Sneaker Pimps

July 25th, 2011 | comics talk

Time was, back in the Nineties, comics editors who had a writing slot to fill on a mandated company owned comic would institute something of a foot race.  They’d contact several writers at once and ask them to write detailed pitches for the book.  Sometimes it paid, sometimes it didn’t.

I remember taking part in these on three occasions, back when I was a newish writer.

I remember being asked to pitch for a mooted BLACK PANTHER 2099 book at Marvel.  The book actually never happened at all.  I imagine none of the pitches were up to snuff, and they just killed the idea.  I dimly remember mine being a sort of terrifying “Fear Of A Black Planet”/Huey P Newton thing, with Black Panther Cells run from Marvel’s fictional African country Wakanda destabilising corporate-run America.  I think I used some of the stuff in there for my later DOOM 2099 sequence. I wasn’t happy at doing the foot race: I got paid, and my foot hadn’t been in the door that long, and I supposed this was just the way things were done.  But I had a feeling that maybe it wasn’t the best way to do things.

I also took part in a run-off for a BLADE comics series.  You didn’t always find out whom you were in competition with, but this time I’d discovered that I was running against my good friend Ian Edginton.  It was awkward, but we had a teddibly English gentlemen’s-manners thing about the whole situation, and I was delighted for him when he got the book.  Also slightly irritated, because I could have used the money, and as corporate jobs go it had some potential for fun and advancement.  But I’d obviously rather the gig go to a friend if it had to go to anyone but me.  I remember that Ian ran into problems on the book straight away.  And a few months later the editor phoned me and asked me if I’d take over the book.

I was young, and arrogant, and a bit of a prick, and I said to him, “No.  You should have got it right the first time.”  Which was offensive on a number of levels, not least to poor Ian, who did not deserve the inference.  But I didn’t get anywhere without having a degree of security in my own talent.  And I was pissed off.

The third foot-race I did was for HELLBLAZER.  My guts got in the way of my head.  I wanted to write that book.  I wanted a place to do British social fiction and work out a fusion of the British crime and mystery traditions, and, hell, I liked the idea of working on a property whose lineage included Alan Moore and Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis.  They are all greater than I am, by miles, and the little ego demon in my gut said “you want this.”

They gave the book to Eddie Campbell.  Which led to a comedy moment of me finishing up in a Glasgow urinal and Eddie, drunk off his arse, lurching into the room, seeing me, and staggering back saying “you’re not going to hit me, are you?”  Eddie fucking Campbell.  I still recall, quite vividly, the first time I read Eddie’s work, and my entire conception of comics to that point changing in sixty seconds.  Like I was going to complain about Eddie Campbell getting a gig over me.

A few months later, the editor phoned me and asked me if I’d take over the book.

And I said to him – and I considered that editor a good friend – “No.  You should have got it right the first time.”

Because, well, see above.  But also: what happened to the idea of thinking of a writer you like, and approaching that writer, and working things out with that writer?  If you need to put a body on a corporate-owned book, do you really want to do that in such a way that breeds several kinds of resentment at once?  Starting with the resentment born of having to knife-fight your peers for scraps in front of the landlord’s table?

So I said No, and I said No in a way that people would remember.  And probably talk about, since this is comics.  I don’t recall getting invited to any more foot races.  But I’d relatively quickly worked to the point I’d wanted to get to, where I could generate my own material and survive on it.  Of course, being in comics, I talked to people too, and it seemed like this method was going away.  I wasn’t about to take credit for it, but I liked not having to shout at people anymore.

(It still happened in videogames.  I listened to long spiels by at least two producers of major game franchises, asked them how many writers they were talking to, and then told them that when they wanted me to write for them, I’d take their calls.  Because I am older and hopefully less arrogant but, let’s face it, still a bit of a prick.)

Things did change in the 2000 – 2010 space.  (And when editors came to me with corporate gigs, they came because they wanted to talk to me.)  But you know what?  I’m hearing a lot lately about writers being put into foot races on gigs.  And not only do they not know who else is running for the job – but many of them seem not to be told they’re in a foot race at all.  Writers who assumed they were writing the gig are being told that they never had the gig at all, that other writers have been run parallel to them.  Even though they were put through multiple drafts.  They didn’t know they were in competition.

Not only are they fostering a creative condition where even Eddie fucking Campbell can’t triumph, but they are finding new and interesting ways to piss off more people than they’re hiring.  Now, comics has no shortage of resentful people —  but do you really want to create exponentially more?  People who can identify the exact individuals who fucked them over, and wait?

Commercial comics can be enough of a snakepit even in relatively benign times.  But bringing back a process both demeaning and creatively inferior, and just fucking lying to people about it?  I don’t like what that says about the next cycle in the field.  I guess the Nineties really are coming back.