You’d have to travel to an awfully remote part of the world to find someone who doesn’t recognize that muscular man wearing a red cape emblazoned with a big letter S, or the costumed crusader with the cowl, scowl and really cool car.
Comic book superheroes are global entertainment titans, as proven by the neverending parade of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters based on their exploits. From Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale to Bryan Singer and Hugh Jackman, the directors of these films and the actors who don the costumes are also, for the most part, household names. (Heck, people are even stopping Joss Whedon in the street these days.) But unless you’re something of a comic book enthusiast, you probably don’t know the names Ditko, Kirby, Kane, Finger, Robinson, Siegel and Shuster. Somehow, the artists and writers whose fertile minds gave birth to these billion-dollar heroes have been largely forgotten and – in some cases – have had to fight to be compensated for their contributions.
And frankly, that’s kind of sad.
“When these classic characters were created, the comic book industry was a Wild West of writers and artists churning out characters that they would create quickly just to hit publishing timelines,” says Anthony Del Col, Toronto-based co-creator of the acclaimed Kill Shakespeare comic book series.
“The real concept of intellectual property protection hadn’t really been invented yet, so a lot of them were exploited along the way.”
It’s the current spate of monstrously profitable Hollywood films based on superheroes that’s refocused the spotlight on the issue of compensation for these characters’ original creators. The Avengers has raked in more than $1.5 billion worldwide – and that’s not including the tie-in franchises starring Iron Man, Thor, Captain American and the Hulk – while The Dark Knight Rises rang up $160 million on its opening weekend alone, the third largest opening ever behind The Avengers and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.
“The world of superheroes tends to complicate the question of rightful recognition because, in most cases, the creation of the characters was part of a work-for-hire contract,” says Toronto artist and writer Ray Fawkes, creator of the Eisner Award-nominated graphic novel One Soul.
“Many of the characters have subsequently been through dozens – possibly even hundreds – of writer-artist teams, who have built a legacy of reinterpretation and re-imagination around them,” says Fawkes, who has done work for Marvel, DC and a range of smaller publishers. “I spotted nods to stories by over a dozen comic book creators in The Dark Knight Rises.”
One exception to the largely unknown and under-compensated comic book creator is Stan Lee. From headlining appearances at fan conventions to cameos in nearly every Marvel superhero movie, Lee is the media-savvy multimillionaire face of Disney-owned Marvel’s comics empire.
But while casual Spidey fans might know Lee as the creator of wall-crawler, some are likely unaware that Spider-Man was co-created by artist Steve Ditko, who designed the trademark costume and web-slingers. Lee and Ditko had a falling out decades ago, and Ditko lives as a virtual recluse in New York City, reportedly seeing little if any of the hundreds of millions of dollars generated by the movies, TV shows and merchandise based on his ideas.
It’s not that the comic book publishers or movie studios have been sneaky, necessarily. Decades ago in the medium’s infancy, writers and artists were often hired as moderately skilled labour, or gave up the rights to their characters for paltry sums.
In 1938, Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Toronto-born Joe Shuster famously sold the rights to the Man of Steel for $130 to DC Comics precursor National Allied Publications. Over the decades there have been lawsuits, copyright claims and publicity campaigns as the men tried, with varying degrees of success, to get a larger slice of Superman’s pie.
The heirs of Siegel and Shuster have been embroiled in their own long-running court battle with Warner Bros. over control of Superman, which has yet to be fully resolved. Meanwhile, the heirs of legendary comic book artist and writer Jack Kirby, who had a hand in creating Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men and an array of other lucrative Marvel characters, saw their own hopes of staking a claim to Kirby’s creations dashed when a judge ruled Marvel owned the rights to the characters.
Today, artists and writers enter into relationships with the major comic book publishers with eyes wide open, or work with independent publishers in order to maintain control over their creations.
“Comic book creators today are really protective of their original work, and that’s mainly based on the fact that companies have exploited previous creators and their creations,” says Kill Shakespeare’s Del Col.
Adds One Soul’s Fawkes: “Both artists and publishers can, and these days often do, make the effort to preserve a creator’s stake in their legacy. But it does take an effort on both sides, and as with anything, it’s possible that someone will either be lazy enough or greedy enough to let things slide.”
Acclaimed comic book writer Grant Morrison, who has alternated between working on his own independent projects and established characters such as Batman and The X-Men, tells ComicBookResources.com that Hollywood’s influence seems to be pushing creators away from classic costumed superheroes.
“There’s definitely some kind of centrifugal movement away from the mainstream toward new and more personal, expressive, creator-owned stuff,” says Morrison. “And I think it’s partly because cinema has appropriated so much of the stuff we’ve been doing in comics for the last 30 years.”
Who made you?
Created by: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster First appearance: Action Comics #1 (1938)
Currently: One of the most widely-known fictional characters in the world, star of comic books, TV shows and movies, including 2013’s reboot Man of Steel.
Where are they now? Siegel died in 1996, Shuster in 1992.
Created by: Bob Kane and Bill Finger, with key elements created by Jerry Robinson.
First appearance: Detective Comics #27 (1939)
Today: Comic books, merchandise, TV shows (including a famously campy one) and eight live-action feature films, including The Dark Knight Rises.
Where are they now? Kane died in 1998, Finger in 1974 and Robinson in 2011.
Created by: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
First appearance: The X-Men #1 (1963)
Today: Several comic book series and spin-offs, an animated TV series and a trilogy of films (plus a prequel that looks likely to spawn its own franchise.) Where are they now? Lee, 89, remains an active force in the Marvel empire. Kirby died in 1994.
Created by: Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
First appearance: Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962)
Currently: Comic books, TV shows, an endless array of merchandise and four modern-day feature films, including this year’s reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man.
Where are they now? “Stan the Man” is the public face of Marvel Comics. Ditko, 84, lives and works in seclusion in New York City.
Created by: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
First appearance: The Avengers #1 (1963)
Today: A media empire that includes comic books, TV, merchandise and the third highest-grossing movie of all time.
Where are they now? Lee is still a huge presence in the business. The heirs of the late Kirby unsuccessfully sued for a share of the profits made by his creations.