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Faster, More Powerful, Able
posted March 6, 2005


Matt Brady at the comics news and feature magazine Newsarama has outworked us all and kicked off what is sure to be a heavy round of coverage about the Siegel and Shuster families' case against Time Warner for the Superman and Superboy properties.

I encourage all of you to read every scrap of reportage that you can on this subject, starting with Mr. Brady's. Not only are the specific legal issues in these suits fairly complex, the broader ramifications the case might have on the comics industry are difficult to project. These are massively profitable and extremely well known characters, for sure, no one questions that. Even the possibility that a percentage of ownership might change hands, or there might be a payout in exchange for any claim to these rights, is a pop culture Atom Bomb. And yet, somehow, I don't feel the possibility of a lot of fallout. The more I think about it, the more I believe the culture of comics is at this moment better insulated against the shockwave of ideas and moral re-positioning that would have been felt more greatly were these motions to be filed in a previous decade. As significant as this case might be, I wonder if any outcome could change the general status quo of American comics when it comes to issues of creative ownership and reward. Most of us, if not all of us, seem to be at least a little bit okay with how things are, how things are run. We say so with our dollars, our choice of employment, and our silence.

Should we be okay? One of the things hard to stomach about American comics is its occasional presumption of moral superiority due to the type of material it publishes. Yes, this is true of smaller companies, who often presume their relative artistic excellence gives them license to cut corners. But with the big companies there's an even bigger disconnect between the values espoused in its work and the way people are abused by their actions or lack thereof. It's one thing to value fair play, but quite another thing to be dragged kicking and screaming into enforcing it in your contracts and conduct, over the course of decades. The record for the treatment of comics creators is frequently depressing, extends back through the history of the medium, and is too long to get into here in any great detail. Suffice to say, if comic books were a comic book, it's pretty clear who the heroes and the villains would be for the majority of the title's run.

imageMany now note, and they're correct to do so, that the worst abuses have been ameliorated in a lot of ways and that a lot of this is due to good people many of whom are still around and remain in charge. There is much to applaud. Creators can receive royalties. Creators nearly always receive proper credit. Creators are almost always afforded contracts that include the return of original art. Shared-participation and even full-ownership options are available. There are still complaints and exceptions, bad behavior and new entrants reinventing the (torture) wheel, but generally not the active disregard for basic creative authorship that would make playwrights and authors go "holy shit" as frequently as they might say, "I know where you're coming from," or even, "Will you introduce me to your editor?"

But the upcoming case involving the Siegel and Shuster families speaks to the one issue that generation of even-handed, fair-minded executives will never be able to broach. Mainstream American comic book companies are built on the exploitation of properties that someone else created. Much of it was undeniably legal. Some of it was, and continues to be, entered into by creators with other options. But does that necessarily mean it's right? We should be happy to learn that the Siegels and Shusters have a legal "in" to pursue a case, but that doesn't make them more deserving of being rewarded with what they've provided that company, and the world, except in an almost intolerably strict, legalistic way of looking at things that has little to do with what feels right in the stories that were ceded to these companies in the first place. Just because a creator may have sold a character for tens of thousands rather than the cup of coffee claimed on their behalf doesn't mean we shouldn't feel for them when something they made becomes worth billions.

imageForget law and what it allows. We live in a country where lottery winners tip the person who printed out their tickets, where television stars already handsomely rewarded in terms of salary are given quarter-million dollar bonuses or brand new cars, where people happily flip a significant percentage of their winnings to someone who simply dealt them cards in the right order. Are you really telling me that people whose creations have generated so much wealth are less deserving than someone who happened to hit the winning buttons on a lotto machine? Do the people sitting on these companies' boards really deserve millions for stewarding these characters while the creator deserves nothing or next to nothing? Does anyone deserve creator royalties and credit for overseeing a toy design when the person who made that design possible gets nothing? Did Bob Kane deserve a better financial situation than Siegel and Shuster and Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and Bill Everett simply because of the timing involved when his contracts came up? Should there be more in a film's budget for craft services than should go to the person without whom there'd be no film? Again, even if it's legally justified, is it right?

The older you get, the harder it becomes to hear about truth, justice and greater power begetting greater responsibility when it takes a court action to settle some issues, others don't get settled at all, and so many people seem okay with it either way. I wish the Siegels and the Shusters all the best in resolving their legal dispute, and implore everyone who works in comics or reads them to leave their bunkers, ditch their sunglasses, and re-think these issues in the light or our industry's original sin.