Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

April 23, 2013

Group Think: In What Ways Does The Culture Of Comics Have An Impact On How Business Is Done?

The author and consultant Rob Salkowitz sent in the following e-mail after I posted on Steve Bissette's thought on Marvel and DC choosing many of the policies they have that have an impact on creators rights.
"Saw your post this morning on Bissette's thoughts about corporations screwing creators, the choices involved, and the options. FWIW, I think there's a phrase in management-speak that applies here: 'culture eats strategy for breakfast.' Corporations reflect the values (or lack thereof) of their leaders, as filtered down the chain of command. As a business analyst by trade, I find that often the best explanations for aberrant business behavior arise from basic human psychology, not just the twisted logic of capitalism.

image"When I look at the sociology of the early comics biz, especially DC and Timely, I see a very particular cultural dynamic at work: highly ambitious, entrepreneurial owners drawn from the same basic background as the artists (e.g., 1st or 2nd generation Jews from the lower depths of New York), half a generation or so older than their creative talent. Sure it serves their ownership interests for them to keep as much of the rights and profits as they can, but it's more than that. It is psychologically and socially necessary for the owners to create distance between themselves, good upper middle class bourgeoisie and aspiring capitalists, and the sweaty working-class artisans who do their work. I imagine you've read enough 'birth of the Golden Age' stuff to know what I'm talking about.

"Think about how that works in practical behavior terms: Donnenfeld, Liebowitz, Goodman, etc. -- rising ethnic businessmen, trying to legitimate themselves in a marginal industry -- will do anything in their power to avoid being lumped in socially with the Siegel-and-Shuster class (scruffy, nerdy artists -- obviously total 'losers' in the world view of the ownership class), or worse yet, people like Jack Kirby (a kid from the slums, basically). If the owners were WASPs, it wouldn't be as important because outsiders would immediately recognize the social distinction, but since it was all Jews (and a few Italians and other ethnics) from top to bottom, the bosses needed to demonstrate their authority by treating the workers like garbage. That's how they figured the capitalist peer group whose approval they craved would recognize they were 'respectable.'

"As a result, you get a whole business culture defined by keeping the help in their place and not conceding any ownership prerogatives. IMO, all the odious trapping of the comics business: exploitive contracts, asshole editors, lack of benefits/dignity/certainty for freelancers, disposability of staff, arise from this 'familiarity-breeds-contempt' dynamic that characterized the early business. Once big money arrived, it became easier to justify this behavior in terms of greed – an acceptable motivation in corporate capitalism -- rather than simple class insecurity and pettiness. But that's where it comes from.

"Note that Joe Simon, Will Eisner and Bob Kane (or at least his family) are a different matter -- they come from slightly more middle-class origins and have some respectability attached to them, so it is easier, I think, for the bosses to treat them as autonomous creative people. And of course Stan Lee was Goodman's nephew. IMO, it's no coincidence that these are the people who came out of the Golden Age with relatively good business deals. As a class, they didn't pose as much of a threat to ownership's self-image.

"That was all a long time ago, of course, but I think there's ample evidence that this attitude is encoded in the DNA of DC and Marvel, and maybe also of Archie. When you think about the Levitz/Kahn regime at DC -- whatever its faults from other standpoints -- I think you'd have to say it was characterized by a certain humanitarianism toward the creators. IMO, this was born of the fact that Levitz and Kahn both came from middle class Jewish backgrounds where showing the lower-downs who's boss was not as important to the definition of success. But note also that Jack Liebowitz lived to serve on the board of AOL/Time Warner, and Ike Perlmutter certainly strikes me as a current day manifestation of this same temperament. Evidence indicates that the attitude lives on, even as its origins get lost in the mists of time."
What do you think? Is Mr. Salkowitz right about that aspect of comics culture and its impact on business dealings? In what ways might he be wrong? Are there other ways you've noted a connection between the culture that informs comics and the comics business?

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posted 12:00 am PST | Permalink

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