposing position? Reading the latest descriptions of the issues at the time on Al's site, it seems like the most contentious issues involved weren't so much clashing views over issues that made it into the bill, but rather discussion about the topicality of specific issues Dave felt should have been included.
Second, I think when you put something in terms of "rights," the natural inclination of many is to see these rights as neutral bargaining chips instead of advantageous, even moral positions from which to work. From consideration of my own views on such matters as they've developed, from interviewing some modern mainstream pros, and from discussions somewhat related to such issues I've had with creator friends, I don't think the majority of creators sign a bad contract from an ignorance that they might have a right to something; I think they willingly bargain it away for something they wish to have. They bargain these things away in return for financial reward or the chance to be a star or the opportunity to connect with some childhood icon. That's my gut feeling, but I'm pretty confident in it considering what I hear from people and what I've seen. I'm sure there are a few hopeless clods out there that really believe in a "whoever has the gold makes the rules" mindset, but they get at that position not through ignorance of rights but by rejecting them.
The basic reason I prefer a manifesto to a Bill of Rights as a rhetorical tool, by which phrase I mean the object through which your ideas are presented, is that in this case I think it would have been more effective. Manifestos are ongoing. They are tied to a positive effect, and once around for a while, judged based on their positive or negative outcomes. Bill of Rights style documents are much trickier than that. People can be reminded their rights but that only leads to their assumption if they agree with you such rights are paramount and feel empowered to act on them. I don't think most people do, and if they ever did are less likely to agree now. No one argues that Siegel and Shuster didn't have rights, but an increasing number of people argue that they sold them for a very fair price. Same with Jack Kirby. A manifesto argues not only for taking a position that's just, it demonstrates the advantages of doing so.
I think we reached a point long ago where more people are going to be convinced that creators rights are important because you don't get to enjoy what Frank Miller has enjoyed so far this year without adhering to them, or you don't get the satisfaction Dave must have in finishing his life's great work by bargaining these things away, or you don't get the security Jeff Smith enjoys by being neglectful of what's at risk when you negotiate some brutal industry waters. People like this weren't asserting their rights and they certainly never got to the point where they were working off a checklist to see what they had bargained away; they understood their primary importance at the heart of the creative process, seized what was coming to them based on that truth, and then didn't let go.