Remix, Rinse, Repeat!

Posted by Dan Friday, July 08, 2005
Don Simpson, the singular talent behind the non-pariel Megaton Man, and the outstanding, Bizarre Heroes comics, has his own blog here on Blogger. Recently, he wrote an essay reviling the paper tiger state of creators' rights, currently running rampant through the comic book industry, and calling the fans out for perpetuating a vicious buying cycle of pre-digested, regurgitated crap. It's a great essay by one of the most enduring independent creators in the industry, and it's definitely worth a read, if for no other reason than to see the bitter resolve that can fester from a lifetime spent railing against the large comics publishing houses.

If you are going to write for comics today, there are three publishers that make up the majority of the market. From a purely economic standard, everything else is small change. The big three: Marvel, D.C., and Image, have a bad set of business practices that have been beaten into creators since the beginning of the art form, called work for hire. A work made for hire is any work that becomes the property of the employer when it is specially ordered or commissioned from one or more of their employees. It's generally used to simplify copyright law concerning technical manuals, user guides, and things that are compiled by a group, like computer programs. The problem is that in the case of comic books, they really don't fall into the group created category. They are in fact cut whole cloth from the imaginations of two creators, a writer, and an artist.

Many of the original writers and artists who created the works we all know and love today were never told they were making work for hire product. They were, for the most part, depression era teenagers that were duped by the publishers into signing their creations away for pennies per page, sometimes not even receiving credit for what they had created. Many of the artists were never given back their original artwork, and nobody but the company ever made any money from licensing or reprints.

Today, creators have made some inroads against the work for hire mentality, largely due to the efforts of stalwart creators like Don Simpson. Some creators are now paid a reprint royalty, and all of the big three publishers have created umbrella imprints with provisions for creator owned properties. However, the damage was done a long time ago. Superman is wholly owned by AOL/Time Warner, and its subsidiary D.C. Comics, not Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the two men who created him. Spider-Man is owned by Marvel Comics Inc., not by his creators, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Stan Lee recently won a court case against Marvel Comics that entitled him to an undisclosed slice of the multi-million dollar Spider-Man franchise pie. Good on ya' Stan, but too little to late Marvel. Still and all, Marvel's settlement with Stan was a good bit of P.R. spin for a company that used to print its work for hire contracts on the back of its payroll checks.

Today, any writer or artist who wants to play with icons like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Captain America, or the X-Men will find himself generating revenue for the corporation, while the pockets of the original creators remain empty. Work made for hire that allows corporations the ownership of what is clearly the intellectual property of these creators is underhanded at best, and downright criminal at its worst.

The side effect of having corporate control over the most popular and instantly recognizable comic book heroes is that it has bred a culture of re-interpretation, and recycling. If the creators of an intellectual property like The Fantastic Four actually live long enough, they will get to see their ideas periodically redesigned by different artists, and re-interpreted by different writers. For comic books, this actually works, to a point. Just like with an original work, sometimes creative teams succeed, and sometimes they don't.

This brings me back around to Don Simpson's essay, Counterfeit Comics. In it, he proposes the thesis that, "any [comic] title produced by anyone other than the strip's original creator is counterfeit. "He goes on further to state that, "Fans have actually been conditioned to be intrigued by the announcement of new creative line-ups, new storyline tangents, renumbered series, etc."My problem with this isn't necessarily the message. However, it's more than a little disingenuous to single out the comic book industry and comics fandom as a whole for this, especially when his initial analogy is the music industry, which is just as guilty as the comic book publishers of stepping all over creator's rights.

The most galling thing about this essay, though, is that Simpson holds up music fans as a savvier buying public. He continues, "...the music industry (who occasionally experiments with things like The New Monkees and Broadway shows of old rock albums, but by an (sic.) large respects the integrity of their product and the intelligence of consumers.)"

This is the industry that created the terms remix and music sampling. The same industry that constantly buries the names of its songwriters in tiny, often hard to read liner notes, and promotes name branding and packaging above talent. This industry regularly and quite successfully dupes its audience into believing that talentless drudges like Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, and Vanilla Ice are artists, worthy of their money and attention. This industry regularly allows the re-interpretation and recycling of music in the form of the cover song.

Even Simpson's initial analogy doesn't hold water. The Beatles had ten albums under their fab belts before they finally released one that didn't contain music written by someone other than John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Cover tunes are a regurgitated staple to music fans. Case in point, The Ataris. This band has been around since the early 90s, but they didn't actually gain any sort of popular acceptance until they covered Don Henley's ode to mid 80s melancholia, Boys of Summer. The music industry is rife with this type of regurgitation. Countless bands made it by recycling old standbys.

Songwriters are as abused by the work for hire system as comics writers and artists, and the music buying public is more than willing to shell out good money after bad for prefabricated, unoriginal crap. I'm not saying comics fans are much better. After all, we did make superstars out of Joe Staton, Carmine Infantino, and Rob Liefeld, not to mention the incomprehensible love affair with Chris Clairmont.

However, having said all that, I will submit that re-interpretation is not always a bad thing. Henry Rollins and Bad Brains cover of The MC5's Kick Out The Jams, rocks way beyond the reach of the original. Concrete Blonde's moody, black within black version of Wave of Mutilation is far superior to the original Pixies tune (for me, that's blasphemy), and if you've never heard Shakira's cover of Back in Black or No Doubt's SKAed up version of Come on Eileen, you're really missing out.

My point here is that, to dismiss any re-interpretation or re-working as invalid because it wasn't done by the original creators is just ludicrous, especially with comics. This statement dismisses Alan Moore and Rick Veitch's Swamp Thing, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, not to mention Moore and Gaiman's remake of Miracleman. It invalidates large portions of the careers of Frank Miller, Warren Ellis, Steven Grant, Kurt Busiek, George Perez, Jim Lee, Neil Adams, and Alex Ross.

The message is sound. Creators should strive for originality in everything they do, but they should also feel free to build on what other creators have left behind. I'll stop short of quoting Ecclesiastes here. Suffice it to say that there are very few original ideas left in this world. The act of creation is tantamount to beating dead men at their own game. It's terribly naive to think that one mass market is any more perceptive than another. The buying public is the buying public, no matter what, and big corporations will always go out of their way to leech away the buyers' money. The trick is cutting through the dross to get to the good stuff. Originality is in the eye of the beholder.

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