Stout believes that “there is more of an attack on creator’s rights now than I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
This is the section of the interview on Creator Rights. It did not appear in the magazine; it was posted on The Comics Journal website.
ARCUDI: Most people make the decision to draw somebody else’s characters.
STOUT: I know; it cracks me up. When you do your own stuff you end up with a licensing property. Plus, you don’t have anyone telling you what to do, at least at a certain point. You may, later, if things become so enormously successful that your control and power is being wrested from you. But that’s like winning the lottery.
I’m seeing in alternative comics the beginnings of what I consider to be a renaissance within the media. I see comics growing up. I see the alternative books as the fruit that was born from the seeds of the underground comix movement. I see such an array of personal expression within the field. In attending APE, the Alternative Press Expo, I was really struck by the quality of fans as well, the quality of the readership, the quality of the people who attended that show. They were really passionate about the stuff that they were reading. They were literate and concerned about the text. They were concerned about the art but not in a way that was remotely similar to the suoperhero fans. It was on a higher intellectual level, a much more personal level.
The project that I’m working on right now sort of combines an alternative point of view with the superhero genre. I’ve always loved superhero comics, and I’d like to do a superhero that crosses over and combines the personal qualities of, say, Daniel Clowes’s work or the Hernandez Brothers’ work with the superhero genre.
ARCUDI: I’d like to go in another direction here for a minute. It gets back to adaptation. This is actually the reverse, movies and comics. Lots of media seem to have a problem with originating source material. The best example of that might be Classics Illustrated, where comics are obviously inferior to prose and, therefore, they seek their source material elsewhere. They can’t have original comics stories of any merit in spite of what…
STOUT: Are you saying this as a Devil’s Advocate, because I don’t believe that comics are inherently…
ARCUDI: No, I’m saying this because I think most people who produce comics believe that, which is why they suck. A lot of people in comics seem to believe that “The only way that we can get any kind of validation for our source material is if someone makes a fucking movie out of my comic.” I’m not saying that that’s what happened with Dan Clowes, because I know that’s not what happened. But a lot of people produce comics these days with the intent of selling it as a franchise, turning it into a movie, turning it into a TV show. That’s where they seek their validation. A more pragmatic or venal person might say that they’re just looking for the dough, and that’s probably true, too. But as artists, I think a lot of comic book artists seek validation through, “Somebody made a movie out of my comic.”
STOUT: That’s so amusing to me. If anything, validation is sort of the opposite of what you get. Usually, they just…
ARCUDI: I’m not making this up, brother. Just talk to some of these people.
STOUT: I know, I know. You’re absolutely right. There are few but obvious exceptions, but the reality is that whatever was special about the original material usually gets corrupted and oftentimes destroyed by the movie-making process — forever.
ARCUDI: Right. And that’s almost unavoidable except with the most careful of adapters. It takes real love and care for the material. I’m basically going to put you on the spot here and ask, are you planning to make a movie of your comic book?
STOUT: Nope; not at all. My goal is to have it work as completely as a comic as I can using that media., the limitations of that media, the strengths of that media. If it becomes something else I’ll deal with that when and if it happens — but I’m not banking on it. No. I want it to be at a level of art that is responsible only unto itself. I believe in the medium of comics themselves as a potential high art form.
ARCUDI: Frequently, and this is why I believe it’s a matter of validation rather than just cashing in, creators — I should probably get off my soapbox…
STOUT: No, go ahead.
ARCUDI: Creators, when they bring their own personal projects to publishers will relinquish a lot in terms of creative or creator rights, so that the person to whom they takes it, whatever company that is — I’m not naming names — will have the freedom to shop that around and get it turned into a movie, get it turned into a TV show, get it turned into a series of children’s books, or whatever. This gets back to what you were saying earlier about you might as well do something that’s more personal, something that you own, and some of them do that, except they turn around and say, “Okay, I’ll sign away all film rights or this and that to you, blah, blah, blah,” I’m guessing you think that’s a huge mistake?
STOUT: A HUGE mistake. It’s like when young and dumb musicians sign away their publishing. But each of those huge mistakes or potential huge mistakes needs to be weighed on an individual level or basis. I can’t say for everybody that whatever deal comes along you have to do this or stick to your guns here. I look at each deal on a case by case basis. Who is offering you the deal? If it’s a film deal, who wants to be involved? What’s their track record? Do they have integrity or are they hacks?
ARCUDI: Right. But what I’m saying is that they’ll take it to Comic Book Company X and Comic Book Company X says, “We love your project. It’s very amusing. You have a fanciful light tone to your work, we want to own it.”
STOUT: Just say no.
ARCUDI: That’s what I’m saying. It’s usually not the film company — well, of course it is the film company later — but it’s the comics company (and this isn’t always the case) that will wrest away the creative control over what happens to your work — such as how to turn it into a film or whatever — if they publish it for you. Some companies don’t do that, but you have to look for them.
STOUT: That comes down to a basic flaw that so many artists have — most are not good business people. It’s a tragedy and a shame, but from Superman on, creators have been getting screwed in the comics business. It is the artists’ own obligation to educate themselves as it pertains to business.
Business negotiations can be every bit as creative as writing or drawing comics. It’s not always about money. There are all kinds of things you can negotiate. And everything is negotiable. You can negotiate kings, countries and everything else on down from pennies to parking spaces. Artists need to be aware that if they do give stuff up, what they are giving up. And then, once they have that knowledge, if they still want to be fools and give that stuff up at least it’s an educated decision. They only have themselves to blame, they can’t blame ignorance anymore. I’ve been fighting for artists’ rights ever since I’ve been in this business.
ARCUDI: They resist.
STOUT: That’s for sure. I certainly don’t get support from the comic arts community for what I’ve done. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stabbed in the back — not by publishers, but by fellow comic artists (and artists in the other fields I work in) who I’ve helped — all of whom pretended to be my “friend” or a fan of mine. But, hey — that’s blood under the bridge.
I’ve been constantly trying to set precedents, and apparently, I have to be the guy to set these damn precedents because so few artists are willing to fight for themselves. They just roll over for the companies — it’s really disgusting. The hard thing about setting a precedent is that on the company side, no one wants to be the first guy to give in on something to an artist. There’s no problem being the second guy, because if you’re the second guy you can always point to the first guy: “We did it this way last time.” You’ve got a scapegoat. If you’ve given the artist something that’s never been given before and if it doesn’t work out or blows up in the company’s face, then that negotiator usually gets fired. So, you need that precedent. It makes it easier for me the next time I negotiate; I can always say, “Well, I got it on my last job.” “You got it on your last job? Okay. You can have it.” By setting that precedent I’ve made it much easier for other artists to get the same thing, too. “Stout got it? Oh, well, if Stout got it, okay.”
ARCUDI: Yeah. But the argument usually is, But he’s Bill Stout.
STOUT: Never accept that. I give a lot of business lectures to artists and I often hear that: “Of course — you’re Bill Stout. Of course you can get your originals back.” I tell them when I was making four bucks an hour doing advertising I was getting my originals back. When I was a complete unknown in the film business I was getting my originals back. You either give me the originals back (or separately purchase them from me) or I don’t work for you. You don’t need the originals. Copies will suffice. It’s not because I was famous, because I was not famous my entire life. Hell, I don’t consider myself famous now; I’m always having to educate new clients as to who I am. So that’s no excuse.
ARCUDI: No, what I’m saying is that it’s frequently an excuse for the company. “Yes, we did give that deal to Neil Gaiman — but you’re not Neil Gaiman.”
STOUT: Well, you have to believe in what you do. Also, in any negotiation you have to be willing to walk away.
I was negotiating a very lucrative deal with a major film studio over the telephone. We reached an impasse in the negotiations. I politely told the attorney that I was sorry, but unless they acquiesced on that particular point, we didn’t have a deal. No hard feelings. I wished them luck. Then I hung up. My wife — she was horrified. “I can’t believe you stuck to your guns knowing we only have fifteen dollars left in our banking account!” It was during one of those down times that happens to all freelancers. I explained I had to; if I wasn’t willing to walk away there wouldn’t have been a negotiation — they’ve got you. At a certain point you gotta have some balls. I told my wife, “They’ll call back.”
ARCUDI: And if they didn’t?
STOUT: I’d have walked.
ARCUDI: What happened?
STOUT: They called back a minute later, acceding to my demands. I set another precedent and astonished my wife, both of which I always like to do.
ARCUDI: I’m struck by the sort of curious nature of the industry as it is today, that there is a greater array of material available to a smaller audience. The illusion I think is that there are more creator rights than ever.
STOUT: The illusion. There is more of an attack on creator rights now than I’ve seen in my entire life. With the consolidation of the entertainment industry into three entities, they are doing everything they can to crush creators and roll back our hard-won rights. I’ve never met with such resistance in my whole history of being in the entertainment business.
ARCUDI: And this is just through your personal experience?
STOUT: Not just mine — it’s everyone I know. My feeling is if we creators can weather the storm and stick to our guns, we’ll be alright. But if we cave in, we’re going to end up as serfs. It’s going to be horrific.
The other aspect of that is whenever something like that happens, immediately an underground culture is created. I think that’s sort of what’s going on right now with the alternative comics. It is a sort of underground culture. It’s not like the underground culture of the ‘60s, where we were exhilarated by the freedom of being able to show sex and drug use and whatever else we wanted to do. I think the fruit that I was talking about is that we are now in a place to say, “Okay. With all of the choices open to us now in expressing ourselves through comics, we can choose to work on themes that are deeply important to us; things about which we are passionate. We don’t have to just do superheroes. We don’t have to do girly books or whatever. We can reveal aspects of the human condition in a way that’s meaningful to people, and we can take the medium of comics to the next level — that of High Art.”