The Politics of Creation

With advances in computer image technology, what was once only imagined can now be put on film.  Before these advances, I would argue that the most imaginative visual works were found in comic books and art in general.  After all, where else could you actually see worlds of wonder created on a budget limited only by an artist’s drawing skills?

It wasn’t all that long ago, after all, that the tagline for the original Superman film was “You’ll believe a man can fly”.  Back then, creating the sense of a man in flight without showing strings or using a very obvious blue screen effect was that big a deal.  Today, we see entire worlds of digital wonder, creations that in the past would have required intricate miniatures or matte paintings, at the very least.  Flying?  That’s absolutely no big deal in modern cinema.  There are almost no limits to what can be shown.

Because of this, it is little wonder that superhero film have became big business in recent times.  Films with big time, envelope pushing effects are often the subject of Hollywood’s summer “blockbuster” productions.  Not all are based on comic books, of course, but those that are doubtlessly make a lot of money, or else we wouldn’t be seeing quite as many of them appear each year.

In the wake of all this success, unfortunately, there are those left behind.  Usually, they’re the ones you figure stand to gain the most from the success of comic books characters translated to the screen.

I’m talking about the comic book creators themselves.

Back in the mid-1970’s, when interest in the then upcoming Superman film was becoming very hot, Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster began a public relations offensive against DC Comics, the company that held the copyrights to their creation.  The duo had infamously sold their creation back in the 1930’s for $130 (the actual check was found and can be seen in this article) and were seeing Superman come to the big screen and potentially reap big rewards for everyone…but them.  In the end, DC Comics, the owners of the Superman character, agreed to restore credit to Mr. Siegel and Shuster for the creation of the character.  They also offered a monetary yearly bonus and health insurance.  Though both creators passed away in the 1990’s, their families continue the fight for the rights to their creations.

They’re not the only one.

Back in the early 1960’s, Marvel Comics was a company that seemed to be going nowhere.  That is, until editor/writer Stan Lee united with artists/co-writers Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and, together, the trio created a plethora of well known comic book characters that have now made their way to big screen success: The Fantastic Four, Spider Man, The Hulk, Iron Man, etc. etc. etc.  The song, alas, remained the same.  Both Mr. Kirby and Ditko left Marvel in the mid and late 1960’s and, to this day, have not collected anywhere near the financial rewards one could argue should be due to them for their creations and co-creations.  While Mr. Ditko, co-creator of Spider Man has been given credit for the creation, it is my understanding that despite the success of the films, he hasn’t made anything off them.  Mr. Kirby’s heirs, on the other hand, have fought Marvel Comics for years to either gain control over some of the characters he created or be given some kind of recompense for his many years of work.

Most recently, some in the comic book community have expressed sympathy to the plight of Gary Friedrich.  I’ve never met the man myself, but his name popped up on some works during the 1970’s that I read and enjoyed, published by Marvel Comics (his first work at the company began in the 1960’s).  He was also the creator (although there is some dispute over some parts of this) of the Johnny Blaze incarnation of Ghost Rider.

Mr. Friedrich brought suit against Marvel Comics claiming the character’s rights were his and not Marvel’s.  He felt particularly slighted, I suspect, because in spite of the financial (if not critical) success of the Ghost Rider film and the upcoming sequel, he had not been given either credit or money for his creation.  In the end, he lost the lawsuit and was ordered to pay Marvel $17,000, something he is unable to do.

Comic book writer Mark Evanier offers some great insight into Mr. Friedrich’s situation here, and I couldn’t agree with his opinions more.  It would seem counter productive for a company such as Marvel or DC to hire lawyers and spend great quantities of money fighting off people who could probably accept less money than that to settle their claims of character ownership.

On the other hand, I can see the company’s perspective…to a degree.  The fact is that many of these creations were made at a time when one didn’t think the characters and stories would achieve the level of success they did.  Comic books have been considered disposable entertainment for years.  Original artwork which might be worth hundreds of thousands -perhaps even more!- dollars today, for example, were routinely thrown out.  Likewise, artists and writers didn’t know or realize their creations would endure as they did and find a second life in film, TV, reprints, etc.  Further, the company that made the investment on the artist and/or writer to produce their product was the one taking the monetary risk.  While they hoped their current publication would succeed, it is doubtful many of them had to foresight to guess that some of the work they commissioned back in the 1930’s to today would eventually become such a bonanza.  They took the financial risk, shouldn’t they reap the reward?

So what’s the solution?

I think Mr. Evanier’s article scratches at that.  While his involvement with the later Mr. Kirby and the estate preclude him from making too many comments regarding that particular situation, he does note that creators and the companies that own the creations should find some kind of common ground instead of becoming antagonists.

I suppose its human nature to fight what you consider yours, whether you are the creator of a concept or the one who owns its copyright.

The awareness of these fights, by the way, hasn’t gone unnoticed.  Ever since the late 1990’s, I’ve realized both DC Comics and Marvel have had very few “new” character creations appearing in their various books.  It appears few authors and/or artists want to suffer what Mr.’s Kirby, Ditko, Siegel, Shuster, etc. etc. have faced and are content to write stories featuring established characters and villains while not going out of their way in creating any new characters they might eventually “lose”.

I find it a shame but not a surprise.

I suppose they’re no real moral to this story, except that a creator should be careful with his or her creations.  Especially when those creations may become the property of someone else.