Monday, March 05, 2012

A modest proposal

My close friend Steve Bissette has launched a campaign to raise awareness about a particular creator's rights issue involving the estate of the late comic book superstar Jack Kirby.

The Kirby estate recently lost a court case in which they unsuccessfully argued that Kirby's family should receive some share of the use of characters that he created or co-created. With the new "Avengers" movie scheduled to be released this summer, the case was very timely.

Read Steve's blog here to see his full argument. I'll wait.

While my experience working comics has been limited, my experience with dealing with creator's rights is not. Right now, as the managing editor of Reminder Publications, any freelance article or photo we "buy," we purchase only first-publications rights. Any other use of a story or photo is up to the freelancer.

Ironically, the only comic book scripts I've written have been on a work for hire basis. I went into it knowing that no matter what I did I had no rights. They were the first work for hire assignments I had in years, but I knew the drill.

That's the point of course: I knew the drill. The question about Jack Kirby is what was said to him many years ago and if it was actually applied to his work years later.

I know a fair amount about the animation industry and a creator rights atmosphere did not exist in any of them. Most any other corporation in which there was something creative or innovative going on have had the rule that if you create something while doing your job – and in some cases even when you're off the clock – the company owns it. Unless, of course, you have a legal document defining your rights.

While the heirs of Max Fleischer have benefited from the ownership of Betty Boop, the families of Dave, Charlie and Joe Fleischer apparently have not.

Animator Grim Natwick never received a dime for his role in creating Betty Boop and Myron Waldman, who created Betty's dog Pudgey, also was never given any additional money, even though he was on good terms with Ruth Kneitel, Max's daughter, for many years after the studio closed and the merchandising money was beginning to roll in.

What happened at Fleischer was pretty typical. Disney didn't grant anyone rights to characters. No one did.

Kirby's widow did receive a pension that Marvel Comics execs felt forced to give her following the publicity of Kirby's death. When she died, the pension ended.

Steve would like to see a boycott of Marvel comics and products that feature characters Kirby created or co-created in order to send a message to Marvel. For this to be successful it has to be very widespread and must involve younger fans for whom Kirby may be just a name in the history books.

Stan Lee, the Marvel editor and writer who has long been a face for the company, is right in step with the company line. Lee, of course, receives a handsome stipend from Marvel to be "Stan Lee." Now in his late 80s, he continues to receive the kind of love and respect that few people in popular culture historically have received from multi-generational audiences.

Steve and others have sought to make their point without attacking Stan Lee as hard as certainly a guy like me would. Lee is a seminal figure in comics and a charismatic guy to boot.

But a boycott of Marvel will go nowhere in this media climate unless several things happen. First you have to have a whole bunch of name-brand people, like Steve, to stand as one demanding that Marvel do the right moral thing, since the law is probably on their side. A boycott Marvel website could be created – with the URL of "boycottMarvel" with an on-line petition. A blitz of press releases needs to be sent out to the national and regional press before the release of the "Avengers."

And the focus of the effort has to be to get Stan Lee to say Marvel is in the wrong. Forgive me, the website should't be about Marvel. It should be about Stan. How about www.tellthetruthStan or www.beamanStan?

This is now a publicity war and it needs to be fought hard and dirty. I'm not writing this from the perspective of a comics fan or as a comics professional, but rather has someone who understands how the media works.

Remember how DC decided to treat Siegel and Shuster when the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie came out? DC and Warner Brothers came to realize the story of these two improvised old men certainly would do their movie any good.

The advantage for Superman's creators is they were alive at the time of the decision to help them. Kirby and his wife have passed. Frankly that takes a lot of wind out of the sails of public sentiment. If either of them were still alive, there could be have some satisfaction.

The only way to get the faceless Disney/Marvel execs to see things differently is to put a lot of heat on Stan Lee. Yes, I know he's an old guy. Yes, I know he's beloved. So what? He knows what happened. He knows right from wrong.

If Lee truly respected Kirby, he would do the right thing now and help set a moral precedent. The trouble of course is that moral precedent could be the basis for creators working now in the industry to forge contracts to protect their rights.

So if you want to get the Kirby family some money, then someone has to organize an effort to put the heat on the one asset Marvel has that isn't printed in four colors: Stan Lee.

©2012 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

1 comment:

mr ed said...

Bill, You are 100% correct the focus needs to be on Lee. The judge couldn't have been more clear about that point in her ruling when she wrote "Marvel's case stands or falls on his (Lee's) testimony." In spite of that almost everyone who wrote about the ruling rushed haedlong to embrace the very thing the judge said the ruling was not about "fairness."
THe reason for this couldn't be more clear. Lee has a very large number of fans, many of them entrenched industry types. Lee's fans generally aren't casual fans, they have in many cases what seems like deep emotional ties to Lee. It's almost as if he's a father figure, and there's a kind of logic behind that, because most of Lee's fans have a very strong attachment to Marvel which was cemented in childhood.
As Steve has discovered, to be critical of Lee is going to actually enrage people. People who actually know Steve, and who really don't know Lee attack the flesh and blood person they know, and defend the "persona" which is Stan Lee. It's apparent to me from what I've seen of Lee that is public face is a facade. I have to wonder who really "knows" Stan Lee, because he comes across as a man who is always "in character." Do people really think "Smilin' Stan" is the Lee at home with his wife Joan?
I'd say Ditko, Kirby, Wood and others who challenged Lee saw his true face on those occasions, and the picture they paint isn't a pretty one.

Patrick Ford