THE RELEASE AND MONSTER SUCCESS of the big-screen “The Avengers” this month has stirred anew the hot coals of controversy over creators’ rights. Much of that heat has stemmed from the decades-long legal skirmishes between Marvel and the late-great Jack Kirby, who created or co-created so many of the Avengers characters, as battles over credit and ownership, rights and royalties were waged. In recent months, petitions and charity campaigns and personal boycotts were launched and promoted and shared, and the flame grew still higher.
So when it came to light last weekend on the Orbiting Pod-cast that acclaimed writer/artist Roger Langridge had decided to no longer work with Marvel and DC because of his ethical concerns over their treatment of creators like Kirby, the timing gave his news an extra resonance.
[THE “AVENGERS GIFT ”: Why Disney should gift Kirby’s heirs with a cool million]
MICHAEL CAVNA: Can you describe how you came to this decision, Roger? What were the motivating factors and compelling forces — and was there one proverbial "last straw"?
ROGER LANGRIDGE: I was always something of a tourist at Marvel to begin with. Writing for Marvel was not something I ever set out to achieve; I came up through the alternative comics publishers like Fantagraphics and by self-publishing my own work, so doing the odd thing here and there for Marvel always felt like a crazy detour in terms of where I wanted my career to go. As a result, I wasn’t that hard to convince to jump off.
Marvel’s shabby treatment of its founding creators, particularly Jack Kirby, has been a bone of contention for a lot of people since the 1980s, at least, so that underlying sense of discomfort was always there. It was the legal decision against the heirs of Jack Kirby last year that was the thing that made me think, “You know, I probably shouldn’t be doing this.” (Note: Marvel tells Comic Riffs it can’t comment on matters involving Jack Kirby due to ongoing litigation.) The cartoonist Steve Bissette wrote a very articulate and passionate blogpost that was widely circulated at the time of that ruling, and I read it and nodded my head and thought: Yeah, it’s probably time to get out. I didn’t make a big noise about it at the time because the thing I’d just written for Marvel, “John Carter: A Princess of Mars,” hadn’t yet come out, and I didn’t think it was fair to drag my collaborator on that book, Filipe Andrade, down with me if there was a backlash. I didn’t feel it was my place to make that decision for him.
A few months later, there was the business with Marvel taking down Gary Friedrich over his selling of Ghost Rider prints at conventions, which I felt Marvel/Disney dealt with in a much more heavy-handed way than they had to, essentially crushing the guy’s only source of income. At that point I mentioned to my wife, “You know, I really don’t want to do business with these people,” and she very matter-of-factly said: “Well, don’t. You’ve got plenty of work without them.” To her eternal credit.
MC: Do you believe there is a significant degree of difference between DC and Marvel, in terms of fairness, in how they’ve treated you and your rights as a creator?
RL: Not really. I should make absolutely clear that I have no problem with my own personal treatment whatsoever; that’s not why I decided to move on. Everybody I’ve worked with directly at both companies has been very good to me and I’d work with any of them again, as long as it was somewhere else.
MC: Stan Lee and the late Joe Simon, among others, have told me that they believe comics are a better place than decades ago in terms of creator rights. Would you agree?
RL: Yes, I would agree, broadly speaking. Creators are generally better renumerated than they used to be, royalties are paid for sales over a certain level which didn’t used to be the case. That’s all good. There used to be a kind of unspoken gentlemen’s agreement that certain characters “belonged” — if not in any legal sense — to certain creators, which seems to have fallen by the wayside, which I’d regard as a step backwards. But broadly speaking that’s true, at least in purely financial terms. If anything, it’s those improved circumstances that make the bad decisions, like the Watchmen prequels, seem so much worse by contrast.
MC: So with DC and Marvel, how much of [your issue] as to do with their treatment historically of creators?
RL: This has zero to do with how I’ve been treated personally. It’s simply that, when I thought about what I wanted to be doing in five years, ghost-writing for Stan Lee wasn’t on the list, so there didn’t seem to be any point in sticking around, when sticking around just made me feel like I was participating in something I wasn’t comfortable with.
MC: It’s the release of, and massive revenue for, the “Avengers” film — as well as recent courtroom action — that seems to have sparked anew the furor of how Marvel has treated Kirby and his heirs. Can you speak to that?
RL: That’s the big one. It’s the elephant in the room when Stan Lee talks about creators’ rights improving. Lee has been handsomely rewarded for his participation in creating the Marvel characters, and when he passes on, his heirs will benefit from that. The same thing should have happened to Jack Kirby, who, by even the most charitable assessment of Lee’s contribution, did at least half the work. He’s no longer around to offer that deal to, but his heirs are, and Marvel/Disney can afford to do the decent thing. So far they haven’t.
MC: Lastly, on another topic: What would you like readers to know about your Kickstarter project?
RL: Well, it’s not mine personally ... but there’s a project I’m involved with as a writer and artist called “The Graphic Textbook,” which the charity Reading With Pictures is producing; it’s a curriculum-based comic book for use in schools. To find out more, here’s the link.