THE Q: Marvel/DC Lawsuits - Comics' Creators React
Over the last few years, the lawsuits by the families of Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster have caused a lot of comic book fans to be upset at the publishers on the other side of the legal table.
But recently, the creative people who make comic books have also been reacting negatively to the news from the legal arena. Some have called for a boycott of Marvel while others have flat-out quit writing comics for DC.
At the heart of the concern are three legal battles by the people who created some of the most iconic characters in pop culture — one by the family of Kirby against Marvel, and the others by the families of Siegel and Shuster against DC Comics. At risk are the copyrights to characters like the Fantastic Four, Superman and Superboy.
When fans say they'll boycott comics, the big companies don't seem too concerned. But when creators are quitting their jobs? That may get a little more interesting.
So how do creators really feel about the latest legal mumbo jumbo from the courts regarding the copyrights?
Newsarama decided to ask, giving the creators the option of remaining "unnamed" if they wished, so we could get their true opinions.
The question we asked was:
- How do you feel about the way the Jerry Siegel/Joe Shuster and Jack Kirby copyright claims have progressed with Marvel and DC, and does it influence the way you approach your career and your creations?
I don't know the real, complete facts, just what I am told and have read on the Internet from the U.S Court of Appeals, 9th District.
1. I am told long after Jerry Siegel died, that Jerry and Joanne's daughter Laura, accepted an offer of 3 million dollars in advance, plus 5 million dollars a year ongoing, and 6% royalty on product.
2. I am told, her lawyer would have received 4 or 5%.
3. I am told, for whatever reason, another lawyer came in, halted the final signing, and did or did not offer Laura 15 million dollars from an outside investor, and he, (the lawyer), would take over the negotiations.
4. I am told, that she did not receive the money.
5. I am told, that the new lawyer is to receive 40% of any money. (Can this be true?) I am not stating this as a fact, just repeating what I read in the public documents from the U.S. Court of Appeals.
6. JoAnne has died.
Who profits from all of this?
Once again, I am not close enough to this to know the real facts. Nor will I play favorites in any way. But, as a working professional, I am horrified at this wranglin, that I believe could have been settled easily, by common sense and fairness, and in fact, was settled.
I once stepped-up, offered my help, and made things better.
What is happening now creates division in our industry, and makes it incredibly hard for creatives to get a fair deal, because too many people have been forced to take sides in problems that could have been settled, easily and fairly.
I'm of the opinion that you could take a fraction of one percent of the earnings of these multiple multi-billion dollar movie franchises and get right by the creators or their estates without bankrupting anyone who made the movies. But I'm prepared to admit I don't "get" business.
I never had much hope ownership status would change with those any more than they did in the creators' lifetimes. What I didn't expect was how big the voice would be among fans that they value imaginary characters over real people. I'm really hoping it's that effect of the Internet skewing towards the loud few. But it's a barrage of high-horse ugliness, judging creators of beloved works and showing no empathy- calling their heirs greedy. Out of some irrational fear that a hero or villain might be lost to the readership or turn up with an unfamiliar publishing house.
Which is weird- it's not like a creator's survivors are less qualified to manage an intellectual property than some board of executives, and they would almost certainly license the use of the characters. The Burroughs estate has always been a formidable force that kept Tarzan and John Carter from turning into something they weren't by licensees.
I want us working more like traditional publishing. All comics’ publishers have heavily pushed their own identity in a way that the rest of the book world doesn't, because in our distribution system that's the key to health for them. And probably because it's fun to think of them as teams, a big chunk of readership has embraced this. But are people reading Hunger Games concerning themselves with Scholastic and hoping Suzanne Collins doesn't get too much control? Are they getting fired up about Bantam Books because of Game of Thrones, or do they want more George R.R. Martin?
It's not for my (admittedly, giant) ego that I want you to think of my name and role along with characters or books I create, but because I'd like those creations to help provide for my family. That's what most all the creators of your favorite books wanted. Do you want your life's work to not count towards your loved ones? I'm only asking readers to make it clear that they value the people behind the characters, and discuss them often. We're in a Tumblr age where creations are spread around stripped of credits, let's not lose what ground we've gained by emulating that.
For years I've joked that superhero comics were "founded on ripping off Jewish teenagers." But when I say that, I'm never actually joking. Both cases, Kirby and Siegel and Shuster, are different cases, but in both cases you have young men who just wanted to tell stories and got f*cked out of their creations. Now here we are -- a lifetime later -- and their stories and characters are still alive, and making, literally, billions of dollars. Superman is beyond iconic. It's beyond the zeitgeist. The story, the image, what it represents, is actually, routinely, part of everyday life. The fact that the family of Siegel and Shuster don't benefit from that is unconscionable. And the thought of that scares the shit out of me.
One would think that in our current climate and greater understanding of how intellectual property works, the history of how others had gotten ripped off, that better ("better" meaning fair) deals would be struck. The idea being that a company and a creator could enter into a partnership on a property where the creator may not own the character, but will forever reap the financial benefit from their creations. Even if they’re fired off their own project, even if against their wishes, they make their creation into the Ice Capades, they would still get royalties and compensation. That's not crazy. That's just fair.
But those deals are not happening.
Right now, creators at both DC and Marvel are hanging onto their work. You have probably noticed how little creator-owned stuff has come out in that last few years. The deals being offered are not getting better, they are either staying the same or getting worse. The result, I think you will see many alternate methods of making comics. Original creator owned comics will never go away -- comics will never go away. But indies may take a huge uptick. We as creators will have to take a hit financially to work on spec so we can make our own creations a reality, but the alternative is far too disconcerting. Like being an old man getting by on social security and hearing that someone is making a blockbuster movie based on your work. We’re not greedy. We just want what’s fair. And that’s not out there right now.
You have to know the rules going in and the rules need to be on paper. "Understandings" and "promises" are nothing next to a legal document signed by all concerned and honored in perpetuity. It's the difference between Bob Kane and Siegel and Shuster. Kane got DC to document their guarantees and the Superman guys took DC at their word. Nothing has changed since then. You need to watch your own ass in this business or they'll own you and leave you broke. And suing Warners and Disney? Forget it. They'll just run out the clock, drain your savings and wait until you die.
I've successfully pursued a major publisher for royalties owed but only succeeded because I have a contract.
B. Clay Moore
This may sound like a cop-out, but the law is the law, and any thoughts I have are based on my vague grasp of the law combined with my obsession with comic book history. When Kirby worked for Marvel, he understood the definition of work-for-hire, and I don't think his personal beef was ever with ownership of the characters as much as it was about receiving the credit he felt he deserved for their creation. Having said that, it seems that Kirby discounted Stan Lee's role in the creation of the Silver Age characters as much as Lee discounts Kirby's role, so it's hard to say either man is (or, in Kirby's case, was) "right" when it came to their creation. (aside from Spider-Man, which was clearly a Lee/Ditko creation)
Twenty years earlier, Kirby and Joe Simon had created Captain America for Marvel (Timely), and understood even then that Marvel owned the character, working out special compensation for the character's use. Prior to returning to Marvel, Simon and Kirby created books that they maintained ownership of. The system may not have been very creator-friendly, but it was what it was.
Since the question was specific to the Kirby heirs and their claims on copyright, I won't go into my thoughts on how Jack Kirby was treated down the years.
I really have no thoughts on the current Siegel/Shuster case. Obviously the way the men were compensated for creating a multi-billion dollar property was shameful, and full credit to people like Neal Adams and Jerry Robinson for doing what they could to assure some comfort was provided to the men in their waning years some three decades ago. There's no doubt that effort help spark a revision in the way both companies and creators through about their creations. At this point, though, like I said...the law is the law. Let the courts sort it out.
Does it impact the way I approach my career? Only in the sense that both companies and creators have learned lessons over the years from these previous examples, and, as a result, I hope I have a better understanding of what my rights are regarding characters I create for comic book publishers.
I don't really follow either copyright case very closely, and I don't blame any DC or Marvel editors (or even publishers) for the actions that are almost certainly driven by Warner Bros and Disney's legal departments. In terms of my comic book writing, I've been working almost exclusively for Image for the past 10 years or so, so I never have to worry about any issues of ownership or credit arising, since I own (or co-own, with my collaborators) all the titles I create.
I think they've progressed as I always expected them to. You’re going up against two of the largest multinational corporations in creation, both with a vested interested in maintaining the integrity of their creative library and a fleet of lawyers who can keep these lawsuits going for the next 50 years. So frankly I'm a little surprised that they've gone this long. Particularly Siegel and Shuster’s claim, which is frankly a bit dubious when you really start researching the history of the case. Personally I don't feel like the heirs deserve to profit from Superman, considering that they sold the character back to DC several times over the last 70 years. People like to pretend that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were these inbred hicks who stumbled upon a good idea and had the character stolen from them by National. They weren't the naive young new comers that people love to glamorize them as.
They had been working for National for three years when they finally got Superman published and had been working in the industry for several years before that. So they knew what they were getting into at that point and signed what was considered a standard agreement at the time. The fact that it took off the way that it did is almost inconsequential, They made hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of the eight years they were directly involved, sued, settled for a significant amount of money, Sued again, settled again in the 1970's,and were about to cut a rather generous deal with the families from all reports before Marc Toberoff got involved. I'll get back to that lowlife son of a bitch in a moment.
With Kirby it's even more cut and dry. He worked on staff at Timely/Marvel, even if it was never explicitly spelled out, I'm pretty sure that before Jack left for DC comics, he knew he didn't own any of the characters. Things change when money and time passes. You can't say he didn't know what the difference between work for hire and creator ownership was, the early part of his career was spent working for Will Eisner, who had the ultimate creator ownership situation with the Spirit. Jack even had a comics company at one point, Mainline publications, for a year. Jack wasn't stupid, naive, or a child. So to paint him as a victim is wrong. I would certainly consider Jack much more of an innovator than Siegel and Shuster, and I'm a huge fan of who Superman was. I'm not too crazy about what DC is doing with the character right now. Every new thing that comes out from them with the exception of Action Comics is a parade of horrible creative decisions.
This all stems from one source however. Marc Toberoff. This guy is the type of lawyer that makes people want to kill all lawyers. He's a predator whose only interest in all this is how it can benefit himself. In doing so I believe he made a lot of false promises to both families of heirs that will never be fulfilled and that's the true crime.
Did the industry treat them horribly? Probably, but they treated everyone horribly compared to now, but every industry did. Talk to some old Hollywood actors about the studio system. As far as the way I approach my career, it made me exceedingly cautious. I never created anything for Marvel or DC out of whole cloth that I ever tried to get some sort of equity deal. I never approached them with an original concept because I didn't want to give up what i knew I ultimately wanted, control. In fact, at this point, any character I had a hand in at DC has either been transformed completely or killed brutally in the last couple of years. Any original concepts I create that doesn't fit into the zeitgeist of another "Universe" will always be creator owned properties. I won't even bother pitching them to DC or Marvel.
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