Monday, February 18, 2008

Puzzling DC Rumors...

I'm trying to stay positive about Final Crisis, but two items in the most recent Lying In The Gutters have me concerned.

The first:

Sources close to freelancers inform me that DC Comics has a new in house policy for pencillers. Aside from very specific contracted creators (such as Jim Lee), any penciller contracted to work on a monthly book must deliver complete turnaround of 22 pages of work in four weeks. Not a month, four weeks. If that schedule isn't maintained, they'll pull pages and assign them to other creators. And you may run short of future work. A reduction in quality is more acceptable than a reduction in quantity."

Looking at the DC creative teams listed in the latest Previews, and noting how many books have fill-in artists or books with the art chores broken up, I can believe this.

But I think it's a mistake. We saw how well this method worked for Countdown.

Nothing will kill a book like sloppy, rushed art or breaking up the art chores among several different artists.

The other side of the coin is, do you want a book that is late?

A little behind-the-scenes information as to what is at play when a comic book is running late.

My last two assignments at DC were the titles Arkham Asylum: Living Hell and Human Defense Corps. I was virtually editing them myself, and I did not want them to be late.

Management gave Arkham the priority. In contrast, my instructions for Human Defense Corps were, "I don't care what you have to do, just get it in. Fire people, replace people, anything, the book isn't worth it, just get it out the door.

Every issue of both titles came in on time, but Arkham took extreme care and work. Despite of the priority put on Arkham, I was encouraged several times to cut corners, split art to make deadline, to bring out the thumbscrews, everything. In the end, the only compromise I had to make was to shift inking duties from the artist (who was doing it all himself) to another person. But, even here, I had to make a search for an inker who had an appropriate art style and who both the artist and writer were cool about. The creative talent were very concerned about the artistic integrity of the book, and I had to take that into consideration.

If I had the current alleged DC policy in place, and just arbitrarily swapped out the artist or split art chores, several things would have happened:
1) The writer would have quit.
2) The book would have looked like shit.

In the case of Human Defense Corps, which they wanted to cut down from six issues to five (though thankfully that didn't happen), I had to let go of an inker and break up art chores on the last issue (which I "wrote" into the story as a framing sequence, so it didn't look too bad).

The experience I've had with comic book artists is that, while some can hit the monthly deadline, a good number of them can't, or will start off hitting the deadline and fall off. I think a four weeks or you're out policy will greatly reduce quality.

But, if you are running an editorial department like a "studio" to pump out material, then this strategy would be necessary.

This brings me to the second item in the LITG column:

A retailer who attended the RRP DC/retailer conference last week said,

From a comics retailer perspective, however, there are some changes coming down the road that may not bode well. It will all depend on how the implementation of these new factors are handled by DC and Time Warner. Simply put, DC management I trust, greater Time Warner, I do not."

What could such a statement be referring to?

Is it referring to the way books will be ordered?

Or will something like mass-reboots of titles happen?

Mass reboots of titles -- starting it all from scratch -- would worry retailers. It might alienate fans. It might make the current books that the retailers ordered already "lame ducks."

But really, this is just speculation.

It's just that I had a sense that things were settling at DC, that they were entering a new phase. And think that they are still entering that new phase. But I have to wonder, at least for their superhero titles, if things are becoming more like an assembly-line to put out Product (with a capital P) out the door. There is nothing wrong with this, in theory -- if you're a business, you put out product. But, the creative side of things is going to suffer.

If there is any information to counter these rumors, I'm open to hearing them.


  1. As always, your perspective really adds something. (And I'm gonna have to go back and take a second look at my copies of Human Defense Corps to see what you're talking about there...)

  2. I hate to say it, because it seems heartless and cruel and callous, but...

    Sounds like a good plan to me.

    Look, I hate fill-in art and rushed work and books that look like they were put together by committee as much as the next guy, but DC has to take steps to change the culture of indolence that has taken root there. They need to tell these guys, "There is no reason, on average, why you can't put together 22 pages of art a month if you're actually working every day. Nobody is that slow. If you're not over-committing, if you're working on what you're supposed to be working on, then this should not be a problem."

    And they need to tell them in a language that they'll understand. Yelling won't do it, screaming through the phone won't do it, nasty emails won't do it. The only way to get guys to turn in work on time is to take work away from them if they don't. It's the same as any other job in the world. People who perform have job security, people who take long breaks, read the paper while they work, and then can't meet deadlines do not.

    So yes, I think this will probably result in a good few months of fill-ins, rushed art, split art duties, et cetera et cetera. But afterwards, it will maybe, just maybe, result in artists who take their professional commitments seriously and draw monthly books monthly, instead of twice yearly. I agree that the process of getting to that point will be ugly, but I think it's also gotten so bad that there's no "nice" way to do it anymore.

  3. I get that they don't want their employees to be unprofessional, as they have had enough of lateness in recent times. But I can only see two possible scenarios resulting from this strategy:
    1) Art in monthlies becomes sloppier, at least by the standards which we are used to nowadays. Looser and less detailed. The stroke and the shadowing depend more and more on the inker. Style becomes less of an important item: plot and storytelling rule above all.
    This needn't be something bad per se. Many artists in the 60s and 70s were fast, reliable and solid. However, for a modern reader, they might look crude, unspectacular or simply, "just professional".
    Some pencilers adapt to these new guidelines. Others wish not to do so, and limit themselves to work on special projects and miniseries. Others try and fail to adapt and suffer the consequences.
    Also, they sign Salvador Larroca and Stuart Immonen, and toghether with Bagley they become the backbone of the editorial. Or something.
    2)They forget this nonsense of monthly comics as the default format just because.
    They stablish some reasonable deadlines, taking into account both how fast the artist can realistically do and what are the best results they can expect, and they do not impose fixed criteria regardless of the nature of the project.
    They organize more miniseries, series of miniseries or graphic novels. Neither schedule- (We need four new periodicals for... May!) nor event-driven: just the best stories they can produce. And for people who really enjoy regular serials, they take the 52 route and go weekly, or they take the Manga newstand antology format, or they clone those three artist I previously mentioned, with the possibility of kidnapping John Romita.
    I think, in the end, DC will only tighten their politics regarding deadlines and reliability, big names will still have more leeway but they will be more prudent as to what they say they can do, some artist will move out and some others will come. Nothing new under the sun.

  4. Infuriatingly, I'm between John and Alvaro here. I think that in the long run, it's a good thing - you need to get periodical books on schedule if you're going to retain a readership, and I think that art is less of an issue if the story and editing are tight.

    In the end, you might end up having the workhorses do the monthly stuff and the less-than-punctual types relegated to specials or mini-series or other projects with a looser schedule. I have a feeling that in a few years, the TPB is going to take over, anyway.

    On another note, I adored Human Defence Corps - it's the sort of comic I'd not only have loved to read more up, but would love to write. Not surprising, since my favourite part of Doctor Who is the concept of UNIT.

  5. "more up"? I mean "more *of*". Okay, time for coffee.

  6. I was told that Jack Kirby used to pencil ten monthlies. Is that true?

    I guess as editors we were constantly caught between the realms of "they should be professionals and get it done in a month," and "constant reality slapping us in the face."

    This struggle has been going on for a looooong time. We used to say in our production meetings, "30 days is the cut-off! Then we start taking away work!"

    But then you pull your hair out because you're assigning half a book to some other artist at the last minute, you've pissed off your first artist, and the book looks like crap. Then your first artist goes to Marvel.

    And then you could say: well, in every other professional job, you must get your work in by deadline.

    But then Comics as an industry would have to be completely professional, too. Including offering comparable wages and returning telephone calls.

  7. Terence, I'm glad you enjoyed Human Defense Corps. It had a lot of heart. I think they made a Heroclix figure out of one of them.

  8. One question: Would the artists still view changes as 'arbitrary' if it were established policy, rather than an ad hoc practice? If the artists (and editors) are aware of their obligations before signing the contract, wouldn't that help editors like you (who want to maintain the artistic integrity of the work) find the inkers/pencillers/colorists who fit the general theme of the title?

    Maybe there's something I'm missing here, but I know that in other industries, employees tend to have fewer complaints when everything is out on the table like this. Does anyone familiar with the industry have any thoughts on this?

  9. Jaamal, good questions --

    When an editor has a book, they get from Production a list with all the due dates on it: pencils, inks, etc. Then, when we send out boards for the artist to draw on, we attach a form that MUST have the due date clearly marked. So the artist knows.

    But there is always that "understood" thing where we can buy time.

    What you are suggesting is that it be spelled out on the contract that in no uncertain terms the art has to come in by 30 days or work gets pulled away. I agree that would help.

    The problem becomes, a good portion of these artists would say "screw it" and go to Marvel, IDW, Dark Horse, storyboarding, etc.

  10. You're very right, Valerie, about the industry as a whole needing to conform to the same standards it demands of its artists. I'm actually of the opinion that DC should have "staff writers" and "staff artists", men and women who come into the office, punch a clock, and write (or draw, ink, letter, color) for eight hours. They'd get benefits, health and dental, 401K, profit sharing, et cetera. I'll admit, it doesn't sound very romantic, but it takes care of the creative personnel and makes sure the work gets done on-time.

    As to Kirby's ten sounds true, but I also know there were a lot of common industry practices back then that aren't so common now. Artists would farm out their work to other artists, who would handle the grunt work of drawing in backgrounds; lightboxing was common then, whereas now it's frowned upon; pages were farmed out to multiple inkers to save time, and were penciled roughly to save time. I'm not saying that Kirby himself engaged in any of these specific practices, but I know that it was treated far more as a business than an art back then.

    But even then, yes, writers and artists back then committed to and produced a lot more work, and that comes down to money. Nowadays, you don't have to work as hard to make the same amount of money, and very few people are going to slave-drive themselves if they don't have to. You just don't have to set as punishing a pace to make a living as you once did. (Which is, of course, a good thing. The comics industry back in the Golden Age was a pretty rough place.)

  11. Nothing bothers me more than comics that are consistently notoriously late. They call it a deadline for a reason. And (please don't kill me) in the real world, if you are consistently notoriously late at work, you get fired.

    Right or wrong, in my mind when I book is late I blame the artist. And it pains me (as a predominantly DC guy) that it's their books that I see it the most. I was embarassed for them that Infinite Crisis, their big crossover, was such a crazy quilt of artists and styles, sometimes within the same issue. Embarassing. It's the same as handing in a huge report and changing font every page.

    The last Loeb/Sale issue in Superman Confidential came out 6 months late ... disrupting 2 storylines. Sheesh, even bimonthly books are late. We are 2+ years into AllStar Superman and I have 9 issues. 9 issues!

    So now we get to the crux of the matter ... would I rather have less or rushed product or the best product. No Quitely, rushed Quitely, or the best Quitely?

    The answer is I want it all. I'm the consumer. And that's the bottom line. If you can't finish a book in 28 days ... work harder or say so. Are you a publisher and want a well-drawn book to come out every month ... hire a good timely artist or have 2 artists per title and have them alternate issues.

    Maybe the best example of clever ways of dealing with this issue is Immortal Iron Fist ... flashbacks by different artists, built in 'rest issues', and the best David Aja you can get.

  12. Arkham Asylum: Living Hell remains one of my favorite Batman stories from the past ten years. Thanks for helping to make it happen. :D

    As for the penciller issue, I'm torn. I don't want to have to wait multiple months for a good book because the storyline's impact gets weakened. On the other hand, quality and consistency are vital to keeping the story's power in trade form and just in general. I suppose I lean towards the latter option of "late, but good books" instead of "on time, but crappy books" but it is a tough decision.

  13. I always thought I was the only one who bought Human Defense Corps. Never even pondered the people who made it. Tasty.

    I don't think anything is going to fix fill-in artwork. I'm not optimistic about anything in comics though, so big surprise.

    I don't know where the "mass-reboot" theory stems from--the way you wrote the disclaimer of "just speculation" makes me think it's just a wild guess. That being said, I wonder what, exactly DC is planning to do. They can't just keep chasing dwindling sales with the same product over and over again (and regardless of differing over taste, i don't really see anything that really makes Countdown wildly different from Trinity or 52--they're all still the same basic product)--if nothing else, doing something drastic seems a lot more interesting to me than more variations of the same. Ditching the monthly pamphlet, combining titles--doing something, anything big would be worth seeing. Hoping that a new number one and a stable publishing schedule or going to fix anything though? C'mon. horseradish.

  14. I'm going to jump on the bandwagon here.

    I'm a project manager in the multimedia arena, and I've often wondered how comic art can go so far off schedule (I read Action Comics and am still awaiting the conclusion of the Kubert-penciled storyline). People in my field, artists, Flash animators, code developers, etc... all get their work done on time because if they didn't, we would fire them. We have clients giving us money to meet deadlines. My co-workers are aware they can be replaced if we fail to meet our contractual obligations due to their negligence.

    Speaking in generalities and not about superstar artists, I'm a bit baffled why you would care if most artists left to go to other companies if they couldn't fulfill their basic commitment. Is it really that hard to find (good) artists? Or to identify and nurture young artists within a more disciplined regimen? It seems I hear stories of lines of people trying to have their portfolio seen for review. Surely the young and hungry artists are trainable if the current field of artists can't hack it. That line of kids with portfolios should be all the incentive any artist should need.

    Counting on your editors to scream, cajole, etc... isn't anywhere near as frightening as losing a paycheck, if that's what the contract requires. Or, else contractually requiring the artist to finish work with penalties for lateness. It's standard contract procedure. And if DC found some success, how long until Marvel or others caught on?

    More comics coming out equates to more potential for profit for DC. More pages in the can (on a regular basis) means more comics coming out. From a business/ project management standpoint, I can't fault DC for looking at new methods for trying to keep books on schedule.

    Also, for those editors: As a project manager, if I or my peers continually failed to bring in projects in on time, we would get canned, not play musical chairs around the office.

  15. Wow, some great comments so far on a terrific discussion post.

    IF the rumor is true, I'd love to see it applied to writers as well as pencillers. Heck, writers MORE than pencillers, because writing 22 pages takes a heck of a lot less time than drawing 22 pages. And if a writer's late, or only turns in a script piecemeal (which I've heard happens but which I cannot understand, how can an editor approve a piecemeal script if he or she doesn't know how it ends?), he or she screws up the schedules for the penciller AND everyone else down the assembly line.

    IF the rumor is true, I disagree with you that quality will suffer. I think there may be something of an awakening amongst both pencillers and editors as to how many pencillers cannot do the job for which they're hired. I know a LOT of pencillers who've kidded themselves for YEARS that they're capable of monthly schedules, and they're just not. I will say right now that I also know a LOT of GOOD pencillers who are very capable of this, and they ought to be rewarded with work, not passed over in favor of "flavor of the month" people who've never actually proven themselves on monthly books.

    Like you, Val, I've seen what happens behind the scenes. And I've seen it from the POV of an inker's wife. Most fans will never know how many schedules inkers like Robin have saved over the years, having to make up the time lost because the penciller went past his/her monthly allotment of time. And you know what their reward is? NOTHING. The habitually late penciller is often rewarded with exclusives and steady work, and the inker who saved the schedule time and time again gets ignored. And that's just not fair. So the petty and vindictive part of me wants to see this happen, on an "it'll serve them right" basis.

    Besides, I'd like to think that this would lead to less "team of inkers" type books...

  16. Valerie,
    re: Kirby

    While at DC in the early 1970s he was contracted to produce 15 pages a week, which he both wrote and drew, more than 50 per month. And those are some of the best comics pages in the history of the medium.

    During his legendary 1960s Marvel years, he averaged three full monthlies, plus many covers, annuals, short stories in anthology series, etc. I'd estimate that for a portion of the 1960s he produced close to 100 pages a month.

    According to the book THE ART OF JACK KIRBY, his career average was 31 pages a month. Counting only 1958-1978, his average jumps up to 56 pages a month.

  17. One one hand, you've got a business, and you should run it like a business, with contracts that stipulate a prerequisite level of work to be produced and an appropriate deadline for that work to be delivered. It sounds like DC are just trying to run their company as any other company would be run.

    On the other hand, you hear stories about reliable workers getting blacklisted because they get on well with Alan Grant or something. Maybe a professional attitude is what's needed to survive a market of dwindling returns where shoddy workers are tolerated because there's a perception that names are needed to sell books. Comics got on well for decades with people turning in great work on time. If someone can't do that much, perhaps they should try another line of work?

  18. I think my man Grant Morrison pretty much said there was going to be no reboot.

    I think the Manga model would be smart. Get people started on a drawing career by having them work with an artist and do backgrounds and things like that. Fast fast fast.

    Way to go DC!

  19. I could be wrong (and I swear Val, there is no snark or sarcasm intended here) but didn't you kind of rake DC over the coals some time back about some of their main books (ie: Superman, Action Comics, Wonder Woman) being constantly late?

    Seems to me that DC is trying to correct that situation.

    This is something that DC is going to be damned if they do, and damned if they don't. We can't have it both ways it seems. We all want books on time with consistant art. Well, maybe it's me, but many of the artists seem to be unable to keep their deadlines. Maybe it's because they're getting other work outside the industry. Maybe it's because they do a lot of Conventions. Maybe it's because they're being wined and dined by other comic companies to come work for them. Who knows what it is.

    However, as much as people took issue with the final issue of INFINITE CRISIS being done by more than one artist... it annoyed me a LOT less then the INSANE delays that CIVIL WAR and ONE MORE DAY (which in the end I wound up disliking anyway) had.

    When the delay of an issue disrupts a storyline or the continuity of an entire comic line (like the CIVIL WAR situation did) then I would MUCH rather see it broken up into different artists to keep it's deadline. Especially if the comic company in question gets someone of equal talent to fill those pages.

    Hey, as much as I disliked what they did to Blue Beetle and Max Lord in it, COUNTDOWN TO INFINATE CRISIS was drawn by five different artists and it was beautiful. Of course it was planned that way, but it worked. Perhaps Marvel and DC need to consider that route on their big cross-over titles to keep things moving. Also planning AHEAD is a good idea also. How about not releasing a title until at least four issues are in the can?

    I support this practice. I know of a good number of artists who have never worked for a major comic company (or minor for that fact) and would do great work. Maybe this practice is the sort of thing that will bring many more younger, unknown artists into the industry and we'll all be the richer (art wise) for it. In any case, this business with late books has to stop, and I'm glad to see someone stepping up and doing what they can do correct an obvious problem that, frankly, drives us all NUTS.

  20. Quick follow-up to Elayne's comment -- I agree, inkers have been historically leaned on to fix deadline messes, and don't really get the credit. Oh, they get told "you really saved my ass on this book," but then when it comes around to getting a regular assignment, or bigger gigs...

    And I think if DC truly wants to get these books out on time, the editors should drop any ageism or need for the "flavor of the month" artists and hire veterans like Norm Breyfogle who can get the job done.

    Norm can turn around a book well within a month and do a professional good-looking job. He turned around the fill-in pages for Human Defense Corps in like a week. And yet when I tried to get him more work, even fill-ins, I was told that he was "old news." That's a load of crap. Why wasn't Norm drawing Countdown? At least the issues would have looked good.

  21. Bleh. While late books suck, the last issue of Wonder Woman looked absolutely horrible on the Ron Randall pages, making for a truly distracting read. I'd rather get a quality product that's late than one that looks dashed off at the last minute.

  22. It would seem that the superstar artists have set a precedent for slow or late work, and DC and Marvel management have simply done nothing to keep that from trickling down. As much as superstar actors and performers can make outrageous demands, I can see letting some titles slide, if its in the contract they can negotiate. After all, if what you're selling is "Jim Lee and Frank Miller do Batman", then clearly you can't have a fill-in artist. But that same tack shouldn't apply to the other 90% of artists, who aren't going to draw that kind of reaction.

    Bending over backwards to accommodate perpetually late artists just seems like a rationale for enabling poor professional conduct. Poor behavior which can ultimately reflect on the bottom line.

    In many ways, this issue only marginally effects readers. Some, like "michael aka cayman", are clearly turned off, but for many of us, its a distraction when reading a book and the artists are swapped out. However, we've already spent our $2.99. Long term artist swapping may lead to dropping a book, as inconsistency leads to disinterest. But this is also an audience which is aware of the why's and wherefore's of artists swapping. The question is, how can you grow the audience, and swapping artists out mid-comic may not be a great decision as a long-term plan. But editors getting books prepped ahead of schedule to avoid the need for artist swapping may need to play a key role as well. (And DC has made some noise about trying to get further ahead before sending the first issue to print).

    Also, hey... I grew up with Norm Breyfogle. Whenever I tell friends who have since quit reading comics that Norm isn't drawing anymore, they get a little sad. And so do I. Would love to see someone put him back in the DCU.

  23. This whole concept brings a smile to my face. When I was a student at Kubert, the one thing that was always drilled into us was "make your fucking deadlines". Throughout my career from amateur to professional, this has been my personal mantra. If it's good enough for Joe, it's good enough for me.

    I could never understand how an artist could constantly blow deadlines and still be working. In any other business, that wouldn't fly for a second. You don't have to do 15 pages a week, but come on - I'm working a full time job and I can still do 4 pages a week from idea to completion. In color.

    I don't know what the editorial expectations are at DC or Marvel. But the editors I've worked for have usually trusted me to do the best work I could in the time allotted, and I imagine the same would be true of any editor who trusts their artists.

    I'm guessing part of this problem stems from fledgling artists feeling like they have to work every piece to death in order to live up to the standards of the industry. Every panel HAS to be a masterpiece! Every figure photo-referenced! Every line perfect and over-rendered! They spend so much time creating a beautiful piece of art that they forget that they can't spend 20 hours penciling just one page. You need to come up with a sustinable, economic style in order to survive in this business.

    As long as there's no expectation that every panel is going to be a completely rendered photorealist masterpiece, this can only be good. It might actually encourage more creative visual problem-solving and make mainstream comics more interesting to look at.


  24. It's an interesting idea. But how practical is it when someone like me, a long-time but fairly casual fan picks up Wonder Woman because John Byrne is drawing it, and dropping it when he leaves?

    If I had to choose, I'd pick "On schedule."

  25. I work on a DC monthly and I haven't heard anything about this.

  26. The only thing that irks me about this policy shift is that it doesn't apply to 'superstar' artists. I can understand why, but I feel that the culture of acceptance of late books stems from what are regarded as those at the top of the industry being allowed to get away with it.

    I'll take less All Star Butt Shots in lovingly rendered detail and more timelyness, thanks. I'll happily settle for a hastily scrawled but fixed-in-inking anus any day.

    (Likewise: How long does it *take* to write "Ultimate Hulk vs Wolverine" anyway?)

    I mean, I have to plan my purchases three months in advance as it is. Do you have any idea what MTV did to my attention span?

  27. I loved HDC. Kind of disappointed it was never followed up (especially the branch office in Hell- wonder if that will show up in 'Reign of Hell).
    As to the time limits, I suspect it's going to depend on how the contracts are written. Guys like Carlos Pacheco or Ethan Van Scriver probably have stipulations specifying how many issues per year they'll produce and requirements for lead time. Newbies like Rip van Snuffy might not have such protections as a means of telling TPTB, how good he or she will be in the future.

  28. Val Said "Norm can turn around a book well within a month and do a professional good-looking job. He turned around the fill-in pages for Human Defense Corps in like a week. And yet when I tried to get him more work, even fill-ins, I was told that he was "old news." That's a load of crap. Why wasn't Norm drawing Countdown? At least the issues would have looked good."

    No THAT pisses me off. Norm Bryfolge is one of the BEST Batman artists EVER. I LOVED his work and have been wondering for a long time why he hasn't been around.

    The practice of "hot" artists being the only real ones to get steady work SUCKS. Someone like Norm should be working ALL OF THE TIME. Especially since he could stick to a DEADLINE as well as give us GREAT artwork.

  29. You know, your idea of a Corporate Madated Mass DC Reboot really sounds like the likely scenario...

    ...remember that teaser poster for Final Crisis (I think it was) it had a *get ready for a reboot* feel to it didn't it?

  30. Speaking purely from the fan perspective I will admit that I want to have my cake and eat it too. I want good looking books. I want books where if there is an art split it makes some kind of sense and does not take me out of the story (character A's pages are by Jimmy Jack and character B's pages are by Jackie Jim being one of the more common recently I think). On the other hand I would like to not have to re-read the prior issue because I can't fark barkin remember what's going on because it's been so long since an issue came out. Frankly I don't care who's to blame and I'm sure it's not the same every time. Bottom line extreme unreasonable lateness should not be tolerated. At the same time I think that a certain understanding on the part of the fan community would be helpful. Consider the difference between regular TV and High Def. Well isn't that pretty much what happened when comics went from cheap ass news print to all this high end stuff? I know if I were an artist I would want My stuff to look it's best. On the other hand there is a point where you're not pursuing excellence and you're just wanking.