Image Month: David Hine Loves The Creator-Owned Sandbox

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Today is a busy day for me. Every day is busy at the moment, with a couple of monthly books to write and, at latest count, four more books in various stages of development.  

I've been writing comics for a living for about 8 years now and things have changed a lot. I began writing for Marvel Comics and for several years I wrote X-Men titles, Daredevil and along with Fabrice Sapolsky and Carmine Di Giandomenico, even had a go at re-imagining Spider-Man with ‘Spider-Man Noir’. More recently, for DC, I've written Batman titles and an arc of The Brave and The Bold featuring Green Lantern, along with runs on Azrael and The Spirit. For a while I was allowed to ‘play in the sandbox’ as the expression goes. To play with many of the iconic characters that have come to dominate American Comics as the world at large perceives them.

It's fun to play, no doubt about it and working for the Big Two publishing companies puts you in front of a very big audience that you would have to bust a gut to reach any other way. But there are enormous drawbacks to working with characters that were created by other people, people incidentally, whose contributions have, for the most part, never been adequately recompensed because they were work for hire.

I'm not going to get into the legal issues here. Frankly I don't give a shit that creators pissed away their rights on lousy contracts or when they signed the backs of their pay cheques. No amount of courtroom verdicts can alter the fact that the creators were treated badly from an ethical perspective and that taints everything that is produced by Marvel and DC until the day they make reparation, not because a court rules that they have to, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Today's workers for hire are more aware of what they are getting into. We are 'Talent', not 'Creators' and we know exactly how our work will be exploited and that there's not much chance of truly creating anything new. We are a little better paid these days but we are still only 'playing in the sand box.' Back in 1992 a bunch of young, talented artists decided they had had enough of playing with other people's creations and walked out en masse from Marvel. And they didn't switch to DC, they went and set up their own publishing company, thereby bringing about the most significant change to the world of American comics since Robert Crumb, Jack Jackson and their co-conspirators took their comics underground.

Truth be told, the comics produced by Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino and Whilce Portacio under the Image brand didn't look that much different to what they were doing at Marvel, but this time they owned the titles lock, stock and barrel and that exploded a bomb in mainstream comics. These guys were the rock stars of comics and their independent label took over the charts for years with titles like Spawn, Witchblade, Savage Dragon, Youngblood, Wetworks, Wildcats etc etc. In the subsequent years, the drawbacks of setting your own deadlines and making a shitload of money took their toll.

Marvel and DC gradually recaptured control of the charts and continue to dominate the Top 100. But Image never went away and over the years the publisher evolved into a launch pad for diverse and original work that is entirely owned by its creators, and produced without the kind of editorial 'interference' that grates on the nerves of almost every 'Talent' I have come to know over the past eight years.

It’s that ‘interference’ that often takes precedence over ‘guidance’ and ‘support’. This isn't the fault of individual editors. Almost all of them love comics as much as the creators and have a tough and often thankless task getting books out to order. It's down to the corporate nature of companies that are collectively more concerned with protecting the 'integrity' of the properties created decades ago by the likes of Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Joe Schuster, Jerry Siegel et al. It’s Commerce over Art, Character (i.e. character as Property, character as Brand) over Story, and above all it’s Movies and Merchandise over Comics.

There's still a place for work for hire. I've worked on Todd McFarlane's Spawn and I'm writing The Darkness for Marc Silvestri's Top Cow, both under the Image umbrellas. There are two big differences. I’m working for the guys that created the characters and more importantly it doesn't feel like work for hire. I've said enough in interviews about working with editors like Brian Haberlin on Spawn and Filip Sablik on The Darkness… Actually maybe not enough... these are guys who know that an editor is there to enhance and facilitate the creative process instead of throwing roadblocks in the way, and they deserve recognition for that.

What sets Image head and shoulders above the bigger companies right now, though, is the deal they give to Creators. The situation at the bigger companies, particularly with the almost obligatory exclusive contracts, is causing a groundswell of discontent that is leading to more and more creators looking towards independent publishers who will treat them and their work with the respect it deserves.

It's not easy to get a book published by Image. This is no vanity press. Once your concept is accepted though, it's all yours. No one is going to be looking over your shoulder or censoring you. Without Image there would be no Bulletproof Coffin. Seriously, would any editor at a mainstream comic company let me and Shaky Kane get away with this stuff?

In the coming months I’ll be announcing more creator-owned projects from Image and other publishers. It’s hard work. A lot of my time is spent doing things that would be done by the editorial, production and publicity departments at Marvel or DC. Financially the situation is precarious. It takes a long while for a book like The Bulletproof Coffin to start paying its way.

But let’s face it, none of us enter this business to get rich, and there are plenty of rewards that are more valuable than cash in the bank. I know that every word of my scripts will appear as written. Every single creative decision is made by myself and the artists I’m working with. It’s impossible to exaggerate how much that means to me when I sit down at my laptop and start to write.

We’re still playing in the sandbox, but the sandbox is ours.

David Hine is currently publishing his and Shaky Kane’s mini-series The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred for Image Comics and as of last month he also became the new regular writer for Top Cow’s The Darkness. The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred #4 (of 6) goes on sale April 25, and The Darkness #102 hits on April 18. His past Image Comics work includes The Bulletproof Coffin, The Darkness: Four Horsemen, Spawn, and Strange Embrace.

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