In the History Channel documentary Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked, acclaimed comic writer and editor Denny O’Neill once said that as an editor of DC’s Batman series, he saw himself as a “custodian of folklore.” O’Neill is not the first person to identify the modern mythology underpinning American superheroes. Superman, the first major comics superhero, has been in countless movies and songs, becoming so popular as to make the mere mention of his name an idiom. Many admirers of comics laud the culture of myth surrounding the incredibly dense and detailed stories of superheroes. However, the cross-cultural popularity of superheroes has invited a difficult question: who, if anyone, actually owns these characters? Is it the writer-artist team who originated the character, the editor who popularized it, or the company who publishes it? And in the complex world of merchandising and movie spinoffs, do comics’ original creators deserve appropriate compensation? These questions have evaded top industry executives for years and have even entered some of the highest courts in the land.
The family of the late Jack Kirby, the influential artist and co-creator of Captain America, the Hulk, the X-Men, and Groot (yes, Jack Kirby co-created that crazy humanoid tree you all know and love), just recently ended its multi-year legal battle with Marvel. Only days before the Supreme Court would reveal if the landmark case of Kirby v. Marvel would be granted certiorari, the Kirbys settled for an undisclosed amount. The case had been thought by many commentators, including the flood of amici writing to support the Kirbys, to be potentially transformative in the realm of copyright law. The Kirbys made the radical argument that Marvel could not assume copyright over material made by an independent contractor, as Kirby defined himself. Comics creators for decades have been fighting against the oppressive editorial control of the major companies like DC and Marvel (see: Alan Moore), with corporately-owned characters furthering the wrench between creator and company.
Take Len Wein for example. In a career spanning over forty years, from the 1960s to present day, he created Lucius Fox (aka Morgan Freeman’s character in the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy) and co-created DC’s Swamp Thing. However, Wein has become a legend for one noticeably short period of his life — when he created the most iconic X-Man of all time: Wolverine. In the late 1960s, the X-Men had become an untidy footnote on writer Stan Lee and Kirby’s erstwhile successful string of character creations. In 1970, the X-Men title resorted to reprinting old stories because of the lack of reader interest surrounding the title. Five years later, Wein and artist Dave Cockrum reinvigorated the series with a new team of international heroes — most notably Wolverine and Storm, the weather-controlling mutant. However, Wein’s editorial duties prevented him from scripting the series, so he handed off the title to a young writer named Chris Claremont. Over forty years later, Claremont has become one of the most critically acclaimed comics writers of all time, credited with spearheading the X-Men’s move into mainstream popularity. The question then remains: is Wein responsible for the lucrative success of Wolverine, who has spawned multiple series, toys, and $280 million worth of solo movies? Or is Claremont, who injected the fury antihero with personality and a backstory? Marvel prefers the former, so it seems, as they recently wrote Wein a “not unreasonable” check in the aftermath of The Wolverine hitting theaters. Wein revealed that he was only compensated $15-20 for his initial creation of the character, and he had not received any prior compensation for Wolverine’s appearances in the X-Men film series as well as in Wolverine’s previous solo film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine because of legal minutiae in the contract he signed.
Located not too far from Wall Street, the New York offices of DC and Marvel are not immune to corporate greed. While the dense mythology of their characters has given an almost timeless quality to comics superheroes, the companies’ mistreatment of creators has bludgeoned creativity in comics away to smaller labels such as Image and Dark Horse. Remember Superman? Yes, the most iconic hero of all time. His co-creator, Jerry Siegel, was reportedly working in a mailroom for $7,000 a year while the mega-motion picture Superman was in production. Only after intense lobbying from fellow creators did Siegel and his co-creator Joe Shuster receive proper compensation. The relationship between creator and corporation is softening, but as long as Marvel and DC characters keep bringing in buckets of cash, creators’ rights will be sidelined. The Odyssey, so to speak, will live on without Homer.