It was jarring to me. I respected and loved the work of all of them. I also liked them all on a personal but individual basis. But when I saw what the comic book industry was doing to them, I think I liked it a little less. Those men all deserved better.
— Mark Evanier, commenting on the observation by Howard Chaykin that Gil Kane, Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino and other DC artists “regarded each other with distaste, frequently bordering on genuine loathing.”
It’s stuff like this that brings home to me how screwed up the comics industry was for so many years. I understand on an intellectual level that things were bad, but hearing how it inspired jealousy and soured relationships puts it into an emotional context that I hadn’t felt before.
I’m not saying we have a utopia today, but creators do have more options if they want more than what they’re getting from work-for-hire. Creator-owned comics are not only more welcomed than ever by readers, but they’re also proving popular with people outside of comics, which can turn into real money. Again, I’m not saying we’ve reached the Promised Land yet, but I think it’s fair to say we’ve at least left Egypt.
I’m reading Glen Weldon‘s Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, and I’m still in the chapters on the Golden Age. What’s struck me was just how quickly Superman became a national phenomenon. Within a year of his first appearance in an anthology book (that he wouldn’t be on the cover of for another five issues after the first), there was a syndicated newspaper strip about him. According to Weldon, Time magazine called the character “the No. 1 juvenile vogue in the U.S.” Within two years, there was a radio show. Within three, Max Fleischer’s studio was making animated short films. And then there were all the dolls, games, puzzles, and coloring books. That was a stunning amount of success in a very short amount of time.
As I’m reading about this in 2013, it’s tough to imagine all of that licensing revenue going to the publisher. You don’t hear of that today, for various reasons. But that was the comics industry 75 years ago. I’ve been guilty at times of waving my hand dismissively and saying, “That’s too bad for those guys. They got a raw deal.” But when I compare that deal to what creators have the potential to make today, the perspective shocks me with how bad it actually was. It’s like imagining that Dark Horse collected all the revenue for Hellboy. Or that Image got to decide how much Walking Dead money went to Robert Kirkman. I can’t get my mind around that.
History is history, and there’s no going back to change it. What I’m saying is that there are some things that make me realize more profoundly how awful the comics business treated some of our legendary creators. Thinking about Superman is one of them; Evanier’s article is another. It’s heartbreaking to read his account of the mindset of some of these guys:
For someone like Infantino when an artist was all he was, it was not a question of, “Gee, maybe if I do my job better, I can get rich.” Oh, if only it had been that. All the comic artists I’m mentioning here were men who did their job about as well as anyone could. Doing it better, if that was even possible, would not lead to better paychecks or more security. Harvey Kurtzman, speaking once about his superlative work creating MAD said, “I know what I did had a value far beyond what I was paid at the time. What I don’t know is how to get my reward.”
What I do with this information is more complicated, but I can think of three things to start with. The first thing I can do is be thankful that things are getting better. Another is, in whatever limited way I have, to point and say, “That was wrong. Let’s continue fixing that.” And the third thing I can do is give to The Hero Initiative.
I’m curious though to hear what thoughts or actions — if any — others think appropriate.