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B&N Week 153: What’s Your Professional Attitude?

| November 26, 2013

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There’s another Tuesday staring us straight in the eye. Must mean it’s time for more Bolts & Nuts!

This week, I want to ask a simple question: do you have a professional attitude?

There are many definitions of the word profession and professional. Let’s look at the definitions first, and then the objections to the definitions and why we have those objections, and then we can see how to apply some of that to comics. It should be interesting.

You can find many definitions of the word “profession” online, and they generally boil down to the same thing: a paid occupation that involves training and formal qualification. While that is a basic textbook definition, many will take exception to that definition. It is often stated that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, but there isn’t much training needed or formal qualification necessary to become a prostitute. All you have to do is find someone willing to have sex with you for money.

Language changes. Definitions change. You have to look at the meaning behind the meaning. Look at the most offensive word in American English: nigger. Only Black people can now use the word, and that is only amongst themselves. As soon as someone who is non-Black uses the word, then they’re labeled as racist. Look at Paula Deen and what happened to her to see how much vitriol is tied up in this one word. You know how you can’t discuss religion, politics, or sex in polite conversation? Added to that is the removal of the word nigger. It’s been reduced to “the n-word.”

When I was growing up, you could find nigger in the dictionary, and it basically meant an ignorant person. [Now, you’d be hard pressed to find that definition in lieu of today’s understanding of the word.] Then Spike Lee’s biographical movie Malcolm X came out, and a line struck me: read the truth behind the words.

Language changes, and the definitions of words change with it. Men wanted to elevate what they do, but took the somewhat lazy way out and took a word already around, and they changed it to fit what they wanted. According to this definition, prostitution isn’t a profession. Neither is crime, although if you look at a fun movie such as the remake of Ocean’s 11, you’d be hard pressed to say those criminals aren’t engaged in a profession.

Now, let’s look at the word professional. The general, accepted meaning is of someone engaged in an activity as their main, paid occupation instead of a pastime or hobby. That doesn’t resolve itself very well with the general, accepted meaning of profession, does it? There is definitely a disconnect, even though the root words are the same.

Now, with the accepted definition of the word profession, there are also things that have to be said for those who practice one. A lot of professions have codes of conduct, as well as moral and ethical standards. Those standards have then been either grafted or attached to those who call themselves professionals, no matter their profession.

With the disconnect between the words profession and professional, it’s easy to understand the disagreement between what a professional is and isn’t.

The problem arises with the code of conduct and the moral and ethical standards that professionals are to have.

No one will deny that doctors and lawyers are professionals. They have to be trained and tested rigorously in order to be able to practice their profession. They also have to abide by a code of ethics. Say what you will about doctors and lawyers, that code is there. Because of their knowledge, there is a prestige that goes with being a doctor or a lawyer.

I believe that others wanted the prestige that goes along with being a doctor or lawyer, and so they started to emulate them in certain ways. The easiest way to emulate something is to copy the easiest thing about them. Not everyone can be a doctor or a lawyer, but everyone can have a moral or ethical standard.

And this is the brush we paint professionals with. We expect them to behave in a certain way, and that way is both moral and ethical.

According to the definition, you cannot be a professional athlete, because being an athlete is not a profession; you can, however, be a professional cook [we call them “chefs”] because you can be trained and be credited by others as being that. However, we paint both professional athletes and professional chefs with the same brush. Alex Rodriguez and Paula Deen. Neither lived up to the ethical, moral code we paint professionals with, and have thusly paid the price for it. Whether or not the price is fair is not for me to decide or comment on.

In comics, there are a lot of people calling themselves professionals. There are not many of us who can say that comics is their main source of income, so they don’t meet the usually accepted definition. So the definition has changed [or reverted] to mean being paid for a skill. And as long as that exchange of money has occurred, the person with the skill can consider themselves a professional.

Now comes the tricky part: the ethical and moral standard that professionals get painted with.

We’re all different, and in being different, we all have different expectations as to what a professional is and how they are supposed to act. No one will deny that Erik Larsen is a professional, but some people take issue with his treatment of other people/artists. Others will hold up Rob Liefeld as an example of an artist with little professionalism to him. Then there is Mark Waid, who could be seen as the professional’s professional, or Kurt Busiek, who hasn’t had an unkind word said about him [to my knowledge]. All of these creators are professional by definition, but aren’t always seen as being what they are.

What is a moral, ethical standard for a comic book professional? It has to go beyond the cold, measured qualification of being able to do the work to the best of your ability within a specified timeframe. Morals and ethics go far beyond that. Morals and ethics speak to how people feel. They’re both about what is right and wrong, but as a code of conduct, morals and ethics are about how the professional treats others.

Comics doesn’t have a professional code of conduct, although we should. However, if we can’t decide on ownership versus work for hire, we’re not going to be able to come up with a code of conduct that everyone can agree and adhere to. [It doesn’t even need to be everyone—just a majority. That’s a pretty tall order.]

What would a comics code of conduct contain? I haven’t the foggiest. Smarter folks than myself can come up with one. But I feel it is needed, so that we can at least know what we should be doing when we call ourselves professional, instead of the foggy, amorphous understanding that we have now. Codified, ratified, accepted, and disseminated.

So, what is a professional attitude? Right now, only you can decide. For me, a professional attitude is one where the work is done to the best of your ability, while treating others with respect.

Respect is key. Not just the respect you believe you are afforded due to whatever position you may have or had previously held, but respect for your collaborators, peers, editors, fans, hopefuls, and the like. That respect cannot be abused. Respect is a lot like trust: once it is lost, it is nearly impossible to regain it.

You also have to have understanding. This can be challenging for the new creator who’s looking to get their first gig. With money changing hands, the appellation of professional can be bestowed, and with it, there are responsibilities. Those responsibilities cannot be taken lightly.

My professional attitude is shaped by the likes of Lee Nordling, Mark Waid, and Jim Shooter, while being tinged with my own experiences. Your professional attitude will always be tinged with your own experiences. Your professional attitude may even change. However, in order to not embarrass yourself with too much change too quickly, I suggest you study the actions of professionals you admire. You already study their work, now study the person. Ask yourself if this is the type of person you want to be. Work ethic and prolificacy are only part of it.

And that’s about it for this week. Homework?

Pick professionals you admire, and then do research on them. Read interviews, maybe even do an interview of them yourself, but try to get a sense of the person and not just their work. Depending on who you pick, it could be a challenge. Then, do the sincerest form of flattery: emulate them. Let their example, filtered through your own experience, be an informed choice and force for change on your career. You could do a lot worse for yourself.

See you in seven.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

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