On Sunday the 28th May we were lucky enough to be invited to MCM Comic Con to put on a S.M.A.S.H. event on the topic of “Selling Out.”
We were also lucky enough to have our panel be composed of several beautiful and talented people: Dan White (Cindy and Biscuit); Jade Sarson (For the Love of God, Marie!); Kelly Kanayama (Women Write About Comics); Kieron Gillen (The Wicked + The Divine) and Rob Davis (The Can Opener’s Daughter).
Before the day of the panel we sent them an email asking the following questions: What does “selling out” mean to you? Is it possible to make a living doing what you love while still keeping it real? How much should a creator compromise to the demands of the market? What’s the difference between being popular and being good? Should we care about the concept of selling out and if so – why?
We asked them to write down a two minute pitch to be read at the start of the panel. After it was over we asked for their permission to share their pitches on here for everyone to see and they all very kindly said yes.
So here you go:
I come before you today in the blessed position as a small press creator, who has not only NOT sold out, but hasn’t been given the opportunity TO sell out. So perhaps my true position should be ‘Selling out? Name me a price and I’ll get back to you’. Take my words with the appropriate pinch of salt.
But from my rarefied position atop this very high horse, I can reign down my scorn on those who prostitute their art, while chasing the almighty buck…
So here’s a statement: If you agree to change your art in any way for commercial reasons, you are selling out. You have sold out the core integrity of that work for the whims and eddies of financial gain.
Of course, people create art for very different reasons. If making art is your living then the temptation to make a work more commercially viable is much stronger. Does this men it cannot be a work of integrity, cannot contain truths? No. But is it a compromised piece of art? Yes.
So what about those who create art for art’s sake, who aren’t using their art to make a living (and I reject the idea that anyone who does this is somehow privileged – many artists pay their rent doing jobs outside their art. Art and commerce are not intrinsically linked). Freed from commercial constraints artists are free to do what they like. Art as untampered, pure creativity. Of course this means likely reaching far fewer people, and having to fit your creativity around putting bread on the table. So how and when do these people ‘sell out’? Can they even do so?
A while back I had a light brush with a large international animation studio – you’ll have seen some of their films – with the idea of possibly developing Cindy & Biscuit into film. Even in the fleeting time I was dealing with them I became aware of some of the compromises that I might have to make for this to happen – they had the temerity to suggest that I give Cindy pupils in her eyes goddamnit! I could already feel that some of the things I love about the strip – the ambiguity and uncertainty of perspective – would be flattened out in any journey to the screen. And that sat strangely with me.
Fortunately for my integrity, it came to nothing and I could continue producing the C&B comic exactly as I wanted, free from editorial constraint. Am I happier with their continued cult existence, with a small but passionate fan base, or would I rather you were all sat in C&B T-shirts right now, while a compromised and changed version of my characters were up on the big screen?
I can’t answer that really. There’s me in this universe answering one way, and another me in universe 2 answering the exact opposite. I’m Schrodinger’s sell out!
So how about another statement to finish. Selling out is a personal matter. If you are willing to change your art in any way to make it more palatable, or financially viable, and you know that this compromises the work however infinitesimally, then you’re selling out. And it’s up to you as to how you make peace with that. No-one else. But in an industry built on dishonesty and screwing people over, your artistic integrity is something you might want to fight tooth and claw to hold on to.
Now if you anyone wants to discuss optioning C&B, I’ll be in the foyer selling my books.
⦁ Whenever I think of selling out, I think of the musical RENT. In it, there’s a scene with a young filmmaker, who is offered a job by a TV news studio. He balks at the idea of being paid to use his creative skills for a corporate job, complaining that it would be selling out as it doesn’t suit his Bohemian lifestyle. He spends the rest of the musical whining that his landlord won’t let him live rent free.
⦁ That’s when I soured on RENT. Society has created this sickening attitude that to be a REAL creator, you need to suffer for your creations. But I think if you are paid to use the passion and skills you’ve developed for years, that should be celebrated. It means you are financially stable and it reminds society that there SHOULD be value placed on the work of creative people. The aged concept of selling out not only creates suffering artists, it also perpetuates an attitude that art doesn’t need to be paid for. A vicious circle that benefits the rich and kills the suffering artists, who can’t feed themselves with exposure.
⦁ Instead of this old concept, if you use your creative talent and skills towards a cause that you don’t believe in, that to me is selling out. I’ve worked on plenty of jobs that had bad elements, like poor scriptwriting, or rush deadlines. But a) these jobs keep me ALIVE, and b) they all had causes I was passionate about, such as education or diversity or history! But if I was asked to work on a comic promoting, let’s see, the orange abomination currently running America for example, I wouldn’t touch that job for all the money in the world. As someone who believes in equality for all, if I worked on THAT, I would definitely be a sellout. It’s not about the money – it’s about morality.
⦁ When I was starting out as a freelancer, people kept telling me to get a “day job”. As a cashier or something. But I thought, why can’t my day job use the skills I’ve developed? Why can’t I use art created for others … to support art I make for myself? Artists already agonise over enough, from their mental state to whether their work is good enough, so selling out and not having to worry about money should NOT be another reason for them to suffer, in my opinion.
To accuse a creator of “selling out” is to ignore a fundamental truth about humanity: we contain multitudes. So it is possible for one person to chase the seemingly opposing goals of producing incisive independent comics about, say, navigating the complex racial landscape of 21st-century America AND writing Superman for DC. In the words of Jake Peralta from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, “Stuff can be two things!”
Why are we loath to believe this? Often creators start out doing indie work because it’s so difficult nowadays to hang with the popular kids — i.e. to work for Marvel, DC, and so on — right off the bat, rather than out of a desire to stick it to The Man. They’re trying to get paid. Yet we want to keep our creators in some sort of high-minded artistic bubble where money means nothing and who would even want to hang out with the popular kids anyway? They’re so conformist. Just as we want our comics to reflect us somehow, we want the people who create them to vindicate our bitter child selves.
That said, it is possible to sell others out, although this definition is nebulous as hell; creators from marginalized backgrounds walk an eternal tightrope when it comes to this. If a major publisher has put forth horrible representations of people from said backgrounds, but is offering the chance to work on a high-profile book that could lead to great things, what do you do? Hitching your wagon to that publisher could be seen as passively condoning their actions (“see? A creator of color/an LGBTQ creator works for them so they’re not racist/homophobic”) and allowing them to continue stereotyping others like you, while staying away means one less creator from your background on their payroll, one less opportunity for marginalized creators to perhaps make a positive difference.
But this is a disproportionate level of responsibility to place upon a creator, thus taking us back to our central point. Creators, as people, can be so many things at once. And by accusing them of “selling out”, we reduce them to a single purpose, which takes away the nuance that makes their work worth reading.
“Selling out” is a middle-class construct created by people who don’t need their art to be a commercial success to pillory working class people who lack the financial support networks that remove material consideration from any of their decisions.
I distrust anyone who uses “Selling out”. I instantly suspect they are uninterested in changing the world. I primarily suspect they’re interested in getting laid from saying they want to change the world.
As an accusation “Selling out” from an audience is born primarily of their own entitled ownership of an artist, a belief that they only exist a device to supply them with social capital. It is primarily born of an annoyance that people you consider less cool are now experiencing what was your sole property.
An accusation of “Selling Out” from a fellow creator is typically a mixture of jealousy and fear.
“Selling out” easily morphs into the idea that only obscure art can be popular. This is a rejection of the possibility of engaging and changing the world, or at least the people in it. Ironically, this surface-level counter-cultural idea actually reinforces the status quo.
“Selling Out” fails to understand that artworks are both art and work.
In short: any accusation of “Selling Out” from one person to another is bullshit. It is none of your business.
The only accusation of Selling Out which matters is the one that comes back from the mirror in the morning. “Have I unduly compromised my art?” you ask yourself, and either nod, shake your head or shrug… and even then the artist must remember they may be full of shit. You are your worst critic, in this and all other things.
Gypsies have a cover all phrase, Latcho Drom, it sort of means true road, and we probably stumble onto it, but we know it when we’re on it. When I’m not on that road I’m selling out, I guess. I can’t accuse anyone else of selling out, but I know when I am. Christ, I once worked for the Daily Express, how can tell any artist not to sell out?! Having said that, I have also spent most of my comic career turning down commercial work to pursue my ‘art’.
Why did I put that in inverted commas?? Maybe comics are a bit afraid of art. We’re outside of art and our artisan function shields us from grandiose pretension. But I love how George Herriman and Cliff Sterret slipped art into disposable newsprint fun pages in the 1920s. They bypassed function and made art. It’s like they cheated the system, got paid to fill a commercial space and slipped great art into the open minds of kids.
Or maybe the system back then allowed it to happen. Maybe the gatekeeper was asleep.
My career has taken two paths, and only one of them is the Latcho Drom.
Money: I used my illustration to sell myself. After years of working for newspapers, magazines and book publishers, to their agendas, I realised the difference between the opportunity granted to you to in that environment to practise your craft and an environment that fosters the creation of art.
Art: I can’t advise anyone else to follow the other path I took in my comics career as writer and artist, because pursuing my art through comics has made me homeless, penniless and impacted my children and my partners. The truth is there’s a handful of people who get to make comics as art and live off it. I’m not sure even they really make a living at it.
So why did I ever expect that this path through life could be achieved?
I blame the 1970s. Time of evil socialism and rubbish in the streets. The time before the free market came to save us. The time before choice and the ultimate commodification of everything. Well, I’m old enough to remember it and the first thing to say about it was that it was an incredible time for art. It was everywhere and it was either free: in libraries, on TV, on the radio, or cost a few pennies at the newsagent. My expectations were that transformative, powerful art was slipped between the pages of comics every kid read in the doctor’s waiting room or fed into your head from the TV while you ate your tea.
So what’s important is creating an environment for art. And that is not black and white. Sometimes it’s art college that allows an artist to grow. They go to study fine art, never turn up for lectures and instead form a band that changes peoples lives with their art. It used to be signing on. We all signed on when I left school. It was great environment for making art.
I don’t think publishers who take the copyright from writers and artists are providing that environment. I don’t think the market provides that environment. I don’t think the privilege of being allowed to play with the toys owned by Marvel or DC is reward enough. It’s not impossible to create great art in that environment but it doesn’t seem conducive to me. Feels like the gatekeeper is on amphetamines.
It’s not an easy path to pick your way through, making art in comics, without starving for the privilege. But if that is what you want to do then don’t let anyone tell you it’s a worthless pursuit or a privilege. Art needs outsiders, it needs an environment that lets them flourish. Comics need that. Commercial success cannot be the only validation, because money only validates itself.