You know that you’ve become too cynical about comics when, reading Brian K. Vaughan talk about Saga, it feels like a surprise to see him mention a 50/50 split of royalties with artist Fiona Staples. Or, to put it another way, you know that you’ve become too cynical about comics when Tony Moore upgrades his legal battle against Robert Kirkman, and your first thought is, “Well, sure. Of course.”
One of the first things that struck me when reading through Moore’s second lawsuit against Kirkman last week was a sense of confusion. It wasn’t from the similarity to the first lawsuit Moore filed against his former collaborator — although I did have a twinge of, “Wait, did I miss the first one being settled or dismissed or something?” as I read through the new filing, trying to stop myself being derailed with admiration for including the over-the-top description of Kirkman as “a proud liar and fraudster who freely admits that he has no qualm about misrepresenting material facts in order to consummate business transactions” — but from the Todd McFarlane and Neil Gaiman case, Image Comics’ original sin when it comes to creator rights.
It’s potentially unfair to compare the two situations — Gaiman was guest-writing an issue of a series that was already established to some extent, and working within those parameters, as opposed to Moore designing and setting the visual tone for works from their very first public appearances — but I do, almost subconsciously. Both represent some kind of worst-case-scenario for creator-owned work in my head, the point where the relationship between co-creators collapses to such a point and it becomes an argument about who did what, and where, and (more importantly, more depressingly) how much each contribution is worth in the grand scheme of things, both creatively and financially.
And yet, as weirdly ugly as the Gaiman/McFarlane lawsuit got, there’s something uglier about the Moore/Kirkman one. Maybe it’s that Kirkman countersued Moore after the first filing, claiming to have overpaid the artist for the work he delivered for the first six issues of The Walking Dead; even if you go along with Kirkman’s argument that Moore was only ever doing work-for-hire on those books, the idea that Kirkman would sue him for overpayment on a series that has changed and arguably improved Kirkman’s life (definitely, his career) so dramatically just feels … tacky, at best, shall we say. (The subpoenaing of Image Comics, and its refusal to share records and contracts about The Walking Dead, troubles me as well for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on.) It helps, perhaps, that both Gaiman and McFarlane seemed equally successful in life, despite different career paths; there’s a discrepancy between Kirkman and Moore’s levels of fame and success that feels uneven and “underdog just trying to get recognition” to me, but your mileage may vary on that one.
But, yes. The cynicism comes in finding it acceptable, even expected, that creative partnerships will end in acrimony (and court), and finding the alternative — 5hat partnerships can be fair, and harmonious and rewarding to all involved parties — surprising. There’s something to be said for trying for the best in all areas, whether it’s treating those you work with fairly from the get-go, or simply not falling prey to your own worst impulses regarding the way people treat each other, and, even if it makes no difference in the real world, I’d rather hope for more Brian K. Vaughans and Fiona Staples than creators who fall apart when things get good.