Friday, 1 November 2013

Avoiding Another 'Siegel & Shuster'

The $130 cheque paid to Siegel & Shuster in 1938 for the rights to Superman.
More details at Comics Alliance.
(Click image to enlarge)
(from a letter dated 17 June 2004, Dave Sim's Collected Letters Vol 2)
...That actual core of the discussion, to me, is [Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster. They got paid $130 for Superman. As Martha Stewart might say, that's not a good thing... That's what I want to avoid, a recurrence of the Siegel and Shuster situation. That's what I want to look at as closely as possible with blinders off and say, What can we do together  as thinking members of the comic-book medium and as thinking members of the comic-book industry to make sure that that never happens again? We've got the situation with Marv Wolfman and Blade. Marv's a great guy. Everyone loves Marv. "Hey, Marv. Great to see you."

We all feel good when good old Marv is here. Even Dave Sim the evil misogynist just lights up. Marv Wolfman is the feel-good-vampire-comic-book-scripter of this or any other year.

"Well, uh, they've made several multi-tens-of-million of dollar movies out of good old Marv's Blade character and Marv, he got dick"...

...That was where the Creators Bill Of Rights bogged down, from my vantage point. Scott [McCloud] is definitely an industry guy. We're all one big happy family, so let's address everything having to do with creators. Well, fine, but there's no way Marvel and DC are going to listen, let alone negotiate. You need a very big gun to do that and we don't have one and they know it. So, instead, let's just start with Kevin [Eastman] and Peter [Laird] and Richard Pini. These are the guys who are here who are using work-made-for-hire and can choose not to. Let's agree to something so that you guys will never end up pulling a Siegel and Shuster on somebody. How are we going to do that? And there was this Nixonian "move-jumping" thing that kicked in. I'm not a crook. Whoa. Nobody said you were a crook, all I'm saying is: Isn't there some way to put down on paper some preconditions that make sure that if somebody happens to create the next Superman and you publish it that they end up with a better deal than Siegel and Shuster?

But, that mentality doesn't want to discuss it as a concept, as an over-arching reality where you can commit yourself to staying on the side of angels. No, their business is their business. They'll deal with Siegel and Shuster when they show up on the basis of what they're offering. But, that wasn''t the point. The point is that there are things that look completely valueless that can turn out to be incredibly valuable when you're dealing with intellectual property and nebulous commodities like talent... Walk-on characters that become a much bigger deal. That's Howard the Duck. If you don't solve it after it happens to Steve Gerber then all you've done is guarantee that it's going to happen to some one else. "Hey! It's good old Marv! Guess what everyone? That lousy thing that happened to Steve Gerber? This time, Marv got the green weenie!"

Nothing. No reaction.

Well, okay. I consider my hands clean now. I tried to get people talking about it. Spent thousands of dollars of my own money flying around trying to get a consensus and the Bill of Rights is what resulted. "We are fully entitled to benefit from that which we fully create." Howard the Duck was a walk-on in Man-Thing, so any new Howard situation is going to drive through the "fully create" loophole. Gerber didn't create Man-Thing. Gerber didn't draw Howard.  At that point, I walked away with half a loaf.  "We have the right to choose our means of distribution." If Scott thought that he could get something more out of Kevin and Peter and Richard Pini, the ball was in his court. To all of them it was an industry question, a freelancer question because Scott framed it that way. Well, okay. That's as far as it gets because we don't have a big enough gun and the only people we know of who are even interested enough to attend a discussion on the subject aren't interested in negotiating except with individuals.

But mark my words (It's really nice to have gotten to be so f--king old that I can use a phrase like "mark my words"), as a medium and an industry, if we don't fix it, we are just going to sit here treading water and staying the size we are. God doesn't need another worldwide creative medium that robs creators blind. He's got Hollywood for that.


David Birdsong said...

I have a high resolution copy of the front and back of that check. Every time I negotiate a deal for any type of work (comic related or not) I try to keep it in mind.

Anonymous said...

It's not really clear from this what Dave proposes the industry as a whole do to "fix it".

Probably the main solutions are to raise awareness and educate new and aspiring creators, which I think many creators, including Dave, did in the 1980s and beyond, and to fight it out in court, which Wolfman did, and unfortunately lost.

Neither of these are really "industry" solutions. Perhaps the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund should expand its mandate to include the defence of copyright claims?

- Reginald P

Anonymous said...

The Hollywood movie industry treats its creators better than the comics industry does. I find it ironic that the creators of the Marvel characters get credit in the Marvel movies, but not in the Marvel comics. I think that's due to the craft guilds' rules about credit. And Hollywood creators get residuals, even if they don't own the rights. So perhaps the comics industry could start by importing similar rules from Hollywood. Just for a start ...

-- Damian T. Lloyd

Tony Dunlop said...

Mr. Lloyd's observations boil down to one word: Union. Hollywood writers are unionized (that's what the Screen Writers' Guild is), and have bargaining agreements with the studios. Forming a comics creators' union would be a major step towards Dave's vision.

Anonymous said...

The comics industry is one of those places where starting up a union is just not going to happen any time soon (if at all). The industry pays crap for the artist unless they're a name brand like Frank Miller (and I say crap because drawing a comic book is a whole hell of a lot more work than doing a single illustration for almost any other industry). People in the comics field, for the most part, do it out of love, while Marvel and DC comics stay open mostly out of hopes for churning out new IP that can be exploited for movies and merch. So who's got more leverage in that situation?

Then there's the bizarro world level insanity that comes from reading the comments of any comic book news story where some creator gets bent over a pinball machine by the industry. Some of them take up for the artist, but a very high percentage stick up for the Big Two above the creators- to hell with that Gary Friedrich, he knew what he was doing when he signed that contract. Screw Marv Wolfman, he made a deal now he gets to live with it. Every time the Schusters or Jack Kirby's progeny lose a lawsuit, they're sticking up for Time Warner and Disney. So that's something else to contend with.

Comics run on pretty damn slim margins these days (since comic shops are dropping like flies and illegal downloads are available the night before a new comic book hits the shelves and oh yeah a sawbuck'll net you exactly two floppy pamphlets full of ads containing a meager sampling of a story spread across the entire publishing line if you're dumb or addicted enough to still be buying yer' funnybooks from Disney or Time Warner). Even during the pre-bust years when comics were doing well enough there was little to no hope to unionize, but now that everything's going to hell? Most artists wouldn't dare (i.e. can't afford) putting their meager paychecks on the line if push came to shove and a strike became necessary. There's guys lined around the block at comic conventions chomping at the bit for a chance to draw Spider-Man and it's not like they'd have to cross any picket lines to e-mail their pages to their editors.

CerebusTV said...

For those involved with CerebusTV, it was Siegel and Shuster, deja vu, all over again...! The more things change, the more they remain the same...