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LYING IN THE GUTTERS VOLUME 2 COLUMN 4

For the last twelve years I’ve been writing a rumour and gossip column while some have insisted I’m the only investigative journalist in comics. A label I was happy to refuse, as I was more interested in providing a column for entertainment.

The birth of my first daughter, Eve, three months ago, gave me the chance to take a sabbatical and consider something new.

So for six weeks, Lying In The Gutters is being run as an investigative journalism column. Just to see what the fuss is all about. Fewer, but longer stories, much less nonsense, maybe a little more substance. And probably the cheeky grin of my former self sneaking through. After the six weeks are up, you’ll be given the opportunity to vote which version of the column you prefer to continue.

The division in attitude towards the new column has been extreme, but equally balanced. In two weeks time, it’s going to be Bush Vs Gore all over again. However, in this case, the one with the most votes will actually win.

If you wish to voice your support on either version of the column, don’t email me. Go to the message boards and make your opinion known. Start a campaign. But first, sex.

SEX AND THE SINGLE SPIDER-MAN

The “maturing” of mainstream comic books has been a topic for much debate in the comics industry. The direct market, seen as the saviour of the comics industry, has proved adept at keeping a section of the comics audience through their adult lives, rather than the fallout of the newsstand market, where new readers replaced old readers as they discovered girls.

This “greying” of the comics market has seen numerous comics written for eight year olds bought by forty years olds on a nostalgic kick. It may seem naturally that over the last few decades, more adult themes crept in. But often lauded, they were generally the exception, and then became segregated within the publishers.

Two things more than anything changed that. Marvel Knights at Marvel and “Identity Crisis” at DC. Marvel Knights was an imprint born of Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti, to entice star creators onto books and projects they would not normally have been associated with. And they tended to be from the more “grown up” end of the industry. When Joe became Editor In Chief, its influence spread and titles moved in and out of the imprint that it was hard to tell them apart, leading to internal debates about what the point of having a separate imprint was in the first place.

And at DC, they kicked off a murder mystery in the DC universe by making everyone suspect, exposing dark secrets to do so, including murder, abuse, physical and mental rape upon and from traditional DC Universe superhero characters, in books not specifically intended for mature readers.

John Byrne is one of the most prominent vocal opposition to these changes, espousing the belief that since superheroes began as childish entertainment, they should remain suitable for that audience – especially if they concern long standing iconic figures such as Superman or Spider-Man. He believes such work should be all-ages, and while his own work on such books has included topics such as sex, pornography, suicide, rape, murder, capital punishment, he has done so in a way that is intended to be suitable for all.

Figures such as Brian Bendis, JMS and Mark Millar have received recent criticism for writing for the age group who actually read and buy superhero comics, rather than for the age group who are meant to read them. Books like “Wanted,” “Supreme Power,” “Powers” and “Alias” were explicit with these themes, but “Amazing Spider-Man,” “Marvel Knights Spider-Man” and “Ultimate Spider-Man” have all contained themes and story aspects that could never have been considered in an earlier age. From its outset, Spider-Man was a superhero comic that had more social realism than its peers, but current storylines have gone far beyond that. And, as a result, have alienated a certain group who demand that such titles return to their original audience base, even if that base has changed. And see the decline in the direct market as a result of the jettison of this perceived audience.

However, these fans may want to appreciate the devil they know.

Marvel licensed the character of Spider-Man to a Japanese publisher, who creates a thick volume manga version which, for a while, was translated back into English for the US market.


The following images are from the copy of Spider-Man featured above.







In these scenes, the character Yu is trying to study, but is… distracted. He begins to masturbate and has a fantasy of chasing his girlfriend Rumi along the beach and tearing off her clothes – which
scares him.

In a previous volume, Yu as Spider-Man saves a girl who was molested by a gang, who resembles Rumi closely, but who denied she was Rumi when asked. This is also a reprint from a while back, as well…

Is this the shape of things to come? Or a lesson that fans should be grateful for what they’ve got?

Marvel did not respond to questions made over the weekend, concerning this topic.

INTO THE UNKNOWN

Steve Gerber is still best known as creator of “Howard The Duck.” He might not appreciate this label that very much, but it was his struggle with Marvel over the ownership of the character that set the stage for much of the creator rights/work for hire debate that has continued over the decades since.

He also created the comic book “Omega The Unknown” with Mary Skrenes in the mid-seventies. It wasn’t a great seller for Marvel Comics, and it went away after 10 issues and a guest appearance in the “Defenders,” but it was one of those books full of amazing ideas that stuck in the brain of those who read it and a grittiness that seemed to precede much of the development of superhero comics that would occur in the eighties.

Earlier this year, “Omega The Unknown” was announced as a project from “Fortress Of Solitude” writer Jonathan Lethem. “Omega” is referred to a number of times in “Fortress” and there are thematic links between the two works. Earlier indications give the new revival a more indie-feel comic than Marvel usually publishes, something more comparable to James Sturm’s “Unstable Molecules” – which didn’t sell that well, but won an Eisner and was recently repackaged and republished to coincide with the upcoming “Fantastic Four” movie presentation. Expectations for “Omega” could have been similar.

Steve Gerber had other thoughts. On the “Howard the Duck” message board last month, he made his opinions clear.

“I am not happy about Marvel’s revival of Omega, and the writer of the book has made an enemy for life by taking the job. According to some people, he actually professes to be a fan of my work. If that’s even minimally true, what he’s done is even more unforgivable.

Steve Gerber was one of the “founding father” creators of the Malibu Comics’ “Ultraverse,” the superhero comic line set up by Malibu after Image left. Malibu was eventually bought by Marvel Comics. Each of the founding fathers had a participation agreement for exploitation of the “Ultraverse,” in addition to their writer royalties and character-based creator-participant contracts – where creators would profit from exploitations of characters they created, including Gerber’s character “Sludge.”

Responding to questions on the “Howard The Duck” message board, Gerber stated, “More than one of the UV creators has told me that this is why Marvel isn’t interested in doing anything with the characters — i.e., because they’d have to share the proceeds with the creators. (Yes, I know how completely loony that sounds. No, I don’t for an instant think it’s impossible or even far-fetched.)”

In Newsarama’s interview/feature on Marvel’s “Alternate Universe Handbook” last week, one of the authors Eric J Moreels stated, “Similarly, in an ideally less corporate world, it would have been great for us to be able to include both the Amalgam-verse and ‘Ultraverse’.'” Amalgam is co-owned by DC, but the “Ultraverse? ”

Eric clarified for this column, saying, “I don’t know the full story, but what I do know is we were told by Marvel that we can’t include any Ultraverse characters (or the Ultraverse universe) in any of the Handbooks. From what I’ve been able to ascertain, there’s still a point of contention regarding ownership of some characters.”

From my understanding the contracts were intentionally explicitly clear on the ownership point, that Marvel owns both the characters and published work, with the payment provisos detailed above, and excepting “Rune” which had its own special agreement with creator Barry Windsor-Smith. Steve states he is not aware of any such ownership issues involving the characters. Indeed Marvel continued publication of “Ultraverse” comics for a while after the buyout. However, since this issue has been so publicly raised, I understand Marvel are currently working on an official answer to the question of the future, if any, of the “Ultraverse.”

“As a rule of thumb, if the creator of a character or series is alive and still active in the industry, another writer or artist’s ‘revamping’ of his work at a publisher’s behest constitutes an expression of contempt, not tribute — and all the more so if the original creator doesn’t even share financially in the enterprise. I am not the only writer or artist who feels this way, incidentally.

“Buy the book if you must, but please don’t tell me you did, okay? It will make it much more difficult for us to remain friends.”

When asked if the new series would benefit Gerber in any way, he replied, “Since sometime in the ’80s, Marvel and DC both have granted 10% participation in ancillary income — i.e., licensing, not income from sales of comic books — to creators of characters first published after that time. The policy was not retroactive. Omega wasn’t covered. Neither, by the way, were Blade, Elektra, or any of the ‘new’ X-Men.”

Gerber and Skrenes were then put in contact with Jonathan Lethem by a third party. Gerber reported, “I was wrong about a few things. According to Jonathan, Marvel did not approach him with the intent of his reviving OMEGA. That was Jonathan’s own idea. He claims he was unaware of my history with Marvel, including the lawsuit over Howard the Duck, until the present incident arose; I choose to believe him. Marvel did not, he says, attempt to entice him into the fold with hints or promises of film work in the future. I find that unutterably stupid on Marvel’s part, but, again, very believable.

“As best I can tell, Jonathan is a very nice guy who was acting with the best of intentions. His interest in reviving OMEGA comes out of passion for the material, not purely monetary considerations.

“I misjudged him, and I offer my sincerest apologies.

“That doesn’t change my mind about the OMEGA revival itself, however. I still believe that writers and artists who claim to respect the work of creators past should demonstrate that respect by leaving the work alone — particularly if the original creator is still alive, still active in the industry, and, as is typically the case in comics, excluded from any financial participation in the use of the work.

“Over the last decade or so, it’s become the trend in the industry for creators just to let these things slide. By lodging even an informal protest, a creator always risks appearing pathetic and whiny to the fans or threatening to a current employer. No one wants to be thought of that way.

“Remaining silent, however, would implicitly condone the comic book industry’s business practices up through the early 1980s and the means by which publishers claim to have procured ownership of characters and story material in those days.

“Remaining silent would also perpetuate the fiction promulgated by publishers that ‘we all knew’ what rights we were supposedly giving up by signing our paychecks. (In those days, the publishers’ favored instrument for acquiring rights to material was a one-party ‘contract’ printed or stamped on the back of a writer or artist’s paycheck. This so-called ‘agreement’ set forth terms of employment that were rarely if ever agreed to by the writer or artist prior to the start of work.) The truth is, we didn’t all know. Most of us had no idea, until the Siegel & Shuster case came to light again in the late 1970s. (In fact, there are serious questions regarding the ownership of ‘Omega The Unknown’ that Marvel has probably never thought to ask.)

“When a writer of Jonathan’s stature agrees to participate in a project like this, he also, intentionally or not, tacitly endorses the inequities of the old system. I’ve tried for a couple of decades now to convince the rest of the industry that those inequities will end only when writers and artists — whether celebrities from other fields, like Jonathan, or longtime comics professionals, like myself — say ‘no’ to projects that make no provision for the original creators. I’ve failed. I find that endlessly frustrating.

“Mary, on the other hand, is frustrated because she cannot convince me that when ‘name’ writers from the mainstream — novelists, screenwriters and directors, television writers — are presented with the ‘chance’ to write for comics, they instantly abandon all business sense, all instinct for self-preservation, and all the hard-earned knowledge that allowed them to make names for themselves in their primary fields.

“When courted by the comics publishers, she believes, those writers suddenly revert to the mindset of every fan writer and artist who ever dreamed of becoming a comics pro. They mindwarp back to their own age of innocence, to the time when they first discovered the comics they loved, comics that perhaps inspired them to create stories of their own. Blinded by love and desire, Mary believes, they happily sign the work-for-hire contracts and giddily appropriate the work of other creators with the unquestioning enthusiasm of adolescents engaging in unprotected sex.

“They hear, ‘It’s a work (made) for hire.’ ‘The company has to own the rights to survive.’ ‘It’s the way it’s always been done.’ And in the fog of a temporary reversion to pubescence, it somehow makes sense.

“Mary is more empathetic than I am. For whatever reason, perhaps because she has sources of income other than writing, she’s willing to reserve judgment and try to see a bigger picture.

“I’m less forgiving, but I think I have a solution, at least to the OMEGA situation.

“Jonathan, if you’re reading this — rather than ask you to back out of a business commitment, rather than deprive the fans of what will probably be an excellent story, I propose that you simply retitle the story and rename the characters. ‘omega The Unknown’ has little or no commercial cachet, so call the book something else. Call the kid something other than James-Michael Starling. Make the book your own, and I’ll have nothing to complain about.”

I asked Steve and Mary to clarify a few issues for the column. I first asked for a little background on the title, how the book was pitched, positioned and about the market it was published into.

“I pitched the series verbally to Stan Lee in 1975, during the same meeting that I proposed doing Howard the Duck in a book of his own.

“This all took place in an era before ‘positioning’ — or even ‘marketing,’ really — became part of comics industry lingo, so we really didn’t discuss where and how it would fit in the marketplace.

“It was an oddity in that it was a few years ahead of its time. The protagonist of the book, James-Michael Starling, was a kid with a strange super-power. I know this will be hard for some of your readers to believe, but in those days, adventure series starring teenage heroes were considered by fans to be ‘immature.’ Characters like Robin and Bucky were regarded with contempt. It’s why Stan named Peter Parker ‘Spider-man,’ even though the character was about the same age as Superboy.

“I wanted to do a series about a real kid who was nobody’s sidekick, facing real problems in what today would be called a ‘grim ‘n gritty’ setting, Hell’s Kitchen in New York. ‘Omega’ predated both the Teen Titans and X-men explosion and the ‘grim ‘n gritty’ movement by a few years. If it had come later, it probably would have been deemed a little quirky but mainstream.”

Steve told me he hasn’t been in touch with Marvel over the current “Omega” series but that, “I’ve mentioned it once or twice over the years. The reaction was mostly puzzlement. I don’t think most of the people working at Marvel now had ever heard of the book.”

As to ownership of “Omega,” morally or legally, Gerber told me, “I’ve been advised not to say anything regarding ownership or other legal issues.”

Steve’s most recent work for Marvel was the acclaimed “Howard The Duck” MAX series, with Phil Winslade and Glenn Fabry. How did this sit with his current relationship with Marvel?

“I got along very well with Stuart Moore, the editor of the ‘Howard The Duck’ miniseries, but Stuart is no longer at Marvel. I did have a couple of very friendly conversations with Joe Quesada about doing further work for the company. Bill Jemas invited me to collaborate with him on ‘Marville,’ but I had to turn that job down; Paul Levitz and I have been friends for more than thirty years.

“On the positive side, my attorney, Harris Miller, deals with Marvel’s business and legal affairs people all the time, and they seem very able to work together productively. And I felt they dealt quite fairly with some claims I had in the bankruptcy.”

I asked Mary for her perspective on this, which seemed more relaxed, and whether she despaired of Steve’s attitude. She told me, “Steve and I have been friends for over thirty years. I ‘despair of him’ over many things, but this is not one of them. I have some sympathy for the naïve adults who forget their business sense because they always loved and dreamed of writing comics. But I agree with Steve 100%. Creators have been badly screwed by comics publishers in the past. There are rare opportunities to share in the ownership of properties today, but many creators are still mistreated.”

Steve Gerber has set up a website on the domain name www.OmegaTheUnknown.com to make his feelings very clear. His blog can be read here. The second volume of the DC series “Hard Time” by Gerber, Skrenes, Brain Hurtt and Steve Bird will start publication in December.

Marvel did not respond to questions made over the weekend, concerning “Omega” or the “Ultraverse.”

RESTORING CONFIDENCE

CGC is an American company who specialises in grading comics, then encasing them in plastic to ensure they stay in the graded condition. But last year, it appears one of their employees, a Chris Friesen, planned to leave the company to start their own comics restoration business.

In a bold move, CGC persuaded him to work out of CGC’s offices, under the CGC name and with CGC clients. Given the negative associations hardcore comics collectors have with restored comics being graded above their unrestored condition, this has led to a number of accusations of conflict of interest. Especially considering CGC make a point of saying, “CGC employees are not allowed to engage in the commercial buying or selling of comics. In this way, CGC can remain completely impartial, having no vested interest other than a commitment to serving clients through accurate and consistent grading.” Could this be against the spirit of the pledge?

CGC state that the business models remain separate and distinct, although they are contained within the same building. And they haven’t given any reason to doubt that position. However some wonder what would happen if the graders were made aware of any CGC restoration or “pressing” on a specific item from colleagues, that they could not have identified merely looking at the item. Would they grade it as it appears, or as they now to it to be?

CGC pride themselves on their independence. Without any reason to think they have sacrificed that, any conflict of interest can sow doubt in a comic collector’s mind.

The thread concerning this problem has been running six months on the CGC Forum boards, and a consensus has been hard to identify.

CGC representatives did not respond to enquiries made over the weekend.

IN OTHER NEWS

Reports from the Barcelona Comics convention has seen Andy Kubert confirmed as an artist on “Detective Comics” with Grant Morrison writing. There were also reports that Jim Starlin would be working with Adam Kubert on a new “Adam Strange” series.

DC representatives did not respond to enquiries made on Monday.

“Wanted,” the hit Top Cow series by Mark Millar and JG Jones with a trade paperback solicited for publication for August, has had a special version commissioned by Barnes & Noble stores and is available now. This is the latest in a series of exclusive comic book publishing deals from Barnes & Noble, but this particular exclusive deal has received little attention until now.

Neither Top Cow representatives or Mark Millar answered enquiries made over the weekend.

SMALL PRINT

For other comic and non-comic book related nonsense, check out the Twistblog.

Discuss this column at the Lying In The Gutters Forum.

And contact me on richjohnston @ gmail.com

You can also write to me at 8 Robin Hood Lane, Kingston Vale, London SW15 3PU ENGLAND

Or call me on 0780 135082 from the UK or 01144780 1350982 from the US.