Let’s be honest — nobody in comics history has ever drawn people “on the brink” as well as Steve Ditko. Alan Moore has opined that his characters consistently look like they’re either about to have a complete nervous breakdown or a staggering, life-changing, moment of revelation. I can definitely see that, but I dunno — maybe those harrowing portrayals of folks whose world could implode at any moment just came naturally to a guy who spent so many years immersed in the so-called “work-for-hire” system, which is more than enough to at least fray, if not completely shred, anyone’s nerves. Yeah, okay, the picture reproduced above is from a Marvel story that was published reasonably early in Ditko’s career arc, but still —
Think about this for a minute, comics fans : the pros who put out the material we enjoy have no company-provided health insurance. No 401K. No dental plan. And, unless they’re locked down to an exclusive contract of some sort with a publisher, no guarantee that management won’t sack ’em next month and replace ’em with some over-eager kid who just sent samples in last week and who is willing to work for half the page rate of the guy they’re going to be replacing — with, in many cases, the guy being shown the door also being the very artist who, ironically, inspired our keen and hungry youngster to get into comics in the first place.
People love to paint Steve Ditko as being some kind of recluse or hermit simply because he works exclusively with Robin Snyder these days, but I would submit that if, as a freelance comic artist, you’re able to find one — just one — publisher who treats you with honesty and integrity at all times, then frankly you’d be crazy not to stick with them for the rest of your career. You’re not going to get fair treatment from “The Big Two” — that’s a given — and sadly, the smaller publishing houses, who you’d at least think would see the value in giving creators a fair deal, are increasingly aping Marvel and DC’s business practices and “ethics” since they figure that’s the surest path to long-term commercial success.
Are you depressed yet? ‘Cuz I sure am.
And now, with the advent of the booming reprint industry, artists like Ditko can be assured than publishers are going to profit off their creative genius not once, but twice (at least), while they get even less for their trouble the second time around than they did the first. Consider — if you’re enjoying a volume of Fantagraphics’ Steve Ditko Archives, which is currently running his 1950s Charlton work, or a book like The Art Of Ditko from IDW/Yoe Books, which showcases much of the same material, all the artist is ever going to receive for these books, which showcase his name prominently on the cover and sell based completely on the strength of his work, is the six to eight bucks a page he got paid for drawing them in the first place. If you’re wondering why I keep plugging along with this series, there’s your answer right there. Surely this situation has to strike plenty of folks as being just plain ridiculous.
Still, I hear you out saying to yourself out there “yeah, it sucks, but what can ya do? It was ‘work-for-hire,’ after all.”
Except, of course, as we’ve previously examined here, it may very well not have been, and even if it was, that’s a decision that was made retroactively. No single comics creator in the 1950s and ’60s was even aware of the term “work-for-hire,” much less the terms of “work-for-hire.” And in ensuing decades, a widespread myth (that benefits no one but the publishers, so you can be pretty sure from whence it originated) has taken root in comics circles that freelance work and “work-for-hire” are by and large the same thing.
To which I offer a four-word rebuttal : Just. Not. The. Case.
The distinction between standard freelance work and “work-for-hire” is one that all comic fans would do well to educate themselves on, since it plays a part in the (hopefully ongoing) legal struggles between Jack Kirby’s estate and Marvel. While numerous other details swirl around the periphery of what separates the two forms of work, the main one to concern ourselves with is simply this, and it’s something we’ve mentioned before but which I repeat here for emphasis : if those supposed “work-for hire” contracts that creators signed “back in the day” said nothing about original art — and they didn’t — then they weren’t true “work-for-hire” deals. All the publishers were buying was the right to publish the work, not the actual, physical work itself.
Yes, they’re freelance contacts. Nobody’s contesting that. Steve Ditko. Jack Kirby. Wally Wood. Bill Everett. Carl Burgos. Don Heck. All those original Marvel artists who ushered in the so-called “Silver Age” of comics were all freelancers. So was everybody working for DC, Charlton, and other publishers at the time. But not a one of them signed an agreement that specified their efforts as being “work-for-hire,” even though they’re finding themselves bound by the terms of WFH now.
How is that even sensible, let alone ethical?
I’m no legal expert by any stretch of the imagination, but even I know you can’t tack on contractual terms to a previously-signed agreement after the fact. “We meant to include that language in the contract, we just didn’t do it” won’t wash in any other contract law situation, yet it’s exactly the position that dozens, even hundreds, of comic pros find themselves in. And when work that may very well not have been WFH is reprinted and the creators realize no payment from that while the publishers profit a second, third, or fourth time around (how many times, and in how many formats, have Steve Ditko’s original issues of The Amazing Spider-Man been packaged and sold, anyway?), at what point will all the gushing introductions by Stan Lee and his ilk finally be seen by fans as the hollow and empty rhetoric they are? No amount of flowery bromides can mask the stench coming from an expensive hardback collection whose very existence guarantees that the already-poorly-compensated artist is just being swindled one more time.