“We’re gonna be talking about copyrights and credits,” began moderator Chris Arrant, opening the panel on comics copyright on Friday afternoon at C2E2. Comics writers Dan Parent (Die Kitty Die) and Stephanie Williams (Nubia and The Amazons), with lawyer and comics aficionado Dirk Vanover (Comics Startup 101), discussed the comics industry’s legal landscape.
The first topic explored was character ownership. Vanover outlined how copyright law “gets complicated” as, before the Copyright Revision Act of 1976, people “created things left and right” without regard to proprietary concerns. Post-1976, however, creators can take their copyrights back after 35 years, which is “what we’re seeing a lot of” in 2021.
Parent– creator of the Kevin Keller Archie character– described “the good and the bad” of being a For-Hire writer, the former being gainfully employed, the latter not owning one’s characters. “Kevin was the first character that really took off,” Parent explained, saying he was “excited to see it. But you know that you are giving that up to the company. And fortunately with Archie… they never tried to pretend like they created the character.” Kevin appeared on Riverdale, and Parent says he was compensated, but “outside the margins.”
“You have to just ask for what you want,” Parent added, saying even if one’s requests are rejected, it is worth asking. He is pleased that, even if he does not have full ownership of his Archie creations, he can still sell his own merchandise with the characters at conventions.
Williams called comics “our folklores or fairy tales,” acknowledging the open, and enormously popular, nature of the IPs, but criticized how comics creators not only see little to no money from blockbuster films, but have their names misspelled in the credits. “If your movie is making millions of dollars,” Williams said, “it would be nice to give some kick back to your Creator or their families.” In Williams’s previous career as a research scientist, the question of ownership was similarly complex. “Yeah, you do good work. You might get screwed over or you might not.” Her experience was “so far so good,” however–– “I don’t really expect much from the big two.” Her plan is to write for Marvel and DC, getting paid and receiving recognition, and use the recognition to finance independent projects. She called this process “a Trojan Horse situation, but no cities are getting burned.”
“It’s on the publisher’s terms, not really on yours,” Vanover said about the For-Hire writer/ publisher relationship. “Marvel and DC stuff, I actually understand the company’s perspective… they want to own the work that they’re paying for and I get that.” Vanover noted that the comics world is a “unique area” in 2021, however, because “it’s exploded due to the adaptability of other mediums which people weren’t really understanding or predicting. So the compensation was based on… just what you get from making a book… that sucks.” He provided David Aja, whose Hawkeye art inspired elements of the Disney+ series, as an example of a creator who was paid for comic work, but whose books inspired a multimillion dollar blockbuster.
Next, an audience Q+A was held.
The legality of Williams’s recent Kickstarter campaign Living Heroes (which uses Marvel Characters) was questioned. “It’s very much… go ahead and do it and apologize later,” she said, comparing the Kickstarter to a television spec script. Williams also answered a question about the erasure of artists from the comics copyright dialogue, acknowledging “a problem that has been going for a long time where usually, writers are more well-known than artists… that’s something that culturally just needs to start changing, where we are mentioning artists just as much as we’re mentioning writers, because… it’s comics, it’s a visual medium. So the artist should be just as important as the writers, if not more.”
Speaking on the difference between TV and comics writing, Vanover said “In the comics world, it’s a different set of rights… writers and artists [in comics], more often than not are classified as independent contractors” which means “you can’t unionize, you can’t organize, you can’t push those rates.” Writers guilds, like those TV writers have, are “more favorable as far as the contract terms and how… they get paid.”
The final topic was a comics consumer’s responsibility. “Consumers do have some power,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of times a book will be canceled because people aren’t buying it… things don’t start changing until folks start pushing that… So yeah, somebody is really getting screwed, then maybe don’t support that thing. Go support something else. And if you see creators selling their own works… support that.”
Parent mentioned the lawsuit involving Don DeCarlo and the Archie Josie character, and being caught between his friendship with DeCarlo and his passion for the character. Like with Hawkeye, DeCarlo’s work was used by the publisher to make millions. The panel concluded without a definitive answer on an issue only becoming more pressing: Who should own the comic characters?
Miss any of our previous C2E2 ’21 coverage? Find it all here!