ARCANUM: What’s with this Hiatus, Then?

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Basically, I neglected to quit my day job.

When Leverage wrapped, I had two projects to occupy my downtime: the Thrillbent 2.0 launch and the founding of my own production company, Kung Fu Monkey Productions. It takes a good year of development to pull any projects together for TV development, so I figured I had some room to spend exclusively on Thrillbent.

Arcanum is a difficult comic series — it’s meant to duplicate a TV series, which means breaking 13 full interlocking stories per arc, rather than a single serialized story. There’s also, for a fantasy series, a ridiculous amount of research. Savvy readers will be able to figure out from the real-world clues already dropped under exactly what location the Arcanum facility is constructed. The full timeline of all the plot links stretches from historical figures of the mid 1800’s through World War One to modern times. This is my Big Swing, so to speak. But, as I’d just gone from “A Show Eating My Life” to “Relatively Unemployed”, Todd and I jumped in with a certain comfort in the lead time we’d built up.

What I did NOT anticipate was rapidly closing the deal with my friends at TNT for a new pilot or two, my friend Dean Devlin getting the rights to a dream project we’d talked about for years, and the fine folks at Cinemax giving me a call for … something. Never mind the ruthless efficiency of the young people who work at my company, who scared up about 20 projects I’m NOT writing for development. Essentially, my TV career post-show did not suck at quite the Season I believed it would.

All that to say there was no way we could keep jamming the art through as my Arcanum scripts got farther and farther behind. We needed a gap for me to get the first batch of stories fully completed and give Todd and Troy a chance to do their best work. I’d also like to start doing what the Eighth Seal lads are doing — offering Arcanum issues on Comixology ahead of their Thrillbent release.

And so Arcanum takes a rest until September, with the exception of some concept art and research notes we’ll post occasionally. In the meantime, the Monday slot will be filled with Todd and Geoff Throne’s great indie action book, Prodigal. Supernatural treasure hunters who punch stuff, fight ninjas and dragons, and banter. It was this book which made me ask Todd to come on to Arcanum, and of course you all know Geoff Thorne from Leverage, so I’m sure you’ll dig the series as much as I do.

Thanks for your tolerance as we screw around with our little publishing experience, and be sure to check out Thrillbent’s other titles.

Jun 25, 2013 In: Comics

How DC Contracts Work

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SPOILER WARNING: Certain plot points of MAN OF STEEL are discussed.

A NOTE OF CLARIFICATION: This blog post explains how professionals are generally compensated for working on company-owned characters, not how contracts work for material owned by creators–that’s a whole ‘nother upcoming post. Onward…

A whole bunch of fans were asking if I have been or will be compensated for whatever ideas from SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT showed up in MAN OF STEEL. I answered “no, but I’ve no reason to expect compensation,” and thus erupted a wide–but poorly informed–comics-internet discussion about what DC should do, what DC doesn’t do, what contracts are for, and so on and so forth. So since I inadvertently started this conversation, I feel I ought to stretch beyond a 140-character limit to explain basic comics work-for-hire, contracts, etc. Even if you’re “just” in the entertainment industry and not a die-hard comics fan, it’s probably useful to know.

From the beginnings of American comics in the mid-1930s right up until the early 1980s, comics artists and writers were what we call today “work-for-hire”–they were paid a per-page rate by publishers, nothing else, and had no ownership stake in or claim to their creations. There were exceptions: though Siegel and Shuster were unquestionably undercompensated for Superman, they at least shared heavily in the royalties of his lucrative newspaper strip. Bob Kane cut a hell of a deal with DC on his co-creation Batman in the late 1940s by threatening to throw his weight behind Siegel and Shuster when they sued for Superman ownership unless DC renegotiated with him–consequently earning a hefty gross percentage on all things Batman until he relinquished most of his rights in the late 1960s for a reported million dollars. Simon and Kirby were guaranteed a percentage of Captain America and, when they suspected they’d been cheated, let DC hire them away for a sizeable sum. There were a few other creators in that time who were powerful enough or savvy enough or both to carve out unusual deals, but 95% or more of their peers were paid flat rates, and to some degree, that’s how it works today if you’re working for a comics publisher–you’re paid an agreed-upon rate for each page of material you produce.

In the ‘80s, the powers that be at DC and Marvel (at the time, really the only games in town) overhauled their systems and added royalties to the mix. Unless you were working on top-tier characters like Spider-Man or Teen Titans, the thresholds weren’t easy to meet–initially, at DC, books available on the newsstand had to sell 100,000 copies before royalties were paid, 40,000 copies for books sold strictly to comics shops, and not many did, (but you could dream!); at Marvel, sales were higher but royalties were divided differently between writers and artists. Pluses and minuses to both sides, but an upgrade nonetheless. Both companies also revamped their work-for-hire contracts to guarantee payment for reprints, collections and reissues. Moreover, DC (under the guidance of publisher Jenette Kahn and exec Paul Levitz) drew up a creator-equity agreement for the talent, granting a small but significant percentage of all revenue on new characters created by writers and artists. Marvel later followed suit with something similar, and while sales (and royalty thresholds) have moved up and down over the years, that’s pretty much the way the system’s worked ever since.

By way of example, let’s take Impulse, a character I co-created with artist Mike Wieringo. Mike and I signed a contract that grants us a small percentage of all revenue DC might earn off Impulse action figures, merchandise, guest-starring roles on Young Justice or Smallville, what have you. It’s hardly buy-a-boat money; I get maybe a couple hundred bucks off of every action figure (because of the equity deal) and a few cents off every trade paperback collection or digital sale (because of the royalty agreement), but it adds up and I do see something, enough for a nice meal every few months. And that’s the deal I agreed to at the time, and that’s fine. But that’s the limit of DC’s legal, contractual obligation to us.

The confusion about extra-media compensation arises in that Levitz, while he was DC’s publisher, made it a policy to cut respectable bonus checks to writers and artists, regardless of legal obligation, if elements from any of their stories (even work-for-hire ones) made it into outside media adaptations movies or TV shows. Did you like the scene in Batman Begins where young Bruce Wayne climbs a Himalayan mountain holding a blue flower? Christopher Priest got paid for having come up with that. Or the scene where Bruce Wayne picks out a potential Batmobile from among his own holdings? That was lifted from a Chuck Dixon-written comic, and Paul sent Dixon a check to acknowledge that. Same with dozens of similar moments in cartoons, DVDs, and so forth and so on. It wasn’t legally necessary, it was totally at Paul’s discretion and only Paul knows what math he used to determine what he felt would be fair, but it was a goodwill gesture from an exec sympathetic to the creative community.

And most critically, it wasn’t a written policy or guarantee. It was a courtesy.

Once Paul left, that courtesy was deemed no longer necessary by the executives and the policy was rolled back, as was DC’s absolute prerogative. Currently, DC pays bonuses only on material that’s a straight and highly faithful adaptation of existing work; for instance, Frank Miller (rightfully) got a check for the recent DARK KNIGHT RETURNS animated movies, but if the next animated film takes its plot from (say) BATGIRL: YEAR ONE but calls it “BATMAN: BATGIRL BEGINS” and adds anything to the story, Chuck Dixon and Marcos Martin will receive nothing. DC has removed itself from the complicated business of having to evaluate how much certain adapted elements are “worth” and instead simplified the system to “pay” or “don’t pay,” with “don’t pay” the default. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed to learn, for example, that I’d be receiving no compensation for the JUSTICE LEAGUE: DOOM animated film even though WB was actively billing it as based on my and Howard Porter’s JLA: TOWER OF BABEL, but I couldn’t be angry or resentful and have a leg to stand on. DC or its owners, Warner Bros., were not legally entitled to compensate me for re-use of dialogue or plots or concepts because there was no contract that said they’d have to (and unless things have changed recently, such a contract would never have been an option). Moreover, they have no motive to Chapter compensation; paying courtesy bonuses don’t benefit the stockholders in any way, nor do they in any way uptick profits or sell more comics.

Would it be nice if the policy were different? Sure, but “nice” is a human behavior, and I say this without one hint of snark or cynicism, simply as fact: corporations are not designed to act based on society’s expectations of ethics or morality. They are designed to generate profit, and a responsible, publicly traded company will by design prioritize profit over all else. “Yeah, but…” No. Corporations aren’t people, my friends. It’s not unfair for us to expect people to base their behavior on a variety of factors–that’s kinda the definition of “society”–but a corporation isn’t built to be “fair” any more than is my coffee table. You may not like that, you may wish it were different, but that’s reality in the here and now. It is not a complaint any more than it is to say that the speed of light is constant. It just is.

Every great once in a while, people (like Levitz) inside a corporation will bring a personal sense of ethics to the table and contend that non-profit gestures have lasting financial benefit. What we need to understand is that when this happens, it’s a fluke. Some companies allow more flexibility in this arena, some less. But without being an apologist for Big Business–just being fair–I have to say that when courtesies are extended that reach beyond the corporate system parameters, being angry that it doesn’t happen more often seems a waste of energy given that, by design, it’s not supposed to happen at all.

Or to put it another way, if you have a legal, binding agreement, you’re entitled to whatever it promises. Anything else that may come your way outside the boundaries of that agreement is terrific–good for you–but to expect extras and then be pissed when they don’t come does nothing but shorten your life.

So, no, I get no financial compensation for Man of Steel, nor does Grant Morrison whose words in ALL-STAR SUPERMAN were given voice by Russell Crowe, nor does John Byrne (maybe something for having created the robot Kelex, since that’s a character, not a concept like “Room full of Kryptonian embryos”), nor do the other writers and artists (other than creators Siegel and Shuster) whose contributions to the Superman myth were used in the film. And that’s okay. It’s not optimal, but we knew the rules going in. Hell, for me, honestly, the smile I got on my face the first time I heard lines from BIRTHRIGHT in the MoS trailer–the confirmation that I really did give something lasting back to the character who’s given me so much–is worth more to me than any dollar amount. (Your mileage may vary.)

Forgive me for repeating this, but the internet is a reductive place, and I’m not eager to start seeing more “Mark Waid Bashes On DC” tweets: I’m defending the joint. Fair is fair. I just thought it would be illuminating to take this ongoing question of compensation and contractual obligations (or lack thereof) out into the sunlight. No malice alleged.

I do a lot of work-for-hire because I enjoy the (actual) compensation and the work itself, but I’m also a huge believer in creator-ownership. I truly do believe that the more deeply creative folks feel invested in their work, the better it becomes in all media. Thrillbent, the site you’re on now, was built on that belief, and all the stories we host here are copyrighted and trademarked by their creators. (That’s my way of hinting that I really would appreciate it if you’d take a moment to explore our site full of free-to-read comics while you’re here, especially if you, too, are an advocate of creator rights.) It’s a risk for artists and writers to forego established comics publishers and launch on their own, but it’s a good way to ensure that they’re going to get what they want out of the process and be the captains of their own fate.

Thanks for reading.

 

Jun 21, 2013 In: Comics

Man of Steel, since you asked.

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First, if you’ve come to this page just to read the blog entry, do me a favor–check out our fine, free comics offerings here at Thrillbent. I bring this up because it seems like a wasted opportunity not to. You don’t have to; I’m not posting a movie review here to link-bait, it’s just…well, it’s my blogspace, and we do good things here. Anyway.

Non-spoiler review: It’s not for me. It had some very nice moments, several I wish I’d written (and at least three I did, I’m proud to say–there was lots of BIRTHRIGHT in it), but I can’t imagine wanting to watch it again anytime soon. YMMV. It’s a good science-fiction movie, but it’s very cold. It’s not a very satisfying super-hero movie. That said, if your favorite part of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE was Superman standing in the Fortress while Jor-El lectured him, you’re gonna love MAN OF STEEL.

Spoiler review:

 

 

 

 

At its emotional climax, at the moment of Superman’s ultimate “victory,” MAN OF STEEL broke my heart. I mean, absolutely snapped it clean in half.

I went in ready to forgive a lot. I knew we wouldn’t get much, if any, of the secret identity–“Clark Kent” as we know him, as a reporter in glasses, as in “disguised as…”, appears only in a cute nod, and I’ve said all my adult life that a Superman story without Clark Kent in it never really feels like a Superman story. But I was willing to give that a pass. And I suspected they’d front-loaded the story with so much Kryptonian backstory that it would end up being a science fiction movie, not a super-hero movie. But the music was good and the look of Kal-El , at least from the waist up, was good, and I had to suffer through four seasons of LOIS AND CLARK Superman with no spit-curl, so while I missed the ‘do, it was hardly a deal-breaker.

And I genuinely enjoyed the first two-thirds or so of the movie. Krypton was great. Zod was great. Really, there was a lot to like there. And I got my first of many proud-papa BIRTHRIGHT glows when we cut straight from the rocket’s entry to Clark as an adult, and I grinned like an idiot at the many, many other BIRTHRIGHT moments. I can’t really describe for you what it feels like to me to see evidence that I really have been lucky enough to add a few lasting elements to the Superman myth.

And I think you’d be surprised to find that I loved everything about Jonathan Kent. I loved his protectiveness, even when it made him sound like an asshole. (“Maybe.”) And I loved, loved, loved that scene where Clark didn’t save him, because Goyer did something magical–he took two moments that, individually, I would have hated and he welded them together into something amazing. Out of context, I would have hated that Clark said “You’re not my real dad,” or whatever he says right before the tornado. And out of context, I would have loathed that Clark stood by frozen with helplessness as the tornado killed Jonathan. But the reason that beat worked is because Clark had just said “You’re not my dad,” the last real words he said to Pa. Tearful Clark choosing to go against his every instinct in that last second because he had to show his father he trusted him after all, because he had to show Pa that Pa could trust him and that Clark had learned, Clark did love him–that worked for me, hugely. It was a very brave story choice, but it worked. It worked largely on the shoulders of Cavill, who sold it. It worked as a tragic rite of passage. I kinda wish I’d written that scene.

But about the time we got to the big Smallville fight, my Spider-Sense began to tingle. A lot of destruction. A lot of destruction–and Superman making absolutely no effort to take the fight, like, ONE BLOCK AWAY INTO A CORNFIELD INSTEAD OF ON MAIN STREET. Still, saving people here and there, but certainly never going out of his way to do so, and mostly just trying not to get his ass kicked. (I loved Clark Kent’s pal, Pete Ross, and not just because they cast pre-teen Mark Waid as Pete Ross.)

And then we got to The Battle of Metropolis, and I truly, genuinely started to feel nauseous at all the Disaster Porn. Minute after minute after endless minute of Some Giant Machine laying so much waste to Metropolis that it’s inconceivable that we weren’t watching millions of people die in every single shot. And what’s Superman doing while all this is going on? He’s halfway around the world, fighting an identical machine but with no one around to be directly threatened, so it’s only slightly less noticeable that thousands of innocents per second are dying gruesomely on his watch. Seriously, back in Metropolis, entire skyscrapers are toppling in slo-mo and the city is a smoking, gray ruin for miles in every direction, it’s Hiroshima, and Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich are somewhere muttering “Too far, man, too far”…but, you know, Superman buys the humans enough time to sacrifice many, many of their own lives to bomb the Giant Machine themselves and even makes it back to Metropolis in time to catch Lois from falling (again), so…yay?

And then Superman and Lois land in the three-mile-wide crater that used to be a city of eight million people, and the staff of the Planet and a couple of other bystanders stagger out of the rubble to see Superman and say, “He saved us,” and before you can say either “From what?” or “Wow, these eight are probably the only people left alive,” and somehow–inexplicably, implausibly, somehow–before Superman can be bothered to take one second to surrender one ounce of concern or assistance to the millions of Metropolitans who are without question still buried under all that rubble, dead or dying, he saunters lazily over to where General Zod is kneeling and moping, and they argue, and they squabble, and they break into the Third Big Fight, the one that broke my heart.

See, everyone else in Zod’s army has been beaten and banished, but General Zod lives and so, of course, he and Superman duke it out in what, to everyone’s credit, is the very best super-hero fight I’ve ever seen, just a marvel of spectacle. But once more–and this is where I knew we were headed someplace really awful–once more, Superman showed not the slightest split-second of concern for the people around them. Particularly in this last sequence, his utter disregard for the collateral damage was just jaw-dropping as they just kept crashing through buildings full of survivors. I’m not suggesting he stop in the middle of a super-powered brawl to save a kitten from a tree, but even Brandon Routh thought to use his heat vision on the fly to disintegrate deadly falling debris after a sonic boom. From everything shown to us from the moment he put on the suit, Superman rarely if ever bothered to give the safety and welfare of the people around him one bit of thought. Which is why the climax of that fight broke me.

Superman wins by killing Zod. By snapping his neck. And as this moment was building, as Zod was out of control and Superman was (for the first time since the fishing boat 90 minutes ago) struggling to actually save innocent victims instead of casually catching them in mid-plummet, some crazy guy in front of us was muttering “Don’t do it…don’t do it…DON’T DO IT…” and then Superman snapped Zod’s neck and that guy stood up and said in a very loud voice, “THAT’S IT, YOU LOST ME, I’M OUT,” and his girlfriend had to literally pull him back into his seat and keep him from walking out and that crazy guy was me. That crazy guy was me, and I barely even remember doing that, I had to be told afterward that I’d done that, that’s how caught up in betrayal I felt. And after the neck-snapping, even though I stuck it out, I didn’t give a damn about the rest of the movie.

As the credits rolled, I told myself I was upset because Superman doesn’t kill. Full-stop, Superman doesn’t kill. But sitting there, I broke it down some more in my head because I sensed there was more to it since Superman clearly regretted killing Zod. I had to grant that the filmmakers at least went way out of their way to put Superman in a position suggesting (but hardly conclusively proving) he had no choice (and I did love Superman’s immediate-aftermath reaction to what he’d done). I granted that they’d at least tried to present Superman with an impossible choice and, on a purely rational level, and if this had been a movie about a guy named Ultraguy, I might even have bought what he did. But after I processed all that, I realized that it wasn’t so much my uncompromising vision of Superman that made this a total-fail moment for me; it was the failed lead-up TO the moment. As Superman’s having his final one-on-one battle with Zod, show me that he’s going out of his way to save people from getting caught in the middle. SHOW ME that trying to simultaneously protect humans and beat Zod is achingly, achingly costing Superman the fight. Build to that moment of the hard choice…show me, without doubt, that Superman has no other out and do a better job of convincing me that it’s a hard decision to make, and maybe I’ll give it to you. But even if I do? It’s not a victory. Not this sad, soul-darkening, utterly sans-catharsis “triumph” that doesn’t even feel like a win so much as a stop-loss. Two and a half hours, and I never once got the sense that Superman really achieved or earned anything.

The essential part of Superman that got lost in MAN OF STEEL, the fundamental break in trust between the movie and the audience, is that we don’t just want Superman to save us; we want him to protect us. He was okay at the former, but really, really lousy at the latter. Once he puts on that suit, everyone he bothers to help along the way is pretty much an afterthought, a fly ball he might as well shag since he’s flying past anyway, so what the hell. Where Christopher Reeve won me over with his portrayal was that his Superman clearly cared about everyone. Yes, this Superman cares in the abstract–he is willing to surrender to Zod to spare us–but the vibe I kept getting was that old Charles Schulz line: “I love mankind…it’s people I can’t stand.”

Look, I know everyone involved in MAN OF STEEL went into it with the best of intentions. And trust me, there are not rivers or coastlines on this planet long enough to measure just how much I wanted to love this movie. If you don’t know me, you can’t imagine. And there were certainly things to like. But there was no triumph to it. None of Superman’s victories in this movie are in any way the kind of stand-up-and-cheer events you’d think necessary in a movie with Superman in it. Did it succeed in what it sent out to do? I think probably so. But what it set out to do, as it turns out, leaves me cold. With the exception of the first-flight beat–the smile Superman gets when he first takes to the air–it’s utterly joyless. From start to finish. Utterly. Joyless. And I just have no interest in relentless joyless from a guy who can fly.

Jun 14, 2013 In: Uncategorized