The Rights Stuff, by Martha Thomases
This has been a stimulating week for any discussion of artists’ rights in the comics field. The courts awarded a share of the Superman copyright to the heirs of Jerry Siegel, and Warren Ellis left Marvel’s Thunderbolts series, saying, “It’s as simple as this – if I don’t own it, I’m not going to spend my life on it. Joe Quesada and Dan Buckley know that, they’re fine with that, and they hire me on that understanding.”
It’s my temptation now to brag, to tell you about the time I walked around the San Diego Comic Con with Joanne Siegel, how Warren Ellis is not only someone I know, but also my Facebook friend. Then you’d envy me for my fabulous life, and my weekend would be that much better. However, that’s not really a very good premise for a column. People haven’t worked so hard, risked being blackballed by major publishers and put their careers on the line just so I can feel better about myself (although, perhaps, they should consider doing so, since it would make me very happy).
The artists and writers in the comics community face the same trials and tribulations as the creative talents in any of the popular arts in this, our American capitalist society.
The blues musicians who created the tunes still used in popular music never received the copyrights for their work. If they were lucky, the assigned those rights (in contracts they never read) to the producers of their work. In that case, they at least got paid for their recordings. More likely, a white man heard the song and sold it as his own.
The movie and television studios routinely own the copyrights on the films created by writers, directors, actors and others. Thanks to strong unions, the studios share the profits, but they retain title. Watch a movie all the way to the end, read the fine print, and you’ll see what I mean.
Authors of books usually do retain trademark and copyright, but book publishers are not automatically enlightened. Frequently, they retain rights to foreign sales, to reprints, and options on the writer’s future work. Those who work on series, such as Star Trek or Tom Clancy, are subject to the same work-for-hire terms as comics creators.
Why does this happen? Why isn’t everyone fair and wonderful and generous? Why do people make such deals? The simple answer is money. The more complicated answer is still money. Years ago, I created a set of characters and a series for Marvel. Dakota North ran for five issues. Because I signed a work-for-hire deal, I received a slightly higher page rate. I had a baby, and he needed food and diapers and a roof over his head. I knew I was signing away the rights (although the contract guaranteed me a percentage of future use of the character), but I didn’t think it was the last good idea I’d ever have.
Marvel didn’t exactly keep me from millions of dollars. There was a time when Tina Turner was interested in buying the movie rights, but it never happened. It’s just as well. I would have enjoyed the money, but Tina was too old at the time to be my Dakota. Marvel never asked me to write anything else, and it was more than 20 years before I was asked to write another comics script.
Over the years, Dakota North has appeared in a few other comics, most recently in Daredevil. These takes are interesting, but they are not my story. No one has ever really understood what I was trying to do with the character. They see her as another tough broad action figure, and that’s a part of her. I modeled her physically on a friend of mine, who had the height and the hair and the beauty to capture the attention of those in any room she entered. But Dakota’s also a woman trying to win her father’s approval while she pushes him away, that tug-of-war adult children have with their parents.
I got what I considered to be a fair deal at the time from Marvel because of people like Neal Adams and Frank Miller and others who demanded royalties and other rights be part of the standard Marvel contract. Jim Shooter, then editor-in-chief, thought these terms were not only the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do, a way to attract the new talent. By the standards of the mid-1980s, they were progressive. I didn’t have my own printing press, or my own distributor, to publish my own stories and get them to readers.
Today it’s different. Anyone can get on the Internet and publish her own comics. No trees will be pulped. No fossil fuels will be used to transport the stories to the readers. I wouldn’t sign the same deal today. Neither should you.
Martha Thomases is the media queen of the ComicMix beehive.