[Laughs.] So, to answer directly, I don't know if I play videogames. But, no, so, I'm David Gallaher. I'm the author of The Only Living Boy for Papercutz, High Moon for DC Comics, Green Lantern Corps for DC Comics, and a bunch of other stuff for Marvel and DC. So, for authoritative purposes, just to get that out of the way, I live in Brooklyn, New York, and I am 40 years old. I feel like I'm old. [Laughs.]
But, so, my background in gaming stuff -- so I don't actually play a lot of videogames now, but I was raised on videogames and I did spend some time in gamification when I worked for Marvel Interactive, back in '90s, where we developed a lot of cyber comics and digital comics and user-interface games. They're all, like, browser-based games that utilized early versions of Flash or whatever. But what I've seen since that time is a huge rise in gaming culture and a huge rise in comic culture, and they sort of intermesh. You know, so many people who play the Arkham Asylum games or Spider-Man games from Sony -- I see a lot of geek culture sort of blending in together. So, whether you're the people who were raised on Zelda or Mario or Call of Duty games or Grand Theft Auto games, I see a lot of cross-culturization between, like, comics and comic movies aping videogames and vice versa. So, I think there's just some cultural contamination.
Yeah, I don't mean to say that negatively, but I think geek culture has, over the last 10 years in particular, really been on the rise. So, you see a lot of people wearing Superman T-shirts with Call of Duty hats or whatever. You see that. People who are big fans of Deadpool, for instance, also being big fans of Warcraft, for instance. Or D&D. Or Doctor Who. You just go to any comic convention and you can see it everywhere. And like, as comic conventions have moved from celebrating just comics to celebrating pop culture in general, you see a lot of that mix and match sort of pop-cultural contamination, like I said before.
So, that's sort of -- I just see that culture and I used to work for MTV, for the MTV Geek blog, where I did a little bit of writing. My wife was the editor-in-chief of that, so, I got to see, also, from a user POV what she was experiencing. So, some of that carryover.
And I think that, also, the fandoms intersect so much. Like, when you're playing a videogame, you're playing in an isolated environment. I mean, yes, you're playing with your friends, maybe on the internet, but it's still one-on-one between you and the interface and the characters that you're playing. The same thing, in a way, when you're reading a comic book. Generally, reading a comic book is not a group activity. You know?
There's a singular focus that is required when you're reading a comic book. And it's the same sort of similar focus you see when you are playing a videogame.
I guess this is more for the transcript's sake, but you and I had met in my sending up a flare about wanting to do an article on, "Is there a need for unions in the game industry?"
So, this I think is where there's also a similar contamination of -- there are a lot of similar problems that exist in both world. And I know from my work as a freelancer that the same problems are there, too. So, the three of us -- the industries -- have a lot in common, and they're not necessarily the best things to have in common.
And I know we'll get to all of that, but I wanted to ask you about another employer you had that you didn't mention here: The NYPD.
Oh, yeah. I used to work for the NYPD for five years. Yes.
So, I thought that would be an interesting place to start comparing industries. You'll probably scoff at this, but: In what ways was working the NYPD maybe more creatively rewarding or liberating or fulfilling than other work you've done in your career? How do you feel like maybe you had a longer leash there?
So, working for the NYPD. I was a copywriter for the New York City Police Department. 'Cause I couldn't serve as an officer because I have epilepsy. Just putting that out there. So, I worked writing all the copy in the speeches and the press releases and all sorts of cool stuff for the NYPD. And what I really like about the NYPD is the union so incredibly powerful. So, in a way it -- the challenges with the union are that the union does speak for every officer and not every officer necessarily agrees with the decisions of the union. [Laughs.]
But what I generally find is that a union acts as another body that works in support of workers' rights, and what I love about the union is that that aspect of collective bargaining helps officers get better pensions, get treated better, makes sure they're not overworked, makes sure that there's enough moving forward to create retirement accounts and to create other sorts of great, profound work-life balance.
You know, NYPD officers in particular more than almost any other officers in the nation get a retirement plan and a pension plan that is unsurpassed by nearly virtually any other in the nation, and there's a lot to be said for that. You know, you can serve in the NYPD for 20 years and then when you leave, you get basically half of your salary for the rest of your life.
Yeah. This is something that doesn't really exist for a lot of people anymore. Far fewer for creative work. What opportunities or potential for opportunities or tangible opportunities have made working in a creative industry more worthwhile than leaving that behind?
[Laughs.] Well, so, the challenge is that for me, at least, I love doing what I do. And I wasn't with the NYPD to get any sort of those benefits. I certainly wasn't with them long enough to get any of that. But, at the end of the day, the fact of the matter is I love doing what I do. I love creating comics and I love creating content and I love telling stories. I loved working for the NYPD, but before I was working for the NYPD, I was a teacher in Maryland.
There's a really powerful teachers' union in Maryland, or there was when I was there. And I love watching a collective body work to negotiate and to come to terms with management and administrative officials to create a deeper conversation about what it is they want their workforce to be. In a way, when you have a strong union, you have a better workplace and a better work environment. You feel like somebody's got your back. It's so easy to work for a company and to feel bullied or to feel alone or isolated or to feel that you're disposable or that your work stuff doesn't matter.
So, when you are part of a union, whether it's a teacher's union or a police officer's union, you are working as part of a whole. Your one voice contributes to the voice of many. So, it's that "united we stand" kind of concept. And I love that. But I love what I'm doing.
So, I've got a business with a business partner where we create great comics and I like that. I like communicating ideas that I wasn't able to do when working for the NYPD. I like doing that in a way that I wasn't able to do that when I was a teacher. I like being able to communicate social issues and talk about issues in a much more broader profound way. I mean, it's great to go onto the subway and see something that I've written being read by 8 million people or to turn on the TV here in New York and watch a commercial that I've written. But my name isn't on that it. It doesn't say, "NYPD's Blah Blah Blah Blah, written by David Gallaher!" Like, I don't get any credit for that.
In a way, writers create because they certainly have the internal motivation of being able to communicate, but there's also the external motivation of being praised. I don't get a royalty from the stuff I've written for the NYPD. I don't get a royalty for all the students I've taught. But in creating a studio where I'm able to communicate ideas and talk about comics and stories and stuff like that, I am able to find my voice and can communicate what I think are important things to talk about. That, to me, is the most important.
I love that unions not just provide long-term benefits for officers, teachers, and their families, but I also like that it's not just retirement, it's career advancement. So, it provides that, like, "What's the next step in my career? I've been with the NYPD for five years, what do I now?"
"Well, you know what's great is the NYPD does offer classes or tuition reimbursement or helps you get your degree or whatever." Like, those things are all great. And they offer gym memberships and all this other stuff and discounts to gyms and whatever. But, you know, I love that. And I like that unity that everybody's coming together. But you don't see that in videogames and you certainly don't see that in comics because workers are genuinely -- they feel like fans. So, it's not like I'm a fan of the NYPD and I decided to work for them. [Laughs.] I didn't watch the NYPD on TV and be like, "Oh, I wanna be like them when I grow up!" I mean, a lot of people do, but with comic-book fans, like, they're fans of comics and then they go into wanting to work in the industry, contributing to the characters that meant so much to them when they were younger. You know? So, generally, and I'm gonna get myself really in trouble -- [Laughs.] Generally is what you see that those fans want to be professionals. Those fans want to be editors or writers or artists or colorists or letterers or editors-in-chief of publishers and tell the same stories with those characters that they loved. But the fanbase is where those comic-book publishers are drawing their new talent from.
And in that process, the publishers go for younger and younger and younger fresher talent that they have to pay less and less money to. I mean, if you're a comic-book writer and you're making $5,000 an issue for something, why get you when I can somebody who works for a tenth of that? Somebody who's young, who's got the fire, who's got the hunger. Like, why do that?
[Laughs.] Yes, you're aware of these -- I don't know. Eight-year, five-year cycles? Like how long does it take for people to get pushed out of being able to still work in comics?
Honestly, I think it's honestly five to 10 years. I've been in the industry for 17 years. I'm tenacious.
But yes. Or stubborn.
Yeah. I say the same about me.
But also, I've worked in so many different aspects of it that I don't get bored. I mean, so, in the last nine years I've been working more or less with my business partner in creating stuff. But, before that, I worked in an interactive department and then I went to work for a creative services department. So it wasn't always creating stuff. Sometimes it was, like, learning stuff. Sometimes it was an intern. Sometimes it was an editor. Sometimes it was as a creative services monkey. Sometimes it was in advertising. So, some of that's just learning the tools and building that résumé so I could do a bit of everything. But as a creator, yeah, I mean, it's a hard industry. We get paid jack-shit. [Laughs.]
So, and I think I sent you the list of what the page rates are. So, they're not, like, outstanding.
[Sighs.] I mean, yeah. I'm so split on where to go from here with our conversation. Yeah, I had looked at the rates. I also read something about how the Comic Book Creators Guild last year was asking for rates that would have been acceptable in 1978 and they're still not getting there. I mean, the rates that I saw are as bad as regular freelance writing is about entertainment.
So, on a personal note: I'm horribly sorry?
But there have been attempts to unionize, right?
Why doesn't it --
It doesn't stick because of the fear. People are scared that they won't get hired again. People are scared that if they go public about unionization that publishers will just stop giving them work.
I think there's a thing, too, that when you're the younger talent you're not really paying attention to stuff like that. You're a lot more enamored of the things you said. In comics, like you said, you get to work on characters you grew up loving or you get to work with names of people whose work you've loved.
And I think we get sold this notion of "passion industries" but -- [Laughs.] But I think that's just a thing we tell ourselves: "If you work a little harder, things will be fine." Nevermind the fact that every industry is a passion industry.
But then I read about some of the older comics creators we talked about last time, and how people like Stan Sakai or Bill Mantlo or Peter David --
These are cases where --
Norm Breyfogle. Norm Breyfogle. He had a stroke last year and -- he was a predominant Batman artist in the '90s. And now he can't draw because his left arm -- his drawing arm -- is completely paralyzed.
How does this happen? I studied the music business in college.
I just mean know a little bit about how creators get screwed contractually out of money that's coming to them. And I think the perception might be in comics that if you're working on a property involving big name, that equals some kind of success. But why is that not the case?
Well, so, a couple of reasons. One: Health insurance is sort of at a premium. I mean, it's different now with Obamacare, but health insurance is kind of at a premium. Or used to be. So, I know a lot of people who didn't have health insurance. The deadlines are kind of a little unwieldy. The benefit used to be that you would think that, "Oh, well, maybe if I make this character I will be like Rob Liefeld." Who, now has a Deadpool movie coming out.
"Maybe I'll be like Todd McFarlane, who made millions on Spawn in '90s. Maybe I'll be like Stan Lee and make, like, the next Marvel Comics." You know? But for every story like that, there's dozens of stories of creators like -- I feel like every week I am seeing a new Gofundme campaign for some comic creator in need. And I feel like that's unsustainable. Now, there are charities like the Hero Initiative, which helps create funds for comic creators in need but there are so many comic creators in need that they can't do all that.
Yeah. I saw a video on their page of Stan Lee speaking about the good work they do. But I get the impression that it's not enough.
It's not enough. And people don't give. So, it's that weird thing. It's charity. [Laughs.] People don't give to it.
They don't give for anybody. The challenge is is that there's no vacation days. There are no sick days. There's no collective bargaining. There's no promise that even though I'm working on an issue now, that doesn't mean I'm gonna have work next month.
You're talking about a pool of talent who's floating around, like freelance talent.
Yeah. Almost all of them are freelancers these days. Marvel and DC have exclusive talent, but for the most part, it's all freelancers.
But it's not like you guys have Rockstar Games or huge huge companies that are also publishers that can afford to give their employees free gym classes like you were saying.
Really extravagant lunches and -- that just doesn't exist in comics?
That certainly doesn't exist in Marvel Comics.
So, I'm sure you've read about Ike Perlmutter [CEO of Marvel Comics], right?
Who takes paperclips out of the trash. This is a guy who when I was working at Marvel, he'd shut off the long-distance. Marvel was coming out of bankruptcy and he shut off long-distance. So, we couldn't call any of our talent. And our talent, being poor talent couldn't call us because they didn't have money and they didn't have long-distance. [Laughs.]
And then we had, like, long-distance codes for people to punch in and if you exceeded certain minutes you would be billed for those minutes. [Laughs.] So, it would come out of your paycheck. Yeah.
I mean, I saw an article from 2014 that said these sort of charity cases and working conditions we're talking about, and it was just calling for a need for more dialogue and how unacceptable this is. It's 2016 now. You feel like your community and industry have not gotten better at talking openly about it?
No. So, you know, Alex de Campi and I have a conversation with a #comicsunion hashtag on Twitter. And I've talked to -- I think I've referred Sheafe Walker to you to talk to.
Correct. We have talked, yeah.
So, and I hope that that was helpful.
But I feel like it hasn't gotten better. But I do feel like more independent people who aren't affiliated with Marvel or DC can be a little bit more outspoken about that now. And as independent comics are starting to rise, they're starting to see more of that dialogue, but, you know, it's always about fair credit, it's always about people getting credited or getting good deals. And so many comic creators aren't lawyers, so they don't even know how they're screwing themselves out of stuff.
[Laughs.] Yeah. That's a laugh of recognition where I know some younger writers who -- the dynamic is almost like they will pay for the opportunity to write something. They get so excited that they worry about insulting an editor by sullying the conversation with, "Well, how much are you going to pay me? What can we do about stuff like that? [Laughs.] There's nothing we can do.
I believe the thing that we can do is talk about these things -- so, evil flourishes when good men do nothing. Right?
That's my belief, is that if we talk about these things and be more open and honest about these things -- not in a way that's negative about the people we're working with, but we create standards for ourselves. You know? We can move to those standards and feel good about who we are and what we're talking about and what we're representing. If we're afraid to have the conversation, nothing changes.
And publishers and the industry always win. But if we have workers unite -- that sounds so proletariat, pro-socialism -- but if we as workers unite and talk about what we believe is fair, we're gonna be in a better shape moving forward. We have a lot of opportunities. Comic movies are being optioned nonstop. I mean, how many comic movies are coming out this year? How many comic movies are coming out next year?
I mean, look at how many comic books are on television right now? Like, superheroes are all people are talking about, and yet creators are living in poverty.
So, there's a problem there.
I mean, you told me the last time we talked that you felt like some creators are complicit in this. You had also mentioned there's no channel for protest or retaliation.
There are no channels for protest or retaliation. If you're a female freelancer and you get sexually harassed by your editor and you're a freelancer, what's the retaliation process? Who's gonna believe you?
I think your internet’s the same as mine and we see that people go to Medium or they sort of roll the dice.
Right. And that's great --
But that's not a solution.
It's not a solution. It's not a solution. That's a flare.
That's, "I'm sending up a flare to talk about this." But that doesn't create long-term change.
What is just not being said about the way that people care or value their entertainment? Because obviously the audience is complicit in this as well.
I don't think the audience fully understands.
Well, I mean, that's not entirely true. I think there are people who understand who don't care. [Laughs.] I think there are people who understand but then are in that weird Donald Trump Republican -- this is gonna sound really disparaging -- but as we found with Gamergaters, there are some people who just don't care about women or rights or advancement. They want the things that they like. They're the stodgy people who want things to not change.
The people who want to affect change. Then there are people who are unaware that change can happen, or feel powerless to affect change. And what I feel like the best way to go is to talk to that group. You can make a difference. You can help do this. Voice your concern about these things. But, you know, so much of when women speak out or when diverse creators speak out about how they feel like they're treated, often what happens is they get sidelined or they get demoted or they get fired or they get pushed out. You know? And the fact of the matter is there's not a good way to talk about this stuff.
There's not a good way to talk about this stuff in a way that doesn't create so much backlash and protest. You know, Fairpagerates.com -- it's not the solution, but at least Fairpagerates.com isn't afraid to have the conversation. And even though they got some flak for publishing their rates of what people got, they still weren't afraid to have the conversation. They still said, "Let's have the conversation from there." They didn't attack people. They're like, "More people who talk about this stuff, the better we can create a great, robust system for everybody that's fair."
Yeah. Last year I crowdsourced a spreadsheet for -- "Okay, what are the rates for people who write about videogames and people who write about entertainment? What are the average rates and a breakdown of what place actually pays?" Because, like in any sort of job-interview scenario, you don't find out whether it was worth the effort until you've gone through the dance of being on their radar, reaching out, asking if they take pitches, pitching ideas, seeing if they like them, and then find out what their rates are.
And these are all self-reported figures. I don't really know who filled it all in. But if you were write for an average website, publication, whatever, about videogames you would get $126. If you were to write an article at that rate, you would still be below the poverty line.
There's that as well as the cultural narrowness around videogames that the industry has cemented for decades that by now, more mainstream-facing media aren't interested in covering these types of topics which is why I started doing this in the first place. But do you feel like mainstream media or other outlets, do they do a better job of reporting on these types of things you're talking about in the comics world? Because there's no way it's gonna be a freelancer. They can't afford to do the reporting necessary to even report on it.
I don't feel like anybody really does a really good job about talking about it. I'm not gonna name names, but I know companies that paid writers to write about videogames only $15 a post.
Yeah, those are on the spreadsheet.
That's an allowance.
Yeah, that is an allowance. That is not, like, makin' tons of money.
So, most of the places I've worked with paid like, $75 to $35. Which is at least -- $75 for the longer pieces, $35 for a medium, 500-word piece.
But, yeah. It's gross. It's really gross.
There's a writer I want to talk to for this when I start talking to writers, who used to write about videogames for The New York Times in the late '90s. The rates were way better then, like, move the decimal point a couple places to the right.
He quit for the same reasons a lot of people quit around this stuff, which was in part the audience. Which was a different kind of uphill climb at that time because it was much more successful at being positioned as just for kids. With this project I'm always approaching, like, "Okay, what are the ways conversations around videogames seem stuck?" But I'm wondering how the conversation around comics gets stuck?
Oh man. So, the things that people are often arguing about in comics that are not, like, whether or not Batman can beat Superman in a fight -- yeah, that's a different type of conversation.
The credit. Whether or not they are getting credit for something. Whether or not -- a lot of artists feel that artists are being devalued because they're not mentioned first. Like, it's a lot of writer versus artist kind of conflicts going on where the artist feels that they did the majority of the work so they should be billed first. So, fights like that or that kind of stuff where artists don't feel that they get enough credit even though they feel like they carry the lion's share of the project.
Then, of course, what people are getting paid and how people are then treated. So, what people are getting paid is often a conversation. Or, what the terms of payment are is also a conversation.
But -- yeah. So, those are really the challenges. That sort of the, "What is a fair page rate? What is a fair page rate?" And then, "What are the deadlines?" and "Why is it so difficult to get good money to do comics?" [Laughs.] Like, the challenge is that it's so -- across the board, people wanna feel that the work that they do is significant and that the work that they do is valued.
And time and time again, you see that artists feel -- and creators, too -- that their work isn't valued and their work isn't significant. Lots of reasons why.
Sometimes it's sales. Sometimes it's bad deals. Sometimes it's all number of variant factors.
There used to be a really nice page rate in, like, 2008. Pre-economic collapse. It was decent. It wasn't, like, over the moon amazing. But it was decent.
And then after the economic collapse, page rates went down abysmally across the board. Just down. And they haven't gone back up yet.
So people are still making what they made in 2008.
Which is eight -- almost 10 years later.
Yeah, I was gonna say. Like, nearly a decade ago.
Oh my God. The economic collapse -- wow. [Laughs.] That's so weird to think about. Barack Obama was just president.
We were so hopeful back then!
Though, it's true. If you look at that year as a line to trace towards risk aversion in bigger game companies, it does stand up. The economy really tanked, and I don't think there's a huge conspiracy to be creatively boring. I think it's just a lot of savvy CEOs trying to keep their employees with health insurance.
But the problem is, like, because there's been so little coverage or notice of the workforce in games that people just sorta see these companies as invisible, faceless monoliths that just produce a product. You know, obviously, they react strongly with strong opinions from what they glean is the intent or the purpose of these companies.
But can such a line be drawn in comics? How do you feel about the creativity and output from major publishers in comics? Is there a similar risk aversion since 2008?
Yes and no. So, there are a lot of things you just said that I want to say something to.
What's interesting about Marvel Comics in particular is Marvel Comics -- the face of Marvel Comics is, rightly or wrongly, Stan Lee. You know? Even though he doesn't actually have an active part of the company in the day-to-day, he's who people know when they think of Marvel Comics. Whether they watch Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and they saw him as cameos in all the Marvel movies, he's the guy who created The Hulk and created The Avengers and created Thor and whatever. The X-Men. You know, he is the face of that company. So people have what they feel like is this certain dialog or this certain connection to Marvel Comics that they might not have with DC Comics. I mean, their CEOs are pretty talkative, but they don't have that same sort of founder face where they can be like, "That's right! That's the DC version of Stan Lee." You know?
With Tesla Motors, it's Elon Musk. And with Amazon, it's Jeff Bezos.
And with Apple, it's Tim Cook. But can I say the same thing off the top of my head about Rockstar Games?
[Pause.] No. I mean, some British guys is what you might say if you were really kinda savvy but didn't pay too close attention to this stuff? [Laughs.]
Yeah, like, I don't know who runs Rockstar Games right now. I don't know who runs EA right now.
So -- I mean, Steve Ballmer used to run Microsoft but, you know, not really. I don't know who's doing it now and who runs their game division? You know? So that's a big challenge.
My understanding of it, the lineage in the games industry is when it was first getting started in Japan -- you'd beat an old game and you'd see the credits roll up and most of the people were given pseudonyms. Obvious fake names. Like, there was no way that amount of people working on a game had that many nicknames. Somebody had to have a regular name. Part of that, as I understand, is to prevent poaching from other companies 'cause there were so few companies at that time and they wanted to hold onto their talent. This is decades ago. This is the '80s I'm talking about. But that has gotten hammered into the industry as a general trying to guard against any individual getting too much clout for fear that it will upend the workflow or be seen as competing with the company that they're working with. I don't know -- does the name Hideo Kojima mean anything to you?
No. Only vaguely.
He sort of was seen as the last of that era who had this very weird public, though not public, firing with a game company called Konami. All these sorts of horror stories came out about what was going on with the company but more of it focused on him. The weird thing that happened was more people were concerned about whether he was okay -- his production company doesn't have that sort of conversation with the public you were talking about. They're just invisible. That still sort of stands out to me.
Even when you do see coverage from outside the enthusiast media, it won't be that kind of deeper reporting. It's more a story like that as it happens to one figurehead. But you compare it to something like that story about Amazon in The New York Times last year, and imagine it had been written as though how all those working conditions affected Jeff Bezos. But obviously, people below Jeff Bezos are not working under the same conditions as Jeff Bezos.
Yeah, that's true, right?
So, that's a lot of words I just said at you.
[Laughs.] No, but I totally get it.
Yeah. So, but I think that's where some of that risk aversion in games is coming from is trying to resist against letting any one person get too big and to be ruled by the whims of one creative vision. In games, it's that's not what the industry wants to offer.
Well, and you actually do see that. In a way, I don't see people being so risk-averse. Marvel's been releasing tons and tons and tons of comics from a broader range of things. But certainly, they're risk averse in terms of giving any one creator any stuff. Like, I mean, the big names have already gone off to work for other companies. You know? So, that's really a challenge. Because what happens is you say you've made billions -- say you've made thousands on something like The Hulk. Who's to say that DC Comics won't come up and sweep you up a couple months from now to give them sales on Batman or Superman or whatever.
For people who don't pay attention to comics, what are the perceptions today of what the medium is capable of?
Well, I mean, I think that a lot of people look to comics as sort of the cool, underground, hip stuff. I mean, obviously some of it's reminiscent of cool videogames and stuff like that and cool counterculture. People look at comics like Ms. Marvel and The Avengers as a way to sort of carry on what they've seen on the big screen. You know? That sort of subversity, "Oh, I'm in this cool comic that identifies with who I am." But I think there's still that cool, hip vibe about having comics or having graphic novels and being cool. That wasn't the case when I was younger. [Laughs.]
But I do think that's certainly changed. As we have a lot more ambassadors online and on Twitter and on stuff like that -- like @AgentM on Twitter, Ryan Penagos. Or Brian Bendis or @MattFraction. As you have more ambassadors talking about the cool stuff that they're doing, you do see a lot more hip people trying to gravitate towards those particular comics and being like, "Oh, I'm cool. I'm indie. I'm being this thing or this thing."
[Laughs.] At this point, I don't think it's that binary with regard to superheroes where they either help or hurt the medium. But how do those older perceptions still ring out today in the space as far as what comics are?
I think you see kind of a cultural clash between the older fans who wanna keep things their way, who are very resistant to change, who are very much like, "I don't really like this current editorial regime. Why do they always have to make comics for girls or make comics for this thing or this thing?" People like comics in a way because it used to be that they created a sense of consistency.
And now with a lot of changing -- like, this new person's Captain America or this new person's Thor or this new person's Iron Man or whatever -- it creates a lot of anxiety, I think, in older fans who aren't necessarily as nimble or who don't necessarily have the cultural politics that comics are necessarily going in the direction of.
Has there ever been anything like Gamergate in comics?
[Laughs.] Yes. Oh yeah, I have a list. It's sort of ongoing, but there's definitely a list of female creators who have been harassed, who have had their bank accounts broken into, who have been called, who have been threatened, who have been scared to go to conventions, who have been terrorized, who have suffered PTSD because of unruly fans. I can send you those links. You can go crazy and read to your heart's content.
What does success look like for people in comics? I really don't know what it looks like for people in videogames.
I don't even know what it looks like. I think Double Fine is an example of what it looks like for people in videogames.
But they’re also struggling. What I hear through my channels is they would love to be a bigger company with much more money, if only so they can be that much more stable. They struggle like anybody else is struggling.
Yeah. And that's depressing, right? It's depressing. It's depressing to work in games and to not have that sense of -- 'cause, where do you go in games? Like, what's great about comics in a way is comics are generally part of some sort of shared vision. So, when work on The Only Living Boy, it's me and my collaborator and we're putting together something that is a vision of us. And so when we work on Green Lantern, even though we're working as part of DC Comics, it's still a vision of what we like to do together. And when we're working on High Moon, it's still, like -- not the videogame company, but our werewolf Western comic [Laughs.] -- it's what we like to do. It's a werewolf Western. It's ours. You know? But I feel like -- and maybe I'm wrong -- but I feel like when you work on a game, your individual voice gets lost if you're not the creative director or you're not the story developer.
I feel like who you are -- your individual contributions -- gets lost. And I feel like it's the same way, actually, in movies to. Unless you're the director or the actors, your individual contributions for modeling what Yoda looks like or Voldemort looks like gets lost.
I ask people who work at bigger companies what they feel a sense of ownership over in what they've worked on and very seldom do I hear much of anything. Maybe, if you're lucky, you're the one who worked on how the blood when you shoot someone, like, how that spills out into the environment. [Laughs.]
Right. But you don't get a royalty on that stuff.
No, you have a contract or you're a contractor and I guess it's like Hollywood: There's above the line and below the line. And I'm shrugging and you can't see that, but I guess it's a "passion industry" and either you want it or you don't, and if you don't, then someone younger will come in.
I don't think you can necessarily call that an industry, though. I have a colleague up in Canada who describes the game industry as more of a cartel.
[Laughs.] But I think that that’s probably true for comics, too.
Yeah. So what are we saying here, then? Is it just hopeless? Are we --
I don't think it's hopeless. No. I don't think it's hopeless. I don't believe in hopeless. I think the rise of Kickstarter, Patreon, and other platforms like that -- Indiegogo -- have created opportunities for passionate creators to move beyond that curated gatekeeping sort of style of industry and moved us into a position of sort of allowing creators to have their own individual voices heard.
in a way that wasn't true five years ago. You know? Maybe I'm wrong, but I certainly feel that.
Well, I think there's the start of the possibility -- I think those are great, but it doesn't always turn into a full-time job or any money at all and you can be left holding the bag in a lot of ways from an audience still trying to take advantage of you sometimes. Though, I don't know, I talk to people not in creative industries and they think that everything about trying anything in this type of work is magically better because you're being creative. So even in trying to explain to people who want to support you about the reality of your situation and what you're trying to hear, they just might not be able to understand.
Yeah, it's hard, man. [Laughs.] It's hard.
No. I know.
But I like what I'm doing and I like the people I'm working with now. I like the creative opportunities I have to tell my story and, yeah, I don't work for Marvel or DC right now, but I do have a studio that publishes content and stories and great characters and cool stories and stuff. So, I think, I sacrificed having access to a union. [Laughs.] Both times to being part of a more nimble group that I have control over. Being my own boss. And there's risk in that for me, but I feel better and more creatively fulfilled doing it.
In poking around on my site, what seemed familiar to you as specific issues or specific pain points in your industry?
I think for me the specific pain points are largely just trying to understand the game industry. Like, because I don't have a full comprehension of how that works. But what I do -- so, like, in a way, seeing the way creators are treated. In a way, understanding and getting a perception of that -- because I don't have all the necessary cultural touchstones that people have playing -- like, the last videogame I really actively played, so, just to give you an idea of my gaming history, okay? Shit, I used to have a roommate who worked at Rockstar Games.
And he worked on Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Three? Whatever that one is.
So, and that was really interesting because that happened right when all that "hot coffee" stuff came out.
The programmed sex stuff. He was really fed up because the owner of the company actually lied that that scene wasn't in there. So he was, like, super-pissed off. But I played that game a little bit because he was my roommate.
But a lot of videogames that I actually played was Final Fantasy VII.
But what I think is really interesting is I don't always know sort of what the expectations of people who programmed games felt like. And I didn't necessarily always know or understand the anger at which people felt. Or how pervasive the problem in videogames actually is. And that's one of the reasons that I reached out to you to begin with is that seeing that other people in other industries were mistreated created, in a way, a sense of kinship.
Also, your first name is David and I was like, "Oh yeah! Davids unite!"
[Laughs.] I'll see you at the next meeting.
Yeah, exactly! Right? So, yeah, it created a sense of kinship because in a way a programmer is like a foundation for any great game. Everyday they're coding and building AI. And trying to understand the work that they have to do -- it's tremendous. Programming a game is a lot of work. But there's so much bureaucracy that to create -- I mean, how many programmers work in a cubicle? You know? How many are bombarded by corporate jargon and stuff everyday? Like, how many people feel like the work that they do -- and they have coded an entire level only to find out that that level's being taken out at the next creative design meeting. So, like, that frustration of feeling in a way -- I'm trying to go for a metaphor here, so I may just totally botch this up. In a way, programmers are creating new worlds. And as much as they're creating these new worlds, that world creation in addition to being God of that new world, is also, in a way, taken out of their hands by their boss.
[Laughs.] So, you know? So, in one way, I would feel really powerful with the whole idea of, like, "Oh my God I'm creating this huge awesome world." That takes people a day or two or a week or six to eight weeks to build. I feel like, "So cool! Can you see? I just built this level. And look! I traced the draw distance between this object and this object and now look what he can do and I used the mannequins to walk through the level and awesome!" And then just to have that quashed or to have that changed or to have somebody go in and take that away from me would be so crushing.
So, that's sort of where I really felt a lot of identification with what it is you were talking about, is that there's a lot there in terms of that sense of not being in control of your career and not being in control of your work that I found just utterly heartbreaking.
Like, you I don't think it's necessarily hopeless but there are so many stories to collect that don't really have an outlet. Though I do wonder: When was the last time you talked to someone in the game industry or an ambassador from it? I mean, why can't there be a union of people from different trades? That's what unions have traditionally been, from different labor groups standing together.
Yeah. Yeah. And that to me is really what I want to see. That's what I really want to have happen.
But when's the last time you talked, really, to someone in the game industry?
So, I haven't talked to anyone from that since I had a roommate in the industry.
Yeah, I meant other than your roommate. Yeah.
I mean, I would love to have that conversation. I do talk to -- I do have friends who do videogames, but I haven't talked to them about that industry in a while. So, I don't have that same sense of connection about -- I mean, I always hear the stories because they'll post them on Facebook saying, "Oh, just got laid off again! Anybody know anyone looking for a programmer in San Francisco? Willing to move to Oakland!" And I see that a lot. A lot a lot. Like, probably once in two weeks.
You know, "Oh, we finished our game. Now everyone's been laid off."
And I don't know how common that is, but it seems incredibly common.
It's fairly common. I know a lot of people who are contractors who, like I said, 39 hours a week, no health insurance, no sense of agency in their careers, but they're working as hard as they can for the hope to be considered what they actually already are, which is a full-time employee making games. But they might lose their job and they don't know. That's fairly common.
But I wanted to ask you a little bit about the misogyny in comics. You told me that "misogyny in games seemed brutal."
It did. I've read all of the stuff with Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu and I've just been following that. Just that. But like I said, when I show you the articles from comics, I think you'll see a lot of correlation.
Does it seem different, at all? The misogyny in games?
No, it seems pretty bad. It's really bad. Just across the board. Women who are afraid to go to the comic conventions, women who are afraid to answer their emails. You know, just unrelenting. Afraid to read the comments section, afraid to read their emails, afraid to leave the house because they just feel so pressured and so -- they feel_bad_ about themselves. They feel awful. They feel crushed with the social anxiety that happens from constantly being abused online.
In comics, in the industry, what are the coping skills --
They go to Twitter and they talk about it. They go to Twitter or they start a blog post and they talk about.
Don't they get attacked there, though, too? Because that's what I see a lot in games.
They will, but then they'll write about something and then just won't read the @ replies. [Laughs.] "Hey, here's the thing." Then they'll block people.
When Gamergate was happening, sure, no one was physically hurt, but I couldn't help but notice that no game companies were responding. No one really said anything. Is the game industry just afraid of the audience that it has built?
Yes. Yes. Yes. And the comic industry is afraid of the audience that it built.
Really. When did you start to realize that?
[Laughs.] I mean, I'll send you some articles about it. When people criticize, for example, the way that women look on a cover. A friend of mine criticized the way that women were drawn on a comic-book cover and they were attacked.
What's the road to get out of the proverbial cultural ghetto?
I think the more -- this is gonna sound weird but I think the more that this stuff is exposed along with the more that we talk about and the more broader the scope of teaching younger people about self-confidence, being considerate, having strong character, having strong morals. I feel like a lot of that's gone in a way. Like, it feels weird. I would never say any of the stuff people say online to women. Like, I just wouldn't do that. My mom would beat me. [Laughs.]
Last time you and I talked I talked about how when I was a kid -- I asked you that question, "Have nerds always been this awful or however awful they are now?" Because I had some friends sort of tell me they thought they were. But for me as a kid when I met someone unlike me into the same thing it always like, "Oh, cool!" My mind wasn't like, "I'm gonna rape you and I'm gonna scare you." When did that start? You're a little bit older than me, but I remember hearing horror stories about what comic-book stores were like for women in the '80s. But that's not just nerds. What is that?
Yeah, I think it's that sort of insular mancave "don't have women contaminate what I'm gonna be doing" kinda thing. It's gross. I never thought about that. That, to me, is just so gross. I think it comes from -- I mean, I don't know exactly where it comes from, but I feel like -- and this is gonna sound weird -- a combination of this Girls Gone Wild culture that was really prominent in the early 2000's along with "women as objects" kinda thing but also that being on the internet and being able to say whatever you want and having no consequences for what you say.
So, I think it's the rise of this "women as object" -- which I think we enforce in both comics and videogames, "women as objects." I mean, how many skinny women wear skimpy clothes in videogames and how many skinny women wear skimpy clothes in comic books? This sort of "women as objects" slash "I can do anything I want to disempower you." You know? Because rape -- unlike murder, you kill someone once, but rape is something that always haunts the other person.
It always haunts the victim. It's weird to talk about it, but it's that most pervasive thing that is, like, that pervasive thing. You know? That women have to -- I mean, men do get raped, but it is that pervasive thing that women have to live in fear of.
I don't know if Mass Effect, if that series is on your radar at all, but that was --
Yeah, Yvonne Strahovski was in that.
Yeah. I mean, that was an instance where the audience was so irate collectively over the ending of the trilogy that the company went and changed the ending. The author I talked to was completely shocked about that. I don't think the audience for games is a different strain of chromosomes or genes apart from everyone else -- or, I mean, does anything seem different to you about the sort of problems that pop up in games that we talked about, with the problems with the audience we talked about, with --
I mean, I think that they spend so much time. And like I said before, it's the same sort of thing. So, say, for example, I read Thor for 20 years.
Okay? After so many hours into reading that comic, months in and months out, and even though it only takes me, like, an hour to read a comic or maybe 30 minutes to read a comic, I've collectively spent a lot of time by myself creating that world. Like, hearing the characters' voices in my head, thinking about how they move in the space, using my imagination to connect the story. Month in and month out in the serialized fashion. So, that is a thing.
So, that's a thing.
But I think with videogames it's the same thing. So, in a way, instead of reading a comic month in and month out, how many hours does it take to play a videogame? Now, say you're playing the third videogame in that series. How many hours have you collectively spent alone in the dark late at night playing that game, putting hours in, trial and error, etc., etc.? So, it's like reading a comic for 20 years, only in a really condensed period of time because comics you read it for an hour or once a month. You know, but for 20 years? But in videogames, it's all that time super-compact. But it's still that time alone and you really invested so much of your focus and your attention into that series. And so, that sense of betrayal I think is palpable when you don't like the ending or something that happens. It hooks you in a way that doesn't happen anywhere else. So I think people feel betrayed in something like Mass Effect or people feel betrayed by a character's death in the franchise because it doesn't fit the narrative that they've created or that they've anticipated for so long. I think that that sense of betrayal and that sense of having something special that you spent so much time that you feel is uniquely your own, feeling that that's being taken away from you is super-challenging and damaging for people.
How do we make the writing, in general, better for videogames and for comics?
I think the writing for comics has definitely improved.
I mean, we've moved to an era where it's much more story- and character-driven. So, I think that's actually helping a lot.
But then I think that -- with games I think the challenge is that there's always this disconnect between usability and logic. Like, you want people to play a game for a while, right? You want them to enjoy the game that they're playing and get in really deep, but some games are often solved by common sense. Like, "Why do I have to play seven levels of this when my character could easily go and jump ahead?" I think sometimes it's story versus plot versus -- also, you want to play all the cool stuff in a game, right? If your character can fly, you want to have a cool flying level. If your character shoots all these cool, badass guns that programmers have spent six to eight weeks designing, you want to create that, "Oh, well, here's this cool thing."
But I think the challenge is that so many games are level-centric. And the level-centric narrative is difficult to always make compelling. So, how do we move away from that to a more than world-centric or whatever, boss-big boss-boss-boss-big big boss kinda thing.
In the last couple of years, there has been a lot more dabbling with autobiographical work, which I know obviously there's a long history of in comics. What do you think games could learn from this trend in comics? What sort of mistakes should they avoid or what things should they try embracing?
Well, so, there are some games that I think really take a much more intimate and personal approach and still are really interesting. I think of Last of Us, which really tries to take a much more intimate portrayal of how characters move within the space. That was a pretty popular game. But I think that that level of intimacy and really getting to understand the player and mixing the mythic and the mundane together I think is what makes the writing of these things much more interesting.
I think sometimes games are more interested in the cool cutscenes that they've developed and not so much the playability or the narrative throughlines that make characters really interesting. I think bringing more focus to the characters and how they interact in the space is ultimately gonna create that stronger emotional attachment in what the characters are actually doing. So I think it always comes back to character.
What do you attribute comic's writing improving to?
I think comics writing's improvement is sort of a hand-in-hand sort of a thing. I think the rise of movies and characters being on television allows people to better identify with these characters. And so you see all this really crazy interesting fan art that doesn't even necessarily come from the movies, but everybody creates their own headcanon about what the relationship between Captain America and Bucky is, or the relationship between what Thor and Black Widow are, or Thor and Hulk and Black Widow. Or whatever. People see these things and are amazed with this heart-pounding, "Oh my God that was so good." They can't put it down or stop thinking about it. Think about how many people were over the moon when they saw The Force Awakens. You know?
And how much fan art came from, like, "Well, does Rey end up with Poe? Or does she end up with Finn? Or do Finn and Poe end up together?" Like, there's a lot of that. What I've seen is that people really embody that in a way, and I think the rise of the movies has really helped with that. I mean, I think that, look, there's a Warcraft movie coming out, right?
And I don't know who's in it or really who's directing it --
[Laughs.] David Bowie's son is directing it.
Oh, right! Duncan Jones, the same guy who directed Moon.
I totally forgot about that. So, but, can you tell me any of the big characters in Warcraft.
But I don't play those games, though. But I also doubt anyone watching that trailer who hadn't played the games could.
Right. Right. And so, what I think is really gonna be interesting is how they try to make those characters really interesting and how they try to make those characters identifiable to people who have played Warcraft but also casual viewers.
So many people have invested their time into these characters, and obviously Marvel Comics has been around for 75 years. So, there's a lot of generations of people who are really down with their characters, who want to see their characters do super-cool, awesome stuff.
But Warcraft has not been around for that long and doesn't have those characters that -- how many videogames movies have been successful?
Uh, Zero? Super Mario --
Super Mario --
It depends how you define "successful.” And I’m joking here.
Super Mario Bros. was a bomb.
I think around videogames, the way they define success is either it exists or, at best, it's a "viable franchise" or whatever.
Okay, so maybe the Resident Evil movie. Maybe.
Maybe. I mean, there were five or six of those.
But Super Mario Bros. movie was a bomb. The first Hitman movie was a bomb. I don't think the second one did well. You know? Pixels, which kind of vaguely has videogame characters in it was a bomb. The Tomb Raider movies are okay, but they're not great. You know? So, but people don't have that same sort of identification with those characters. Tomb Raider, when those movies came out -- I mean, no offense to Angelina Jolie -- were just T&A movies. There was no character behind what she was doing. There was no reason to identify with what was happening to her. All those characters in all those games look so handsome and beautiful and awesome, but there's no Bioshock movie. Not yet. There's no Final Fantasy VII movie. Maybe there is? But you know what I mean. And things like the Warcraft movie and some of the other ones are CGI. They create this weird, uncanny valley situation where we have a harder time identifying characters 'cause they look like giant videogame characters, so we can't identify with them in the same way we can other stuff.
I mean, that identification is a big part of it. And I think the other part that is sort of crucial to think about is that, like I said, the characterizations. I think that we don't understand these characters. When we play videogames, these characters often come to us fully formed. When you play Tomb Raider, Lara Croft's already a badass. When you play Halo, Master Chief's already a badass. When you play Prototype, the character is growing to be a badass, or maybe he's already a badass. I don't know. I don't remember.
But when you read Spider-Man from the beginning, Spider-Man's growing into his powers. Captain America has an origin story. Hulk has his origin story. When you see the movies, you get to see their origin stories all over again. You know? You get to see and live these characters and feel their dramas and their highs and lows rather than playing them fully formed. You know, Hitman's already a badass in the first Hitman movie.
He's like, "Oh, I'm a Hitman. Bang bang bang bang bang.” When you're playing Call of Duty, you're a soldier who's already got shit going on. Like, I think that there is a thing about watching a character through their highs and lows grow in comics that you don't see in videogames. Because videogames reward success and punish failure. Whereas story narratives like you see in comics, and even in YA novels, characters fail. You know? They lose shit. People die in a way that is heartbreaking.
But you don't see that same thing in videogames. And I think part of that is -- and I could be wrong -- but I think so much of the violence desensitizes us too, and the screen in a way desensitizes us to the emotion that we actually feel with these characters. Maybe I'm wrong. But that's how I feel as an observer.
Do you ever see Marvel fans going on to sites that discuss Criterion releases and just posting dismissively about the things that they like?
No, I don't have a lot of experience with that. I try to stay away from those kind of people. [Laughs.]
From message boards?
Yes. Yes. [Laughs.]
Yeah. That sort of thing happens in videogames fairly commonly.
I'm sure it happens a lot. I just don't see it. I'm sure that it does exist. I mean, I've certainly seen people go on page-long rants just on Facebook about DC movies. Like, Man of Steel is a great example. People would just go on crazy rants about Man of Steel.
With the comic-book movies, we know what's coming out -- I think that was last year, the announcement of what's coming out the next five, six years.
Yeah. That was last year.
Yeah. You know, there are some parallels with game companies like Ubisoft saying that they material for the next decade of Assassin's Creed, but they won't talk about it until it's two years or a year from being made. But you're saying you don't feel like the comics industry is less risk-averse creatively, but what does that climate of, "Okay, we know the major blockbusters that are gonna be coming out the next few years," like, how does that affect the stories that people want to buy or pitch or try to tell?
I think it gets people more excited. I mean, I think people get more excited. When a new Iron Man movie comes out, they re-release the old material. When a new Avengers movie comes out, they re-release the old material. They basically lower the barrier to entry for people to get into this stuff, and I think that's really fantastic.
And I don't necessarily see that old videogames. Say, for example, there's an Assassin's Creed movie. And there was. Michael Fassbender? Right? So, when a new Assassin's Creed movie comes out, they don't re-release all the old Assassin's Creed games with backwards compatibility. When a new Grand Theft Auto game comes out, they don't re-release all the other ones for people to play. Maybe they do, but I don't think so.
No, they don't.
So, I think that that lowering the barrier to entry and being in publishing, being able to re-release material at a discounted price for people to read digitally or to read trade paperbacks wherever, I think in a way that energizes the fanbase in a way you don't necessarily see in gaming.
Say you make a bad Assassin's Creed game, you know, it's gonna be at least another 18 months 'til another Assassin's Creed game comes out. So, people are stuck with the less crappy ones.
What do you think comics have accomplished?
I think there are a lot of things. Comics have accomplished helping people communicate in ways that we haven't been able to communicate in before. I mean, all comics are are words and pictures. So, if you look at the rise of words and pictures from emoji to smileys to internet memes to -- I mean, we see a lot of that. We see a lot of people using comics to illustrate everything from the flyers in the back of your airline safety manuals to choking hazard posters in your favorite restaurants. I mean, comics have mastered the way we communicate in words and pictures. And that synergy is super, critically important. Especially as we move to a more visual society, with apps on our iPhone representing things we wouldn't know with any sort of codification. So, I think what comics have done is create a really strong culture built around iconography and symbology.
Are we gonna start building pyramids again you think?
Maybe. Or hieroglyphs. In a way, I don't think that's a bad thing. I would like to buried in a pyramid, I think. Not with all the slave labor building it. I mean, we'll find something else obviously but, yeah.
Those workers are also going to want to unionize, I suspect.
[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah, probably a union. Exactly.
But, no, that's sort of how I feel. I'm pretty excited about talking about these things and I think the more people speak up about comics and unions and even videogames and unions, the stronger things will be.