An open letter to young freelancers:
In the long run, the quality of your work is all that matters.
As a professional comics writer, I sold my first script twenty-nine years and what feels like three separate lifetimes ago. Despite not being especially good early on, I’ve been steadily employed since the beginning, which stretches the laws of probability far beyond the breaking point. In terms of career longevity, I have enjoyed good fortune exceedingly disproportionate to my level of actual talent. If I could tell you how to replicate that luck, I would, happily, but I can’t. All I can give you, an up-and-coming comics freelancer trying to make a living in 2013, is my honest, absolute admiration at your fortitude and perseverance, because It’s Not Supposed To Be This Way.
Ever since history’s first cave painter got notes from his tribal leader, freelancers have been complaining about “editorial interference.” Thus will it ever be. Look, Siegel and Shuster got notes from their editor. We all get notes. No one’s work is perfect, and no one is immune from criticism, especially when the critic is also the one paying a writer or artist for his or her services. And I have been a publisher and an editor almost as long as I’ve been a writer, so I am sympathetic to both the check-writer and the check-casher. There’s always some give-and-take tension between creative and editorial.
And there are a lot of good comics editors out there, probably more than ever, and I applaud them. But there are, likewise, a growing number of (1) good editors who are not allowed to be good editors by their bosses, and (2) outright chimpanzees.
What I see a lot of freelancers going through today in the work-for-hire arena is just unreal, and the horror stories of personal and professional abuse I’m hearing from the trenches on a regular, almost-daily basis are mind-blowing to me–not only because I’m sympathetic, but because every single one of their experiences is utterly antithetical to the creative process.
If you’re a young freelancer, here are some things you ought to know:
First, if you feel like you’re practically being hazed, you’re not struggling through Business As Usual. If you’re fairly new at this, do not let anyone tell you that bullying is excusable in any way whatsoever or that it’s part of any “learning curve” or “breaking in.” This is a business; you have a right to be treated professionally. If you have produced a script or artwork in good faith that was accepted but, a week or two later, the editor calls you to ask for some minor revisions, give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s not trying to annoy you but is just sincerely trying to hone the work to everyone’s benefit. On the other hand, if approved work, through no fault of yours, suddenly became retroactively “unapproved” and needs a heavy rewrite or a total redraw, a lot of you are being required to do that work for free, over and over again, desperately racing to get to the end zone before someone moves the goal posts again. That’s bad form; when you’re not at fault, you’re supposed to get paid for substantial revisions. Your time is valuable. If you’re not being compensated for redo after redo after redo on that has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with editorial whim, that’s unprofessional and unacceptable and you’re being taken advantage of.
Similarly, if you’ve done work based on reference supplied to you, upon agreements made with your editor, or upon approved outlines and then been asked to make major, time-consuming alterations because “things have changed,” you should be entitled to charge for rewrites and redraws. If you’re discouraged from standing up for yourself under threat of losing future work–and so many of you have been and are–that’s unacceptable behavior, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
If you are being bludgeoned with non-disclosure agreements–not just asked to sign one as a matter of course, but having them lorded over you threateningly like a caveman swinging a club–that’s unacceptable. That comes top-down from a place of fear and a pathological need for control, and I don’t have to tell you how poorly fear and control facilitate creativity. (Also, be aware that in this industry, NDAs are almost impossible to legally enforce and always have been, which is why we got along 75 years without them.)
There is no guild in comics, no union, no ombudsman for freelancers. You’re on your own when dealing with publishers, and given the current state of the industry, I can tell you without hesitation that if I were just starting out today and had to deal with half of the nightmare stories I hear from you guys about what it’s like to work at certain places–executives flat-out lying to your face, higher-ups demanding loyalty from you while offering none in return, editors calling you at the eleventh hour to demand 180-degree changes in stories that have already been approved and then acting as if the fault is with you–if that had been the Way Things Were 29 years ago, I’d just be getting out of prison about now.
There are some really good reasons to do work-for-hire. It’s a valuable way to build a reputation. It’s probably not wise to devote 100% of your time to it, but only you know what your priorities and appetites are, and no one else has a right to judge them. And, yes, every job has its drawbacks and moments where it’s better to be flexible than absolute. I truly, truly understand having to take work you don’t love, or work with folks you don’t love, in order to make the rent. And early on, there are things I put up with that I now regret, and there are opportunities I lost because I pushed back, and there are still things I do sometimes to be a get-along guy that aren’t always in my best interests. Everyone’s threshold is unique, and sometimes you let someone take undue advantage because the cupboards are bare or because you’re dealing with a friend who’ll get yelled at if you don’t toe the line. I get that. Circumstances are circumstances. But if you never listen to another word I say, and I talk a lot, please know this: the only one watching out for your future is you.
Be professional. Be a problem-solver. Be willing to compromise in the face of a solid argument. Be willing to lose sometimes because you’ll learn more that way than you will by always winning. Ultimately, if a client is paying you for your services, he or she has every right to set the specifications, just as you have a right to your integrity. But when people jealous of how you make a living try to rag you with that old truism that every company employee has to eat shit now and then, remind them that you are not an employee. You’re a contractor. You do not receive health benefits, sick days, pensions, vacation time, or any of the other considerations traditional employees receive. Your clients have zero ethical or moral ground to lie to you, to denigrate you, to cheat you, to demand more from you than they’re paying for, to unapologetically walk back on promises or treat you maliciously, or to exploit your need to put food on the table. The good ones won’t. Never trust the bad ones.
Have a sense of humor and maintain a cool head. Pick your battles, but don’t pick fights–even if you’re in the right–because it’s easy to get a reputation (even when you’re punching up, not down) as a loudmouth who can’t go on the internet and tell anyone what time it is without it being characterized as “another rant.” (So I’ve heard.) Take the notes sometimes, even if they seem to be change for change’s sake, be genial…but always protect the work. Know that, five years from now, as fans or prospective publishers are looking over your published pages, no one will care that the comic they’re reading sucks because the publisher moved the deadline up or because the editor demanded you work an android cow into the story. All anyone will care about is the pages they see in front of them, and they will hold you responsible for them, no one else. Mediocre work will follow you around forever.
Bad editors and publishers will ask you to type their stories, not help you tell yours, and sometimes that will seem like a small price to pay for a steady check and to bank karma as a “good soldier.” In the moment, it’s often very hard to know if you’re compromising in a way that might bite you down the road. All I can tell you is that the better your work is–both as submitted and as printed–the more opportunities will come your way, and sometimes that means–politely, professionally, without rancor–saying no or turning down the check. It can be nerve-racking,but while I cannot name names without embarrassing them, I can–purely off the top of my head–think of at least a dozen freelancers who hit every impossible deadline ever asked of them… who were pleasant to work with and always professional even if their editor was a jerk…and who always did exactly what their editors asked them to do, even if it was obvious to a blind man that the quality of the finished work was lessened, because they were trained to believe that their first priority was to serve their editor and do so in a timely manner, and whatever creative voice they brought to the table was secondary. They were good soldiers. They were great soldiers.
All of those people have been unemployed for years.
The quality of your work is all that matters. That’s what buys you longevity. You’re sweating the future because you had one disagreement with your editor? Neal Adams helped get Superman’s creators money and recognition by shaming Warner Bros. in The New York Times, dude. Neal’s not selling cars for a living today. You’re being given an absurd deadline and you think you’re better off turning in crap than being late? We used to literally stand over the fax machine at the DC offices while Neil Gaiman sent in his Sandman scripts in batches of exactly one page. Not admirable, but twenty years on, no one remembers how slow Neil could be, just how phenomenal the stories were.
A quick favor for a good editor here, incorporating a pointless note to keep the peace there…yes. Be flexible, not overtly defiant. Don’t be what a reasonable, uninvolved party would define as “difficult.” But be good above all else. Stand up for your work, and whenever push comes to shove (as it will), never let anything get in the way of you doing your very best, every time. In the long run, the quality of your work is all that matters. That is your only resumé.
Don’t let anyone scare you. Don’t let anyone bully you, ever. Some will if they think they can, but you teach people how to treat you. You can be confident and show integrity without being argumentative. And for God’s sake, don’t be so afraid to explore your options that you keep turning in work that makes you wince; no good decision was ever made primarily out of fear. You can always walk away from any monkey house if you have drive and talent. There are still plenty of places in comics to do work-for-hire without being poorly treated, and there are huge opportunities to self-publish and build a faithful paying audience through the web. It’s hard work, but it’ll be better work, and it’ll be the work you’re remembered by.
If any of this applies to you–if I’ve struck a nerve and you want to talk more about this–I’m not hard to find. I’ll listen when I can make the time, and I’ll give you what advice I can, but truthfully you don’t need me. You just need to know that being taken advantage of is, full-stop, unacceptable and that your work may be for hire, but your dignity is not.