Monday, June 02, 2008

Heroes


A friend of mine from the comic book business dropped me an email this morning, asking for my input -- he and his family had noticed that one of this summer's big blockbuster comic book movies used several elements from stories he'd written a number of years ago.  One of his family members suggested he hire a lawyer to see if he could get some recompense, and my friend wanted to know if I had any experience that might be useful, given that a character I'd created for Marvel Comics had been adapted for two movies.  He was talking about The Punisher, but those of you who read my comics in the Seventies know that stories of mine were adapted for the first two Spider-Man films, so I guess my response should probably include my experience regarding those movies too.

Well.

Some people like to ease the band aid off the wound slowly and with care to avoid pulling out any hairs.  Me, I've always been a rip-that-sucker-off-fast kind of guy.  So, to put it bluntly, I got nothing for either Punisher film, and nothing for my stories being adapted for the Spider-Man movies.  I didn't even get credit for creating the Punisher, or for the use of my story material in Spider-Man.

Honestly, I didn't expect that I would.

I'm not happy about the fact, but I'm resigned to it.  I accept the reality of how the business operated when I wrote those stories, and I'm truthful enough with myself to admit I knew full well that I was giving over all my rights to the material at the time.  There hasn't been a comic book professional since the 1940s who hasn't been fully aware of the exact nature of the deal we were making with the publishers: what happened to Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster was common knowledge and an established part of comic book lore.  So it would be disingenuous of me now to claim I was misled, or mistreated, or that I didn't realize what I was doing, or that somehow Marvel reneged on some imaginary implied promise that I'd share in whatever bounty might come their way from exploiting characters and stories I created.  Nobody promised me anything.  The deal was clear -- I wrote the stories, I created the characters, and in return I accepted a page rate payment for the work I performed. 

Sure, there was some question about the legality of the practice prevalent at the time of putting the assignment of rights contract on the back of the check paying you for the work.  But that's a question of legality -- and it was resolved with later contracts that clearly established the nature of the work for hire arrangement -- and it has nothing to do with what I believe is really a moral and ethical issue.  Morally and ethically, for me to claim that I was "cheated" somehow would be a lie.  Nobody forced me to write comics.  Nobody forced me to accept the terms of the deal as it stood. 

I knew what I was doing, and I did it anyway.

Does it hurt when I see a movie made from a character I co-created, without receiving credit or recompense?  Sure it hurts.  I don't think it's particularly nice of Marvel Comics to pretend that the Punisher sprang full-blown onto the scene without parents.  It's pretty cheesy, mean-spirited behavior.  What would it cost them to credit Ross Andru, John Romita, and me, for writing and drawing the story that brought the Punisher into being?  If they were worried we might use that credit to press a claim -- why not ask us to sign a release?  Knowing they were under no legal obligation to give us credit, but they felt it was the human, decent thing to do, I would've been happy to sign a release; I was happy to give an interview for the DVD.  But nobody asked.  I doubt anyone even thought about it.  And that's what hurts, really.  I don't expect money, I don't expect a piece of the action, but I sure would have appreciated a little acknowledgment when those credits flashed by.

But to repeat: I knew what I was doing, and I did it anyway.

On a happier note, I get lotsa bucks from the use of characters I created for DC Comics in the late 70s and 80s.   Firestorm, Power Girl,  King Croc, Steel, and lately, Vixen, have all spun off toys and statues and games and videos and other cool stuff, and thanks to the forward-thinking contracts DC started offering creators in the late 70s, I and my artist collaborators get a piece of all that revenue.  And that makes me happy.

So in a way, it balances out.

But I'm one of the lucky ones -- as are all of the creators who came into the business after the mid-Seventies.  We get a piece (albeit a small piece) of the cash our characters generate.  The people who came before us, though, aren't so lucky.  A lot of those writers and artists end their careers with not much to show for the work they've done but the money they earned along the way.  Some of them are in pretty dire straits financially.

If you'd like to do something about that, check out the Hero Initiative -- a non-profit fund organized by fans and professionals to help creators who've fallen on hard times.  Give back a little of what they've given you.

You're under no legal, moral or ethical obligation to do so.

But it's the nice thing to do.

It's the right thing to do.

8 comments:

Anil said...

Though Marvel may not acknowledge your work, shouldn’t the Writer’s Guild? If significant elements of your original stories appear on screen, doesn’t the writer’s guild have to give you some sort of adaptation credit?

Rob said...

Interesting post. It has to hurt knowing you can't even get a "Created By" line in a movie, especially where you're not looking for money. And me telling you that I really liked your run on Fantastic Four doesn't really help you feel any better either. :) It's good to know that you were able to be on the cusp of change in the 70's to get better contracts on characters you created. It's just sad when I read of Kirby and Seigel and Schuster and all of the many that never completely got what they deserved... anyway, great reminder about the Hero Initiative, I will be sure to do so!

Gerry said...

Thanks Anil -- but sadly, the WGA has no jurisdiction over the determination of non-screenplay credits.

rap said...

A note from you — or a lawyer's letter — to Avi Arad or whomever couldn't hurt, though. I'd do it just to say that I did, Ger, regardless of the result.

Anil said...

Even if you don’t see any money out of it, shouldn’t you still get the screen credit, Gerry? For example, when a novel is adapted into a film, the novelist can get a number of screen credits (story, characters, etc). Is that only because they own the characters?

Jamie Coville said...

*SMACK*
*SMACK*
*SMACK*

It's spelled SIEGEL and SHUSTER!

*SMACK*

chris said...

Great commentary from a bona fide legend in the comics industry.

I've remember reading Gerry Conway comics since the 80s, and it was a nice surprise to stumble into this article. It's great to read ideas that mesh with my own from somebody who has been there and can speak with authority.

Comic creators are contracted, and they know their rights up front. I would love it if Jack Kirby's name were a household word for all his accomplishments, but the funnybook business just doesn't work that way. Everyone knew their stake and their share in what was being created... comics were a disposable medium until the 80s after all.

Gerry said...

Oops -- corrected, while blushing with embarrassment.