It’s been a depressing time to care about comics. Between Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment fighting long and ugly to deny the heirs of Superman co-creator and writer Jerry Siegel money they are legally entitled to, Disney and Marvel Entertainment (boy, not as many companies with “Comics” in their name as there used to be) fighting long and dishonest to deny the heirs of Marvel universe co-creator Jack Kirby the money and credit they are morally (and perhaps legally) entitled to, Marvel’s hypocrisy in the wake of Gene Colan’s death, and surely even more things I’m forgetting, I can’t remember a time it’s been this hard to feel enthusiasm for this field that I’ve loved since I was 11 and which I later chose as my profession.
I’ve often referred to the treatment of Siegel and artist Joe Shuster over their creation of Superman as comics’ original sin, and it fits the bill, in that it’s not just a terrible injustice, but one that has loomed over the field ever since and still, over 70 years later, occasionally rears its head to bring us all back to that time. This has been on my mind since the release of Action Comics #900, when I noticed a caption thanking me for my “support” of the series. While I’ve no doubt that this copy was thoughtlessly inserted by an editor or assistant editor to mark the anniversary, not a call for me to support DC and Warner Bros., Superman’s current owners, in their fight against his creators, it nonetheless got me thinking, coming as it did during the increasing acrimony in that fight, about what I was supporting, and that’s what matters. Because I can’t do it anymore.
Back when I wrote about that, I said that I didn’t think I could read Superman comics anymore, but I wasn’t sure if I was really the type to call a boycott. Fortunately, someone with greater moral conviction than myself has done just that on a related matter. Following the recent summary judgement for Marvel against the Kirby estate, Steve Bissette put out a call to boycott all Marvel products derived from the massive portion of its holdings derived from creations or co-creations of Jack Kirby.
Why now? DC has been denying the Siegels and Shusters their due for years, and Marvel has systematically diminished Jack Kirby’s role in the creation of its empire while refusing his family any royalties for nearly as long. What is different today? Nothing, really, but we’ve had a wake up call. These legal cases have been fought at the same time, with the latest decisions in each (allowing Warner to use stolen documents in its case against the Siegels’ lawyer, the summary judgement against the Kirby Estate) so close together, during the same summer that three movies based on Kirby characters have been so successful. We should have been angry all along, and many were, but this summer has been a perfect storm, so it should come as no surprise, really.
I’ve been deeply heartened to see Bissette receive a good deal of attention, at least within the comics world, for his call to arms. In an environment where fans denounce the creators of their favorite characters as greedy leeches for asking for a fraction of their due, and when even major comics websites ridicule Alan Moore for his legitimate distrust of DC (most recently when he rejected the publisher’s offer to return him his rights to Watchmen so long as he agreed to make those rights worthless by ceding his authority over whether sequels should be made to DC), I admit I was far from confident that Bissette would receive any better treatment. The boycott is far from being a movement, but it has picked up more momentum than this sort of thing usually does.
At the same time, I’ve been saddened by the intelligent, thoughtful, moral people I know who don’t seem particularly troubled. The people, not much older than me, who tell me that creative fields always work this way, that the talent always gets screwed, that this is the way of the world and not worth missing an issue of Iron Man over. They think it’s a damn shame, but what can anyone do about it? Essentially: “Forget it, Brendan. It’s comics.”
I’m 27. I feel it when I talk to people. I’m on that precipice, around 30, when half the people who don’t feel like I do insist that I’ll grow up and become jaded and get that this is just how it is, while the other half wonder why I haven’t already, how I can still be so naive as to think it can be any other way. Hopefully I’ll continue to disappoint them.
I’ve been thankful the last few weeks for the knowledgeable people who have helped me understand what the actual cases are about. I got that in the case of the Siegels and Shusters the law changed in the 1970s and this was why they could try to reclaim Superman now, but I didn’t really know what the nature of the change was. Here’s my understanding now: When the Copyright Act of 1909 was passed the term of copyright was 28 years, renewable for another 28 years. The reason it wasn’t simply a single term of 56 years was to allow, in the case of copyright transference, for the original owner to renegotiate the deal when it was time to renew. This was a protection for the original owner if the creation they sold turned out to be worth much more than either party realized. However, buyers of copyrights began to include an automatic right of copyright renewal without renegotiation into contracts, defeating the purpose of the renewal. The Copyright Act of 1976 sought to correct this by making explicit the right to renegotiate or take back the copyright during the renewal period. That is what the Siegels filed for and won in court a few years ago. Warner Brothers and DC have spent the years since attempting to get around the fact that they no longer have any legal right to the Siegels’ half of the copyright to the original Superman stories and will soon lose the Shusters’ half as well. Their behavior has been disgraceful.
The Siegels won their initial case because Superman was not created as a work for hire. The original story was completed by Siegel and Shuster and then offered to several publishers. Eventually DC bought it for $10 a page and the copyright was transferred to the publisher. I get upset when people arguing DC’s side take the position that, “Well, some people are bad businessmen. That’s how it goes.” I confess that I don’t know much about Siegel and Shuster’s business acumen, but I don’t think that it matters very much, since that doesn’t come into play when all the power in a deal rests on one side. When the people sitting on one side of a desk have bills to pay and children to feed and the people sitting on the other side have access to the printing press, the deals tend to come out one-sided.
Unlike Siegel and Shuster, Jack Kirby co-created the majority of the Marvel characters that still dominate its publishing line without a contract, just a page rate and a series of verbal promises. He had no doubt seen what had happened to people like Siegel and Shuster, and he asked repeatedly for better credit and better compensation. The recent Kirby Estate lawsuit attempted to follow the Siegel strategy of filing for termination of copyright because there actually is a case to be made that he did not initially do the work in what we would recognize as a formal work-for-hire situation. None of the extra money or credit he was promised ever materialized, and when the Marvel lawyers realized in the 1970s that the characters weren’t protected by contract, they made signing retroactive work-for-hire contracts a condition of getting paid for work that had already been done. In Kirby’s case, the longstanding fight to reclaim his original artwork became a factor as well. He believed he was owed his artwork and he had a family to feed, and so he signed. It’s far from an open-and-shut case, and the verdict in Marvel’s favor probably didn’t surprise anyone, but Tom Spurgeon has put it best when he’s lamented the fact that it had to come to a lawsuit at all. Kirby and his family should have been properly compensated in the first place. Even if Marvel ultimately doesn’t have a legal obligation to do it, it is the right thing.
I get it. Capitalism is about profit, not the right thing. But companies are run by people, people in this case whom I hope care about comics and understand the debt that they owe to Jack Kirby, without whom they would not be in the position that they are. The company compensates Stan Lee with an honorific title and a sizable stipend (he’s surely due more, but it’s enough to provide the kind of comfort that makes fighting for more less appealing than simply enjoying being Stan Lee). True, he had to fight for that in court, but with that precedent in place, it would cause the company no pain to extend the same to the Kirby Estate.
And that’s why we’re where we are today. Because if DC made right by the Siegels and Shusters and Marvel made right by the Kirby Estate, they wouldn’t be quite as profitable as they possibly could, but it would be by such a relatively small degree for, let’s not forget, subsidiaries of the first and second largest media companies in the world, that their continued refusal to make good adds considerable insult to injury.
But that isn’t their instinct. Just as the artists with no power weren’t necessarily bad businessmen, the publishers with all the power weren’t necessarily good businessmen. When he bought the rights to Superman, Harry Donenfeld had no more idea than Jerry Siegel or Joe Shuster that the character would go on to earn billions. He just had the instinct that many businessmen have of own everything, keep everything. Disney/Marvel isn’t denying Kirby credit and compensation because it would ruin their quarterly reports, Warner Bros./DC isn’t holding up justice for the Siegels because it would go out business. In both cases it’s that the corporate instinct to own everything, keep everything dies hard. They have to have another reason to change.
Which is the other reason we’re here. These companies will never do the right thing on their own. It will only happen if they suffer the right combination of bad press and the threat of a loss of profit large enough to make them blink. And that’s hard to accomplish, especially with a fandom that can’t imagine not buying the next issue of The Avengers or Superman, has never not bought the next issue, but it’s not impossible. It doesn’t have to be enormous. A movie doesn’t have to fail. It just needs to be the difference between a #1 weekend opening and a #2 weekend opening. What do we have to lose?
I don’t kid myself that there’s any bravery in not buying a comic book or not going to a movie. But something doesn’t have to be brave to matter. It just requires clear vision and a goal. If we want publishers to stop denying talent what they are owed, we need to make it clear that they have more to lose by doing the wrong thing than by doing the right thing. At any other time, I would be ecstatic that my favorite superhero writer, Grant Morrison, will be relaunching Superman, the character that he has spoken of having a vision for for years, and which he wrote in the greatest superhero comic of the last decade, All Star Superman. But with the current treatment of the Siegels and Shusters and after the bad taste left in my mouth by Action Comics #900 thanking me for my support, I would feel terrible if I bought that. I was looking forward to catching Captain America: The First Avenger and next year’s Avengers in the theater, but now I will be skipping both. I wouldn’t be able to look at myself if I went.
(I’m disappointed in Grant Morrison. He’s clearly an ethical writer and an ethical person, but I think he’s badly off the mark in his reaction to the current situation. I don’t know (who outside of DC can?) if part of the impetus behind the DC relaunch really is to diminish the Siegels and Shusters’ share of Superman by claiming the new iteration is a new, derivative character, but this is still an even more dubious time than usual to take over the property. When asked about the legal case over Superman, Morrison punted, getting into his theory that the character is older than most of us, and will probably outlive all of us, and so is bigger than a dispute between its creators and owners. I take Morrison at his word that he believes the character transcends and is not simply compromising himself for the chance to take his dream writing job. But his answer is wrongheaded enough and surprisingly callous enough that it’s another reason for me to have nothing to do with his take on the character. It will be the first series written by Morrison I’m skipping in over a decade.)
Will it make a difference? Probably not. I hope so. But I’m with Caleb Mozzocco. That’s not the only reason we do this. We hope others will join, and we hope it’s enough, but we have to live with ourselves, and we have to do what we believe is right. I’m in this for real now—I am done with Marvel superhero comics and movies, and despite DC’s much better track record with giving credit and compensation generally, their unconscionable treatment of the Siegels and Shusters means I am done with Superman as well. And despite my earlier hesitancy to do so, I am now joining the hopefully growing chorus to ask others to do the same. I don’t know if it will make a difference, but I can tell you that not buying a comic book, not going to a movie is such a small sacrifice, so why not do it? More than any attempt to change the behavior of media companies, I am doing it because I wouldn’t like what it said about me if I didn’t do it. I hope that if you consider these issues you’ll come to the same conclusion.
As Steve Bissette suggests in the post that started this all, go to your comic book store and let them know what you are not buying and why, and buy something else instead. If they’ve ordered something for you and will lose money if you don’t buy it, go ahead—maybe you need a last goodbye issue—but after that choose something else and tell your retailer that you are buying it instead of a Marvel Kirby comic or a Superman comic, and that’s what you plan to do until things change. I’ve been picking up Kirby Genesis to get my superhero fix and am trying new creator-owned series like Terry Moore’s Rachel Rising instead of the comics that make me feel gross.
Will missing the next issue of X-Men really hurt that much?