Monday, September 28, 2009

Frank Miller's "The Price"

Following last week's reprint of a guest editorial by John Byrne, this time I'm posting an article by Frank Miller, originally published in Comics Scene #3 (May 1982).

In this article, Miller reviews the deals made by creators such as Siegel & Shuster or Lee, Kirby, and Ditko; he affirms that neither DC nor Marvel are to blame for not giving these creators a larger compensation for their work ("If Siegel and Schuster [sic] had wanted a bigger piece of the action, they should have swung themselves a better deal"); and then proceeds to enthusiastically describe how treatment for creators has improved in the past few years.

Miller had reason enough to be optimistic: the amount of benefits given to creators by DC and Marvel during this period was unprecented (Miller, to his credit, argues that the publishers were driven to this out of necessity, instead of doing this out of a sense of fairness). Miller mentions the following benefits:

  • Higher page rates and royalties
  • Sharing of licensing revenues
  • Creator-ownership
  • Profit sharing on new characters, titles
(One benefit he doesn't mention is reprint fees, he probably couldn't imagine back in 1982 how often his work would be reprinted over the next decades.)

In contrast to Byrne, who argued that creators asking for more benefits would only harm the fans, Miller concludes that these incentives will drive creators to do better work ("For the first time, it's to our advantage to invest in the survival of the industry").

To make the difference clearer, Miller took the time to write a letter refuting some of Byrne's points. The following was published in Comics Scene #4 (July 1982):

As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, all these articles were written while Steve Gerber and Marvel were fighting over the ownership of Howard the Duck. In my next post, I'll show Steve Gerber's reaction to this discussion.

Carlos Roume

Mariano Chinelli over at the Eternautas mailing list reports that Argentinian comic artist Carlos Roume passed away last week.

Throughout his long career, Roume worked for Argentinian, British, and French publishers, and was probably best known for his ability at drawing animals and for specializing in stories with rural, naturalistic settings.

I'm most familiar with his collaborations with Hector German Oesterheld on series such as "Nahuel Barros" and "Patria Vieja", but his career consisted of much more than that, as can be seen in the samples of his work posted over at the Chiquirritipis blog, at Domingos Isabelinho's blog (which includes an examination of Roume's "Nahuel Barros"), and in this gallery of his original artwork.

(Image above taken from Domingos Isabelinho's blog.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cogs in the machine

This is something I'd been meaning to post for a long time. It's the beginning of (hopefully) a series of snapshots showing how the discussion regarding creators' rights in the American comics industry has evolved during the past decades. Generally speaking, things have improved since then (there are more choices available for creators today), but there is also a sensation of stagnation in many aspects (just look for example at the new generation of creators who have in past years been screwed by fly-by-night publishers who take all their rights in exchange for vague promises of future royalties).

Things like Jerry Siegel's family trying to regain the copyright of Superman (by simply trying to take advantage of a modification in copyright law that enables them to do so) still generate some controversy today, partly due to lack of information (some people believe the Siegels are trying to change past contracts, which is untrue) or simply because there are people who believe that a publisher is more responsible of a character's financial success than its creators. In the same way there is plenty of room for improvement regarding creators' rights, there is also room (and a need) for informed discussion about this matter.

The following article is from Comics Scene #2 (cover-dated March 1982), and it's written by John Byrne at the height of his popularity. In it, Byrne defines himself as a "company man", making his famous statement: "I'm a cog in the machine which is Marvel Comics", and he also explains why he believes creators should accept the rules as they are, or at the very least not pretend that they weren't aware of these rules when they started working in the industry.

Byrne is characteristically blunt and direct in this article, saying: "The whole concept of work-for-hire has been a thorn in the side of creative people for a long, long time, but it has also been the bounden duty of those who entered the industry to accept the rules, and not expect their presence to modify their little corner of the cosmos." This was published at the same time Steve Gerber and Marvel were battling in court over the rights of Howard the Duck (I intend to write more about Gerber in following posts), and Byrne still held this same view some 15 years later, when he voluntarily testified for Marvel (and against Marv Wolfman) in the lawsuit for the rights to Blade. (Byrne's viewpoint basically was that everybody back then knew they were selling all their rights to Marvel in exchange for a flat page-rate and that it was disingenious for Wolfman to pretend otherwise. Wolfman lost the lawsuit, and hasn't been able to get work at Marvel since then.)

In this article, Byrne also makes the somewhat bizarre statement: "If we are going to have creator's rights [...] should we not then also have (excuse the pun) creator's wrongs? In all the noise and fury over everyone getting a fair share I have not heard one so-called creator offering the flip side of the coin. No one has said they would be willing to take a loss if their creation fell flat on its very expensive face."

This is an example of the viewpoint I mentioned before: believing that since publishers take risks when publishing an unknown property, they deserve a large part of the financial benefits if the property turns out to be succesful. This is a legitimate point of view, but by taking the argument to its extreme ("Is there anyone out there willing to return the money they made while producing some of these duds?") Byrne may have ended up weakening his argument. Freelancers do take a loss if their creations are not commercial enough; each failure means it's going to be more difficult to find work in the future.

The point of this post however is to simply present Byrne's famous article, and not to rebut it point by point. Nevertheless, I'll show in future posts how other industry professionals reacted to this article, with what should be some familiar names popping in.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The difficulties Kirby's heirs face

Yesterday's announcement that Jack Kirby's heirs are trying to claim the copyrights to characters created by Kirby for Marvel probably caught many by surprise, including me. It's true that when news of Disney buying Marvel broke out, many fans speculated that the Kirby family might try to do something like this, following the footsteps of Jerry Siegel's heirs. But my thought at the time (and now) was that actually regaining to copyrights to the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Hulk, Sgt. Fury and other characters would be extremely difficult for the Kirby family to do.

Like most of the people commenting about this and the Superman rights case, I'm not an expert on copyright law. I've followed the development of the Siegel case closely though, trying to understand the reasoning behind each decision, and based on that I think the Kirbys have some significant hurdles to cross.

Many online commenters have correctly pointed out that Kirby didn't sign work for hire contracts while he worked for Marvel, and that the current definition of "work made for hire" applies from 1978 onwards (when the new law took effect). In fact, Kirby refused to sign the work made for hire contract that Marvel started using that year. As noted in The Comics Journal #44, February '79 ("Ploog & Kirby Quit Marvel Over Contract Dispute", page 11):
Former Marvel star artist Jack Kirby also objected to Marvel's contract and Marvel has indicated that he won't be allowed to work for the company unless he signs it. Kirby had apparently been scheduled to resume drawing for Marvel at the end of the animation season. He had been working for Filmation Associates on their Fantastic Four Saturday morning cartoon series for the NBC television network.

Kirby enjoyed working in animation again [...] and remarked, "I sort of adapted to it and I like it very much." He did not want to discuss the specific details of his complaints with the contract, saying only, "I don't want to get tied to a commitment."

Marvel still hopes Kirby will consider signing the contract and returning to work, however. [Editor-in-chief Jim] Shooter says Marvel's talks with Kirby were on friendly terms and Kirby himself called them "very amicable." Nonetheless, Kirby remained unwilling to sign. "I want to try my talents in other directions," he told The Comics Journal. "Maybe this is the right time of life to try other things."
And so he did, doing more animation-related work, trying his hand at screenplays, and doing creator-owned comics like Destroyer Duck, Captain Victory, and Silver Star. (He also returned to The New Gods, but that's because DC offered him a very good deal to do so, which included royalties. The reason appearances of those characters to this day have a "Created by Jack Kirby" credit is due to that deal.)

Still, as seen in the opinion issued by Judge Stephen Larson on August 12 of this year regarding the Superman copyright, the lack of a written agreement between Kirby and Marvel may not be enough. As commented in this blog's previous entry, the Siegels were able to claim the copyrights to some important elements of the Superman franchise, but the Judge's opinion is worth reading in full for knowing which elements and stories they were not able to regain.

Beginning in page 40 of the document, the Judge deals with the Superman work produced by Siegel and Shuter after March 1, 1938 and before the employment agreement they signed in September of that year. Despite the lack of a contract, the Judge decides that the material produced during that time is work for hire, and therefore belongs to DC.

The Judge writes (pages 43-44):
In essence, the September, 1938 employment agreement formalized what had informally been ongoing beforehand. That Detective Comics' requests were made on an informal basis before the written agreements were executed does not detract from the fundamental fact that Siegel and Shuster's creation of the derivative Superman material was done at the request and instance of Detective Comics. That Detective Comics waited six months before more formally "employing" the pair to "continue" to do just that does not detract from the core point that such production by Siegel and Shuster was again done at the instance of Detective Comics; it simply shows that by that point Superman had so proven itself a commercial success that the publisher desired a more formalized arrangement to be placed down in writing to ensure that the pair would continue to produce such material for it (rather than going on to create other comic book characters for other publishers).

When these facts are considered in toto, it is easy to conclude that creation of the works in question lie further along the spectrum from that found in a more traditional employment relationship, as is the case for the comic books created by in-house employees of the publisher. The lack of any long-term guarantee or commitment by the publisher to the business enterprise itself, however, is not something which is atypical in an independent contractor situation. That the pair functioned in such a looser employment relationship with the hiring party is not critical. What is important is the existence of an engagement to create the works, and the level of control and direction the commissioning party thereafter had over creation of the works in question. And in that regard, the fact that Siegel and Shuster were commissioned by the publisher to create specific material to which the publisher had the statutory right to exert control over its creation, and for which they were paid upon the material's publication, is dispositive as to the instance prong.

In short, Detective Comics, as the copyright holder of the pre-existing work, approached the artists and asked that they create works derived from that preexisting material on a regular basis, and then paid the artists for that derivative work. As such, the material would fall within the category as a work made for hire. [emphasis mine]
It's easy to see the parallels with Kirby's situation at Marvel. He was a freelancer, but he was working under the editorial direction of Stan Lee, and he was "commisioned by the publisher to create specific material" on a regular basis for Marvel's monthly books.

Basically, until now the Siegels have been only able to regain the rights to material that Jerry Siegel developed before selling it to DC. Is the Kirby family in a position to come up with evidence that shows that Jack Kirby had written scripts or drawn stories featuring the Fantastic Four or the X-Men before he sold them to Marvel? This is doubtful, and this is the main reason why I can't see them being able to succesfully claim the copyrights to these characters.

Despite all of the above, Tom Spurgeon makes an important point: "The fact that aggressive litigator Toberoff & Associates is the attorney of record makes this a bigger deal because of their past successes" (including the recent Siegel victories). I would very much like to see the Kirby family regain these copyrights, or at least some fair compensation for the use of the characters. I believe they're in a difficult position for the reasons stated above, but at least they have chosen a powerful ally, and this may end up making an important difference.