One of the oldest debates surrounding American comic books is the issue of creator ownership and rights. For decades, writers and artists either worked on a for-hire basis or sold their work directly to the publisher before publication. This relegated most comic book creators to the position of permanent freelancer who received no royalties. If an artist created a popular superhero, they would receive nothing if that character would go on to star in a movie that made millions of dollars.
There’s technically nothing illegal about refusing creators royalties, because they signed contracts and received payment according to the letter of the law. But this has frequently led to prominent creators who helped establish the industry ending their lives poor and destitute while the companies that purchased their hard work raked in untold amounts of money. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in the business dealings of DC Comics and Marvel Comics, known as the “Big Two” in the industry. Regardless of whether the actions of the Big Two were technically legal or not in these 10 egregious cases, there’s no denying that they breach basic tenants of courtesy, decency and compassion.
10. Bill Finger
The legal struggle between the Bill Finger estate and DC Comics is one of the most famous and lengthy in all of comic book history. But in this instance DC Comics isn’t the main antagonist — those honors go to Bob Kane, the man who co-created Batman along with Bill Finger in 1939. The problem is that the term “co-creator” only applies to Mr. Kane in the broadest, most general sense possible. Kane had the original idea for “The Bat-Man,” but his original design was nothing like the one that has become a cultural touchstone. Kane’s Batman wore a bright red suit and a domino mask. It was at this point that Finger took over and radically redefined both the character and his signature look, giving him the black cape and cowl, his backstory, the Batmobile, his lack of superpowers and his greatest archenemy, the Joker.
Despite creating practically everything recognizable about Batman and writing almost all of Batman’s comics during the 1930s and ’40s, Finger legally cannot be credited as his co-creator. The reason? Kane made DC sign a contract that established him as the sole “creator in perpetuity,” effectively stripping Finger of credit for his work and stopping him from receiving any royalties. DC Comics may not be the bad guy in this scenario, but there’s no denying that Bill Finger got screwed.
9. Alan Brennert
Alan Brennert has a long and storied history working for DC Comics, having written for both the Wonder Woman television show and various Batman comics. One of these comics was 1981’s Detective Comics #500, a story where Barbara Kean Gordon, the wife of Gotham City’s beleaguered Police Commissioner, was first introduced. In a Facebook post on July 7, 2014, he declared that his request for royalties for the character, who was scheduled to appear on the new Fox TV show Gotham, had been denied. DC Comics claimed that he was unentitled to royalties because Barbara Kean Gordon was legally “derivative” of her daughter Barbara Gordon, more popularly known as Batgirl.
In Brennert’s own words: “Because I had given her the same name, profession, and appearance as her daughter… she was ‘derivative’ of her daughter… and equity ‘is not generally granted’ in derivative characters like wives, husbands, daughters, sons, etc., of existing characters.” Considering that the royalties for Barbara Kean Gordon would have come to about $45 per episode of Gotham, this seems like a paltry excuse on the part of a multi-million dollar company. Brennert must agree, for his distinguished work for DC Comics isn’t mentioned anywhere on his website.
8. Marv Wolfman
There is considerably less ambiguity in the case of Marv Wolfman v. Marvel Comics. In 1973 Wolfman and Gene Colan created Blade, a half-vampire vampire hunter, in The Tomb of Dracula #10. 25 years later, the character starred in a feature film adaptation. In response, Wolfman sued Marvel Comics over ownership of the character since he created him during a period when he was not under a work-for-hire contract. Therefore, any further use of the character on the part of Marvel would have been contingent upon his approval.
Wolfman lost the case in 2000 when the court ruled that “Marvel’s later use of the characters was sufficiently different from Wolfman’s initial creations to protect it from Wolfman’s claim of copyright ownership.” The only thing Wolfman received was a “based on characters created by” credit in Blade, but not the sequel or subsequent television series.
7. Bill Mantlo
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bill Mantlo was almost untouchable as a creator over at Marvel Comics, working on such series as The Champions, Micronauts, Rom: SpaceKnight, The Spectacular Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Alpha Flight and Iron Man. This changed on July 17, 1992, when Mantlo was the victim of an unsolved hit-and-run accident that left him with severe head trauma, resulting in brain damage that has required full-time medical care ever since. Even worse, Mantlo’s case has been plagued with insurance problems, resulting in him frequently being placed in sub-standard care facilities while raking up millions of dollars worth of hospital bills. And while Marvel Comics has been making tons of money off his work since his accident (most notably with Guardians of the Galaxy, which featured Rocket Raccoon, one of his creations), Mantlo has had to scrape by thanks in large part to charity drives organized by the comic book fan community and other creators.
6. Joe Simon
With the latest Captain America movie making over $700,000,000, there can be no argument that the character is one of the hottest superhero properties around these days. And yet it’s unlikely that the Joe Simon estate will see a penny of it. One of the most influential writers and artists of the Golden Age of Comics, Simon co-created a number of influential characters alongside frequent partner Jack Kirby. One of them was Captain America, who first debuted in Captain America Comics #1 in 1940. The first blow against Simon was when he and Kirby were kicked off the title while it was selling a million copies a month because of a royalties dispute. Simon sued to reclaim the copyright to the character in 1966, 1967 and 1999, but was thwarted each time by the courts and the mighty lawyers of Marvel Comics.
5. Steve Gerber
Getting to the bottom of Steve Gerber’s legal troubles with Marvel Comics is nothing short of headache-inducing. In the early 1970s Gerber was working on Marvel’s Man-Thing, a horror comic that featured a plot point involving trans-dimensional mishaps that transported bizarre characters from different dimensions to modern day earth. One of these was a talking duck named Howard. Originally a joke character, he was promptly killed off only to be revived and given his own back-up feature in Man-Thing after fan outcry. He soon had his very own comic book, also written by Gerber, which became a cult favorite. But due to what Marvel’s then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter claimed was missed deadlines, Gerber was pulled from the character in 1978.
In 1980 Gerber sued Marvel for copyright infringement, claiming that he was the sole owner of Howard the Duck since he had been originally created as an ancillary character and therefore wasn’t relevant to the work-for-hire agreement he had with the company while working on Man-Thing. The outcry from the comic book community was largely on Gerber’s side. Some prominent creators, including Jack Kirby, did special comics with him in order to get enough money to fund his lawsuit. But, as is inevitable in these situations, Marvel won, forcing Gerber to sign an out-of-court agreement that declared Howard their exclusive property.
4. Gary Friedrich
The story of Gary Friedrich’s dispute with Marvel Comics may not be notorious, but it is outrageous. Not only did Marvel win, they mercilessly rubbed salt in Friedrich’s wounds. In August 1972, Marvel Comics released Marvel Spotlight #5, a comic which debuted a supernatural hero known as Ghost Rider. As one of his creators, Friedrich sued Marvel Comics in 2007 for 21 violations of copyright because of the production of the upcoming Ghost Rider movie. Friedrich claimed that his original contract with Marvel Comics returned the rights to Ghost Rider back to him in 30 years. Marvel Comics, naturally, disagreed. Friedrich eventually lost the lawsuit in 2011, at which point Marvel decided to annihilate any goodwill remaining between them by counter-suing Friedrich for $17,000 in damages for “the writer’s unauthorized sale of Ghost Rider posters, T-shirts and cards online and at comic conventions.”
3. Alan Moore
These last three entries are among the most infamous and heart-breaking in all of comics. They are, quite simply, the stuff of industry legend. First off, we have the fight between DC Comics and the man who’s widely credited with being one of the most important writers in the history of modern sequential art: Alan Moore.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Moore helped revolutionize the comic industry with his work in the 1980s, producing such classics as Batman: The Killing Joke, Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, his run on Swamp Thing, and, perhaps his most enduring work, Watchmen, a deconstruction of the superhero genre that inspired a massively successful film adaptation in 2009. But the fact that there was a film in the first place is indicative of the destructive relationship between DC Comics and Moore.
Here’s what happened: when Moore and artist David Gibbons made Watchmen, they signed a contract which said that if DC didn’t use the characters they created for a year, the rights would revert back to them. Of course, they naively assumed that DC would eventually let the series go out of print. Which they didn’t. Furious at DC’s dishonesty, Moore declared: “You have managed to successfully swindle me, and so I will never work for you again.” To add even more insult to injury, DC didn’t just make the Watchmen movie against his wishes — they recently released a string of prequel comics entitled Before Watchmen.
2. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster wrote and illustrated a story that would appear in the very first issue of Action Comics. It was the debut of the Champion of the Oppressed himself, Superman, who would go down in history as one of the most recognizable and enduring of American pop cultural icons. And what did Siegel and Shuster get for creating Superman? 130 dollars. That was how much National Comics Publications, the forerunner to DC Comics, paid for the rights to the character.
Though they continued to write for the character, they would receive a pittance of the profits that National Comics earned from their work. And so in 1947, Siegel and Shuster sued for their contract with National Comics to be declared void and for the intellectual property rights to Superman to be rewarded back to them. Tragically, they lost. After they were paid $94,000 to drop all claims, Siegel and Shuster spent much of their remaining lives in desperate poverty. Shuster died in 1992 “blind and alone.” Siegel would try once more to reclaim Superman’s copyright in 1973, but once again the court ruled against him. It was only after a group of comic book creators started a public relations campaign against DC Comics that the company finally gave Siegel and Shuster a yearly pension of $35,000.
1. Jack Kirby
In the 1980s, Jack Kirby reportedly told a young, aspiring James Romberger, the future artist of acclaimed graphic novel Seven Miles a Second, that he was talented, but that he shouldn’t pursue a career in comic books. Romberger recalled Kirby telling him: “Don’t do comics. Comics will break your heart.”
Jack Kirby was nothing less than the Da Vinci and Michelangelo of comic books all rolled up into one. In addition to helping invent the romance comic, Kirby helped create many of the most enduring and popular superhero characters of all time. These include, but are by no means limited to: Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, the Mighty Thor, the Avengers, the X-Men, the Silver Surfer and the Black Panther. But because Marvel Comics considered his work to be done on a work-for-hire basis, he wasn’t entitled to their copyrights or royalties. Though his estate and Marvel Comics managed to amicably settle their dispute in September 2014, it was far too little and far too late for the man who had perhaps done more than any other artist to help pioneer the art of comic books. He had died 20 years earlier.