Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Benefits of Ownership

Two comics, two creators, two different outcomes.

A couple of things popped up this week which show, by contrast, the benefits of ownership.

Jeff Smith is a former animator who is the creator of Bone and RASL. Bone began in the '90s as a self-published comic book distributed to comics shops. Since then, Smith has collected the comics in a series of graphic novels and a one volume edition. Scholastic Books reprinted the series in colour and later this year, there will be a one volume colour edition.

Smith had a movie deal with Nickelodeon for Bone, but Nickelodeon dragged things out Smith and Nickelodeon parted company. Later, Smith made a deal for Bone with Warner Bros. The experience with Nickelodeon made Smith more demanding, and Warner Bros. agreed to his terms.

Now, Smith's latest comics series RASL has also been sold to Hollywood.

The week, the depositions in the copyright termination case brought by the Jack Kirby estate against Marvel were made public. The case turns on whether Kirby's work was at the direction of the company or if Kirby was a creator who sold his work to Marvel. The waters are muddy as the legal arrangements in the comic book business in the 1960s were shockingly casual.

Regardless of the legal decision and one's own opinion, Kirby is definitely the designer of The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Thor, Ant Man, Nick Fury, The X-Men, and the many villains and supporting characters who filled the stories that he drew for these characters.

Kirby was way more prolific than Jeff Smith in terms of the number of his creations and the number of pages he drew. Yet Smith is a millionaire and Kirby never received a nickel beyond what he was paid for each individual page.

Because Smith owns Bone, he has been able to repackage it and profit from it each time. He's been able to merchandise it and license it to other media. He will be able to do the same with RASL and will be an executive producer of the film.

Kirby owned nothing of what he created at Marvel, unless the termination of copyright suit determines otherwise. Just using the Hulk as an example, the work has been reprinted countless times, been an animated TV series, a live action TV series, two feature films and countless toys, posters, etc. Kirby was not compensated for any of this.

As much as we love animation, it is a team sport. It takes a lot of people and a lot of money to make a film. That leaves animation creators pitching their ideas to corporations in order to get their ideas funded, and the corporations routinely take ownership. A first-time creator has no leverage to gain a percentage of the profits, merchandising or to reserve certain rights. In this regard, animation creators resemble Jack Kirby more than they resemble Jeff Smith.

However, if you can establish ownership of your property and demonstrate that it has an audience, you can continue to control and to profit from your work. That probably means working in a medium other than animation to start with, but given Hollywood's current mindset about sequels and pre-sold properties, it's probably more likely you'll get an animated film made by creating something outside animation than inside it.

Jeff Smith could take advantage of different economic circumstances in the comic book field in the '90s than Jack Kirby had in the 1960s. And with all due respect to Kirby, Smith has a better head for business than Kirby ever had. That's the point. I'd be hard pressed to name anyone who worked in popular culture in the 20th century who was more fertile or prolific than Jack Kirby. Smith, by comparison, is a lightweight. But because Smith maintained ownership of his work, he maintained more control of it and made more money from it than Jack Kirby. That's the benefit of ownership.

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