Warning: This post contains spoilers for the ending of the Avengers movie. (Though if you've made it two months without hearing about it, you probably don't care.)
So I've made it just past a month of posting every day, and closer to two months with Regular Updates. The post that kicked it off was about Avengers and creators' rights, and those types of posts seem to be my most popular ones. I've gotten E-Mails from a couple of unexpected readers at this point thanking me for my comments, and given that I get a couple of dozen visitors on a good day and most of those are people looking for Final Fantasy 7 mods, I'm a little surprised and flattered by that.
So here's another post about Avengers and creators' rights. Today we're going to talk about Jim Starlin and his creation, Thanos.
Thanos shows up in the end of the Avengers movie. He's only onscreen for a short tease, but it's a big moment, the reveal of the bad guy who set all this in motion and is now positioned as the major antagonist for the sequel.
More than that, actually: Marvel's working on a Guardians of the Galaxy picture, widely speculated to feature Thanos and give him some background before Avengers 2.
The LA Times' Hero Complex interviewed Starlin after Avengers came out, and it included this exchange:
HC: I spoke to Jerry Robinson once and I congratulated him on the billion-dollar success of "The Dark Knight" and he winced like I had poked him in the eye. Of course I instantly realized that watching Alfred, the Joker, Two-Face, etc. fill the coffers of Warner Bros. was like watching a son raised in another house with another family's name. I don't know the arrangements on this film, but has this project and its success been a mixed experience in any way?
JS: Very mixed. It's nice to see my work recognized as being worth something beyond the printed page, and it was very cool seeing Thanos up on the big screen. Joss Whedon and his crew did an excellent job on "The Avengers" movie and I look forward to the sequel, for obvious reasons. But this is the second film that had something I created for Marvel in it -- the Infinity Gauntlet in "Thor" being the other -- and both films I had to pay for my own ticket to see them. Financial compensation to the creators of these characters doesn't appear to be part of the equation. Hopefully Thanos' walk-on in "The Avengers" will give a boost to a number of my own properties that are in various stages of development for film: "Dreadstar," "Breed" and the novel "Thinning the Predators."
Of course, Thanos's appearance in Avengers has ignited some interest in the character; Marvel's got some new series with him coming out, as well as reprinting some old ones. In a recent post at Bleeding Cool, Rich Johnson saw a press release for a "new" Thanos miniseries and misunderstood Marvel's present-tense copy to imply that it was new work from Starlin rather than a reprint.
But it isn't. Starlin quit freelancing for Marvel back around the beginning of '04, citing the standard "irreconcilable differences".
And while I expect Starlin would get royalties if Marvel reprinted work he'd done in the past 25 years or so, these reprints are books he did back in '77, so he's most likely getting nothing for them.
So that's the story so far. Marvel is preparing a big marketing push involving Thanos, which may culminate in a major role in two Hollywood blockbusters. And it's not sharing anything with his creator.
So when Starlin posted a picture of Thanos on his Facebook account the other day, with these words:
This is probably one of the first concept drawings of Thanos I ever did, long before I started working at Marvel. Jack Kirby's Metron is clearly the more dominant influence in this character's look. Not Darkseid. Both D and T started off much smaller than they eventually became. This was one of the drawings I had in my portfolio when I was hired by Marvel. It was later inked by Rich Buckler.
that may sound like just a "Hey, here's a neat historical artifact I found, check it out" post. But Heidi MacDonald reads it as something much bigger, and I'm inclined to agree.
That seemingly-offhand reference to it being in his portfolio before he was hired by Marvel? What that actually says is, "Thanos was not created as work-for-hire, and I have proof."
I've talked, at some length, about the Kirby heirs' legal battle for the rights to Kirby's characters. Marvel v Kirby to date has hinged on Stan Lee's testimony and a lack of hard evidence contradicting it. Stan says everything Jack did at Marvel was work-for-hire and none of his characters were created independently of Marvel's requests, and Jack's heirs have been unable to produce art proving that he created characters on his own time before pitching them to Marvel. (I have opined, more than once, that such evidence was probably in the box or boxes of Kirby art stolen from Marvel in the 1980's before it could be returned to him; there is of course no proof of this but things certainly worked out well for Marvel.) There's no such problem here; Starlin has solid proof that he created Thanos before he went to work for Marvel, and therefore Thanos was not created for-hire.
Now, there are some other questions that arise.
The biggest is, did Starlin transfer the rights to Thanos to Marvel?
Marvel didn't keep good records at that point. Contracts were seldom formal affairs; more commonly, Marvel printed a legend on the back of a freelancer's paycheck saying that in exchange for the pay he transferred all rights to them.
Back-of-the-check contracts are dicey affairs. There's an argument to be made that they're coercive; after all, waiting until after an artist has already done his work expecting a payout for it -- a check he may very well need for rent and food -- and then hitting him with a "By the way, give up ownership or we won't pay you" doesn't exactly create an even playing field for negotiations.
Be that as it may, Marvel's back-of-the-check contracts were upheld recently in Friedrich v Marvel. I've heard that they were also upheld in DeCarlo v Archie but I can't find a primary source to verify that; the summary judgement I found appears to be based on later, more formal contracts that DeCarlo signed, not an original back-of-the-check contract.
But that still means that, if Starlin were to claim ownership of Thanos in court (and this is pure speculation, mind; he's made no indication that he intends to do so), Marvel would want to produce a copy of any contract he signed with them, back-of-the-check or otherwise.
(I've also heard that Starlin crossed out the legend on the back of his checks before signing them, though I haven't seen any primary-source verification on that claim. That would itself make for an interesting legal case -- even assuming back-of-the-check contracts are legally binding in the first place, what if you don't sign, or cross the contract out, and the check still clears? That might not be a wise thing to risk an entire suit on, but it would be fascinating.)
There's another wrinkle, as noted by Nat Gertler in The Beat's comments section:
We’re more likely to run into the Blade situation, which ended up resting (in my not-a-lawyer understanding of the case) not on the question of whether it was work for hire, but on the question of whether the similarities between the original Blade and the movie Blade were sufficient to be infringing.
That's an important point too. Marv Wolfman sued Marvel over the rights to Blade under similar circumstances, and a judge ruled that Marvel's Blade was so substantially different from Wolfman's version as to be legally distinct. And given that so far we've only had a brief tease of Thanos, Marvel's still got two films to make the "substantially different" case.
And there's another point to consider: even if Starlin did transfer the Thanos rights to Marvel, he's permitted to terminate the transfer after 56 years. Thanos first appeared in '73, so Starlin (or, if he doesn't live that long, his statutory heirs) can reclaim him in 2029. And Kurt Busiek (also in the comments section of that Beat post) suggests that this might be a negotiating tactic -- Starlin could agree not to seek reversion in exchange for a percent of royalties for Thanos's use, for example.
Indeed, that comments section is well worth reading, largely because of Nat and Kurt's input. There are a couple of the usual anti-creator types in there (and I'm pretty sure at least one of them is a troll, seeing as he wades right in and immediately says the most provocative and factually wrong thing he possibly can) but if you step over them and get to the people who actually know what they're talking about, you might learn something.
Speaking of anti-creator fanboys? Well, in the Kirby case the constant refrain has been "Kirby's heirs didn't do anything so they don't deserve anything." This, of course, is a case where a creator is still alive. Will that change anything? Will the people pooh-poohing the Kirby heirs' suit rally behind Starlin?
Well, to be fair, some of them might. But in general? Well, here's what one guy said to me a couple of months ago when I brought up Starlin's complaint that Marvel hadn't so much as bought him a movie ticket:
I think Starlin was about as uninvolved in the making of the movie as a person could possibly be. I'd wager I had as much to do with making The Avengers as Jim Starlin did. Granted, I didn't have a character show up for all of a 2 second reveal, but beyond that, our contributions were the same. Where's my free ticket?
(By the way, I got a free ticket to see Avengers. So that means I got more for the movie than Jim Starlin did.)
He went on to make a slippery-slope argument that compensating creators is equivalent to just putting the characters right out into the public domain and will end DC and Marvel, an absurd position I've dismantled previously. (tl;dr no dude a few million dollars for creators is not going to bankrupt the company that just made a billion dollars on its movie.)
Guys like that? It's not about the law and it's not about the ethics. It's The Spice Must Flow. It doesn't matter how Marvel treats creators, as long as it keeps putting out product to consume.
There's always a fresh rationalization on the horizon. "He signed a contract." No he didn't. "Well, he's dead now." Okay, but this guy's alive. "The character we know is the work of dozens of creators over a period of decades, so no one person can really claim credit to him." Even if that were true in some cases, Thanos is unmistakably Jim Starlin's character. "Well, it was only a tiny cameo, so he's not entitled to anything." And once Thanos has more than a cameo, it's going to be "Well okay, that's terrible, but the industry's not like that anymore; it's all better now." (A point Scott Kurtz raised recently, right about two weeks before Static co-creator Robert Washington III died of multiple heart attacks at the age of 47 and his family had to turn to charity to get him buried.)
There is and will continue to be a vocal minority of comic book fans who will side with the publishers no matter what. (Oh God how I hope it's a minority -- but I think it is. You can find a vocal population of people on the Internet who will angrily, zealously defend absolutely any dumbass position you can possibly think of.) And it's particularly galling when that includes guys like Kurtz, an actual cartoonist who makes an actual living from actual creator-owned comics. But The Spice Must Flow -- they like Marvel, they like the comics and the movies and the characters and the shared universe, and they see attempts at compensation by the people who actually created those characters as a threat. A threat to the free flow of those comics and movies or, perhaps even worse, the threat of making them feel guilty for enjoying them.
I think that's why justifications like "Well the heirs didn't do it so they don't deserve anything" and "Well okay, that's how it was in the Bad Old Days but it just doesn't happen anymore" are so prevalent: because they show a sympathy toward creators without actually indicting the current management at Disney/Marvel for any kind of wrongdoing. It means they don't have to feel bad about buying the latest issue of Daredevil (which, don't get me wrong, I hear is a really excellent comic -- and I'm certainly not asking you to feel bad if you buy it!).
But strip those away and there's always another excuse, always another justification.
And hell, maybe I'm just as knee-jerk in coming down on the side of creators over corporations. (Ken Penders might disagree -- I'm not allowed to post on his forums and I suspect it's because I once described his claims against Archie as "some legitimately crazy shit" -- but truth be told I hope he's right and I hope he wins. And yeah that comment was pretty out-of-line and I should probably walk it back to "I am skeptical but wish him luck.") But you know, I don't feel too bad about knee-jerk support of human beings. I don't mind being the guy who says "You know, if a movie makes a billion dollars, the guys who created the characters it's based on should get a higher share of that than zero percent."
Course, appeals to emotion aren't going to help Starlin get any compensation.
The good news is, he seems to have a better case and more leverage than most of the other comic creators who've fought Goliath.
Or maybe he just wanted to show people a drawing of Thanos. I dunno, I'm not a mind reader.