Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

March 31, 2008

What The Siegel Case Should Mean

imageThe legal decision last week granting partial copyright to the Siegel family on material appearing in Action Comics #1, including Superman, is a fascinating outcome with several real, potential implications for comics. However, the real issue here goes far deeper than one character and one set of creators. Truth be told, none of this should ever have come to an acrimonious lawsuit. And yet, the entire moral and legal foundation of the American comics industry demanded it. This recent court decision not only shines a light on comics' original sin, it exposes its ongoing, shameful failure to deal with the exploitation of creators then and now.

An industry where the caretakers of properties make far more money off of creations than the creators themselves due to legal circumstance and standard practices that greatly favor corporate ownership should be an intolerable one to every single person who has even a half-measure of interest in the comics they read beyond the initial thrill of looking at the ink on paper. That any creator should head into old age suffering financial hardship and perhaps even relying on handouts from good-hearted fans while someone who served on a corporate board lives in great comfort from money made on their creation -- if rumor is to be believed, sometimes from a creator royalty applied to an ancillary product -- should set every single person's teeth on edge. That corporations trafficking in icons of moral instruction can hide behind legal constructions rather than taking the point to seek out, acknowledge and then generously and publicly reward the creators that helped made those empires what they are should be an embarrassment to every person who has ever filed a tax return with income earned from the comics industry.

Shame on every stupid-ass, morally ignorant fan out there who has expressed even the slightest opinion that this course of legal action in any way reflects an agenda of greed on the part of people not directly involved in the act of creation, or worse, has articulated as their primary concern the potential interruption of their monthly four-color fantasy intake. Part of me wishes we lived in the might makes right moral universe that supports such a piggish outlook, because then I could quit my job and drive around on a motorcycle punching people in the face until they penned a formal apology to the Siegel family.

Hooray for Joanne Siegel, for fighting a fight that despite last week's positive outcome may eventually be lost.

And still, I'm not certain any legal outcome can represent a win for the entire industry. Not at this point. The infection goes far too deep for a single operation to make it all better, even using a scalpel as powerfully symbolic and profitable as Superman. Later law that restricts mainstream comics' exposure to this kind of lawsuit doesn't absolve the industry of the moral implications of that exploitation and abuse. Nothing does. There's a long-running rumor that the instigation of this lawsuit in 1999 sent DC into scramble mode that involved shoring up avenues for similar legal actions. In other words, DC tracked down the families and surviving creators and offered them deals for a firmer legal standing on the ownership issues. That's a rumor, mind you. I don't know if it's true. But I hope it is. I like the thought of older creators and their families receiving attention and money for their profitable creations, even though I loathe the privacy of it and wonder if press exposure may have put greater pressure on equitable compensation.

The comics industry needs to rectify its historical abuses as best it can, no matter if a court makes them or not. It needs to do this right now. It needs to do it publicly. It needs to do it in a way that honors the creative process. (Perhaps it could make this a goal by 2011, the 50th anniversary of the Marvel Comics revolution.) And then, when this is done, it needs to make an unrelenting, industry-wide commitment to the notion that these matters have moral force and that exploitation is intolerable no matter what a legal construction allows. Because there are just as many horrible people out there right now who want creators' movie rights or who come to the table offering little more than a small advance in order to put their name on someone else's work, and just as many if not more apologists for same. In a way, it's hard to blame them. After all, for 70 years, Superman said it was okay.
posted 8:30 am PST | Permalink

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