“Don’t worry if I write rhymes. I write checks.”

April 15th, 2012 by | Tags: , , ,

Y’all have probably seen this clip from The Wire before. I think Matt Maxwell tossed it on Twitter a few weeks back, and I know I put it on tumblr shortly after. It’s about chicken nuggets and being rewarded for innovation. I’d embed it, but HBO hates the internet, so here’s a transcript:

Wallace: Yo, D, you want some nuggets?
D’Angelo: Nah, g’head, man.
Wallace: Man, whoever invented these, yo, he off the hook.
Poot: What?
Wallace: Mm! Motherfucker got the bone all the way out the damn chicken. ’til he came along, niggas been chewin’ on drumsticks and shit, gettin’ they fingers all greasy. He said later for the bone, let’s nugget that meat up and make some real money.
Poot: You think the man got paid?
Wallace: Who?
Poot: The man who invented these.
Wallace: Shit, he richer than a motherfucker.
D’Angelo: Why? You think he get a percentage?
Wallace: Why not?
D’Angelo: Nigga please. The man who invented them things just some sad-ass down at the basement of McDonald’s, thinkin’ up some shit to make some money for the real players.
Poot: Naw, man, that ain’t right.
D’Angelo: Fuck “right.” It ain’t about right, it’s about money. Now you think Ronald McDonald gonna go down in that basement and say, “Hey, Mr. Nugget, you the bomb. We sellin’ chicken faster than you can tear the bone out. So I’m gonna write my clowny-ass name on this fat-ass check for you”?
Wallace: Shit.
D’Angelo: Man, the nigga who invented them things still workin’ in the basement for regular wage, thinkin’ up some shit to make the fries taste better or some shit like that. Believe.
Wallace: He still had the idea though.

edit: Whoops, found an embeddable:

What sucks about this is how it shows both how the comics industry isn’t special — down here we all float, baby — and how… poisonous and mercenary and amoral this sort of thinking is. You can argue justice til you’re blue in the face, but that’s not what matters. When you’re a business, right isn’t even part of the equation. You’re only responsible for making sure that the money you make this year is more than what you made last year within the letter of the law. If the law doesn’t explicitly say you should treat your people well, then hey. Guess what: you don’t have to do it. You can strip mine a man’s ideas and give him the boot when you’re bored.

Did y’all know Frank Miller used to get a “created by” credit for Elektra? You can see it in that borderline unreadable Elektra: Root of Evil book that DG Chichester and Scott McDaniel produced in ’95. Part of his deal with Marvel was a promise, I dunno if it was written or verbal, that they wouldn’t bring Elektra back to life after she died. He left, and they brought her back to life. At first, they gave him a creator credit. Then they stopped. And just like that, the guy who made Elektra matter was stitched out of the narrative. She’s intellectual property now.

What’s so bothersome about McDonald’s vs Mr Nugget is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Common sense tells you that if you reward invention, you’re much more likely to get more of it. When a toddler poops in the toilet for the first time, you laugh and cheer and smile to show him he did good. (This analogy is terrible.) That encourages his behavior and makes him more likely to keep it up. We put kids on the honor roll to show them that there’s a reward for getting good grades, a certain level of prestige. You buy your old lady a wedding ring because she’s better than all the others out there, and it is important to you to maintain that relationship forever. (That’s what we call love, kiddo. You’ll understand when you’re older.) It’s gratitude and support, yeah?

Work-for-hire is fine. That’s not the problem. You can work on other people’s property and do a great job and create something with artistic merit or just really great drawings of bathtubs or whatever. It’s the culture around work-for-hire that’s the problem, where innovators are just cogs in the machine to be spun until they wear out. It’s where Batman is bigger than the people who make him.

Look at it like this. Alan Moore put his name on the map with Swamp Thing, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and Miracleman, right? There were others, but I feel like those are the biggest milestones. DC published three out of those four, along with other books like Batman: The Killing Joke and that one Green Lantern story about sound. He gave DC a lot, especially since you can basically draw a line from Swamp Thing to the birth of Vertigo, but contract disputes and a foolhardy ratings system chased him out in the late ’80s.

Outside of DC, but still in a similar vein, he worked on books like 1963, Supreme, WildCATs, Youngblood, and more. He eventually launched his own cape-y line with America’s Best Comics, at which point DC promptly bought ABC’s parent company Wildstorm and began publishing Moore comics again. When Moore left again, the ABC comics were tainted and faded away.

Now imagine if DC had bent just a little and done some work to keep Moore under their wings. It takes a minimal amount of work to see how any of his cape-oriented ’90s work could easily be transplanted to the DC Universe. I mean, Supreme was “He’s Superman, But A Dick” and Moore switched him up to be more Silver Age. Imagine if Moore had been around when Vertigo kicked off, and DC would’ve been more open to works like From Hell. They probably wouldn’t have published Lost Girls, but if they’d thought “right” before “profit” just once, they could’ve reaped the rewards of having one of comics’ best writers in their stable for the next twenty years.

But, nah, that’s all hypothetical. It’s very easy to sit around and make things up about what could have/should have/would have happened. If we’re dealing with the real, then we’re dealing with Before Watchmen, a prequel to a twenty-six year old comic. We’re dealing with Swamp Thing being stuck in a cycle that keeps coming back around to shed further light on “The Anatomy Lesson” because the shadow Moore cast on that book is so large.

I’m not saying that the Big Two have gotta give up all rights to the characters and content. But throw some incentives at the creators, give them greater input into how these characters and stories are gonna shake out, push the creators as hard as you push the characters, give them a bonus if something blows up huge… do something to keep them happy. You’d gain so much goodwill from your creative staff, you’d have a lot more property to exploit, you’d have people getting even more invested in the work they do for you even if they don’t own it because they know you’ll take care of them.

It’s such a no-brainer. It’s so obvious that it can’t possibly be true. Marvel having Icon lets them keep Matt Fraction and Brian Bendis on lock even while they write Marvel’s marquee IP. Why not expand that?

My favorite part of that scene is when Wallace goes “He still had the idea though.” ’cause in the end, behind all the business and exploitation and sadness… these people had some amazing ideas. The Black Racer, John Constantine, Elektra, Howard the Duck… Marvel and DC can’t claim creativity, no matter how many crappy contracts they’ve churned out and creators they’ve burned. That belongs to Jack Kirby, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Steve Gerber, and dozens more.

I don’t have a new or profound point here, I guess. I just wanted to talk this out, while I’m figuring out where I stand and where I should be standing.

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16 comments to ““Don’t worry if I write rhymes. I write checks.””

  1. Keep writing.

    Forget comics, forget all the drama that has been going on, put all that to the side. This content you have here? You can put this to damn near anything in business and it would resonate and hold true. And it grabs people by the neck enough to be interesting, and is short enough to read to the end while still getting the point across.

    Keep writing, you have a talent for it.

  2. I had McNuggets for the first time in a while.

    They’re pretty god damn awful in honesty.

  3. Good read.

    And here’s a fun fact: the first online comics spat I got involved in was between D.G. Chichester and myself regarding Elektra’s resurrection, back in 1992 or 1993 on rec.arts.comics, before the great split of that mighty newsgroup. I called her coming back “siliness” and it went downhill from there.

  4. “When a toddler poops in the toilet for the first time, you laugh and cheer and smile to show him he did good. (This analogy is terrible.)”

    Not entirely. Because if you don’t do it, you have shit everywhere. And that’s what we’re looking at now, right?

  5. Always love to see a Wire reference in an article. Really succinct, elegant piece. Keep up the awesome work.

  6. […] after you’re done here, go read David Brothers talking about work-for-hire, THE WIRE, chicken nuggets and being edited out of the intellectual property narrative. April 16th, 2012 | Tags: motivational speaking | Category: The Thirsty &laquo The Thirsty […]

  7. If you want a sad story along these lines, read about Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the creators of D&D. Gygax may have been pushed out of the company he founded, TSR, by his friends the Blumes, but at least he got some credit in the first place.

    From what I’ve read about the Watchmen story, it strikes me as a bit of a cold war between the creative and executive branches of DC. Paul Levitz didn’t have to prevent Watchmen 2 from taking place, but he did, despite DC owning it lock stock and barrel. That’s something, right?

  8. This clarified the entire issue for me and brought it back to the issue I believe everyone agrees on. The system itself is broken. And it doesn’t look like the publishers are looking to fix it by making things better for creators and the existing fans.

  9. Did you see Grant Morrison talking to CBR last week about Flex Mentallo being owned by DC? http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=38057

    Given the nature of the comic (creators, creations and imagination) and his hand waving over the business deals of Siegel & Shuster, it’s very interesting to hear him reflect on the fact that he doesn’t own Flex. Reading his words you can hear him trying to be positive in the face of the inevitable.

    He mentions early in the interview that Dan DiDio rereleased Flex because he wanted to and now he’s doing what he wants. Then Morrison says that anyone could use Flex but he hopes they won’t. He says that maybe no one has used him because the character was so attached to Morrison himself, but I think the fear of Charles Atlas litigation was a bigger stick. Then he hopes that whenever Flex is used in the future that they don’t screw with him too much but there is nothing Morrison can do about it.

    It’s a little sad seeing him recognize the loss and try to spin the eventuality.

  10. I just started the wire about 2 months ago and it deserves all the critical alclaim it gets, seeing how I used to live right across the street from the projects this show was the realest Hood/Cop show on TV.Creators of characters should always have at least a minimum amount of creative input on what can and cant be dont to their characters, its the least they deserve.Thanks David for another great article and i cant wait to read the next.

  11. Since we’re dealing with intellectual property here, why not try to get Congress to change work for hire, and require employers to treat their creative people better?

  12. This really made me think a lot.

    Mainly about how any industry functions, based on the talents of an individual creating, driving, money leads, much like the concept of the TV show “Dragons Den” however without the creative backbone there is nothing. Yet people feel no sense of real guilt happily cutting off, of not properly crediting those responsible for their monetary success or respect.

    Sadly, that is the nature of greed… *sigh*

  13. @stavner: All the US has to do is recognize a very common aspect of European copyright law called “moral rights” which basically says that no matter who owns the copyright, the creator’s right to their professional reputation allows them the final say in both the attribution and the integrity of the work.

    The fact that we haven’t yet says about all you need to know about the general American attitude towards the arts.

  14. I published a blog post yesterday about Mark Millar’s Swamp Thing which asks a related question. Millar tries to go back to the Swampy formula set by Moore, using a minor character in the DC universe as a great excuse to play with all the others, but by that stage Paul Levitz has banned Vertigo titles from crossing over or using shared characters.
    My question is: why? Cui bono? It’s always been assumed that it stops characters being tainted and ruined by those crazy British writers, but what examples are there of that happening? The counterexamples, of characters given a new lease of life by their reinterpretations, are everywhere. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run was hugely successful. How did DC decide that the formula behind this success (Sandman followed the Swamp Thing template to the letter and was even more successful) was detrimental to their intellectual property and their long-term success?

  15. Nailed it … You’re talking about corporate myopia, that tried and true tradition of corporations clinging to the thing immediately in front of them because they’re not encouraged to build long term relationships or business strategies that will pay off later. Don’t keep Alan Moore happy because it’s nice; keep him happy because it’s profitable. You’re an idea company and the man has amazing ideas that he would have gladly kept giving you. But that’s crazy hypothetical future talk … We’ve got a bestseller in front of us that needs exploiting

  16. I miss Wallace.