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Wednesday, September 01, 1999

 
Creators Rights and Why They're Right -- There has been much debate over the issue of Creator's Rights in the comic book industry as a result of recent court actions by the estate of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and Captain America creator Joe Simon.

I have been debating the issue for a while now with some people who, at times, seem utterly incapable of wrapping their brains around the concept that the creator of a given character should have the absolute right to decide that character's destiny.

Copyright laws have changed in the past few years, allowing creators of works six decades ago to reclaim their legal rights to the characters and concepts that have made literally millions (in some cases hundreds of millions) of dollars for the companies that have dominated the American comic book scene for the length and breadth of its existence.

The greatest works in the artform of comics have been created by writers and artists who have been allowed to express their vision with a minimum of editorial interference. The list, though familiar, is undiminished in its power to those who have devoted any real time to investigating the artform:

* Will Eisner's The Spirit
* Dave Sim's Cerebus
* Dan Clowes' Eightball
* Jack Kirby's Fourth World Saga
* Frank Miller's Daredevil
* Dave Lapham's Stray Bullets
* Harvey Pekar's American Splendor
* Kurt Busiek's Astro City

And of course, the list could go on and on. These comics don't even necessarily represent a list of my personal favourites, but by any critical standard they have elevated the artform as expressions of their creator's singular vision, unimpeded (in most cases) by editorial whim or economic considerations.

Some have been more successful than others, in terms of sales, but all in their various ways represent the finest that comics in the United States can be.

Virtually none of them would have been possible under the oppressive, unfair system the comics companies operated in the early days of the industry. Only the Spirit thrived in those days, and even then, only because Will Eisner fought to retain his rights and see his vision through.

Frank Miller was able to do what he did at Marvel with Daredevil for two reasons: the book was dying and no one cared much what happened at the time Miller established the milieu and concepts his Daredevil operated in; Miller also benefited from the fact that editor Denny O'Neil was himself a writer, and did not try to direct the overall plot in the way that the modern day editors (think of the recent X-Men and Spider-Man runs) do.

In the 1930s and 1940s, for the most part, the publishers had the writers and artists over a barrel, and they knew it. They had all the money, they had all the power, and very few artists who wanted to work in the industry were able to take control of their creations.

I am writing now not to excoriate the admittedly unfair system that has existed for most of the life of the artform, but to celebrate and affirm the rights of creators to express their vision.

The system that 99 percent of the comics published by Marvel and DC over the past 60 years were produced under has created, for the most part, readable junk. Only rarely have the writers and artists working for these companies risen above the level of entertaining mediocrity to produce something more; something inspiring, innovative and new. What, really, would be the impetus to do otherwise?

For most of the time there has been such a thing as comics, the majority of creators had no hope of any kind of long-term benefit from their work. Once they cashed the checks for their page rate (many of which beginning in the late 1970s had despicable Work-For-Hire contracts printed on the backs, which some creators wisely chose to cross out before endorsing), that was it. No health insurance, no pension plan, and in many cases not even any reprint royalties.

Jack Kirby, without whom we wouldn't even be having this discussion, lived and died without ever seeing just reward for what he did. He created (in some cases along with Stan Lee) some of the most enduring, mind-blowing concepts in the history of the artform. The Fantastic Four, the Inhumans, Galactus, the Incredible Hulk, The Avengers and, oh yeah, the X-Men. Will Kirby's estate receive a dime from the profits on the X-Men movie? Even if it does, it will be a fraction of one percent of the profits that will be divvied up by people and companies that, in many cases, didn't even exist when Kirby created the characters and concepts that sustain the industry today. Many people who will doubtless get rich on that project have probably never even heard of Jack Kirby. It's beyond insulting; beyond contemptible. It's a fucking crime.

Think of the work Frank Miller did on Daredevil. Roy Thomas and Barry Smith's Conan. Bill Sienkiewicz's brilliant work on Moon Knight and New Mutants. These rare highlights came in spite of, not because of, the industry standard that presumed the companies owned all the non-licensed work they published.

You'll note that in these and many other cases the joy of seeing these works of art appear every month like clockwork is short-lived. In the case of the artists, it often has happened that they grow weary of the limits placed on the expression of their ideas (Sienkiewicz, Smith, Miller) while for many gifted writers, they often take the characters into directions the editors simply cannot allow (think of the Charlton project created by Alan Moore that became Watchmen, admittedly a not-unhappy development; Moore's successor on Swamp Thing, Rick Veitch, was forced from that title for the direction he wanted to take the character in).

Contrast these cases with works like Eightball, Stray Bullets or Cerebus, unencumbered by Work-For-Hire restrictions. The creators are able to do literally anything they want, and while they aren't all churning it out on a monthly basis, the titles do appear regularly, and are regularly brilliant. And have been for years and years and years.

I have long had a theory that there is an inverse ratio of art to names when it comes to the creation of comics. When the writing and art are the work of one creator (Eightball, Sin City, most of the work of R. Crumb), the brilliance shines through in nearly every panel.

When you divide the work between a writer and artist, the work can still be good (Astro City, Claremont and Byrne's X-Men), but the more and more names you add (think of some of the credits boxes in some Image comics, with a Plotter, Dialoguer, multiple Pencillers and Inkers, Letterer and Colourist all jammed in there) the further and further away you get from Art with a capital "A."

Of course, the typical argument from some quarters is that "Art" cannot be objectively evaluated, and that any one opinion is worth as much as any other.

At the risk of being accused of hyperbole once again, that's just crap.

Virtually no enduring work of art produced in the medium of comics has ever had more than two (or three, in rare cases) major contributors. I don't mean to disregard the contributions of colourists and letterers, but they're not really the topic here. I am talking about the writers and artists that generate the concepts that fire the imagination and inspire the soul.

What work in any other medium is the work of a committee of the type that the mainstream, Big Two comics system supports and encourages? What painting, what musical composition, what great work of architecture or sculpting, has as many creators as the average issue of, say, Wolverine?

Let's take film, for example. The only movie I can think of that was great by committee was probably Casablanca, and that was a long goddamn time ago. Perhaps that is the exception that proves the rule.

It's a difficult thing to extend this metaphor from comics to film, but I think it's instructive to try. I'm not sure, though, who you'd equate the actors in a TV series to in the production of a comic book.

Specifically dealing with film, though, I use the term "creator" to mean the screenwriter or director. I think those terms roughly equate to the writer and artist in a comic book.

While there have been many great, and even more good, actors since the 1940s, I would submit that very few of them appeared in any great work of art that was created by hack writers and directors equivalent in talent to a Rob Liefeld.

The high quality of The Practice, just to pick a current show which features uniformly excellent actors at the top of their craft, would certainly suffer greatly were the creator (David Kelley) and the various writers and directors replaced with, say, the creative staff of Full House.

Of course, Marvel and DC love the committee-oriented process they have maintained. Under it, each creator becomes, to paraphrase John Byrne, a cog in the creative machine. Alan Moore left Swamp Thing, but penciller Rick Veitch stayed on, and with him many of the readers that otherwise would have bolted. Chris Claremont left X-Men, but Jim Lee stayed on. Every time a gifted creator leaves, the company attempts (and usually succeeds) in keeping some remnant of the creative team that made the book a success. Because every name that remains in the masthead represents thousands of readers that will stay, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits. For the companies.

So it is that most of the truly visionary artists have turned to self-publishing, or to companies that allow them at the very least to retain the rights to their characters and concepts. So it is that the majority of the books from the two biggest publishers are a celebration of mediocrity. So it is that even when a gifted creator is brought on a title, they are manipulated and edited and oppressed to the point (think Mark Waid and Peter David) that they choose to leave, even giving up the current royalty system, rather than see their vision compromised.

That word, compromised, is an interesting one. One Marvel fan said he believes it is more important that the Marvel Universe not be compromised by the removal of Captain America, than that Joe Simon be allowed, in the twilight of his life, to decide the fate and direction of his creation.

Anyone who doesn't think that the environment that has so oppressed generations of talented writers and artists, who only want to share their gifts with us, the readers, hasn't already compromised the Marvel Universe, is really not getting what this is all about.

It's not about comic books. It's not about Universes or shared realities, it's not about page rates and characters and costumes.

It's about freedom.

If this were a comic book, and Joe Simon were a character in a Captain America story, just whose side do you think Cap would be on?

It's about freedom.

Originally written prior to the launch of the ADD Blog.

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