Steve Englehart, legendary comic book writer from the 70s and 80s, was involved in a huge new project in the 90s – specifically, the creation of a new universe. At the time, still riding the indie boom of the 80s and the speculator craze that would soon implode and nearly take the whole comics industry with it, a lot of companies tried major superhero launches to compete with the long-established Marvel and DC universes: Image, Valiant, Comics' Greatest World, and a slew of lesser, forgotten creations all appeared in a space of just a few years. Most of them vanished just as quickly. The world Englehart worked on, Malibu Comics' Ultraverse, was one of the more popular at the time, and for good reason. A lot of those comics were actually damn good. The concepts felt classic but the approach felt modern, and the level of creator equity was, for a corporate-owned universe, unprecedented.
And according to Englehart, that's why those characters aren't around today.
In a recent interview with the Alt3red Egos podcast, Englehart said that the Ultraverse creators were contractually entitled to about five percent of the money the characters brought in, which was a great deal for them when it launched, less so a few years later when Marvel bought Malibu Comics (mostly, reportedly, for the technology they used in their computer coloring system) and slowly made the Ultraverse characters go away. According to Englehart, there was an effort in the early 2000s to revive the characters as part of the Marvel Universe, but it was scuttled quickly over a fear that, if guys like Englehart started getting that sort of percentage of their creations, other writers at Marvel may start demanding similar compensation.
I'm not saying this to vilify Marvel, mind you. They are, of course, a business, and a business isn't going to keep publishing if they don't think a product is making enough of a profit. I do, however, think this is an interesting discussion in light of the current cinematic success of The Avengers and the subsequent hubbub over giving the creators of the team – Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – proper credit (and perhaps more importantly, proper compensation). Some people called for a boycott of the movie, a strategy which obviously was massively successful. Others suggested that those who feel the creators were short-changed should donate money to charities like the Hero Initiative rather than deprive themselves of the movie they've wanted to see since they were seven years old. Few people argue that Stan and Jack didn't actually deserve the credit.
The thing about The Avengers in particular is that I don't think it's as simple as saying “The Avengers were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.” True, they were the creative team on the first Avengers #1, but as should be pretty obvious by now, the characters who make up the Avengers came from many different sources. Granted, Stan and Jack had a hand in many of those as well – the Hulk and Thor are both theirs, for example. But that first Thor story was scripted by Larry Lieber, who also scripted the first Iron Man story, with art by Don Heck, even though Jack Kirby actually designed the character. Hawkeye and the Black Widow, both originally Iron Man villains, are credited to Lee and Heck, and Captain America is the work of Jack Kirby with writer Joe Simon. And what about those characters in the film that aren't technically Avengers? Nick Fury is a Stan and Jack creation, but Maria Hill is credited to Brian Michael Bendis and David Finch. And those are just the characters that originated in the comics, where creator credit usually goes to the writer and artist who came up with the concept and design. How about Agent Phil Coulson? Couldn't one legitimately make an argument that he was “created by” director Jon Favreau, actor Clark Gregg, and the four screenwriters credited with Iron Man?
It doesn't even end there, as PVP creator Scott Kurtz pointed out on his blog earlier this week. Even if we settle who “created” these characters, how much credit should go to those writers and artists responsible for establishing them in their current forms? Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man clearly draws upon the David Michelinie/Bob Layton “Demon in a Bottle” era as inspiration. Nick Fury may have been created by Stan and Jack, but it was Jim Steranko who told the truly memorable tales of him as the head of SHIELD, and Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch who remade him in the mold of Samuel L. Jackson. How much of the characters' success is due to them? And the Avengers have been written by dozens of writers over the years, including (but certainly not limited to) Roy Thomas, John Byrne, Mark Waid, Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern, Geoff Johns, Chuck Austen, Brian Michael Bendis and Englehart himself.
Assigning this sort of creative ownership in comics is tricky, probably trickier than in any other medium, because there is no other medium where a character can be passed through the hands of so many writers and artists, each making their own contributions to the mythology, over such an extended period of time. Television comes closest – The Simpsons has been on the air for 22 seasons with over a hundred contributing writers (I'm guessing, I'm not about to count). But even the longest-running scripted programs on television – soap operas – have no remaining examples that were on the air before Superman made his comic book debut.
TV also has a pretty strict definition of what constitutes “creating” a show as well. The person or people who get the “created by” credit at the beginning of each episode are the ones who came up with the initial concept (or adapted the concept from a preexisting source, such as a comic book) and sold it to the network or studio, and usually (but not always) wrote the show bible and pilot episode. Many creators, if they're lucky... or experienced, or know the right people... get to be the Show Runner – essentially the head writer and executive producer – until they get into a public feud with Chevy Chase and are fired from the series they created. But even though he's off the series, each season four episode of Community will include the credit “Created by Dan Harmon.” Every other writer brought into a show knows that they're working for-hire, and that their indelible and invaluable contributions to the show will go largely unacknowledged. Cheers was created by James Burrows, Glen Charles and Les Charles, but who can tell me the writers that conjured up the characters Woody Boyd or Rebecca Howe, who were added to the series later to replace an actor who died and an actress who quit, respectively?
So let's say comics adopt a similar approach – the writer and artist who introduce a character are permanently recognized as that character's creators. Period. Simple enough. Sure, team books will need to include a lot of creator credits (and could you imagine the credits page for a book like JLA/Avengers, which featured literally every character that had ever been a member of either team, plus villains, plus guest-stars, plus creditable artifacts like the Infinity Gauntlet?) but that's only fair... isn't it?
What about Pepper Potts? Simple, her first appearance was in a comic book by Stan Lee and Don Heck, so they get the credit, right? But Pepper now goes by the name “Rescue” as well. Her armored alter ego first appeared in a comic by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larrocca. Is that enough to earn them a creator credit? Do all four deserve it? What if Pepper doesn't wear her armor in issue #530 – do they skip the “Rescue” credits and only credit Stan and Don? How about James Rhodes, created by David Michelinie, John Byrne and Bob Layton, but who first became War Machine in a story by Len Kaminski and Kevin Hopgood?
Who created Nightwing? Dick Grayson was originally Robin, created by Jerry Robinson, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, so they get the credit in his book, right? But he became Nightwing under Marv Wolfman and George Perez... and the name “Nightwing” was inspired by an alias Superman used to use in stories by Edmond Hamilton..... does he deserve credit in Nightwing #10? And how about the Flash? The original, Jay Garrick, was created by Gardner Fox and Harry Lampert. Barry Allen was the work of Robert Kanigher, John Broome and Carmine Infantino. Wally West, as Kid Flash, was also a Broome/Infantino combination, but he first became the Flash in a story by Wolfman and Perez.
And what about artist's credit? Some artists make important, lasting contributions to a character's development. Some just design the costume. Not to say the costumes aren't important, but costumes change. If, for example, Cyborg is credited as being created by Wolfman and Perez, but the Perez design is replaced by one by Jim Lee, is Cyborg now “created by” Marv Wolfman and Jim Lee? I'm giving myself a headache here.
Movies have an “arbitration” system. Every studio is full of people who put their hands on every script. The director likely will have his guy make changes (or do it himself), and so will the producer, and even certain actors if they have enough pull with the studio. As a result, virtually no movies produced by Hollywood studios are truly the work of a single writer. As such, many films are brought before an impartial arbiter, where the assorted writers involved bring in every draft of the script they turned in to compare to the finished film and determine which ones contributed enough to be credited, either with the screenplay or the story or both or neither.
In theory, such a thing may work to assign comic book credit, but there are two major problems with that. First, once a movie is finished, it's finished, and the matter is resolved. Even if there's a sequel, that's treated as an entirely different entity for the purposes of arbitration (although the credited writers of the first film may get a “created by” credit or something similar). With new comics featuring long running superheroes appearing as often as every week there would be constant arbitration to adjust credit. In any given month, there are Batman stories written by Scott Snyder, Tony S. Daniel, David Finch, Joe Harris, Peter Tomasi, Grant Morrison and (via Justice League) Geoff Johns, and that isn't even counting guest appearances, digital first comics, video games, TV shows or movies, or derivative properties like Batman Beyond. How often would an arbiter have to decide if one of these writers made enough of a contribution to change the creator credit?
Second, even if it were viable to do this with comic characters, any screenwriter will tell you arbitration is a bitter, soul-sucking process, and comics is actually a pretty small world. The “Night of the Owls” event is working very well because the various writers are collaborating seamlessly. Can you imagine it would work so well if they each had to sit in front of a panel and defend how much of the story they were responsible for?
As is often the case, I'm not really here to offer a solution. I would if I had one, but I just don't. I'm just here pointing out that the situation is even more complicated than we thought.
Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner, and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com and visit him on the web at Evertime Realms.Read past columns at the Everything But Imaginary Archive Page.