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Archive for February, 2013|Monthly archive page

Professionalism and Creativity

In Uncategorized on February 5, 2013 at 9:00 am

Sam’s love of comic books strikes again…

For those of you who don’t read comics or who don’t read comics news, there’s been a lot of fuss lately about working conditions at DC Comics. Rob Liefeld, an artist mainly infamous for being terrible, left in a storm of angry, aggressive, and insulting tweets that in any other field of work would have made him 100% unemployable. Gail Simone, a well-known writer who was working on Batgirl, was fired by email and rehired in the course of about two weeks — she was a lot classier about the whole mess than Liefeld. Rumors abound that scripts are accepted by editorial, only to be returned with complete overhauls necessary when the “editorial brief” changes. The implication seems to be that the direction of the overall story they’re trying to tell keeps shifting.

Which is a shame on a number of levels, including narrative. Because I really want to like DC Comics, and I want to read their comic books, but I can see in every issue I read that the writers are confused by what’s going on and the time they’re given to make their stories work is compressed. It’s difficult to plan long-term because their plans keep getting knocked off-kilter.

Creativity is difficult to regulate. You can’t dole it out from nine to five. Artists have a notorious reputation as flighty flakes (somewhat undeserved, but occasionally true depending on the individual). But here’s the thing: this is professional art and collaborative art. You actually do have to be a professional because other people are depending on you, and most artists — writers included in that term — who work in comic books or television or mainstream film have figured out how to keep their shit together for at least long enough to get the story told.

At first I thought, well, can’t we figure out who is actually fucking all this up and tell them to stop? Because Superman is sucking right now. But in all honesty, this is not just a problem with micromanagerial editors. It seems to be an overall problem with DC, and it has a lot to do with the brand.

A while back I read an article about ways Disney is marketing Marvel correctly, which I wish now I’d kept around but didn’t because at the time it was about ten bullet points to illustrate only two concepts: strong vision and brand coherence. And you can’t really talk about one without the other.

Disney, through Marvel, has developed a very specific vision for its Marvel films, and perhaps less specific but still directed vision for the comics. I don’t know what it’s like to work at Marvel-Disney, but I suspect there is a very strong culture of adherence to the vision. What DC seems to be lacking is either a vision that lasts past the next big storytelling event instead of into it, or the discipline to keep its higher-ups in line with the vision it has. There has to be one page, and everyone has to be on it.

Which sounds a little fascist, I admit. And certainly general consensus seems to be that while Marvel is more coherent, and its books have voices that sound individual, it’s less diverse overall in terms of content. But Marvel is doing well, and telling engaging stories, so…

Well, I don’t mean to criticise DC, that’s not why I’m here. What I mean to do is illustrate that most creatives who want to earn significant money from their creativity have to do the same thing. They have to have a vision of where they’re going and what they want, they have to have a brand that’s going to carry them there, and they have to be consistent in both. It’s no different from developing a prose style, in all honesty. It’s one reason the “copper badge” I’ve had since 2003 is still around, because it’s a major part of my digital brand. That badge is my avatar nearly everywhere, and people know as soon as they see it that they’ve got the right guy. My brand itself has changed dramatically, but there comes a point where at last you want to know where you’re going and have a plan for how to get there.

Working on it.

One More Story I May Never Write

In Uncategorized on February 1, 2013 at 9:00 am

I went down to St. Louis a few weeks ago, and on the train (I love trains!) I caught up on a lot of reading and viewing and learning. One of the shows I watched was a documentary called “Inside America’s Money vault”, which wasn’t so much about a specific vault as it was about the way money is created, regulated, and stored in the United States. They talked a bit about the national mint, and the anti-fraud measures it takes on its bills, and the way bills are treated, possessing an intrinsic value above the material.

Then I flipped over to a TEDtalk by Noah Charney; Charney is an art history expert specializing in art crime who runs a fantastic blog on the topic. Having done a bit of studying in the subject myself — and having read Charney’s writing for some time — I found he wasn’t saying anything I personally didn’t already know, but he was saying it in a different context to what I’d had before.

As Charney says, and as most people who study art crime for any length of time know, most art heists aren’t done by clever gentleman thieves or on commission of secretive billionaire collectors. Most stolen art that isn’t stolen for political reasons eventually — sometimes very quickly — ends up in the hands of organized crime, where it is used as collateral, loan, or payment in various illegal financial dealings.

One thing Charney said struck me in particular: the reasoning that art is used because it leaves no cash trail. And it occurred to me that while paintings are a good way to buy and sell cashlessly, the fact that you truly can’t sell them for their full value on the black market (usual black market price is about 10% of their legitimate worth, I believe) and that they are bulky and require specific care — not that I think crooks often bother — makes them more trouble than they’re worth.

Except in some specific cases (most notably Chinese antiquities, at the moment) illegally obtained works of art are like dollar bills: they do not in themselves have the material worth of the value they represent. They are symbols of value.

So I thought, why not simply mint one’s own currency? Be clever enough about it and nobody would even notice what it was, outside of the circles in which it was used. Why shouldn’t some enterprising crook create the national criminal mint?

In real practice, of course, it’s a ridiculous idea. I know that. There’s no way they could keep it under wraps forever, and anti-fraud measures would be more trouble than handling paintings. Besides, it’s not like some crooks haven’t all but done this anyway; reach a certain level of wealth, and you can open your own bank to launder your money. Apparently this happens in Russia a lot. I’ve done research profiles on Russians who used to be “goods importers” of dubious provenance and now own a bank.

Theoretically, however, it’s a damn fine story. You could even make a short-term profit off minting criminal coin: buy up all the stolen paintings you can find with your minted money, which gives the “crime dollars” value, then ransom them all back to their owners. Insurance pays the ransom (this is apparently a relatively common con), the owners get their paintings, and you get a cut more than you paid for them.

Frankly, I’m also a bit worried for Noah Charney. He’s one of the most vocal agents for art crime education, and he’s very prominently pulling the curtain back from the way art theft and organized crime interact. Narratively, if you had some clever, attentive art history professor who assembled all these re-ransomings into a grand theory of art theft and money minting, who knows what organized crime might risk to keep him or her quiet.

It’s a seductive story. I’m not sure I’m up to writing quite such a Dan Brown-esque thriller, but perhaps one day.

So many stories to write, so little time…