Free-lancing Doesn’t Pay

“I’ve always enjoyed the classic tough American detectives,” Max Allan Collins was telling us. “Whether we’re talking about Dick Tracy or Eliot Ness or Joe Friday or Mike Hammer, I feel the classic American detective is most at home in the 30s and 40s and 50s. That’s when you can really wrap yourself in a trench coat and fedora and feel comfortable. After that the tough detective begins to be a bit of an anachronism.”

Did Tracy become an anachronism? we asked Collins, who has thought a lot more deeply about Dick Tracy than you or Warren Beatty or anyone besides Chester Gould. “That was always the battle,” Collins mused. “The downside of the movie was that they perpetrated the notion that Dick Tracy was something of the past. I strove to keep him as contemporary as anything on the comics page.”

Chester Gould created Dick Tracy in 1931 and drew it for half a century in the Tribune Tower. But in 1977 Collins took over the writing. He wrote the strip for 15 years, plus the novel based on Beatty’s 1990 movie, plus two sequels, and he’s published 27 other crime novels on the side. Two won Shamus awards from the Private Eye Writers of America. He’s written four Eliot Ness novels, each “based tightly on actual cases he was involved in.” The latest is Murder by the Numbers, which brings Collins to Chicago next week from his home in Muscatine, Iowa, for a promotional. Collins knows so much about Eliot Ness he even knows Ness left Chicago and moved to Cleveland.

Collins says his assignment from the Tribune Company syndicate, Tribune Media Services, was to turn around the worn-out property Dick Tracy had become and keep it going. He did. Yet a few weeks ago TMS bounced him. Collins liked to think he wasn’t just a disposable hired hand. But maybe he was.

Or maybe he was more. He feels Dick Tracy became, at least in part, his intellectual property. “There are characters, concepts, and situations who are ongoing,” he told us. “Dick Tracy has a son who’s my creation. Dick Tracy uses a two-way wrist computer that’s my creation. There are villains I created. I have certain rights in this area that go beyond when I stop writing the strip. There is the issue of work of mine being reprinted. There’s a comic book coming out this year reprinting a Dick Tracy story of mine last year. Shouldn’t there be compensation? Tribune Media Services has yet to address any of these issues.”

Collins’s Chicago attorney, Kenneth Levin, is a specialist in the arcane subspecialty of comic-art law. The magic words in a contract that give a syndicate every right in the world and a strip’s producers none are “work for hire,” Levin told us. He’s studied Collins’s contract with TMS. “I can’t find them,” he said. “I read English. I’ve looked.”

Collins is also steamed because his last contract expired in mid-December, yet Dick Tracy strips he wrote will keep running through March 14. Collins feels snookered. “I was two and a half months into the next contract period when I was told the contract wasn’t being picked up,” he told us. “In the belief that I’d been invited back I turned down free-lance work for ’93 in excess of my Tracy salary, and now all that free-lance work is gone.”

What happened here? Dick Tracy is a “story strip,” a kind of comic that changing tastes, diminished attention spans, and shrunken panel sizes have all but beaten out of existence. In its distant heyday, more than 500 papers carried Dick Tracy. Now the number’s around 200, and the strip’s readers are getting old. As long as they can be turned out cheaply enough, strips like Dick Tracy might as well live, mostly in hopes of spin-off revenues. But the Tracy movie has already been made. It briefly attracted a lot of new papers that have since disappeared.

Did you want a bigger boost than you got? we asked Michael Argirion, the TMS vice president Collins reported to. “You always hope for more,” Argirion said.

Was that part of the problem with Collins? we wondered.

“I just thought we needed a little rejuvenation and different energy in the strip,” he said.

There’s probably more to it than that. Argirion and Collins didn’t get along. “His editing style was one I found abrasive, and I didn’t hesitate to let him know,” said Collins. “Because Dick Tracy doesn’t represent my full income, it was not easy to push me around.”

Last year Collins got into hot water with TMS. A trading-card manufacturer called Eclipse Enterprise had hired him to write a series called “G-Men & Gangsters.” What Collins says he didn’t know is that Eclipse had also commissioned a series called “Serial Killers and Mass Murderers”–Richard Speck was card 32–and intended to market the two series as one “True Crime” package.

There was just enough nasty publicity–such as the Nassau County, New York, board of supervisors passing a law forbidding the sale of the cards to minors, and then the ACLU stepping in–to make TMS squirm. “Michael Argirion was furious,” Collins told us. “I wasn’t pleased.”

Argirion agrees. “I thought he had an obligation to Dick Tracy. But that’s probably not a good enough reason to say good-bye to somebody.”

“I let TMS know I was not involved with the serial-killer cards, and I also let them know I put my attorney on the case so Eclipse would not use Dick Tracy in their promos or put the series together anymore,” Collins told us. “Eclipse approached me about a sequel set, and out of deference to the Tribune I said no.”

Deference time is over. Collins is bringing out two new trading-card sets that are “projects I’d probably have hesitated to do” if he’d still been linked to the Tribune Company. They’re collections of cheesecake art from the 40s and 50s, “Painted Ladies” and “Pocket Pinups.”

Meanwhile, the next batch of Dick Tracy strips is being written by Dick Locher, the Chicago Tribune editorial cartoonist who’s drawn the strip since 1983 and for a time helped Gould write it back in the 60s. “I’m taking it into new crimes,” Locher says. “I’m taking it into carjacking, and I’m taking it into corporate spying.” Locher says TMS is looking for a permanent writer inside the Tribune Tower. That would mean someone already on the payroll who’d take part-time pay for part-time work. Which writing Dick Tracy is. Collins gave the strip one day a week.

“I think what’s happened to me is emblematic of the position free-lancers are in in this country,” Collins told us. “I’ve worked 15 years doing a very high profile important slice of American pop culture without medical insurance, without a vacation, without any perks, and I’m given two weeks’ notice and that’s it, with no severance. I’m not sure that should be allowed. It’s not Dick Tracy’s idea of justice, that’s for sure.”

Jane Play Update

Max Collins had never heard of the National Writers Union, champion of scriveners such as him who feel taken advantage of. As it happens, the NWU just interceded in a celebrated Chicago dispute over intellectual property–authorship of the play Jane: Abortion and the Underground.

Last week two actresses in the cast of Jane concluded they’d been misinformed about an agreement supposedly reached between free-lance writer Paula Kamen and director Karen Gorrin. When they discovered there wasn’t one, the actresses refused to go on. The Friday performance was canceled, and the next day Jane closed for good.

This decision by the Imagine Theatre Company denied Chicago a historic event: the United Auto Workers, which the lowly NWU joined in 1991, picketing the Theatre Building.

Last Friday a tough letter was sent to Gorrin by Cindy Sims, grievance chairman of the Chicago local. It began: “Perhaps you are unaware that plagiarism and unauthorized use of copyrighted material are against the law.” Sims went on to say that “Ms. Kamen, a member in good standing with this union, possesses abundant documentation supporting her authorship of Jane, including 15 successive drafts, the computer disks on which they were stored, correspondence with you, among others in your organization, and an impressive array of notebooks filled with research, character studies and plot summaries . . .

“Please explain how, after the play was written and copyrighted, you became co-author”–which Gorrin now claimed to be.

Sims told Gorrin to contact her by noon Saturday. Otherwise “this union will initiate public action.” Gorrin didn’t call but Jane closed. This week Gorrin’s attorney, Leonard Rubin, mailed Sims a testy letter. He wanted to know what “public action” meant and what standing the NWU had “to make any threats against someone who is not a member” of it.

Standing is more a spiritual than a legal concept at the NWU, which has negotiated very few labor contracts. Sims says that to show solidarity with Kamen, she’d hoped to have as many as 30 picketers out Saturday night waving signs that sported such sallies as “Copyrighted Plays–Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill and Karen Gorrin.”

Big Jim on Board

Some Sun-Times journalists wish Jim Thompson hadn’t just been named to the Sun-Times Company’s board of directors. The former governor is bigger than the private life he recently returned to, and his name has been floated as the next director of the FBI. Sun-Times publisher Sam McKeel told us he didn’t ask for, and didn’t get, assurances that the job isn’t in Thompson’s future. He assumes that if Thompson’s appointed he’ll resign. “If he accepts that, it would be inappropriate for him to sit on any private board,” McKeel said.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sarah A. Beckman.