The Superhero Movie Guilt Calculator — How Badly Did the Comics Industry Screw the Creators Behind 2012’s Superhero Blockbusters?

02.14.12 6 years ago 14 Comments

There’s been a lot of chatter amongst comics fans about creator’s rights lately. It’s never not a topic of conversation, but the sad story of Gary Friedrich being destitute and robbed of his creator credit just as a multi-million dollar Ghost Rider movie is about to hit theatres has really set tongues to wagging.
While Friedrich’s story may be the most urgent and newsworthy, what about the many other creators behind this year’s crop of superhero movies? How thoroughly have they been put through the comic industry meat grinder? Just how bad should you feel as you sit down to watch The Avengers or Dark Knight Rises?
Well, I’ve taken the guess-work out of feeling guilty — below is a comprehensive list of the men who created the characters which will be appearing in this years comic book blockbusters. Each one has been given a “screwed” rating between one and four, with a one being “eh, they’re not billionaires, but they made out alright” and a four being “royally, tragically screwed”.

Gary Friedrich

Dan already detailed this sad story, but Gary Friedrich, the guy who co-wrote the first Ghost Rider story, is more or less destitute, and after losing a lawsuit to Marvel is being forced to pay the company $17,000. Oh, and also he has to stop saying he co-created Ghost Rider (yes, somehow he lost so bad he’s under court order to deny reality). The guy’s only real source of income is going to conventions as the creator of Ghost Rider and signing stuff, and now he’s not allowed to do that anymore. What Marvel’s doing is the equivalent of burning down somebody’s store and then asking for protection money. No wonder the company’s been in financial trouble so many times over the years.
Roy Thomas

Roy Thomas was the original fanboy made good, getting his first job at Marvel after writing Stan Lee a letter telling him how great he thought the company was. Eventually Thomas would rise to the rank of editor-in-chief and contribute to the creation of a number of Marvel characters including Man-Thing, Yellowjacket, Ms. Marvel and the reason he’s included in this article, Ghost Rider.
Oh, and he pretty much saved the X-Men from being cancelled and forgotten in the 70s, which turned out nicely for Marvel a few years down the line. Hell, Marvel should transfer a billion into Thomas’ bank account for reviving the X-Men alone, but compared to others on this list Roy Thomas doesn’t have too much to complain about. He had long, well-paid stints at both Marvel and DC, and is generally one of the most respected guys in the business. I mean, I’m pretty sure any career that includes co-creating a character named Man-Thing has to be considered a pretty major success.
Mike Ploog

A regular artist on Marvel’s horror comics, Mike Ploog drew the first Ghost Rider story. In the late 70s Ploog and a number of other creators told Marvel to stuff their work-for-hire contracts, and were subsequently canned by the company. Work-for-hire contracts essentially state that any work done by a creator on a freelance basis is entirely owned by the publisher. They’re the basis of most of the sad stories you’ll hear in this article, so good on Mike Ploog for putting his through the shredder.
Ploog understandably decided to leave the comics industry behind for most of the 80s, instead working as a designer for movies and animation. Ploog returned to comics in 2004 with the creator owned CrossGen series Abadazad, which he then sold to Disney for a fairly generous sum. So one Ghost Rider creator gets paid by Disney, while another one has his life ruined by them. Good one universe, good one.
Stan Lee

Okay, do I really need to explain who Stan Lee is? Well, okay. Stan the Man revolutionized comic book writing and co-created the majority of the Marvel’s most important characters. He was editor-in-chief, publisher and eventually president of Marvel, and these positions paid pretty well. Stan was buying mansions in the early 80s back when Marvel was still just a comic book company and not a Disney-owned collection of multimedia franchises worth billions of dollars.
Over the past few decades Lee has settled comfortably into his role as a beloved, yet slightly embarrassing ambassador for the comics industry. He shows up in cameo roles in all the Marvel movies, slaps his name on crap like Stripperella and Who Wants to Be a Superhero? and cashes his checks. Sure, it’s not the most dignified existence, and if he owned the rights to all the stuff he’s created he’d be a multi-billionaire, but the guy seems to be happy.
Jack Kirby

Here’s a short list of stuff Jack Kirby either created or co-created — Captain America, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, The Hulk, Thor, The Newsboy Legion, The New Gods, Mister Miracle and the entire concept of romance comics. Also Devil Dinosaur. Oh, Devil Dinosaur.
Kirby didn’t own the rights to any of his most famous creations, but he wasn’t to be trifled with either. Kirby was one of the best-paid creators in comics for most of his career, and if he felt like he wasn’t being treated properly, he had no problem dropping his pencil and marching over to the competition. In the late 70s he was one of the first to reject work-for-hire contracts, and in the 80s was a pioneer in the field of creator-owned comics.
Near the end of his life Kirby entered a legal battle with Marvel — not over money, but to have the over 11,000 pages he drew for the company returned to him. After his death Kirby’s estate sued Marvel in an attempt regain control of his creations. Marvel continues to battle the Kirby estate on both fronts.
If the world was truly a just place, Jack Kirby would have been a billionaire and a household name, but hey, he made a good living on his own terms, earned the near-universal respect of his peers and helped lay the groundwork for today’s more equitable treatment of comics creators. In our real, not exactly just world, that’s not bad at all.
Joe Simon

Joe Simon was Jack Kirby’s creative partner throughout the 40s and 50s, and you know all that stuff I said about not trifling with Kirby? Well it goes double for Simon. A lot of the good deals Kirby got early on could be attributed to Simon. Kirby may have been the “King”, but Simon was the king of not getting f–ked with, and unlike Kirby he wisely never sold off his rights to Captain America.
Simon sued Marvel twice over Captain America, in 1969 and again in 1999, and both times Marvel settled out of court. What Simon got out of these deals is a secret, but word is he got a pretty nice chunk of change in ’69 and partial rights to the character in ’99. So yes, creators can go up against the big comic companies and win — at least they can if they’re Joe Simon.
Don Heck

Don Heck, one of Marvel’s most prolific artists during the 60s and early-70s, was pretty darn good — he just wasn’t quite Kirby and Ditko good, which lead to a lot of undue criticism. Of course that’s kind of like saying George Harrison was trash because he didn’t write as many good Beatles songs as John and Paul, but that didn’t stop people from making the unfair comparisons.
Heck co-created Iron Man, and pencilled a long run on The Avengers, during which he co-created a number of characters such as Hawkeye and Black Widow. In the mid-70s Heck jumped to DC and mainly drew female characters like Batgirl and Wonder Woman for the rest of his career before retiring in the mid-80s. His work on Wonder Woman was more well received than his stuff at Marvel, and by the time of his retirement the stigma of being a “hack” artist had largely evaporated.
Heck died in 1995, and probably never imagined well-liked, but at the time hardly mainstream, characters like Hawkeye and Black Widow would one day be appearing in star-studded blockbuster movies. Maybe that’s for the best — unlike many of his colleagues Heck never lived to be screwed out of a piece of the superhero movie pie.
Stan Lee

Already covered Stan.
Steve Ditko
Steve Ditko — hell of an artist, hell of a weird guy. Co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, Ditko had an incredibly unique art style. In fact, his distinctive style was so integral to the books he worked on for Marvel in the 60s, he was given co-plotting credits alongside Stan Lee — something even the great Jack Kirby didn’t get.
Ditko was also kind of a jerk — a hard-line conservative and follower of Ayn Rand’s philosophy-for-assholes Objectivism. Predictably the cranky Ditko eventually had a falling out with liberal Stan Lee, and left Marvel. For a while Ditko busied himself with creator-owned characters like Mr. A, a faceless superhero designed to embody the principles of Objectivism.
Shockingly Mr. A didn’t end up a rousing success, so to keep the bills paid, Ditko went to DC where he created a series of new second-string heroes like The Creeper and Hawk and Dove. Ditko continued to work through the 80s and well into the 90s, mostly doing cheap hackwork, illustrating everything from Transformers coloring books to Power Rangers comics.
Ditko of course, doesn’t own any of the rights to his most popular characters. Whether that bothers him is unknown since the guy has refused to do an interview for over 40-years. Ditko’s still alive, kicking and keeping to his cranky ways, quietly releasing a series of right-wing essays, political cartoons and short comics featuring his character Mr. A and others.
Bill Finger

To this day Bill Finger still isn’t credited as the co-creator of Batman, even though nobody, including officially credited creator Bob Kane, has contributed more to the character.
Although Finger never received credit, he was the main Bat-writer from the character’s first appearance in 1939 all the way into the mid-60s. Batman’s origin story, his legendary detective skills, many specifics of the Bat-costume, Gotham City, Robin, the Batcave, the Batmobile and most of Batman’s most memorable villains — all this stuff primarily sprung from the mind of Bill Finger.
Despite being the main mind behind the best comic book hero of all time (come on, you know it’s true) Bill Finger died in 1974, penniless, in poor-health and largely forgotten. Over the past decade or so there’s been a growing movement to get Bill Finger the recognition he deserves, but so far we’ve yet to see “co-created by Bill Finger” on a single Batman comic or movie, despite the fact nearly everyone in the comic book industry accepts it as a basic fact.
Bob Kane
No Screws for you Bob.
So, why does DC refuse to give Bill Finger the credit he deserves? In this rare case the fault doesn’t lie with the large multinational corporation that owns Batman, but with his co-creator Bob Kane.
Early on, when Batman was still little more than a name and a vague concept, Kane struck a deal, selling the rights to the character in return for a couple demands — first, Kane would be the only person credited on all Batman comics. As far as readers knew, Kane was the sole creator, writer and artist of every Bat-book produced. Second, he arranged to have all Batman comics produced at his own private studio.
It was a clever scheme that worked for decades — Kane received all the credit, while a team of ghostwriters and artists did all the actual work. Aside from drawing a few early issues, most of the work attributed to Kane was written and drawn by others. Eventually in the late 60s Kane’s grip on the series would loosen and DC would start producing Batman comics themselves. Meanwhile, Kane continued to profit from his bogus “sole creator of Batman” title, creating cartoon characters and selling comic pages in art galleries. Of course these cartoon characters and comic pages were almost certainly not drawn by him.
So yeah, Bob Kane didn’t get a cut of the billions of Batman has brought in over the years, but don’t waste your tears on him. Ol’ Bob was more of a screwer than a screwee.
Frank Miller
You either Frank.
If anyone exemplifies how much better things are for comics creators today, it’s Frank Miller. The guy owns the full rights to most of his creations such as Sin City and 300, and has even been allowed to participate deeply in the creative process when his comics have been adapted into movies.
If Frank Miller had got into the industry only a decade earlier, he’d probably be another Steve Ditko — grumbling away in isolation as he draws Power Rangers comics. Instead he’s a wealthy man who’s free to do whatever he wants, no matter how nutty. Creator-owned comics — making the world a better place for obnoxious cranks.

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