Since Michael Dean has spent several issues of The Comics Journal evaluating the journalistic standards of web sites and on-line personalities (whether they purport to be journalists or not), the temptation to examine his contributions by the same criteria is strong. And if I could resist temptation, my life would be very, very different.
Dean’s criteria for what’s considered journalism were as follows:
“1) it was about a newsworthy topic or issue, not just selling a product or promoting a company; 2) the reporter asked questions of people; 3) the sources of the story’s perspectives and information are identified; 4) the story reflected the reporter’s research into the context and implications of the story’s subject.”
Because it’s the meatiest of Dean’s articles in TCJ #273, I decidd to look at “Comics and Corporations: Creativity Under Contract” from the Newswatch section.
Newsworthiness: It clearly is. Dean cites extensive discussions on Warren Ellis’s The Engine and other message boards to reinforce the substance of the issue, and quotes blog entries from creators and Heidi MacDonald’s The Beat (one of the sites evaluated in his series). Two recent developments in particular are cited: the posting of a draft work-for-hire contract between DC and Dave Sim, and the rather heated discussion of the content of Tokyopop’s contracts with the creators producing its OEL titles. The topic of creator’s rights and work-for-hire versus ownership certainly bears substantial scrutiny, so this criterion is absolutely met.
Asking questions: The answer would be, “Yes and no.” Dean spoke to a number of people for the article, and he quoted a number of message board and blog postings related to the issue. The primary interview subjects are creators such as Sim, Kurt Busiek, Neil Gaiman, Steve Leialoha, and others, along with comics creator representative Harris Miller. (I’m not quite clear precisely what Harris’s role as a representative is, though agent or attorney seems most likely.)
Unfortunately, Dean speaks to very few representatives of the comics publishing industry. There’s a brief response from Image’s Erik Larsen to a claim from Comicon’s Rick Veitch about ancillary rights for a reprint project. Whether Veitch’s comments were obtained through interview or from the message board thread cited in the previous paragraph is unclear. No follow-up response to Larsen’s denial from Veitch is included.
A number of interview subjects make strong statements about Todd McFarlane’s contractual and residual practices. There are no rebuttals from McFarlane or indications that Dean had attempted to obtain them. That said, McFarlane’s legal battles with various creators, notably Gaiman, have been covered widely in TCJ and a number of other venues.
Smaller publishers such as Alias, AiT/PlanetLar, and IDW are characterized as being mindful of potential movie development, and Alias’s Brett Burnett does comment on the subject.
Miller makes a characterization about Marvel’s position on “incentive bonuses,” and Dean notes that Marvel’s Joe Quesada wasn’t available for comment.
A significant portion of the article tracks Sim’s abandoned negotiations with DC to contribute three pages to a Fables project. Sim provides considerable detail on the situation, but there is no comment from anyone on the DC side, nor is there any indication that Dean made inquiries that went unanswered.
Identification: Again, the answer is “yes and no,” for many of the same reasons. Sim, Dean, and others characterize what they believe to be the corporate philosophy of DC and Marvel, but without confirmation or denial from anyone from either company, it can only be considered supposition, however plausible it sounds. Here are some examples:
“‘It seems to me a case of: Do you want the work or don’t you?’” (Sim on DC)
“‘My hunch is they’d be loathe to require such things, since they then would be obliged to pay for my travel expenses.’” (Peter Bagge)
“More upsetting to DC was probably [Sim’s] suggestion…” (Dean)
“DC apparently judged that…” (Dean)
“…almost as though the publisher was haunted by the prospect of a single right remaining in the possession of the creator.” (Dean)
Perhaps identification isn’t the problem so much as balance. Contracts are between two parties, and the perspective one of those parties is significantly underrepresented in the article. I’ll readily concede that DC and Marvel might be utterly unwilling to discuss contractual details and negotiations for any number of reasons. More evidence of an attempt to include their perspective would have been welcome, though. (And while a number of creators cast doubt on the prospect of doing truly creator-owned work for a company like DC, no one saw fit to mention that Peter David just took Fallen Angel from DC to IDW.)
Research, Context and Implications: Dean is transparent about his process and intentions, even if they weren’t fully realized. (Few to no creators were willing to send TCJ their work-for-hire contracts, as Dean had requested.)
The focus on Sim seems to undermine the context and implications. Given his well-documented partiality to self-publishing, Sim seems like an odd creator to choose when examining the work-for-hire situation. Unlike the relatively unknown Tokyopop creators, there’s no imbalance of power in Sim’s negotiations with DC.
If the undertone from the Big Two is “Take it or leave it” (which is undermined by Harris and a number other creators who talk about negotiable page rates and other contract variables depending on factors such as stature), I can think of few creators more likely to leave it. But, as Sim has nothing to lose from discussing the situation, and since he had already made his contract public, I can’t help but conclude that Sim received the focus because he was the only creator willing to talk frankly and at length about a specific contract. And while it’s interesting (if one-sided) reading, it hardly seems illustrative of the wider issue.
As the thread on The Engine indicated, the real meat of the work-for-hire and creator’s rights issue is with more inexperienced creators at the beginning of their careers. They’re the ones who are more likely to struggle with the “take it or leave it” conundrum in the interest of launching their careers, and I’m a bit at a loss as to what they can learn from Sim’s experience with DC.
Dean’s stated aims for the piece are to answer the following questions (and I’ve added numbers in brackets for my own convenience):
“ What kinds of employment choices do today’s creators have?  Is there any difference between working for Marvel or working for DC?  What are the most important contract-related concerns and issues facing comics freelancers today?  What impact has the success of comics-based movies had on industry contracts?  Are today’s contracts negotiable or inflexible for comics creators?  To what extent are today’s comics freelancers able to share in the profits from their work?”
I’ll run through them and see what answers I was able to derive:
 Choices are numerous, depending on what the creator’s ambitions are and what level of control they’d like to retain of their work.
 The differences seem to be mostly in terms of accounting, though it varies from creator to creator. (The possible impact of exclusive contracts isn’t really explored in the article, which might have provided some dimension.)
 This remains unclear, as the pitfalls faced from someone like Sim are rather different than the ones faced by, say, Rivkah. But if full ownership of one’s work is a priority, then they should stay far away from work-for-hire on Marvel and DC’s trademarked characters.
 For some creators, the impact of possible movie deals is substantial, but mostly in the realm of smaller, independent publishers who make pursuit of such deals a priority and factor it heavily into their business plans. Marvel and DC don’t really sell specific stories or a single artist’s aesthetic to movie studios so much as trademarked characters, so it’s difficult to imagine a situation where someone working on Spider-Man or Superman today would see a specific change of circumstances based on a movie project. (Of course, if they’re writing a tie-in project or a title that gets a bump from a recently released film, they might see more royalties or incentive bonuses, but honestly, how often have Marvel and DC been able to really capitalize on a successful film?)
 It depends on the creator, their stature and popularity.
 Again, it depends on the creator, and also the publisher.
To sum up, I’d say Dean fully meets the first criteria and rates something of an incomplete on the other three.