A federal judge ruled last week that Marvel Comics owes millions of dollars to its longtime writer, Stan Lee, in unpaid profits from movies based on the characters he created: Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Incredible Hulk.
Lee’s lawsuit had sent a modest shock wave through the comics community -- not because a comic book publisher scammed one of its creators -- that’s what those publishers have always done -- but because Lee, of all the creators in the business, seemed to be the one immune to scammery. He had, after all, been Marvel’s public face for half a century and had almost single-handedly turned it into a profitable concern. That he would now have to sue in order to get even a single penny of the 10% of movie profits his contract guaranteed him revealed just how true the business still is to its tawdry, Depression-era roots -- and how that crippled what might have been a much richer entertainment medium.
The American comic book business was created in the 1930s by a lot of second-rate printers, commission salesmen and ex-bootleggers. For years, they’d been jumping from racket to racket, from postcards to girlie mags to true crime, wherever the cash was flowing that month. They discovered the appeal of magazines full of comic strips almost by accident, and to fill the pages they took advantage of hungry young cartoonists, many still in their teens, who would do anything to get their work into print.
When some of those comics struck gold, all the publishers could think to do was pocket the money as fast as they could. A young writer named Jerry Siegel and his artist pal, Joe Shuster, launched the superhero genre and turned DC Comics into a big business with their creation, “Superman.” But they were squeezed out and spent the next 30 years fighting for a “created by” credit and a modest income. And they were treated splendidly compared with Vic Bloom, the “Archie” co-creator who got nothing but a few dollars for every script he wrote. If creators felt cheated and went away mad, figured the publishers, who cared? In a few years they’d all be chasing new rackets anyway.
One of those early publishers was Martin Goodman, who ran his business like a floating crap game, forming and dissolving 80 companies over the years to manipulate tax and bankruptcy laws. In 1941, a couple of youngsters named Jack Kirby and Joe Simon wrote and drew his first massive hit -- “Captain America” -- but within months they were accusing Goodman of not paying what he promised and had jumped to a rival. So Goodman gave the job of editing and writing his comics to his wife’s cousin, a 19-year-old named Stan Lieber, who wrote under the name Stan Lee.
Lee was one of the smart ones. He kept his job as Goodman’s editor and wrote thousands of comics in his spare time. And when the superheroes he co-created began to catch on, he made himself the spokesman for the company. In the 1960s, his grinning mug and silly catch phrases (“Excelsior!”) were plastered all over his comics, until the fans thought Stan Lee and Marvel Comics were interchangeable. Lee turned Marvel into a marketable brand.
Many of the superheroes Lee wrote, including the X-Men and the Hulk, were drawn and co-created by Kirby. In the 1980s, Kirby launched a campaign to win back some of the credit and money he felt Marvel owed him for his contributions, and as fans rallied around him, they painted Lee as one of the bad guys. It was Lee, the corporate officer, they said, who got the fame and money while his former collaborator got nothing. But the years moved on, and even Lee discovered that his contract wasn’t being honored. No one’s contribution, it turned out, was valued enough to compromise this quarter’s profit.
The result of this penny-pinching, shortsighted business culture is that American comics never grew far beyond their starting point. In Europe and Japan, a tradition of respect for creators equivalent to what Americans show their filmmakers and novelists allowed comics to become a variegated, grown-up medium. But in America, not many cartoonists want to create new characters for the major publishers anymore.
Today, publishers like Marvel survive on recycled and regurgitated characters from decades past. Inevitably they spiral downward into increasing esoterica and decreasing readerships. Just 15 years ago, a successful comic book might sell 400,000 copies. Now it would be a triumph to sell a third that many.
What might comics have been if their founders had cultivated the idea of keeping the talent happy and invested in the growth of the medium?