In a previous life, I was never that bothered about being credited. So much of what I did was collaborative, at editorial direction or straightforward revision of pre-existing text, that it often felt odd to put my name to it as a ‘written by’ credit. (This, of course, became ironic as the one book I have written every word for does not, and never will, bear my name.) On the other hand, I absolutely understood it was important to others. The closest I’ve ever come to feeling strange about this was when I saw a line of text I’d written being used to promote another person’s work, implicitly crediting that line to them. (Presumably they’d used my line as part of their work, and it was then quoted in promotion of the same.) Still not sure how I feel about that, except… odd. But sometimes, credit goes beyond matters of oddness…
The Strange Tale of Jack Kirby
Recently Marvel celebrated the birthday of superstar artist and grandfather of the modern comic book, Jack Kirby. As one or two sources have pointed out, this seemingly exciting gesture can’t quite escape the whiff of hypocrisy.
By all accounts, Marvel treated Kirby extremely poorly while he was still in the land of the living, while continuing to trade off the success of his creations. And it’s a big, long list. The Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Magneto, Doctor Doom, Black Panther, the Hulk – recognise these from any recent films? Even the Inhumans – which Marvel seem determined to force down readers’ throats as a replacement for the X-Men – were a Kirby creation. But despite the popularity of the characters, Kirby was denied credit, creative control and a share of the money brought about by his success.
Now, you may think that this is distasteful, but is it really that bad? After all, Kirby was hired to do a job, and was paid for it, yes? Well, yes and no. The US laws concerning ‘Work for Hire’ contracts didn’t surface until the 1970s – well after Kirby had created most of Marvel’s iconic characters – and Marvel’s attempts to effectively backdate such contracts, granting them copyright to Kirby’s creations, is shameful to say the least. The truth is, without Jack Kirby the superhero boom would not have occurred.
The issue was never resolved in Kirby’s lifetime (he died in 1994), but in 2014 Marvel settled a case with his heirs, the day before it was due to go before the Supreme Court. And, certainly in the twenty or so years in which I’ve been reading comics, Kirby has been credited in reprints, collected editions and so on. But why was it a fight in the first place? Why did it take decades for Steve Ditko to be credited as a (co-)creator of Spider-man? Why did Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster have to fight for the right to be credited as Superman’s creators? Why does Bill Finger – widely attributed as pivotal to the Batman who rakes in millions each year – receive little to no official credit?
The answer, of course, is money.
As far as I can see, the fear runs thusly: give a creator credit for their work, and you open the door to them (and their descendants) claiming entitlement to a cut of the royalties from such characters. In a way, the Work for Hire contracts (and their non-US counterparts) clear this up. You may have the moral right to be asserted as a creator (although I understand this is a bit muddy in the US, and it’s certainly waived as standard in a lot of contracts elsewhere) but if you’re an employee, and you’re under such a contract, your employer owns the copyright, end of story.
But should they? I’m not now talking about appropriate reimbursement for creators – those are long, complicated topics that I’m poorly placed to judge on as I don’t work in the comics industry. Rather, I wonder if this practice is crippling modern comics publishers.
The Price of Popularity?
Look back over the years of modern superhero comics. Since the 1978 cut-off for Work for Hire in the US, how many characters have been created that even come close to echoing the popularity of those original Kirby creations? Wolverine’s first appearance was 1974. Not one of the Guardians of the Galaxy (as present in the film version) was created this side of the cut-off. That’s not to say that the rights to these characters reside with anyone but the publisher (I’m not privy to whatever contracts Len Wein, Jim Starlin, Bill Mantlo and the rest worked under), but it’s interesting all the same.
I’ll go out on a limb here, and suggest that the only superheroes created post-1978 and to have hit anything like mainstream popularity are Deadpool (1991), Harley Quinn (1992) and Hellboy (1993). (Although Hellboy’s an odd one because he’s creator-owned). Yes, we all have favourites that sprung into being during the same time period, but are they popular? Really popular? Like, if you ask your non-comics-reading, superhero-film-boycotting mate (we all have one) who they are, would they know? Maybe the Kamala Khan Ms Marvel will get there? I’d hope so, but it’s too early to tell.
Why is this? Well, nostalgia plays a large part – concepts that don’t fade entirely with age take on new weight. Older characters are more cherished because they remind us of earlier (perhaps happier) times. But I have a theory to propose: once you rob a creator of their right to acknowledgement for their own creation and the prospect of profiting by it, you risk no longer getting their A-game. What should be born of inspiration and imagination becomes more about paying the bills than art. Of course they’ll sometimes hold the best back for themselves, even if they don’t do so consciously.
Last time, I spoke about how I hate coming up with names. Good names (or at least, names I like) are a limited resource. Precious. Is there a voice in the back of my brain parsing each one, determining whether or not I should use it on a piece of work for hire, or hold it back for creator-owned stuff? I know of only one occasion on which I’ve consciously done so (and I’m damned if that wasn’t the right thing to do), but the doubt will always be there.
And that’s names. Irritating though they are to come up with, they’re simple, straightforward. When we’re talking about comics characters, it’s a name, a backstory, a supporting cast and – most important of all – a visual design. That’s a lot of pieces that need to come together in order for the whole to launch as a multi-million dollar franchise.
And the comics industry really does need the help. Ironically, while the cultural presence of superheroes has never been stronger, comics themselves are ailing, with both DC and Marvel in a perpetual cycle of relaunch and reboot, attempting to bring in new readers through gimmick after gimmick. One of said gimmicks is the re-leveraging of existing characters as gender- or race- swapped characters, because it’s easier to look like you’re embracing diversity than to actually do it. After all, nothing says equality like telling the world that anyone can be equal, so long as they’re trading off the reputation of a white man… Oh, wait…
Are there creators who can generate fantastic new IP to make comics truly representative? Yes. Are there creators capable of crafting new product to replace the mainstays of Superman and Batman when their copyright finally lapses in a few short decades? Yes, of course there are. So, Marvel, DC. It’s time to learn from the mistakes of the past. Find those professionals, empower them. Give them a stake in their creations, like you should have done with Kirby, Ditko and the rest. Nurture their talent, rather than strip-mining it. You’ll get better results, you’ll make more money, and we’ll get better comics.
(Tiny wee note. I’m not a lawyer, and it’s entirely possible I’ve muddled some of the contract law and moral rights issues. However, my overall point still stands).