Posts Tagged ‘Jerry Siegel’

A Life Lived in Comics Day 12: I Add My Voice

April 25, 2012

I’m trying to not get into trouble. I really am.

I’ve been ignoring Before Watchmen for the most part, because I still can’t entirely accept it’s real. It does seem implausible when you stop and think about it, doesn’t it? But I’ve followed Chris Roberson’s admirable decision to break from DC over it, and today’s interview with Roberson on The Comics Journal put it back in my head.

It’s weird: I’m not even that big a Watchmen fan, to be honest. I mean, I have the Absolute Edition, but that’s more because of my sense that it’s an important addition to a collection (and my buying it before they announced the cheaper hardcover edition) than my overwhelming love for it. For supposedly the best graphic novel ever, it’s not that hard for me to think of others I prefer. Hell, I can think of other superhero comics I prefer, and other Alan Moore comics. But publishing a prequel still seems so tasteless, obscene even. Not to mention publishing seven, which just really underlines the complete crassness of the whole program. You don’t even test the waters with one? You pump out as much as possible all at once? Doesn’t sound like a publishing plan meant to do anything but take the money and run before the readership realizes they’ve been duped.

Because here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter if I love Watchmen. I love the idea of proper stories, the kind that have a beginning, middle, and end, and before Watchmen—shit, those two words used to be things you could just type; now they’re gross—UNTIL Watchmen, that wasn’t particularly valued in comics. The important thing about Watchmen isn’t that it’s the greatest, but that it is a complete story. Truthfully, I can’t help but feel that saying it’s the greatest works against it both by sounding like hyperbole on one side of the argument and justification for making more on the other. What matters is that more isn’t necessary. A novel doesn’t have to be your favorite to not need to be messed with.

DC has taken a huge step backwards in the way they discuss the reasons for Before Watchmen. It’s not being sold as a continuation of a great story, but as a continuation of great characters. But the characters aren’t all that great. Out of context, they’re pretty interchangeable with dozens of other superheroes, and a Rorschach story or Night Owl story outside of Watchmen are just two more superhero stories, hardly worth the attention these are getting.

It ignores the fundamental, inconvenient truth: whatever value Watchmen has comes not at all from Doctor Manhattan and the Comedian and entirely from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The book hasn’t stayed in print nearly 30 years because of its characters, but because of its perfectly controlled artwork and intricate writing, because even for someone like me who’s never been all the way convinced, it rewards rereading and has passages revelatory in their thematic and emotional payoff. By contrast, DC’s barely even hiding the fact the Before Watchmen is solely a cynically produced product.

I don’t know this, but I believe that everyone who signed the original contract for Watchmen, Moore/Gibbons and DC alike, thought that the deal would result in the reversion of rights to Moore and Gibbons within a few years when the book went out of print. No comic book had ever stayed in print longer than that before. I can’t know what debate went on within DC when it became clear that they would benefit in an unforeseen way from the language of the contract, but the ultimate decision was to not renegotiate, even though it was on the basis of Moore’s and Gibbons’s talent that the book has remained the success it has. And that decision was made again and again over the years.

So now, insult to injury, the instant that Paul Levitz, who held firm against prequels and sequels, stepped down, the process began. It’s been a mix of the predictable claims that good characters shouldn’t be left on the shelf, despite Watchmen’s consistent sales surely beating so many newer properties hardly qualifying as being “on the shelf,” the thoroughly shocking claims that the past outright theft from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster mitigates this unethical behavior now, and a series of frankly irrelevant attacks on Alan Moore.

(Seriously, the use of public domain characters is comparable to the creation of unwanted “official” prequels? Honestly, contributions to characters like Swamp Thing that were created to be part of a shared universe is indistinguishable from expanding on a novel with a beginning, middle and end? Really, the fact that Moore has had fallings out with other creators is somehow at all relevant? I once had an argument with a prominent comics journalist about Moore and DC, and she kept trying to push me to acknowledge that some of the things Moore had publicly said made him sound like a jerk. Sure, I said, he had said mean things in public. As far as she was concerned, she’d now won the argument, regardless of the fact that we were talking about the ethics that DC was displaying in their treatment of Moore and the fact that he had reason to doubt DC’s honesty in its dealings. Oh, well, he’d made reference to hack comics writer Geoff Johns being a hack comics writer, so whatever.)

Chris Roberson derived a portion of his income from DC, and given his contract to write an arc of Vertigo’s Fairest, DC was apparently happy to continue paying him, but Roberson decided he preferred to take the risk of losing that income by breaking with the company. I’m very happy that it seems to have paid off with offers from other companies, but I admire him for making the decision even though that wasn’t a certainty. My relationship to DC is the opposite; I sometimes give them my money, but if Roberson can make the move he’s made, it’s considerably less onerous on me to not buy their comics, and I wonder if it’s something I should consider.

Not withstanding the fact that I would never read, much less pay for, Before Watchmen, I’ve already opted out of any Superman comics after DC’s disgraceful behavior regarding the Siegels’ and Shusters’ claim to the copyright of Action Comics #1 and share in derivative concepts. It’s not really a debate with two sides. Copyright law is very clear that, in cases where copyright has been transferred, the original copyright holder has the right to reclaim copyright during the period of renewal, and the Siegels’ half of the copyright to Action Comics #1 was granted to them in court. It is only the fact that Time Warner and DC have the money and lawyers to throw at the case that there is even still any contention over the matter. The subsequent countersuits directed at the families’ lawyer is nothing but malicious obfuscation of the legal process. When the original ruling came down, it was part of a period of things in comics starting to feel better and more just, and a lot of what’s happened since feels like losing ground.

The upshot is that, as much as I love Grant Morrison’s work, I have skipped his, by all accounts, excellent work on the relaunched Action Comics. I’m also missing Art Baltazar and Franco’s Superman Family, which I would certainly pick up under other circumstances. I’m not someone to tell other people what they should do, so it’s not really a boycott, but it comes down to the fact that I would feel bad buying these comics that I would otherwise love to read.

Which makes me wonder, if I can skip these comics that I would surely enjoy if the ethics of the situation didn’t make reading them unenjoyable, maybe I can skip the rest of DC’s output too. I’ve been looking forward to Morrison’s relaunched Batman Incorporated, but if I’m not missing Action Comics too much, maybe I won’t miss that either. Bob Kane’s family is fairly well taken care of, but that’s a fluke of him being able to consult a family friend who was a lawyer and getting to renegotiate his contract under threat of it being void, since he had no birth certificate (it was destroyed to help him avoid the draft). DC and Marvel both still make most of their money on characters created before the more favorable deals offered to talent today. Is it possible that they put more marketing muscle behind those old characters because their success is more profitable than the success of new properties? I wouldn’t put it past them.

I’ve generally felt okay about buying creator-owned series published by DC and Marvel, under the theory that part of voting with your wallet is voting affirmatively when a company does something you like. If sales of Superman went down while sales of Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth (a favorite of mine) went up, the smart company would do more of the latter and less of the former, right? I’ve also really enjoyed the first two issues of Paul Cornell and Ryan Kelly’s Saucer Country, and have been buying Matt Fraction and Gabriel Bá’s Marvel series Casanova digitally. This is one I’m still wrestling with.

Don’t get me wrong. There are things my own employer does that make me uncomfortable (does anyone agree 100% with everything the company they work for does?), but those things aren’t remotely in the order of magnitude as DC and Marvel continuing to deny proper compensation to the families of the men who created their foundational characters. Marvel owes the vast majority of its characters to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, yet Lee had to sue for proper compensation and Kirby died never receiving his. DC has a better track record after a certain point, but its treatment of the Siegel and Shuster estates and of Alan Moore are bringing the period before that time back to the forefront.

DC can legally publish any kind of Watchmen-related material they want, but it is unethical to do so under the circumstances that they came to hold those rights all the way through 2012 and it is immoral to do so in the face of Alan Moore’s very public wish that they not compromise his novel. I hope Chris Roberson is only the beginning.

Tomorrow: less of a bummer, I hope.

Why’m I doing this, again?

Forget it, Jake. It’s Comics.

August 15, 2011

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?