Joe Kubert and the early days of creator-owned comic books
The legacy of Joe Kubert is rich and varied, from his school to his work on Sgt. Rock, Hawkman and other DC Comics properties. But one aspect of his career isn’t often a focus: He was among the first comic book professional to own his own character, predating the current creator-owned movement by more than 50 years.
The prehistoric Tor first appeared in 1,000,000 Years Ago #1, published in 1953 and edited by Joe Kubert and Norman Maurer. Its contents were owned by the book’s publisher, St. John Publications. But then in 1958, St. John abandoned comics and simply turned the rights to Tor over to Kubert.
How did he pull that off? By asking. As Tom Spurgeon’s obituary at The Comics Reporter explains, “Kubert said that receiving the copyright on Tor was as simple as requesting from the heir to the St. John publishing enterprise that the copyright be returned to him after the publisher had moved away from comics. The legally appropriate person provided a letter doing just that.”
If only it were that easy now!
After an unsuccessful attempt in 1959 to launch the property as a newspaper comic, Kubert brought Tor to DC Comics. But ownership and creative control remained with Kubert, who was free to take the character to other publishers if he wished. And he did from time to time: Tor appeared in comics published by Eclipse and the original iteration of Atomeka Press in the ’80s and Marvel’s Epic Comics in the ’90s. Or Kubert could self-publish the character, as he did in 1977 in his Sojourn magazine under his own White Cliffs Publishing venture. In other words, he had complete control of his character.
Such creative freedom was almost unheard of in the 1950s but two other influential creators helped pave the way. In 1954, four years before Kubert obtained Tor, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby released Fighting American through Crestwood’s Prize Comics. From the beginning, they owned the character completely.
Whether Simon and Kirby, or Kubert in a sort of retcon kind of way, are the very first creators to independently own their characters is difficult to know for sure due to shoddy record-keeping at the time. Contracts are still being debated and legally challenged to this day. (Post in the comments if you know of any other creator-owned comic book characters from the 1950s or earlier.) But what they did was exceedingly rare and broke from convention. While cartoonist Will Eisner owned The Spirit comic strip (comic book reprints of The Spirit appeared as early as 1944), such deals were unthinkable for most in the comic book industry. It would take another decade before this occurred with any kind of regularity, starting with the underground comix movement of the late ’60s. Another 10 years would transition into the black-and-white indie comics boom, which helped set up the launch of Image Comics. Twenty years after that we find ourselves in a new renaissance in the creator-owned movement.
As new momentum for that movement seems to pop up every day, it’s heartening to know that they are standing on the shoulders of giants like Will Eisner, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby and Joe Kubert.
(Thanks to Scott Shaw! for his resourceful comics brain.)