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by John Workman, now available.
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Just two years ago Advertising Age magazine listed DC Comics as one of America’s hottest brands. Though the referred to it as “a move fraught with risk,” they applauded DC for reworking every character in the New 52 as an effort to broaden their audience appeal.
That is what every owner of a brand wants, universal appeal. That has been the power of comics and superheroes in particular, for generations. They have had appeal to everyone as a general whole. Who wouldn’t want a character that represents “Truth, justice and the American way” as their trademark?
Few characters in the world are as iconic as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, followed by the supportive cast of the Justice League of America and the rest of the DC Universe. That is why you can you can find their images licensed on every product imaginable from baby toys to automobiles.
It is obvious that once Marvel was bought by the merchandising masterminded Disney Corporation, Time Warner and DC felt they needed to step up their game to prevent Supes, Bats, and WW from being overshadowed by the likes of Spider-man and those damn Avengers.
Rather than polishing up the classic style guides and reminding markets why their product was responsible for the entire genre of superheroes and has stood the test of time having been viable for seventy-five years, they decided to “shake things up” by making their product more edgy, gritty, trendy, socially relevant, sexy, modern, and violent.
Viola! The New 52.
There is evidence that this move has certainly perked up comic sales and generated some new found publicity, though much of this is related to the sinister speculator market. There also seems to be an influx of new readers, woman in particular, who appeared to be absent from the comics scene just a few years ago.
But has all this change really been good?
Say what you like, the damage is done as evidenced by a stirring, must-read, fan letter to DC, eloquently and passionately written by Gabrielle Friesen, who could not have spelled out more clearly how DC has set the time bomb that is destined to annihilate their, once invaluable IP.
Her diatribe is lengthy and painful to anyone who has grown up loving comics. She details, situation after situation where DC has taken beloved characters that she enjoyed since childhood and subjected them to rape, torture, murder, exploitation, mindless prejudice and persecution all for the sake of “broader audience appeal.”
A brief synopsis can be found in this quote from her letter but seriously, please read the whole thing:
“You want to know something DC? You’re the super villain here. Your company is Doomsday. Lumbering, stupid, terrible, leaving a path of pain in its wake, killing beloved superheroes left and right. Fans like me? We’re Superman (and this is the only time I have ever identified with Superman). We’re brave and smart and powerful, and we want the world to be good and safe. We want our comics to be good and safe. And you are pummeling us down, but Superman rose up again. The Death of Superman was a stupid, and ultimately temporary move on your part. More and more fans like me are leaving, using our superpower of the dollar, withdrawing it, and warning everyone we know not to come near the radioactive toxic waste heap that is your company, that it won’t give them superpowers, only hurt them. We’re going to outlast you; whether its your company collapsing because dominant culture dudebros are not enough of a market to support your behemoth weight, or whether you pull through, get a new editorial team, or just wise up to the fact that more than just dudebros exist in the world, that people love your characters but not the way you treat them, that consumers are smart and have power. You are bleeding out and actively resisting a tourniquet, spitting in the face and insulting the medic offering it to you.
Comics were started by the downtrodden. Superman, the alien immigrant, was created by Jewish men. Wonder Woman was created by a man wishing for women’s equality. Superheroes protect the weak, not those who seek to dominate. You’ve forgotten your roots, and completely assimilated to dominant, oppressive culture.
You are in control of beautiful characters. Kind, compassionate, flawed human characters. Characters who want the world to be better, who help the downtrodden, who rescue kittens from trees and save lives. People who can fly.
But you’re stuck on the ground, actively digging yourself deeper into mud.”
What trademark owner wants to get this letter from a fan? What licensee who paid tons of money to secure the rights to plaster their product with DC superheroes wants to know that these characters are no longer the wholesome bundle of Americana they thought they bought into?
Does Fisher-Price, Mattel and every other maker of children’s toys and apparel want to know that DC editorial thinks it’s humorous that one of it’s major characters were the subject of an art contest where they were to be shown naked in a tub attempting to commit suicide a week before National Suicide Prevention Week?
(Yes, weeks after this contest created a n offensive stir in the industry, DC has yet to take this link down from their site.)
If a sport star or celebrity had this kind of attention focused on them, you know that companies would be pulling endorsements left and right. Ask Tiger Woods, Lance Armstong, Mel Gibson and Paula Deen, just to name a few.
There were high hopes when Diane Nelson was hired lead DC after her tremendous job with the Harry Potter franchise. Is she even paying attention? Would she allow the Harry Potter property to be defiled the way the DCU is? Doubtful! What would J.K. Rowlings say?
Gabrielle Friesen is right. Fans do have the power of their money and their voices. These characters may be copyrighted and trademarked to DC Comics but they belong to us as a culture. It is the people that have embraced them and spent their hard earned dollars to establish them as the icons they are today. Superheroes are vulnerable after all, endangered by their own gatekeeper.
It is time that true fans save their favorite superheroes before it’s too late, before there is a complete meltdown of the entire DCU.
“Up, up and away!”
For anyone who thought that the Work for Hire clause, whether it was specified in a contract or stamped on the back of a check, was the final answer regarding creator’s rights; think again!
The battle for creator’s rights is experiencing a ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE of its own as issues once considered dead and buried by corporate gate keepers are raising their hoary heads and experiencing triumph against the devil himself.
Appropriately, Ghost Rider, the supernatural motorcyclist who sold his soul to the devil and consequently bursts into hellfire complete with a flaming skull whenever he encounters evil, has become the latest character championed by the challenge of his creator.
Gary Friedrich settled a deal with Marvel after the Second Court of Appeals decided that the work for hire contract signed in 1978 was ambiguous on the topic of copyright renewal.
His victory has highlighted the fact that there can be hope against what appears to be insurmountable odds especially after Marvel had knocked him down for the count and even won a countersuit against him for trademark violation seeking retribution of $17,000 for monies he made from selling autographed prints of Ghost Rider at comic conventions.
Never give up the fight!
Creator’s rights has been a battle going on in this industry since it began and every time the issue seems dead it claws back from the grave. Jerry Siegle and Joe Shuster were zombies extraordinaire. No creators fought back so frequently and so often reviving dead issues and achieving a number of victories along the way, than these two. Even after their own deaths their family still haunts DC and Warner Brothers with challenges.
The huge popularity of superheroes in film has certainly stirred the dead more than any other event. The immense profits made from films and merchandising of comic book characters that were unimaginable decades ago have breathed new vigor into aging creators who may have given up the fight long ago but now see the fortunes that are slipping through their fingers.
Suddenly a few of these stalwart underdogs have played a winning hand.
It is important to pay close attention to victories because they are often shrouded in secretive settlements that, though they may satisfy and reward the challenges of the creator are designed to ultimately protect the stake of the corporate holder. Terms of agreement that require secrecy lend little support to other challengers except to grant hope that they too can come to a settlement that will satisfy their unique complaint.
Stan Lee took Marvel to task in 2002 for royalties owed for characters he co-created. He was awarded a $10 million settlement in 2005 according to Marvel’s first quarter operating results that year. This of course begs to question, what about Steve Ditko and the Jack Kirby estate?
Archie Comics settled with Ken Penders regarding rights to the characters he created while working on stories for Sonic the Hedgehog and Knuckles comics. His characters have shown up in reprints, comics, and video games. Victory in hand, he now has his sights set on Sega and Electronic Arts. Sega would not event participate with Archie in the original proceedings making Archie’s defense more laughable than it was. Penders plans to utilize the characters he created in a graphic novel series entitled The Lara-Su Chronicles.
Jim Starlin’s relationship has seemed so warm and fuzzy with Marvel since it was revealed that Thanos, a character he created, would be a major player in the Avengers film franchise as well as the Guardians of the Galaxy. Little has been made public, but one can only assume that a settlement has been reached since Starlin can prove that he created Thanos before he even came to work for Marvel.
Recently, in a congratulatory comment to Gary Friedrich made via Facebook and Twitter, artist Bob Layton publicly stated that he and David Michelinie had settled with Marvel over rights issues to a character created during their long run on Iron Man.
Does this activity indicate that the tide is turning? Is it possible the the courts are finally recognizing what we have known for years; that creators of intellectual property in the comic industry have been grossly taken advantage of? Is public sentiment starting to influence the position of the courts and the corporations? Is the work for hire practice of the major comic companies finally damaging the value of their good will?
A lot of creators have been cheated over the decades. A lot of challenges have laid buried beneath heaps of residue from corporate greed, abuse and the creator’s fear of reprisal.
There is a tremor now. That which was once thought dead is rising from the loosened earth. Like the Ghost Rider, injustice is igniting its fury. A new day is coming and that which was dead will be no more. Creator’s Rights will rise like the undead and the APOCALYPSE will be waged upon corporate greed.
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