Before Watchmen: WHAT BRAAK! HAS TO SAY!

Posted: February 8, 2012 in Braak, comic books, crotchety ranting
Tags: , , , ,

I have to write this, I guess, because Holland called his article “Holland’s take”, and that automatically implies that I’m going to have some different kind of a take.  And I guess I kind of do.  Not completely different, but I do think the position of “Just Don’t Buy It” skirts perilously close with “Everyone Shut Up and Let BUYING Decide,” which I’ve argued is a bullshit position.  And that makes me interested in the entire nature of this Before Watchmen conversation.

Because, principally, of course: duh.  Of course “don’t buy it.”  I mean, I already wasn’t going to buy it, that’s not a big deal.  It’s not hard to rub some brain cells together and arrive at the notion that probably the most interesting Rorschach-related stories were already in Watchmen.  I like Brian Azzarello and everything, but what is he going to write about in Rorschach?  That time he threw that dude down an elevator shaft?  Some day Rorschach was sad because there wasn’t any ice cream?

The thing of it is that no one who’s saying “this is some bullshit” feels like they have to make an argument for why they shouldn’t buy it.  It’s not like DC has hypno-rays or something, and if we don’t constantly argue on the internet about why we don’t want something, we might be secretly tricked into pulling out our wallets.

The issue is really that we don’t want OTHER PEOPLE to buy it, and that brings up a pretty interesting question, doesn’t it?  Because we can say, “Well, people should be free to buy what they want if they want it,” which also: duh.  And they still are! Me saying, “don’t buy this, because it’s some bullshit,” doesn’t actually FORCE anyone not to buy it.

And I guess you could say, “but people should be able to decide whether or not they want to buy it without influence from others,” and that’s just crazy, because DC spends a million dollars influencing people to buy it in the first place.  It’s not like it’s unfair for me to say not to buy it in that circumstance, because it’s not like DC has the RIGHT to any interest.  It’s not like spending a lot of money on advertising and production of a book entitles you to customers.

Obviously, part of the issue is just that DC doesn’t care anything about money, which is where the “don’t buy it” argument comes from, but I don’t know if that’s completely the case.  For as much as DC is a corporate entity with an obligation to its shareholders and it’s a system that is designed to obviate human decisions and compassion and such, it’s not a flawless system:  it’s still made up of human beings and somewhere in that mess of bureaucracy there’s an actual living person who had to choose to go ahead with this project.

And maybe if we all make him feel bad, he’ll stop making decisions like that.

And also maybe, if we make a big enough deal about this, other people won’t buy it either, and then DC won’t make as much money on it as they hoped, and then they’ll stop making decisions like that.

BUT ALL THAT ASIDE, it’s also my feeling that it’s never not worthwhile to talk about something interesting.  And intellectual property law, art and aesthetics, and the nature of the comic book industry are all interesting, which means that — as far as I’m concerned — they’re all subjects worth talking about.

I’m interested in this from an intellectual property standpoint, and I want to reiterate that any bonehead that says something to the effect of, “Why are people complaining about this, when Jack Kirby got screwed over even worse?” just deserves to be punched in the teeth.  Just for making a false comparison, in the first place, for implying in the second that it’s somehow impossible to be bothered by TWO THINGS, and in the third for trying to excuse one immoral action by pointing out that other actions in the past have been immoral.

So the deal, in case you were wondering, was this: Jack Kirby, in Olden Times, created a lot of intellectual property for Marvel — a lot of their important, billion-dollar properties like the Captain America and Thor — but he did it as work-for-hire.  Kirby famously negotiated his own contracts, and he apparently negotiated bad ones, because as a consequence, he and his estate never owned any of those properties, nor were they entitled to royalties from those properties, no matter how many millions and billions of dollars Marvel makes on them.  Kirby is dead now, which (to my eye) removes a little bit of the urgency of the question (I can get behind a moral argument suggesting that Kirby himself deserved the rewards of his labor, but I’m much less interested in the argument that his heirs deserve a pile of free money, but I’m also a crypto-anarchist and am this close to not just believing in the value of property at all, so that’s probably more of a personal thing).

Alan Moore comes along a little later and, not to be fooled by what happened to Kirby, cuts a deal with DC that after Watchmen runs, and goes out of print, Moore will get the rights to the characters back.  This wasn’t really an uncommon idea; a novelist might do the same thing with a manuscript so that, after some period of time, you’d be able to sell it again and get it published somewhere else, or, at the very least, renegotiate the terms of your printing with DC — the first printing they buy off you for thirty grand, but if they want a second printing, then you have leverage to say, “give me 2% of the gross”, et cetera.

So, obviously what happened is Watchmen was unbelievably successful, and so DC just never ended the first print run.  The rights never revert to Moore (and Gibbons), they can’t renegotiate their contracts, DC Time-Warner makes a billion dollars on the property and those guys never get a dime off of it.

We can call Moore naive for cutting a contract like that, but it’s important to remember that, at the time, the idea of collecting a bunch of comics issues into a “graphic novel” was pretty much unheard of.  In fact, it was the success of Watchmen itself that started the trend for collected graphic novels that stayed in print indefinitely. So, you know, how the shit was Moore supposed to know that was going to happen?

And DC could have easily let it go out of print and negotiated in good faith with Moore and Gibbons for better terms on the contract, and I know what assholes who read this will think:  they will think, “Well, why would DC do that if they were making money on it?”  And the answer to that is: so that they wouldn’t be assholes.  The reason assholes think this is because assholes can’t understand why a person might implicitly want to not act like an asshole.

“Well,” another asshole is saying, “why would you expect a corporation to act like that?”  And the answer is: dude, I don’t expect them to act like that.  I want them to act like that, and to ensure that this happens, I will try to publicly shame both them and anyone who supports them whenever they act like assholes.

Anyway, the thing is this:  Kirby and Moore are both on a spectrum — or, maybe better, part of a long evolutionary line, that is (I hope) going to finally yield a system in which creator-owned properties is the standard, rather than some kind of exception.

Because here’s the thing: you know who doesn’t deserve any money from Superman?  Time Warner.  Motherfuckers don’t do anything but manage an idea, by controlling other peoples’ access to it.  It’s not productive, it’s not art, it’s not anything.  And when it comes time for Superman to fall into the public domain (which I think should happen somewhere around 2050) you can bet those fuckers are going to lobby Congress to change the law to protect it further.

All of which is to say that my essential problem with this situation is the notion of “Intellectual Property” in the first place.  The government’s protection of IP only exposes the fact that there’s nothing essential or natural about it.  Watchmen doesn’t belong to DC because DC deserves to have it; it just belongs to them because the law says that they do.  So, whatever, change the law man.

Ugggggh, everything is fucked up and bullshit.

  1. Jason Gormally says:

    You have the soul of a poet.

    A drunk, cranky poet.

  2. braak says:

    That is most poets, I feel like.

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    To be fair, I was less proposing “Let buying decide,” than “If you nerds would once, just ONCE, actually not buy something you said you weren’t gonna buy, Marvel might only start like, 3 spinoff-heavy crossovers this year, instead of 5.”

  4. braak says:

    That is a better argument, agreed.

  5. John Jackson says:

    I understand creators wanting to retain the rights to their own inventions, and I understand publishers retaining limited exclusivity rights to content. But lifetime or 50 years was a good time limit when they came up with it, this continuation forever is pretty nonsensical.

  6. braak says:

    The thing is, the Constitution says exactly that:

    To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

    Copyright and patent are required by law to be limited, so that inventors an artists can make money from their work, but also so that eventually all works will go into the public domain.

    In fact, copyright is NOT unlimited; that would require a Constitutional amendment. Disney just keeps trying to push back the limit, so eventually it will be five thousand years, or something.

  7. John Jackson says:

    Wow. I had no idea copyright law was in the Constitution.

  8. braak says:

    Is that sarcasm? I was not being condescending, I swear, I just put stuff like that in there because I know that there are a bunch of people who might be reading the comments but who might not know that.

  9. John Jackson says:

    It was not sarcasm. I just didn’t know.

  10. Jesse says:

    The thing about the “pile of free money” point of view that I disagree with is that legacy-building is a legitimate financial goal for many people, and I would even say most people. You want the fruits of your labor to provide for your family when you’re gone so they don’t have to start from zero homeless and poor like you did, so when you support the beneficiaries you’re still supporting Kirby because he wanted his wealth to pass to them.

    I know you weren’t even actively making the point I’m counter-arguing. Sorry, just talking.

  11. braak says:

    Yeah, but the thing about dead people is that we don’t have to care about what they want.

  12. Jesse says:

    Sure, but it’s not necessarily an unfair advantage or something not deserved/earned. Legacy-building is something all families do and by virtue of Kirby being their dad, it’s legitimate for them to benefit from it; it’s not less virtuous or anything because they didn’t earn it the hard way. But yeah, if you’re coming at it from the perspective that property itself is a problem then there’s no way to see legacy building as a good thing.

  13. braak says:

    No, it’s not necessarily unfair, but that’s why I think that Kirby’s death doesn’t invalidate it, it just robs it of its urgency. Yeah, it’d be nice if Kirby’s heirs could benefit from his work, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it when there are creators who are alive right now who’ve been screwed out of the fruits of their own labors.

  14. braak says:

    (And, I mean, it’s not that I think legacy-building is bad — I think it’s unfortunately necessary in a society that is constantly driving people into poverty — but it’s not like Kirby’s heirs didn’t have *anything* to build on; they could have very easily started something like “Kirby Studios,” using Jack Kirby’s name and cachet to help get their own creator-owned publisher off the ground. They’d have enjoyed support from the community in general, particularly because of how Kirby was legendarily deprived of the value of his own work, and probably could have even found backers — the way that Valiant did — ready to trade on that name if they were hard up.

    Alternately, they could have set up something like a “Kirby Fund” that traded on the same name and good will and was designed to help creators who were old and didn’t get to own any of their comics properties and so don’t have any retirement savings or income or pensions, to help them pay for their expenses.

    The point is, there are a lot of things they could have been doing besides filing a bunch of lawsuits against Marvel that they are basically guaranteed not to win, because Jack Kirby negotiated his own contracts and the ways in which he was screwed were all above-board and legal. Suing Marvel isn’t an essential good, not the least of which because there’s no way to get any money out of them at this stage; wasting the legacy that you DO have just makes it even worse, to my eye.)

  15. John Jackson says:

    Nice. I don’t often realize how much copyright has in common with the inheritance tax debate. Or rather, the lack of an inheritance tax debate in this country. People with money and access to legislature basically get to suggest laws that benefit themselves and their families. And that’s just sad.

    I wonder if Disney’s copyright benefits extends to all the hundreds of animators who worked in the studio. Right. Didn’t think so.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s