So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #013: Sell Out!

It’s been rattling around my brain for too long; this endless debate that begs a simple question: What makes one a sellout?

The term itself is often overused. It’s shorthand for labeling creators as lesser for any number of reasons — typically revolving around the notion that a creator acquiesces to changes in their work as demanded by a corporate entity to ultimately shave the edges from their output so-as to allow the end product be more appealing to a broader audience.  We also label those artists who choose to license their original work for use in commercials and other sundry productions with the same term… but in the specific case of my thoughts this week, we’re focusing on the former, not the latter.

When I’d heard the term bandied about through my youth, I immediately jump to a pair of performers in the music space; Jason Newsted of Metallica (at the time), and the entirety of 3rd wave ska band, Reel Big Fish. When asked if Metallica sold out, Newsted slyly smiled as he stared down the lens of the camera. “Of course we sell out — (he waits a solid and bitterly pregnant pause) — every seat in every arena we play!” And of course, Aaron Barret and his motley crew of California skankers received their first taste of widespread radio play with their hit Sell Out, wherein they joke about how “the record company’s gonna give me lots of money and everything’s gonna be alright.”

Upon hearing declarations like this, I’d felt an immediate kinship with those that ironically scoffed at the notion. That reaching a wider audience to seek better fiscal gains by way of a reduction of harder-to-understand nuances wasn’t inherently sinful. It was merely means to an end. And as an adolescent, my heroes all seemed to live and thrive living right in that sweet spot. Their work somehow seemed above completely shameless schlock, where the slick shine of heavily edited production and marketing did its job to make Enter Sandman or The Mask palatable to both me (suburban metal-tyke / comic-book-smart fan) and someone ten to twenty years my senior. And why would that be so bad, damnit? 

Even during my most angsty phase in life, I recognized the difference between product and art. And skating down the middle between them couldn’t possibly be as evil as the punks of the 70’s and 80’s made it out to be.

And then, of course, I grew up.

As a creator now of over 10 years, I have grown quite fond of my artistic output. Every line I’ve drawn, and word I’ve written has come stacked with the torment, anguish, concentration, education, and carefully cultivated opinion I’ve built over a lifetime. And where our first comics nervously fell from our hands into would-be customers… now, my proud and meaty paw places my pulp with proper punch into the palms of potential purchasers. That pride, I assure you, comes earned after countless rejections from editors, investors, friends, and family… whose creative feedback eventually flowed from my hurt ego directly through to my pen and keyboard. Such, enough, that here at 36 I can say without pause that I have talent, and a unique perspective. Enough, at very least, that I am compelled to share it with the public at large (most often in the form of a $5 comic).

To sell out now? Is to feel the weight of the work I’ve created and admit that my perspective is nuanced enough that it’s not as profitable as it could be. And that, above a great a many thing… is a jagged little pill to swallow. Selling out in this case, feels like an admission of guilt, or lack of talent. That had my work been better I wouldn’t need notes from the peanut gallery (or a would-be mentor) to improve upon my product.

While it’s too complicated to narrate the specificity of the offer(s) at my feet lately, I can say without pause that the idea that I’d need to sell out in order to see success has recently washed upon the shores of my scuffed Sketchers. And it’s clearly left me in a quandary as to how to properly proceed. All alliteration aside? I don’t have the answers as clearly as teenage me might have once had.

To be clear, honest, and fair? I’m not sitting in front of a deal from the devil. In fact, most of this all rests somewhere between “hopeful speculation” and “pipe dreams supplanted by an e-mail and text chain”. But what is clear to me now is that soon enough, I’ll have to make a decision that puts my belief in my abilities against my desire for financial gain. And while the notion that the ends will always justify the means? I’m pretty sure at some point even Smash Mouth asked themselves would it be worth it.

Hey now.

One thought on “So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #013: Sell Out!

  1. Marc, I feel your conflict and desire for clarity. It’s oozing through every sentence. And if it’s truly not a deal with the devil, if you will indeed retain your soul if you make this deal: maybe do it? Isn’t a pretty important End the safety and security of your family unit? The Means ARE justified if they are in line with the upward arc of your life, that you can keep being an artist, that you have some control over said means, that off in the distance (maybe after dealing with many devils) you can see the tranquil pool of becoming Famous enough, or Acclaimed, or Revered enough to be in total control again. To tell those devils to eff off!

    Have you considered that many a Stan Lee, Robert Kirkman or Neil Gaiman agonized this same question at some point? Maybe this soul searching is just a necessary step to finding yourself on the receiving end of critical acclaim, artistic glory and financial security.

    Do you construct the old pro-vs-con table when you have to make a pretty important decision? I have done, and it usually helps clarify my thinking. Maybe you have a different process that works for you; being an artist, I imagine you have some circular, diagrammy, arrows-connecting-ideas way of processing your thoughts/feelings. Maybe solitary walks along a woodland path, shuffling leaves away, listening for the birds to impart wisdom?

    I know Neil Gaiman a bit, through my daughter and her wife. Actually, my DIL has been good friends with Amanda Palmer before she married Neil. Name-dropping shamelessly, but he’s the most successful writer I know. Clare and Rachel usually have Thanksgiving with Neil and Amanda and I could ask Clare to casually bring up the topic of selling out. The old “asking for a friend” gambit. PS I think I love old Dresden Dolls stuff more than Gaiman’s books. Except for “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.”

    All this jabbering does little for you, I guess. But I do think this is a question that comes up for a lot of people in the arts. But hell, Marc, comic books IS a business, too. Can you learn to be a cutthroat creator?

    Your alliteration is catching. Thanks.