BCC ’17: The Creator Owned Vs. Company Owned Panel With Walter Simonson, Thom Zahler, And Dean Haspiel

by Hannah Means Shannon

In the Creator Owned vs. Company Owned panel at Baltimore Comic-Con on Saturday, Dean Haspiel, Thom Zahler, and Walter Simonson weighed in on changes in the industry.

Haspiel said that he hears a lot of grumblings from creators who do work for hire, but his response is, “You know you’re just custodian of that property right?”, and that’s why he champions auteur work also. For him, the most rewarding thing is to create your own characters for yourself, or introduce new characters into company properties if you can.

He always has one foot in work for hire and one foot in creator owned. Now he’s in a weird position, a sweet spot, of being able to be paid to create something he also owns—at Line Webtoons with The Red Hook and War Cry.

Zahler said that his business model is spinning a lot of plates, and self-publishing for him was about burning a lot of money. Creator owned pays later, and company owned pays you now, he said. He doesn’t mind working for hire, since it’s a lot better now than it used to be. A lot of people are “scarred” from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s treatment on creating Superman, but we now know more about contracts and deals. You make a deal concerning credit and pay now, and you know what you’re in for.

Creator-owned work “means more” to Zahler, and those are things he wants to be remembered for, even though he loves working on My Little Pony.

Simonson said he always knew the deal working on company properties, that the next person coming along would knock down the sandcastles you build, but that’s simply how it is. If the paycheck clears, he doesn’t complain, he said. He’s never been fired on a book, though he’s had books canceled due to low sales. If books tanked, he was never blamed. And even on failed books, one thing often leads to another in getting more work if you do a good job. He feels lucky to have had work, and doesn’t necessarily feel he has better work on things he owns, since he has always done his best within the time he was given.

Working on Ragnarok, which is creator-owned and published at IDW, Simonson finds he now does much more linework than in the past, partly due to not having a deadline in the same way. It just allows him to be more obsessive in that way. He has clearly not learned “short cut art” like he should have by now, he said.

Zahler doesn’t see major differences between creator-owned and company work, other than that he doesn’t “get to make all the calls”. He makes the decisions closer to his “heart” on Love and Capes, like killing a character off. Under an editor-ship he might have had trouble doing that. His meetings “take place in a mirror” on creator-owned.

Simonson said the industry is way different now than in 1972 when he started off. Until about 1990, when he was given Thor comics to do, he was given free reign, even killing the character. That was some of the best work he’s ever done, he feels, because he had “carte blanch”.

Creativity in mainstream comics was “essentially from the bottom up” during that time. If you both wrote and drew the comic, there was a lot you could do. Later on, creativity started coming from the top down, with editorial directors, and often giant crossovers. He didn’t get into comics to do other peoples’ stories, Simonson said. You now do not have the editorial freedom you would have had 30 years ago in mainstream comics.

Simonson said scripting has also changes, with full scripts done before art is started, but he used to work with the Marvel Method, where basic script was followed by art, followed by full script. He feels that this has made mainstream comics less interesting and has made people more like “cogs in a machine”. He finds that less interesting.

Zahler said that young artists coming into the business don’t know any other way. Zahler’s licensed work goes through his editor and then through Hasbro, too. Sometimes he would get ideas kicked back because it predicted things that were going to happen on the show, but that meant he was actually thinking along the right lines.

Simonson said that licensing properties creates a lot of limits, like when he drew Star Wars in 1981. The comic was set between two movies, so he was told there couldn’t be a romance between Luke and Leia (he didn’t know why), Han Solo couldn’t be there (was stuck in carbonite), and so he felt very limited. When he asked if they could do a story about a new Death Star, he was also told no, so he figured out what the next film was going to be about.

But Simonson feels that this is now the way limitations are placed on mainstream comics.

Asked if there are downsides to doing creator-owned work, Haspiel said that competing with sales on company work is a problem. Also, some of what creators do, like their own version of heroes, is similar. Haspiel feels that creators are competing with the films now, too. Only a “handful” of people at conventions want to look at a hero who is not Batman.

Simonson said there’s a lot more comics out there now, and trying to get people to notice what you’re doing is going to be really, really difficult unless you’re doing a known character.

Zahler said that money is an issue with creator-owned, but you also “lose your support systems”. You have to publicize yourself, take the risk to print the issues, and work without an editorial staff who might be able to tell you when you’re doing something wrong. Instead he has a group of friends who will look at his work and he’s set that up for that role.

Asked if they make creator-owned works and think about TV or film development, Haspiel and Zahler said that they are focused on creating things authentic to comics, but keeping the rights is important, too. If you get offers, you make sure it’s the right deal for you, but remember that if you don’t make deals, interest may go away and it may never be developed. You have to decide whether pay or creative control are the bigger issues.

Regarding interaction with fans, Haspiel isn’t sure it’s good to “lift the veil between creator and viewer” these days, where you get more clicks for posting your lunch than a page you’ve drawn. And you also see a lot of hostilities and over-involvement from fans, tweeting death threats at creators. These days, he’s happier to draw a line and say, “Let the work speak for me”.

Simonson said he’s the world’s worst salesman of his own work. He used to be a paleontology major, so he takes a long view of things. The paper comics are going to last longer than he does, so he wants the work out there to be the best he’s capable of doing. And that’s his main goal.