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Old McDonald Had A Farm Drift Net Strip Mine Online Talent Search Competition

Editor’s note: This is a long one. You might want to settle in with a refreshing beverage before proceeding.

So I’ve spent some time since yesterday thinking about the Zudacomics announcement; it never pays to rush into these things too quickly. Much of my current train of thought is informed by the always-perceptive Dave Kellet’s posting on the matter, which you should read if you haven’t already. Go do that, I’ll be here.

As a preamble, I’ll note that I agree with Kellett about 100%; I particularly think his linking of Keen’s (ironic name, no?) Cult of the Amateur to the DC announcement reflects a lot of the logic that went through somebody’s head in an office on Broadway. I also find it endlessly amusing that people like Keen use the word amateur like it’s automatically a bad thing, and professional like it’s automatically a good thing.

The Latin root of amateur gives a meaning of somebody who does something out of love for it; that does not
preclude making a living at it. And I, for one, am glad that those who love comics are making them, in addition to corporations farming them. Because ultimately, the Zudacomics program has nothing to do with comics at all.

Something that I think we all forget too often is that DC Comics, in effect, doesn’t exist. It’s a very small part of TimeWarner/CNN/AOL/whoever, and I can promise that TW/C/A/w doesn’t care about comic books. They care about intellectual property and memes that can be sold in all avenues of all those distribution channels (in fact, it’s a little bit odd, what with the big and oh-so-successful AOL merger a few years back, that they’re only now moving into the Internet channel).

And that meme is the goal here. Not comic books, or the next comics star creator, the meme. I’m going to go out on a limb here (somebody else can run the numbers), but I’m guessing that each of the latest Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man movies made more money for their corporate parents than every single comic featuring that character ever published. That’s what Zudacomics is looking for.

But Gary, I hear you cry. You can’t just pick out an idea and make it last forever! It needs to be nurtured and find an audience and let people get emotionally invested in it!

Wanna bet?

I heard an interesting story on the radio a while back (Studio 360, to be precise); it turns out that there are about 80 different, mathematically-identifiable elements to popular music. Combine them the right 10 or 15 of them, and you’ve got a hit song. It is just this side of the Foundation-Land section in The Real Frank Zappa Book (use Search Inside to read that bit).

BUT! Tastes change, and not in an orderly fashion. That demo tape you just sent in? Somebody in A&R is desperately trying to figure out if your sound has the right 10 or 15 elements, but not for right now — for 12 to 16 months from now, which is the soonest that you can be properly recorded & hyped & distributed in a wide fashion. And if the A&R guy had that kind of power to see the future, he wouldn’t be working for a label; he’d be playing the futures market.

It is an entirely mechanic, soulless process that has nothing to do with this makes me happy, or I like your sound or even it has a good beat and it’s easy to dance to. It’s all about whether or not the math works out, and if anybody ever figures out how to automate not just the process of analysis, but the process of creation … well, the Archie Joke-Generating Laugh Unit 3000 may not be quite so implausible after all.

Now, substitute comics for music and Zudacomics for A&R, and I think you’ve got a good working model of what was announced. And I think it’s doomed to flop.

Bottom line, in almost any creative endeavour, most people suck. That’s why we’re in awe of somebody who can tell a story, or make us laugh, or compose music that stirs us inside — because so very few people can do it.

But as American Idol has shown us (repeatedly), most people not only suck, they simultaneously have vastly inflated senses of their own talent. It’s part of why I find it too painful watch talent-competition TV shows — the contestants seem chosen mostly for train-wreck potential, not any actual skill (exception: Project Runway; Michael Knight was robbed).

So DC is going to get absolutely flooded with people that have vastly inflated senses of their own talent. Editors are going to comb through looking for, not the best on any technical or aesthetic grounds, but whatever seems to be most farmable that can be handed to actual writers & artists already in their employ.

What they’re looking for is that one mofo of a new, fresh archetype that will last for the next half-century. Want precedent? Do another search through Zappa’s book, read the section about how every music label in existence has an entire stable of artists across genres, but makes their money off that one monster hit record of the year. Every single song I heard on the radio in high school was recorded, released, and promoted with the goal of finding — somewhere in that mass — the behemoths known as Thriller and Born in the USA.

If Zudacomics could discover the next Batman or Superman (or hell, even Aquaman), all the time and expense and effort will be worth it. But the thing about those archetypes is they only come along once every few decades. Think about it — how many unique, ubiquitous character concepts have been introduced in … let’s say my lifetime? Ones that will last until I’m dead and gone?

I’m thinking maybe three: the Star Wars Jedi/Sith, the United Federation of Planets starship captain (and redshirt), and maybe the Corleone/Montana/Soprano mob boss. That’s a bit less than one per decade, with all the out-of-work screenwriters and spec scripts and slush piles and everything, for four decades. What are the odds that DC will farm something new in the time before they pull the plug? I’m feeling generous right now, so maybe 5%.

Is this going to stave off the slow death of comics-as-comic books (which is following a distinct, but parallel path to the slow death of comics-in-the-paper)? Nope. But it’s not intended to. It’s designed to
find a meme that is so catchy and durable that it can survive tremendous mis-management and still have people pining for a proper treatment (cf: Star Wars, Star Trek). The fact that it might see its initial publication on a 4×3 box on a screen and/or a 22-page pamplet is entirely irrelevant.

Whatever might be found by Zudacomics will not be remembered in 30 years any more than Bo Bice will. It’s not about comics, it’s not about webcomics, it’s not about nurturing either distribution channel of the medium. But then again, it never was.

I think pretty much everyone who’s heard of this has formed roughly the same justifiably cynical appraisal of the whole thing.

I dread the day when the corpers finally figure out a way to leverage the internet and wrest control away from the freelancers.

Well said!

Considering no one — not one single person, because they don’t exist yet — has seen DC Comics’ contracts regarding this, I think nobody — including Dave Kellett — who says word one about this at this point is utterly and completely full of shit.

Gordon’s got an excellent point (although I think that what he wrote is the opposite of what he meant): nobody’s seen the contracts yet, so we’re all engaged in speculation. I’m prepared to eat my words and take it all back come October if the situation warrants.

But full of shit? Consider this line from the press release:

… said Paul Levitz, DC Comics President & Publisher. “We want … for the creators to share in the profits their creations can generate.”

Sounds generous. But it’s parsed in terms of what DC/Zuda will grant to creators, instead of what a creator gives up (which, since DC/Zuda are allowing the creator a share of the profits, would be ownership of the creation; if this were not the case, DC/Zuda would not logically be in a position to share “any” profits). If I were to create a year’s worth of webcomics (as per the press release), I wouldn’t want to share the profits of my creation, I’d want (and I don’t think it’s unreasonable) all of them.

What DC/Zuda bring to the table, and what they expect to get out of it are still to be quantified. But it’s up to them to justify their worth and the costs to the creators, and every creator is right in the meantime to be skeptical.

Uhhh… there are a lot of negatives in my post, so I’m confused as to what it says now, too. But the point was, all this endless complaining about rights IS bullshit. Nobody knows what contracts they’re offering, and people are bitching about them already anyway.

The thing people keep ignoring is that DC publishes A LOT of creator-owned books, not just company-owned books. DC definitely gets a cut of the profits from creator-owned books like DMZ and Transmet and whatever, and they deserve a cut, because it’s their marketing budgets that get those books on so many bookshelves, and it’s presumably their marketing budget that will get Zuda in front of eyes, too.

I’ll be as pleasantly surprised as the next guy if this contract flows forth with liquid cash. It would be the triumph of hope over experience.

There are reasons to be “wait and see” about the compensation. Unlike Platinum or Tokyopop, Zuda doesn’t say “the good ones get into print,” Zuda is saying “the good ones get a contract.” That’s a shift in focus that means more attention will be paid to the money involved. And Warner actually has the resources to offer such money. Doesn’t mean they will. But if they’re really committed to feeding a WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE atmosphere around it all– and distinguishing themselves from any clown with a few bucks and an Ajax programmer– then they might.

If I worked at Warner today, I’d be watching conversations like this one, taking notes and taking meetings, determining how much money the WB would need to commit to make that “digital slush pile” designation go away forever. I mean, I certainly would have put specific compensation for freelancers into the press release if I thought it was attractive, and if I knew what it was.

Gary, your essay goes off the rails when you try to define what an “Aquaman-sized hit” is, and how many there have been in the last thirty years. Those are murky waters you’re wading into. And there are motives behind Zuda you haven’t covered, such as “getting into this Web 2.0 thingamazoo that’s making the kids all jitterbuggy with their citizen journo and their iWalkmans.”

But the above are quibbles. Your main points, that Warner and not DC is behind this, and that it has its eye on a bigger prize, are well argued, and well taken.

DC does publish a lot of creator-owned books, mostly through its Vertigo imprint. Plus there’s already an easy enough submission process for this. But then this doesn’t seem to have netted them a multi-movie-size hit yet. This makes me doubt that any contract DC (or their owners, AOLTimeWarner) are giving out in a competition will offer better creators’ rights than a regular DC submission contract. Most likely it will be very similar to Platinum Studio’s contract. If this is incorrect, I will eat my hat (said hat is made out of ham).

And I agree with T that Gary’s attempts to define a Aquaman-size hit dilute his point. I can name a number of franchises that are huge now and will probably outlive us all. I’ll start with Alien, as in the Giger creation, (movies, comics, novels, video games, toys), Transformers (toys, cartoons, movies) and Garfield (comics, toys, movies, video games).

But fantastic article none-the-less.

DC does publish a lot of creator-owned books, mostly through its Vertigo imprint…. but then this doesn’t seem to have netted them a multi-movie-size hit yet.

The Keanu Reeves-starring film CONSTANTINE (based on the DC/Vertigo comic HELLBLAZER) made $230 million at the box office. Reeves has expressed interest in doing a sequel.

All it takes is one big hit like that, son in essence, it’s been said over and over– even in the Miller/Eisner conversation book that “Comic Books” are just REALLY cheap “research and development” for Hollywood and big companies like Warner, etc.

The thing to think about is, if you want to wake up one day and say … this is what I want to do for a living, and you get the freelancer mindset– that “cheap research and development” could end up being a very decent living for an illustrator.

Get yourself some royalties or bonuses, shared rights, and you’re made in the shade if your lucky ticket wins the lottery. But don’t bank on it.

[…] More commentary on DC’s Zuda initiative from Dave Kellett (scroll down to the blog section) and Gary Tyrrell. […]

Speaking of movies, the first Matrix movie copied quite heavily from the Invisibles. And I’m quite sure we’ll be seeing more and more films based on vertigo-comics, seeing as the number of comic book-inspirated movies is steadily increasing.

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