In the news lately have come articles regarding the heirs of Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, Gene Colon, and others’ moves toward getting control over characters they created for Marvel Comics back in the day… and which they may have the possibility of getting thanks to the passage of time.
Over on Salon.com, Kylie Chung writes about…
Legal battle over copyright to Marvel heroes like Thor & Spidey threaten the future of the MCU
What does this mean to you or I? Not really all that much, I admit, unless of course we are heirs to the estate of some of the creators of the various Marvel characters and/or have financial interests in Disney and their movies.
So, what exactly is happening here?
Well, for many, many years comic book work was considered a “one and done” type deal. You would get your assignment, write and/or draw your story, get it published, it sells (hopefully), and you get your next assignment and so on and so forth.
There wasn’t a sense of permanence to the job. People figured once the current story was published and left the newstands, that was pretty much it and whatever work you did would be forgotten in time.
Only, that didn’t happen.
Sure, it was the case mostly from the early days of comic book work through perhaps the later 1960’s. By the 1970’s there was a healthy collector market which had sprung up and publishing companies realized there was money to be made in reprinting past works. It was a win-win for the publishers: They had already paid for the work so reprinting it was like making free money. They didn’t have to pay the author or artist and whatever was made was gravy.
Certainly back then there was no sense that the characters they had could become billion dollar movie properties.
Here’s the thing: These companies, like the artists and writers, tended to feel the work had little permanence. Some of the contracts might have been lost over time or discarded, though the companies do have a claim over the characters they have continuously published over the decades.
Regardless, the work tended to be “work for hire”, which meant the author/artist was doing the work specifically to sell it to the company and, in theory, they had no rights to the work and/or any new characters they created after this fact.
However, there is a loophole, of sorts, which the above article states: After a certain amount of time, the creator(s) or heirs can request the copyright revert to them, and that is making a company like Marvel pretty nervous… to the point they are proactively suing to ensure they retain copyrights to the various characters in their stable.
There are people who have no sympathy for the creators of these myriad characters. They may say things like “well, they signed the work for hire contract, they knew what they were getting into” but how does one see what’s coming two or three decades down the line?
Artist/writer Jack Kirby essentially created or co-created most of the Marvel characters. Artist /writer Steve Ditko created or co-created -I tend to lean into the former rather than the later, but others may be more willing to give more credit to Stan Lee- what is arguably Marvel’s best known character, Spider-Man.
Both Kirby and Ditko left Marvel Comics in the later 1960’s and both had the same complaints, that Stan Lee -whom many today and thanks to his humorous cameos in various Marvel films have come to view as some kind of saint- was only too willing to take more credit for what was, in Kirby and Ditko’s opinion, their work.
In fact, the rumor is that Ditko left Spider-Man, and Marvel Comics, because he was essentially writing as well as drawing the book and Stan Lee wanted a certain villain, the Green Goblin, to be revealed as a certain character, and Ditko adamantly was against that.
Further, it is pretty well known today that Jack Kirby created the character of the Silver Surfer all on his own. The story goes that one day Kirby delivered the pages to the latest Fantastic Four issue and on it was the first appearance of the Silver Surfer and Stan Lee, confused as to the character on the page, asked who that was!
Again, though, Kirby and Lee would butt heads about, among other things, the story of the Silver Surfer and Kirby eventually left the company for, among other things, because Lee wanted his story to go in one direction and Kirby wasn’t interested in going that way. This apparently occurred in other books as well.
Now, despite what I’ve just written above, I don’t feel Stan Lee is some kind of terrible villain.
What I do believe is that he was very willing to take more credit for his work than he should have and that doesn’t reflect all that well on him.
Having said that, its not like he did nothing to make Marvel Comics the juggernaut it became. He wrote some great dialogue and captions to many of the comics he worked on even if there might be a question as to how involved in the stories he was, especially when Marvel Comics really started to take off and many more books were released each month. Further, he was terrific as a gushing fan for the product, hyping it up and creating a sense of fun in the various books which was lacking in rival DC at the time.
Ultimately, though, I side with the artists and writers of the works. They created wonderful stories and now we have people in movie studios picking over their years of hard work, making adaptations (as a writer, trust me, its easier to adapt a story already made versus coming up with something reasonably original), and then making a bundle for work while the original creators or their estates/heirs get next to nothing.
Sadly, this is nothing new.
Back in the 1970’s and when Warner Brothers was in the process of making a big budget Superman film, artist/writer Neal Adams shamed DC comics/Warners into giving monies to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of the character, who by that point were elderly and in need of the help.
It’s a shame and I hope that Marvel/Disney, rather than sticking to suing and countersuing, instead become a little more generous to those whose work they’re now using to make their millions… and billions.