Work For Hire And Orson Welles
Orbital Operations for 19 November 2023
I’ve been asked before about the nature of what we call in comics WFH: Work For Hire. This is when one is hired to work on characters owned by the hiring company. The company owns whatever work you do outright, in return for payment: the old Marvel payment voucher used to assert that they owned all rights to the work “in perpetuity, throughout the universe.” The contracts may still state, as they once did, that Marvel Comics is the legal author of the work.
I entered the comics medium as creator and writer of original works. I had been invited to pitch a Batman piece to Archie Goodwin, which I did because Archie fucking Goodwin asked me to my face to write something for him, and Archie was a legendary writer and editor and when he asked you to do something you did it and tried very hard not to disappoint him.
(Archie once also said to me that one secret to longform superhero comics writing was that they were structured like soap operas, only with fight scenes instead of love scenes.)
Some people happily spend their entire careers in WFH, delighted to write the superhero characters they grew up with and to extend the arc of their stories. Some of us walked into it backwards and had to make adjustments. There are values to working in that area: it pays actual money, it sharpens your technical chops, it’s operating in relatively common culture (any issue of X-Men sells more copies than most novels I read), and you get to play around a bit.
So how do you approach something created by someone else, probably re-created by other people a dozen times, that you don’t own? If you’re a TV writer doing an episode of STAR TREK or LAW AND ORDER, you have a ton of guardrails and you obey and enjoy them. In comics, things are always a lot looser and more ad hoc, and one of the ways to think about it is F FOR FAKE.
The story goes that Orson Welles was hired to edit the footage of a documentary shot by a guy called Francois Reichenbach about a great art forger called Elmyr. Now, editing is its own kind of authorship, its own art and language - subordinate to the original piece, sure, but editing can change everything about and around it. As Welles got to work, so the story goes, he discovered he could do a better job by adding some things. At some point, the biographer of Elmyr whom Reichenbach interviewed on film was discovered to have produced a hoax biography of Howard Hughes. And then things took a turn. Welles grabbed Reichenbach, Gary Graver and Oja Kadar and turned Reichenbach’s footage into a film essay on fakery.
He was still doing the job of turning Reichenbach’s material into a film, mind you: technically, he was still as much a hired hand as anyone writing Batman.
F FOR FAKE is in fact one of my favourite Welles films. It’s warm, clever, mischievous and relaxed. He shoots footage of his own crew. Whole scenes are set around a dinner table as Welles holds court and contextualises the material. It’s as close to having dinner with a happy and garrulous Welles as we’ll ever get. It’s also full of Welles’ interests, obsessions, and personal mythology.
Reichenbach’s material is still in there. Reichenbach’s original intent - a film about Elmyr and forgery - is still in there. Welles serves the underlying material, but he expands it, grows it, adds something of himself into it. He did what he saw as the best possible work-for-hire job by transforming the material he was given into a form he felt was more true to itself and to him.
Taking the work done by other people and infusing it with your interests, obsessions and your notes for experiments. So, yes, you're experimenting with other people's money. But since that money is buying your material outright, and they have the right to make you clean up your lab and produce something closer to their desires in the event you produce a three-balled monstrosity, it's a fair exchange.
In Welles’ case, he makes F FOR FAKE: perhaps a minor work in his oeuvre, but a wonderful experiment in filmic lyric essay. And he did it off a work-for-hire job.
So there are ways into work for hire, ways where you can do the job of repainting a house you don’t own, experiment and learn a whole bunch of new things on their dime, sign your work, apply your new skills and discoveries to your own work later and get shit done with your creative soul left intact.
It can be hard to gain perspective on work for hire, if you find yourself in that position. Maybe this will be useful. Or maybe I just found you a good film to watch.
This is very much the approach I took when I did MOON KNIGHT. Every one of those six issues is based on one of the stories by MOON KNIGHT’s creator and original writer, Doug Moench. One hopes it may be read as an act of respect and acknowledgement rather than outright pillage.
(“The Slasher,” “Master Sniper,” “A Box Of Music For Savage Studs,” “The Dream Demon,” “Scarlet In Moonlight,” “Black Spectre,” in case anyone was curious.)
My name is Warren Ellis, and I’m a writer from England. These newsletters are about the work I do and the creative life I try to lead. I send them every Sunday to subscribers. Feel free to send your friends to orbitaloperations.beehiiv.com , where they can read the most recent letters and subscribe for their own.
I’m represented by Angela Cheng Caplan at the Cheng Caplan Company and David Hale Smith at Inkwell Management and Joel VanderKloot at VanderKloot Law. Please add [email protected] to your email system’s address book or contacts or move this email to primary in your inbox!
WARRENELLIS.LTD is my personal notebook, in which I make new entries several times a day. Think of it as all the things I can't fit into this newsletter, from links and bookmarks to reviews, random thoughts and life notes. If you use a RSS reader, it generates a feed at https://warrenellis.ltd/feed/ .
This letter has been zapped to you via Beehiiv.