Posts Tagged ‘Steve Ditko’

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I’ll say this much — Marvel Studios’ latest mega-blockbuster, Doctor Strange, certainly is an amazing feast for the eyes. From the amazing opening fight sequence to the trippy other-dimensional mystical mindscapes peppered throughout the film, director Scott Derrickson (who also co-wrote the script along with John Spaihts and the erudite-sounding C. Robert Cargill) pulls out all the stops to “wow” you and succeeds in his goal admirably. In fact, if there’s ever been a flick that you need to see in 3-DD, Imax, and all that shit, it’s this one.

Here’s the rub, though : if you’ve seen all, some, or even just one of Marvel’s other cinematic products, then you really don’t “need” to see this thing at all.

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By all rights, of course, this movie (which only came out two weeks ago, but I’m slapping my “Late To The Party” header on it anyway since most people see these on opening weekend and I didn’t get a chance to catch it until last night) sounded like it might represent the best chance for the so-called MCU to break from its well-established (and, admittedly, quite financially successful) mold : the character of Stephen Strange himself, a semi-tragic figure brought low by his own hubris when the wealthy and arrogant neurosurgeon’s reckless driving leads to a car accident that renders his hands useless and sets him off on a quest to heal himself by mystical means, is arguably the purest distillation of the type of “morality play” his creator, Steve Ditko (sorry, Stan, I don’t care what the studio bosses say, you don’t get any credit for this one from me) excelled at during his 1960s Marvel period, and his signature psychedelic visual style is well-represented in the work of Derrickson’s CGI crew, but there’s definitely quite a bit lost in the translation from newsprint to celluloid here. I’ll grant you that this film isn’t nearly the glorified paean to war and militarism that the Avengers and Captain America flicks are, but in just about every other respect it follows the worn and tired formula of its stablemates downright slavishly : morally and ethically dubious protagonist (in this case Benedict Cumberbatch’s Strange) goes through a long-form origin story that results in him becoming a marginally better person after attaining super-powers at the feet of a more experienced master (Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One);  he accrues a comic-relief sidekick (Benedict Wong’s — well, Wong), as well as one who might be a potential future rival (Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo), along the way; principal bad guy (Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius) is a former pupil of aforementioned master gone rogue; main bad guy (Dormammu) is a computer-generated special effect; nominal love interest (Amy McAdams’ Christine Palmer) is essentially treated like a doormat but sticks by her guy anyway; you know the drill. In fact, you know it by heart at this point.

All of which means that a darn fine cast is wasted on this lifeless, assembly-line drivel (hell, you can even set your watch by the intervals between jokes — which largely fall flat this time out — in these things). Cumberbatch essentially plays Strange as Tony Stark in a magic red cloak;  Ejiofor buries his not-inconsiderable talents under a mask of dour, one-dimensional earnestness; McAdams suffers through her lines as surely as her character suffers through life as a plot device for her male counterpart; Swinton (whose casting was controversial among stodgy and conservative comics fans due to the fact that the “real” Ancient One is both Asian and male) shows some heart but the damn thing is that her role would be better served if she were more distant and blase a la David Carridine; Mikkelsen seems like a low-rent stand-in for Tom Hiddleston’s Loki; yadda, yadda, etc., etc.

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In many ways, in fact, the creative bankruptcy of Marvel Studios has never been made more plain than it is here — after all, if they can take a fundamentally different premise than that which we see in their other films and still turn it into big-budget, dime-a-dozen, interchangeable cinematic fare, then it becomes depressingly clear that not only are they not interested in trying anything fundamentally different, they more than likely simply don’t even know how to at this point.

Not that audiences seem to care, mind you. “More of the same” still sells, and unless and until one of these things tanks at the box office, nothing’s gonna change, and the “Big-Budget-TV-Movie” ethos that permeates the MCU will hold firm. When it comes to the bottom line, that makes plenty of sense — but sooner or later familiarity breeds contempt, and when the bottom finally falls out on the super-hero craze, I predict it’s gonna fall out hard. As in, end-of-disco hard. People aren’t just gonna stop seeing this stuff, they’re gonna be too embarrassed to admit they ever even liked it. And when that day comes, whether it’s in one year or ten, Marvel will have only themselves to blame. They crank out enough films to be able to do something at least a little bit adventurous and “outside the box” once in awhile. They can afford to throw some shit at the wall and see what sticks. But they don’t. Won’t. Can’t. And now it’s gotten to the point where I’m a whole lot less lonely than I used to be when it comes to griping about the utter sameness of their films. The chorus of groaners is still small, true, but it’s getting louder. And larger. And sooner or later, the powers that be might want to pay attention.

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They’d better start paying attention to the wretched politics of their films, as well. Women are props consigned to do little beyond making the men around them more caring and more human. Racial and ethnic minorities are consigned to “second-fiddle” roles. Gays and lesbians simply don’t exist. Might always makes right. And, perhaps most troublesome in the “Age Of Trump,” rich people — even the most noxious, self-centered, asinine, egomaniacal ones — are worthy of being granted super-powers and become better people once they attain those powers. Why they’re not called to the carpet more often for these clear, present, and nauseating themes remains a mystery to me, but whenever I bitch about ’em, the most common whitewashing excuse I hear from folks — even he most purportedly “liberal” viewers — is that I’m “overthinking” things. Well, I call bullshit on that. Tony Stark — and now Stephen Strange — have gone a long way toward normalizing this idea that overtly asshole-ish, obscenely wealthy narcissists can be heroes, and look where that’s gotten us.

Am I blaming Marvel, then, for the rise of our Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief? No (although it’s worth pointing out that Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter was a major Trump donor and supporter), but in much the same way that Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist (whose author, William Peter Blatty, was a psychological warfare operative in Vietnam) preceded the ludicrous “Satanic Panic” that followed in their wake about a decade later, and the spate of ‘Nam flicks in the 1980s that were, at least on a surface level, critical of that war helped numb audiences to the notion of endless, un-winnable conflicts that would start up again in earnest with “Gulf War I” in 1990 and continue, on and off, for the next three decades, these flicks do their part to contribute to the cultural zeitgeist that makes certain once-unpalatable notions in the real world very palatable indeed.  In that respect, then, Marvel movies may be graduating from being simply dull and predictable to being downright dangerous. I hope, of course, that this is just pure batshit paranoia on my part — I fear, however, that it’s anything but.

 

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I won’t mice words — I fucking hate the games Marvel is playing with all the numbering on their titles these days. Issue numbers like “27.Now” are stupid enough, but when we’re getting books marked with big red “#1″‘s in the upper right-hand corner that then say they’re actually number 23 in the lower right-hand corner, well — things are getting pretty out of hand. Add in the constant relaunches of long-standing titles, the re-launches of less-long-running-titles that still make no sense (Wolverine ran 13 issues before starting over at #1 —with the same writer continuing the same storyline, while Daredevil ended its last run after 34 issues before starting all over again with the same writer and artist both), and one could make an argument that the situation isn’t just dire, it’s well and truly out of control.

Marvel’s argument is that the constant re-numbering is essential for providing new “jumping-on points” for the new readers they’re trying (and still largely failing) to attract, but I call bullshit on that. If you were walking into a comic shop for the first time, what would you be more likely to pick up? An issue clearly marked as being #46, or one that was marked as #46 and #1 on the same cover? The former, at least, you can understand — the latter will just confuse the hell out of you. Marvel provides a full-page recap of the ongoing story on the first page of all their books anyway, so this whole “let’s make  a new number one every year so new readers won’t feel lost” line of “reasoning” is patent nonsense, anyway.

Still, allow me to offer a humble suggestion for a solution to this whole dilemma — rather than try to make it easy for new readers to “get into comics” by pumping the market full of endless phony “first” issues, bring in new readers by making sure each issue of every comic you make is good so that people actually want to buy it. What’s more likely to make a long-term reader out of somebody — a 53rd issue that’s got great story and art and hooks them for the long haul, or a horseshit issue #1 with a lame story and generic art that people feel ripped off for ever having bought? It doesn’t matter what the number on the front cover says to either a new reader or an already-existing one — if a book sucks, people will drop it, and if it’s good, they’ll be back for more.

Marvel’s outrageous $3.99 cover prices and the shoddiness of their physical product aren’t helping matters any, either — their books don’t even have glossy covers anymore and are printed on the same flimsy, barely-better-than-newsprint paper as the interior pages. I’d rather pay, say, $1.99 for a book with a glossy cover and newsprint on the inside than shell out four bucks for what amounts to a lower-quality, cheaper product. Seriously, these comics they’re cranking out now are more disposable-looking,  and crummier, than old-school 50-cent newsprint books ever were.

But here, perhaps, I may have digressed a bit — let’s get back to this ongoing numbering fiasco. Hot on the heels of the newly-relaunched Amazing Spider-Man #1, a book which replaces the just-over-a-year-old Superior Spider-Man on the stands (and which wrapped at issue #31, for those keeping score at home) comes a five-issue min-series-within-a-series called “Learning To Crawl,” which takes Peter Parker (who’s just made his less-than-triumphant return in the “main” Spidey book after being kicked out of his own body by Doctor Octopus for the past year) back to his humble beginnings and purportedly gives us “new insight” into his formative years. The numbering for this series is guaranteed to perplex these largely-non-existent “new readers” Marvel is trying to attract, though, since it’s not numbered as The Amazing Spider-Man #2, or even as Spider-Man : Learning To Crawl #1, but is going out, for reasons I can’t even begin to fathom, as The Amazing Spider-Man #1.1, with subsequent issues being #1.2, #1.3, etc. Meanwhile, right next to it on the stands, The Amazing Spider-Man will continue to proceed with its standard increasing numbering, with issue #2 slated to arrive in stores next week, followed two weeks after that by #3, and two weeks after that by — well, you get the idea.

Just remember — all this is supposed to make getting into comics “easier” for new readers than it would be if they just had a book with numbering that actually made sense.

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All that aside, I guess the main thing folks want to know about The Amazing Spider-Man #1.1  is whether or not it’s actually any good and whether there’s really anything to be gained by going back and revisiting Spidey’s origins one more time. After all, Steve Ditko (and, I guess to some extent — though not nearly as great an extent as he’s always claimed — Stan Lee) did a pretty good job of things back in issue #15 of Amazing Fantasy, and this is definitely a story that doesn’t, in any way, need to be told again, does it? But comics going “back to their roots” has been positively de riguer  ever since Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman : Year One nearly thirty years ago, and while that still remains the “gold standard,” in my book, for revisionist origin stories, the fact is that, much as I hate to admit it, some fairly decent yarns have been spun by other creators who see  value in taking yet another look at a super-hero’s formative years. Usually, strangely enough, these tend to be Batman stories — think of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s seminal Batman : The Long Halloween and Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s currently-ongoing (and really pretty damn good) Batman : Zero Year — but hey, there’s no reason why it won’t work for other characters if the right folks are driving the bus, right?

Unfortunately, it’s Dan Slott at the wheel of this “Spidey Year One,” and you pretty much know what you’re going to get from him — mediocrity, angst, and clumsy dialogue. All of which is in evidence here in the first chapter of “Learning To Crawl,” which largely focuses on Peter Parker’s efforts to make it in the world of show business in order to financially provide for his ailing Aunt May now that her husband is out of the picture thanks to our guy Pete’s cowardly and egotistical inaction. How can he juggle school, freelance work for the Daily Bugle, being a super-hero, and being the man of the house, all while feeling sorry for himself for letting the guy that would go on to murder his uncle escape?

Dear God — who cares? We’ve seen seen this done before, we’ve seen this done better, and we’ve seen this done in 15 pages. What’s there to be gained by shoe-horning into continuity some “story that’s never been told” over the course of five issues (or five .issues as the case may be)? So far, nothing that I can see. Our opening chapter ends on a cliffhanger that shows some confused rich kid who’s been “inspired” by his new idol, Spider-Man, into donning a mask and costume himself in order to join the “war on crime,” but it’s not enough to keep the average reader on pins and needles waiting for the next installment. I guess it’s a “new wrinkle” and all, but it comes after 20 pages of Uncle Ben’s funeral, Peter blowing off a party at Liz Allan’s because he’s got to perform as Spider-Man on TV, Aunt May making breakfast, Peter getting in trouble for missing classes — the usual shit. All played out against a backdrop of “I’m the most lonely, confused, misunderstood teenager in the fucking world, and no girl is ever gonna like me.” We’ve been hearing that one for, what? 50-plus years now?

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Still, things are at least better on the art front here. Penciller/inker Ramon Perez absolutely knocks it out of the park as he presents this story in a heavily revisionist, Ditko-esque style that pays homage to what’s gone before while adding a pleasing, but hardly overbearing, modern twist. This book looks like it would be just as at home in 1964 as it is in 2014, and Perez has, not to sound too grandiose, produced some genuinely timeless imagery. I may not ever want to read this comic again, but it sure is fun to look at over and over. Wrap it all up in a cover by supposed “living legend” Alex Ross that I actually like (I can’t say that about a lot of Ross’ work. although I know that puts me in a tiny minority), and you’ve got a visual feast on your hands here, people. It’s just too bad it amounts to little more than putting lipstick on a pig.

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All in all, it’s fair to say that events in the “Spider-verse” in general are leaving me cold lately. While I actually enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 more than a lot of folks seem to have, and frankly more than I was expecting to, the printed-page exploits of everyone’s favorite wall-crawler are definitely headed in the wrong direction. We’ve got Peter Parker back just as things in Superior were threatening to make the character interesting again, a totally unnecessary (if lavishly well-illustrated) “previously untold” origin story with stupid issue numbering, another relaunch of the main title that probably won’t last two years before they do it all over again, and Dan Slott still in place as the franchise’s chief “caretaker.” Honestly, it’s  hard to imagine a more depressing scenario.

And that, I think, is my cue to wrap this review up. I’m whining so damn much that I’m starting to sound eerily like Peter Parker.

 

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So Marvel has finally bowed to the incessant fan whining going on out there and brought back Peter Parker — sort of.

A year after purportedly “killing” Parker off in The Amazing Spider-Man #700 and re-launching the Spidey comic franchise as The Superior Spider-Man, a new series based on the remarkable, if easily reversible, gimmick of Pete’s body being taken over by the mind of one of his greatest foes, Dr. Octopus (a.k.a. Otto Octavius), the original Spider-Man is back, albeit in flashback form, in a new five-part mini-series continuing the numbering of the old title, but with a twist — rather than going out with the straight-forward numerical designations that would have seen these books being The Amazing Spider-Man  701, 702, etc., they’re instead being issued as numbers 700.1, 700.2, etc. I know, I know, say it with me — whatever.

Anyway, I plunked down eight bucks for the first couple issues of this revolving-creative-team fiasco, which are written by Hollywood screenwriter David Morrell and illustrated by comics veteran Klaus Janson, and even though more or less nothing happens here story-wise — New York is blanketed in a massive snowstorm, the power goes out, and Spidey is trying to get over to Aunt May’s place to make sure she’s okay (seriously, that’s it — no villains to fight, nothin’) — one thing became crystal clear as I read these sparsely-dialogued, if competently-enough-illustrtated issues : it’s a damn good thing that Peter Parker is dead and we might as well enjoy it while it lasts (because, let’s face it, no “death” in comics is permanent).

Blasphemy, you say? I beg to differ. Think about it : sure, the new Octavius-Spidey is a d-bag and something of a fascist, with spy-cam Spider-bots literally stalking every inch of the city, an island fortress headquarters, and a blackmailed Mayor J. Jonah Jameson under his thumb, but shit — at least he’s a somewhat interesting character, and that’s something Peter Parker stopped being a loooooonnnnngggg time ago.

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While I have little doubt that The Amazing Spider-Man .-whatever-the-fuck probably improves as a series with its third installment when Joe Casey takes over the writing chores, it’s not something I bothered to hang around to find out, simply because Morrell and Janson have, inadvertently, reminded me just what a dead end Parker is as a character. All he’s really good for is acting like a self-absorbed prick and then feeling sorry for himself because he is, in fact, such a self-absorbed prick. Yeah, fair enough, the supposedly “Superior” version of Spidey is even more of a self-absorbed prick, but at least he’s set his sights higher than blowing off Aunt May for a date with Mary Jane Watson or somesuch. He seems to be out to pretty much take over New York by any mean necessary, and doesn’t bother to slow down enough to have an internal debate with himself about the legal or moral ramifications of what he’s doing, much less take a cold, hard look at why he’s even doing so in the first place. In short, he’s a man of action, and Peter Parker had pretty much been doing nothing but tread water as a character for the last 50 years. Otto-Spidey even shows some signs of moral complexity — he’s dating a dwarf (or “little person,” if you prefer) and genuinely cares about her, even though he’s pretty much nothing but an arrogant bastard the rest of the time. Peter Parker wouldn’t have the guts to do that — he’d simply reject her advances, feel sorry for her, and then feel guilty for breaking the poor girl’s heart while he’s out with some supermodel-type.  He’d have some pity for her (whether she wanted it or not), but you can bet he’d have even more  pity for himself.

Okay, you can fairly argue that Pete “advanced” as a character by  doing  things like, I dunno,  aging at maybe one-tenth (at most) the normal human rate, quitting his job at the Daily Bugle and becoming a full-time scientist, getingt married, reverssing time and undoing his marriage to save Mary Jane from no less than Satan himself, etc., but that’s all circumstantial window dressing — basically, he’s always been the same boring blowhard he’s been since Steve Ditko quit drawing (and, let’s not kid ourselves, writing) the book back in 1967. Ditko’s interation of Parker was, in fact, compelling and interesting :Pete always seemed to be the slightest nudge away from a complete nervous breakdown, and shit almost never went his way — he lost out on love with Betty Brant and Liz Allen, got picked on by Flash Thompson, inadvertently got his Uncle Ben killed — you know the drill. He was a genuinely tortured soul. It was melodramatic as all get-go, sure, but at least it was fun stuff to read.

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The minute Ditko flew the coop, though, it all went south — Peter Parker went from being a thin, mousy, bookworm to being a rugged, square-jawed, stereotypically-rendered “hero.” He started to get the girl every time. And Flash Thompson became his best friend.

Oh, sure, he still sat there and fretted about what a shallow, egotistical dweeb he was, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to be a shallow, egotistical dweeb, and we as readers were asked to continue feeling sorry for him not because he never got anything he wanted, but because he sometimes  didn’t get every single thing he wanted. I’m sorry, but screw that. This is a character that deserved to get killed years ago!

Morrell’s interminably lazy script for Amazing issues 700.1 and 700.2 seems to serve no other purpose than to lay on the Parker-nostalgia as thick as possible. Wow, isn’t Pete selfless for trying to make sure the woman who raised him isn’t freezing to death; isn’t he heroic for stopping on the way to her house to rescue people from various storm-induced calamities; and gosh, more than anything and everything, isn’t he just the most noble and awesome guy who ever lived?

Well, no — he’s not. He’s just plain boring. And he has been since the one creator who understood what made him unique in the first place left.

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There hasn’t been any genuine angst in any of the Spidey books since Ditko’s departure — there’s just been one phony attempt at interjecting angst after another, all ofwwhich have fallen completely flat and resulted in Peter Parker becoming less and less likable as time went on. Dan Slott’s take on Otto/Spidey in Superior may be far from perfect, but at least he’s not treading water, which is all that Marvel was willing to let other creators do for nearly a half century now. I have no doubt — nor should you — that all this will be undone within the next year or two, but damn — at least Spider-Man is worth reading again for the time being, and that’s at least worth a little something, isn’t it?

I’ll grant you, at the end of the day the folks who say The Superior Spider-Man is an asshole are right — but The Amazing Spider-Man was a boring, pouty asshole with a martyr complex. I know which I prefer.

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If you think I sounded like a pissed-off curmudgeon when I was ranting and raving about what DC did to Jack Kirby’s Darkseid and Desaad characters as part of the unfolding disaster that is their “Villains Month,” then you might want to skip what I have to say about what they’ve done to Steve Ditko’s Creeper, because at this point I’m positively livid.

We might as well be honest and admit that The Creeper’s origins as laid out by Ditko — ace TV reporter Jack Ryder goes to a Halloween costume party wearing some garish yellow-skinned, green-furred ensemble and ends up ingesting  a military super-secret formula designed to allow soldiers to stash their combat gear on a molecular level within their own bodies, thus bonding him with his crazy get-up and giving him the weirdest set of super powers ever devised at the same time (namely the ability to leap from building to building and laugh like a hyena that’s been hitting the nitrous tank) — but damn, at least it was a fun kind of nonsense.

The Creeper’s backstory circa 2013 is equally implausible, but damn, is it ever a drag. To sum things up quickly : he’s an ancient evil spirit from Japan that causes tornadoes and was banished to another dimension inside some mystical sword and got loose when tabloid TV journalist Jack Ryder got himself killed on the freighter ship the sword was being transported on. The “demon” (or whatever) then hitched a ride in Ryder’s animated corpse and now he goes around causing twisters and other natural disasters and then reports on ’em right away because he’s, naturally, the first member of the so-called “Fifth Estate” to be on the scene.

I suppose that comes in handy on slow news days, but damn, you’d think that it wouldn’t take too long for everybody to figure out that when Jack Ryder hits town, your best bet is to head for the hills pronto.

Anyway, that’s The Creeper #1 (or Justice League Dark #23.1 if we want to go by it’s quasi-official numbering) in a nutshell, and it’s even more excruciating to see played out over 20 pages than it is to read my slapdash plot recap, trust me. Veteran comics scribe Ann Nocenti does a competent enough job with the dialogue and pacing here, but the plot itself as laid out by — and here’s the problem — Dan DiDio is such a clusterfuck of bad ideas from start to finish that there’s not much anyone can do to save it, and the hastily-cobbled- together group of pencillers and inkers (the pencils being handled by something called ChrisCross with assistance from Fabrizio Fiorentino and Tom Derenick, with Derenick, Wayne Faucher, and Andy Owens providing the inks — don’t ask me who did which panels or pages specifically since I don’t know and don’t care, and neither will you should you ignore my advice and buy this thing anyway) are all uniformlyy non-descript and uninteresting, so that really doesn’t help matters much, either.

As with all this “Villains Month” crap so far, all The Creeper #1 manages to prove is that DC in its present creative death spiral can pretty much fuck up any given character, concept, or idea, and that a 3-D holographic cover is no substitute for even a halfway decent comic story.  Honestly, at this point I’m running out of  even semi-clever ways to say “avoid at all costs,” so I’ll just state it flat-out — avoid at all costs.

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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.

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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?

heroespack

Those who haven’t followed Steve Ditko’s work published by Robin Snyder over the course of the past quarter-century may find some of the titles of the books curious — Public Service Package? Seriously? What’s that all about?

All I can say is, if you read the stuff, the titles do make a kind of sense. And I’d like to thank those who have been chiming in over on Rob Imes’ “Ditkomania” facebook page for the “public service” they have provided me in terms of giving me  some answers to the numerous (okay, unending) questions I’ve been asking in this series. For instance —-

Greg Theakston, who has published a fair amount of public domain reprints under his Pure Imagination label over the years, was generous enough to inform me that the reason behind the apparent 1960 “demarcation year” when it comes to reprinting Charlton comics is because, amazingly enough,  the “brains” at Charlton were either too cheap, too lazy, or too much of both, to actually file registrations with the copyright office up until the very tail end of 1959! This only sounds crazy if you don’t know that publisher’s history, I guess. After that, though, things get murkier. Apparently,  in the ’60s Charlton actually did their proper copyright filing, but the wording they used varied from publication to publication, sometimes even from issue to issue with regards to a particular publication, and the legal weight said wording holds today is the determining factor (or at least one of the determining factors) when it comes to whether or not material from that period can be reprinted. Theakston has done what all publishers should do and actually hired somebody to research the state of various copyrights before going ahead and determining what he is and isn’t able to reprint, and while I haven’t heard from anyone connected with Fantagraphics Books or Yoe Books, the two main purveyors of Ditko reprint material at the moment in addition to Marvel and DC, in regards to whether or not they also do the sort of legwork Theakston does, my best guess is that they probably must, otherwise they wouldn’t be going to press with this stuff.

So, there’s one question answered.

But it gets even more muddled just a few years down the line — according to J. David Spurlock, who’s busy co-ordinating the publication of a comprehensive collection of Wally Wood’s legendary witzend publication along with the aforementioned Fantagraphics (a project we’ll be discussing more in the very near future in this series because it’s the kind of ethically sound venture that all of us, no matter where we stand on the various individual matters we’ve been discussing here up to this point, will be able to enthusiastically support — so stay tuned for more details!), the actual cut-off point for Charlton stuff to be reprinted without any sort of fear of legal reprisal is more like 1963-64, not 1960, although why that would be I honestly I have no idea, apart from the fact that it has to do with an extension granted on behalf of reprint material about — I shit you not — Sonny Bono. Still,  regardless of what the guy who gave us “I Got You, Babe” has to do with anything, it’s something that, again, I’m pretty confident most —hopefully all —  publishers are taking into consideration before “green-lighting” various Charlton reprint projects from this period.

Also worth noting here is the fact that of the rights to former Charlton properties that DC didn’t secure, the lion’s share were scooped up by Canadian publisher ACG, particularly in regards to much of the horror and western material, and the rights to some of it did, in fact, end up with Steve Ditko and Robin Snyder, which probably explains why the Charlton material they’ve presented in various reprint packages over the years has always run with copyright notices attached (although why much of that stuff has appeared elsewhere without proper copyright info included remains, at least to this point, a mystery to me). It may also be worth pointing out  that it was none other than Snyder himself who arranged at least most (if not all) of the sales of Charlton’s copyrighted properties, so his meticulous attention to detail in terms of including notices in the reprints he put out under his own name is certainly understandable.

The next bit of info that Mr. Spurlock shared is indeed fascinating — he explained that while it may or may not be the case that various Charlton copyrights have lapsed DOMESTICALLY, the fact remains that they’re still in force INTERNATIONALLY, which is why some publishers have shied away from this work altogether. Think about it — if a single copy of a Charlton reprint book that features characters or stories that ACG holds the international rights to sells outside of the US, the publisher of said material would be opening themselves up to a potential lawsuit from ACG. Such a lawsuit may not be worth their time or effort, though, which leads to the final point Spurlock made, namely —

Some publishers simply put this stuff out THINKING that they will PROBABLY get away with it, even though the copyrights on much of the material they’re publishing are still very much a going concern. I didn’t ask which particular publishers are engaged in this kind of chicanery, since singling out any particular entity as being involved in something illegal has never been my intention here, but if this is correct, all I can say to any publishers who might be doing it is — shame on you. In fact, double-shame on you, because you’re not only screwing over the legitimate rights-holders of the work you’re putting out, you’re screwing over Steve Ditko and other Charlton writers and artists whose work you are claiming to be in the public domain when it isn’t. That kind of reckless behavior, if it is indeed occurring (and I sincerely hope it’s not) only strengthens the hand of Disney,  Time Warner, and other monolithic, soulless corporate entities who are working night and day to get PD shut down across the board. If we don’t want to lose the entire concept of public domain altogether — and it would be an absolute tragedy if that happened — then we need to proceed cautiously. We need to dot all our “i’s and cross all our “t”s like Greg Theakston is doing. PD is hanging by a very slender legal thread these days, and if we abuse it, we’re could wind up losing it. This ain’t the wild west, folks. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

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Warning! If questions about who owns what and how and why they claim to own it put you in the frame of mind Steve Ditko is shown to be — uhhhhmmm — “enjoying” in the legendary self-portrait shown above, you might want to bug out on this whole “Just Pay Ditko!” series right now, because things are going to be taking a turn for the either detailed or pedantic (depending on your point of view) over the course of the next few entries in this series.

Yeah, that’s right — just when you thought it was safe to pay attention to things here at Geeky Universe again, I’m back after about a week away and talking about my “next few entries in this series” when at first I had promised this was “only” going to be a ten-part affair. What can I say? The mystery has deepened and taken a few unexpected turns in the time I’ve taken a break from writing about this stuff to concentrate more completely on researching it. As things now stand, we’re looking at probably going 15 or 16 installments before this is all over — and I use the term “over” very loosely, trust me, because it’s becoming more and more clear to me that, well — there just ain’t no clarity to be found on some of these matters. It sometimes feels like I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and, rather than clawing my way back up towards the surface as any reasonable, right-thinking person would do, I’ve decided to dig down even deeper to see if maybe I can, I dunno, tunnel my way to China or something. If I never see daylight again, I suppose I’ll probably regret that, but for now —

First question : why, exactly, is much of what we assume to be “public domain” material — stuff which is therefore freely available to reprint for anybody who wants to do it — actually considered as such? If you’ve been kicking around the comic scene for a long time, you’ve probably thought, much like I did until quite recently, that when it comes to most of the older Charlton Comics material — you know, the kind of thing being put out by Fantagraphics Books, Yoe Books, and others in their recent Steve Ditko hardcover collections — that it’s a pretty open-and-shut matter. In much the same way that George Romero’s omission of a proper copyright blurb on the very first print of Night Of The Living Dead has resulted in anybody who feels like it putting that legendary film out on DVD, the story goes that Charlton’s copyright indicias on their various publications were so sloppily-assembled that they just doesn’t hold any legal water any more and, in fact, probably never did.

That could be true, But what if it isn’t?

Let’s be honest here for a minute — DC paid a tidy sum for the rights to former Charlton characters like Blue Beetle, The Question, Peacemaker, Captain Atom, etc. Why would they do that if there was no need to?

Similarly, why would they have such a confusing stance at present vis a vis Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt — another Charlton property they once claimed ownership of? They never did much with the character, to be sure — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons changing his name to Ozymandias and having him hatch a plot to save the world by destroying most of it notwithstanding — and in 1995 either sold or allowed it to lapse back into the hands of (depending on which version of events you read online and subsequently believe) its creator, Pete Morisi, but even though we’ve already established that there are multiple takes on this single transaction, it’s still not so simple : DC not only retains the rights to the short-lived Peter Cannon series they took out for a test run on the early ’90s, they also still claim exclusive reprint rights to the character’s 1960s Charlton-published stories. It’s only new Cannon material, apparently, that Morisi is allowed to pursue with the deal he has in place.

Again, if the Charlton rights are such a mess, why would DC even be in a position to strike such a convoluted agreement with the character’s creator? Why couldn’t they both publish all the Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt shit they wanted — and why couldn’t anyone and everyone else, for that matter?

One way or another, 1960 seems to be a turning point for what is and isn’t PD as far as Charlton publications go, and again, I can’t really begin to fathom why that is. If you look at some of the sites that allow uploading of old public domain comics, like http://digitalcomicsmuseum.com , or have a gander at Bob Heer’s excellent Ditko blog http://www.ditko.blogspot,com , you’ll notice that there are plenty of 1950s Charlton stories presented in their entirety, but nothing after 1960. Yet it’s widely considered by fans that the ’60s Charlton stuff is, legally speaking, the most “freely available” of the bunch because that’s when the “fine print” in their comics became really half-assed and indecipherable.

And yet — many of the post-1960 stories that have been reprinted in the oversized hardcover collections The Art Of Ditko and The Creativity Of Ditko were also presented in various black-and-white publications put out by Steve Ditko and Robin Snyder many years back, where they ran with copyright notices attached even though no such notices appear in the newer, more expensive (and yeah, much nicer) volumes.

So what’s going on? I honestly don’t know. As I mentioned in my previous piece here about the Konga material specifically, I don’t think anyone at Yoe Books or IDW Publishing is a legal idiot. They must feel that they have some fairly solid ground to base their belief that they are only reprinting PD stuff on. But I’d be very curious to know what that ground is, and why others have chosen to either shy away from this material or reprint it with proper copyright notices attached. And it’s also worth pointing out that, at least so far, all of the material presented in Fantagraphics’ Steve Ditko Archives series has been, you guessed it — pre-1960 stuff. I’m wondering, naturally enough at this point,  if Gary Groth and Blake Bell plan to continue these books once they reach that (apparent, at any rate) “watershed” year.

I know what you’re probably thinking right now — “come on, Ryan, nobody would be stupid enough to reprint comics work that’s actually owned by somebody else,” but hey — it’s happened before, and given that Charlton isn’t around to provide the best paper trail of who that “somebody else” might be, would it really be all that shocking to find out material was being published with the attitude of “hey, we’re pretty certain this is PD stuff, and even if it’s not, I doubt anyone will say anything about it?” I don’t think this is very likely to be the case, but I can’t rule it out as at least a  small possibility in my mind until I’m able to get some more definitive answers.

Which is where you, dear reader (whoever you might be) come in. I’m hoping somebody who’s better versed in these matters than I am can either comment here or over on Rob Imes’ “Ditkomania” facebook page and really break down how and why some folks feel safe in categorizing all post-1960 Charlton work as public domain while others don’t. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Is there any way to even know for certain?

There are other, perhaps even bigger, questions at play here, as well — questions like why this stuff would ever be considered to be PD in the first place if it’s never even been conclusively proven to have been “work for hire” material, why retroactively adjudicating  and/or assuming that it is “work for hire” ensures that the writers and artists who produced it are just going to screwed over yet again, etc. — and don’t even get me started on the trail of “ownership” of the Warren material that Dark Horse/New Comic Company is currently reprinting (you know, in books like the Creepy Presents Steve Ditko volume that got me started on this whole thing in the first place). Sometimes it all feels like it’s just too damn much to come to grips with. But I’m trying — and if you’re still along for the ride, then your patience, as well as any expertise you might be able to bring to the table, are very much appreciated.

All of which is my way of saying that even though I dug this hole of my own volition, I’m not sure that I can get back out of it without some help.

DitkoStatic

 

Static. Not only is it the name of an a typically interesting and idiosyncratic latter- (well, more like mid-, I guess) period Steve Ditko creation, it’s something these posts seem to have generated a lot of in recent days, particularly on Rob Imes’ terrific “Ditkomania” facebook group, where the discussion is almost always free-flowing.

Seldom has it been this intense, though. A poster there even related that he’d had a long-standing friendship bust up over differing views he and his acquaintance shared over the issue of how best, if at all, to compensate Ditko for his reprint work. I’m truly sorry to hear that, and hope it’s only temporary. My best to the both of you in figuring a way to remain friends despite a key philosophical difference.

Still, it would be unfair of me to state that any and all debate that’s been generated around these issues has been “static.” Many posters on all sides have made some exceedingly valid points worthy of serious consideration. I feel like things took a completely unnecessary turn for the worse — and the personal — today,  when another Ditko fan compared my promulgation of the views expressed here in  the “Just Pay Ditko!” series to the Nazis, but I’m hopeful that in time all that will simmer down. As far as I see it, in regards to the issue of finding some way to compensate Ditko — be it financially or otherwise — for work he did that various publishers are now profiting from, fans can  generally be said, with numerous individual “shades of gray” along the spectrum, of course — to fall into three separate groups :

1. Folks who frankly could care less about what’s going on behind the scenes and just want to enjoy the material;

2. Folks who would like to see Ditko compensated for his work if specific rights to that work are being held in private hands, as is the case with the Warren material reprinted in Creepy Presents Steve Ditko, the various Steve Ditko Omnibus collections from DC, Marvel’s numerous reprints of Ditko Spider-Man work, etc. , but who feel that his work which is in the public domain, such as that being presented in the deluxe hardcover volumes currently being published by Fantagraphics and Yoe Books, among others, requires no compensation because, hey, PD is PD and that’s the way it goes;

and 3. Folks who would like to see some sort of compensation — again, financial or otherwise, as we’ve discussed in this series at length — extended to the artist even in cases where the material is in the public domain not because the publishers legally have to, but simply because it’s the right thing, in our view (no surprise I include myself in this group), to do.

Like I said, there are any number of “sub-categories” within each major “category” — such as people who buy Marvel reprints of Ditko’s work very well knowing they have no specific mechanism in place for paying royalties on much of their older work but figure “hey, yeah, it’s a shit deal, but it is what it is — I’d like to see Ditko, and all the other creators, paid,  sure — but that’s just never been how things are done there.”  Fans of this sort are probably edging more toward being in “category two” as a matter of conscience but still fall into “category one” in terms of their buying habits. And so it goes.

I guess my main objective as far as stating my “category three” points is not so much to judge or denigrate those in the other two categories as it is to hopefully persuade them to change their minds. If they do so, then great — glad to have them on board. If they don’t, well, I guess I’ll just keep trying. I can be persistent like that. But here’s the thing —

I find it kind of strange, maybe even kind of sad, that the most visceral reactions against the broadly-defined (just now, by me) “category three” people seem to be coming from those folks who probably do care about the behind-the-scenes workings of how, why, and even how much creators are compensated, but evidently prefer to store their consciences away in a locked box when it come time to get a pretty, high-quality new book of reprints. If it were coming from those who just don’t care about any of this shit, that I’d understand — but evidently some parties who probably do, on some level, want what they consider a “fair” deal for Ditko and other artists, but are very strident in their view of what that “fair” deal would or should consist of, are quite vocally upset with those of us who feel it should consist of something more, or at the very least other than, what’s been offered, historically at least, to date.

What’s doubly confounding to me is that publishers seem far more receptive to and/or sympathetic with the suggestions of “category three” fans. Folks like Craig Yoe of Yoe Books, Blake Bell, who’s editing the Steve Ditko Archives  series for Fantagraphics, and a person who’s directly involved with the Warren reprints at Dark Horse that I’ve been in contact with have all been quite amenable to answering most of my questions, and have even taken many of the same suggestion I’ve offered on board — perhaps even well before I offered them (although certainly not before Rob Imes, Steve Bissette, and Dave Sim, to name just a few, did). I’ve given Yoe credit in particular for continuing to engage in dialogue with fans even though the waters have gotten testy on several occasions. He has a thick skin, and that’s quite admirable.

So what to make of the fans who feel upset because Bell, Yoe, and others may have been, in their view at any rate,  “pressured” into including promotional material for Steve Ditko’s current work with Robin Snyder in their forthcoming reprint books? Well, since neither of those gentlemen has complained about that themselves, and both have stated on numerous occasions that they’re quite happy to do all they can to promote these woks, all I can say is — if they’re glad to do it, then what’s the problem? And in what way, shape, or form is including some promotional material for books Ditko financially benefits from in books that he doesn’t benefit from, despite his name being on the cover and his work appearing on every page, a bad thing? We all want as many people as possible to know about the current Ditko material, don’t we?

There have been other robust debates that have popped up in recent days, as well, some of them appearing to advance an argument along the lines of “everybody’s doing Ditko reprint books, so what’s the problem with some of them as opposed to others?” I fail to find much logical coherence to that view, though,  since all examples of any given thing are in no way equal, but the primary one I wanted to address in this aside today — I’m still waiting on some answers from parties I’ve been in contact with about the various copyright issues that may or may not pertain to some of the Charlton work that’s been reprinted recently, so I’m giving that another day or two before proceeding, as promised, with a post specifically related to those concerns —is this whole idea that a few people have brought up that somehow there is undue “pressure” being applied on certain publishers to do things that some fans want. Again, if the publishers themselves don’t object, and in fact want  to utilize the platform their books provide them to spread the word about this new material, then how or why  is this even considered an issue?

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“Gosh, that sure is a good-looking Steve Ditko hardcover reprint book you’ve got there.”

“Thanks. It’s over 200 pages long and has all kinds of his old Charlton Comics work on heavy, sturdy paper. Plus it’s got this nice embossed cover and all kinds of cool info in the introduction, including rare photos and larger art reproductions of certain panels and covers.”

“Wow, cool — do you mind if I take a look inside?”

“Be my guest, man — just be careful, that thing was expensive!”

“So I see!  Wow! Fifty bucks!”

“Yeah, but it was worth it, though. Look how big and bright and bold everything looks on this quality paper stock, and how the art just jumps off the page.”

“Well, yeah, but Ditko’s art always jumps off the page, even when it’s on cheap newsprint, doesn’t it?”

“That’s true, but I mean — come on, this is some deluxe shit!”

“Oh, no question — and I’d love to borrow your copy just for the new info I’d glean from reading the introduction, but — ”

“But?”

“Well, considering nothing in here’s been color ‘corrected’ or ‘remastered’ in any way, how do you know that whoever put this thing out didn’t just run their old comics through their scanner at home, stick it between some sturdy covers on nice paper, and charge you an arm and a leg for it?”

“I hadn’t thought of that, but ya know, I prefer these original colors anyway, sorta preserves the ‘grimy’ feel of the old, original comics.”

“Oh, I agree with you on that completely — I hate all these digitally-fucked-with reprints that are coming out, but still — I mean, don’t you feel like you got played for a sucker, at least on principle?”

“Not really. I mean, just because anybody with a scanner can do this shit doesn’t mean everyone has the resources or time on their hands to do so.”

“I’ll give ya that on the resources front, although if you’ve got a semi-major comics publisher bankrolling your advance to the printer and providing you with a distribution network via Diamond to all the major comic shops — I hope you did buy this at your LCS and not through Amazon! — well, it’s a pretty risk-free proposition for you then, isn’t it? Heck, if somebody else loans you the comics to scan from their collection — somebody I hope you’re giving at least some cut of the action to — how much do you really even need at all to do something like this?”

“Ummmm — just a scanner and some knowledge of basic page-formatting software, I suppose. But that’s the great democratizing power of all this new technology, I guess.”

“Yeah, it does have its plus side, no question — a lot of  once-rare books that you used to have to beg some creepy old collector to look at in his basement you can now find readily, and in a much nicer format than anyone could have hoped for even five or ten years ago.”

“Right! See! So we’re living in a new golden age for fans and collectors, no matter what you killjoys think!”

“So you don’t mind slapping down a big chunk of your hard-earned cash on basically a collection of scanned pages? A gorgeous collection of scanned pages, I’ll give ya that, but a collection of scanned pages nonetheless.”

“Not at all! This stuff would be lost to history otherwise! The publishers are doing us a huge favor!”

“Well, that’s undoubtedly true — life’s better with a book like this on your shelf. But who do you think should be raking in the lion’s share of the money you spend on this kind of thing?”

“Well, Ditko, I suppose — his name’s on the cover and all, and he drew it.  No Ditko, no book.”

“What if I told you that Ditko didn’t want to be paid for this work?”

“Well, assuming I believed you, then I’d have to say — whoever owns the rights to the work?”

“That’s a thorny question. Do you read Rob Imes’ ‘Ditkomania’ magazine?”

“No, why?”
“Well, you should. Rob’s mentioned this is in reviews of books like the very one you’re holding — that some of this stuff has been reprinted before, with relevant copyright information included, yet if you look at the indicia page of your hefty tome here, or the first page of each of the stories, you’ll see —”

“No copyright info? So is this stuff all public domain?”

“I think so. I hope so. I really want to believe so. And for most of it, yeah, that’s probably the case. But possibly not for all of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, we’ll save all that for the next post in this series, shall we?”

“Okay, you sound like you’re kinda ducking the question, though.”

“That’s because I am! Truth be told, I’m doing a little legwork to find out why certain of these pages may or may not be PD while others apparently are without question.”

“Sounds pretty boring.”

“I dunno, I’m enjoying it, but then I’m kinda warped like that.”

“Well, let me know what you find out — I guess. For now I just wanna go enjoy my book here.”

“You do that, don’t let me stop stop you — I appreciate you letting me leaf through it.”

“Oh, one question, though — if Ditko doesn’t make, or even want, any money from it, and if the stuff’s at least supposedly in the public domain, then who’s making the money off this thing?”

“Would you believe — the guy with the scanner?”

“No shit? Well, what can I possibly say that would top that? God bless America, huh?”

“Sure — I guess.”

“Wow — hmmm,  just thinkin’ —”

“About?”

“What if he didn’t even own the scanner and just borrowed somebody else’s?”

Note : This is a purely speculative conversation, variations of which may nor may not have occurred among comic fans over the course of the current Steve Ditko reprint bonanza. I have no reason to believe that any of the volumes of Ditko’s work issued in recent years were so quickly, thoughtlessly, and haphazardly assembled. But it could happen, what with today’s technology and the plethora of freely-available material with expired, or supposedly expired, copyrights on it. Please remember that the only Ditko material from which we are absolutely certain he personally profits in the new work he’s publishing with Robin Snyder, and in the spirit of the image presented from that work reproduced above, perhaps “Innocent? Convince Me!!!!!!!!!!” is something we should be requesting and/or demanding from all publishers, at all times, in regards to reprint volumes of the type under discussion in this series.

As far as the copyright questions I’ve raised in this entry go, let me just say for the time being that I have put some “feelers” out to certain parties who I hope can provide answers to at least some of them. We’ll see. I think that a natural assumption, understandably, has been made that all the Charlton stuff reproduced so far is, in fact, PD material for anyone to do with as they see fit. My gut feeling, and my earnest hope, is that this assumption is accurate. But there are some inconsistencies in regards to the legal handling of this material that have popped up from time to time over the years, and if I don’t get answers from anybody in the next couple of days, I may just post the questions themselves that I have on here and hope that somebody with a much keener legal mind than I (not a difficult thing to possess, I assure you)  will see them and respond  in the comments section.