Superman for everybody Who should own our superheroes?

Who should own our superheroes?

First published in Bookslut | May, 2011

“On December 1st I turned 93,” wrote Joanne Siegel in a letter to the chairman of Time Warner Inc. “I am old enough to be your mother. I have grown grandchildren. Unfortunately I am not in the best of health.”

She died in February this year, and the obituaries that appeared showed what a remarkable woman she was: the original model for Lois Lane, soon the wife of Superman’s co-creator Jerry Siegel, and, later in life, the driving force behind the ongoing legal battle with Time Warner and DC Comics over the rights to the world’s most famous superhero.

And a month after her death, this letter appeared online, adding her own words to those eulogies. She says Time Warner’s attorneys were harassing her with unnecessary depositions, even though her cardiologist had warned them of possible risks to her health. She asked, “do these mean spirited tactics meet with your approval? Do you really think the families of Superman’s creators should be treated this way?”

I’d like to add another question. A child’s question, a question that might deserve mockery: what would Superman think?

I don’t know if there have been many industries that treated their founding fathers as badly as comic books did. I’m not going to recount the courtroom battles that’ve been waged over superheroes since their creation. I don’t have the legal expertise and, frankly, I don’t have the heart. Artists have been forced to fight for payment, for credit, for copyright, and for something as simple as the right to have their original art returned and not haphazardly destroyed. These battles were over characters invented to stand against injustice; that must’ve made it hurt all the more. 

It’s fascinating, then, to see so many titles published by Marvel and DC condemning corporate interests in superheroes. In Ultimate Spider-Man #109, for example, the Kingpin reveals that he now owns Spider-Man’s likeness, therefore ensuring his criminal empire will make money every time Spidey performs a good deed. “Action,” as the theme song to Spider-Man’s old cartoon told us, “is his reward.” Spidey only forgot that once, back in 1962, and it killed his poor Uncle Ben in the very same issue. 

And in the alternate world story Superman Inc., a driven-by-profit Superman, raised without the old-fashioned values of Ma and Pa Kent, promotes a line of sneakers embossed with his ubiquitous logo. This new Superman is a distorted parody of the real Superman, of course, who’d never dream of making money off his fame. The Superman who, only a few years ago, said: “I’m for everybody.” 

A year or so ago, when I interviewed Dylan Horrocks – the creator of Hicksville, and once Batgirl’s writer for DC Comics – we got talking about the state of superhero comics. He laughed at the fact there was a Marvel Zombies series currently on the shelves, as he thought it a particularly wicked joke. That’s how superheroes felt to him: once-vivid creations, no longer alive, shambling onwards into more and more grisly stories because their corporate masters demand it. He recently wrote an essay for the New Zealand Book Council which asked: “Is ‘intellectual property’ the best way to describe our relationship to our work?” The inherent problem with copyright, he said, is that it treats ideas like property, and he hopes there is “maybe a metaphor that better reflects an author’s relationship to their work and their readers”.

There was one other thing Dylan said to me that night: “The only thing that can save superheroes is the public domain.”

As I write this, Superman has just threatened to renounce his American citizenship, in a story tucked away in the back of Action Comics #900. What if he could renounce his corporate copyright in exactly the same way? What if all the other superheroes he’s inspired since his creation in 1938 followed his example?

I’m not going to pretend to understand the intricacies of how this’d work. I barely understand the difference between trademarks and copyright. I’m ignoring what might be best for the writers, artists, editors, and event shareholders of Marvel and DC and their parent companies. Instead, I’m writing with the willful naivety required to believe in the value of alien altruists who fall from the sky and unlucky science experiments who once never think of themselves. If superheroes taught me anything, it’s that.

First things first: these superheroes would be everywhere, at least for a while. Every studio would probably attempt a Batman movie. Every T-shirt would have the Superman ‘S’ stretched over its chest. A dozen smaller comic companies would release their own Justice Leagues and X-Men. Some of these would be shoddy, half-formed, barely legible. Some of them would feature these characters doing all sorts of terrible things. Batman would tear out someone’s spine and laugh while he was doing it; Spider-Man would say “motherfucker” for no good reason. And, yeah, there’d be an epic amount of pornography.

But there’s already an epic amount of pornography. Batman, the Hulk, the Justice League have starred in it, and the filmmakers just called their movies ‘parodies’ and changed the characters’ outfits slightly and no one cared. There are plenty of official stories – sometimes in parallel universes and bizarro worlds, and sometimes not – in which the heroes do pretty terrible things too. Having ‘Marvel’ or ‘DC’ stamped on the cover isn’t a guarantee you’ll find their characters are acting in character. Even the most dedicated fan couldn’t say that these companies always act in their heroes’ best interests.

Earlier this month, a well-known artist revealed some pin-up images he’d painted of famous female superheroes in demeaning poses: Catwoman seemingly forced to lap milk out of a bowl; Power Girl doing push-ups while falling out of her top in front of a crowd. These images are enormously creepy. Not just for their politics, but because these characters wouldn’t do these things. The only explanation is that they’re being mind-controlled by the hypnotic headwear of the Mad Hatter! Or the irresistible pheromones of the Purple Man! 

In his book Our Hero: Superman on Earth, Tom De Haven writes that over the years Superman has developed certain qualities that are “immutable”:

“Change any of them, somehow they change back. Give him talents and powers, and inclinations, that aren’t, somehow, him, and one day they’re just… gone. For a period during the 1940s, Superman could walk through walls, become invisible, and hypnotize anyone. Then he couldn’t, and didn’t – because he wouldn’t.”

Think of all the Sherlock Holmes stories since Arthur Conan Doyle finished writing his adventures. He has faced Lovecraftian gods and become a bare-knuckle boxer and teamed up with Batman. Has it made Holmes any less of a genius today? Any more forgettable? If Superman was in the public domain, you wouldn’t need to be the Mad Hatter or the Purple Man to make him do anything you’d like. Some actions would feel wrong; but even if they did, it wouldn’t matter. Superman wouldn’t even notice. He’ll soon be the real Superman again. Your stories couldn’t change that. Catwoman and Power Girl? They’re fine, too. 

Everyone who has ever found themselves defending superheroes (and god knows everyone who loves superheroes will have been forced to defend them) has compared them to ancient myths. The argument goes something like this: “Superheroes are our modern day mythology! Men and women with impossible powers performing great deeds! Writers and artists adding to these stories as they’re passed on from one generation to the next!” When I’ve given this speech, however, I’ve ignored an important difference. Anyone can tell a story about Hercules. They can draw it, animate it, and show it to a crowd. That’s why Hercules has appeared in both Marvel and DC Comics – along with every other figure from the public domain they can fit into spandex. They’re happy to use others’ heroes, but cling tightly to the rights – and profits – generated by their own.

In this hypothetical, there’s nothing stopping Marvel and DC from publishing their heroes’ comics as if nothing had happened, of course. They could splash something about the ‘home of the original!’ on their covers. Otherwise, they’d just have to make sure that their years of experience with Batman, Spider-Man, and all the rest ensured they were producing the absolute best versions of the heroes on the shelves. Unfortunately for them, the selling power bestowed by being seen as these characters’ only ‘official’ adventures has already been chipped away with the fractured history of a dozen continuity reboots.

And I’d still buy Matt Fraction’s Iron Man, and Amazing Spider-Man as drawn by Marcos Martin, and Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly’s All-Star Superman. These stories wouldn’t be made worse by other stories circulating around them; no more so than they are by the fact children tie towels around their necks and jump off the couch shouting “Up, up, and away!”

Without the corporate publication of these characters, consistent over so many years, they probably wouldn’t have become icons in the first place. I understand that. Many of those who’ve helped shape these heroes wouldn’t have had the same opportunities to make money while doing so; I understand that too. Those 900 issues of Action Comics are a remarkable achievement, and one that’d never have been possible without some hefty corporate weight. 

But there’s that same voice inside me, speaking from deep in the years I’ve spent in these fictional worlds, from my early childhood to today, to this morning: what would Superman want?

I called Dylan Horrocks and explained how I’d been thinking about what he said last time we talked. We spoke about how the Siegel family has an absolute moral right in their legal battle, but also how creative work is a complex ecosystem, and how we need to be smarter about how we define our relationships to that work as creators, publishers, and readers. 

In the end, I asked him what it meant for a character like Superman – iconic, idealistic, for everyone – to be owned by a corporation.

“It’s theft,” he said.