Neal Adams and I disagree.
If it were up to me, we’d already be parading sympathetic readers to picket the worldwide opening of Marvel Comics next film?there’d be TV crews on hand in every major city coast-to-coast to witness hoards of outraged, justice-seeking fans holding signs of a man in his wheelchair with the caption What About Dave Cockrum?
If it were up to me, we’d bring the outrageous injustice of Cockrum’s plight to the Uber media?not just the insular comics community, but to the Hollywood trades, the general interest magazines, The Wall Street Journal, the Howard Stern Show; we’d let investors and consumers know precisely how Marvel milks their creatives for all they’re worth, then discards them like a used mop.
If it were up to me, I’d identify for all to see the individuals holding back Dave Cockrum’s royalties?the people who have abandoned this beloved and immensely talented innovator, left him to crawl off and die after all but stealing his character Nightcrawler (to say nothing of the other half-dozen staple characters he created during his tenure at Marvel). If it were up to me, I’d display them in the public square and press their balls flat with a hot iron?
But Neal Adams has another approach.
Indeed, Adams believes that the powers that be at Marvel are wise enough to avert the coming catastrophe of mounting fans who’ve had enough; that Marvel’s higher ups are clever enough to extrapolate the consequences of ignoring the wave of fellow creatives and fans and just plain decent folk who will throw their mounting numbers behind the fallen Dave Cockrum?a man whose decency and gentleness and desire to just lead a simple life have kept him quiet regarding the injustice meted out to him by the company he gave his life blood to.
“Dave should not be going to Marvel for charity at this time,” says Adams, “because Dave has contributed a cornerstone to the building of the X-Men empire. That cornerstone should have his name on it, just like the other cornerstones should have Jack Kirby’s name on them.”
Speaking on behalf of several influential creators including Harlan Ellison, Adams has already made his case?and commitment to this cause?plain to Joe Quesada. “We’ve pointed out that characters Dave created have not only gone on and established an X-Men franchise for Marvel, but have also increased that franchise, contributing to the making of very successful films?a building block to the business Marvel is moving forward with.”
A similar thing happened to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. In 1938, having created a unique comic strip about a strange visitor from another planet, the pair approached National Periodicals. The two men were so anxious to see Superman printed that they signed a piece of paper that basically gave away their rights. But shortly before America’s entrance into World War II, Siegel, the writer, approached his publisher with a new idea: the adventures of the Man of Steel when he was a boy. He suggested the new book be called Superboy. The response he received was less than enthusiastic; the publisher implied that Siegel was making too much of Superman’s importance.
Soon afterwards, Siegel joined the army and went off to fight Hitler. When the war ended, he returned home to discover DC Comics publishing the adventures of Superman as a boy. Incensed, he sought legal help, basing his case on the argument that while they had sold rights to Superman, it was still their character; therefore, they owned Superboy. The court agreed. DC was forced to fork over what seemed like a huge settlement. But Siegel and Shuster had sufficient lawyers to remove half that money from them, and sufficient debts to remove the rest. DC also fired the team upon initiation of the legal action. Adding insult to injury, neither Siegel nor Shuster were able to get work in the industry again. Try as they might to make a living in the industry, they’d only been able to change the course of mighty rivers once.
Worse still, they were advised by new attorneys to wait out certain copyright statutes of limitations before taking another shot at rights to their creation.
“Once again, they had received and followed terrible advice from lawyers,” says Adams. “For decades, they remained silent. When I came into comic books in the 1960s and I asked people about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, people basically shushed me up. I couldn’t understand why the creators of the most popular comic book character that ever existed in the world were somehow gone. You couldn’t even find them.”
But they found Adams. Sometime in the late 1970s, while serving as the president of the Academy of Comic Book Arts, Adams received a letter from Siegel. “I read his letter very carefully,” Adams recalls. “It was about 10 pages?it went over the history of everything that had happened. Jerry was reaching out because the lawyers had told them to wait all this time, and they thought they could now go to court and recapture some rights.” But Siegel and Shuster’s lawyers had done nothing.
Adams was dismayed by the situation. “I looked at this and thought somebody’s got to do something, and that somebody probably can’t be a lawyer because whatever the lawyers did so far had failed. So the question was who would do it? And how would it be done?” But he wasn’t able to identify anyone in the right position to change the lives of these two deserted, old men. So Adams did it himself. “I wasn’t beholden to anybody in the business, so nobody could cut me off at the ankles,” he explains. “If DC Comics never gave me another page of work, it really didn’t matter. I had other work.”
Adams called Siegel and asked if he could defend him in the newspapers. And on television. And on the radio. He planned to amass a groundswell of publicity that would get something for the creators of Superman to live on for the remainder of their lives. Siegel and Shuster agreed. Adams recalls their first phone meeting as heartbreaking. “When Jerry spoke with me, I discovered that he was working as a clerk making $7,500 a year.” Shuster had been out of work for 10 years and was living in his brother’s apartment. “He didn’t have any money,” says Adams. “In the winter, he didn’t even have an overcoat. So I reckoned that if it took me a little while to do something about this it was worth it.”
The battle cost Adams four months of his life. He became a full-time publicist, holding news conferences, placing Siegel and Shuster on TV talk shows and news shows, and securing articles in key publications. Soon enough, help came from compatriots such as The National Cartoonists’ Society, which included Milton Caniff.
Tenacity has its advantages. DC and Warners, who had been talking to Adams on a daily basis, finally made a reasonable offer, which Adams accepted for his boys. “It was a happy day for everyone,” he recalls. “We sat down without the lawyers and had an agreement, and Jerry and Joe even got onto their health plan. It took a lot of work, time, and energy, but it got taken care of.”
But Adams doesn’t view the outcome as a victory over the corporations. “In the end,” he says, “it was good publicity for Warners. The solution benefited everybody. Warners got back the creators of Superman: They were friends now; Warners could take them to openings of movies and they’d have nothing but good things to say.” Recognizing Siegel and Shuster as Superman’s creators?a notion which had initially raised suspicion?was ultimately understood as a positive. “DC and Warners came to understand that sharing a little bit with the creators is a very good concept,” Adams concludes. “Sometimes, this concept has to be forced on people, but once it happens, it turns out to be a terrific thing for everyone.”
So I ask, What About Dave Cockrum?
“Anyone who knows Dave would describe him as kind and humble and courteous,” says Adams. “He is all those things that a good scout should be, so he hasn’t been pushy or demanding of his rights. Because he is not the dog that barks, he’s been overlooked. The situation is made worse by his health being poor. I don’t believe that his poor health should be the turning point, though?it should be the understanding that Dave Cockrum created a portion of the Marvel universe and he deserves some recognition by the company. Dave should be receiving royalties for the characters he created. Other people from Marvel are collecting royalties. These other people created characters after a particular date chosen arbitrarily by Marvel Comics. Fans and professionals will find this very difficult to swallow.”
So Adams will continue to lead the charge for Cockrum. Along with other key creators, he hopes to convince Marvel of the necessity of recognizing Cockrum’s contribution. How long with the process take? “I don’t know the mix yet,” he says. “I can’t tell whether there will be some hard noses who don’t give a damn, or there will be real people over there who will care about human beings and understand that you just can’t treat this guy this way and not treat the other guy that way. Some people may listen to lawyers who say, ‘We don’t have to do anything for anyone who created anything before 1979’ or they may say Dave created all this stuff that we’re making millions off?let’s throw him a bone. I think it’s possible that they might be reasonable. I hope so. I don’t think folks will be real happy if they’re not.”
No. We won’t be. We’re going to picket worldwide openings of Marvel films. We’ll be on national television holding up signs of a man in his wheelchair with the caption What About Dave Cockrum?
And we’ll just be getting started.
Next week: Joe Quesada responds (or does he?)
© 2004, Clifford Meth