At A Loss For Work

I probably shouldn’t say so where people can see me, but I’m not sure what the right answer is in the case of Jerry Ordway.

Ordway supermanIn case you missed it, about two weeks ago Ordway did some rumination on his blog about being a man his age trying to work steadily in the comic book industry. Actually, he wasn’t just talking about being “a man his age”; he was talking about being an integral protein in DC’s DNA for many fans’ entire lives so far, now reduced to being a reliable fill-in artist who struggles to earn a better page rate than he was making twenty years ago. When he was coming up in the biz, “name” artists stayed busy well into their seventies, and Ordway was publicly wishing for the same opportunity. He also had a few thoughts about the pittance in royalties he makes for reprints of some of the defining stories of the DC Universe. He’s not whining or suing or demanding people take to the streets; his position seems to be, “I’m not saying anybody owes me anything, but… come on.”

Now, I have learned much, much too slowly that when presented with an ethical issue like this, the Internet demands a strong, fanatical opinion that cannot be swayed by hurricane-force winds. If one is the type of person who writes things about such issues, those things must either be some variation of “what DC is doing is a shameful travesty; we must launch a Kickstarter to design and fire a ballistic missile at their headquarters” or some variation of “he read the contracts before he signed them; he needs to die of starvation before he and his lawyer decide to take my Superman away.” Do any less, I have learned painfully, and you’ll see yourself labeled a moral coward or a Nazi collaborator, usually by both sides at the same time.

Makes all this a lot of fun.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I confess that I’m of at least two minds about Ordway’s situation. He is a legend, and if you accept the premise that artists hone their craft and improve with time then he’s got more legendary work in him. It’s insane to leave that asset on a shelf somewhere in favor of the clowns who draw some of the comics I’m reading. If you’re someone who follows writers first and artists second, you can probably think of at least three pencilers in your current stack that you would replace with a guy like Jerry Ordway faster than you can say “tragically obvious photo reference.”

But what are those clowns’ page rates? And what if there are more considerations when hiring than “is really good and eager to work”?

imageThe comic book industry favors the New, but that’s not necessarily unique to it. I imagine more than a few of us know someone in his fifties who has tried to look for work in the last few years and found himself out of vogue when faced with other applicants fresh out of college, willing to work for back pats and Panera sandwiches. When you think about it like any other part of this rickety duct-taped economy, of course he can’t get the work he wants at the page rate he demands; there are twenty decently-skilled kids who’ll do the same work and be glad to do it for a handful of candy circus peanuts faster than you can say, “Hell yes, I’ll draw a Toyman solo series; drawing a Toyman solo series has been my lifelong dream, Mr. Editor, sir.”

There are plenty of ways to earn a living online; without having to leave the house. Checking out Lifestyle Design International reviews, you’ll find that it offers a multitude of jobs for different skill sets. You’ll definitely see something that’s right up your alley. Even comic design.

There is also the fact that DC has been (at least ostensibly) trying to take their line in a Bold New Direction for the last year or so. Maybe the people who decide such things associate Ordway’s art with days gone by and fear the reader will, too. Maybe the decision makers think his style is “of its time” and just revere him too much to tell him so. As a true comics biz outsider, I am speculating my brains out, but if that were true it would look a lot like a bewildering scarcity of work if it were happening to you. That’s the problem with being one of the guys who helps define an era: the era passes.

And if that is what the decision makers think, are they wrong? If their sole goal is to make money, and they don’t think they can do it with Jerry Ordway, what does anyone owe anyone in that situation? I can think of a couple of books that were given to legendary writers or artists just for the sake of them having a comic come out, and those series existed mostly for podcasters to howl about.

The roadside is littered with talented people who have created beautiful things for us only to be rewarded this way by the calling they devoted their youth to. How do they make things right? Jerry Ordway doesn’t (just) want DC to take responsibility and give him a bigger cut of the books he birthed into the world for them; he wants to work and earn his money, just like healthy, skilled guys his age from any number of vocations currently flat-out in unemployment lines. What’s the solution? I hope I don’t invite too much trouble by admitting that I don’t really know.


Jim Mroczkowski has not been put in charge of anything important in a very long time for good reason.

Comments

  1. I don’t know what to make of this situation either because if you think about it there’s John Romita Jr. who’s thriving over at Marvel and he’s from that bygone era. Could it be that one guy knew/knows how to play the politics game at work while the other didn’t? Just being a nice guy in the workplace doesn’t get you that promotion.

    • Walt Simonson is about to do art on “Indestructible Hulk”, I don’t know if he’s from the same bygone era as Romita Jr tho.

    • Look at those two though… what do they have in common? Marvel.

    • @IthoSapien Yeah, I’d say they’re both roughly from the same artistic generation.

    • Correct me of I’m wrong, but isn’t Marvel publishing more books than DC? Maybe that means they have more work availble for those older artists because they have so much to publish. I haven’t found a through list but when last I looked into Marvel was publishing close to if not as much as DC even with the New 52.

    • You guys make some interesting points. Maybe, the deciding factor of employment for veterans is Marvel being more successful than DC.

      I want rephrase my first comment: If all things are equal between two creators, then it comes down to who networks and keeps his name floating around vs. the one who thinks/feels the work speaks for itself and he shouldn’t have to resort to such tactics. In the end, I’m merely speculating.

    • Romita Jr and Simonson did a lot of high profile work so there bigger names. Romita Jr has changed his style and always had an odd style while Ordway was right now down the middle. The only thing I think of Ordway doing is that Shazam series awhile back. I do think it’s shitty that DC would sign him to an exclusive and not give him work. Most of their books have mediocre art at best. That being said I wouldn’t buy something because he was doing it. Although some of the new art from Simonson looks terrible. That Hulk picking up the Hammer, blehh.

  2. Good article. Lot’s of ways to go with this one. I think ,ultimately, you have to go with the pro-athlete mentality: “Get ALL you can WHILE you can.”

    • I think is a general rule for comicbook artist / writers. If i look ten years back at Marvel or DC catalog, half of the people in the covers are, not working anymore or barely on the stands. People either fade out or just move elsewhere, and this is not people in age to retire. Very few people do actually stay. Those who do, have a very distintive style, acompanied with long a succesfull runs on titles. Still some oportunities arrive. They give a shot to an old timer, just for the sake of promotion, or novelty. “look here’s that guy who used to be really good”. Alan Davis was doing some work for marvel recently. Neal Adams had a run on Batman. I’ve think i heard Chris Claremont was doing some new work. And there was a time when his work at Marvel was in a weird status, until he just disappeared. The comicbook industry is very ungreatful to his contributors.

  3. I feel for the guy, really. But if he wants more work maybe he should shop around at Marvel or something? I don’t get why DC would let this sit on his hands, they let Dan Jurgens write “JLI” when the New 52 first started which I thought was really odd. If he wants to be loyal to DC that’s cool and respectible, but he’s gotta go where there’s work y’know? He either needs to look for work at another company or maybe do some non-comics work on the side if money is an issue. Hopefully he gets what he wants and DC doesn’t have good people sitting on the bench.

    • His blog actually mentions that he took an “exclusive contract” from DC in the hopes that he’d get steadier work, but there was no “minimum” to the work, and, by the end of it, he was kind of starved for work. So that contract would probably explain why he wasn’t over at Marvel sooner. Now, I can’t tell exactly if/when that contract expired from the blog, but I think it’s probably safe to assume that if he’s a free agent, he’s talked to Marvel.

    • I would hope so, and that next time he signs a contract there’s a section specifying a minimum of assignments he’s guarantied or promised

  4. Seems to me that Marvel is using a mix of the ‘old’ artists like Romita Jr or Simonson, giving then high profile books and actually using him to sell the titles while still bringing in hot newer talent. That’s just what popped into my head as I read it anyways.

  5. filippod (@filippodee) says:

    The only thing I can say is that I love to have some “classic” artists in my monthly mix.

    From the top of my mind: Romita Jr, Alan Davis, Mark Bagley (all from 1956/57, like Ordway) and Walt Simonson (from 1946, 10 years older) are all currently working for Marvel and producing good stuff (sometimes great stuff).

  6. I’m not one to be superstitious, but are there any creators who’ve done well after working on Superman? Artists especially seem to get the crap end of the stick after working on Big Blue.

  7. Everyone knows how the sausage is made: with arthritic veteran cartoonists who struggle to pay for basic medical care and end up dying in tenements.

  8. I’m in near-total agreement with you, Jim.

    This is a messy subject with a lot of nuance to it. On the one hand, it seems inconceivable that Ordway should keep getting passed over. His art may seem “old-fashioned”, but even the New 52-era has leaned on nostalgia from time to time. Perez seems as “old-fashioned” as Ordway, but he’s gotten a lot of play. The big two have given Neal Adams and Walt Simonson near-regular work over the last few years. Surely they could find SOMETHING for Ordway to do. Maybe not a vanity project, but it sure seems like they could have worked him into SOMETHING like a few annuals or a fill-in arcs/issues per year.

    On the other hand, I hate to say it but I just don’t think Ordway IS a legend. He’s a step down. He’s NOT a Perez or Adams or Simonson or a Byrne. He just isn’t. He’s never been mentioned in the same breath as those guys in terms of influence or critical acclaim, and it just seems wrong to start doing so now in such a casual fashion. Over the last couple weeks I’ve seen variations of “C’mon, Ordway is a LEGEND!” mentioned dozens of times, but I have to wonder how many of those people, as recently as a month ago, would have even thought to list Ordway in their top 200 artists. I just can’t see it happening.

    That’s not a shot or a criticism at Ordway. To tell an artist, “Hey, you’re not on Neal Adams’ level” is hardly an insult.

    In the end it’s just a shame that Ordway exists in this limbo area. If he didn’t come from the old school, he probably wouldn’t take it as beneath him to make the same amount of money he was making 20 years ago for the same work. Younger, less experienced artists are obviously happy to work for DC at those wages. But Ordway is a solid artist. It makes too much sense NOT to put him on a few Big Two projects. And yet, it seems he isn’t a viable enough commodity. Really a shame.

    • You’re right, I wouldn’t call Ordway a legend, but he does have a cult following and a decent body of work to call his own.

      The problem is that his style is old-fasioned and that’s not selling these days. I wish that wasn’t true because I do enjoy that style. He was the only reason I bought the Challengers of the Unknown series last year.

      In any event, I would say that Perez has not been in play for the New 52, quite the opposite. I think what editorial did was bring out these 90s era writers and artists in an attempt to bring lapsed 30-something readers into the fold.

  9. I feel for Ordway but this seems to happen to people in almost every artistic medium. How many bands or musicians make their best record thirty or more years into their careers? How many are even making good records after that long? Not many, most just tour once a year and play the hits.

    Filmmakers tend to be the same way. Sure Scorsese and Spielberg are still making good movies from time to time but they certainly aren’t defining American cinema as they did in the 70’s and 80’s.

    This seems to be something that happens to creative people after decades of being creative. The need, even possibly the desire to continually innovate and invent new things is difficult even for young, fresh faced individuals let alone people in their 50’s and 60’s who have been doing it for decades.

    Sure their are exceptions to the rule, but for every Terrence Malick and Bruce Springsteen there are certainly dozens of accomplished artists that simply lose a step after so many years.

    I hope Ordway finds the work he is looking for and is able to work into his 70’s, but I hope he finds the RIGHT book. Sure he’s the one who signed the exclusive contract but DC wrote it that way so It’d be nice to see DC try to find a good book for him. You’re telling me with 52 books published every month they really can’t find a book for someone with the talent of Ordway? I find it hard to believe. That said, if he has lost a step or if his style doesn’t fit into their new company wide look, maybe he needs to think about cutting his rate a little.

  10. I like Jerry Ordway but his art is a little old school. It’s very clean and I’m a fan of that style, but the recent books he has worked on haven’t exactly blown me away, and his art isn’t enough of a draw for me to read mediocre stories. His name and work isn’t a huge draw for most comic fans these days.

    It’s always about money, I hear it every day. I know he wants to work and earn a living, but so do tons of other people. It’s just depressing. I wish him the best, though – it would be great to get him on an old school feeling title.

    And anybody trying to make this yet another Marvel vs DC topic is lame.

  11. For as controversial as “The Kirkman Manifesto” was, he did make one undeniable point: Marvel and DC are a great place to thrive, but creator-owned is what you retire on. Some people are lucky enough to make it (DC is being very kind to Scott Lobdell, and Marvel has a lot of “old school” artist like JRJR and Alan Davis on high profile books), but for the vast majority, if you want secure yourself, find a good idea and see if you can sell it. McFarlane, Kirkman, Vaughan, Ennis, and Layman have pretty good contingencies for when their style has fallen out of the fad (in the case of McFarlane it’s already happened, and he’s a millionaire). On the other side, you can have someone like Bendis who is prospering at Marvel, but has a ton of creator-owned stuff on the side to live off of later in life.

  12. Ordway has always been one of my all time favorite artists. It’s a shame he is struggling for consistent wk, considering some of the crappy artists being used today by both of the big two. Here’s an idea DC…bring back All Star Squadron and give it to Roy Thomas and Jerry Ordway! Sure fire hit!

  13. If Ordway started a Superman-pastiche webcomic that posted new pages every week, I would read the hell out of it.

  14. Jerry Ordway is a craftsman of comic art. And that’s rare these days.

  15. The last time the industry adopted the ‘new must be better’ attitude was the late 90s where uber-style mattered more than actual art and skill. New is NOT better… and DC knows it because they’re still using Rob Liefeld and George Perez. I’m not really too crazy about Gary Frank (I’m in a minority, I understand), but his work secretes all kind of retro-art influences… it really does. I say this because I just have the feeling that there is something unmentioned or unknown between Ordway and DC that is the true problem. Its not about his age or style, because of some of the other artists they employ show this isn’t the case. Some people have been applauding Perez’ art and I think its a bit lackluster compared to what he used to do, and Ordway’s art seems to be better than George Perez’ (unless we’re talking about drawing 20 or 30 character on one page, where Perez will reign supreme).

    Also… why hasn’t Ordway looked toward independents? IDW, Darkhorse, or Dynamite… they have no use for someone with talent like Ordway? I doubt it. Why doesn’t he look into something creator-owned? I don’t think he has the drive or effort to. He is the old-school classic ‘company man’ who’s company downsized him. Its too bad.

  16. “The Comic Book industry favors new…”

    LOL

  17. Great article, Jim. I always think of Ordway as solid draftsman, a company guy who gets the job done without a lot of flash. But legend is a little heavy…

    At the same time, the thing that gets me about this is that DC seems to have no trouble giving ample work to writers well past their prime whose most notable work resides in the mid-80s to early 90s. With the exception of maybe 4-5 artists (Cooke, Conner, Chiang, Burnham, & possibly Paquette) DC now seems to now have a top-down house style for their books although it is fantastic work, Capullo’s progression and heat isn’t helping DC’s inclination to hire artists whose styles are overhatchingly reminiscent of the Image Founders. But this is a comics-wide problem and as much as I loved me some McFarlane, I don’t know if that good-feeling I had as a kid is worth wading through so much of its effect a quarter century later.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the points about this being yet another incident where The Kirkman Manifesto rang true, but I’m not really sure what Ordway can do other than crosshatch and grimace his way back into DC’s heart on his next assignment…

  18. Ordway needs to expand and start doing commissioned work for fans. John Bryne is making a killing on his website doing this and M.C. Wyman is thriving through ebay commissions. Just need to be more flexible and adjust to the ever changing world.