Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Creator Problem in Comic Books

By all accounts the Daredevil Netflix Series is well done. I personally have not seen anything more than clips and have read up a little on the series. It seems to be drawing a ton of inspiration from the Frank Miller run on the book, which is the best work ever done on the character. All of this leads up to the question – Who is the creator of Daredevil?

This has been tons of debate regarding who created what and the debate has gotten even more heated over the years. As DC and Marvel comics have ranked in billions of dollars from the movies, cartoons, clothing and the rest the stakes have become enormous. Jack Kirby’s family achieved a settlement reportedly worth in the tens of millions to drop the case and not push it into the Supreme Court. I’m sure this was because Disney was about to shit themselves thinking ownership for hugely profitable creations could be up for grabs. Imagine the court saying the rights for those characters was never perfected.

I personally have always struggled with this issue. I often wonder what the act of creation is. Is the creator just the person with a name and a basic idea or is the creator the one who makes it work. Should the creator participate in the exploitation of the character? If yes to what degree, because the Guardians of the Galaxy was never that cool in comics.

I decided on Daredevil as a character to examine. I believe Daredevil is a little easier to dissect then many other characters. I’m going to ignore the fact that there was a Golden Age hero named Daredevil. A small tangent or question I have is the idea that Marvel has copyrighted a term as a name. It seems like bullshit, but I’m sure Disney would sue my ass if I published a Daredevil comic about a base jumper as copyright infringement. I need to try and avoid all the tangents.

Okay onto Matt (Daredevil) Murdock. Issue number one of Daredevil was illustrated by Bill Everett. Now Stan Lee will tell you DD was all his idea and Bill just was along to help illustrate the book. Bill Everett is also the sole creator of Sub Mariner and was one hell of a golden age creator and a brilliant artist. Bill was sadly an alcoholic and probably fighting depression. He died when he was only 55 years old. The stories about who did what on Daredevil number one as nebulous at best. Considering what Stan called the Marvel method I have to assume Stan gave Bill a rough outline, Kirby may have done some base design work and the rest was probably Bill Everett. The core of Daredevil’s origin could possibly be Bill’s ideas. My guess is not even Bill would remember correctly if alive. All of these books which we now look back on with an almost reverence were being produced by men trying to make a buck and often had no idea what tomorrow may bring. Who remembers business meetings when you are in you 30 or 40 plus years old? The point is that Daredevil was a joint effort from the jump.

Next up is Wally Wood. Sadly Wally was also an alcoholic and suffered from depression. He was also one of the top talents in the field. Wally if he had been in the right place may have been the King, as opposed to Jack Kirby. He is one of the top five artist of all time (in my opinion) and was a creative force. Again since this was the Marvel method a lot of people say Wood did the bulk of the writing with the issues he was involved in. As Wally Wood committed suicide years ago his version of events can no longer be known. I’m sure there are arguments as to who did what. Without a doubt he redesigned DD’s costume with issue #7 and it is the same costume he wears 50 years later. Wally is also credited by some with re-defining DD’s radar sense, which is a key element in allowing a blind man to be a super hero. Heck in issue #10 Wally gets writer credit for the whole issue.

After Wally left the book I would argue the series languished as a low level Marvel book that survived because there was not much else out on the shelfs. Over the years the more I tried to pick up and read any DD issues after Wally left the more I found them to be marginal at best.
At this point it is questionable if any TV, movie company would have picked up this character. There is a good chance that if something other book had caught on DD would have been cancelled. Matt would have been a trivia question. That all changed when Frank Miller took over years later.

Frank changes Daredevil in many ways. He adds back story to Daredevil, giving us Electra. He adds a major villain to story with Bullseye. He adds a nemesis more powerful then Daredevil by stealing Kingpin from Spider-Man. He adds pathos with the story of Matt’s mother. He adds a cool mentor with Stick. Along with David Mazzucchelli he gives us one of the top ten stories of all time with Daredevil Born Again. Frank’s stamp on the character is so strong that essentially ever since Frank left every writer since have all been doing riffs on the character. No one has surpassed what Frank did and it many ways Frank wrote such a definitive version of the character it could have ended with the end of Born Again.

This is the Daredevil that inspired the horrendous DD movie and Electra spin off. The movies had no clue how to do super hero movies at that time. From what I have seen this is the DD that Netflix is using as their template. This is the DD that has everyone wanting to see the show and wanting to know about the character.

So “Who created Daredevil”?

Is it Stan Lee – who stole a name from the Golden Age and spewed out some ideas to Bill Everett?

Is it Jack Kirby who is credited with some basic design work?

Is it Bill Everett for perhaps the idea of who Matt is and his origin?

Is it Wally Wood for doing some strong redesign and redefining of the character that made him more viable?

Is it Frank Miller who took what was a somewhat vanilla character and turned him into one of the most exciting and compelling characters in comics?

That for me is the creator problem in comics. Almost every corporate character owes their existence to multiple people. Batman would not have survived for 70 years as the version created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. Heck it was very earlier on that Jerry Robinson added tons to Batman. O’Neil and Adams added plenty, Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, Morrison and Quietly and now Snyder and Capullo have all added to Batman for good and ill. The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, Superman, Green Lantern and the list goes on and on. All owe their existence to a multitude of creators. Each bringing in ideas and elements to the characters.

So again what is creation? Is it the idea, is it the execution or is it the building of the character?
Who deserves the rewards from the financial gain? Long ago the agreements were not rock solid and no one was thinking about the dollars that may come. Heck I think it was never envisioned that the rights for something were to remain in perpetuity with anyone person or company. Still the company is taking the financial risk. I’m guessing no Fantastic Four creator is calling up Fox offering to help pay off that current disaster. When the movie pours in almost every person wants a piece of the pie. I’m glad that the Kirby family finally got rewarded, but I’d like to see that largesse spread around even more. Even if it is nothing more than cutting a bonus check to someone when it make millions of dollars. It feels unfair then Robert Downey Jr. makes $84 million for being Iron Man when the various creators got nothing.

See I always wander off on tangents but the creator issue is fascinating to me and has some many levels.

No answers to my little missive, just questions.


  1. This is a fascinating topic to think about. It really is. If you had asked me, back when I was a young teen comic reader in 1983, who the biggest badasses were in comics, I would have said Wolverine, Punisher, Ghost Rider, maybe even Luke Cage. Batman would not even have been an afterthought. At that time Bruce Wayne was like Hugh Hefner, smoking a pipe and sipping tea in a silk bathrobe and sporting an ascot. Batman was a good little boy scout like all the other DC heroes of the time. Most of the DC heroes felt like friends of your Dad's, bland and boring. But now, if you took a poll of The Biggest Badasses In Comics Ever, Batman would most likely top the list. What changed? Frank fricking Miller. With Dark Knight Returns, Miller totally redefined the character is such a strong way that it is still Frank Miller's vision of Batman we see today in all forms of media. Without Miller's Batman there would have been no first Burton Batman movie, no Batman The Animated Series, no Nolan Batman trilogy. So if everyone thinks of Miller's version of Batman now, who really created the character?

  2. And I would argue that Miller never gets there without O'Neil and Adams revamping Batman in the 70's.

    Of course the flip side is the question "Is what Snyder and Capullo are doing on the character going to cause harm to the character?" While DC's only hit book, it does not mean what they are doing to the character is a plus.

  3. I agree about Miller using the O'Neil/Adams Batman as a stepping stone. As for Snyder and Capullo's Batman, I always thank God that so few people are reading comics these days so that almost no one will have read the horror Snyder has wrought on Batman and Bruce Wayne.

  4. Good thoughts, Jim. It definitely is a morphing process over time and I like the idea of a bonus check. I always wait to see who gets credited as creator and who gets the special credits for inital story ideas/development at the end of the movies. I'm amazed at who usually gets left out. If Kirby was the only one to do Captain America, then he'd still be speaking in 70's slang, instead of the excellent Roger Stern or Ed Brubaker versions.

    The fact that people were trying to meet deadlines and stay alive financially caused some of the "accidental" innovations and classic issues. We've lost that unknown factor in EIC top-down control these days. Even the code while restrictive forced writers to be more creative in getting around it and telling the same story.

    You're mistaken about Bullseye. He's a Marv Wolfman creation and Marv's run along with Roger McKeinze (might be misspelled) set the stage for Millers. Frank created Electra, Hand, and Stick -- sophisticated Bullseye, made Kingpin a DD villian, etc. -- no denying his brilliance. But DD was actually pretty good in the 130's-150's. Yeah, Bullseye had a giant crossbow, but he was still a killer. And Heather's problems existed before Frank had her commit suicide. Janson was inker during a lot of those issues as well. A good writer/artist takes what was before and uses it and infuses his own ideas. I love the Lee/Kirby FF stories, but the Perez and Byrne issues are better. They wouldn't have been anywhere without the foundation, but that's what you do -- build on the foundation. Everyone should get some acknowledgement, but can we really give restitution to all those involved (except for the really really bad runs)? Slavery restitution will never work either. I guess the partial workaround is that when a movie is hot the original creator can do a lot of comissions on the old character. At least that's something.

    I watched the DD show (all 13 episodes) in 5 days. It was phenomenal. I like Lee Weeks run on the character too. It's a bit like revisionist history to only focus on the classic runs -- it dilutes the truth. Plus the movies and (good) cartoons have the hindsight of picking and choosing from the best of the best of everyone to craft something seemingly new and fresh. I'm happy to watch the good ones!

  5. Yeah I sort of insinuated Frank created Bullseye, but he did make him into something that was much cooler. And prior to Frank DD was not that good in my opinion.

    Of course the point of the post is who is the creator is not as easy as saying the guy who wrote the first story. I think it is easier to say ERB created Tarzan then to say Stan Lee created Daredevil.