Periscope Depth

I owe my soul to the company store

Scott Kurtz, author of the successful webcomic PVP, has a bug up his nose about comic creators’ rights. It first came to my attention with a weirdly argued post in May, a peevish response to the outcry surrounding Marvel’s neglect of the artists and writers who created The Avengers. Kurtz’s argument, as best I could understand it, was that Jack Kirby wasn’t the only guy behind The Avengers – an argument which nobody had made, an argument which Kurtz rebutted by saying that donating any money to the estates of these impoverished writers and artists was “slacktivism” and “cynical.” My man Leonard demolished these arguments better than I could, so I won’t pick at the ashes.

Kurtz returned to the subject this week, with a post that’s more coherent and thereby more reprehensible. He doesn’t call out any creators or causes this time, as he did with The Avengers in May, but I’d bet a Krispy Kreme this post was inspired by DC’s ongoing battle to wrest undisputed control over the rights to the character of Superman from the estates of Siegel and Shuster. Or maybe he clarified his thoughts and wanted to make them public. Or maybe he just felt like revisiting the old well.

In any case, Kurtz’s new post is a great object lesson in victim-blaming. Victim-blaming is an ugly behavior most commonly associated with racism and sexism (“well, if you hadn’t been in that part of town …”). But Kurtz proves admirably that you don’t need to be racist or sexist to engage in it.

He outlines a scenario in which “[a]n artist is screwed over, usually by a larger entity like a publisher or other corporate entity” and concludes that “[o]nce a creator has allowed themselves to be exploited the battle is already over.” So you have an artist who is presented with a contract by a producer – DC, Random House, Berry Gordy, whomever. The contract’s terms are a little extreme – the rights never revert to the creator; the compensation is an infinitesimal fraction of what the producer will recoup from the product, and the like. Is the artist a fool for signing it? Perhaps. But is the producer a villain for even offering such a contract?

Crickets.

That’s what victim-blaming is: focusing on the choices of the victim, and assigning culpability to them, while treating the choices of the aggressor as a given. Kurtz does this expressly: “Publishers [...] are businesses who survive when they maximize profits and minimize costs.” The contract came from a business: a faceless mass of suits and desks and fax machines. It fell from the sky pristine. It wasn’t written by an actual human being – a person who needs just as much air and food and shelter as Jack Kirby did, and yet earned significantly more of it by structuring a lopsided deal. You know: that’s just the way these contracts are.


Not only is Kurtz’s viewpoint wrong – the producer is just as much an actor as the artist is, and is therefore just as damned for drafting a shitty contract as the artist is for signing it – but it’s ugly. He’s hearing the grievances of men who’ve been discarded by the companies they trusted and he’s not saying, “That ain’t my problem.” He’s saying, “That’s precisely what you deserve.” He’s siding with the great against the powerless. That’s a tone from which nothing good ever emerges, save “the laugh in triumph over a defeated foe.” That there’s an audience for this sort of shit worries me.

Now, I don’t think Kurtz is doing this to be spiteful or oppressive. Kurtz has an opinion on creators’ rights that comes from succeeding in the digital age. As a successful webcomic creator, he’s never had to put himself in hock to give his wares an audience. Kurtz is smart, talented, and lucky. As such, he’s guilty of the blindness that many smart and talented people share: presuming that anyone who isn’t as successful wasn’t as smart or talented. He’s right that signing away all your rights to a publisher is not the route to fortune. But there are thousands of other failed artists who would swear that trying to go it alone on a webcomic, relying on nothing more than a Wacom tablet and a dream, is not the route to fortune either! Just because Kurtz got it right, in other words, does not mean Kirby got it wrong.

Let me go one further: as a writer, I had the choice to solicit representation and publication for Too Close to Miss, or to publish it myself. I went the latter route. The experiment’s too early to call it a success or failure yet, but I’m happy with the results and I stuck with it for the second book in the series. I avoided signing my birthright away for a mess of pottage.

However, if I learned of a writer who was in poor straits, who had signed a contract granting her measly royalties, withholding the rights to her work until the publisher decided to be quit of them, and even claiming rights to publish the work in any formats that had yet to be invented forty years in the future, my first reaction would be sympathy. As a writer, how could it be otherwise? Even if I thought that the company she dealt with had acted fairly, the least I could do would be to say, “Wow. That sucks. I’m sorry that’s happening to you.” To cross my arms and sneer that she deserved it would make me an asshole without peer.

Kurtz closes his post by declaring, “As long as there are artists, there will be entities looking to exploit them. It’s your choice to allow them.” While this is true, it’s also the publisher’s choice to exploit them. It’s possible to make a healthy profit in this country without screwing over the people who work for you – but not so long as attitudes like this prevail.

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