Wednesday, June 27, 2012

creators' rights

I haven't weighed in on the issue of creators rights, and that's largely deliberate. In part, it's because I don't know what to say. I have all sorts of thoughts, but they don't lead to a particular conclusion. But, in the interest of saying something, here they are.

1. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster made much the same decision that a lot of people in their position would have made at the time. When faced with poverty and the prospect of their creation never seeing the light of day, they chose quick payment and the promise of future work.

2. The publishers did much the same thing--paid the going rate for work at the time.

3. Neither 1. nor 2. are relevant today.

4. Siegel and Shuster were subsequently treated poorly by the people who published their comics.

4.1 Except when they weren't, which was only sometimes.

4.2 Jerry Siegel sued the publisher. Then he promised not to sue anymore. Then he sued again.

5. It took massive amounts of pressure and the prospect of gaining millions of dollars to get the publisher to give Siegel and Shuster recognition.

6. Corporations aren't people. But there are people involved. Siegel and Shuster did the creative work on Superman. But a lot of other people did the editorial, printing, and distribution work. Nothing is done in a vacuum.

7. Superman today is quite different from Superman in 1938.

8. There have been lots of cases artists, especially those toward the end of their lives, having to deal with poverty while their creations make millions for corporations.

9. People should take care of each other.

10. Laws favor corporations because corporations have enough money to influence lawmakers.

11. The constitution separates church and state. It does not separate wall st. and the state.

12. Even when artists gain an amount of power, it's usually not enough to influence these things. Jim Lee, for example, cannot do anything about these concerns. I have no idea what things are like at Image, but they seem to be better.

13. People make their living by writing and drawing Superman stories today. Sure, they don't make a fraction of what the people who own the publisher make, but who are those people, anyway? It seems to me that there are very specific, named individuals on one side of this story. Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and their heirs. On the other side are...who? We hear things like DC Entertainment and Time/Warner. It would be nice to see some attention on who those names refer to? Who's getting rich off Superman today?

How did DC not exploit their association with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster? Why did they try to sweep them under the rug for so long? Why did it take so long to give them credit? It seems like they would want to parade the creators of Superman around and show them off, right? Make them the face of the company? But it was a different time, when conventions weren't what they are today.

I used to want to draw comics. I didn't want to be a professional writer until I was 18. At that point, I had no interest in writing comics. When an idea for a comic book came to me, six or seven years later, it was for a Hulk story. That is the only story I have ever come up with as an adult that involved corporately owned characters. It appeared fully formed in my head at a point in time when I had not read a comic book for about eight years. I wrote it down, tried to get it published, was rejected, and never really thought about it again. I wonder if it's any good. It was called "Where Do Lonely Hulks Go?" There were several pink bunnies in it.

Right now, I can't imagine ever writing for a company like Marvel or DC. I have no Superman stories, no Thor stories, no Spider-Man stories. When I write stories, they're about things that I make up, or about things I steal from history. That's so much more interesting. At least to me. Not, apparently, to anybody else. Except my four-year-old son. He'd be happy if I told him a new story every night, and several times each day, about things drawn entirely from my own brain. I tried this for about a year (just at night), and it was really hard.

All right, so I said there was no conclusion, but there is. People who create things should have control over them and the lion's share of profit. Sure, reality gets in the way, and if you want to make real money you have to be extremely lucky or have the backing of a major distributor. Or be Robert Kirkman. The laws are vague or change, or are determined by people who don't know much about the issue. I think it's obvious that the people who created Superman should be enormously wealthy, but creation involved a lot of people, over a lot of years. Another problem arises because we don't really know just how wealthy they should be.


  1. Re: promoting the creators -- for the longest time, the comics didn't want to create superstars in case they wanted more money. I recall reading that DC Comics, in particular, didn't even want their artists signing their work, especially during the late '40s and the Fifties (although some editors were better about obeying that edict than others).

    Add to that the fact that comics were seen as a creative ghetto, something you did until you sold a syndicated newspaper strip like Walt Kelly or Will Eisner, moved into advertising like Neal Adams, or wrote a screenplay or novel like Lou Cameron or Bill Woolfolk. Why brag about laboring in the funnybook field when the respect was elsewhere?

    Great essay, as always! :)

  2. Thanks Brian, and good point. This is a really tough issue for me, because my first impulse is always to side with the writer. It's hard to be objective. Creators' rights has a complex history, and Siegel and Shuster especially so. But your comments remind me that comics has been an oppressive field for a long time, and for lots of different reasons. I had forgotten the policy that prevented artists from signing works, and writers from taking credit. The thought process behind that seems so backward.