Posts Tagged ‘Mort Todd’

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The panel presented above comes from Steve Ditko’s 2011 comic Sixteen, published by Robin Snyder, and while the book’s title may be disarmingly straightforward, its themes are indeed complex and build off ideas that its artist/writer has been exploring for years. All you need to know to grasp the (perhaps tenuous) connection this piece has with this particular installment of our “Just Pay Ditko!” series, though, is that its main character,  a guy named Leder, is fed up with being double-crossed and ripped off and decides that the time has come to do something about it. And what we’re here to talk about today is quite possibly the biggest rip-of and double-cross in comics history (not that it doesn’t have plenty of competition, since the comics industry has been an ethical sewer almost from the outset).

Recently, we’ve been exploring various matters of copyright in relation to the Ditko work that has recently been reprinted by Fantagraphics Books, Yoe Books, and others, and examining the question of just how “public” some of the supposed “public domain” material that’s been included in these  Handsome (and expensive) hardback volumes really is. Today, I’d like to take that line of questioning one step further and ask whether or not any of it should really be considered PD at all.

Consider : the underlying reasoning  behind exactly why Ditko’s 1950s and ’60s work for Charlton Comics, in particular, is considered to be PD rests in the belief that it was “work for hire” material that has seen its rights, previously held by the publisher, lapse. But what if it was never really “work for hire” to begin with?

If you’re like me, you’ve long held the notion that all comics work for the major and minor publishers, until the advent of creator ownership, was strictly WFH stuff. Why, outfits like Marvel, DC, Charlton, and others were so fucking brazen about this that they even stamped WFH contracts on the back of artists’ and writers’ paychecks up until the late 1970s, effectively forcing creators to give up all rights to their work if they chose to endorse, and thereby cash, their checks. Sign your life on the X if you wanna eat, buddy.

Pretty sleazy, right? Sure it is. But what if those “work for hire” contracts actually stipulated something else entirely?

Patrick Ford, a noted comics fan and historian who’s been studying these issues a lot longer than I have, recently shared some rather interesting information that I had not previously been aware of — namely that these infamous “paycheck contracts” didn’t explicitly spell out the terms of a true “work for hire” arrangement at all!

The simple fact is,  until the 1976 revisions to US copyright laws came into full effect in late 1977/early 1978, comics publishers didn’t even use the term “work for hire” at all. True WFH, you see, stipulates that the publisher not only owns the rights to print a creator’s work, but owns the original, physical pages of work themselves. Those “paycheck contracts” — none of which, by the way, have ever even been able to be produced for, and therefore entered into evidence in, a court of law — actually said nothing about Marvel, DC, Charlton, etc. assuming ownership of the original artwork they were publishing, only that they were paying for the specific rights to print that artwork. So who owns it? Well, considering that Marvel got damn serious about finally returning all that original art they’d had laying around in their offices for years early in 1978 (unless your name was Jack Kirby, in which case they tried to hang onto all your work until their knuckles were bloody), I’d say it’s pretty obvious — the publishers knew the artists were the actual owners of their work, and that all they owned owned the right to run it in their comics publications.

All of which begs the question — if the publishers themselves came (okay, were forced to come) to the realization that they didn’t own the physical artwork itself, why does the retroactive determination that pretty much all old comics work fits the “work for hire” designation hold any water at all? Quite clearly, artists like Steve Ditko who were busy cranking out pages for Marvel, DC, Charlton, and other publishers prior to 1976 had never heard of the term “work for hire” because the publishers themselves never had and didn’t even refer to the artwork (and scripts) they were purchasing as such! So if the artists, writers, etc. of the comics in question were not, in fact, signing “work for hire” agreements in the years prior to 1976, why should that work be subject to WFH status now? And why would the rights to it that have supposedly “lapsed” into the public domain truly be viewed in such terms since the creators of this “lapsed” work weren’t signing away rights that even could “lapse” at any point since the publishers themselves never really owned those rights (beyond the rights to print it, distribute it, and sell it)?

Obviously, this situation is a mess. The whole idea of retroactively declaring any material to be “work for hire” is problematic in both practical and ethical terms, and for decades now comics creators have seen a standard applied to their contracts after the fact that was not reflected in the language of the contracts they originally signed. Retroactive WFH is a gigantic hustle that works entirely in the publishers’ favor, and the kicker is — everyone in comics knows this.

Fortunately, at least one good idea (and no, I don’t count “let’s reprint as much of this stuff as we can get away with until somebody says something!” as being a “good” idea) for how to deal with this fairly has been offered — I don’t know who came up with it first, but I’m giving credit to veteran comics editor/artist/iconoclast Mort Todd, since I at least heard it proposed from him first. We’ll call it “The Mort Todd Solution” — unless he objects, of course — and its rather elegant in its simplicity. Simply put, it’s this : if the original “work for hire” contracts for any given comics work can’t be produced, then the rights to that work should default to its creators.

Yeah, there are various equities that would have to be worked out — what percentage is owned by the writer, what percentage by the penciller, what percentage by the inker, what percentage by the colorist, what percentage by the letterer, etc. — but wouldn’t a messy situation that at least resulted in the creators of comics material being paid be preferable to a messy situation in which only the publishers are being paid? When it comes to the subject of this series series specifically, Steve Ditko, we’ve seen how various publishers of his reprinted work approach the whole idea of just paying the man for what he’s done entirely differently. Mort’s idea would put to rest all these various and sundry “we paid him,” “we didn’t pay him,” and “I offered to pay him — really, trust me, I did!” scenarios because Ditko and his collaborators would have owned the material from the outset and been free to negotiate a publishing deal that would have guaranteed them payment. Can anyone honestly say this wouldn’t have been a preferable starting point when it comes to putting together reprint packages of old comics work?

Well — anyone who isn’t a publisher, at any rate?

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Very few photos of the man above are known to exist, but the product of his creative genius is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He is Steve Ditko, co-(at least) creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange; the Green Goblin and Electro;  Gwen Stacy and Flash Thompson;  The Question and Shade, The Changing Man; Mr. A and Hawk And Dove — and too many more classic characters to mention.

And he’s been mercilessly ripped off by the very industry he helped build. Which, sadly, hardly makes him unique — one could argue that in purely financial terms, Jack Kirby, Bill Finger, Siegel and Shuster, and Joe Simon, to name just some obvious examples off the top of my head, have been fucked over even worse than Ditko has, but this series of posts is going to have a much narrower focus for a couple of reasons — one being that Ditko is very much alive and it’s not too late for those of us concerned with him getting his due to step up to the plate and help make it happen; and the second being that about a week ago I stepped into this in a fairly outspoken way and have had a very interesting experience navigating the waters of the various issues swirling around the comics industry’s treatment of this towering creative dynamo.

The world at large knows damn well who Stan Lee is — he’s seen to that. But very few outside the comics community know Ditko’s name, and that’s perhaps the biggest shame of all.

But back to the specific business at hand here —for those who missed it, I had some rather biting critiques of Dark Horse Comics and a publication outfit called The New Comic Company, which owns the rights to CreepyEerie, and other publications formerly put out by the late Warren Publishing, in my review of the Creepy Presents Steve Ditko hardcover collection,  and some of what I said has proven to be completely and utterly inaccurate, while some of it has been proven to be true. What I got right and what I got wrong will become more clear in the days ahead as I continue this series, but let me state in no uncertain terms and for the record that I am profoundly sorry for the statements I made which proved to be false, and bear complete responsibility for them personally.

Strangely, though, I don’t regret screwing up. It’s opened up a dialogue about this issue both here and in various facebook groups — most notably Rob Imes’ “Ditkomania” group and Fester Faceplant’s  “Charlton Arrow” group — that are long overdue. It’s afforded me a direct line of communication with Dark Horse that I’ve grown to appreciate very much (and very quickly). And it’s given rise to a robust debate filled with good ideas from all sides.

Should I have kept my mouth shut about everything until I knew all the facts? Absolutely. But I’m determined to see this thing through until I’ve completely said all I have to say on the issue, and rather than cutting and running from my errors, it’s my intention to both own up to them and use them as a spingboard to draw even more attention to the issues that I raised.

But there’s no “I” in team, and let me say that a couple of people who have fought tirelessly on Ditko’s behalf, as well as for creator’s rights in general, deserve special mention here at the outset — Steve Bissette is not only a legend in the comics and horror communities, he’s also, like his fellow former Swamp Thing collaborator Alan Moore, one of the most principled folks to ever have graced the “Big Two” publishers (and countless others) with his talents. Many of the ideas we’ll be discussing in the coming days are ones that he’s been espousing for years now, and that’s he’s put into practice in his own publishing efforts. We need more people like Steve in this industry, plain and simple.

Next on my “thank you” list is veteran comics editor and artist Mort Todd. Mort’s an interesting and dare I even say iconoclastic guy with a very definite set of principles that has put the two of  us — always politely, mind you — on the opposite side of many political debates on facebook over the years, but like Ditko himself he walks the walk rather than just talks the talk, and when it comes to comics creators getting their due, he’s been outspoken and principled and frankly shows a pretty admirable streak in terms of not caring whose  feathers he ruffles. I appreciate especially his contribution of an idea that I find absolutely terrific that we’ll be getting into in the next few days, as well.

Finally, I want to say that, for all the various and contrary opinions that have been expressed in regards to the idea of simply paying Steve Ditko for his work, I have never gotten the sense that anyone doesn’t care about this man or value the amazing work he’s done and continues to do. For those of you out there who aren’t following his current  creative output published by Robin Snyder, you owe it to yourself to do so. I have next to no personal philosophical agreement with the hard-line Ayn Rand-inspired beliefs he espouses, but the uncompromising fervor with which he adheres to and promulgates his unique ethical perspectives is truly awe-inspiring, Now in his mid-80s, his work burns with a zeal and philosophical coherence that most people half, or even a quarter, of his age could never hope to capture. When I called him a “dynamo,” it wasn’t just hyperbole — it was fact.

Fortunately, there appears to be somebody at Dark Horse who shares my profound admiration for this extraordinary artist and has seen to it that his employer treats him fairly. I’m sadly not a liberty to divulge who this individual is, as he specifically requested that I remove his posts on the Creepy Presents review for a variety of reasons which I respect, but his invaluable insight into the Warren reprint series in particular has been one of the reasons I felt that not just a follow-up post correcting my errors, but a series of posts taking a comprehensive look at this entire situation is in order. Let me share one piece of very good news that I’ve been specifically authorized to relate, though —

As far as the Creepy Presents book goes, STEVE DITKO HAS BEEN PAID. I din’t ask how much. I didn’t ask when (if it was before or after I made a stink about it). I didn’t ask anything that wasn’t, frankly, any of my business. But a check was mailed to Ditko along with a letter asking him to please CASH IT. I had incorrectly stated that none of the creators whose work was being reprinted in the Warren series had seen a dime.  I was wrong. I know for a fact that Richard Corben, as well as Ditko, have both been paid. As of right now I have not been given assurances about anyone else — the question about payment being made to Archie Goodwin’s widow, which I was particularly interested in given that he wrote 15 of the 16 stories in the Ditko book, is not something my contact within Dark Horse was able to answer with certainty. He has promised to follow up on it , though, and I take him at his word since he’s kept it in all of our dealings so far.

But I feel like, in some small way, those of us who are interested in seeing the creative minds of this industry get at least something of a fairer shake are making progress. I don’t know as of yet whether or not my initial post on the Creepy book did more harm than good, or if this series I’m undertaking will do more of one or the other (if anything) as well, but right now I’m leaning toward viewing all of this, my fuck-ups included, as a step forward. This  is no time, however,  to take our collective foot off the gas. This struggle is bigger than you, me, or even Steve Ditko, and I’m just getting started — I hope you’ll be along for the ride and add your voice to the discussion. “Just Pay Ditko!” may seem an oversimplification to some — I’ve even been told it’s an insult to the man for reasons that we’ll get into — but I hope to communicate clearly and unequivocally why I remain more convinced than ever that it’s the least the industry as a whole can do for him and why it’s so important that we, as fans and concerned individuals, insist that they do so. This ride might be a bumpy one, but we owe it to Ditko and too many other screwed-over creators to mention to see it trough. They are the authors of many of our most cherished childhood memories. It’s high time we found a way to say thanks.