Home > Letters to CR
Tom McLean On How I Totally Misunderstood His Post on the WGA Strike and Image Comics
posted November 10, 2007
[Original McLean Post]
[My post in response, referenced here]
I read your response to my WGA post of the other day and wanted to respond.
First, I think you're reading a few things into the post that aren't there and, secondly, not considering the point I'm trying to make (which, I'll admit, may not be as clear as it should have been) and how it relates to the audience of my particular blog, who likely don't know or are much interested in the details of comics publishing history as you and your readers are.
As you might imagine, given my day jobs, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the WGA strike, reading about the strike and discussing the strike. The connection to Image was to me an interesting one because many of the things writers are saying about their working conditions and the points they want to address in their next contract are very similar to the sort of things the Image founders were saying at the time they started up. I'm thinking in particular of Todd McFarlane's essay in the first issue of Spawn, as well as things I've heard Todd say in interviews and in person since then, where he says his problems with Marvel were more about the way they treated him as much as the money (though make no mistake, that was a part of it, too).
My point in writing the post was to point out those similarities and talk a little bit about what the result was and what it might say about each side's position in the strike. All of which is a pretty academic exercise because the businesses are extremely different and the self-production option open to comics creators is not available to the vast majority of WGA members.
The specifics of Image's business decisions aside, Image did show that creators have a value that has to be addressed in the market. Creatively, the 1990s were a real mixed bag, but while the record of the Image founders on creative rights (for anyone besides themselves) is pretty poor, Image did spark a discussion that resulted in creators coming up with some pretty impressive, original, creator-owned comics that continue to be popular to this day, as I mentioned in the post.
Your points on the negative impact of Image on the business are well taken. It was not my intention to pass these over, but it also wasn't my intention to write a detailed history of the business impact of Image as much as make the point that there is a precedent in comics for creators showing their value to the marketplace outside the structure dictated by the large corporations dominating a specific industry.
Let me address a couple of your specifics.
The piece is riddled with odd logic and oversights. Marvel is castigated by a set-up where we found out they thought that they could survive the loss of the Image creators the same way they survived the loss of Jack Kirby. Well, they did, and spectacularly.
Yes, they did survive and are thriving now. But the actions of Image (and Marvel management's poor decisions in reaction to Image) certainly contributed to Marvel's financial woes, which led to a bankruptcy proceeding where at one point liquidation of assets was a serious consideration. The idea that Marvel thought they could survive is based on reports I remember from the time that have been since documented in books such as Dan Raviv's Comic Wars and George Khoury's book on Image as being the opinion of Terry Stewart and other Marvel execs. And Marvel had a tougher time weathering the departure of the Image crew than it did with Kirby, as Marvel had to directly compete with Image and made some astoundingly bad decisions along the way. That they went back, hat in hand, to Lee and Liefeld in 1996 for Heroes Reborn I think demonstrates the impact Image (and the chaos it caused) made on Marvel. But, this is more detail on this point than I intended to get into in this post, so I left it out.
And of course the final lesson from Image has yet to be drawn -- Image is still around. Jim Lee selling WildStorm to DC seems to be put in the victory for the general thrust of Image and therefore creator's rights category, which I think could be debated from a variety of standpoints. Rob Liefeld wasn't fired from anything; the whole deal is dependent on him not being an employee.
Again, I think you're reading something into this. I'm basically saying that most of them are out of the comics creating business. I don't think what I wrote assigns the WildStorm sale to one side or the other of the creator's rights argument, though maybe it can be read that way and that's my error. The various accounts of of the Liefeld departure are, I believe, still at odds with one another, which is why I wrote it that way. I'm not sure what other point you're trying to make on that one.
My main objection would be historical fudging or willfully looking the other way. Let's take a big one. McLean says, "Of course, that kind of runaway growth couldn't be sustained, and the crash was so hard that its repercussions are still being felt." It's the "of course" part that grates. Making the slow late '90s/ early '00s sales wheeze part of a natural cycle absolves all of the abuse that Image heaped on a market that had never seen a publisher that popular and that erratic, abuses which were charted in excellent fashion by a young Eric Reynolds, and can be testified to by store owners that were wounded, some critically, by the cash flow problems caused by late arriving books and books of dubious quality. It also ignores stuff like the shortsighted, key decision that Image made to give the market over to a Diamond whose primary policies were going to be shaped by the deals they made with a few power companies; thanks, Image.
Again, it wasn't my point to get into that much detail on the history of Image, which is enough for a book, let alone a blog post. I think the audience for Bags and Boards is less interested in such details than your readers probably are, and it was beside the point I was trying to make. I don't think saying that runaway growth can't be sustained absolves anything, and it was obvious to many people at the time that it wasn't going to last forever, hence "of course."
Many of the abuses you cite were in full swing at Marvel and DC prior to the founding of Image, particularly the pandering to the collector mentality. DC put out five covers to Legends of the Dark Knight in 1989, a practice followed by Marvel with McFarlane's Spider-Man and the various X-Men relaunches over the next two years. Variant covers, foil enhancements, pointless crossovers and polybagged comics all were issues to be debated even then. This was the industry capitalizing on the growth the market had been seeing through the late 1980s and as a major step toward the idiocy of the speculator boom. Image played a huge part in that, sure, but the market conditions they exploited were in place by the time they got started in 1992.
I know that a lot of stores were hurt by the cash flow problems. (I remember a retailer friend of mine freaking out with excitement and relief on one rare week in 1993 or so when a half dozen Image books shipped at the same time -- it meant he'd do about five times his normal business and the ability for him to pay some of his overdue bills.) On the other hand, a lot of stores were fly-by-night operations trying to make a quick buck on a trend, exacerbating the erroneous perception that comics were a sure-fire investment -- something that's, I think, difficult to pin on any one publisher, even Image. Again, the ill effects of the Diamond deal is not at all something I'd dispute, but as I recall it was Marvel that kicked off the distributor wars by going it alone with Heroes World -- another huge business mistake on their part -- and that DC was first to sign an exclusive with Diamond, but again all this is more detail than I think relevant to the point I was trying to make.
Other areas where I'd have issues in a historical sense is that many of the creators who McLean casts in the light of making a move for creators rights turned right around and were doing work for hire themselves before too long, from both directions; I don't really remember Marvel and DC hiring a bunch of Image imitators any more than it's usual for popular creators to have imitators (DC in fact was pretty conservative art-wise through the mid-'90s); and the Image founders benefited from being made names by companies who saw value in creating names; they can be hostile places to creators in the end, and may value the company over the creator, but not because they see absolutely no value in the creator. I think they've long seen that as a commodity as well.
I remember almost every Marvel book and more than a few DC books being drawn by artists imitating what could be called the Image style. DC was more conservative on their big guns like Superman, but there was a lot of Scott Williams-style cross hatching going on all over the place, at every publisher doing superheroes.
My post doesn't call the Image founders champions of creator rights. I do say they "espoused" creator ownership, which I think is accurate though, I admit, not complete. Their support of creator rights was mostly limited to their own rights, but that they set up the basic Image deal that still stands today shows that they at the very least did something important to support it.
Yes, Marvel and DC see talent as a commodity, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when there was no precedent for talent really succeeding by taking their talents elsewhere or out on their own, I think they were much less likely to respond to complaints from creators than they are now. Their response to the Image creators' complaints as well as the way they just let someone like Chris Claremont, who was arguably the one creator most responsible for the success of their No. 1 franchise, just walk away shows their mindset at the time.
None of this means I hate Image. I like Image, generally, I like the Image deal, particularly as it exists now in comparison to some out there, and I agree with McLean it can be used as a model against which the claims of companies who trumpet they must have all cross-media rights should be examined -- Image wants none of them. Image's founding was a pretty amazing business story with some creator's rights elements, but as a Creator's Rights story, it sort of tanks. Hard. When McLean laments the state of the current Direct Market dependent on work-for-hire properties, that should be the first clue that no such revolution was ever really fought.
Again, I wasn't arguing that Image was a creator's rights story. It was about the creative and financial rights of the Image founders, who were able to do something about a situation at the big publishers that they found unworkable -- the point of the post and the reason I bring it up in relation to the WGA strike. The perception of the Image founders as individual champions of creators rights is definitely overblown, though it's also not fair to say they did nothing for the cause. Sure, for them, Image was really about their rights to make money and not have an editor tell them what to draw and most of the founders ended up running work for hire studios as guilty of most of the same creative abuses as Marvel and DC. But, again, it's too much of a digression and beside the point that they proved there was a market for creators beyond the characters or publishers they worked on or for. I agree with your criticism that I didn't make this clear enough in the original post; that's what happens when you writing a blog is one of several deadlines that have to be met on any given day.
As for the state of the direct market today, my lament has more to do with the fact that fewer creators seem able or willing to create and own properties. A lot of that has to do with the financial state of the market and few creators can make a living doing their own stuff the way that, say, Jeff Smith or Terry Moore could in the 1990s. The publishers today also are much more dependent on the ability to exploit comics across multiple platforms, which they argue requires that they at least own a majority in any property they put out. I know it's harder than ever to go it alone with a new comic these days, and I don't blame anyone who knows what they're getting into for doing work for hire to pay the bills, but I do wish more creators would try something new and that the market was more receptive to such work.
But the lessons of that era, from Image and elsewhere, are still there, in that the creator and the content still matter. Today, Hellboy, Spawn, Bone, etc. are all well known properties outside the direct market -- probably the best known ones that weren't created more than three decades ago -- and are probably the most significant examples that creators do matter when you're trying to create good comics and characters that survive and benefit the people who created them. Despite what McFarlane, Liefeld, Silvestri, et al. have done since founding Image, they have proven that creators matter and that, in comics at least, you can reap the rewards of your creations. (I know -- you can add "... as well as those of others" to the end of that, but that's another post.) Let me know if you'd like to discuss this further or post some or all of this on your blog. I wanted to give you a chance to read and respond to this first before I put anything up on my blog, which I'm still just thinking about at this point.
Tom Spurgeon Responds
: Clearly we have very, very, very, very, very, very different views of the history on this. I disagree with almost every single assertion you make in your response as to Image's role in early 1990s comics and the course of that market generally, while agreeing with you as I have from the start that Image was an important, influential player in the market, among artists, and in the way creators rights issues are viewed.
That being said, I think we can spare everyone the 145 paragraph response.
My primary objection wasn't to your airing ideas of arguable validity. It was what I saw as strident, untenable statements made in building some of your points in the original essay. When I read "Marvel and DC hired scads of Image imitators and managed to hold their own in a red-hot market" that doesn't suggest to me any room for the two of us to argue how many Scott Williams-style cross-hatching each of us maybe saw in Marvel's line in 1993. For me, that statement asserts a much more specific and confidently argued model for Marvel and DC's behavior in relation to Image that didn't conform to what I experienced, reported on and since studied.
I'm sympathetic to the difficulties of writing about comics for a general audience and having multiple deadlines and wishing to write as concisely as possible. I just think you stepped a bit over the line that rests between presenting an argument and loading one. The end result may have been a great piece for WGA-interested readers of your blog, but to my eye it was bad comics history. We can save the why and how and the whether and the who cares and the point by point for debate at some future time; I'll look forward to it. For now, though, I'm content with your admission that there's a lot more to it.