They Didn’t Know How

I was talking to Marie Severin a while back, about comics, as we often do. I mentioned that Stan Lee, although an affable person to work with on various projects, never seemed to me to be a mover and shaker on the business side of Marvel Comics. Marie responded that “He didn’t know how to do it—get the money.” She said none of the creative people did, including herself. “It was mostly ego. Look at me! Look at what I did!” she said.

Showing off their creative accomplishments meant more to them than figuring out a way to ensure that they reaped the long-term financial benefits of such creativity. Not only for themselves, but for their families and descendants. Now we see the lawsuits that belatedly have been brought in attempts to right the wrongs perpetrated in the comics industry from its inception and especially during its lowest ebb in the 1950s. Those wrongs were continued by the management of the comic book companies even when the sales and social status of comic books improved dramatically during the campy, pop and op art days of the 1960s. Comics experienced a phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes of the scandal of Dr. Wertham’s bestselling diatribe against them and the Congressional investigation into horror comics that almost killed the business entirely.  This rebirth is what we call the Silver Age. Comics sold well, and there was plenty of work, but comic book creators did not emerge from the Silver Age with ownership rights to their creations.

Frankly, I believe that the quality of the Silver Age comics far outstrips that of the Golden Age.  I read many, many early Golden Age comics years ago at the Library of Congress, so I feel competent to talk about them even though I don’t own a lot of them. Yes, these uncensored stories had a rude energy and honesty that Silver Age comics, which were all industry-censored, didn’t. But the Golden Age comics lacked polish. Seriously lacked it. By the 1960s, we had comics drawn by experienced illustrators, many of whom had trained for the then-lucrative and higher-status fields of advertising illustration or newspaper comic strips. These artists had mastered layouts and figure drawing and perspective, and so on. The inkers had mastered effective ink lines, and the writers had mastered telling powerful stories within a G-rated framework. This is not as easy as it sounds; it is in fact far more difficult to write or draw a comic without resorting to sex, violence, bad words, guns, sadism, etc.

Yet some comic book creators from the Golden Age had ownership rights, some of which they abandoned when likely they should not have. Some Silver Age comic book artists had been Golden Age business owners. In the 1960s, hardly a one remained who had the individual clout to gain or to retain ownership of their creations. There was no collective muscle by any large enough group of creators; in fact, there never has been.  Individuals had mortgages and families, and they had just weathered an extremely tough economic period. Although some of them certainly wanted to ask for more, the basic business situation was that most of them didn’t ask for much, just a regular check.

Unlike advertising, comic books paid promptly. In the 1960s, it was common for a comic book professional to call an editor and say that a certain job would be delivered on Wednesday. When he brought in the job on Wednesday, the editor would hand him the check. Contrast that to working at four times the page rate for an ad agency, but having to wait up to six months to be paid, until after the agency had managed to get its client to cough up reimbursement fees. No wonder creative people stayed with comics. It was a quick payout, albeit not a good long-term strategy.

As Marie said, these talented people did not know how to turn the use of their creative ability into a method of assuring their future financial security. In a capitalistic society, that means ownership. It’s not surprising. They went to art schools, not business schools. Most of them did not graduate from a college that might have introduced them to business principles and methods. They worked to hone their creative talents, not their business acumen. They knew how to create a comic book that would sell, but not how to sell a comic book idea to a business owner without surrendering all rights. These creators produced amazing comic books in the 1960s, but those comic books did not result in fortunes for the men (and the occasional women) who created them. They didn’t know how. I believe that even if they had, the owners of the comic book companies were so determined to cheat the creators that the creators would not have succeeded no matter what they tried. Many did not try. Although not every comic book creator lived in the ivory tower of egotism Marie describes, enough did and still do to keep creative work–the rarest of abilities–underpaid in both the short-term and the long-term.

Why should a comic book creator expect to own a creation? Why not? In other parts of the publishing world, creators and business owners are partners, melding their areas of expertise to both create and market a successful product. Why shouldn’t it be that way for comic books? Although there may be an argument that the fiftieth writer on Superman should not own a piece of him, and the company should own him completely, there are good counter-arguments.

Times have changed, and what happened, happened. Still, it always makes me sad and angry to look back at the comics that moved me so much as a teenager, and realize that the people involved in doing it were getting ripped off.  No wonder that when comics fandom first developed, all the creators were so humble; they were used to being treated like dirt. Stan Lee has done a remarkable job of building on his popular success as a comic book writer to become an indispensable comic book icon with the compensation such a figurehead merits. Still, it’s telling that Marie, who worked with him, could evaluate his business skills and say, “He didn’t know how.”

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