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.