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Creators' Rights in the American Comic Book Industry

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Creator Rights and Ownership

Artists Versus Publishers

Sequential art in its contemporary incarnation has been entertaining audiences for more than a century, and the format of comic books has done the same for close to eighty years. The serial nature of the medium means that even the most obscure character from the Golden Age is only a clever revamp away from new success, while some of comics’ most popular characters have had their adventures told every month for decades. Superman and Batman are ubiquitous heroes that have outlived the men who originally created them, a fact that brings added resonance to lines spoken by comic characters such as V for Vendetta’s V when he utters the phrase, “Ideas are bulletproof.” For, unlike Jerry Siegel, Will Eisner and the other artistic giants of comics’ past who have passed away, the fictional giants they created are still as “alive” as ever.

Culturally speaking, the significance of many characters created for DC and Marvel has eclipsed the perceived significance of the artists themselves. Everyone knows who Superman is, but far fewer can identify Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster as the character’s creators, even though today, it is the legal obligation of Time-Warner to label every narrative of Superman in any medium with the creators’ names. Conceptually, it is at the very least surreal that an artist could be marginalized in importance compared to his art, but in mainstream comics in America it is the norm. And the reasons for it in all cases are patterns of abuse by publishers toward creative persons, a cycle which began in the early 1940’s when Harry Donnenfeld, then the publisher of DC Comics, wrested any creative control of Superman away from his creators. When that did not hurt the character’s massive popularity, the precedent for a publisher to assert the needs of the company over the needs of the creators was set for half a century.

Not that the needs of a company are not important, or that a compelling character is itself completely marginalized by the creative forces telling its story. Many interesting and successful stories by a huge array of talented individuals have been told about characters like Superman and Spider-Man, partially because the template for telling stories about those characters is well-established and their actual iconography is so strong. But the importance of the creative team in telling those stories supersedes all else. After all, while templates may be established and formats ready, content for these formats can only be generated by the artists.

Today, both the audience and the artists working on mainstream superheroes grew up reading the adventures of those characters. Therefore, a nostalgic loyalty is often what drives creators to work for Marvel or DC, even when the creative or financial benefits are minimal, as is the case with established talents who enter the industry from successful careers in other media. Kevin Smith, for example, wrote story-arcs for Daredevil and Green Arrow, a career move that paid less than what he was making as a feature-film director as well as providing harsher content restrictions than what he was afforded by the R-ratings of his movies. Similarly, writers for television such as Allan Heinberg have written several issues of popular series (Wonder Woman, Young Avengers) in between more lucrative work in Hollywood as a way to fulfill a childhood ambition of working in comics.

Working For A Corporation

A Nostalgic Pull

For some creators, though, the childhood ambition of working in comics can be fulfilled by creating original stories and characters rather than attending to those created by others. Dave Sim, who created and self-published 300 issues of Cerebus between 1977 and 2004, is one such artist who has maintained independence and ownership of his characters. Sim had no editors and kept complete creative control on the direction and content of his comic, the life story of an aardvark who spends time as a barbarian, prime minister, pope, bartender, shepherd, and professional athlete. Sim’s reputation in the industry was originally as a firebrand for creator’s rights and the redundant nature of editors or publishers.

“No one is doing you a favor by hiring you,” Sim wrote in 1985. “Businessmen and most editors can’t draw and don’t know what they’re talking about. If you work for someone you are pulling a cart with a horse in it which is a stupid waste of resources.”

Sim has done work for Marvel in the past, and says he may do so again. However, he sees it as advertising for his true work, the sixteen volumes of Cerebus that keep the story in print. He also acknowledges the nostalgic pull that is the nature of doing business with Marvel and DC. “As long as we all stay ostensibly enthusiastic and positive maybe Dave Sim will get swept up in that and just sign on the dotted line and capitulate without a peep because he's really just a fanboy who wants to work at DC and he's having such a good time talking with us,” Sim wrote, imagining the generalized voice of an editor using nostalgia to obtain work from a freelancer.

This nostalgic pull provides publishers with the means to continue publishing the adventures of corporate trademarks, a leverage that encourages a revolving door of creators that continue to service the same set of fictional characters rather than create and own their own work. The leverage does work both ways, though, as popular creators can use the spotlight that comes with being the writer of something like Captain America to shine light on less-publicized creator-owned projects. Still, that is a plan that has its own set of fallbacks, the greatest being for a pencil or ink artist, whose output is usually only great enough to produce one 22-page comic a month, making it difficult to gain notoriety as an artist on a corporately-owned character while at the same time drawing a creator-owned one. For a writer who can write three or four different titles a month, however, it is a feasible option.

Ultimately, the best use of an artist's creativity is subjective, but the rewards are far greater for a successful book that one owns versus a successful book that someone else owns.



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  1. Gerard Jones Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

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