Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Is it truly possible to ethically consume Marvel and DC Comics?
There’s a short answer to this question: No.
But I worry that answer alone holds some very negative connotations. It might sound snobbish or holier-than-thou, and that is genuinely not how it’s intended. This question raises a big mess simply in regards to the two publishers you mentioned. Then it evokes problems across the entire comics industry, including some that readers typically believe to occupy the moral high ground. And that all leads to the real question here and it’s a philosophical whopper: Is is possible to ethically consume anything in capitalism?
I’m not going to try and answer that last question here. I’m not a philosopher (although I am actually an economist, surprise!). Far smarter, more accomplished, and thoughtful individuals than me have put a lot more work into answering that quandary than I will in a weekly column on a comic book website. However, I will be brushing past it a lot. Because if nothing else, the ethics of purchasing comic books addresses some of the strongest cases for why capitalism is an inherently amoral, ethics-free system.
Let’s start with some specifics before going broad though, specifically the creators who built Marvel and DC Comics.There’s a temptation to start listing artists who designed characters now worth hundreds of millions of dollars each. People like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Bill Finger, Joe Simon, Don Heck, Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, and, yes, even Stan Lee. Those are just some of the biggest ones. There’s no debating that these creators are behind some of the most recognizable and profitable brands in existence today. There is no Batman without Finger. There is no Superman without Shuster and Siegel. There is barely any Marvel Universe at all without Kirby. They are the originators for these properties.
The specifics of each case are unique. There’s a lot of contention regarding whether Kirby’s creation of characters at Marvel was truly work-for-hire. The case has always been shaky and recently the Kirby family were prepared to go before the Supreme Court to legitimize a copyright termination they filed. It’s complicated stuff and while the legally correct ownership status has never been terribly clear (and likely never will be after Marvel settled with the Kirby estate), it’s hard to defend how the owners of Marvel Comics continued to make billions of dollars while Kirby was allowed to live out the rest of his life with relatively little to no compensation. Rob Liefeld has bragged before that the biggest payday Kirby ever saw was at Image Comics for a book not many people even read. Considering the mountains of money built on concepts like the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, and so many others, that’s a very sad statement.
If you really want to put in the time to researching each of these cases and all of the associated lawsuits, legal deals, interviews, and other details, it becomes clear that there is something generally rotten. You can get hung up in the details, but there are simply too many instances of foul play being called and massive corporations fighting families in court to truly believe everything is hunky dory. The people who built the universes that make Marvel and DC all of their money were never treated fairly in life. This question isn’t about specifically how badly they were treated and it would require a lot more time and space than we have here, but you cannot deny that both publishers are built on the backs of artists whose work was not dealt with or paid for fairly.
This isn’t a problem relegated to the past either. For as much as Image Comics likes to tout its creator-owned bonafides, they’ve been at the center of some of the most interesting cases over the past few decades. Issues of ownership over characters created in Todd McFarlane’s Spawn by guest writer Neil Gaiman (not to mention ownership of Dave Sim’s contributions as well) have drug out in courts for years. Hearsay and broken promises litter the initial promise from Image founders like McFarlane.
Consider the current golden boy at Image Comics: Robert Kirkman. His series The Walking Dead has taken off to be an entertainment juggernaut. Yet co-creator Tony Moore is no longer an owner of the property after a legal battle. He continues to create new series and not share ownership with artists and other collaborators. His newest upcoming series Demonic lists Kirkman as creator although he is neither writing nor drawing the title.
Combine this with Kirkman’s Skybound imprint at Image Comics, where series creators do not own their titles. Those rights are shared by Kirkman and other partners, most likely in the hope of making them successful comics that can be spun into new, successful television shows. It was less than a decade ago that Kirkman made his creator owned manifesto denouncing the business practices at Marvel and DC. Now he functions like a smaller version of them.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
That isn’t to suggest that what Kirkman is doing is illegal. He’s clearly a smart businessman (hell, he’s a business, man) and no one except him, his partners, and the creators involved can be sure of what is going on in the room where it happens. Most creators at Skybound appear to be satisfied with their deals.
This example reflects more than just how Kirkman and Skybound work, or how Marvel and DC built the model that they now follow. It shows how comics functions in America and why it’s so easily corrupted. Like any other business in a capitalist system, power is dictated largely by money and there isn’t a whole lot of that to go around in comics. It stretches the difference between big guys and little guys ever further. It’s what allows for publishers to set the rules and a major success story like Kirkman to quickly join their numbers. When everyone is fighting for a few cents, it allows the people with full billfolds to do what they will.
I imagine other entertainment industries like publication houses and Hollywood wish they functioned more like comics, with studios and publishers owning the bulk of the work and many stars reliant on them to ensure they have work in a year. However, the size of these industries and the larger scale of money helps prevent them from reaching the same lows as comics.
Guilds and unions help to protect sectors of talent, setting rules that studios must follow. There seems to be a greater willingness amongst stars (whether they are writers, actors, directors, or some other sort) to speak out against abuses, at least when it comes to their pay and rights. Individual ethical concerns like those surrounding Roman Polanski and Woody Allen appears more easily ignored. That greater willingness may come from a higher profile and public more willing to listen and respond. All of these factors and more have helped to create a better, but still far from perfect, working scenario. These factors don’t really exist in comics. Very few creators seem to be willing to out themselves and fight publicly against injustices, and far fewer people outside of the industry even care. And so comics remains a place ready for rampant abuse of the creators who actually make what is being consumed.
And that’s not to say there aren’t some good exception. As much as some folks may dislike his work, Mark Millar goes out of his way to share ownership with his creative teams and has helped industry legends like Dave Gibbons and John Romita, Jr. reap a healthy paycheck. There are lots of teams working at Image Comics proper, not the imprints, who are doing creator-owned comics with equitable splits in ownership. There are good things happening, ethical deals, and sales of comics. But they are the exception, not the rule.
It really looks like the comics industry and the people working within it have accepted the status quo as it stands. The most significant struggles of the past decade that have raised awareness on ethical standards have largely been focused on creators who are no longer alive. Legal battles waged by the Kirby, Siegel, and Shuster estates, along with a campaign by Mark Tyler Nobleman to remember Bill Finger have all focused on issues that are at least decades old. This, along with their size, is probably why the discussion of these problems is so focused on Marvel and DC Comics. They set the low bar for everyone else in comics and have built the largest empires on the sorts of broken promises and poor treatment we’re talking about.
Marvel and DC are not unique in their mistreatment of creators; they’ve just committed to it on a scale to which other publishers can only aspire.
The onus for fixing this status quo rests on the comics industry itself too. Creators, employees, and publishers will have to stand up and speak out in order to motivate change. That sounds far easier than it actually is, but change comes from within. The effect we as consumers have on these systems is miniscule compared to what the right creator or editor can accomplish. For both past and current misdeeds, it is publishers that will have to change how they function. They will have to make reparations and alter contracts to right their wrongs.
How we respond is relatively unimportant to the direction of the comics industry. Short of an enormous, organized boycott with a clear and unignorable impact on sales coupled with a well-publicized marketing campaign, nothing we can do will change the system. If someone wants to start a boycott of all Watchmen-related material outside of the original text tomorrow, they can sign me up; I’m already not buying that schlock. But I doubt it will happen in an effective enough manner to alter DC Comics’ current plan to plunder Alan Moore’s psyche until he finally nails himself shut inside of his own home forever.
So how do we respond? Is the only answer to throw up our hands and walk away from comics forever?
I don’t think so, but I also don’t think there’s any one right answer. You can’t look at Marvel or DC or just about any other major American publisher and not understand how their product is built on exploitation or bad behavior to some degree. The real question is what you are okay with supporting.
It’s not a new question either. If you pay attention to where anything you consume comes from, then you are already aware of the enormous number of ethical compromises being a consumer requires. It’s the name of the game really. Drawing the line between what you can and cannot support is up to you. That’s something based on your own ethical code and how you choose to engage with the world.
I’m pretty disgusted by both past and present behavior at DC Comics. Their treatment of the co-creators of Superman has been regularly abhorrent, and I find their approach to the works of Alan Moore absolutely despicable. But here’s the thing, I still picked up All-Star Batman #1 yesterday and loved it. The truth is I probably would have picked it up whether or not Bill Finger’s name was in the credits, but I was certainly happy to see it there. I may choose to pay for some products the company makes while refusing to buy a Watchmen toaster.
Where you choose to draw your line is up to you. It can be a great topic for conversation too, especially between industry nerds like us who genuinely enjoy discussing ethics in regards to comics production. It’s a thing to carefully consider and reconsider, like any other conundrum. But I don’t think you should ever go so far as to prescribe your own purchasing ethics to others. All of us are compromised to some degree and to pass moral judgment on someone for picking up a Batman comic is probably not the best way to start a conversation or affect any form of change. If anyone needs to be judged, it’s the people making all of the money on specious moral foundation.
If there’s one thing I’d like to add to all of this, it’s that the key to understanding and staying in touch with all of this isn’t as simple as boycotting Marvel, DC, or anyone else (although that action is entirely understandable and defensible). I think the key, and the thing we all have to remember, is that these publishers are not pure in any sense of the word. Marvel and DC both have broken far too many promises and fundamentals of ethical business to be purchased ethically. That doesn’t mean we can’t buy their books, but it certainly means we shouldn’t try to paint them as anything greater than what they really are.