All I Really Need To Know I Learned On “The Simpsons”

I can’t remember when I stopped watching new episodes of “The Simpsons” every Sunday night, but it had to be at least 12 years ago. There was a time when I was a true follower of Matt Groening and company’s show, repeating lines to my friends as often as these guys (READ IT). But even after the majority of my young life kneeling at the “Don’t Have A Cow, Man” altar, I fell out of the habit.

Part of that is that I agree with a lot of the common criticisms of where the show is now. It’s less character-focused. The plots have grown more “ADHD” (though it hasn’t slid quite into “Family Guy” levels of non-sequitur gags). They lost their best writer in John Swartzwelder and their best producers in Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein. And generally, after 24 seasons and a decent movie, there just isn’t as much life to be drawn out of the series anymore.

Still. Unlike some folks who abandoned the show entirely, I kept half and eye on “The Simpsons” over the years. I watch it while making dinner since it’s always on around 6:00 whatever city you’re in. And after a really fallow period, I started to catch the occasional episode that was actually, genuinely funny from the most recent years.

And then tonight while eating a hamburger, I watched a rerun of the episode “The Book Job” which originally aired almost exactly a year ago.

Hoooooollllllleeeee. That was GREAT.

Of course, I’m biased on this one. The episode featured Neil Gaiman, a writer whose work I greatly enjoy – particularly when I discovered him through comics before he became know across the country as “Award-Winning Children’s Author Neil Gaiman.” And as such, the story involved a ton of winking joke references to his specific work (Sez Moe: “I don’t care if he wrote ‘Sandman Volume One, Preludes and Nocturnes!’”). I expected as much when I missed the episode last year, but I never really picked up on the story of “The Book Job.”

And it was the whole story that really hit home for me. The episode revolves around Lisa’s learning that her favorite tween fantasy series wasn’t penned by the author who’s personal story so touched her. Instead, the series was cranked out by a corporation who write YA novels by committee. The authors on the back covers are all actors, the text written by teams of recent college graduates desperate to pay off their student loans:

I’m sure just by looking at this blog, you can see why this plot hit home for me. And while the rapid-fire jokes ratcheted up wonderfully as Bart and Homer build a team to crank out their own YA series about a pair of lost prince troll brothers who go to a private school located under the Brooklyn Bridge and Lisa committed herself to writing a novel the right way (i.e. procrastinating at every available opportunity and getting nothing done), the total effect of the episode was a satire of writers who stupidly give up their rights to corporate interests.


For years, one of my biggest drums to beat in the children’s/YA lit world is a call to arms on the issue of real ownership vs. work for hire. As a fan involved in and then a freelance journalist for the comics industry, the story of creators being screwed over their rights by publishers is one I’ve heard over and over again. The sale of Superman from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to DC Comics is rightly viewed as comics original sin. And aside from making for lawsuits that are still entrenched and personally painful to read about today, the history associated with that event serves as an object lesson to creative people working in idioms ripe for media adaptation.

Comics was an industry run by greedy, exploitative publishers from day one thanks to its connection to the now dead pulp industries. But now in an age where corporate owned comic characters make billions in movie and licensing, the world of book publishing – and kids books in particular – has picked up on the Work For Hire contract practices pioneered by shifty, untrustworthy comics companies to feed books stands, TV stations and movie theaters with profit-maximizing “Intellectual Properties.” (ugh…that term chills the spine)

The kingpins of this practice are “Alloy Entertainment” – a company formerly known by the more accurate name “Alloy Media + Marketing” (yes, they really used the plus). Best known for “Gossip Girl” and their similar scads of teen novel series turned basic cable dramas, Alloy is probably the most untrustworthy, exploitative publisher in any book market today (no surprise then that they were recently bought out by DC Comics owners Warner Bros!).

If you haven’t already, you should read New York Magazine’s exposé on Alloy’s partnership with cretinous author/known literary fraud/Oprah buffoon James Frey. It’s a real horror story. And even deals at Alloy that aren’t necessarily built on predatory practices like the Gossip Girl franchise (whose TV show I’ll cop to watching for many years) created by former Alloy Editor Cecily von Ziegesar have a tendency to screw over the writer in one way or another.

But more often than not, signing with a firm like Alloy just means that they’ll screw you as hard as they can when the opportunity to do both that and make a ton of money for themselves comes along. Take the case of writer L.J. Smith who created the best-selling Vampire Diaries franchise for Alloy ahead of the current vampire craze and THEN came back to give them more volumes so they could capitalize on the mass of Twilight fans who cropped up in the past five years.

As Smith explained in a recent interview:

When they sent the contract, it said it was a work for hire. What it meant was I was giving up basically all the rights I’d have as a normal writer, including the right to continue writing my books. And Alloy Entertainment decided they wanted shorter books that were promoting the television series, and they simply informed me, even though I had already written a book called Phantom for them and given them all the information for that book and the next book, Moonsong, that my services were no longer required.

Shocker, right? I try not to mock writers who work for this company because, like the Devil did with Daniel Webster, I’m sure the people they first met from Alloy were all smiles when they were signing the contracts. But stories like this – stories of disenfranchisement and summary dismissals and an unwarranted loss of creative control after making them millions with your talent – should be told again and again in our industry until Alloy is shamed into collapsing.

No, that may not happen any time soon if ever, but as a writer, it’s up to you to know your rights and avoid people who would exploit you unfairly. Even if you make the big bucks at first from an ABC Family TV series, the pain of having your work ripped from your hands will be much worse than a modest paycheck up front. And in real life, you don’t get to team up with Neil Gaiman in an “Ocean’s Eleven” style scheme to ensure the book your company publishes meets your original vision. You’re simply shown the door.

Meanwhile, people who safeguard their rights and do wonderful, even commercial work for their own edification are doing just fine in the bank. People like Matt Groening who’s controlled merchandising for “The Simpsons” since its inception as well as full creative control over the franchise. It doesn’t just empower him to make the money. It enables him to speak the truth.