There’s been a fair bit of response around the blogosphere to my post about work for hire and the aesthetic limits thereof. I thought I’d try to respond to two of the more thoughtful ones.

Stuart Moore at Pensive Mischief thinks I’m missing the boat in linking work-for-hire to branding. He writes:

But that’s a side issue. The main thrust of this piece seems to be that creator ownership is desirable because it allows the creator to keep tight control of the “brand” and make sure the characters stay consistent and on-point. I’ll grant that there have been creators (Berke Breathed comes to mind) who’ve exercised very tight control over the licensing of their popular characters over the years. But traditionally, major entertainment companies have had an enormous interest in keeping characters “on-model” and consistent, to the point of having entire quality-control departments to ensure this. If it isn’t happening in one or two cases in the comics industry, that might be a glitch in the machinery, not an overall trend.

And I can certainly cite you independent comics that went off the rails — for a large part of their readership, anyway — as they went along. All respect to the creators’ right to do whatever they want with their creations — that’s the whole point here — but CEREBUS is probably the biggest example. FISH POLICE was a little rough toward the end, too. I’m sure there are others.

More to the point, though: Why do we care about branding anyway? Don’t we want creator-owned work because it leads to original, inspired comics, not because it means the Joker will look the same every time he appears?

Just to be a little clearer…I think the relationship between work-for-hire and quality is tricky to establish. There are a lot of great work-for-hire comics, and a lot of bad independent ones. The work-for-hire argument usually goes “if we get rid of work-for-hire, we’ll have more original, more creative comics.” That seems to be where Moore is headed with his argument. I deliberately didn’t make that argument because I think it’s hard to sustain. (I think there is a relationship between work for hire and low quality, but I think it’s a bit more circuitous than the one Moore seems to be advancing here.)

The point I’m making about branding, therefore, is kind of irrespective of quality. I’m not saying that comics would be better if the Joker always looked the same. I’m saying that comics as a medium would have broader appeal, and be able to retain a bigger audience if the Joker always looked (at least somewhat) the same.

Consistency is the soul of marketing. Comics long ago dispensed with even nominal efforts at consistency in large part because of the reliance on work for hire. In manga, for example, a series is inextricably tied to its creator (as the Brooke Valentine does or does not have to her music, from a marketing or branding perspective, the music is hers. A Brooke Valentine fan knows, more or less, what a Brooke Valentine song will be like. Whereas a fan of Batman in the comic book doesn’t know what the character will look like, or talk like, or who those stories will be aimed at.

In other words, I’m not talking about how creators are treated, but about how creations are treated. Not respecting creators is morally rotten and generally despicable, but it’s never been shown to hurt an entertainment conglomerate yet. Disrespecting creations, on the other hand, is morally neutral — but has unfortunate aesthetic and, ultimately, financial repercussions. In large part because of the work-for-hire standard, comics companies treat their properties like old, broken, whores, auctioned off with equal and cynical aplomb for a quicky, or a gang-bang, or some brutal, sadistic tryst. Consumers in general aren’t stupid; when the goods are presented as worthless, they figure they’re worthless, and don’t want to have anything to do with them. All, of course, except for a few, nostalgic fanboy johns, who knew the girl when she was young and pretty, and keep coming back for one more bitter, ugly fling….

UPDATE: Tom Spurgeon also weighs in, but much too briefly. Tom, if you’re reading, it sounds like you have some really interesting stuff to say about this. Longer post please?

UPDATE 2: And HU’s own Tom Crippen’s got a post about the aesthetic upside of work-for-hire.

UPDATE 3: I should note that pretty much everything I have to say about this was said first and better by Dirk Deppey in TCJ #269, his shojo manga issue of the Comics Journal:

Finally, and most importantly: The vast majority of manga being reprinted in the United States reflect the vision of a single creator or set of creators. This isn’t quite as inflexible a rule as that statement makes it sound — many manga studios more closely resemble the “communal assembly line” employed by Will Eisner than they do a single artist sitting at a drawing table — but even if the guiding force behind a given story (the manga-ka) is merely plotting and drawing the main characters’ faces, there’s still a single guiding force behind the story.

To emphasize the point, compare two media phenomena that attempted to drive sales towards graphic novels: Naruto and X-Men. The fact that Naruto has become popular in both print and animated forms should surprise no one; given that it’s the story of a young boy who’s secretly a nine-tailed demon, who spends his days going to ninja school and getting into constant trouble, you could safely call this series a
license to print money from the moment its creator wrote that concept down in his notebook. If the Naruto anime left you interested enough in the story to go to a bookstore and check out the manga, you’d find more of the same: The anime stays as close as possible to manga-ka Masashi Kishimoto’s original concepts, and Kishimoto is in turn the consistent driving force behind the creation of the comics version, regardless of who spotted the blacks or drew a particular forest background. So long
as you first bought the Naruto volume with the big “1” on the spine, liked it and followed it with the one labeled “2,” you’re pretty much guaranteed to be satisfied by the results.

If the X-Men films convinced you to pick up your first X-Men graphic novel, however, you’d be in for an entirely different experience. Your first exposure would depend upon which author’s version of the series you pulled out of the stack, be it Stan Lee, Chris Claremont, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar or Chuck Austen, and the artwork would likely change from one artist to another within the book’s pages. If you remained interested enough by what you read to buy a second one, that second volume would be as much of a crapshoot as the first, unless you very carefully observed which names were on the spine each time you invested your hard-earned dollars on a new book. The replaceable nature of the writers and artists, as dictated by the work-for-hire business practices upon which Marvel depends, actively discourages casual readers exactly to the extent that casual readers can never be sure what they get when they open an X-Men book.