Monday, 13 February 2012

Ever-Decreasing Circles

There’s been a lot of online debate recently about how both Marvel and DC Comics have dealt with freelancers, contracts and moral obligations. With Marvel it has been about paying dues—both credit and financial—for Gary Friedrich (creator of Ghost Rider) and Jack Kirby (creator of practically everything else). While DC’s issues have been about whether they should be publishing Watchmen prequels.

Regarding the latter, Alan Moore has commented on how dismayed he was that the publishers were rehashing something that he and Dave Gibbons created over 25 years ago. But what he’s forgetting is that is exactly what Marvel and DC have been doing for the past 60 years, let alone the last quarter of a century. And is it any wonder that they keep returning to their standard Intellectual Properties?

There is very little reward or incentive for freelance creators to develop new characters for the Big Two. Sure, you might get a credit line these days and a few residual royalties, but nothing like the a major chunk of profit share that Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird garnered when they—very astutely—kept hold of their rights to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

When you add the aggressive tactics that these publishers’ lawyers—and I’m singling the lawyers out, as most people I know who work at DC and Marvel are really lovely people—employ when going after freelancers who stand up for some recognition and a bit of cash, is it any wonder they are starting to seriously look like the evil, psychopathic corporations many believe them to be.

While the rest of the Internet gets in a tizzy about these specific cases it’s important to step back and look at the future of the biggest comic book publishers in America.

These battles are all about securing their Intellectual Property Rights (we’ll gloss over the argument that it took someone outside of the companies to create these characters). There’s no way any company that big is going to roll over and sign away their cash cows over a guilt trip, and I wouldn’t expect them to. However, while this aggressive tactic of tracking down and protecting their IPs works in the short term (preventing piracy and money haemorrhaging to every single freelancer demanding a bigger slice of the pie for every character ever created for their respective universes) in the long term it is far more damaging.

Based on the actions of the Big Two in recent months what freelancer in their right mind would create an original character for them? Why give away a great character to a large corporation who will exploit it ad infinitum when you see little, or no, returns from the endless licensing (the most important department in both companies). Surely, if your concept or character is that good you’d take it to Dark Horse, Top Shelf, Avatar, Dynamite, SelfMade Hero, or any of the countless publishers out there that offer infinitely better deals, in terms of copyright ownership. Christ, you could even publish it yourself using Kickstarter. “Ahh!” say the Big Two “But we can get you a bigger audience for your work with our vast marketing and PR power.” But the truth is writers like Garth Ennis, Alan Moore, and Warren Ellis have virtually abandoned the Big Two in favour of creative freedom and ownership, and they’ve still managed to pull their readers along with them. The Boys sold better at Dynamite than it ever did at WildStorm. And Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead has proved to be a massive success without having to sign away his rights or get into bed with some huge corporation (legal battles with Tony Moore notwithstanding).

So this all creates a serious problem for DC and Marvel. If no one is willing to create new characters and stories for them, they are reduced to rehashing the properties they do own (by fair means or foul). When Alan Moore attacks them for regurgitating his work—like an emaciated cash cow trying eek out some final nourishment from something that was already pretty indigestible—that’s all they’ve got! They don’t have a choice any more! They are drawing the wagon train into smaller and smaller circles, but the Indians have all buggered off and are reading more diverse, non-sexist, intellectually challenging, non-spandex-wearing work.

I’m seriously worried that Marvel and DC will eventually suffocate themselves on a lack of creative oxygen that is vital for them to grow and develop. Short-termisim works for politicians and bankers out to make a fast buck, but it leaves no legacy behind, just a hollow shell.

Unfortunately, it really does look like Alan Moore knows the score: Comics Will Eat Itself.


Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

Eloquently put, especially on DC and Marvel's shortsightedness. T'will be their undoing...

TimTrue said...

Why thank you, Mr Nicholas! There definitely seems to be an air of not worrying about new creator-owned concepts that imprints like Vertigo were built on. If it's not owned wholly by the company, then they're not that interested because they can't exploit it to the max. It feels like the lawyers are holding the reigns and they seem to be going hell for leather towards a precipice.

Gavin Burrows said...

”But what he’s forgetting is that is exactly what Marvel and DC have been doing for the past 60 years, let alone the last quarter of a century.”

True, but Batman or the Fantastic Four were always created as open-ended concepts. Writing a prequel to ’Watchmen’ is more like writing a prequel to ’Hamlet’. (‘The Rough Tough Boyhood of the Prince of Denmark’?) It suggests an inability to grasp something fairly basic about the original work – it was designed as a whole cloth. It doesn’t need a prequel any more than a jumper needs a third sleeve.

Which is why I find it a bit weird when fans debate whether to boycott these pointless appendixes. I’m not going to boycott them. I’m just not going to buy them because they’re going to be bad.

Regarding your general point, you could be onto something. People have suggested the best metaphor for current culture is the scene in ’Marx Brothers Go West’ where they keep chopping bits off the train they’re on, just to feed the engine and keep them going.

But there’s also a sense in which superheroes were universal symbols and we’re not good at the universal any more. Mass markets have been replaced by a whole series of niche markets. Different people had their own take on Batman or Judge Dredd. Now they want their own whole character.

TimTrue said...


I've been discussing the issue of modern creativity with the missus for some time and she wisely pointed out that 90% of all "new" things created (whether TV, comics, films, whatever) are simply derivatives. Now to be fair, you could say that everything is derivative of Shakespeare's tropes or the 7-12 basic storylines that have existed since time immemorial. But the sad fact is that culture is consuming itself faster and faster, and there are fewer and fewer people generating original material. Let's face it, even 90% of Alan Moore's output is derivative (Lost Girls, Watchmen, From Hell, Marvelman, Captain Britain, LOEG) The only difference is his approach to the material is better than most, plus he does come up with some original ideas as well (Halo Jones, V for Vendetta, etc).

So what happens when we get so referential? Watch this clip:

Gavin Burrows said...

Mmm, yes and no.

Let’s be totally fannish and start comparing Alan Moore to Shakespeare.

As we all know, in early modern times fresh stories were to be distrusted. If you had an original idea you’d dress it up as an ancient tale you’d just dredged up, and hope nobody bothered to check. Shakespeare had not one original storyline.

But the point is what he did with those storylines. He took stock characters and gave them an inner life they’d never had before. Similarly, Alan Moore may have used existing comics characters (from Captain Britain and Marvelman onwards) but did entirely new things with them. (Well, at least new to comics. Which is why you can’t really compare him to Shakespeare.)

What I’m talking about is the new version without the new angle. It’s just like a new i-phone, it’s a product upgrade. It may well be something else we can pin on George Lucas, when he started tinkering with his old films to make the special effects more modern and stuff. I mean, move on, get over it!

Incidentally, I now seem to have the phrase “I’m looking for a gift for my Aunt” running round in my head.

Arion said...

Excellent article, Tim.

I wrote on my blog about DC's 'Before Watchmen' and I said that we should support Alan Moore by not buying these new titles. However, I never stopped to think about the ramifications of this situation or Marvel's policies. Indeed, the big two won't attract any new talents and this will be a problem.

J.R. LeMar said...

*I’m seriously worried that Marvel and DC will eventually suffocate themselves on a lack of creative oxygen that is vital for them to grow and develop*

What do you mean "eventually"? That's already happened long ago. That's why they're increasingly relying on gimmicks like universal reboots (which would have been okay if it were better planned, and had been a real reboot, meaning EVERYTHING started over from scratch, instead of saying well somethings are new, but other characters are the same) and, yes, the Watchmen prequels.

I agree with Gavin Burrows. I worship @ the altar of Alan Moore (although sometimes he is beginning to sound like a stereotypical Grumpy Old Man), but I'm not "boycotting" Before Watchmen because of him. DC owns the characters and I feel they have the right to use them in anyway they see fit. I'm just not going to by any of the Before Watchmen because I personally have zero interest in them. Watchmen was great, but that was a finite story. The characters weren't meant to be open-ended characters like Superman, etc.

This is a prime example of the lack of creativity @ DC. Why put all this effort into getting these so-called A-List together to exploit a series from 3 decades ago? Why not see if they could created something, y'know, NEW, and try to capture the same spirit of freshness?

After the last issue of Grant Morrison's Action Comics, I've given up on DC.