Robot 6

Copyright Comics: The swindling of Siegel and Shuster

Comic Book Comics, by Ryan Dunlavey and Fred Van Lente, chronicles the history of comics in comic-book form. Their latest story, posted in full at their blog, is a short history of copyright grabs by comics publishers, featuring Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Jack Kirby and Joker creator Jerry Robinson make appearances as well. It’s interesting history and a painless way to learn a bit about copyright law and its pitfalls.

(Via Comics Worth Reading.)

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4 Comments

I like that they can recognize that downloading copies of an artist’s work is far from a victimless crime while also recognizing that copyright itself has become a tool for corporations to use at the expense of authors, artists, and the general public. A very well rounded assessment of the situation.

A very well-done comics as usual by Van Lente and Dunlavey, but I think that they’re painting the issue with pretty broad strokes.

People tend to ignore the atmosphere that created the work-for-hire contracts in the comics industry. Outcault and Dirks and just about everyone else in the early strip days jumped ship from one publisher to another and back again, leading to all sorts of questions about who owned the characters, multiple strips of the same name appearing, and extremely costly legal battles. The publishers were simply reacting to the Yojimbo-style business antics employed by early cartoonists in trying to establish a cost-effective and legally standing way to ensure that the properties they invest in cultivating don’t suddenly become the property of another publisher at the first opportunity of the artist.

In regards to Superman, Siegel and Shuster had been turned down by pretty much everyone, and for good reason – their comics were pretty awful. Superman, as an idea, had a lot of potential, but it wasn’t until it fell into the hands of more competent artisans that one saw that potential bear fruit.

They were fanboys who were desperate to get their work published, and knew exactly what they were signing. If later their projects reaped serious cash for the company to whom they sold it – tough. They knew what they were signing.

I liken it to folks who are just starting out, have a long way to go before they’re ready to publish, but sign contracts with TokyoPop or Platinum. It’s stupid and shortsighted… but they’re not going to be published professionally elsewhere, so it’s that or nothing. If it’s that important to get paid a piddling sum for the work and be screwed out of royalties and rights, then they should accept the contract. But I believe that it’s wrong for a person to retroactively seek compensation from a deal without which they’d have nothing to grieve over.

Should publishers behave better? Yes. Just because something is not contractually stipulated doesn’t mean that a company shouldn’t make gestures. As far as I know, BOOM, upon publication of the Don Rosa books, didn’t send him any copies. He did the work as work for hire; they’re not contractually stipulated. But his name is on the cover as a selling point, and it would have cost them, what, two or three hundred bucks to send him a few cases? The goodwill that would create would likely be better than any ad they might take out at the same price or higher, and it’s simply the right thing to do. Now, they may have done this, but I wanted to buy one from him the weekend they were released at a show, and he didn’t have any, which leads me to think that they didn’t. If I’m wrong here, someone please feel free to clarify.

Now, that being said, should Rosa make public outcry, or try and recoup profits from the book sales, or anything like that? Absolutely not. He knew what his contract stipulated and signed it. But it should be on the publisher, with the eyes of its readers upon it, to compensate creators in some way or another when mega successes, spin-offs, films, whatever directly stem from work-for-hire work.

funkygreenjerusalem

December 9, 2010 at 5:00 pm

In regards to Superman, Siegel and Shuster had been turned down by pretty much everyone, and for good reason – their comics were pretty awful. Superman, as an idea, had a lot of potential, but it wasn’t until it fell into the hands of more competent artisans that one saw that potential bear fruit.

They were fanboys who were desperate to get their work published, and knew exactly what they were signing. If later their projects reaped serious cash for the company to whom they sold it – tough. They knew what they were signing.

They weren’t fanboys desperate to get published – they already were published, both in their own self-published fanzines, and by other publishers with characters such as Doctor Occult and Slam Bradley.
They spent years trying to get Superman going because they knew it was a good idea, and once it was published it was an immediate hit – it didn’t need ‘more competent artisans’, it was an instant smash hit, that took the industry by storm.

It was not an instant smash hit – the idea that Action #1 sold out instantly is a myth. It, like pretty much every other successful comic, had a respectable first sales run and continued to build momentum. It wasn’t until 6 months or a year in that Superman started being a top seller. Don’t get me wrong, it was an appealing property, but there was a reason that it was laughed out of every publisher that they brought it to (including the one that eventually published it, just prior to its purchase by a new player). Superman really became Super once Shuster was only drawing the faces and Siegel began to get a hand on the medium.

The previous publish thing is true, but hardly relevant. Slam Bradley is a great case in point – it’s pretty bad. There’s some charm to the Bradley drawing, but the thing is a straight up ripoff of Roy Crane, complete with diminutive sidekick. G-Man of the Future, Dr. occult… all of these are basically hack work pieces, at a time when anyone could get published. The early thirties were a lot like the early nineties, in that there was a huge demand for artists which resulted in sub-par artists getting work. And I may be mistaken, but did Dr. Occult ever actually see print? I thought that they did it for free for a comic insert for a Cleveland shopping mag that decided at the last minute that it wasn’t worth the cost of printing, but I may be mistaking it for one of their other early works.

They wanted desperately to be out there in the SciFi community as professionals. Desperately enough to give up their rights. If they’d have had better options, they could’ve taken it, but no one else would touch their amatuerish property with a ten-foot pole. They were able to make a living for years (until better executed comics like Captain Marvel started soundly beating them at sales) off the idea. Perhaps National should have simply passed, and they could’ve toiled away on disposable hack projects in obscurity until being edged out of work by better artists in the late forties and early fifties – apparently that would have made them much happier.

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