Comic Book Justice (Part 5)

Even as a new era of American prosperity began after WWII, the cloud of radioactive ashes drifting outward from Hiroshima and Nagasaki spread a nuclear winter across the globe that froze any hope for a lasting post-war peace dead in its tracks. As communism replaced fascism as America’s ideological opposite, bringing with it the chilling and ever-present threat of atomic annihilation, people huddled together for the warm feeling of security that comes from familiarity and conformity. But that feeling quickly vanished when the whole country soon found itself shivering under the icy stare of the Cold War’s self-proclaimed commander-in-chief.

The big chill
Senator Joe McCarthy and his Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations spread paranoia like frostbite, convincing the American people that the only way to save their way of life was to cut off parts of themselves: chiefly their civil liberties and fellow citizens. Any deviation from the accepted norms of behavior was seen as evidence of communist subversion and a threat to all of society. Although McCarthy and his cronies were able to ruin hundreds of lives in a matter of just a few years,  the senator finally went too far in 1954 when he attacked the U.S. Army. But just as McCarthy was losing both his credibility and his hold over the nation, a troubled doctor was enlisting the aid of another U.S. senator in an attempt to purge the comics industry of its own unwholesome elements.

Dr. Fredric Wertham

Dr. Fredric Wertham gets to know his enemy.

Author of the anti-comic book diatribe, Seduction of the Innocent, child psychiatrist Fredric Wertham had concluded that because most of the juvenile delinquents he treated in his Harlem clinic read comic books, comic books must be a primary cause of juvenile delinquency. This herculean leap of “logic” conveniently overlooked that nearly every well-adjusted boy and girl in America read comic books too. In 1948, a series of incendiary distortions by Wertham and others published in the popular press led to comic book burnings from coast to coast. Having seemingly forgotten America’s recent triumph over Naziism, communities began reenacting the Third Reich’s crimes against free expression by gathering up and incinerating the works of “deviant” comic book writers and artists they deemed unfit for public consumption.

Comic book burning

Young Americans emulating Hitler Youth at a comic book burning party. Binghamton, New York, 1948.

But such acts of vigilante fascism weren’t good enough for Wertham and his supporters, who would be satisfied with nothing less than having comic book decency enforced by law. Wertham found a willing ally in Senator Estes Kefauver, co-chair of the 1954 Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. Wertham testified before the subcommittee as an expert witness, and the allegations he and Kefauver made about the corrupting influence of comics were latched onto by the media, which dramatized these charges with all the hysterical inaccuracy that films like Reefer Madness used to depict the effects of marijuana. In a 1955 episode of the televison news exposé program, Confidential File, host Paul Coates implied that prolonged exposure to horror and crime comic books turns impressionable boys into serial killers (the part of this dramatization I find most horrifying is graphic footage of comic books rolled up in back pockets and tossed on the ground outside). This disturbing program later inspired the title of Ron Mann’s 1988  pro-comic book documentary, Comic Book Confidential, which includes a scene from Confidential File (you can watch the entire 25-minute episode here).

 

Captain Marvel Adventures #140

Korean War-era comic book featuring a story about “Mongol blood drinkers.” Cover dated January 1953.

Wertham and Kefauver also aimed most of their criticism at crime and horror comics, which did contain unsettling excesses of violence and were being marketed to kids. Like many real people at the time, comic book superheroes tried to protect themselves from being blacklisted by loudly proclaiming their patriotism. The Korean War gave the few superhero veterans who survived WWII the chance to prove themselves loyal Americans. They waged a full-scale assault against Soviet agents and Red Chinese soldiers who were rendered with the same sort of Mongol horde imagery that had demonized the Japanese during WWII. But readers no longer saw superheroics as a reasonable or even entertaining response to the alleged communist threat, and superhero comics were quickly crowded off newstand shelves by titles featuring G-Men and other federal agents battling against the Iron Curtain.

The only exceptions were Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, whose comic books continued to be published throughout this bleak period. This trio had maintained their popularity precisely because of their wholesome, all-American demeanor and their avoidance of sensitive subjects. But that didn’t save them from  Dr. Wertham, who claimed, “They arouse in children phantasies [sic] of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again while you yourself remain immune. We have called it the Superman complex.” And that was only the tip of the iceberg.

hidden images

Dr. Wertham spotted a subliminal depiction of female genitalia insidiously hidden in this man’s shoulder muscles.

Demonstrating an imagination even more vivid than that of the children he was trying to protect, Wertham saw sexual imagery in almost every comic book panel. But the good doctor’s most damning diagnosis was given to superheroes whose sexuality he thought was directed toward their own gender. Wertham proclaimed that Batman and Robin represented “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together” and that their “Lesbian counterpart,” Wonder Woman, was someone who “tortures men, has her own female following, [and] is the cruel, ‘phallic’ woman.” These charges were no doubt taken very seriously by parents who probably found the prospect of their kids turning out to be sissies or tomboys just as frightening as the idea of their becoming juvenile delinquents and mass murderers.

Unwilling to wait for the temporary insanity behind such accusations to subside on its own (which it soon did), in November of 1954, publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) in an attempt to quell the Senate’s anti-comic book inquisition. The CMAA immediately drafted the Standards of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), which placed far greater restrictions on free speech than Congress ever could—without repealing the First Amendment.

CCA seal of approvalFor a comic book to receive the CCA seal of approval on its cover—without which no retailer would sell it—the story inside had to adhere  to the organization’s rigid list of guidelines. Primarily concerned with curtailing depictions of crime, violence, sex and the supernatural, the CCA also sought to wipe out civil unrest through its General Standards Part A: #3, which insisted that “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” The lone maverick to challenge the acceptance of the status quo and expose the ugly truths behind the American dream was non-superhero publisher EC Comics, which was soon all but silenced by the severe restrictions placed on it by the CCA. This guaranteed that young readers would never be exposed to any dissenting opinion’s about the wisdom and justness of those who decided what rights they and their parents were entitled to and how and when they could exercise them.

When DC Comics began a superhero revival in 1956, heralding what would come to be known as the “Silver Age” of comics, this formula for success was repeated by a whole new generation of costumed crime-fighters. This ensured that any superhero role model readers might encounter in the pages of a comic book would be an unquestioning supporter of whatever government policy—from segregation to the draft—was in effect at that moment.  But as the next decade unfolded, the attitudes of society, including comic book readers, quickly began to change, and the Comics Code Authority eventually had to change with them.

Next, Part 6: Super power to the people.

Note: For an excellent in-depth account of the Senate hearings, the creation and enforcement of the Comics Code, and the history of government attempts to censor comic books, read  The Ten Cent Plague by David Hajdu.

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Comic Book Justice (Part 4)

While Superman and several of his costumed comic book peers had begun their careers as champions of the downtrodden, their focus changed with the advent of World War II. Soon, superheroes were racing each other to jump aboard the jingoistic bandwagon and demand the total destruction of America’s enemies overseas. There was little room left for any character still trying to point out problems on the home front. But even though most comic book writers and artists of this period were producing a seemingly endless supply of pro-war adventures, some of them—whether intentionally or not—created comics that exposed the horrors and injustice of war hidden beneath pageantry and propaganda.

Superman #18, 1942

Superman goes from dove to hawk (1942).

All that glitters
December 7, 1941, may have been a “day of infamy,” but it also ushered in a “Golden Age” of opportunity for superheroes. That is the name comic book historians have given to the industry’s formative years when a host of costumed characters was unleashed on young readers eager to share the excitement of the times. Before America’s entry into WWII, Superman had stopped two fictional wars on humanitarian grounds, due to the massive death and suffering all armed conflicts inevitably cause. But once America joined the Allied Forces, he became a poster child for the U.S. war effort (mostly on comic book covers—the stories inside rarely addressed the war, which Superman had already twice demonstrated he would have been able to end in a day).

Superman painted on B-17 bomber

Reflecting the nation’s sense of outrage in the aftermath of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, grotesque caricatures of the Japanese replaced corrupt Americans as the villain of choice (German Nazis, although usually portrayed as buffoonish or sometimes monstrous, were generally not depicted with the same type of racist imagery). Meeting the “yellow hordes” head on, legions of Golden Age superheroes brutally dispatched the enemy in droves.

Laying waste to the the enemy

No sympathy for the “yellow devils.”

Captain America #1

Captain America #1. Cover art by Jack Kirby. Copyright Marvel Comics.

Sometimes almost literally draped in the flag, a host of super patriots—including the Fighting Yank, Minute Man, Major Victory, the Spirit of ‘76, and even Uncle Sam himself—gleefully leapt into the fray. The most famous of these star-spangled heroes is Captain America. Almost a full year before the United States went to war against Germany, this “Sentinel of Liberty” showed up on the cover of his first comic book socking Hitler in the jaw. But the political daring of Jewish creators Joe Simon and legendary artist Jack “King” Kirby ended with this first strike against Aryan tyranny. Happy to attack the Nazi Party’s evil agenda, even while our own government at the time was still indifferent to it, neither Captain America nor any of his peers so much as questioned such U.S. “Reich-like” practices as the racial segregation in the military, the turning away of Jewish refugees, the unconstitutional imprisonment of 6,000 conscientious objectors and internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans, or the incineration of an estimated 150,000-250,000 men, women, and children in the twin atomic holocausts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Bombshell

Bombshell wages peace. From Boy Comics #3, 1942.

Even though no superhero at the time dared to speak out against these acts, some did add a plea for restraint to the comic book crusaders praising the glories of war. Apparently worried that they might be taken as wimps, writers often gave these less belligerent superheroes extremely combative names. Bombshell—a product of publisher Lev Gleason—was charged with a mission of peace (oddly enough) by his father Mars, the Roman god of war. Bombshell was equipped with a magic sword that was incapable of drawing blood, but could slice through Panzers, U-boats, and Stukas as if they were made of tin foil. Other anti-war superheroes included Centaur Publications‘  paradoxically named Man of War (also a creation of the god Mars), and the android, Manowar (sometimes known as White Streak), published by Funnies Inc. Manowar/White Streak described himself as “a keeper of peace, breaker of war mongers who fight for profit with men’s lives as pawns.”  Despite their noble ideals, these comparative pacifists (who had nothing against using their fists in pursuit of world peace) were quickly overshadowed by their more bloodthirsty peers and soon faded into obscurity. But their cause was not lost.

The Justice Society of America (JSA) was the world’s first superhero team. When it debuted on the cover of All Star Comics #3 in the winter of 1940, the JSA’s original roster included the Atom, Doctor Fate, the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Hourman, the Sandman and the Spectre. While promoting the Allied effort as earnestly as any, the JSA often pointed out the tragic nature of WWII through stories that focused on war orphans (issue #7, 1941) the starving masses of occupied Europe (issue #14, 1942), or disabled veterans (issue #27, 1945).

The JSA in All-Star Comics

The Justice Society of America draws attention to the true cost of war.

Godless Pledge of Allegiance

A Godless Pledge of Allegiance. From All-Star Comics #22, 1944.

In All-Star Comics #16 (1943), the members of the Justice Society of America—which by then included Wonder Woman, Doctor Mid-Nite and Starman—campaigned to denounce racism, religious intolerance and classism as tools exploited by the Nazi’s to divide a united America. In All-Star Comics #22 (1944), they encouraged citizens young and old to embrace tolerance and understanding as the defining characteristics of our nation. The last page of this story serves as an interesting historical and cultural artifact. It shows the JSA leading an auditorium full of children in a Pledge of Allegiance that is missing the phrase “under God,” which wasn’t added until 1954 (proving that, if the Greatest Generation’s godless allegiance to their country was good enough to defeat the Axis Powers, it should be good enough for today’s Americans).

Junior JSA membership certificate

The super group encouraged young people to practice what the JSA preached with a radical pledge of its own that was included in the membership application sent to readers who paid 25¢ to join the Junior Justice Society of America. Stressing the JSA’s idea of a just society, this 1942 document asked young members to promise:

“. . . to help keep our country united in the face of enemy attempts to make us think we Americans are all different because we are rich or poor, employer or worker, White or Negro, native or foreign born, Gentile or Jew, Protestant or Catholic. . .”

Unfortunately, these high ideals were short-lived. World War II ended with two atomic bangs that sounded the death knell for superheroes who questioned the status quo. In fact, by the time the mushroom clouds of V-J Day had cleared, the stampede of comics’ initial superhero gold rush was already losing steam. Peacetime publishers were turning instead to humor, romance, western, horror, and true crime comics as principle sources of profit. They had no way of knowing that the enemy the JSA had warned of would soon strike from within our own borders.

Next, Part 5: The big chill.

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Comic Book Justice (Part 3)

In this part of my history of comic book superheroes I look at the very first superhero, after whom all those who followed him are named. No one had ever seen anything like him—but it wasn’t just his powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men that stood him apart from pulp magazine predecessors like Doc Savage and The Shadow. While he represented a fantastical new breed of fictional character, his sense of priorities was very much a product of the real world in which he first came into being.

 

Siegel and Shuster

Superman creators Jerry Siegel (standing) and Joe Shuster.

Faster then a speeding ballot
The Depression put an end to Horatio Alger optimism that promised success and riches to any man willing to work hard enough for them (women were pretty much left out of this implied social contract). It was during this time that a pair of young Jewish men living in Cleveland, Ohio—writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster—created the perfect heir to follow in the footsteps of literature’s justice-seeking forefathers. In a 1975 press release written as a plea for help in regaining the rights to the character he and Shuster created more than 35 years earlier, Siegel listed some of the current events of the time that had inspired him:

What led me into creating Superman in the early thirties? Listening to President Roosevelt’s fireside chats, being unemployed and worried during the depression, knowing homelessness and fear, hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany, and seeing movies depicting the horrors of privation suffered, I had the great urge to help the downtrodden masses, somehow. How could I help them when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer.

And so, in the spring of 1938, in a then nameless city that would soon be known as Metropolis, sensational bulletins began pouring into the newsroom of the Daily Star (soon downgraded to the Daily Planet):

211 COURT AVENUE, June 1938—Husband caught beating wife with belt thrashed within an inch of his life by man wearing tights and a cape. Husband faints after breaking knife blade against assailant’s chest. WASHINGTON, DC, June 1938—Senator Barrows and munitions magnate Emil Norvell conspire to embroil U.S. in European conflict. Confession given by lobbyist Alex Greer after he is taken on harrowing leap over tall building by costumed kidnapper. BLAKELY COAL MINE, August 1938—Worker miraculously rescued from collapsed shaft by unidentified Samaritan. Temporarily trapped by unexplained cave-in after denying hazardous conditions, owner Thornton Blakely vows “my mine will be the safest in the country and my workers the best treated.” COREYTOWN PRISON, March 1939—Superintendent Wyman indicted for cruelly starving, confining, and whipping inmates. Governor Bixby snatched out of bed by mystery-man and taken to witness atrocities firsthand. BATES MOTOR COMPANY, May 1939—Angry titan destroys factory for making unsafe cars. Mayor brought to city morgue and forced to view automobile fatalities allegedly caused by inadequate traffic laws.

Kryptonian karma

Superman dishes out some Kryptonian karma to (from top left) a wife beater, corrupt lobbyist, unscrupulous mine owner, manufacturer of unsafe automobiles and a cruel prison warden.

These were the early adventures of Superman. Long before battling super villains like Lex Luthor and Brainiac, the Man of Steel made a name for himself as an extralegal dispenser of New Deal justice, unhindered by the restraints of either due process (when enforcing currently existing laws) or the democratic process (when punishing acts that were still legal). Stockbrokers, city contractors, the superintendent of an orphanage, a police commissioner, district attorney and a mayor were among those subjected to Superman’s righteous wrath. Possessing awesome strength, virtual invulnerability and the ultimate diplomatic immunity, whenever the Last Son of Krypton discovered one of his adopted homeworld’s many social inequities, he stepped in to correct it with superhuman speed. As the introduction to the 1940s radio show and cartoons starring Superman made clear, the Man of Steel‘s only concern was battling for “truth and justice.” The “American Way” was never mentioned. In Action Comics #8, Superman’s lack of allegiance to American tradition or law led to one of his most spectacular assaults on the status quo and clashes with official authority.

Breaking a young hoodlum out of a police van, Superman explains before setting him free, “It’s not entirely your fault that you’re delinquent–it’s these slums—your poor living conditions—if there was only some way I could remedy it.” Reading in the Daily Star about a Florida town being rebuilt after a devastating hurricane, Superman comes up with a plan that will make even bigger headlines.

METROPOLIS, January 1939—After first warning residents in this impoverished neighborhood to flee their homes, Superman brought down one dilapidated tenement building after another with his bare hands. Watching this one-man demolition crew shrug off a hail of gunfire and shrapnel, police, National Guardsmen, and an aerial bomber squadron realized too late that their attempts to stop him were only adding to the destruction. The entire block reduced to smoking rubble, this modern day Samson then fled the scene in a single bound. Shortly afterward, the government announced that it will replace the squalid slum houses with decent, low-rent housing for the poor.

Superman's war on poverty

Superman wages a one man war on poverty. Click on the links to read page 1, page 2 or page 3. 
 

Superman by Siegel and Shuster

A panel from Superman #1 reveals the Man of Steel’s true allegiance. Written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster.

Whether the target of his wrath was a common thug, mad scientist or corrupt government official, Superman’s actions were less about who he was fighting than they were about who he was fighting for: “the oppressed” and “those in need.” This is why I think the world’s first superhero was fulfilling the role for which all superheroes are best suited and most needed. There are already institutions and real-life men and women dedicated to stopping common crime and apprehending those who commit it. Superheroes—like Robin Hood, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro before them—are at their best, and most inspiring, when they’re acting as rebels with a cause bringing to justice the otherwise untouchable: the people who make the laws, or pay for those who do, and then ignore or abuse those laws for their own greedy and cruel purposes, with no one to hold them accountable.

Of course, a major barrier to superheroes routinely acting in this way is that some of those people also pay for advertising space in comic books.

Eventually, Superman’s corporate owners at National Periodical Publications (later DC Comics) asked Jerry Siegel to curb his creation’s habit of flying in the face of the legal authorities. In his 1980 essay “From Menace to Messiah,” comics historian Thomas Andrae reported:

Initially, the publishers were unaware that Siegel had cast Superman as an outlaw. When they discovered this fact inadvertently, Siegel was told to make Superman operate within the law and to confine his activities to fighting criminals. All controversial social issues were to be avoided.

At about the same time Siegel left to fight overseas in mid-1943, Superman was stricken with a case of super-selective amnesia erasing the last five years of his life. When one of his arch nemeses manages to copyright the English alphabet in that year’s May-June issue of Superman, the Man of Steel complains, “The Prankster has the law on his side, and I won’t flout justice at any cost.” Always a role model for the rest of the superhero community, once Superman declared “law” and “justice” synonymous, none of his associates seemed willing to argue with him.

Next, Part 4: All that glitters.

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Comic Book Justice (Part 2)

Part two of my series on the history of comic book superheroes delves into their prehistory and what I consider the driving force behind their creation and primary motivation for their actions—at least initially.

Secret origins
Comic book scholars often refer to superhero stories as a “modern mythology.” It is true that superheroes and ancient gods share much in common. Some gods, such as Hercules and Thor, have even become superheroes. But there is a crucial difference between mythology and comic books. Unlike comic book writers, the chroniclers of Greek epics and Norse sagas believed they were recording history, not fantasy. In many ways, the tone and spirit of superhero stories, not to mention their place of birth, have more in common with American Tall Tales. No one who either told or listened to these yarns believed that the outlandish feats of Pecos Bill, Mike Fink, or Paul Bunyan actually took place, they just all silently agreed to pretend they did for the duration of the story. But because superhero tales have always been created as works of pure fiction intended to appear on the printed page, they are ultimately products of literature, and their original creators repeatedly mentioned the same three literary characters as primary sources of inspiration.

In an interview published in comics historian Thomas Andrae’s 2011 book, Creators of the Superheroes, Jerry Siegel named these characters while discussing the influences behind his and artist Joe Shuster’s creation of the very first superhero, Superman (more on him in Part 3):

 I loved The Mark of Zorro, and I’m sure that had some influence on me. I did also see The Scarlet Pimpernel but didn’t care much for it. . . . Of course, we loved Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood.

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood

1883 edition of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood

Robin Hood made his first literary appearance in Piers Plowman, written by William Langland in 1377, but it was Howard Pyle’s 1883 retelling, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, and film portrayals by Fairbanks (1922) and Errol Flynn (1938) that made him a household name (Flynn will always be my definitive Robin Hood). Though not exactly a superhero by today’s standards, this outlaw archer has been imitated by a long succession of bow-wielding comic book characters: in terms of both dress and personality, the Green Arrow is practically Robin’s clone (and his crime-fighting partner and lover, Black Canary, a more kick-ass version of Maid Marian). In addition, Sherwood Forest provided the model for hidden sanctums including the Batcave and the Fortress of Solitude, while groups such as the Avengers and the Justice League of America (JLA) are basically super-powered versions of the Merry Men.

Robin Hood-Green Arrow

Evolution of an archer. From left: 1938 movie poster for The Adventures of Robin Hood; panel from the 1987 comic miniseries Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, by Mike Grell; and 2011 painting of Green Arrow and Black Canary by Alex Ross.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

1905 edition of The Scarlet Pimpernel

Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s 1905 novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel (based on her 1903 play), has been adapted into several movies (Jerry Siegel would have seen the 1934 version, starring Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon), television series and a Broadway musical. The title character of the story took his pseudonym from an English wildflower. You might not expect botanical imagery to strike terror into the hearts of today’s criminals, but it has proven pretty effective for such comic book superwomen as Thorn, Nightshade, and the Black Orchid. The Scarlet Pimpernel’s band of compatriots was actually called a League (foreshadowing the JLA’s overseas branch, Justice League Europe), and his swift galley, The Day Dream, was a pre-industrial precursor to the Batboat and other customized crime-fighting vehicles. His mastery of disguise meant he had no need for a trademark costume, but his public persona of Sir Percy Blakeney did provide the Scarlet Pimpernel with one of the signature traits of a superhero: a misleadingly foppish secret identity.

All-Story Weekly

August 9, 1919 issue of All-Story Weekly

Johnston McCulley perfected the superhero prototype with Zorro, who made his first appearance in “The Curse of Capistrano,” published in the August 9, 1919 issue of All-Story Weekly. Zorro’s adventures have also been adapted several times for the big and small screens, with notable portrayals by Douglas Fairbanks (1920), Tyrone Power (1940), Guy Williams (1957-59), Frank Langella (1974) and Antonio Banderas (1998 and 2005). In his 1986 groundbreaking Batman epic, The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller established that it was Power’s 1940 The Mark of Zorro (my personal definitive version) that young Bruce Wayne had just seen with his parents on the night they were gunned down before his eyes. Mark of Zorro reveals how the seemingly dandyish Don Diego Vega first adopted the alter ego of this masked, black-garbed swashbuckler. The cunning Zorro, or “Fox” in English, also foreshadowed a long line of superheroes—from Batman to Spider-Man to Wolverine—who would take their names and powers (symbolic or physical) from animals.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

Panels from the 1986 Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller.

Yet despite the superficial resemblances, Robin Hood, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro were different from most of today’s costumed comic book do-gooders in one crucial respect. Their death-defying careers were devoted not to stopping crime, but to committing it.

Batman: Reign of Terror

In the 1998 Elseworlds graphic novel, Batman: Reign of Terror, the Dark Knight takes the place of the Scarlet Pimpernel, rescuing aristocrats from the guillotine.

The medieval version of “trickle down economics” that made Sir Robin of Locksley famous was literally highway robbery. In addition, while Robin Hood and his merry guerrillas were basically fighting a war against colonialism—Prince John was overtaxing the Saxon peasants whose land his invading Norman knights had conquered—they were still committing treason against their duly appointed ruler. During the Reign of Terror, English nobleman Sir Percy Blakeney repeatedly violated France’s sovereignty as the Scarlet Pimpernel by smuggling aristocratic enemies of the Republic out of the country before their blue blood could be spilled by Robespierre’s lethal paramour, Madame Guillotine. When Don Diego returned home to old Los Angeles in the early 1800s, after years spent in a Spanish military academy, he found the peons suffering under the exploitation of wealthy cabelleros and the tyranny of a despotic junta. Soon, Zorro began his own terrorist campaign, as McCulley put it, “to avenge the helpless, to punish cruel politicians,” and “to aid the oppressed.”

Each of these original caped crusaders struck out against governments—not always their own—that preyed on their citizens. These idealistic rebels believed it was not only their right but also their duty to violate the law whenever it was necessary to preserve justice, even if it meant as drastic a measure as revolution. At the very least, these flamboyant agitators acted according to a duty once espoused by early 20th century activists and journalists to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Given his noble heritage, it makes sense that the first true superhero would feel the same way.

Next, Part 3: Faster than a speeding ballot.

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Comic Book Justice (Part 1)

Today is the second anniversary of my first Comic Book Justice post, so it seems fitting to mark the occasion with a return to blogging after my four-month absence.

One of the things that has kept me otherwise occupied during the last few months was making preparations for a rather elaborate party (comic book-themed, of course) to celebrate my 50th birthday, which was in June. Thinking back on my first half century of life, I can’t help but feel nostalgic about my earliest comic book reading days, and reflect on what comic book stories—particularly ones about superheroes—have meant to me during the more than 40 years that have elapsed since then.

That’s why I’m starting this series of posts on my personal view of the history of superhero comics and their reflection of our society’s ever-evolving sense of justice.

Crazy Al's Memorabilia Shop

My brother (left) and I outside Crazy Al’s Memorabilia Shop.

Childish things
On a winter’s day in 1976, my brother Steve and I walked down a staircase into an underground bazaar of antique dealers hidden beneath Prince George’s Plaza in Hyattsville, Maryland. Like a pair of young explorers venturing into an uncharted land of imagination, we discovered the wondrous realm of “Crazy Al’s Memorabilia Shop.” Scarcely able to believe our eyes, here was an entire store—only slightly bigger than a walk-in closet—entirely devoted to the sale of comic books. To us it was a musty treasure-trove of adventure, fantasy, horror and, as the name “comic book” would imply, even humor. But out of all the stories there were to choose from, nothing touched us so deeply or thrilled us so much as the action-packed tales of superheroes.

We dreamed of possessing their powers, their unfaltering confidence, their control over a world we couldn’t quite understand. They were our protectors, our wards against the forces of evil. When I was too afraid of my recurring nightmares to go to sleep, and too scared of the shapes lurking in the darkness of my room to lie awake in bed, I would close my eyes and silently recite an alphabetical list of superhero names until I passed safely into slumber.

But they were more than just protectors. They were teachers. And the lesson we learned from them was that justice conquers all. In their world the guilty were always punished, the innocent were always saved, and the righteous were always invincible. Gleefully dropping skyscrapers on super villains or hurling common thugs through plate glass windows, these “super cops” overpowered all those who threatened what was good and wholesome. Back then, the comics may have been in color, but morality was black and white.

Yet, as my appreciation for what is now more respectfully referred to as “graphic literature” has expanded over the years—along with my comic book collection—so has my definition of justice. I now see law and order, or at least blind obedience to them, as part of the problem rather than the solution. Today, there are a number of perfectly legal enterprises that could easily be seen as serious crimes: the rape of the environment; the theft of workers’ pensions; the extortion of citizens’ rights for promised homeland security. But when it comes to injustices like these, few superheroes show the same courage and determination to correct them as many of the real people who follow their fictional exploits. You would think that, given the hundreds of mild-mannered comic book citizens who regularly receive superpowers from alien gadgets, magic artifacts, and incredible scientific breakthroughs, by the sheer law of averages, the superhero bug would have bitten at least one fictional member of the NAACP, Greenpeace, National Organization of Women, the Human Rights Campaign, Amnesty International, or even the AFL-CIO. If their world were plagued by the same problems as our own, superheroes could act out very different power fantasies than the ones imagined by most adolescent comic book readers.

Wonder Woman could use her golden lasso of truth to expose the hypocritical, self-proclaimed guardians of morality who seek to deny her mortal sisters around the world their economic, political, social, and reproductive rights. Superman could use his nearly limitless powers to prevent unlawful acts of international military aggression committed by both Third World dictatorships and Free World democracies. Batman could use his unparalleled deductive skills and vast technological resources to bring to justice corporate criminal masterminds who profit at the expense of the environment, their workers’ safety, and the life savings of their investors and employees.

Wonder Womanon on abortionDespite these missed opportunities, I have not lost my nostalgic attachment to superheroes, just to their narrow focus on conventional crime. And as I learned more about the history of superhero comics, I discovered that, not only did the earliest caped crusaders once share my more expansive sense of justice, they were also descended from a literary lineage of costume-clad revolutionaries that was more than six hundred years old.

Next, Comic Book Justice Part 2: Secret Origins.

Posted in Activism, History, Superheroes | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Anarchy unmasked

Tuesday, the FBI revealed the identity of Sabu, founder of the notorious computer hacking organization LulzSec. It turns out Hector Xavier Monsegur was tracked down last June through a carelessly uncloaked IP address, and has been working as an FBI informant ever since. Monsegur led authorities to five of his LulzSec partners, who are now facing charges of conspiracy to commit computer hacking. Monsegur formed LulzSec as a spin-off group from the computer “hacktivist” collective Anonymous, whose supporters/members live up to the name at Occupy movement protests and other demonstrations by wearing identical white-faced, black-Van Dyked masks. While the media is devoting all its attention on uncovering the details of Monsegur’s private life, I’m more interested in the face he and his alleged co-conspirators showed to the public.

Anonymous demonstrators

Anonymous demonstrators at Occupy Wall Street protest, Sept. 17, 2011.

Critical masses
The unofficial mask of Anonymous and the Occupy movement represents Guy Fawkes, a 17th century English folk-villain who took part in a 1605 conspiracy to blow up Parliament. The anniversary of Fawkes’ failure has since then been commemorated in the U.K. with fireworks and bonfires, onto which effigies wearing Guy Fawkes masks are tossed. This particular model mask was made famous by the title character of the 1982 graphic novel masterpiece, V for Vendetta, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd. The story is about an anarchist revolutionary attempting to single-handedly overthrow a fascist dictatorship that took power in Britain after a limited nuclear war obliterated most of the other first-world nations.

As Moore put it in a February 9 post on the BBC’s Web site, he began conceiving the plot of V for Vendetta during “a summer of anti-Thatcher riots across the UK coupled with a worrying surge from the far-right National Front.” Thirty years later, the goals of the Occupy movement are to end vast economic disparity, unchecked corporate greed and rampant financial fraud. Or as the movement’s tag line implies, to end the control of 99% of the world’s people, wealth and resources by the richest 1% of the population. The inspiration for the nationwide Occupy movement was the pro-democracy demonstrations that swept North Africa and the Middle East during last year’s Arab Spring uprisings. (Comic book coverage of recent acts of citizen unrest “from the Mid-East to the Mid-West” appears in the latest issue of the political anthology magazine, World War 3 Illustrated.)

As for the use of V’s Guy Fawkes mask by Anonymous and the Occupy movement, that was apparently inspired by the final scene in the film version of the graphic novel, where (spoiler alert) throngs of defiant citizens wearing the masks fill the streets. In the same BBC post, Moore expressed displeasure—though not surprise—that the movie removed any reference to the original work’s radical politics:

If there truly was government unease about the mask and its associations back in the 1980s, these concerns had evidently evaporated by the first decade of the 21st century, when the movie industry apparently decided to re-imagine the original narrative as some sort of parable about the post-9/11 rise of American neo-conservatives, in which the words “fascism” or “anarchy” were nowhere mentioned.

Moore doesn’t mean “anarchy” as a synonym for “chaos.” He’s referring to the political philosophy of anarchism that promotes a stateless society in which all forms of coercive authority are abolished. With that meaning in mind, he also shared why he thought the Guy Fawkes mask was eventually taken up—and put on—by today’s real-life anti-capitalist and anti-globalization activists:

It also seems that our character’s charismatic grin has provided a ready-made identity for these highly motivated protesters, one embodying resonances of anarchy, romance, and theatre that are clearly well-suited to contemporary activism, from Madrid’s Indignados to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

This was the second time Moore had publicly spoken out in defense of Occupy protesters. The first time was back in December of last year when he responded to a vicious verbal attack on them by another comics legend.

Clash of the titans
Frank Miller and Alan Moore are both credited with revolutionizing superhero storytelling in 1986 with the near simultaneous releases of what most consider to be their magnum opuses, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, respectively. In Miller’s work since then on projects like Sin City and 300, many readers and critics have came to see disturbing endorsements of violent, misogynistic, and homophobic thought. His most recent graphic novel, Holy Terror, has largely been condemned as hackneyed, anti-Islamic hatemongering.

Frank Miller

Frank Miller

In a November 2011 statement titled “Anarchy” posted on his official Web site, Miller went on a hysterical tirade against members of the Occupy movement that laid to rest any questions about his personal political views at the same time that it raised some serious doubts about his grasp of reality.

“Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America.

“Occupy” is nothing short of a clumsy, poorly-expressed attempt at anarchy, to the extent that the “movement” – HAH! Some “movement”, except if the word “bowel” is attached – is anything more than an ugly fashion statement by a bunch of iPhone, iPad wielding spoiled brats who should stop getting in the way of working people and find jobs for themselves.

Alan Moore

Alan Moore

Alan Moore was asked to comment on Miller’s rant in a December interview with Honest Publishing. Better read and far more rational, Moore clarified, as he saw it, the anarchist-like philosophy behind the Occupy movement, which Miller’s paranoia sees as potentially society-ending chaos.

As far as I can see, the Occupy movement is just ordinary people reclaiming rights which should always have been theirs. I can’t think of any reason why as a population we should be expected to stand by and see a gross reduction in the living standards of ourselves and our kids, possibly for generations, when the people who have got us into this have been rewarded for it; they’ve certainly not been punished in any way because they’re too big to fail. I think that the Occupy movement is, in one sense, the public saying that they should be the ones to decide who’s too big to fail. It’s a completely justified howl of moral outrage and it seems to be handled in a very intelligent, non-violent way, which is probably another reason why Frank Miller would be less than pleased with it. I’m sure if it had been a bunch of young, sociopathic vigilantes with Batman make-up on their faces, he’d be more in favour of it. We would definitely have to agree to differ on that one.

I’d like to think most people would side with Moore on this.

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Taking credit (Part 3)

Full Series

Comic book writer Gary Friedrich isn’t as famous or acclaimed as Jack Kirby or Alan Moore, but his most well-known creation, Ghost Rider, has been the subject of two feature films. Unfortunately, it looks like Friedrich’s relative anonymity worked against him when he sued Marvel Comics for copyright infringement over the character, encouraging Marvel and parent company Disney to strike back at him in a way that it might not have against a more successful and popular creator.

Ghost in the machine
I still have the copy of Marvel Spotlight #5, in which Ghost Rider made his first appearance, that I bought in 1972 when I was 10 years old. It was one of the issues from my earliest years of reading comics that left a lasting impression on me. When I reread it in preparation for writing this post, I was surprised to see that the story was clearly credited as having been “conceived and written” by Gary Friedrich. I would have thought that would make settling the issue of creative ownership relatively easy, but it turns out to be a little more complicated than that.

Gary Friedrich

Gary Friedrich and the character he "conceived" for Marvel Comics, but the courts ruled he gave up for adoption.

Friedrich sued Marvel Comics for copyright infringement in 2007, coinciding with the release of the first Ghost Rider movie, which starred Nicolas Cage and grossed $228 million worldwide. Friedrich claimed that when Marvel failed to renew its original copyright on Ghost Rider when it expired in 2000, copyright reverted to him as the character’s creator. Marvel counter-sued Friedrich for damages from his sale of unlicensed Ghost Rider art and other merchandise at comic book conventions. Marvel claims that Friedrich a) co-created Ghost Rider with editor Roy Thomas and artist Mike Ploog; b) relinquished his rights to the character back in the 70s by cashing Marvel checks that were stamped on the back with an ownership-waving statement; and c) signed a 1978 agreement with Marvel granting it “forever all rights of any kind and nature” to the work he did for the company. Friedrich on the other hand claims full creative ownership of Ghost Rider—most compellingly corroborated by the credit Marvel itself bestowed exclusively on him in the character’s debut comic—and Friedrich’s lawyer maintains that the courts will eventually rule that he never transferred his renewal rights to the character. But that day has yet to come.

Shortly before the Feb. 17 release of the second Ghost Rider movie, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (again starring Nicolas Cage), the courts ruled in Marvel’s favor, ordering that Friedrich repay the company the $17,000 he has made over the years selling Ghost Rider merchandise. He will still be allowed to claim the title of Ghost Rider creator, and sell his autograph, but can only sign it on officially licensed Marvel products that he has bought at retail price.

Marvel’s supporters—and even some of Friedrich’s—point out that the publisher was legally obligated to go after Friedrich or risk losing its copyright on Ghost Rider. This has been a longstanding policy of Marvel’s parent company, Disney, which incited public outrage in 1989 when it famously sued a daycare center  over unauthorized murals of Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters. Public reaction to Disney’s latest aggressive defense of its property has been similarly negative, given that Friedrich is 78 years old, in poor health, and makes his living trading on his relatively small claim to fame at comic book conventions across the country. Friedrich has vowed to keep fighting the good fight. To raise the $17,000 Friedrich now owes Marvel, supporters have set up donation sites, sold artwork and written an open letter to Nicolas Cage asking the Ghost Rider star and lifelong comic book fan to foot the bill himself. The call by fans to boycott Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance were apparently unnecessary given the film’s poor box office performance (personally, I would have found it more of a hardship if I were asked to support Friedrich by actually going to see the movie).

Comics artist Stephen Bissette‘s legal adviser and contract consultant Jean-Marc Lofficier maintains that because Marvel never had Friedrich sign anything waving his rights (as is common practice today) to royalties from “other media to be invented in the future,” the company was not authorized to sell Ghost Rider licensing rights for DVDs and video games—which didn’t exist in the 70s. This means Friedrich would be entitled to at least a share of Marvel’s profits from these media. Lofficier’s post on the case also warns that the precedent Marvel/Disney has set by suing a comics professional for selling art and other merchandise featuring a character he created—an industry-wide and traditionally tolerated practice—it’s “only a matter of time until Disney, now aware of the issue, sends one of their young attorneys with a stash of blank [cease and desist] letters at conventions and start handing them out to everyone selling Marvel sketches without authorization.” This would have a huge negative impact on the livelihoods of countless comics artists already cut off from any share in the company revenues generated by characters they created and helped make famous.

But does that make the abusive, exploitative and vindictive actions of Marvel, or DC Comics, somehow more objectionable than those of any other huge corporation protecting its profits at all costs?

I think it does.

These companies have built their considerable fortunes and multi-media empires on the iconic stature of characters dedicated to promoting ideals of truth and justice. It’s not the raw power or amazing abilities of characters like Superman, Captain America and Wonder Woman that inspired generations of devoted followers. It’s the values superheroes represent that have made them both treasured cultural idols and merchandising gold mines. After all, how many supervillains get their own movies, video games and children’s sleepwear?

Marvel and DC aren’t just creating escapist entertainment, they’re creating role models. As Alan Moore put it in Stephen Bissette’s 1993 book of interviews, Comic Book Rebels:

Superman had a code of morals that was expressed repeatedly and quite clearly. It wasn’t very sophisticated; it more or less amounted to, “Don’t lie. Don’t kill anybody. And always try to help other people out if they’re in trouble.” Which is naive and simple, but as a basic code of morality, it’ll do until you can grow up and shade in some of the more subtle areas. So that was true of me, and I think it was true for a lot of people in our generation; that we learned our morality from these simple, silly ass superhero books.

But judging from the way DC Comics has treated Alan Moore, not to mention the way it treated Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, it might appear that the morality promoted by the publisher’s characters is nothing more than another gimmick used to sell comic books—like variant covers and holograms. Likewise, when it comes to crediting and compensating its creators according to their contributions, Marvel apparently considers itself exempt from the superhero code made famous by Stan Lee in the first appearance of Spider-Man (whose cover debut was drawn by Jack Kirby): “With great power there must also come great responsibility.”

That leaves it up to readers who actually believe in those “silly ass” values to let Marvel and DC know how we feel about their treatment of the writers and artists who helped teach them to us.

Because justice shouldn’t just be something you read about in comic books.

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Taking credit (Part 2)

Full Series

A reasonable case could be made that the works of Alan Moore have had as much of an impact on comic book writing as the works of Jack Kirby have had on comic book art. And like Kirby, Moore has been involved in a decades-long dispute with a comic book publishing giant over the rights to his creations. The primary difference is that his troubles aren’t with Marvel, but with their “distinguished competition,” DC Comics.

Watching out for number one
Alan Moore was part of a 1980s “British Invasion” of writers who changed the face of U.S. comic book storytelling (other “invaders” included Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano and Peter Milligan). In addition to receiving repeated comics industry recognition including multiple Jack Kirby Awards, Eagle Awards, Harvey Awards and Eisner Awards, his works have won literary honors such as a Hugo Award, World Fantasy Award, Bram Stoker Award and two International Horror Guild Awards. In addition, Watchmen, the work for which Moore is most famous, and which forever changed the superhero genre, is the only graphic novel included in Time Magazine‘s 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels published since Time‘s founding in 1923. Ironically, it is the success of Watchmen that has come back to haunt Moore.

The 1986 contract Alan Moore signed with DC Comics prior to producing Watchmen stipulated that if DC ever allowed the series to remain out of print for a full year, the copyright for the work would revert to its creators, Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. Although it’s common practice today for publishers to keep trade paperback compilations of multiple-issue comic book stories perpetually in print, this was unheard of at the time. Moore agreed to the terms with every reasonable expectation that he would regain the rights to Watchmen about a year after the last issue of the 12-part series was published. Nobody (except Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan) could have foreseen just how successful Watchmen would be and that DC would decide to maximize its profits from this perennial moneymaker by keeping it in constant print for the next 25 years. Not only has DC issued countless editions of Watchmen—from $15 paperbacks to a $75 Absolute Edition hardback—it adapted it into a film (through its sister company Warner Bros.), a move it was well-known Moore utterly opposed. In response, Moore, a ceremonial magician, implied in a 2009 Los Angeles Times interview that he put a curse on the movie.

Who Watches the Industry?Still searching for more ways to make a profit from Moore’s magnum opus, DC Comics recently confirmed its long-rumored plans to publish a series of Watchmen prequels, produced by an assortment of talented writers and artists (none of them Moore or Gibbons). This time, the hostility of Moore’s reaction was largely matched by fans of his work, whose responses have been, as comic book artist Ty Templeton put it in his blog post on the subject, “mixed between complete revulsion and utter disgust.” Templeton also created a comic strip about the situation, the first four panels of which you can read at right (and the complete strip on his Web site).

In a DC Comics news release, company executives Dan DiDio and Jim Lee explained the solemn duty they felt to greenlight the “Before Watchmen” project: “It’s our responsibility as publishers to find new ways to keep all of our characters relevant.” Putting aside the questionable use of the term “our characters,” that sentence, in a nutshell, succinctly sums up the fatal flaw in the superhero comic book industry—no character is ever allowed to die, or story to be concluded, as long as there remains the slightest potential for publishers to make more money from them. Alan Moore already told the story he set out to tell 25 years ago, but because he has no more say in what happens to Watchmen than you or I do, he can only watch helplessly as his work is repeatedly exploited and capitalized on by others. In its never-ending pursuit of so-called “relevance,” if it wanted to, DC Comics could turn Watchmen into a Saturday morning cartoon. Under the circumstances, I don’t blame Moore if his tirades against DC sometimes seem extreme.

Some commentors on this controversy have accused Moore of hypocrisy, pointing out that he has similarly exploited other people’s intellectual property: The main characters in Watchmen were modeled after Charlton Comics superheroes (at the request of DC Comics, which had recently acquired them) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is populated almost entirely with other writers’ characters. In the first case, Moore’s changes to his Charlton clones made them entirely original and uniquely his own (when DC learned what Moore intended to do with its newly acquired properties, the company asked him to change their identities to protect its future profits). In the second case, the original creators of The League‘s Victorian-era characters are long-dead and their creations long-since lapsed into the public domain (except for Sax Rhomer’s evil criminal genius, Dr. Fu Manchu, which is why he is only ever referred to as “the Doctor” in the first League series).

Moore, on the other hand, is very much alive and his objections to the continued exploitation of his work well-known and widely publicized. While DC Comics praised the merits of “collaborative storytelling” in its news release, this particular collaboration is less like Moore’s and Gibbons’ on the original work than it is like the “collaboration” of Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Having said that, I can’t pretend that I haven’t crossed Moore’s picket line in the past. My wife kept teasing me before the Watchmen movie came out that I shouldn’t go see it out of solidarity with Moore. Not only did I see it in the theater twice, I bought the ultimate DVD release when it came out.

One reason I was willing to give the Watchmen movie a chance was that I knew director Zack Snyder was approaching the film with the utmost respect for the source work (which, to be fair, the writers and artists involved with the Before Watchmen project may share). More importantly, Snyder was trying to faithfully tell Moore’s story, not his own.

Although I have a rubbernecker’s morbid curiosity in seeing how these ill-conceived comics turn out, unlike the Avengers movie, I wont find it at all difficult to pass them by. And it’s not just to avoid further enriching DC Comics for such a crass exploitation of Moore’s work (more distasteful than even the Watchmen motion comic DVD). My main reason for boycotting them is more selfish. I’m anxiously waiting to read the real next “Watchmen“—the as yet unwritten great American graphic novel that will once again revolutionize the comics art form. And who’s going to want to spend their time and creative energy writing it if they know they’ll have no say in what happens to the finished product, or who profits from it?

In the conclusion to this three-part series, I look at Marvel’s vindictive persecution of Gary Friedrich, creator of Ghost Rider.

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Taking credit (Part 1)

Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk: cultural icons or corporate brands?

Watchmen: graphic literary masterpiece or cynical sellout?

Ghost Rider: spirit of vengeance or weapon of spite?

Each of these characters or works, although created and often made famous by the imagination and talents of individual artists, are owned, wholly and completely, by multibillion dollar corporations: TimeWarner/DC Comics in the case of Watchmen, and Disney/Marvel Comics in the case of all the rest. And both DC and Marvel are denying the men responsible for providing them with these still profit-making properties public credit, profit sharing or any control over their creations. This under-recognition of writers and artists has been the policy of publishers since the inception of the comic book industry, but some recent high profile cases have creators, their families, and their fans crying out for justice.

Avenging the King
I doubt anyone was anticipating the release of The Avengers, the world’s, first multi-franchise crossover movie, more than I was. Then graphic novelist James Sturm had to ruin it for me. He wrote a post in Slate Magazine announcing his intention to boycott The Avengers unless Disney/Marvel gives Jack Kirby’s family a share in the profits from the movie and its associated merchandise.

Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby self portrait with Marvel Comics characters, most of which he helped create.

Jack Kirby is one of the most significant and influential artists in the history of comics—so much so that he earned the nickname, “King of Comics.” Not only did his dynamic style of drawing come to be the standard by which all other superhero artists were judged for many years, he also helped create some of the world’s most famous superhero characters. With partner Joe Simon, Kirby created Captain America in 1941, and in the early Sixties, collaborating with Marvel Comics editor/writer Stan Lee, he created the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, the X-Men and, of course, the Avengers (although he didn’t illustrate the origin story of founding Avenger Iron Man, he did help design his armor and draw the cover of the comic book in which it first appeared). Virtually everyone who’s familiar with comic book history agrees that without Kirby’s contributions to the earliest exploits of these characters, they—and Marvel Comics—would not have achieved the popularity and success that has sustained them for the last 50 years.

Everyone agrees that is, except Marvel Comics. The publisher has a long history of withholding not only profits from artists, but their own original artwork. In Kirby’s case, as a condition for returning thousands of pages of his artwork, Marvel asked him to sign a four-page legal agreement renouncing all rights of ownership to it. This meant he wouldn’t be allowed to sell or publicly display any of the pages. He didn’t sign that agreement, but did eventually come to an arrangement with Marvel through which 1,900 pages—of the 8,000 he drew for the company from 1960-70—were returned to him.

Jack Kirby died in 1994, without Marvel ever giving him the public recognition, respect or monetary compensation he deserved as co-creator of the company’s superhero universe. When Disney bought Marvel for $4 billion in 2009, Kirby’s heirs sued for the King’s rightful share in the sale of Marvel’s kingdom. Although federal judge Colleen McMahon ruled last July, as reported by Sturm, “that all of Kirby’s work for Marvel was created as work-for-hire under the Copyright Act of 1909 and cannot be reclaimed,” she also made it clear what she thought of the corporate entity’s behavior:

“This case is not about whether Kirby (and other freelance artists who created culturally iconic comic book characters for Marvel and other publishers) were treated ‘fairly’ by companies that grew rich off the fruits of their labor. It is about whether Kirby’s work qualifies as work-for-hire. …”

In response to this decision, Stephen Bissette, former freelance artist for Marvel and DC, is calling for a boycott not just of The Avengers, but of all comics, merchandise and movies based on characters Kirby co-created for Marvel. A fan has created an online petition asking Marvel and Disney not only “to pay Kirby’s family royalties or other just compensation for the use of [his] characters and stories,” but “to acknowledge Jack Kirby’s authorship and primary role in the creation of these characters.”

Prior to the 1978 release of the first Superman movie, it was a campaign championed by fellow comics professionals Jerry Robinson and Neal Adams that led to Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster  receiving not only a relatively modest lifetime stipend from Warner Communications/DC Comics, but credit for their creation in all broadcast and published works in which the Man of Steel appears. Stan Lee’s name already appears in the opening credits of every Marvel Comics-based movie as “Executive Producer.” It’s long past time that credit is also given to Jack Kirby, whose influence is just as present in these films—from the cover of Captain America #1 briefly seen in Captain America: The First Avenger, to the otherworldly majesty of Asgard in Thor.

And if having fanboys and girls help make this happen by forgoing entirely the experience of seeing The Avengers is too much to ask or expect, there is a less drastic alternative. What if these millions of fans publicly made a solemn pledge not to go see the movie on its opening weekend when it’s released in the U.S. May 4? Even such a relatively painless gesture by those of us who owe Jack Kirby for years of entertainment—not to mention this film’s existence—would likely pose a threat to Marvel’s/Disney’s bottom line that the media giants couldn’t ignore.

In Part 2 of this three-part series, I share the latest battle in the ongoing war between Alan Moore and DC Comics.

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SPX 2011: Justice, American style

SPX 2011 Banner

SPX 2011 animal posterSaturday, September 10, I attended my 14th consecutive Small Press Expo in North Bethesda, Maryland. As you’ll know if you read my post on last year’s Expo, this is North America’s premiere independent cartooning and comic arts festival. I haven’t missed an SPX since I first went in 1997, and it’s the only comic book convention I attend every year. This year, the hall was packed, with the SPX organizers reporting attendance up 10-15 percent from the 3,000 attendees and exhibitors who participated in 2010.

Although the selection of work was as varied as ever, a definite pattern emerged in my purchases, like it did last year when I bought animal rights-themed books including Adam Hines’ epic and amazing Duncan the Wonder Dog and an anthology by fellow vegan J.T. Yost featuring stories on vivisection, the abuse of elephants in circuses, and factory farming. This year, the dominant theme was America’s never-ending struggle between the inalienable rights of the individual and the coercive force used by the State to preserve its own interests.

CBLDF Uncle Sam "Defend Speech" T-ShirtFree speech
As I explained in last year’s post, a prominent presence at every SPX is the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund table. The CBLDF is a non-profit organization that defends the First Amendment rights of comic book creators, publishers, and store owners. The SPX is one of the CBLDF’s biggest annual fund-raising events, where the organization sells autographed graphic novels, posters and other merchandise to support its work. One of the items that caught my eye on this year’s CBLDF table was  a “Defend Speech” T-Shirt bearing the ominous image of a mouthless Uncle Sam drawn by talented comic book artist John Cassaday. Unfortunately, I couldn’t fit it in my budget because of the other purchases I’d already made.

SPX 2011 Seamus Heffernan

Seamus Heffernan displaying his Xeric Award-winning work at the 2011 Small Press Expo.

Give me liberty
Last year, the main focus of my independent comic quest was the Xeric Foundation grant-winning book, Duncan the Wonder Dog. This year, I had my sights set on another Xeric winner, the first installment in Seamus Heffernan‘s Freedom, a revisionist take on the American Revolution. Beginning in the year 1779, Freedom is set in an alternative history where the patriots lost to the British and now live under truly colonial occupation. The defiant Sons of Liberty continue to wage an insurgency war against their red-coated occupiers, using gunpowder kegs as improvised explosive devices and leaving Boston looking like a bombed out 18th century Fallujah.

The story follows a teen-aged Massachusetts boy named Adam Farr, who goes to Boston to apprentice with a Tory merchant and has a near fatal encounter with violent British soldiers at a crowded checkpoint going into the city. This scene (reminiscent of the Israeli border crossings Joe Sacco depicted in Palestine), also reveals that the innocuous-sounding title of this first chapter actually refers to a pivotal point in Adam’s life, leading to a series of events that sweeps him up into the dangerous world of the Sons of Liberty. The quill and ink art style and broadsheet-proportioned paper make the comic look like an artifact of the unreal time in which the story is set, as though it could have been written by Tom Paine and printed by Ben Franklin. I’m anxiously awaiting future installments in the series. (In addition to the book, I bought a poster of the menacing anthropomorphic mascot of the patriot cause, the Liberty Eagle, brandishing a bloody saber in one feathered hand and King George’s severed head in the other.)

Freed Man by Peter Quatch

Copyright Peter Quach.

Another comic I got at SPX dealing with the aftermath of an armed conflict on American soil is Freed Man by Peter Quach. This story is set after the Civil War and focuses on the quest of former slave Charlie Moses to track down a group of white men in Texas who lynched his wife for claiming her emancipation. The question Moses wrestles with is whether he will ever truly be free as long as he keeps himself bound in self-forged chains of hatred and obsession with vengeance that continue to make his only  hope for happiness dependent on others.

American Terrorist

Copyright, A Wave Blue World Publishing.

Don’t tread on me
One of the books I was most excited about at the Expo hasn’t even been released yet. The graphic novel  American Terrorist, by married writers Tyler and Wendy Chin-Tanner and artists Andy MacDonald and Matt Wilson, wont make its debut until the New York Comic Con October 13-16, but publisher A Wave Blue World did have copies of the American Terrorist Sketchbook for sale at SPX to whet my appetite. It’s the story of four people—an investigative journalist, public school teacher, civil rights lawyer, and EPA scientist—inciting a 21st century popular uprising. No less fed up with government abuse of power than current Tea Party rabble-rousers, from the publisher’s description, I get the sense that these revolutionaries are motivated by very different ideals:

A war has been waged against the American people. It’s a covert war, one that those in power hope will go unnoticed, but day by day, homes, pensions, health care coverage, quality of life, and civil liberties are taken away, while the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows wider and wider.

With no way out, four activists become fugitives from the law and go on the offensive against corruption and injustice. They share their story with the nation using social media to inspire their followers to rise up and reclaim their country.

I’ll be interested to learn more about the goals and strategies this group has for restoring our nation, but I was pleasantly surprised by one preview page in particular that showed the Internet headline, “Factory Farmers Get Taste of Their Own Medicine.”

Any Empire by Nate Powell

Copyright, Nate Powell.

I bought Any Empire, by Eisner Award-winning creator Nate Powell, based almost entirely on the description on the back cover by publisher Top  Shelf Productions:

Any Empire, is a vivid examination of war and violence, and their trickle-down effects on middle America. First, a group of small-town kids find themselves bound together by geography, boredom, and a string of mysterious turtle mutilations. Years later, with Army tanks rolling through the streets of their hometown, these young adults are forced to confront painful questions of privilege, duty, betrayal, and courage.

In hardback and more than 300 pages long, Any Empire was the most impressive and ambitious work I purchased at this year’s Expo.  In some ways, it was also the most emotionally engaging and beautifully illustrated, and its largely wordless story the most enigmatic. I’ll probably have to read it again to fully process it but, thinking about it as I write this, it occurs to me that unlike the other comics I’ve mentioned, this one doesn’t focus so much on the evils that governments do as it does on the way every day American life can condition citizens to carry out those evils on their government’s behalf. In this case, it shows how kids playing soldier can grow up to become actual soldiers unquestioningly following orders to occupy not a foreign nation, but their own hometown. One of my main reasons for wanting to read the story was the turtle mutilations, which speak to the way childhood acts of animal cruelty are often predictors of future violence toward humans (the subject of the Superman for the Animals comic book I worked on, as well as an article I wrote for Animal Guardian magazine).

As usual, this and the other works I saw and bought at the Small Press Expo restored my enthusiasm for the diversity of expression, both in terms of style and subject matter, that have kept me reading “comic books” for more than 40 years.

9-11 Emergency ReliefI didn’t attend the second day of the SPX this year, which marked not only the 10th anniversary of 9/11, but the anniversary of the only time in the Expo’s history that the event was ever canceled. In 2001, the Small Press Expo was scheduled to take place just four days after the terrorist attacks, and due to restrictions on travel and the nation’s state of shock and grief, the Expo was called off that year (otherwise, this would have been my 15th SPX). Many comic book anthologies came out in the aftermath of 9/11 to raise funds for various victim support charities, but the one that featured the highest concentration of contributions from SPX attendees was 9-11: Emergency Relief from Alternative Comics. In fact, the stories contributed by Jessica Abel, Eric Thériault and Nick Abadzis actually mention their plans to attend the Expo that year.
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