Last week I began my in-depth look at the history of Zenith and its attached legal dispute. As before I shall add my disclaimer: that this in no way speculates on who is right and who is wrong, and that it seeks only to bring you the facts, histories and quotes at my disposal – focusing primarily on what information is already in the public domain – in order to better allow all readers to form their own opinions and judgments.
So far I have covered the somewhat troubled history of both creator rights and royalties over the years at 2000 AD, from its beginnings in 1977 when published by the International Publishing Corporation (IPC), through to the buyout of the IPC Youth Group by Robert Maxwell in 1987, just one month before Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Zenith began.
Two years later the stirrings of the first contracts emerged (in late 1989) which introduced actual royalties, and a statement that the publisher was not looking to hand back copyright to anybody. And I chatted with previous 2000 AD editor Steve MacManus, and 2000 AD creator Pat Mills, about the situation prior to contracts: that creators were required to sign the back of their cheques in order to cash them. A docket was later added detailing rights purchased.
The position of Rebellion, the current owners of 2000 AD, is that this constitutes a contract. The position of Morrison, and various other creators, is that it does not.
Unfortunately Steve Yeowell has decided not to comment after all, feeling that his replies would be too similar to those he has already given to The Beat, which you can read here.
The Origins of Zenith
Part one finished in 1989. Before I continue, lets first dash back briefly to that earlier history of Zenith. As I said last week, Zenith had been re-shaped from an earlier, darker idea of Morrison’s for a David Lloyd project that didn’t come to pass – that project was Fantastic Adventure in 1985, a fortnightly boys comic proposed to IPC as a rival for 2000 AD. The Deep Space Transmissions website run by Ben Hansom reports that Morrison was assigned three strips:
“Johnny O’Hara (loosely based on Indiana Jones) with art by Modesty Blaise and Look-In alumnus John Burns; Nightwalkers (based on Ghostbusters) with art by occasional 2000 A.D. artist Ron Tiner, probably better known today for his art textbooks; and The California Crew, a sci-fi take on The A-Team with art by Steve Yeowell.”
And that Morrison also created a fourth strip, which you may find sounds familiar:
“A fourth strip, a super-hero epic created by Morrison and titled Zenith, was also earmarked for inclusion, though in a significantly different form than how it eventually appeared in 2000 A.D.. As conceived for Fantastic Adventure, Zenith’s tone was much closer to Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen; and the parallel-earth superheroic lineage angle, explored in depth in Phase III, seems to have been much more to the forefront. Morrison was keen to tie stylistic elements of comic-book history to their respective eras in the story, so for the elements set in the 1940’s, the characters were modeled on Siegel and Shuster’s Superman, for the 1960’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s early Marvel Comics, and for the 1980’s the prevalent Alan Moore-esque grim and gritty ‘realism’.”
Morrison himself said as much in an interview in Speakeasy #76 (1987):
“I’d come up with the basic storyline two years ago, when David Lloyd was putting together a boys’ weekly comic called FANTASTIC ADVENTURE. That didn’t get off the ground but I had come up with an idea for a superhero strip. I wanted to do something that paralleled superhero history, so we had characters in the ’40s who were very like the early Superman. We had the Maximan character, who was very primitive, we had the ’60s characters who were very Marvel pop arty, then we brought it up to date with the realistic ’80s characters. When it was revived after two years, because WATCHMEN and DARK KNIGHT had made such a big impact, we obviously wanted to avoid being compared with them. So we very definitely decided that we’d go for a lighter touch and get away from the tormented, demonic superhero. I think it’s been done by two very good writers, but I think in lesser hands it’s going to become really tedious.”
The history of Zenith then is moved back even earlier with Grant Morrison, before being re-shaped for 2000 AD and publication. In the comments of last weeks article, Hansom added more to the story:
“Tony O’Donnell (one of Grant’s colleagues at Near Myths and later collaborator on some issues of Starblazer) told me that Grant discussed publishing an early version of Zenith with John McShane of Glasgow’s AKA Comics & Books back in the early 80′s. Obviously it didn’t come to anything but it raises the possibility that the idea for Zenith stretches back even further than the David Lloyd/Fantastic Adventure pitch (which would have been around 1985). Whatever happened it seems pretty likely that Morrison had a pretty good idea of what Zenith was all about before Fleetway came anywhere near it.”
It’s not terribly surprising that Zenith has an older history than many realise given Morrison’s habit of filling notebooks with ideas that sometimes crop up in future works, but it’s interesting nonetheless to see further into the origins of Zenith.
Back now to where we left last week, after the events of 1989 when royalties were introduced, and the issue of copyright going to the creators was taken off the table…
Enter a Precedent
The wariness of giving back copyright is understandable from a business point of view – much of the success of 2000 AD was down to the creators alone, and to Pat Mills, John Wagner and Alan Grant in particular. Were the rights of, say Zenith, to be handed back, surely Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog and Robo-Hunter would be next.
Many would say that it’s the least that John Wagner and his fellow creators deserve, but could the publisher survive that outcome? It’s the same argument used time and time again within the comics industry, from Siegel and Shuster onwards. Except that at many other publishers the creators did indeed sign (often exploitative) contracts.
But in 1990, one creator put the previous lack of rights to the test. When Hilary Robinson was informed that her strip, Medivac 318, which ran in 1989-90, was to be revived under a different writer, Thrill-Power Overload states that she sought legal advice and tackled the publisher. Having previously sold text stories to other publishers, Robinson had assumed that comics worked the same – that the author retains the copyright.
Robinson’s 2000 AD series – Medivac 318, Zippy Couriers and Chronos Carnival – contained characters that she had previously created, and she enquired what would happen if she continued to use those characters outside of the publisher, in text stories for example. She was told that Fleetway would sue her.
Let’s be clear here. Robinson was told that if she used her own characters, which were created outside of 2000 AD and previously published elsewhere, Fleetway would sue her. It’s a contradiction that will perhaps stand out later.
The Comic Creators Guild took up Robinson’s case, and brought in a copyright lawyer who informed her that there were only two ways she could have given up her rights: by giving them away or by selling them. In either case, a contract is required to show the proof of the transfer of rights. That contract did not exist.
The writer made the case that she had never signed a document assigning her copyright to Fleetway and that she had only given a license to Fleetway to publish her work. The publisher acknowledged that the copyright was Robinson’s, but not without cost.
Talking to Bishop in Thrill-Power Overload, Robinson says:
“For me it was a matter of principle and I had no choice… I expected other writers to take advantage of the opening I had made and claim their own copyright but I never heard if anyone did. I asked for and was given confirmation that I owned Medivac 318, Zippy Couriers and the Chronos Carnival. After that I was never invited to submit a script again and those I did submit were refused. I had been warned that if I insisted on fighting for my copyright I’d never get work from them again, but I could afford to make a stand. I fully understand that other people couldn’t.”
Michael Molcher, PR Coordinator for Rebellion, has confirmed to me that this is indeed the case, and that Robinson holds the rights for both Medivac 318 and Zippy Couriers because they featured characters that Robinson had used in previously published material elsewhere.
(When Robinson says she could afford to make a stand, I do not believe she is talking financially – as she had sought out the Comic Creators Guild to help her – but I am told that she had apparently heard from friends in 2000 AD that she was not likely to be getting more work from the publisher.)
I’m told by other 2000 AD sources that it was more a case of those strips not being a “big deal” and that they did not want the fuss and expense of a High Court case. The publisher maintains that Robinson’s case was not a precedent as they voluntarily accepted that Robinson owned the copyright to her series.
I asked David Bishop – author of Thrill-Power Overload and former 2000 AD editor – for some clarification on this point, and to the best of his memory he recalls:
“The official line at the time was the rights were being voluntarily returned to Hilary, and as a result there was no legal admissions or precedent being established. Who owned what was certainly never put to any legal test in that case, at least not to the best of my knowledge.”
Medivac 318 did indeed appear first in a short story published by Robinson in the 1980s, while Zippy Couriers was originally published in a Belfast fanzine in the same time period.
The story of Chronos Carnival seems more muddy however, as although this too had originally been written as a short story I can find no record of it actually being published anywhere. Much like Morrison’s early origins of Zenith perhaps…
Robinson is now retired but does a great deal of painting. In a comment in one group dedicated to writing on an art site, she says:
“I am retired now but in my time I was, albeit briefly, a freelance writer for a British Science Fiction comic called 2000AD. I had a slight disagreement with them over my copyright, and even though I won the case, I haven’t written much since. Instead I’ve discovered an artistic talent that I didn’t know I had…”
For those that wonder why more people don’t push for copyright in comics, this would appear to be the – quite depressing – answer. Robinson did get the publisher to accept that she owned the rights, but it did not go to court. That was avoided, as it could have created a precedent for other creators to use. This is a classic situation that is repeated throughout the years in the comics industry – when publishers feel they are losing, they will avoid court at all costs to avoid legal precedents being set down. Settlements out of court leave new potential cases floundering.
Precedent or not, it does seem possible that 2000 AD voluntarily gave up the rights to Chronos Carnival which it otherwise would have owned outright.
In 1988, Fleetway Publications had also launched a new fortnightly anthology comic called Crisis, aimed at a more mature audience. While Steve MacManus, the previous editor of 2000 AD who had been championing for contracts for years, was now managing editor of the 2000 AD group, Crisis and the Megazine were the titles he had direct control over.
In ’89, Morrison and Yeowell had teamed up for another comic title, this time for Cut, a Scottish arts and music magazine. It caused a bit of controversy to say the least! The New Adventures of Hitler was a satirical take on what Hitler had got up to between 1912-13, based on a book (The Memoirs of Bridget Hitler) by Hitler’s sister-in-law claiming that he had stayed with her and her husband in Liverpool.
Hitting the headlines of The Sun and seeing Morrison labeled a Nazi by co-editor and 80s Scottish soft-pop star Pat Kane, Cut folded before the story was complete after just two 4-page instalments. Of course the comic in no way promotes fascism, showing a Hitler that is completely batshit insane and dangerous, but comics are as ever the target of would-be censors.
And so in 1990, it began being published, coloured and in full, in Crisis. Speakeasy 107 in March 1990 reports that:
“When asked whether the 2000 A.D. Group held the rights to collect the series in one volume after its initial Crisis run, editor McManus replied: “Well, we’ve got the option to bid for it. We’ve paid for the rights for one use only.”
At one point Morrison had vague plans of setting up his own self-publishing imprint – Snobbery with Violence – to publish collected editions of The New Adventures of Hitler as well as Bible John and the never realised Doctor Mirablis, but the imprint didn’t quite make it. (Fans of Alan Moore are perhaps reminded of Moore’s own rather costly Mad Love publishing company.) As Morrison says in an interview with Jonathan Ellis at PopImage: “Nothing ever came of it, rather like Communism.”
Speakeasy #109 in May 1990 featured an interview by Nigel Curson with Morrison and Rian Hughes about their reinvention, Dare, for Revolver magazine. Revolver was a monthly sister publication to 2000 AD, and was aimed at a slightly older audience. With editor Peter Hogan at the helm, contracts for royalties and re-use scenarios were the norm, just like at Crisis.
Dare was a revisionist take on the classic Dan Dare, an intelligent attack on the ideologies at play. The creator of the original Dan Dare strip, Frank Hampson was another in the long line of creator casualties, losing his rights to his creations and treated shamefully. Dare was, in part, also about that.
In the interview Morrison says:
“Basically, this strip is about what happened to Frank Hampson. The theme of it is the same thing, and it’s that kind of Faustian theme of selling your soul for something that’s essentially wicked. Frank Hampson did the same thing, and was pretty much destroyed.”
Asked by Curson whether he saw himself in the same situation, Morrison, still in his Morrissey persona years, replied:
“Well, I have been within something like Zenith, where I don’t own anything at all. I’m sure I could make money on T-shirts and badges and all kinds of stuff but I don’t really want to. I did that because I didn’t have any work at the time. My position on that is if you sign the contract, you read the small print and you know what you’re getting yourself into, so it’s your problem.”
Of course it later emerged that in the case of Zenith there was perhaps no contract at all. Morrison would have signed the back of his cheques, or possibly the docket slips, but contracts at 2000 AD did not exist at the time of Zenith’s publication.
Incidentally, for those wondering about who owned Dan Dare – the character was indeed still owned by Fleetway Publications at this time, so available for 2000 AD to use. When Egmont bought the company in the early 90s, the character was later old on separately.
The Dan Dare Corporation, which gave Rian Hughes permission to reprint Dare in his brilliant collection, Yesterday’s Tomorrows, is the current owner of Dan Dare. Dare remains copyright to Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes, as does another strip included in Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Really and Truly, from 1993’s Summer Offensive event in 2000 AD.
Here Comes Marky Mark
1991 saw half of Fleetway bought by Gutenberghus Press (now known as Egmont) and after the death of Maxwell in 1992, GP bought the remaining half and merged it with their existing London Editions to form Fleetway Editions. The same year saw the return of Zenith for his final Phase IV, after Morrison had achieved success in the US with Animal Man (1988-90), Arkham Asylum (1989), and Doom Patrol (1989-1993).
The following year saw 2000 AD’s infamous Summer Offensive of 1993, when the terrible trio of Morrison, Mark Millar and John Smith were given free reign for eight blistering weeks of violent mayhem. Strips included the aforementioned Really & Truly by Morrison and Rian Hughes; Slaughterbowl by John Smith and Paul Peart; Maniac 5 by Millar and Steve Yeowell, Richard Elson and David Hine; the Judge Dredd story Inferno by Morrison and Carlos Ezquerra; and Big Dave by Morrison, Millar and Steve Parkhouse.
Millar and Chris Weston created the first series in 1993, but Millar had stopped working for Fleetway by the time a second series came around in 1995 and objected to another writer taking over the strip. Thrill-Power Overload tells that Millar launched legal proceedings over both Canon Fodder and separate grievances regarding pay, and the case was settled. Plans to continue the series further were shelved.
Michael Molcher, PR Coordinator for Rebellion, tells me that there is no record of Millar being paid off over the matter. I turned to David Bishop again for some extra information, and he told me that there may have been some sabre-rattling, but the upshot had been that there were contracts for everything Millar had done on 2000 AD and the Megazine and that all belonged to the publishers – with the exception of Big Dave, copyrighted to Morrison, Millar and Steve Parkhouse.
Big Dave is another strip that seems to have some controversy over who was supposed to own it, but the rights ended up remaining with the creators. In many ways this is perhaps another example of a strip that the publisher didn’t think was a big enough deal to quibble over – the character was divisive and very much of his time, though in recent years has enjoyed a growing cult status. It all sounds a little familiar…
Thrill-Power Overload notes that around the same time, new contracts were offered to creators that covered audio/visual rights. However, these contracts are said to have offered worse terms than before.
In 1996, Fleetway Editions was renamed as Egmont Fleetway. Thrill-Power Overload states that in 1997 a long-running dispute between Egmont Fleetway and IPC was settled with Egmont Fleetway receiving £25,000 worth of free advertising in IPC publications (yes, those infamous “women just don’t get it” ads that ran in the porntastic lads mag Loaded of all places).
1995 also saw the end of a rather unusual strip called The Journal of Luke Kirby. Written by Alan McKenzie, it had been running since 1988, telling the rural story of a young boy learning his family’s supernatural secrets. It’s great and pretty stuff. The strip has never been collected. Why? Because Alan McKenzie states that since he never signed over his copyright, the strip belongs to him. If this sounds familiar then you’d be bang on of course – this seems to the same situation as with Zenith.
McKenzie was earlier an assistant editor at 2000 AD in 1987, but this was before contracts were introduced at the end of 1989. He later became an editor again in 1994, and is very sure of his rights in this case. Writing on his own website he states:
“The first episode appeared in Prog 571, 23rd April 1988. Which means the series predated both “Harry Potter” and the tv show The Wonder Years, which I always thought the Luke Kirby series quite resembled.
What I liked about Luke Kirby is that it’s a story about children for grown-ups and, of course, as I never signed an Assignment of Copyright contract with Fleetway/Egmont, the character format belongs to me.
I had always planned that Luke would grow up in real time as his story unfolded, but after a dispute with the publishers about my owning the copyright, the character went into limbo. Still copyright law is on my side, so who knows ..?”
Correcting an article written about him in 2007 where the author states that the copyright was signed over when the paychecks were cashed, McKenzie says:
“The copyright did not get signed over – as you state – when the cheque was cashed. That is not possible under European law. Copyright is only ever reassigned when the creator (that’s me) signs away his rights in a legally binding contract (which I didn’t).”
The original artist that worked on The Journal of Luke Kirby with McKenzie, was the magnificent John Ridgway. In an interview with David Robertson for The Comics Journal in 2011, Ridgway confirmed that rights were never signed over at the time, but revealed that he had later signed away his rights due to the format of the contracts at Rebellion.
“I finally received work from Alan Barnes when he took over. By that time Rebellion owned 2000 AD and issued a contract for every job. An addendum of each contract was a list of all the work done by that person on work owned by that company — which included Luke Kirby. I doubt that [R]ebellion ever knew that I hadn’t signed away Kirby, and it no longer seemed worthwhile making a fuss.”
In the same interview (which is fascinating, I highly recommend reading it in full), Ridgway also states that he never received any contracts (or deadlines) for his work on The Journal of Luke Kirby.
“However, contracts started to be issued on work for 2000 AD to make it compatible with the terms offered by Marvel and DC in the States, who were offering more-regular work with royalties and reprint fees. I should have received contracts for my work, but never did (I didn’t receive any deadlines either — things seemed a bit sloppy in the editorial department).”
This is particularly worth noting, as Ridgway’s work on the strip continued until 1995. Well after the introduction of contracts in late 1989, which illustrates that even after contracts were available at 2000 AD, they were not always used.
The Journal of Luke Kirby, as popular and incredibly influential as it was, has never been reprinted in a collected edition.
To Be Continued
I originally planned for this to be a two part series but in light of all the extra help I’ve received, the above had another >3k words to go!
So in Part 3 next week, I’ll be looking at just how UK copyright law works both now and at the time of Zenith’s original publication; another important case of a writer getting their rights back; what the contracts at Fleetway looked like when they were introduced; and where we currently stand with the fate of Zenith. Not to mention the story of Robot Archie and his IPC pals, and a guide to what publishing company was called what, when.
In fact, next week I think we might just see the proverbial hit the fan…
With special thanks to:
Pádraig Ó Méalóid
2000 AD Alumni
Laura Sneddon is a comics journalist and academic, writing for the mainstream UK press with a particular focus on women and feminism in comics. Currently working on a PhD, do not offend her chair leg of truth; it is wise and terrible. Her writing is indexed at comicbookgrrrl.com and procrastinated upon via @thalestral on Twitter.