Monday, February 20, 2012

The Myth of the Comics Creator

People who write and draw comics -- particularly in the American superhero industry -- are called creators. This is important, and revealing. And we saw that mindset at work behind the scenes of the recent Gary Friedrich kerfuffle.

For those of you that aren't tightly plugged into the comics world, Friedrich was the first writer of the modern-day version of Marvel's Ghost Rider character, back in 1972. Friedrich had previous written for the Western version of Ghost Rider, and it's clear from all accounts that he had at least the general idea for the modern one: a demonically-possessed, motorcycle-riding anti-hero. Friedrich has long claimed that Ghost Rider was entirely his idea, though his editor Roy Thomas (who also wrote the comic in which Ghost Rider first appeared) and original series artist Mike Ploog disagree. (The major point of contention -- and this tells you more about the nature of American corporate comics than anything else -- is who came up with the visual concept of the flaming skull.)

As Ty Templeton pointed out in his cartoon commenting on the current Friedrich dispute -- I'll get to that in a moment -- Ghost Rider was a minor character in the '70s and '80s, and only surged into popularity in the height of the Image-fueled grim 'n gritty '90s, long after Friedrich had anything to do with the character. Still, one could argue that Friedrich's contribution was still essential -- particularly, as hair-splitting fanboys on the Internet would hammer hard on, if that flaming skull was really his idea, since that was the most totally cool thing about Ghost Rider.

So, Friedrich wrote Ghost Rider for a while, and moved on. Marvel, as was the scummy practice in those days, claimed all rights to the character (and story, and plot, and would have wanted rights to the air Friedrich breathed if they could have found a way to get away with it), stamping contacts on the back of checks and forcing creators to sign agreements later on if they wanted any more work. Ghost Rider eventually got more popular, and then turned into a moderately successful movie. (And it's important to note here that this "moderately successful movie" probably generated more cash than every previous comic featuring every incarnation of Ghost Rider combined.) Friedrich wanted his piece of that pie, since he "created" Ghost Rider -- he was even credited as the creator on early issues of the series. Marvel disagreed. Friedrich sued Marvel. Marvel countersued, as giant rapacious corporations do.

And the ruling came down a few weeks ago: Friedrich lost. He not only lost, but he had to pay Marvel $17,000 in repayment of his sales of Ghost Rider-themed art at conventions. And that's what really got the world angry: evil rapacious comics corporations have always demanded to own all publishing and exploitation rights, and rarely passed on a few pennies to the people that actually did the work, but they haven't before actually reached into the pockets of their former freelancers and rummaged around for any loose change they could find. (That $17,000 is pretty much Friedrich's only current income; he's aged and practically destitute. Marvel is literally kicking a man when he's down, and adding injury to insult.)

Marvel is clearly wrong, morally -- but when have we ever been able to expect a corporation to act morally? The law is shakier; Friedrich did have good precedents to stand on, but he's not as famous and deep-pocketed as Peggy Lee (who sued Disney over a song from Lady and the Tramp at the dawn of home video, and won), and judges tend to listen to money at least as much as they listen to the law. Friedrich is now yet another old man wrecked on the shoals of comics, worked as hard as possible as cheaply as possible for as long as possible, and then cast off without a pension, a 401(k) or even the rights to the things that he made. When it comes to the intellectual property mines, comics is arguably even worse than the music business -- in comics, there's hardly even the chance to get rich before you get screwed over.

But there's still that deeper question of the "Creator" -- that figure out of comics myth that makes an instantly recognizable, amazingly popular thing, which will be exploited for generations to come. Perhaps the least expected result of DC's shabby treatment of Siegel and Shuster over Superman -- where those two men really did come into a publishing company with material that they wanted to license, and eventually found themselves on the outside of a wall of lawyers and shady businessmen, while their material was still snugly on the inside, making money for other people -- is the reinforcement of that myth. Siegel and Shuster were robbed, but that trickster god Bob Kane was able to cajole his way onto the side of the lawyers and shady businessmen, screwing over in his own turn Bill Finger, Sheldon Moldoff, and others. And then twenty years later Stan and Jack created the Marvel Universe -- or perhaps a slightly different pantheon did, depending on your orthodoxy -- and Stan stayed inside while Jack ended up outside. The myth among comics fans is about the power of the creator, but the lesson from the real world seems very different: be the guy on the inside.

The myth of the creator implies that comics characters are static and perfect from the moment they're conceived: that everything important about them is there, explicitly or implicitly, in their first appearance, and everything else is just elaboration. If this is true, then it is a sad thing to be a comics creator: what you create has no life or energy and will never go anywhere new or exciting.

That's clearly untrue, as well. Think of Swamp Thing. Who created him? Is he really Len Wein's original concept, or Alan Moore's radical revision? Can "creation" hinge on the question of whose idea it was to give Ghost Rider a burning skull for a head? Is that what's really important?

Of course, superhero comics fans have to rely on the idea of the "creator," because their favorite characters are owned by those giant rapacious corporations, and not the folks that actually did the work over the years. Outside of corporate American comics, though, there's no real arguments over who "created" something: Charles Schulz and his heirs own Peanuts, Masashi Kishimoto owns Naruto, Herge and his heirs own Tintin, in the same way that J.R. Rowling owns Harry Potter and James Patterson owns Alex Cross. Superhero writers and artists are left scrabbling for the moral high ground, since the economics have been biased against them since the field started.

And that feeds into the tendency for corporate superhero comics to be static and bland: they're full of characters "created" by someone-or-other, and intended to stay exactly that way -- or, at least, to radically and surprisingly change for the span of a summer crossover and then to go back to exactly what they always were -- because the entire industry is invested in this image of themselves and their creations. Superheroes are icons, you see: they're modern gods, they're the mythology of our modern world. They're everything except living stories about real people, because they're definitely not that.

What superhero comics needs is fewer "creators" and more "owners." It needs fewer icons and more stories -- fewer new beginnings and more actual endings. It needs, more than anything else, to grow up and act like a field populated by grownups telling stories for grownups.

[Art at the top is by Mike Ploog from the original days of Ghost Rider; dialogue from this panel, originally by Friedrich, was removed by other hands before I saw it. I thought that was ironically appropriate.]


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

That sucks. Oh well. It's capitalism. I for one am not a fan of rapacious capitalism. But people like Santorum and Romney try to galvanize everyone in the nation by touting how good it is for everyone, when in fact, it is only good for a few people and everyone else suffers.

Harry Connolly said...

It's like bad old TV shows where the actors never age or grow restless. They're just properties, not characters.

Post a Comment