It’s another Tuesday, and it’s still beautiful, just like all of you. [I went to a Prince concert a few years ago, and he recommended singing his song Cream to yourself in the mirror. Read the lyrics, and you’ll see that it’s pretty self-affirming. So, yes, you’re beautiful.]
This week, I want to talk to you about something that should be near and dear to all of your hearts: loyalty.
Loyalty is defined by Dictionary.com as: 1. the state or quality of being loyal; faithfulness to commitments or obligations. 2. faithful adherence to a sovereign, government, leader, cause, etc. 3. an example or instance of faithfulness, adherence, or the like: a man with fierce loyalties.
Back in the day, loyalty was more than just a word or treated as an ironic type of punchline. People stayed at their jobs for thirty-plus years, having a career in one place; were friends forever [which is something that fraternities strive to do]; or stayed married [‘til death do us part]. And that loyalty was often rewarded with perks, or being taken care of, or other things. Not anymore. Now, loyalty is part of a program. People and companies try to buy loyalty with reward programs or discounts. Those programs and discounts don’t get better over time. If you’ve been with a certain company for ten years, say, Visa, the person who’s just come aboard is eligible for the same types of discounts as you are, just by dint of being new. American society no longer cares about you as an individual. You’re just a number, something to sell things to.
In comics, though, things are different. You have almost an entire industry that is sustained by characters that are 50+ years old. Things are getting better, but the industry is maintained by the loyalty of readers of Marvel and DC books. [You can argue that if you want to, but without Marvel/DC to sustain it, American comics would be in a much different, much smaller place. Thank you, Mr. Wertham.]
Realize this, though: that loyalty is a one-way street. Just because you are loyal to the corporate books doesn’t mean that the corporation is going to be loyal to you. These companies have to do what is best for them, and what’s best for them doesn’t always sit well with the vocal minority. [Who, in the case of comics, are very vocal.]
Creators, though? Creators are a different subject.
When you start the conversation of creator loyalty, you’re talking two levels of creator, as well as two different timeframes.
Let’s talk timeframes first. [Because you have to understand where we came from in order to see where you’re going more clearly.]
Basically, until around fifteen years ago, creators were in two camps, almost exclusively: Marvel or DC. You generally didn’t see too much of superstar creators going from one house to the other. Sure, they were very chummy [and still are], but you didn’t often see them crossing the street for work. It wasn’t exclusive contracts that were holding them; it was something of loyalty to the respective universes, as well as the companies having unspoken agreements to not poach creators. When those unspoken agreements started turning into creators getting work on the other side of the street, both companies started giving out exclusive contracts, binding creators to them for a time. Then there were the contract wars, where each company tried its best to bind the best top flight talent to it, offering higher page rates, guaranteed work, and health insurance. We’ve come near the beginning of this particular circle, in that exclusive contracts aren’t being handed out almost willy-nilly anymore.
Now, creators are staying in place because [once more] they love the universes they’re working on. Money plays a part, but exclusive contracts aren’t given out with much frequency or with much fanfare anymore. That’s top-flight talent we’re talking about. Mid- to low-tier talent get work where they can.
Whereas you don’t see as much creator loyalty to a specific universe anymore, you do see creators who are loyal to each other.
I’m talking about artist/writer pairings. You see this much more often nowadays than before. Some of the current, more famous pairings are Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch, and Brian Bendis and Mike Oeming. But that’s rarified air. Let’s take this conversation way down, and make it more relevant to where we’re at.
So, you have the idea for Pen-Man, but you don’t want to “marry” just any artist. You want to make sure the artist is capable, trustworthy, and reliable. So, you do a short: Bacon in Space. That turns out well. You do another: Bacon Cannibals. That turns out well, also. And in doing the two shorts, you become friends with the artist…
And that friendship is the breeding ground of loyalty.
(Breeding ground? You make it sound like a disease or something.)
Sometimes it can be.
Here’s what loyalty will do for you: it can help you move forward, or it can hold you back.
Let’s say you have an artist whom you like, and started doing work with. They’re doing the work, getting it done, and that friendship forms. You’ve made promises to that artist to get them to do the work: money, fame, part of the IP, naming your firstborn after them. [Hey, whatever it takes!] They’ve done the work faithfully, and you love what you’re seeing.
But then something happens. Better opportunities come along, or you’ve grown as a creator, and you’re seeing that it’s either time to move on from the current project [for whatever reason—usually, the biggest and best reason is that it won’t sell], or move from the artist [usually, the biggest and best reason is that they aren’t as good as you thought, or they aren’t progressing fast enough to get to where you think they should be].
What do you do?
The bulk of us will remain loyal. You’ve made promises, and you take your word very seriously. You know that, for whatever reason, the project isn’t going to be a success, and your growing business acumen tells you it’s time to separate from the artist. But that artist needs the money you’re paying them for their livelihood, and you don’t have the heart to say, “stop.”
This is how loyalty can be a double-edged sword. You know you shouldn’t go on, but the bond you’ve forged, along with the promises made, have served to keep you onboard a project you no longer have belief in. (Sounds like I’ve gotten myself good and trapped! What can I do, Steven?)
The options aren’t many, and unless the artist is very understandable, you’re going to end up looking bad.
If your spouse won’t let you name your firstborn [or second- or fourth] after them, tell them so… (STEVEN!)
Sorry. Sorry. Okay.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: be honest. Tactful, but honest. If you no longer believe in the project, tell them so. If you’re having a problem with the art, tell them so. [This is also another reason to have an impartial editor onboard. Someone to play the heavy. “Blame” can be laid at the editor’s feet for a myriad of reasons. Just make sure to let the editor know before you go start laying blame at their feet. No one likes to be blindsided.]
But you have to do it early. The sooner you do it, the better off you’ll be, and the better chance you have of keeping your friendship intact.
Being loyal also has its rewards.
If either of you become a superstar, or crack Marvel/DC, then it is very possible that one will bring the other with them. It’s definitely possible.
And that’s all I have.
Homework: Just be careful of whom you give your loyalty to, and with whom your loyalties lie. Not everyone is worthy of your loyalty, and some actively abuse it. Be on the lookout. It is extremely easy to do a search for people nowadays. Extremely easy. Search, see what they’re about, check their work, and check what people are saying about them, if anything. See if they’re worth it. Not everyone is.