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Penury, swindlers and the American way: the capitalist legacy of superheroes

As a pay dispute threatens the superhero stranglehold on box office takings, it’s a timely reminder that these capitalist heroes have long trampled upon the artists who brought them to life, writes Laura Sneddon.

The cover to Action Comics #1. Image: Joe Shuster/DC Comics

The Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, the X-Men… you needn’t be a comics reader these days to recognise these popular characters. Storming the cinema screens around the world, these multi-million Marvel franchises are just a handful of the icons co-created by one man: Jack Kirby. 

Hidden in the shadow of Stan Lee, Kirby was perhaps one of the greatest comics artists of the last century, and certainly one of the most prolific, changing the landscape of superheroes forever and delighting generations of readers around the world. His unique storytelling techniques and cosmic imagination are still influencing artists in a variety of media today, and of course netting Disney and Marvel seriously huge sums of money.

Captain America first burst onto the page in 1940, co-created by Kirby and writer Joe Simon, just two years after Superman announced the beginning of our modern superheroic mythology. Kirby’s later work in the sixties, the so-called comics Silver Age, resulted in an explosion of legendary characters that leapt off the page and into the worlds of television and toys: the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Silver Surfer, Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, Nick Fury, Black Panther, Dr Doom… almost every major Marvel character was created or co-created by Kirby.

Superheroes were already part of our culture thanks to the earlier Golden Age that had given us DC’s Superman and Wonder Woman, but soon even non-comic fans knew of Marvel characters like the Hulk and the X-Men as they appeared in cartoons and camptastic television series. In later decades they came to truly dominate our cinema screens, the current trend arguably beginning with the first X-Men film in 2000.

And everywhere these Marvel icons appear they carry one name: Stan Lee. Kirby, Lee’s employee, colleague, artist and frequent co-plotter remains unknown by most outside of the comics community.

Kirby’s time within the industry was frequently acrimonious, as although the comics he created sold millions of copies, Kirby retained no ownership of the characters he helped envision. He was denied credit for co-plotting as well as any health benefits, and it was only in 1987, seven years before his death, that he finally managed to reclaim some of the original pages he had drawn for Marvel over the years (only 2,100 of the estimated 10,000-13,000 total). Today, original art sales are often the main source of income for lowly paid comic artists.

Newspapers and websites are full of articles pointing the finger at the rise of the grim and gritty hero’s popularity, and our apparent worship of mega-rich playboys who save the world by beating the shit out of each other while the common people stand around and wait with their hair on fire, our law enforcement perhaps idly running repeatedly into the same wall, humanity glitched like the idiots they are. 

As Grant Morrison, writer of Batman, Superman and numerous other heroes once said of our recent love of the super serious Bruce Wayne:

The idea of the man who sleeps in bed all day until 3 o'clock, then gets up and dresses in rubber and goes out and kicks the shit out of poor people, and is constantly pursued by sexy women also wearing rubber – he's now a fantasy figure for our culture that's obsessed with wealth and fame and that kind of billionaire success, and that kind of licence that lots of money gives us in this world.

Much has been made lately of this cultural preference being somehow new, yet characters like Iron Man and Batman have long been fantasy figures of wealth and extravagance. While it is true that the upstanding Clark Kent originally defended the poor from the tyrannical rich, his focus on the downtrodden could never last long in an industry firmly focused on maximising profits and the absolute ownership of all intellectual property. Superman, the hero that defined all superheroes that came after his debut, with his circus strong-man outfit, flowing cape, and superpowers, lost his social activist roots and left-leaning influences just as his creators lost their ownership of the character himself.

Will the new film focus on the mild mannered reporter who always does the right thing and exposes corrupt politicians as well as saving the day? Or will he and other superbeings beat the living daylights out of each other while mere humans die like flies? A clue: while both of these represent the real Superman, only one of these rakes in the cash.

Supermen

In 1940, the Saturday Evening Post reported that while the still new Superman was making millions, his creators, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, were paid just $130 for Superman himself, and $210 per issue thereafter (the original cheque itself sold for $160,000 last year). The pair sued National Allied Publications (the predecessor of DC Comics) for ownership of Superman and Superboy, who was obviously a spin-off of their own character, but both were paid to drop all subsequent claims and their bylines were removed. In 1973 Siegel and Shuster again took up their case to claim ownership of Superman, and the battle rages to this day. 

Both men died without ever reclaiming their creation, while DC continues to make millions from the superhero’s image. It was only in 1975, when Superman first hit the cinema screen, that a public outcry began. Joe Shuster was then blind, living in a shabby apartment and dependent on his brother; Jerry Siegel was recovering from a heart attack and working in a mail room. Their medical bills had driven them further into destitution. The pair, living in complete poverty despite several previous lawsuit payments, were awarded a small pension and health care from their previous employers. Their credit line on each appearance of Superman was restored, but any ownership of the hero was still denied.

Kirby, Siegel and Shuster are far from alone in their exploitation at the hands of their publishers. Back in the days when comics sold millions of copies, it was expected that work for hire artists and writers would simply be worked into the ground, with all profits going to the publisher. It has been argued that the ambitious creators knew what they were doing when they signed their contracts, yet it is hard to view the publishers as maligned innocents when those same iconic creations now pull in billions of dollars at the box office. Young artists, desperate for their big break, are not quite on a level playing field with experienced corporations and their binders full of laywers.

The highest grossing film of last year, The Avengers, earned a total haul of $1.5bn. Batman was in the third highest grossing film, while other comic adaptations The Amazing Spider-Man and Men in Black 3 also made the top ten. In 2011, Kirby co-creations made over $1.2bn at the box office in a year that was huge for Marvel. Iron Man 3 recently delivered the second biggest weekend launch in film history, with Tony Stark beaten only by his own 2012 appearance in the big superhero team-up, and it has passed the $1bn mark worldwide.

Now it emerges that a pay dispute has put future Marvel films in jeopardy, with the “notoriously cheap” publisher unwilling to give pay rises to any of the stars. While Marvel is now owned by Disney (and DC by Warner Bros), it is the publisher that is still calling the shots – Ike Perlmutter, Marvel’s CEO, and Disney’s third largest individual shareholder behind the Steve Jobs Trust and George Lucas.

Robert Downey Jr, whose success as Iron Man is largely credited as the catalyst for the popularity of the Avengers film, earned a staggering $50m for his Avengers work due to earlier negotiating a fraction of revenue from any film he appears in as Iron Man. In contrast, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo are all reported to have made around $2-3m.

Too bad, so sad you might think, as the likes of Evans and Hemsworth are hardly starving artists, but the pattern does appear very similar. Downey Jr is in a unique position with a lot of leverage given his star power in the Iron Man trilogy and first Avengers film – regardless of suggestions from Marvel that they can “James Bond” his character – but Marvel appears to be threatening that other actors are replaceable regardless of how much they have contributed towards their characters appeal. Much like the artists and writers previously thrown out in the cold when asking for a bigger slice of the profits pie. 

It would be ludicrous to suggest that Downey Jr is as ill-treated as Joe Shuster, but when contrasted with the billions that Marvel and Disney are making from their image it is a stark reminder of the profit-at-any-cost approach that these superheroes have come to stand for. And if the star-studded cast is being squeezed despite the first team-up film’s phenomenal success, one wonders how the background crew and special effects team are faring.

With the Avengers banking over a billion dollars, it’s not that preposterous that the actors would like to be paid more for their contribution. We know that Chris Hemsworth at least is not exactly a fan of the grueling exercise and diet routine required to convincingly portray Thor, but would fans welcome the actor being replaced over money issues?

With comic fans it is hard to tell: many have boycotted the recent glut of superhero films in solidarity with the continuing lawsuits against the publishers on behalf of creators from the past, while others continue to lap up their favourite characters as they once more remind the mainstream that everyone loves a hero. Marvel perhaps thinks that the far larger fanbase of superhero film fans are as easily ignored. In which case they certainly haven’t had a look on the likes of Tumblr or Twitter recently, where Tom Hiddleston’s fans alone make up a rather intimidating mass of passion.

Of course some cast replacements have already happened – Edward Norton’s Hulk was replaced by Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers, while Terrence Howard lost his role as Rhodey in the second and third Iron Man films. Additionally, Mickey Rourke was given a very lowball opening offer of $250,000 for Iron Man 2, and it was only down to Downey Jr’s insistence that Gwyneth Paltrow appeared in The Avengers, and was given a more action-orientated part in Iron Man 3. Cast members are currently rallying behind Downey Jr in the current dispute.

It would of course be nicer still to see Downey Jr and friends speak out on behalf of the forgotten creators that are truly to thank for their current success on screen.

The popularity of superheroes at the box office is no new trend – Richard Donner’s Superman film in 1978 pulled in $300m worldwide, and Tim Burton’s first Batman film earned $411m in 1989 – but with over 26 superhero movies from Marvel alone since 2000, and ten comic book adaptations slated for 2013 (half of them starring superheroes), it’s clear that comic book films are a far bigger business than they used to be, and much more profitable than the comics they are based upon.

Heroes of the past

In the world of comics, titles like Superman and Iron Man continue to baffle film fans looking for more adventures starring their cinema counterparts, and sales remain a poor fraction of their earlier millions. Non-DC/Marvel comics lead the way in creativity and new ideas, while the "big two" have a distinct lack of more recent superheroes which match the potency of Superman or the X-Men. Graphic novels like Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes show how comics can lead the way in literature, while the success of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and the promising look of upcoming film Snowpiercer, based on the French bande dessinée Le Transperceneige, demonstrate that non-superhero comics can still pack a punch in transcending media.

That’s not to say that superhero comics of the same caliber are not being produced – Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye is truly extraordinary, while Grant Morrison’s work on the likes of Batman and Superman has been revolutionary and a genuine attempt to change the world with the power of storytelling – but the strangle-hold of corporate anti-rights has surely put paid to a great deal of innovation.

DC’s previous mostly creator-owned stomping ground, the Vertigo imprint that boasts Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Morrison’s The Invisibles, Garth Ennis’ Preacher and Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, all true modern classics, is seemingly being put out to pasture in all but name. Lead title Hellblazer, starring a Liverpudlian occult investigator with more than a passing resemblance to Sting, was recently cancelled after its historic 300th issue. The character himself, John Constantine, has been relaunched in the main DC universe, younger and sexier, with none of the swearing or snarkiness that previously gave him his British, but unprofitable, charm.

In a world of authors made rich from their blockbuster creations, whether that be JK Rowling and her Harry Potter series or Stephen King and his numerous adaptations, it is troubling that the great imaginations that lay behind The Avengers and Superman remain largely unacknowledged and forgotten.

Superman, defender of truth, justice and the American way is an icon not only of hope, but of despair and shattered dreams. Our superheroes, built to help the helpless and downtrodden and bring joy to our world became tools of their corporate owners whose only interest lies in helping themselves. While our heroes can transcend their shackles and still bring us pinpoints of timely optimism, not to mention a great deal of entertainment and joy, their dark shadow of forgotten and poverty-ridden creators weighs upon them greatly. 

The poisonous touch of capitalism may not be new, and it certainly does not exist only within the comic pages, but it is disappointing to see that the commitment to maximising profits at the expense of creative contribution continues. Whether that be letting genius artists rot in poverty, or telling successful actors they are replaceable with cheaper talent, the message our superheroes are being forced to tell us is clear: there is no superpower that can hope to compete with the rich and powerful.