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Monday, July 27, 2009

The Insight Not To Work With Them -- In the comments to my previous post, reader Rick said this:
Aren't there contracts signed that would indicate who owns what property? Generally speaking, doesn't Marvel/DC have the primary rights to anything published under their banner? It's an unfair system but it isn't a secret either. I don't know the details of Moore's relationship with the Big Two, but maybe he should have had the insight not to have worked with them in the first place... right? Or are contracts being blatantly disregarded?
The issue Rick raises, and the attitude behind it, is too important to let this discussion sit in the comments. Here's my response to Rick, and to anyone who thinks this might be a valid point of view:

The history of the "Big Two," is a history of lies, betrayals and broken promises. It's very easy in 2009 to say "maybe he should have had the insight not to have worked with them in the first place," about Alan Moore and a thousand other creators who have been screwed, blewed and tattooed (as Mom used to say), but the fact of the matter is that it's far more complex than that, and if you truly have an interest in the subject, then you owe it to yourself to do some research.

Just one example, relevant to this post: Are you aware that, prior to Watchmen, no superhero graphic novel (and there were few enough of those anyway) was ever kept permanently in print? And that DC's contract with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons said that the rights to the work would revert to Moore and Gibbons once the book had (as all superhero graphic novels had in the past) gone out of print?

Then the work proved to transcend all previous precedent, and instead of keeping with the spirit of the written contract (there was absolutely NO historical reason at the time not to think Moore and Gibbons would not be given ownership of the work under this contract: it's what Moore and Gibbons AND DC all expected to happen), the company kept the book in print, so far, quite permanently. To the extent that that goes, that's understandable enough; it's a hugely popular work. Where DC falls down in this example is in not somehow compensating Moore and Gibbons for the unexpected success of the work that changed the conditions under which the contract was written. Legally, of course, DC had the right to do what they wanted. But from a business and ethical standpoint, what they did was monumentally stupid: They permanently soured Moore on working for them (through this and many other actions -- look up the "promotional" Watchmen watches, or the pulping of an issue of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or the Tomorrow Stories story that Top Shelf had to publish because DC didn't have the courage -- which I believe is how Moore ended up there; anyway, LOOK STUFF UP AND FIND OUT FOR YOURSELF).

Dig out some old Comics Journals, Google creators rights, read some interviews with the injured parties, find out for yourself what those of us who have been watching the industry for decades are talking about.

Find out what happened to Marv Wolfman when he made a claim to ownership of Blade. Find out how vague and meaningless the idea of "Copyright," in comics was, especially prior to 1974. Do you know about the back-of-paycheck agreements the companies made creators sign in order to get paid? Did you know some of them regularly crossed it out, because they didn't agree with it? I could go on all day.

A lot of injustice and malfeasance has been committed by corporate comics companies against the very people who make it possible for them to exist, but if the readers who enjoy their product would make an effort to understand the long and thorny history of corporate comics and creators rights, maybe those readers would think twice about blindly supporting the large corporations that have done so much harm to the people who created the very product in question.



Blogger The Estate of Tim O'Neil said...

But . . . but . . . how can the guys who publish Spider-Man be mean? I just don't think you understand: Marvel the company automatically possesses the most admirable traits of the fictional characters it owns. This is a True Fact, I read it on Wikipedia.

27 July, 2009 22:38  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

Thanks for setting me straight, Tim! I don't know what the hell I was smoking when I wrote that.

28 July, 2009 04:16  
Blogger Rick said...

Thanks for going into more detail about this issue. Just to be clear, I wasn't siding with the corporate giants. It seems that there's a clear lack of morality on behalf of Marvel and DC but legally speaking they are in the right. Sounds like any other business I suppose. Hopefully this blatant lack of decency will keep new creators away. If not, they're choosing to walk into fire at this point.

28 July, 2009 23:32  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

Unfortunately, the desire to work in comics is a powerful lure that often overcomes common sense, making it all the more important to keep people aware of the sordid history of malfeasance both Marvel and DC have engaged in for decades, especially since there are more new people coming into the field as readers and creators every year.

One troll tried to post a comment reminding me "These are only comics, you know that, right?" The fact of the matter is, these are human beings whose lives and ability to provide for their families are at stake. The product is comics, the people who create them are people, who deserve to be treated with respect, dignity, and ethical business practices. It's up to each and every one of us to hold their feet to the fire every time.

29 July, 2009 00:03  
Blogger mojo_iv said...

Oh, no, sir -- I wasn't trolling you. I was making a serious point. You talk about these issues with the same passion that some people speak about the Holocaust. I agree with you that Marvel and DC have screwed over the creators that made them so much money, but you, and a great number of other comic bloggers, really need to take a step back and realize that in a world where atrocities happen every day, the sheer amount of animosity you dedicate to copyright disputes from 20 years ago makes you all seem pretty childish. I'm sorry, but is Alan Moore living in a refrigerator box or something? Is he begging for change on a street corner? Nope. Alan might not have received the money he deserved but he did get a serious amount of exposure, which is worth a lot more in the long run. I'm not suggesting for a second that DC and Marvel are saintly organizations or anything, but, gee whiz, folks, they are just *comic books*!

29 July, 2009 04:03  
Blogger The Estate of Tim O'Neil said...

I think that there *are* many creators who have learned these lessons, although the abuses obviously still exist and are still sadly the norm. But someone like, say, Mark Millar has been very canny about dividing his energies between corporate-owned stuff and his own properties. He knows not to give Marvel his best (or, well, most lucrative, since this is still Mark Millar we're talking about) properties. How many significant characters has Millar created for Marvel? Not actually that many, if you think about it - maybe the Gorgon from his Wolverine, the new Fantastic Force, the Marquis of Death. But some of these guys are variaitons on existing folks, or wouldn't work outside of their contexts - the Marquis of Death isn't exactly a character with solo potential, just as Terry Nation was never able to get a solo Daleks series off the ground. Kick-Ass and Wanted, however, belong to him and their respective artists, are very portable properties unconnected to any established mythos, so he gets to make a lot of money off them.

Similarly, Brian Michael Bendis spends a lot of time working on corporate properties, but I imagine if you pidgeonholed him on the subject, he would probably admit that his best long-term prospects for continued income streams lay with Jinx, Torso, Powers and future creator-owned properties, and their respective licensing potentials.

So I would say that, yes, some creators have learned the right lessons. But not everyone has this kind of clout, and many people keep making the same mistakes because they desperately want to write Spider-Man. It's not so much that people learned from the negative examples of Alan Moore and Jack Kirby, but from the positive example of the TMNT and Image. If it's someone else getting screwed, you can always chalk it up to individual circumstances - "I'd never make the same mistake" - but if you see someone making shitpiles of money, your first thought is always "how can I get on that gravy train?" The best, the only answer in comics is to create something awesome (or at least marketable!) that has your name on it.

29 July, 2009 12:48  

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