Friday, July 17, 2009

DC's Wednesday Comics a big, bold throwback to fun

My Siegel and Shuster posts last week turned into an interesting debate in the comments. After several days of deadlines, I finally was able to finish off my points and hopefully we can move on to more interesting stuff.

Like Wednesday Comics, DC Comics' new weekly newspaper-style package of big, bold and very cool comics.

I have to say this is one of the coolest ideas I’ve seen in a while, though it’s not completely new as I recall some kind of similar Dark Horse publication (I think it was a promo thing given away in shops) back in the 1990s. But I digress …

This is a package that really plays to the strengths of comics. The big, broad canvas of a broadsheet gives everything a classic, larger than life quality. The art here has room to breathe, to be big and bold and give the reader a chance to really take it in. It’s impossible to not admire the art in this format.

Of course, when you have 15 strips, some will work better than others. So far, I find the new Kamandi by Dave Gibbons and Ryan Sook to be my favorite for the way it evokes strips like Prince Valiant in the writing, art and even the lettering. Paul Pope’s Strange Adventures is, as you’d expect from Pope, lush, beautiful and amazing to look at. The Flash strip, which is perfectly paired with an Iris West c0-feature, is also cool. And Kyle Baker’s send up of 300 — “We flap!” Brilliant! — in Hawkman is a riot.

The ones I don’t think work as well come down don’t work primarily because of the art style — Wonder Woman, Teen Titans and Superman. Each relies heavily on color and uses the kind of computer techniques old newspaper strips didn’t have access to. That’s only a problem because of the one serious technical misstep in this project, which is not printing it on better quality paper.

I totally get the idea behind printing it that way and replicating the feel as well as the look of the old newspaper strip. But deviating too much from the type of art that technically worked so well on newsprint — clearly inked art with simple flat coloring — ends up muddying the images and requiring a hard look to figure out what’s going on in some of those tiny little panels.

Not upgrading the paper has been, I think, a major mistake for most of America’s now troubled newspapers. To go off on a tangent here, newspapers have for decades now been trimming the width of their pages so they can save paper without sacrificing any of the column inches on a page that they sell to advertisers. That makes sense from a business standpoint, but we’ve ended up with newspapers that are long and narrow strips that eroded the widescreen visual impact broadsheets once had. Throw in the kind of formulaic designs conservative corporations prefer (rail down the left, five stories to a cover, and modular, modular, modular) and there’s almost nothing visually appealing left about newspapers.

This applies especially to newspapers’ comics sections, with strips running increasingly small and bland — mostly because editors don’t want to (or have) much time to spend on perennials like the comics page. I worked at many newspapers, and I don’t think the comics were read in advance by any editor in most instances — the strips were sent straight to the composing room and shot almost always without even a copy editor looking at them. This, more than anything, I think, accounts for the decline of the American newspaper comic strip.

I think now — too late, surely — that newspapers should have ditched the pulpy paper for something where the ink doesn’t rub off on your fingers, switch to a tabloid-style format, put color on EVERY page instead of just a handful, and charge more for it. Then you start specializing, turning your sports section into its own publication 3-4 days a week, same with your entertainment and business sections — make them vibrant, good looking publications of their own and compete with magazines and the net by at least producing an object that looks like it belongs in at least the latter half of the 21st century.

All of which is my way of saying that Wednesday Comics is really great and the only complaint I have is the paper quality — something I hope they can correct in the eventual collection.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Anti-Siegel Superman "fans'" arguments are inaccurate and lame

After my last post, I expected to get some comments. But I didn’t expect them to be quite as lame as this one I got from someone named “Media Monkey Ninja.”:
I agree, the heirs are going to be the "REAL" death of The Mam of Steel. I'm not a huge Superman fan (I'm more of a Batman kinda guy), but The Boyscout is an American icon. If there is no Superman, what character is going to uphold Truth, Justice, and the American way. I'd hate to see this happen to any copyrighted character that is this loved by millions. I say if you work for a company and you create copyrighted material while working at that company. The copyrighted material should be owned by the company. If someone whats to have complete copyright ownership, they should create the character solely by themselves while working solely for themselves. That way no company can lay claim to your copyrighted material.
And this is exactly what I was arguing against — fans whose instincts are completely counter-intuitive to the facts of the case (assuming they know the facts, which this poster does not).

So let’s start from the top and try to explain this to anyone who may be interested in actually understanding what’s going on and have some interest in actually learning something. It’s distressing to get such comments, because I generally think comics fans are smart people. And I’m not saying this because “Mr. Ninja” disagrees with me — but if there’s a good moral and legal case for Warner Bros. to not share proceeds from Superman with the Siegels under the current law, I have yet to hear it. And, “DC may stop publishing the Superman comics I so love” does not qualify because no one with any real knowledge of this case or authority at Warner Bros. or DC has even suggested that would happen.

But let’s get into the details of why this kind of this panicky, selfish, pro-corporate position put forth by “Mr. Ninja” is complete bullshit.

First, let’s review copyright law. The United States Constitution states in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8:
The Congress shall have Power [. . .] 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.
What’s key is the “limited Times” element, which has constantly been extended from the original 14-year term with a single 14-year renewal to the current law which establishes copyright for corporate works made for hire at 95 years and individual copyrights at 70 years after the life of the author.

All works eventually fall into the public domain. This is important to society and to education — the works of Shakespeare are public domain more than 400 years after his death. The benefit to society of his work being freely accessible outweighs the interest of whatever distant descendant (and he has none) may have in milking it for all its worth. Most works in the public domain are not well-known, and being free increases the likelihood that they will be used, republished and generally benefit our society.

At the time of the creation of Superman in the mid-1930s, the law stipulated a term of 28 years for copyright that could be renewed for an additional 28 years. Copyright was bestowed automatically upon the creators, which applies directly to Siegel and Shuster. As teens, they created the character of Superman and his world, and spent years trying to get it published before Detective Comics Inc. bought the material to appear in Action Comics #1. By paying Siegel and Shuster the grad total of $10 a page — $130 total for 13 pages of art and story — DC acquired all rights to the material therein. That was a transfer of copyright, from Siegel and Shuster, to Detective Comics Inc., which is distinct from a work made for hire, in which a company hires people to create material for it. Most Golden Age and Silver Age comics qualify as work made for hire. Stan Lee was employed as editor of Timely/Atlas/Marvel when he came up with the typed plot for Fantastic Four #1 and hired Jack Kirby on a freelance basis to draw it. That’s a quintessential example of work for hire.

The original deal between Siegel and Shuster was iron-clad and held up more than once in court — in DC’s favor. The pair tried to reclaim the copyright to the character in the 1940s and were rebuffed by the courts. They tried in the mid-1960s to argue that they had the first right of renewal of copyright, only to have the courts rule that that right had been sold along with all the others in the original transaction. Under that deal, the Superman material in Action Comics #1 would have entered the public domain in 1994 — more than 15 years ago, for the math impaired among you. Each subsequent issue of Action Comics and Superman would have lost its copyright over time and we’d now have all the Superman material from Action #1 through 1953 in the public domain.

But that deal — which I think is quite reasonable and should remain the standard term for copyright — was no good for the corporations that held copyrights to the likes of not just Superman, but Popeye, Mickey Mouse, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and countless others. So, enter the copyright act of 1976, which was the most significant revision to the copyright law in the nation’s history. It not only extended copyright terms, but in a rare show of justice adjusted the law to compensate folks who had sold copyrights that, due to the extension, were now more valuable than they were when originally sold. So to make up for the fact that companies like Disney and DC Comics now had decades more to exploit characters they had acquired, a complicated clause was put in that allowed for the original copyright owners to possibly benefit from the longer terms by terminating the transfer of copyright.

So now comes a common complaint from the anti-Siegelites: If they signed over the rights, they signed over the rights and have to live with that mistake no matter what. But this ignores not only what I stated above about the change in the copyright law, but also the entire area of contract law. No matter what kind of contract you sign, it’s subject to copyright law, i.e., you can’t make a contract that contradicts the law. So the revisions to the copyright law that allow that allowed DC to keep the Superman contract beyond the original term, also allow the Siegels to terminate the original transfer. Still, some seem to think that’s unfair — to DC. But anyone who’s ever signed a contract, be it a lease or rental agreement or deal to buy a house or whatever, will come across a clause that states, essentially, that should any clause in a contract be found illegal that the legal elements will still apply. That should indicate to the vast majority of people that contracts are subject to law. You can’t, for example, contract someone to commit an illegal act and then sue them for breach of contract. The contact, despite the fact that both sides agree to it, is not a legal contract.

So what does “Mr. Ninja” mean when he calls Superman an American icon, and says that he hates to see this happen to any copyrighted character beloved by millions? His position, whether he means it or not, is that the corporate right to copyright is absolute and should never be questioned. Which not only runs counter to the Constitution and copyright law, but also the very truth and justice he says the Superman character stands for. Justice, in essence, is another word for fairness — and who can say it’s fair for DC Comics to have exploited the character of Superman for immense profit for more than 70 years, 15 years beyond the original copyright terms, and then not have to honor a part of the law that says the Siegels as the heirs of the original creator deserve to share in those profits?

What’s missing, of course, is the American way, which apparently is to bow to corporate interests at every opportunity and to support DC’s decades-long piss poor treatment of the Siegels, which included all kinds of demeaning treatment, blacklisting and persistent efforts to deny any legal claim they have to the millions — if not billions — of dollars DC has earned from the character in the past seven decades.

The other point “Mr. Ninja” brings up is that if you want control of your copyright, you shouldn’t create it for a company. Ignoring the factual error — Siegel and Shuster created Superman long before they took it to DC and never created it “for” the company or at its behest — the technology of publishing and the business realities of distribution at the time made it near impossible for a pair of newcomers like Siegel and Shuster to publish their idea without going to a comic book publisher or comic strip syndicate. No comic book publisher of the era let any creator keep the rights. And only the most powerful or business-savvy of the comic-strip artists — like Milton Caniff in comic strips or Will Eisner, who kept the rights to The Spirit comic book inserted in newspapers at least in part because he was a good business man and wasn’t the first to demand and get it — were able to retain their copyrights. Siegel and Shuster, proposing an outlandish idea that was completely untested, had no such leverage.

Which brings us to another point, which is that you can’t determine the value of the copyright to an intellectual property before it hits the marketplace. Publishers have always liked to play the odds and use the failure of the bulk of their ideas to justify stealing the ones that do work. But that’s hardly fair and it’s even arguably bad business. Would the Harry Potter books have become the sensation they are now if the publisher had treated J.K. Rowling — now one of the richest women in the United Kingdom, if not the world — even half as badly as DC treated Siegel and Shuster? They certainly would not be as creatively rewarding for the millions of fans who believed in them to preorder and line up to buy each book in the series the moment it was released. But that's not how corporations and the small minds that run them think.

At its core, what trolls like “Mr. Ninja” seem to be most afraid of is change. That the victory the Siegels have already won will somehow change or even end the parade of Superman material from DC Comics and Warner Bros. they have come to love in an almost fetishistic sort of way. Which is the most embarrassing part — because Superman remains a vital and extremely viable commercial property. That DC and Warner Bros. would balk so thoroughly at having to share their profits with the heirs of the creators after more than seven decades of exclusive and extremely profitable exploitation is the height of corporate greed. It’s also eminently excusable, justifiable and even admirable in most circles of American society and, apparently, even among fans for whom the worship of the character through the purchase of stuff is more important than the truth and justice they believe the object of their affection represents

Friday, July 10, 2009

Fans' anti-Siegel position in Superman case is frustrating

I’ve had more than my share of frustrating moments this week — Why, yes! I have been dealing with the health care industry. How did you guess? — nothing upset me quite as much as getting a message from the DC Comics Movies Group on Facebook that included the following bit of blood-boiling idiocy:
In saddening news, if the heirs of Siegel and Shuster have their way Superman will die in 2013 and DC will cease publication of all related Superman comics. Talk about punch to the collective American nutsuck, right?
I instantly sent a message back to the moderator, Allynd Dudnikov, explaining his claim was factually challenged in the extreme and that I was leaving the group immediately because of it.

What he’s talking about is the most-recent development in the ongoing legal proceeding between the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and DC Comics, which produced a minor victory for the publisher and its parent company the other day. But I continue to be amazed at the number of people who profess to be fans of Superman in particular and comic book superheroes in general who propagate this idiotic notion that Warner Bros. and DC Comics are somehow the injured party in this dispute and that the Siegels are opportunistic and greedy people out to deprive the fans of the character they’ve come to know and love.

I’ve written about this before and there are plenty of great sites on the web that recount the facts and provide the original documents (which are fascinating reading and highly recommended.)

I'm not an attorney, but what I undstand from following all is this is that the court decided so far is that his heirs have successfully terminated effective in spring 1999 the transfer of Jerry Siegel’s half of the copyright to the Superman story published in Action Comics #1. That means DC owes the Siegels a share to be determined at trial of the money the character earned in the time since the copyright transfer was reclaimed. Similarly, the estate of Joe Shuster has an opportunity to reclaim the other half of the Action #1 copyright in 2013. Should Shuster’s estate succeed, then DC will lose the complete copyright to that original story and will have to license the rights to it back from the creators to use the elements it introduced or to reprint that story.

This most recent ruling states that when the trial to determine the amount of money owed to the Siegels, it will include only the profits earned by DC Comics, and not of Warner Bros. as a whole. The Siegels had argued that the companies are one and the same — a claim the judge rejected. That means the Siegels’ share will come out of a smaller pie, but it’s still coming.

But it doesn’t mean the end of Superman as he exists today — or will exist tomorrow. While Action #1 introduces some of the most significant elements in the Superman mythos — the orphan sent to Earth from outer space, the alter ego of newspaper reporter Clark Kent, the love interest in Lois Lane, the basic costume and powers such as strength, invulnerability and leaping tall buildings — everything that came after Action #1 is solidly work-for-hire owned lock, stock and barrel by DC Comics for a full 95 years.

And I can’t see it making sense for DC or Warner Bros. to stop putting Superman content out there because they have to pay a percentage of the character’s profits to the Siegels. A percentage of the profits is better than no profits. And neither Warner Bros. nor DC is going to go out of business because the courts say they have to pony up to the Siegels. As Harlan Ellison, a wise and smart man — as well as a terrific writer — said about one time the studio asked him to work without pay: “What is Warner Brothers, out with an eye patch and a tin cup, begging for money?”

As I’ve said before, what’s really shameful in all of this is that this conflict was, in my opinion, unnecessary. Warner Bros. got off to a good start in the mid-1970s by restoring Siegel and Shuster’s credit and establishing an annual stipend. Had they gone a bit further and given them a sum that would have been small for so large a conglomerate but lavish for Siegel and Shuster’s final years. Even just making a big deal of the pair — sending them to festivals, comics shows, putting them on TV every now and again — I think would have done a lot more to put this dispute to rest than taking a hard position that may make good legal and business sense but is morally and ethically bankrupt.

Publishers’ shabby treatment of the folks who create and give life to the comic books we love is truly the great shame of the industry. And it’s not just folks from the past, like Siegel and Shuster, Jack Kirby or Alan Moore who are the sole victims. Ask Hero by Night creator DJ Coffman how work for hire worked out for him at Platinum Studios. And as it becomes harder and harder to make money solely by publishing comics, many of the gains made in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s by folks like Dave Sim, Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, the Image boys and Neil Gaiman have been pushed back by publishers who need those licensing and movie option dollars to stay in business. A quick look at the indicias and copyright notices on publishers that once used their creator-friendly deals as a selling point with fans will reveal a lot of shared copyrights — and I’ll give you one guess which party has the majority share. I expect this to get worse as more and more people create content — comics and not — with no sense of the lessons learned by the likes of Siegel and Shuster and have to learn this unnecessary lesson all over again.

I have had creators tell me revised contract terms have prompted them to stop working with publishers they had long worked with and take their work to houses like Image, which along with Fantagraphics and one or two other independent publishers, are perhaps the last bastions of creator ownership in comics.

What amazes me is that so many people buy the line that Warner Bros. and DC are entitled to make as much as they can off of Superman without any kind of legal or moral obligation to the Siegels of the world. It’s some strange kind of American corporatist thinking that gives all the power and rewards to the corporate executives who exploit a work and cuts out completely the creative people elements that give a character and a story life in the first place. (Again, I’ve been dealing with the health-care industry in a relatively very minor way this past week. It’s clear and logical to me that if someone is in the position of benefiting themselves, the company they work for or their investors by denying care, then making such a decision even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is inevitable. And there are such people making that very decision at every level of the American health care system. No wonder the industry has become a black hole for money and morals.)

Given the United States is a country that, particularly of late, has sadly been more pro-business than pro-people, I’m not surprised to see the attorneys and execs for Warner Bros. acting this way. But I wish the fans of Superman, who represents an ideal of fairness above all else, were better represented in the online chatter than by this kind of remark, which exudes above all else a selfishness and short-sightedness that the Man of Steel, were he real, would hardly approve of.