26 February 2010

Superpower to the Workers!

Dennis O’Neil was one of the “new generation” of comics creators who started working for DC Comics in the late 1960s. He shared this reminiscence of just how that happened with The Comics Journal:

Steve Skeates and I were hired away from Charlton to go to work for DC. . . . In the arrogance and the ignorance of youth, we thought, “Well, the stuff we’ve been doing for $4 a page, they’re probably knocked-out by it, boy! They want to get us.”

Although the reality—which was given to me by [writer and publisher] Paul Levitz years later—is that those guys who created the DC pantheon—the writers and the freelancers—had asked for a little help with the health insurance and the response was to dump ’em.

So, Skeates and I were warm bodies who knew how to type. We had worked with Dick [Giordano] for a year each at Charlton—Dick would come into Manhattan once a week and we’d both had some experience at Marvel. But Skeates and I were hippies and did not wear jackets and ties to the office, so we were told not to walk past the big boss’ office—to go out and go the long way around—because, I dunno, maybe if he’d happened to open his door and saw somebody with long hair and tie-dye, he’d have had a coronary.
Which prompted comics younger creator Matt Fraction to comment on the reality of a buyer’s market:
Someone will always be willing to write Batman for free. You said you guys were warm bodies and you could type—there’s always going to be somebody. You sit at a bar with an editor at a show and you see 19 people come up and pitch ideas at them. If everybody writing the top 20 books all quit and demanded “Union Now–Union Forever,” those 19 guys would be getting phone calls. There will never be a union.
O’Neil again:
We get really pretty good working conditions for freelance writers: You don’t have to pitch a news story or reintroduce yourself every week or every month. Once you get established, you get work. What you pay for that is that you don’t have total freedom.
And of course those writers have to deliver on deadline.


Richard said...

This article from Comic Book Artist Volume 2 gives a fuller and much different account of the purge at DC in 1968:


I wouldn't place too much faith in O'Neil's version.

I'm surprised Matt Fraction never heard of ACBA! Not that I necessarily expect him to be a scholar of comics history, but it was heavily mentioned in some of the most significant comics published by DC in the early Seventies. It's the sort of thing I'd expect him to have picked up purely by osmosis along the way…

J. L. Bell said...

I think O’Neil’s recollection dovetails well with the longer history in the Comic Book Artist Collection. But he saw only part of the story—suddenly, as a young man, getting a chance to work on the industry’s most established names. Older writers saw another part of the story, and DC Comics’s management viewed the whole situation in a different light.

Given the legalities of assignment writing, no one was truly “fired”—editors just stopped hiring certain writers. Batman fans in particular look back with pleasure at the character’s new direction in the late 1960s, under O’Neil, Neal Adams, and others. But that change might be as much a result of behind-the-scenes corporate politics as artistic choices.