Not really. But why isn’t he helping out young comic book creators? Also: 10 Must-Read Comics.
Stan Lee, who got a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in January, is a man who has benefited greatly at the expense of others throughout his career, through both serendipity and longevity. Every time I see the guy I can’t help think that while co-creators—like Jack Kirby, et. al.—died in poverty, he’s made millions as the head of Marvel Entertainment. As executive producer of every Marvel film—and considering his love of publicity—he has the platform to right some wrongs.
I don’t just blame Stan. Respected journalists and magazines frequently gloss over the question of creation. He has often noted the contributions of collaborators like Kirby and Steve Ditko, contributions that are often ignored because reporters don’t know much about comics.
But there is a bigger issue here—one that goes past misrepresentations and misunderstandings, and has to do with creativity and ownership of copyrights—laws that are being rewritten in such a way that they pose a danger to creativity itself.
A quick primer on the origins of the copyright law: the Constitution provides Congress with the authority to enact laws to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” U.S. copyright law is the result. There have been a variety of legislative acts concerning copyright in American history and so many nuanced vagaries to the law, that I consulted top-flight legal counsel to elucidate them for me.
For our purposes there are two major developments in copyright law that apply to the comic book industry, one in 1909 and a greatly amended version in 1976. The 1909 Act was superseded by the Copyright Act of 1976, but works created under the prior act (i.e., before January 1, 1978) retain protection in certain circumstances.
Works created under the 1909 Act allowed for a term of protection for a period of 28 years from the date of registration or publication with notice, renewable once for a second 28-year term. At the time the two-term system was created, it served the purpose of protecting creative works on behalf of the creator, and ensured they well remunerated for the increased value of their creations.
At the time, no one imagined that there would be the huge global conglomerates—like Warner Bros and Disney—which would lobby, at great expense, for the extension of such laws well into the future (or in effective perpetuity). Few imagined that a character like Superman, for example, created by two teenagers from Cleveland (Jerry Siegel and Jerry Shuster) in 1938 would be an enduring, multi-billion-dollar merchandising empire that would include clothing, toys, books, TV, films, video games, and beyond.
Got it? No? That’s OK. Copyright law is totally fucked up. No one really understands it. And that’s one of the reasons we need to do something about it. It’s like trying to run a car company based on the agricultural laws of feudal England; the fundamental assumptions just aren’t relevant. But there are a lot of powerful interests at work. With 2013 approaching, a number of copyrights are ending (like some of the Superman rights), which has led to a collective frenzy to seek a longer extension of copyright laws.
At various times, the industry has made concessions to creators. At the time of Superman’s creation and appearance in Action Comics #1 those teenage creators were paid $130. Over the years, National Periodical Publications (later DC Comics) paid various sums to the Siegel and Shuster, even though, because they were work-for-hire employees, the character belonged to the company.
In 1975, after news reports of their pauper-like existences, Warner Communications gave Siegel and Shuster lifetime pensions of $20,000 per year and health care benefits (later raised to $30,000 per year). In The New York Times, Jay Emmett, then executive vice president of Warner Bros, said, “There is no legal obligation, but I sure feel there is a moral obligation on our part.”
Jack Kirby’s family members have tried in vain to get similar concessions from Marvel/Disney. Stan Lee has maintained that there were offers to Kirby made while he was still alive and that he rebuffed them. This is disputed by many who knew Kirby.
We live in a golden age of creativity, and copyright laws should exist to protect creators, not corporate monstrosities like Marvel/Disney. Today’s twisted copyright laws threaten the creation of the next Superman and Spider-man!
Siegel and Shuster both have suggested that Superman was inspired by Hercules and Samson. Stan Lee’s entire oeuvre at Marvel was influenced by 1950s B-Movies like THEM! (see: gamma rays, radioactive spiders, etc.).
If copyright laws had been as stringent then, Lee himself may have faced litigation by any or all of the stories that inspired his own creations. Lee has said to numerous creators over the years that they should be out there creating new mythologies—not just regurgitating the old ones.
Well, Stan, if you can actually structure better deals for creators, you make an incentive for there to be new stories and heroes.
With the explosion of new technology and the endless possibilities they present—iPad comics, MMORPG games, and everything in between—comics are as relevant and engaging as ever. This explains the internecine battles over copyrights and matter. It’s about more than just glory. It’s about encouraging innovation—which is what the Constitutional provision was meant to do in the first place.
Stan Lee got his star and his millions. Let’s hope the next generation of creators get their due and don’t end up under the thumb of huge corporate cookie cutters like Disney. As Uncle Ben says to Peter Parker in Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man, “With great power there must also come great responsibility.”
Let’s hope the powers that be feel the same way. And then we can all cheer, “Excelsior!”