Off Screen: The Biggest Superhero Battle is Being Fought Off-Panel

Off Screen: The Biggest Superhero Battle is Being Fought Off-Panel

Feb 13, 2012

Welcome to Off Screen, our corner that keeps track of big-screen characters in other media, be they comics, books, TV shows or video games.


Last week, Ghost Rider creator Gary Friedrich was ordered to pay $17,000 dollars to Marvel for past income he made from the Ghost Rider name (this includes convention appearances and paid autographs). Bad news for the retired Gary Friedrich, and, as it turns out, bad press for Marvel. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance opens in theaters in less than a week, and the popular sentiment is such that if Marvel could make millions from Sony’s Ghost Rider sequel, then they can look past snagging Friedrich’s meager earnings. In Marvel’s eyes, Friedrich brought the fight to them, and, frankly, they don’t have reason to care about whether or not he has the money on hand -- it’s theirs.

 

Secret Wars

It seems that the Friedrich case is the public’s tipping point in a long list of battles in the comic book community over creator rights. 2012 started with the resolution of the long-running battle between writer Neil Gaiman and artist Todd McFarlane over elements Gaiman created in a one-off guest issue of McFarlane’s Spawn. McFarlane incorporated Gaiman’s elements into the overall Spawn mythos, using them in movies, TV, and merchandise without proper compensation. Image Comics, who publishes Spawn and was co-founded by McFarlane, was built on the very concept of creator’s rights, providing a means for former Marvel artists like McFarlane to control their own creations. As such, McFarlane’s actions seem especially hypocritical. Gaiman was eventually awarded half-ownership of his creations and will be giving any of his back earnings to charity.

Shortly after, Change.Org orchestrated an online petition for Marvel to acknowledge artist Jack Kirby’s contribution to the Marvel Universe (he co-created Fantastic Four, Captain America, Hulk, amongst others) and pay royalties accordingly. In July 2011, the courts ruled that due to the nature of Kirby’s work-for-hire arrangement, Marvel retains all of the copyrights for any character Kirby may have created. His estate planned to appeal, but there are no new developments on that front. Change.Org is not asking for that decision to be overturned, but for Marvel to give the same authorship credit to Jack Kirby that Stan Lee maintains and to compensate Kirby’s family in some way for the billions of dollars Marvel has made from his creations.

Confidence in Kirby’s case was inspired, I’m sure, by the recent complicated victory in the battle over the rights of Superman. In May 2011, the estates of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel were awarded certain rights to the Superman character and elements (but not the trademarks or foreign rights, and this is where it gets complicated -- not all of the elements of Superman that were created independently of Shuster and Siegel). Regardless, it was seen as a major victory, and even though it’s placed Superman’s future up in the air (Warner Brothers may not be able to make more Superman films or use some of the classic Superman elements in the DC comics), the families will finally have a real financial stake in the beloved character. On a side note, many speculate that this is the reason for DC’s recent “New 52” reboot -- to allow the publisher to revamp Superman and cherry-pick only the elements that they have complete legal control over.

DC made recent headlines for going ahead with Watchmen prequels, despite the wishes of Watchmen creator Alan Moore. Moore’s legal agreement allowed those characters to be returned to himself and artist Dave Gibbons after such time DC had no further good use for them. He was unable to predict that Watchmen, once a 12-issue monthly mini-series, would remain alive forever as a best-selling graphic novel (almost unheard of in 1986, when the original issues hit the stands). He turned his back on DC due to what he perceived as legal trickery, and though the publisher tried to woo him back by reverting the rights if he would write new Watchmen material himself, he declined. DC, sensing that there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in Hell that Moore would ever work for them again, considered that bridge burned and went ahead with the Moore-less books. Whatever respectful gentleman’s agreement that former DC head Paul Levitz maintained for Moore by not moving on the project was brushed away with one regime change. It’s telling that Levitz, himself a comic book writer, held out that respect for Moore’s wishes while new DC President Diane Nelson, a former WB branding specialist in charge of franchise management, did not.

 

Infinite Crisis

Fans seem to be split into two major camps over creator’s rights. Some would like to see all creators receive deserved acknowledgement and compensation, and, in some cases, see those creators win back their creations completely. Others are less sympathetic, with the feeling that these people knew what they were getting into, and they shouldn’t have gotten into bad deals in the first place.

Not to delve too deeply into comic book history, but there was no expectation in 1962 that Spider-Man, for example, would one day become a film franchise that would gross $2.5 billion worldwide after just three films (with a fourth on the way). That’s not even counting Spider-Man merchandise sales. Comics were created as cheap entertainment, printed in the lowest possible quality, meant to be read until they fell apart (or got thrown away by your mom). The comic companies were run by comic book creators, not mega-corporations like Time-Warner (who owns DC) or Disney (who owns Marvel). Times were different.

So, work-for-hire was the norm, and it made sense. An artist or writer would come up with ideas under the employ of a comic book company, and the company retained ownership of those ideas, typically to make more comics. The reason you’re seeing more heated fights over creator’s rights is because the work-for-hire agreement doesn’t look so good in the rear-view mirror. Once a character explodes beyond the comic book page into a billion dollar multi-media entity, then the creator begins to feel that they are entitled to some financial reward beyond the first paycheck.

In the old days, you might see this kind of thing happen. According to Gerard Jones’ book Men of Tomorrow, DC made sure to reward Siegel and Shuster with a kickback in the wake of the first Superman movie’s massive box office success. The new attitude seems to be, “Well, if we give one guy credit, we have to give all the guys credit.” As the pile of money has gotten larger, and the global corporate interests have gotten stronger, the creations are being locked down as corporate financial assets and not pen and ink drawings of guys in capes.

This is why the court ordered Friedrich to pay Marvel back. According to them, he’s used their Ghost Rider brand to financially benefit his career, by taking paid convention bookings as the creator of Ghost Rider and by charging for signed sketches of the character. It makes sense from a legal standpoint -- I can’t run around selling my own Disney merchandise, for example -- but the ruling terrifies comic veterans who make a good portion of their living on the convention circuit. Can they no longer list their most prominent credits to draw attendance? Can a world-famous Batman artist still sell his own original sketches of Batman? For some of these pros, their only means of retirement may soon be coming to a close.

 

Days of Future Past

An argument could be made that the last significant characters created for either Marvel or DC were back in the 1970s (I’d point to Len Wein’s creations -- Wolverine for Marvel and Swamp Thing for DC). Modern creators today are much more savvy about work-for-hire, and typically the new characters they create are just variations on a company’s existing characters (Red Hulk, Skar, the Miles Morales Spider-Man, Steel, Batwing, just to name a few). It was almost unheard of twenty years ago, but many of the hottest artists and writers peddle their own creator-owned properties with different companies at the very same time they bolster the drawing power of their name through high-profile superhero books for “the big two.”

The old guard shouldn’t be punished for not being able to see into the future, but it places the corporations in an interesting predicament. For the sake of example, let’s say that creators Len Wein and John Romita Sr. received a “Created by...for Marvel Comics” at the start of the film X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Except Wolverine doesn’t appear in Romita’s costume in that film, so is the version we’re seeing technically Romita’s? Let’s change the credit to “Created by Len Wein & John Romita Sr. and Dave Cockrum” since Cockrum first drew Wolverine without his mask (giving him the trademark Wolverine hair-do). Well, none of those guys created Wolverine’s bone claws, only intending for Wolverine to sport metal claws, but the bone claws are a part of the film. Now the credit reads “Created by Len Wein & John Romita Sr. and Dave Cockrum and Fabian Niceza & Scott Lobdell.& Andy Kubert.” We could probably keep going from there.

So, even if an artist didn’t create Wolverine outright, they might have a stake in the way Wolverine is presented in a film if they were the creator that influenced the filmmaker’s portrayal of that character. Do they deserve credit and compensation for that influence, especially if specific examples can be seen in their work? Most would say yes, but then where does a company draw the line? Is it fair to acknowledge the original creator only, excluding all other significant contributions? The version of Green Lantern that hit the big screen was created by John Broome and Gil Kane, but the original creator of Green Lantern as a concept (superhero with a mystical ring) was Martin Nodell. Other than the ring and the name, none of Nodell’s creation was used in the film; Hal Jordan and the sci-fi world of the Green Lantern Corps are completely different than Nodell’s Green Lantern.

Neither Marvel or DC want to open that flood gate. Unless there’s a fight (like the one Marv Wolfman engaged in to get his name on the Blade films), they have no good reason to assign authorship. Once you acknowledge that someone created something, then you have to begin acknowledging everything. It’s one thing to say Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created Spider-Man in the opening crawl of a film, but the character doesn’t live in a vacuum. Should the opening credits also include the artists and writers who created any villains that appear or all of Spidey’s supporting characters like J. Jonah Jameson? Where does it stop?

Just days after furor over the Friedrich case, artist Tony Moore announced a suit against writer Robert Kirkman, concerning money owed for his part in illustrating the first few issues of The Walking Dead, which is now a multi-million dollar hit on television. We’ll see more of these cases as the money keeps rolling in. Maybe what’s needed are unions or guilds that protect the comic book professionals in the same manner as entertainment guilds do (like SAG or the WGA). There are very specific rules regarding royalties, credits, and authorship that filmmakers get to take advantage of, but that’s because they’re organized. Comic authors are dealing with the aftermath of decades worth of interpretive gentlemen’s agreements from fellow authors, and because those peers have been replaced by corporate shills, there’s no room for flexibility. It’s past time for comic pros to get organized and force the publishers to follow the rules that they establish themselves about what is fair practice. Their future livelihood depends on it.

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