Comic Book Ethics

If, like me, you’re a fan of Golden and Silver Age comics then this is a great time to be alive… maybe.

There are now more reprints available than ever before.  Material has been gathered up from the vaults of comic history, cleaned, brightened up and reprinted on quality glossy paper in beautiful hardcovers and paperbacks.  This, my friends, is nothing short of a miracle.

You see, back when I was a youth (cue harp music and wavy visuals), you couldn’t even find this material.  Most of it you only heard about in hushed whispers from older collectors or written about in the few forbidden tomes that discussed comic book history.  One of the best of these was Jim Steranko’s invaluable The Steranko History of Comics which came in two oversized paperback like books.  I learned a lot about the comics that had been published in the 40s and 50s from those two volumes.  But I couldn’t read those comics!!!  They weren’t reprinted anywhere.  The only way you could read them was if you bought old back issues which, during the early 1970s, were still too expensive for an 8 year old me.  (Not that you had much choice as there were not very many dealers back then and comic conventions were a rare and mysterious breed that never took place anywhere near me.)  I remember gazing lustily through the small catalogs from dealers like Robert Bell and Howard Rogofsky and making up endless lists of comics I wanted to order but had no money to buy.

I knew about EC comics probably a decade before I ever had a chance to actually read one.  I knew who Fawcett’s Captain Marvel was but never read any of his stories until DC started reprinting them in their SHAZAM! 100 PAGE SUPER SPECTACULAR issues.  The original stories starring the Justice Society were an impossible dream.  Occasionally, a reprint or two would slip through particularly in an Annual or a Giant-Size comic as filler but there was little else.  If you were lucky, you had copies of BATMAN: FROM THE 30s TO THE 70s or SUPERMAN: FROM THE 30s TO THE 70s which were hardcover collections of stories from every decade.  (If you were REALLY lucky, you had the SHAZAM! FROM THE 30S TO THE 70S which I never saw as a kid or I would’ve begged my parents mercilessly for it.)

What was worse was the tease that those occasional reprints provided.  Because of them, you knew that there were more stories out there, more unseen tales and, even worse, they were keeping them from you!

Well, we have to remember that the comic publishers in those days placed very little stock in their decades long history.  Reprints were just cheap filler that they would throw in occasionally but certainly nothing anyone would every pay good money for. These were just old comics books, after all.  They’d never be worth anything.

We know differently now.

Today, reprints are a large part of the catalog for many comic publishers.  Both DC and Marvel have reprinted vast selections of their old material in shiny, glossy hardcovers (usually at least $50 a pop).  You can now read many issues of ALL-STAR COMICS along with collections of DR. FATE’s adventures or STARMAN’s or SANDMAN’s or many, many more.  Marvel’s reprinted many of their Golden Age material as well along with some of the 1950s ‘superhero revivals’ that gave us a commie-hating Captain America.  For an old Marvel Monster Maniac like myself, they’ve even reprinted a lot of their old horror comics from the 50s with tons of art by Kirby and Ditko.

Even smaller publishers have gotten into the act.  There are numerous reprints of Ditko material from Charlton and, recently, Warren.  EC Comics were reprinted yet again with introductions by many notable horror celebrities.  Even the Heap from Hillman has been reprinted.

It is truly an age of plenty for those of us who so dearly love this artform and have longed, hungered to read these stories.

And yet… and yet…

There is something amiss.  The emperor, it seems, wears no clothes.

I have probably about three bookcases full of books that are either reprints of comics or histories of comics or artists biographies or whatever I can find.  It gave me no small amount of pleasure to look at these bookcases, bulging with greatness, and know that, at any time I please, I could read these stories.

But there’s been a groundswell growing lately and it’s such a one that makes it hard for me to look at those swollen bookcases.  In some cases, I feel shame.

Not because the books are not great (they are!) or that the stories are any less amazing and exciting and delightful.  It’s because they have come to represent, to me, the endless greed of their publishers.

You see, in the vast majority of these reprints, the creators, the very people who crafted these comics, do not receive one thin dime!  Now, I’m not naive.  You can’t read all the books about the history of comics as I have and remain naive.  I know that the comic book industry is built upon the backs of the labor of these creators.  I know that, by and large, this was “work for hire” which translates into meaning that, once purchased by the publisher from the creator, the publisher owns all rights to the work.  They can do whatever they want with it legally.  Why do you think DC squashed any Captain Marvel comics after they crushed Fawcett in their copyright lawsuit?  They owned the ‘big red cheese’ and could do whatever they liked with him and his universe (which was essentially nothing for decades).  So I know that Marvel, in most cases, doesn’t owe anything legally to creators like Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, John Romita, JIm Starlin, etc or etc.  Just like, legally, DC doesn’t owe Ditko or Kirby (them again?) or many, many others anything when they reprint CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN or CREEPER.  But it still galls me.

Recently, Dark Horse published a new collection of work by Ditko from old Warren mags called CREEPY PRESENTS STEVE DITKO.  This is a collection of Ditko’s work for Warren culled from CREEPY and EERIE.  Now, I’m a big Ditko fan. In fact, after Kirby, Ditko is probably my favorite comic creator.  So naturally I was happy to hear of this book.  But questions were soon raised as to how much, if anything, Ditko himself (who is still alive and creating) would be seeing from this new collection?

The debate raged on Facebook for several days with arguments back and forth as to not only if Ditko was paid but if he should be paid.  To me, it was a non-question.  The man did the artwork for these stories.  His name is a selling point of the collection.  The book would not exist without Ditko.  So pay the man.

Then it was said that “Ditko doesn’t want to be paid” and that others, in the past, have attempted to pay him for reprints and been rebuffed.  This is an argument that is really beside the point.  Ditko should be paid.  Kirby should be paid.  Any creator who has their work reprinted should be paid.  The estate of Archie Goodwin, who wrote all but one of the stories in that CREEPY collection, should be paid.

Then the question of “public domain” comes up.  This is work that, essentially, has fallen out of copyright and can be reprinted by anyone without paying the original creator.  This is a bonanza to many publishers who can just dig up this material, shine it up, package it and sell it without having to pay anything.  It’s still work that someone created.  Legally, nothing is owed but something, out of respect, should be paid.

As Stephen Bissette (a tireless advocate of creators’ rights) has pointed out, everyone else involved gets paid.  The printer gets paid.  The distributor gets paid.  Even the editor and book designer gets paid.  Why shouldn’t the person who actually created the work in the first place get paid?

More recently, some details have come to light.  DC, apparently, pays royalties to the creators based on sales.  This is good but, considering how often I see their Archive editions marked down at stores, I wonder how much that actually translates into at check time?  Marvel, apparently, is a big mess and I guess some people get something sometime and others don’t.  Marvel doesn’t appear to want to talk about their policies very much.  Dark Horse, it seems, tries to send some payments.  (I guess an attempt of some kind was made for Ditko with the aforementioned CREEPY volume but I don’t know if the same happened with Goodwin’s estate.)  But it is very much a publisher by publisher situation.  There is no accepted standard that publishers uphold or are held to.  It is all at their whim.

I am not a professional in the comic book industry.  Nor do I pretend to know the inner workings of comic publishers and who gets paid what, why and when.  I’m just a fan who loves this material but would like to know that the people behind it are getting some of my money too.

In a small way, I have attempted to be a writer in other areas both fiction and non-fiction.  One of the first things I learned as a new writer is what rights I sell when something is published.  Writers can wield an awful lot of power when organized and there are professional groups that protect them like the Screenwriters Guild, the SFWA and others.  These groups help set professional rates for work as well as a fascinating concept called ‘reprints’.  As long as the work is in copyright, the writer is paid whenever it is reprinted.  Why is it that comics has nothing like this?  The pure answer is, because the publishers would never allow it.  Attempts have been made to form unions for comic professionals and they have never worked.  Often, the professionals are their own worst enemy.  This industry is built upon the concept that the publisher owns everything and the creators only get what the publishers deign to give them.

And those who stand up, like Stephen Bissette, and say “this is wrong” are often vilified by other professionals and, worse yet, the very fans who profess such love and devotion to the medium.  Which is why I feel shame when I look at my bookcases full of reprints which, more than likely, benefited only the publisher.

To them I say, act as if Captain America or Superman were the CEO of your company.  And, as Harlan Ellison so eloquently states, “PAY THE WRITER!”


About Sam Gafford
My name is Sam Gafford and I've been doing critical work on William Hope Hodgson for many years. I wrote the article "Writing Backwards: The Novels of William Hope Hodgson" in which I presented evidence that WHH wrote his novels in the reverse order in which they were published. I've recently written an article on Hodgson's confrontation with Houdini and am currently working on a book length study of WHH.

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