Monday, May 13, 2013

I Knew It Was Snake Before I Picked It Up.

After pursuing a career working for the big publishers in comics I had managed to get my toe in the door. So I had figured that with the door opened a bit I could force my foot in there and argue my case through that slim crack of opportunity. And that door had not only NOT opened a sliver more, it had been slammed in the old face and a barricade apparently erected on the other side to keep me out.


I figured things couldn't possibly get any worse.

Soon, there was injury to be added to insult.

One thing the folk at Marvel had learned long ago was that you could reprint previously published
material in collected formats and sell them all over again. But it wasn't quite like the old days when they did that without paying the original creators. By the 1980s they paid for reprints, albeit at a lower rate. Also, they paid royalties if the sales of a particular book went over a certain number. I had received royalty payments for my HELLRAISER story that had appeared in issue #2 of the book. By the time my later stories appeared, in #5 and #6, the sales figures had apparently fallen below that threshold. I never did receive royalty payments on those.

Well, Marvel/Epic did begin to produce reprint editions of the HELLRAISER stories. My yarn, "Divers Hands" from issue #2 made it into the first volume of collected stories. Featuring my creation, the cenobite called Hunger. And I got a check for that story--at a reduced rate since it was a reprint. But I did get paid.

After banging the old noggin against the reinforced doors at Marvel and DC I continued to hold out hope that I could make some money by writing for the industry. Hardly a week went by when I wasn't working on some kind of pitch or script to try to break in once again. In the meantime I was continuing to make the bulk of my living as a dealer in new and collectible comics, heading off to conventions all over the US to do so. And one day I walked into the dealer's room at a comic convention and one of my colleagues was setting up shop. As I was looking at his offerings of new books I saw a stack of HELLRAISER titles I had never seen. These were hardback, apparently leatherbound limited editions. They were also sealed so that I couldn't see the contents, but I quickly discovered that at least one of the volumes (there were two different ones that day) had at least one story that I had written.

However, I had not received a dime in compensation. And I had not received even one contributor's copy. I was pissed, and I was also puzzled. So, when I got home I made calls to
Marvel until I got in touch with the fellow who was filling the shoes of the editor to whom I had originally sold.

"Hey," says I. "There's a hardcover HELLRAISER book out with my work and I haven't received any notice or any compensation. What's going on?"

"Oh. Those," said the editor. "Those aren't books."

"What? What do you mean 'they're not books'?"

"Those are merchandise. As merchandise, the only ones who receive payment would be Mr. Barker and New Line Cinema."

Silence from me.

"So, I'm busy," says the new editor. "Anything else I can help you with?"


Well, I reckon this is what I should have expected. As I said, it wasn't as if I wasn't warned. And it wasn't as if I didn't know the history of Marvel and DC. If they can rip off guys like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, then why would they hesitate for one second to rip off a bunch of minor authors writing Hellraiser stories for a title they knew would run its course in quick order and soon be defunct?

You see, I was blind to all that. Basically, what I wanted to do was write superhero stories based on characters created by men who had largely been raped and robbed by Marvel Comics. What the Hell was I thinking? In fact, though, I hadn't been thinking, at all. The only thing that I wanted was to write for a living, working for the very company that ripped off its creators and celebrated the men who did the thieving. I hadn't paused one goddamned second to think of the victimization of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

Not long after this, brooding on the whole, sorry situation, I walked away from comics. Although I had only very briefly and very peripherally worked in comics as a writer, I had experienced mainly nothing but the negative side of things. In the small presses, (except for Steve Bissette's TABOO), I had encountered publishers who paid late, or failed to pay at all, or lied to keep from paying me for work I had done for them. Among the larger publishers I had encountered the Big Professional Circle Jerk that blocked almost everyone not working in the publisher's offices. When I had happened upon those very few editors who were willing to look at outside work (Dan Chichester, Stuart Moore, etc.), those fellows were removed or chose to go on to other things, leaving me without an objective contact.

In the years since, I have worked from time to time in the small press. The experiences there have not been good, either. One publisher made quite a profit on one book I wrote (and which was penciled and inked by friends of mine), but never paid any of us for the work, claiming that the issue lost money (an obvious lie considering the book's sales). Eventually I even stopped submitting to the independent presses, finding them to be nothing more than smaller versions of the liars and thieves at the big publishing houses.

It was a hard lesson. But in a way I had asked for it. All during this time Jack Kirby was struggling to get his hands on the thousands of pages of original artwork that was in the possession of the company that had stolen so much of his intellectual property. These monsters were holding that art as ransom unless he would further sign away all rights that he had to his creations. This company who did these things to the likes of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko--the men who had created the freaking company in the first place--and I was trying to work for them?! To create for them? To pour my time and sweat and ingenuity into their bank accounts?

I got what I bloody well deserved, I reckon. In the years since the HELLRAISER franchise was cancelled at Marvel, at least some of my work for that title has since been reprinted by an outfit called Checker Books, for which I received no payment at all. In addition, I suspect that I have had my work reprinted by the new publisher of the HELLRAISER business, BOOM! Studios, and apparently they aren't legally obligated to pay me, either.

One thing, though. When I compared notes with others who had created stuff for HELLRAISER--those guys had signed contracts. Somewhere along the line, corporate Marvel must have gotten their wires crossed. I never received any contracts. Not once. They paid me, sure. But I never got a contract.

If that someday came up to bite them like a gnat, I wouldn't be disappointed.


MarkGelbart said...

The comic book publishers figure they can get away with it, especially with lesser known writers.

They might lose in court, but the writer's legal fees would surpass the amount of money a judge might award the writer.

All a lawyer had to do to show your Hellraiser story was a book would be simply to show it to the judge. A judge would know it was a book and not "merchandise."

Kirby and Ditko must have naively signed disadvantageous contracts that made it difficult to win in court years later. They probably had no idea how successful they were going to be.

James Robert Smith said...

With Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, I don't think there ever were any contracts. Not as such. This is what "work for hire" was concocted to address--an assumption of a contract in the absence of one (for the corporation's advantage, mind you).

A judge might consider a signed, leatherbound book to still be a book, but there would be high-priced attorneys working for the bad guys to argue that it was not, indeed, a book. And they would invariably win the argument.

But even if they did not, it's as you say: it would be too expensive to prove otherwise for the creator. It would never get that far.

Carl Burgos, the man who created The Human Torch, tried to sue to regain possession of his character. But he was just a poor man at that point and had no way to raise the funds to do battle with Martin Goodman and his lackey nephew.