If you’re a Comics Reader of a Certain Age, the name Jerry Ordway will definitely ring a bell as one of the founding creators of a Certain Age of Comics with accomplishments he lays out very well in a blog post called Life over fifty: a long run on Superman, work on Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis and other foundations of the lore of the DC Universe. Once, there was no one more respected, established or go to. But in recent times, things have been bumpy—an exclusive that meant he barely got any work, and now a dry spell:
I am thrilled to be well remembered, and respected in the comic book community, and to have fans willing to pay me to draw commissions, but I got into comics in order to tell stories, not to draw custom art. I still feel vital, and still want to be at that table. Do I think DC comics owes me anything? Yes and no. I understand that no company owes anything that isn’t contractually stipulated, but in my heart, I think I deserve better than being marginalized over the last 10 years. I’m not retired, I’m not financially independent. I’m a working guy with a family, working for a flat page rate that hasn’t changed substantially since 1995. I may have opportunities at smaller companies, companies that pay less per page than I made in 1988, with no royalties or ownership of any kind. I’m not at all looking down at that, but it is hard to reconcile, as I can’t work faster, and refuse to hack my work out to match the rate. I have pride in what I do, and always have. As to my part in the history of dc for the past 33 years, I was a highly visible and successful part of it, not a minor footnote.
As a comic reader and customer, the publishers use our older work in collected editions, for what they call first copy royalties, no reprint fees. They publish the All Star Squadron trade, for example and you buy it for whatever the cost. My royalty is maybe a couple hundred dollars, if I’m lucky, for 11 issues worth of work. On a recent Absolute Infinite Crisis hardcover, I had 30 odd pages reprinted in there, a book that retailed for over a hundred dollars– a book that DC never even gave me a copy of, and the royalty amounted to a few dollars, I couldn’t buy a pizza on that windfall. I want to work, I don’t want to be a nostalgia act, remembered only for what I did 20, 30 years ago.
Ordway’s tale is increasingly familiar, but not an unexpected one—in fact, just read the comments under his post where a plethora of older, experienced comics creators sound off. Not to be harsh, but when Ordway started storming the barricades, Arnold Drake wasn’t getting much work, and when Drake was in his prime, Mart Nodell wasn’t the number 1 creator. And someday Scott Snyder and Matt Fraction will be grey haired-eminences. Nobody promised you a 50-year-long career when you got into this thing.
There is no mystery to the career trajectory in any medium. We see it around us all the time. Or as Hollywood once put it, the five career stages:
Who is Rock Gibralter?
Maybe we should try Rock Gibralter.
Get me Rock Gibralter.
Get me a young Rock Gibralter.
Who is Rock Gibralter?
Twitter and message boards are already afire with calls to hire Jerry Ordway, and I’m sure he already has some job offers rolling in. You haven’t seen the last of Rock Gibralter. In many creative fields, Ordway would be in the prime of his career—it’s not like comics are the music industry and a following is dependent on dancing around in tight pants. But still, Rob LIefeld—himself no stranger to ups and downs—draws a line under it:
Jerry Ordway is ridiculously generous and kind and an immaculate artist and draftsman. His post is a bold, sobering, truthful reflection
— robertliefeld (@robertliefeld) March 4, 2013
With total respect to Ordway, who is a thorough professional with an enviable track record—he, like many others, has based his career thus far on the Corporate Comics model. And in that model when you fall out of fashion with the fans, for whatever reason, you don’t get hired any more. There’s a finite life cycle to most careers unless you break out into superstar status, and even then no guarantees. In his post Ordway mentions older creators who were his role models, including Jack Kirby. I think there was a lesson there to be learned that Ordway did not entirely absorb.
But who can blame him? We all think we’re the one who’s going to stay on top, stay fresh and vital, buck the odds. Young people don’t buy health insurance or put money in their 401(k)s unless forced to do so.
It is easier than even to do your own thing. Matt Fraction and Scott Snyder have something that previous generations didn’t have as much access to: they were both established creators before they even wrote a line for Corporate Comics. Snyder was an author with rave reviews in Publishers Weekly, the New York Times, and Booklist. Fraction had worked for an award-winning interactive design firm and had a back catalog of his own comics that already had a following. Should they fall out of favor tomorrow—or even in 10 years, I think they’d be fine.
The system Ordway was raised doesn’t exist anymore…and never really did, in terms of an industry that looked after its creators from art school graduation to memorial service. That he’ll be productive and successful for another couple of decades, I have no doubt—he’s smart, talented and creative. And adaptable.
But let his blog post stand as a warning to all: the gravy train usually has a very short ride.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.