In a link found through Dirk, Joe Quesada, Marvel editor, argues that work-for-hire is just part of life under capitalism, and that creators like Robert Kirkman should maybe whine about it a little less.

There’s certainly a point of some sort here. Ye olde movie actors and musicians often got screwed out of rights to their own work; early jazz musicians often got a flat fee for a performance and then never saw any money from it again, much as Siegel and Schuster were left out of the Superman bonanaza over the years.

The difference is that, in music and movies, this shit stopped a while ago. Yes, the music industry is still shady, as Tribe Called Quest reminds us, but artists now do by and large own their own work, and get royalties from it. In neither music nor movies is the field dominated by a business model based on the assumption that the creators are going to create stuff that is then going to live perpetually as a corporate property which anybody and their uncle can monkey with without the creator’s say-so.

Work-for-hire is obviously extraordinarily ethically dubious — and I’d cheerfully consign the executives at Tokyopop to hell, if that were my purview. But there’s an aesthetic objection as well as a moral one. Part of the problem that super-hero comics face today is a catastrophic lack of quality control. I don’t mean that comics are lousy . Many are lousy, of course, but lousiness in itself never stopped a cultural product from selling. Rather, the issue is that the comics are marketed based around characters which have no stylistic, aesthetic, or demographic unity. When you buy a comic with Batgirl in it, are you going to get a cute, cartoony story for kids? A sober adult story about a young woman getting randomly shot in the stomach? Or a sexy, violent, tale in which the heroine curses like a sailor? Will the art be good, bad, indifferent? Will the character even look vaguely like herself from one iteration to the next? There’s no way to tell, of course, because the character is owned by the company, not by the creative team. As a result she, and all the other properties, get farmed out, screwed up, screwed down, ret-conned and generally bashed into shape to suit the exigencies of whatever half-baked publishing directive happens to come down the pike.

There are certainly advantages to this. It makes it easy to move the characters from platform to platform, for example. TV shows, movies, cartoons — wherever they go, your iconic character has a built in audience, and you can tweek them to fit whatever demographic or narraive demands are called for. Grim and gritty? Check. Goofball camp? Works too. Fun adventure for kids? Sure.

But while this isn’t bad for the characters or for their corporate overlords, per se, I think it’s been really problematic for comics as a medium. Basically, it’s very hard to create recognizable creators/stars, or recognizable titles, when it’s difficult for a layperson to identify a recognizable style. People like Frank Miller and Grant Morrison are rock stars in the comics world — but they’re name-brand appeal beyond that has to be limited by the fact that in their most famous efforts they tend to be dwarfed by the star power of characters they didn’t create. Ai Yazawa is Nana, and that’s the case even when Nana becomes a film or an anime or whatever — it’s her creation, she’s associated with it. That’s good for Yazawa, but it’s also good for comics — it allows a transition back. People who see the Nana movie in Japan can go to the comics and know that they’re getting more of the same — they know the creator had a hand in the creation. That’s true for Miller and Sin City or 300 too. With super-hero comics, though, the opposite is true; it’s only the character that matters, and there’s no incentive to go back to the comic, because there’s no effort to suggest (and in fact, no truth to the suggestion) that the two have anything to do with each other.

Basically, work-for-hire dilutes the brand; the creator who should be looking out for it is shunted aside. And — ta-dah! — you get super-hero comics! An artistic backwater so despised that it can only justify its existence by leasing its best ideas to mediums which are less thoroughly distrusted.

Addendum:Thinking about this a little more…it’s true that, for example, Batman isn’t consistent from movie to television show to movie, either. And this is a problem (I was pretty irritated when my son wanted to see the Heath Ledger movie, which would have scared the bejeezus out of him.) But there is a largish effort to, for example, make sure that I know that my son shouldn’t go to see the Batman movie; there are marketing and other clear cues to separate the Heath Ledger Batman from Batman: The Animated Series. In contrast, there’s little effort to differentiate Frank Miller’s Batman from anybody else’s; indeed, individual titles aren’t even tied to one creative team necessarily. Comics is just much more cavalier about branding, which I think is the result of years and years of cavalierly separating creator and creation.

Addendum to the addendum:The Hooded Utilitarian’s new blogger, Tom Crippen, has just posted an extended discussion of his more-or-less-agonized relationship with Marvel comics. Check it out.

And…my new column on Comixology entitled “A Pundit In Every Panopticon” (swiped from this blog’s subhead) just debuted. The first one is about Piss Christ and editorial cartoons, among other things.

Throw Another Update on the Fire, Dept.: I’ve got a post responding to some of my critics (including Steven Grant) here