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Grumpy Old Fan | Derivatives leave creators in the cold

Gerry Conway has written more comics than I care to count, including career-defining runs on The Amazing Spider-Man and Justice League of America. During his tenure at DC Comics in the 1970s and ‘80s, he co-created Firestorm, Steel the Indestructible Man, Vixen and Vibe (among many others). He wrote the first relaunch of New Gods and helped craft the Robin-to-Nightwing transition. Recently, he’s been calling attention to the use of “derivative” comics characters in other media -- for example, the Flash TV show’s Caitlin Snow, who shares a name, a scientific background, and a Firestorm connection with the most recent version of Killer Frost’s alter ego.

DC responded to Conway’s concerns with assurances of fair compensation, but the matter also goes to the heart of the publisher's shared universe.

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Conway and artist Al Milgrom created Firestorm the Nuclear Man, who debuted in March 1978's Firestorm #1. His alter egos were teenager Ronnie Raymond and physicist Martin Stein, and one of their first adversaries (debuting in Issue 3) was Stein’s colleague Crystal Frost. To make sure their relationship was doomed, Stein was also Frost’s ex-teacher and the object of her unrequited affection. Following the requisite lab accident, she gained the ability to generate cold by drawing heat from others, and became the supervillain Killer Frost. She only battled Firestorm a few times, but she made ‘em count: one featured Superman, another Supes and the Justice League, and a third the JLA, Justice Society and Secret Society of Super-Villains. She died in March 1984's Fury of Firestorm #21.

However, Conway wasn’t done with Killer Frost: He and then-current Firestorm penciler Rafael Kayanan created Dr. Louise Lincoln, Crystal Frost’s friend and colleague. Lincoln duplicated the conditions that gave Frost her powers, and continued to bedevil Firestorm and the rest of DC-dom well into the 2000s. Indeed, Lincoln’s tenure as Killer Frost lasted well after Conway and Ronnie Raymond had left Firestorm behind.

As for Caitlin Snow, the current Killer Frost debuted in November 2013's Justice League of America #7.2, a Forever Evil tie-in devoted to her own origin story, written by Sterling Gates and drawn by Derlis Santacruz. Since then, as far as I can tell, she has appeared only in the six-issue Forever Evil: ARGUS miniseries (December 2013-May 2014), also written by Gates and drawn by various artists.

Thus, Conway and Milgrom created Killer Frost/Crystal Frost, Conway and Kayanan then created Louise Lincoln, and Gates and Santacruz created Caitlin Snow. However, according to Conway, nobody gets credit -- at least, credit deserving of compensation in the form of creator equity participation -- for creating Caitlin, because she’s a “derivative” character. In other words, as the latest version of Killer Frost, she’s derived from a Conway/Milgrom creation, so Gates and Santacruz are out of luck.

Does that mean Conway and Milgrom created Caitlin? No; and Conway’s not claiming otherwise. What he says is “truly obnoxious and despicable” is that DC is “cheat[ing] creators by using both sides of an argument to serve [its] interests.” Basically, Conway sees DC using the “derivative” label to cut off any creator equity participation, and thereby keep all the revenue derived from such characters. Of course, DC’s current superhero universe is built on such characters -- including the Barry Allen Flash and the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, both of whom are arguably derivative of the Golden Age originals -- so it doesn’t want to gum up the works with hassles over who should get paid for whom.

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I agree that creators should get proper credit and appropriate compensation. However, as a practical matter, at this point I think that depends more on DC’s goodwill than on anything readily enforceable. Matters related to derivative characters tend to involve older contracts that are considerably less creator-friendly. I imagine DC’s position isn’t so much that “nobody” created these characters, but that they’re creations of the company via the professionals it hired -- in Caitlin’s case, Gates and Santacruz. Furthermore, DC would undoubtedly argue that those professionals were paid reasonably for their work, and its financial responsibility to them is summed up by that particular contract, etc. Indeed, as a comics character, Caitlin Snow hasn’t made much of an impact.

As a television character, however, her exposure has been exponentially greater. Caitlin and colleague Cisco Ramon (himself based on Vibe) first appeared on TV in Episode 19 of Arrow’s second season. It aired April 16, 2014, not long after the ARGUS miniseries ended, and helped lay groundwork for the current Flash TV series. Even with the corporate disconnect between comics and TV, it’s hard not to think someone knew, fairly soon into Caitlin’s comics career, that she’d be a TV star.

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The second issue is one of interpretation. Obviously, comics’ current Killer Frost and TV’s Caitlin Snow are distinct in temperament and power level. TV-Caitlin also has a relationship to TV-Ronnie that her comics counterpart lacks. In a sense, it plays off Crystal Frost’s relationship to Martin Stein, but that’s probably unintentional. Besides, it’s not as big a difference as the other distinctions are.

Naturally, introducing a character with an established alter ego invites speculation about when that character will adopt that other identity. For purposes of this discussion, the issue is how close to the other identity the character already is. In some cases it’s a moot point: Smallville’s Clark Kent was always a proto-Superman, Arrow’s Oliver Queen has always been Green Arrow in everything but color-specific name, and the various Gotham villains are predestined to infamy.

With TV-Caitlin, though, the path isn’t quite so clear. She doesn’t have much of a mean streak. If Conway is right and he and Milgrom are entitled to compensation for “all manifestations of Killer Frost,” then that should begin at least whenever TV-Caitlin starts sucking up heat. However, by separating Caitlin from Killer Frost, DC and Warner Bros. are contending the civilian identity is a different item of intellectual property than the costumed one. Never mind that the civilian identity was, in all likelihood, created specifically to wear that particular costume.

This, in turn, brings up another issue related to DC’s various relaunches and reboots. Remember, in the current timeline, Caitlin Snow is the first and only Killer Frost. Crystal Frost hated Martin Stein, so the original Frosty hated the original Firestorm. Likewise, Louise Lincoln knew about her predecessor’s baggage, and she had good reason (from her own perspective) not to like the Nuclear Man. However, the New 52 reboot put Stein firmly in the background in favor of having Ronnie Raymond and Jason Rusch share Firestorm’s powers. This version of Firestorm initially avoided many of the character’s traditional villains, including Killer Frost. I suppose a new version of Frosty could have been Crystal Frost without so much Stein-hate, but instead Gates and Santacruz created a new civilian identity. (Alert readers have probably already realized that “Caitlin Snow” is pretty much “Crystal Frost” spelled sideways -- why not “Carol Winters” or even “Callie Berg?” -- but this is as good a place as any to point it out.) Thus, “Caitlin Snow” gives DC another Easter-egg name to drop, free of charge.

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In this respect it’s almost counterproductive for DC to have abandoned so much of the legacy-character structure it built throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s. That model allowed the publisher to separate a character’s two identities, create a third, and from there cultivate a whole field of intellectual property.

Consider the Wilt Chamberlain of legacies, Robin the Boy Wonder. Secretly Dick Grayson, he was created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson for Detective Comics #38 (April 1940). For more than 40 years, Dick was the only regularly appearing Robin. Since the 1980s, however, the Robin legacy has been very fruitful:

• Dick became Nightwing (an identity inspired by Superman’s non-powered, Batman-like alter ego, and therefore arguably doubly derivative), and for a while Batman III;

• Jason Todd became Robin II, and ultimately Red Hood (another hand-me-down name, this one originally used by the future Joker);

• Tim Drake became Robin III, and then Red Robin (using a name and costume created originally for the Dick of Kingdom Come’s alternate future);

• Stephanie Brown, the once and future Spoiler, was briefly Robin IV and then Batgirl III or IV (depending on how you count it); and

• Damian Wayne, himself arguably derivative of Rā’s and/or Talia al-Ghūl, is Robin V until further notice (or until the “nightmare future” of his Batman career comes to pass); although

• Young Bruce Wayne himself was once Robin, back in the day; and

• Carrie Kelley, assorted Elseworlds characters, and a small army of teenagers from the upcoming We Are Robin series, are no doubt waiting in the wings for their chance.

Nevertheless, among the five major Robins there are five civilian identities (Dick, Jason, Tim, Steph, Damian) and seven costumed ones (Robin, Nightwing, Batman, Red Hood, Red Robin, Spoiler, Batgirl). If I understand DC’s logic, each of those is a separate piece of intellectual property, able to be mixed and matched at will. Indeed, four of those costumed identities belonged originally to non-Robins.

Still, each piece of IP had to have been created by someone. Marv Wolfman and George Pérez put Dick in the Nightwing identity, for which Pérez designed a new costume. Conway states that he and the late Don Newton created Jason (who originally had red hair and a different, but Robin-esque, costume) and Judd Winick and Doug Mahnke made him into Red Hood. Wolfman, Pérez and the late Jim Aparo created Tim, but Neal Adams updated the Robin costume for him. Chuck Dixon and Tom Lyle created Stephanie/Spoiler, Bill Willingham and Damion Scott put her in a modified version of Tim’s costume, and Bryan Q. Miller and Lee Garbett relaunched her as Batgirl (in an updated costume). Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert created Damian (based on the al-Ghūls created by Denny O’Neil and Adams, and inspired by Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham’s Son of the Demon), and Frank Quitely designed his Robin costume. Not counting Finger, Kane and Robinson, or the al-Ghūl creators, that’s at least 17 people who could claim at least a partial role in creating a Robin-related character. I haven’t even gotten into the creators of Batgirl, the Kandorian Nightwing, the proto-Joker Red Hood, et al.

Not that any of them would be successful, mind you -- ultimately, I suspect Robin and Batgirl would be deemed derivative of Batman, Nightwing of Superman, and Red Hood of the Joker -- but it illustrates the web of creative influence that can grow around these characters. It also demonstrates the risks and rewards for comics professionals who work on such characters. Conway and Newton wrote and drew Jason’s first appearances, but the character they created only lasted a few years before getting an entirely new origin and attitude (courtesy of writer Max Allan Collins and artists Chris Warner and Dave Cockrum). Having been through death and revival -- thanks also to Frank Miller, Jim Starlin & Jim Aparo, and a throwaway plot point in Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s “Hush” -- today’s antiheroic Jason is a long way from the orphaned acrobat of 1983-86. Does that sort of substantive shift change the analysis about who “created” a particular character? In the end I’m not sure it really matters, because without the original creators we don’t have the discussion to begin with. Maybe someday there will be a system set up to reward innovative uses of existing characters, but for now the rewards (such as they are) are directed at original creations.  I imagine that's why Chris Roberson and Mike Allred are credited for the iZombie show, despite its vast differences with the source material.

Let’s cut to the chase: DC and Marvel hire creative teams to work on decades-old characters with little hope of any reward other than the terms of their employment. In these final days of Mad Men, I can’t help but think of Peggy and Don’s classic exchange about their professional relationship, from Season 4's milestone episode “The Suitcase.” Peggy, the eternally underappreciated copywriter, is unhappy because she didn’t get proper credit for an award-winning commercial. “That’s the way it works,” Don snaps. “There are no credits on commercials.”

“But you’ve got the Clio,” Peggy replies. In other words, Don did get the ultimate credit.

This does not move Don, who yells back, “It’s your job! I give you money, you give me ideas.”

“But you never say thank you!”

“That’s what the money is for!”

Don goes on to remind Peggy, rather loudly and snottily, that she should be grateful he’s giving her the opportunity to pitch her ideas to him. I have to think there are at least a few people at DC Comics and Marvel who have felt similarly about doling out chances to write and/or draw the Justice League or the Avengers. To a certain extent, they have a point, just as Don had about the relationship between ideas, opportunity and money. Still, that doesn’t mean Don got to treat Peggy shabbily, and it sure doesn’t mean that DC and Marvel’s corporate masters get to treat comics pros shabbily.

The reality of current corporate-controlled superhero comics involves adapting characters for other media, and companies’ relationships with the professionals they hire need to reflect that. If nothing else, it gives those professionals another incentive to create characters capable of reaching such a wide audience. The Flash producers could easily have come up with an entirely new character to fill TV-Caitlin’s role -- and I have no doubt that Danielle Panabaker would have played her just as winningly -- but they went for a comics character with a built-in future. That has to mean something more than simply pulling a name out of a hat. When TV-Caitlin gains her powers, in theory she’ll start making money for Gerry Conway and Al Milgrom; but right now her corporate overlords should be paying Sterling Gates and Derlis Santacruz.

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And here is this week’s installment of Converbiage.

WHAT I BOUGHT: Convergence #6, plus the second issues of Aquaman, Batman: Shadow of the Bat, Green Lantern/Parallax, Justice League International, Supergirl: Matrix and Superman: Man of Steel (so I skipped Catwoman, Green Arrow, Superboy and Suicide Squad)

BEST OF THE WEEK: I’m going with Green Lantern, Supergirl and Man of Steel, but it wasn’t a great week for the tie-ins

NOTES: These two things feel very strange to admit, but a) it was good to see the current Justice League open this week’s issue of Convergence; and b) it was almost comforting to see Ed Benes drawing the League again. Issue 6 felt very crossover-y in a good way, what with the main League joining JL United, the Red Lanterns, and a couple of ancillary Green Lanterns as they watched planet Telos emerge into Universe Designate Zero. Catching up with the Guardians of the Universe, Nix Uotan and Darkseid was a plus as well. I’d even say that it felt like an attempt to place the issue in the context of past and future events, and not so much a plug for “Darkseid War” (although that did have a pluggy quality). I almost didn’t mind the return of Oracle, the Galactus-lite cosmic figure from Scott Lobdell’s time on the Superman books, because at least his presence was appropriate under the circumstances.

Of course, the book really caught team-up fever once the various converged realities realized they could team up themselves. Heck, the bulk of the book is practically a Justice League/Justice Society team-up, since most of the original Teen Titans (Flash, Arsenal, Troia, Starfire, Cyborg) had become Leaguers. As a bonus, Earth-2's Jay Garrick gets to meet both Wally West and Barry Allen. Writers Jeff King and Scott Lobdell even put together Superman and Dick Grayson, two characters with a lot of shared history (albeit not between these two versions). They gave Superman a chance to be inspirational, mainly by recognizing that Dick has historically been good at leading teams. I’m not sure I buy that with the Earth-2 Dick, because so far he’s been more of a plot device, but I’ll give it a chance. The one thing I didn’t like was the too-bloodthirsty Kingdom Come Captain Marvel, who seemed a lot more eager to kill than any version of Cap should be.

As for the tie-ins, Aquaman made Deathblow so unpleasant it was almost a relief to see him stabbed in the throat, but I still couldn’t get over an issue which ends with Aquaman stabbing a guy in the throat and being showered in his blood. Shadow of the Bat couldn’t really rise above being just an extended fight scene, and the parts of JLI which worked -- i.e., the Beetle-and-Beetle team-up -- couldn’t make up for the overly-serious fight with Wonder Woman’s KC League. Fortunately, Green Lantern and Man of Steel featured well-constructed superhero stories; and while Supergirl got a little tiring, it was consistently amusing.

Green Lantern (written by Tony Bedard, pencilled by Ron Wagner, inked by Bill Reinhold, colored by Paul Mounts) improved on last month’s opener by focusing on action. While Parallax and Princess Fern each buy into Telos’ “kill or be killed” setup, GL wants to save both cities. For a couple of moments he seems to have convinced both Parallax and Electropolis’ leadership, but it all goes south and Kyle ends up trying to stop Fern’s destructive romp through Metropolis. Last time I was curious about what Kyle’s co-creator Ron Marz would have done; but this felt very much like a Kyle-era GL story.

Speaking of last month, I didn’t mind that Supergirl: Matrix wasn’t exactly a re-creation of the early-‘90s character. From what I remember, that Supergirl (who didn’t call herself “Kara,” as she does here) didn’t get many chances to be heroic outside of Luthor’s orbit. Ironically, that version of the character didn’t do much beyond simply being Supergirl, since she had no real alter ego to speak of until Peter David got ahold of her in the summer of ‘96. Therefore, I can excuse this take -- from writer Keith Giffen, penciller Timothy Green II, inker Joseph Silver, and colorist Hi-Fi -- because basically it facilitates a romp through the Convergence-scape with Ambush Bug. As I said, that gets a little old after a while, but for the most part I was entertained.

Finally, Man of Steel (written by Louise Simonson, pencilled by June Brigman, inked by Roy Richardson, colored by John Rauch) wrapped up the Irons family’s fight with Gen13 fairly neatly. If this had been a regular issue of Steel, it would have featured an intriguing new status quo, but in the context of Convergence John Henry’s “physical therapy” is just a way to get him back into the action. For that matter, the demands of Convergence practically force an ending onto the proceedings, which otherwise featured the two sides reconciling. Thanks to an experienced creative team, this is an appealing issue, with Brigman and Richardson’s style well-suited to both the Ironses and the Gen-Actives. If this turns out to be just another piece of the larger Convergence puzzle, at least it’s a nice-looking one.

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