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Tag: Superman

At the Movies: Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness and Pacific Rim

Henry Cavill as Superman in Warner Bros.’ Man of Steel.

I pretty much only get to see movies I am writing about these days, so it’s a good thing a lot of those are movies of interest. Here are some notes on my summer blockbuster viewings so far, including Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness and Pacific Rim.

I saw Man of Steel a few days before it was publicly released, as I wrote an article on the VFX in the movie for Animation Magazine. (It’ll be in the issue out at Comic-Con, as well as online, but more about CCI in a moment).

There was a lot I liked about the movie. And, honestly, I’m surprised it’s generated as much debate as it has. My first reaction was that the movie was really good. I very much liked the new take on Superman that Christopher Nolan, David Goyer and Zack Snyder had come up with. I liked Henry Cavill as Superman and Amy Adams was a terrific Lois Lane. Those are all very hard things to do. If I had one complaint, it was that the fights could have been trimmed back as the destruction becomes a bit overwhelming even though it’s done incredibly well. I particularly liked one shot in the final fight between Zod and Superman where Zod punches him through four or five buildings, with the interior workings of each building exposed in incredible detail.

A lot of Superman fans really dislike the movie, and its more modern portrayal of Superman. I, however, was very glad to see a different take on the character even though I understand that his movie doesn’t give him the heart or idealism that, say, Christopher Reeve brought to the role. But we’ve already had that movie, and a decent sequel and two not-so-decent ones and a disappointing attempt to revive that style. I also am glad someone can strip away a lot of the barnacles that have attached themselves to the Superman mythos over the year. It helped tremendously to ground the movie in today’s world. Superman is still a somewhat distant character, but the world’s reaction to him in this movie and his actions all make sense for a story set in the 21st century instead of the 1930s. Those who want a simpler, happier Superman shouldn’t look to today’s feature films, which operate under economics that require such broad global appeal to audiences of all ages that this kind of PG-13 take on the character is the only type a studio would even attempt.

In the weeks since I’ve seen the movie, I have to admit my enthusiasm for the movie has cooled. I will look forward to seeing it again when it hits Blu-ray, a process that softened my takes on movies like The Dark Knight Rises and Prometheus.

Moving on: I loathed Star Trek Into Darkness. You can take a look back at my comments on J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek feature for my overall take on the reboot, as most of the same comments apply to the sequel. I will add that there’s some incredibly sillyness in this movie, most of it coming from the ill-advised elements borrowed from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I think it shows a staggering lack of imagination for the filmmakers to spend all this time and money rebooting the franchise for the future and then so emptily going back to ape the great moments of the past in the vain hope that the original’s emotional resonance would somehow carry over and be amplified through their eyes. Ugh.

Iron Man 3 was not a great movie, but it was a lot of fun and it was a big improvement over Iron Man 2. It’s interesting to see the movie franchise take on a life of its own and essentially outgrow anything and everything done with the comic book version in nearly 50 years of publishing. In this movie, the big bold personality Robert Downey Jr. brings to Tony Stark has outgrown the character’s alter-ego, and he spends much of the latter part of the film outside of his armor, calling it to him only when needed. Downey is an ideal match for this role and I think he can take it to even more interesting places in future films.

I liked the pace and humor in the film, which I think comes in large part from director and co-writer Shane Black and his rapport with Downey. There were, however, a few moments where Stark and Rhodey were huddling under fire that I expected Don Cheadle to say “I’m getting too old for this shit!” I think that would have been awesome. Also, the twist with Ben Kingsley’s The Mandarin is inspired and funny; and Guy Pearce makes a great villain and I don’t know why he’s not in more movies. I have no idea where Iron Man 4 could go, but I’m sure we’ll all find out in a couple of years.

Read what I wrote for Animation Magazine about the VFX on Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness here.

I can’t say too much about Pacific Rim — another film for which I’m writing about the visual effects — because it’s not due out until July 12. But so far, this is my favorite film of the summer. Not only is it an original story, it’s got a lot of style, is insanely fun when it comes to the extensive action sequences, and tells a complete tale! It’s like Guillermo del Toro is reminding Hollywood of the sort of movies it used to make and that were once its bread and butter. I hope it’s a hit.

Byrne’s The High Ways veers off course

John Byrne is at his best when he’s doing science fiction. Take Next Men as the ultimate example. That series followed the old-school rules of science fiction, by setting its premise and following through as realistically as possible. Byrne’s affection for classic Star Trek (i.e., the good stuff, not the recent reboot flicks from Jar Jar Abrams) and its attempts very early on to be the TV version of classic science fiction literature is obvious.

A lot of that drives The High Ways (IDW, $3.99 each) a four-issue sci-fi series that should be better than it is. The story begins with rookie Eddie Wallace joining the crew of the space freighter Carol Anne, along with first mate Marilyn Jones and Captain Jack Cagney. After Wallace is appropriately initiated into space life (always wear your suit!) the Carol Anne heads out to pick up some cargo on Europa. That’s where the mystery begins, with a strange creature spotted outside the science base there and no cargo for Cagney to pick up.

What follows is an odd story with a bunch of twists and turns that end up feeling very random instead of satisfyingly twisty. This is the kind of story that attempts to avoid the common sci-fi criticism of scientific inaccuracy by being as scientifically realistic as possible. And it achieves that aspect of it, but in doing so it fails to give its characters any real personality or tell a story with sufficient emotion or reason for the reader to fully engage in this world.

Byrne’s art remains consistent and I still think no one draws spaceship-style tech stuff as well as he does. The storytelling is very solid and Byrne’s style has evolved over the years into something looser and more expressive than his classic 1970s and 1980s work on X-Men, Fantastic Four and Superman. It’s quite a nice change if you can just let go of expecting his work to have that same clean and pristine quality and just enjoy it for what it is, and what it is is some damn fine drawing.

I would check out a sequel to The High Ways — I think there is something in the approach and style. A more engaging story could build this up into something really cool.

Ranking DC’s New 52

We’re now about halfway into the second month of DC Comics’ The New 52, and I’m now at the point where I have to pick and choose which books I really want to follow and plunk down my own money for. So I made a list and found it quite interesting.
The good news is that I am buying more DC Comics than I was before the relaunch, when I was pretty much just getting the core Batman books. 
Starting with the books I liked enough to stick with, these are the titles I have bought the second issue for already:
  • Action Comics
  • Animal Man
  • Batgirl
  • Detective Comics
  • O.M.A.C.
  • Batman and Robin
  • Batwoman
  • Batman
These books I definitely plan to buy the second issue of:
  • Justice League
  • Wonder Woman
  • Superman 
  • I, Vampire
That’s 12 so far, just one title less than a quarter of the New 52 offerings. 
These books I am very likely to pick up, availability and funds allowing: 
  • Supergirl
  • Aquaman
  • Batman: The Dark Knight
  • Superboy
  • Green Lantern Corps
  • The Flash
So if I pick up those books, that means DC got me back for 18 of the 52 books. Again, that’s not too bad — it’s a lot more than I was getting. 
These books just missed the mark for me, and I could reconsider:
  • Green Arrow
  • Swamp Thing
  • Deathstroke
  • Green Lantern
  • Blackhawks
  • Teen Titans
I admit that I had picked up Green Lantern #2 at the store last week, but changed my mind and put it back once I saw Love and Rockets: New Stories, Vol. 4 was out. 
These titles were the mediocre group of the bunch — not bad, but also neither interesting enough or good enough to make me want to come back. And I’ll admit, some of these surprised me.
  • Batwing
  • Hawk and Dove
  • Justice League International
  • Men of War
  • Static Shock
  • Stormwatch
  • Demon Knights
  • Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.
  • Grifter
  • Legion Lost
  • Mister Terrific
  • Resurrection Man
  • Birds of Prey
  • Blue Beetle
  • Captain Atom
  • DC Universe Presents
  • Legion of Super-Heroes
  • Nightwing
  • All-Star Western
  • The Fury of Firestorm
  • Green Lantern: New Guardians
  • The Savage Hawkman
  • Voodoo
That’s a full 23 our of 52 books that fall into that category, nearly half of the line.
And then, there’s the titles I actively disliked or thought were flat-out terrible.
  • Red Lanterns
  • Suicide Squad
  • Catwoman
  • Red Hood and the Outlaws
  • Justice League Dark
Again, not bad, but the relaunch hasn’t really improved the quality of DC Comics, despite all the hype. I wish that the publisher had taken the time to dig deeper in terms of talent and offered up more surprises. They only get one shot at this — at least for the time being — so I would have liked there to be more comics that I could wholeheartedly recommend to both lapsed fans and new readers.

DC New 52, 4th Wave, Pt. 1: Aquaman, Flash, Superman outshine the rest

The finish line is in sight for DC’s New 52. Look for a post that kind of sums up a take on the overall project in the next day or so. Obviously, it’s been a big hit for DC, which announced yesterday that all 52 books have sold out of their first printings and going back to press. Three titles have shipped 200,000 or more and eight more have shipped more than 100,000. That’s a huge boost for the direct market, where the 100k mark has been a tough one for any book to crack.

I still have a few books in the final batch to read, but in the meantime, here’s my thoughts on the books I’ve read so far.

There should be more books like Aquaman #1, which I found to be a very entertaining and action-packed comic book. This is another very slick entry, with some terrific artwork from Ivan Reis and Joe Prado. Writer Geoff Johns tries very hard to make Aquaman a convincing action hero and mostly succeeds. I expected that having everyone think of him as a joke would not work at all, but it turned out to be fairly amusing in the end. I also think it’s funny that the logo imitates the one invented for the fake Aquaman movie from the Entourage TV show. At the very least, this is the best Aquaman comic in a long time, if not ever. It’s up to you to decide if that’s a significant achievement or not.

Next is yet another The Flash #1, this one from co-writer and artist Francis Manapul and co-writer Brian Buccellato. This was much improved from the rather ponderous take Johns had on the character in the previous reboot, or even the previous short-lived version before that I have trouble remembering anything about at this point. I found this to be a solid, nice-looking Flash comic. It doesn’t invent the wheel, but it’s pretty much spot on for what an average issue of this title should read like. If Manapul can keep it up, will be a consistently entertaining title.

The Fury of Firestorm, The Nuclear Men #1 appears to be a full reboot of the character, and is a straight-forward origin story that shows how the Firestorms got their powers and introduces a big, scary villain for them to fight in the next issue. We meet Ronnie Raymond, star high school quarterback, and Jason Rusch, student journalist. They clash and very quickly develop a dislike of each other — so of course they are bound together as the new Firestorms. The art by Yildiray Cinar has a slightly funky, retro feel to it that, combined with the very traditional origin story, makes this a bit of a throwback. It’s not bad, but nothing about this is interesting enough to make me stick around for another issue.

I’ve enjoyed the occasional issue of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti’s Jonah Hex series, though I was not a regular reader of that series. They continue with the re-titled All-Star Western, which brings Hex into the new local of Old West Gotham City. That means there’s folks like Amadeus Arkham around as Hex investigates a gruesome crime of a more urban nature as a kind of a proto-Batman. The art by Moritat, who drew some great issues of Elephantmen, is muddied by a dull, overwhelming color palette. To be honest, I preferred the previous take on Jonah Hex, and the changes that seem to by trying to make this more interesting to superhero fans only make it less so.

Blackhawks #1 feels like it was created about 1995 for WildStorm and somehow never saw print until now. That means it’s sometimes a confusing book, but the crazy energy and slick art carry it through the rough patches. This is a new take on the Blackhawk concept, with the team now being some kind of super-secret government strike team. The plot part is the confusing part, so I’ll just skip over it and talk about the cool art, which has Graham Nolan of 1980s Detective Comics on layouts and Ken Lashley on finishes. Beyond that, I can’t really cite any specific reasons for liking this, so maybe it’s just a bit of nostalgia for those old-time ’90s comic books. I’ll give it another shot.

I didn’t know what to expect from Green Lantern: New Guardians #1, but went in with some trepidation because the cover includes one member from all the different-colored Lantern Corps and therefore be related in some way to the confusing Blackest Night and Brightest Day storylines. That was not the case here, which is a full reboot and retelling of the origin for the Kyle Rayner version of Green Lantern. This book also is an assembling of the heroes, as we meet the other six Lantern folks who will come together to join the New Guardians. This works better as a single issue than most attempts at this type of story, but it still feels like a tertiary book in the Green Lantern franchise.

I will be very interested to see what other folks think of Superman #1, which I thought was a terrific comic book. Written and with layouts by George Perez and finishes by Jesus Merino, this is an action-packed superhero book in the best 1980s tradition. There’s a lot going on in this book, both with Superman and the world he lives in. It may not all make perfect sense, but there is an admirable economy this story as it introduces so many characters, concepts and tweaks to Superman lore while also giving some crazy old-school action. I expect some will find it overwritten and cluttered, but I prefer a comic that throws a lot at the reader and picks up the pieces that work later on to the  decompressed storytelling of recent years. I’ll definitely stick with this one.

Only six more first issues to go …

First Look at Henry Cavill as Superman in ‘Man of Steel’

Warner Bros. released today the first image from Zack Snyder’s upcoming Man of Steel movie, featuring the first image of actor Henry Cavill as Superman.

Here’s the pic:

I admit to quite liking this. As great as Christopher Reeve was, I think it’s a good idea to steer clear of trying to imitate what he did and find a new version of Superman for the big screen.

This image shows a powerful, muscular Superman that’s a bit more in line with the original concept of the character, as created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. I like the long, heavy cape, but think we could try and do away with every superhero having some kind of 3D plastic emblem glued to their chest.

Snyder stumbled with fans on Sucker Punch. While not a great movie by any means, I didn’t think it was as horrible as everyone else did, at least in part because it delivered exactly what the trailers promised.

I do think Snyder is a good director. He may not have the kind of grand cinematic vision that changes the artform, but he does have a surprisingly good grip on the details and can pull off complicated movies pretty much on time and on budget.

The casting also is really good on this. Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Coster, Diane Lane, Michael Shannon, Julia Ormond and Russell Crowe all should be much more interesting than the cast of Superman Returns.

I’m also glad they’re not making Lex Luthor the villain this time out, but we have already seen Zod so I don’t know why we need to revisit him when there are so many other Superman villains out there to choose from.

After the jump, you can read the press release that came along with the photo. What do you think, Superman fans? Does this look good to you, or is it cinematic Kryptonite?

“MAN OF STEEL” REVEALED
Much-anticipated First Look at Star Henry Cavill as Superman
BURBANK, CA, August 4, 2011 — Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures have provided the first look at the new “Man of Steel,” revealing star Henry Cavill as Superman in the film from director Zack Snyder.

The film also stars three-time Oscar® nominee Amy Adams (“The Fighter”) as Daily Planet journalist Lois Lane, and Oscar® nominee Laurence Fishburne (“What’s Love Got to Do with It”) as her editor-in-chief, Perry White. Starring as Clark Kent’s adoptive parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent, are Oscar® nominee Diane Lane (“Unfaithful”) and Academy Award® winner Kevin Costner (“Dances with Wolves”).

Squaring off against the superhero are two other surviving Kryptonians, the villainous General Zod, played by Oscar® nominee Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”), and Faora, Zod’s evil partner, played by Antje Traue. Also from Superman’s native Krypton are Lara Lor-Van, Superman’s mother, played by Julia Ormond, and Superman’s father, Jor-El, portrayed by Academy Award® winner Russell Crowe (“Gladiator”).

Rounding out the cast are Harry Lennix as U.S. military man General Swanwick, as well as Christopher Meloni as Colonel Hardy.

“Man of Steel” is being produced by Charles Roven, Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan and Deborah Snyder. The screenplay was written by David S. Goyer, from a story by Goyer and Nolan, based upon Superman characters created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster and published by DC Comics. Thomas Tull and Lloyd Phillips are serving as executive producers.

Currently in production, “Man of Steel” is slated for release on June 14, 2013 and will be distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company.

Kirby Copyright Verdict Should Surprise No One

I wrote a lot about the copyright case between the family of Jerry Siegel and DC Comics over Superman, but I have a lot less to say about the recent ruling against Jack Kirby’s children. Read the ruling here.

From a legal perspective, nothing should have surprised anyone about either of these cases. The facts in the Siegel case make it an ideal candidate for copyright termination while the Kirby case always depended on making a convincing argument that Jack didn’t work under work for hire rules. The depositions posted at 20th Century Danny Boy a few months back were fascinating for the details they mined about how Marvel operated in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But nothing in that testimony did anything to refute the idea that Kirby was a freelancer doing work for hire.

I wish this had at least gone to trial, so that we could hear the arguments the Kirbys’ lawyer, Marc Toberoff, planned to make in this regard. But Kirby’s life and work have been pretty thoroughly documented by this point and there appears to be not even an inkling of a smoking gun document somewhere that would turn the tables.

The Kirby and Superman cases are similar in at least one way: Neither would have been necessary had the corporate owners of DC and Marvel simply stepped up to the plate and done the right thing by giving credit to and sharing even a sliver of the wealth these artists generated for them.

Comics artist Stephen Bissette has written a lengthy post at his blog urging comics fans to engage in a boycott and stop buying any Marvel products derived from Kirby’s work. He’s picked up this idea from the success of one DC fan’s efforts to ask DC creators and execs at Comic-Con why they haven’t hired more female creators or publish more female characters. It didn’t take much — she asked the questions at several panels and it got some buzz in the comics press — but it did result in a statement from Jim Lee and Dan DiDio saying they would hire more women creators. I don’t think most fans will stop buying FF, Thor, Hulk or X-Men comics on those grounds. But bad publicity helped put some pressure on Marvel during Kirby’s art return dispute with the company in the 1980s. It also helped Siegel and Shuster get a deal in the mid-1970s for an annual stipend and health benefits. Maybe it could work again.

It would be the right thing, the moral thing for Marvel to honor Kirby’s contributions with credit and a share of the immense profits it generated.

I’m also interested in this argument Bissette has linked to that questions the legal basis of corporate ownership of copyrights and the entire work for hire concept. The United States is a very friendly place for corporations, so I expect we’ll never see corporations lose their rights to own a copyright. In fact, the opposite is likely — that corporations will get more rights and extend copyrights even further beyond the limited terms called for by the Constitution.

The best lesson for comics creators to take away from all this is to create your own characters, your own comics and don’t sell them to the first publisher that offers to put out your book. Comics as an art form and as an industry needs new ideas and new books. Much of the malaise many fans feel comes from the fact that the market is so dominated by Marvel and DC characters that are, in most casts, between 50 and 75 years old. They’re great characters, but it might be time to make some new ones, or the industry and the art form risk dying off along with the audiences that are still hanging on to ideas that increasingly struggle to be relevant to the lives of readers living in the 21st century.

Getting Superman back on track

Superman is easily the most difficult major comic book character to nail down. He’s been through dozens of different interpretations — in comics and in other media. And he’s been revamped and rebooted more times than just about any other comic book character out there, and still falls short of expectations on a pretty large scale.

For the past 25 years, the Superman who appears in the pages of DC Comics has faced the law of diminishing returns when it comes to reboots. The 1986 reboot that began with Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” and continued into John Byrne’s Man of Steel was a solid success. It revitalized interest in the character, got a lot of mainstream press attention at a time when that was unusual for comics and even sold a lot of comic books for DC. Today, however, the time between reboots has dwindled from decades to years to what seems like months. Just in the past few years, DC has published a Secret Origin miniseries by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One original graphic novel. The main Superman books have also struggled to find a direction, with the long “New Krypton” concept giving way to Straczynski’s controversial “Grounded” storyline.

I read Earth One and I’ve read “Grounded,” and found both immensely disappointing, just as I found some of the spark that made Superman great in DC’s reissue of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali and in the earliest Superman stories as presented in The Superman Chronicles, Vol. 1.

Earth One has at its core the same idea Marvel had 10 years ago when it started the Ultimate line: Create a new, continuity-free version of the classic character with a modern, updated origin and style designed to hook the young readers that have made huge hits out of Harry Potter and Twilight. Like the Ultimate imprint, Earth One is ideally meant for a mainstream audience and not for the die-hard fans that frequent the comic shop each Wednesday.

This is an approach that can work, can generate some excitement. The early days of Ultimate Spider-Man in particular helped turn Brian Michael Bendis into a blockbuster comic book writer. Interestingly, the Ultimate line ended up being a hit in the direct market more than with the mainstream audience it was created for.

But where the early Ultimate comics brought energy and some inspired tweaks to established lore, Superman: Earth One lacks passion and reads like something created more to meet a marketing plan than to entertain. This version of the tale recasts young Clark Kent as an indecisive youth who heads into the big city with no idea of whether he’s going to be a scientist curing cancer or maybe a reporter at the Daily Planet. Then the aliens show up and he becomes Superman to fend it off — mostly because no one else can.

The main creative innovation seems to be to make Clark more “emo.” He mopes a lot, wears a hoodie, listens to his iPod and doesn’t comb his hair. Similarly, Lois is drawn to so closely resemble actress Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter that it’s plausible that the artist used a DVD set as photo reference.

Either way, there’s little joy in this tale, a point driven home by the grim, muted color palate. Clark is never happy and rarely cracks a smile. Lois never does anything to suggest why anyone would find her attractive. And the villains of he piece appear completely pieced together from other sources — the alien invasion rehashes the well-worn material of Independence Day and the villain, Tyrell, looks like Lobo’s stunt double. In the end, despite the grand pronouncements, press releases and interviews, there’s little sign that this could develop into a compelling vision of any kind for the Man of Steel.

It’s not even clear to me how this is supposed to make the character more appealing to young readers. To suggest that young readers will “see themselves” in so bland and cynical a revamp is insulting.

And yet, this book sold so well that another round of pronouncements appeared trumpeting the news that a sequel is in the works — though I suspect the sequel was already in the works and DC would have made a media fuss about it no matter how well the book actually sold.

It’s a similar problem with “Grounded,” which has been met with a lot less enthusiasm than Earth One. In many corners, this story has been roundly mocked as Superman gets sad and walks across America. The criticisms are well deserved — this is a bad idea, poorly executed (for the most part). It has some of the same problems as Earth One. This Superman also is unsure of himself, reluctant to act and fumbling around for answers. Unlike the Superman in Earth One, however, this version lacks the excuse of being an inexperienced youth to counter it. Instead, he just comes off as weak and indecisive — hardly heroic qualities. There really shouldn’t be this much crying in a Superman comic.

So what does work when it comes to Superman? There are some answers in Superman vs. Muhammed Ali, which DC recently reprinted for the first time since it first came out in 1978. This is easily one of my favorite comics of all time, because it’s just so damn cool. Aside from being the best art job Neal Adams ever did, this tale is proud to be a comic book and tells the kind of fun, crazy tale that can really only be told in a comic book.

This version of Superman is undoubtedly a hero and spends most of the book doing a lot of really amazing things. There’s spaceships to fight, natural disasters to avert, giant robots to duke it out with — even a bit of super-disguise in a key plot point. Oh yeah, and the fight of the century, complete with an all-star list of celebrities rendered with great detail on that amazing Neal Adams cover. (Side note: I was surprised the new edition didn’t identify Stan Lee on the cover. He’s clearly there, down in front, just to the right of Lex Luthor’s head. I mean, I can see DC not doing so at the time, but 30 years on it just seems like the record should be set straight.) I never tire of look at this book, though I still prefer my high-grade copy of the original to the new coloring and glossy paper of the reprint.

Going back even further, there is tremendous joy and a lot of fun to be found in the pages of The Superman Chronicles, Vol. 1. This series of trades reprints in color the Golden Age tales of the Man of Steel in chronological order. This first volume collects the Superman stories from the first 13 issues of Action Comics, New York World’s Fair Comics #1 and Superman #1. It’s easy to see why Superman was an instant hit in 1938 — these are bouncy, fast-paced and really fun stories.

And it’s extremely informative to see Superman stripped of some of his familiar elements. There’s no Jimmy Olsen, no Smallville or Ma and Pa Kent. Clark Kent works for the Cleveland Daily Star, not the Daily Planet of Metropolis. And long before Superman was fighting for “truth, justice and the American way” (whatever that means), he was “champion of the oppressed.” This Superman used his powers to take on and beat such threats as crooked politicians, war profiteers, mobsters fixing sports events, businessmen who ignored unsafe working conditions, swindlers selling worthless real estate and more. There’s no question in these stories that Superman is right to take on these kinds of real-world issues, and for the kids lucky enough to read these when they first came this must have been like dynamite. Today, of course, there would be no chance Superman would take on these kind of real world villains because the strange nature of American politics would make such stories into manufactured controversies.

Here’s a few other things that reading these stories have made clear about this character:

1. Superman works best when Superman is the real character and Clark Kent is the disguise. For some reason, the comics (such as Earth One) have increasingly moved toward making Superman the alter ego of Clark Kent. Yet I’ve never seen a version of this approach that works. To look outside of comics, the Superman of the classic Fleischer brothers’ cartoons and Christopher Reeve’s portrayal in the 1978 movie and its good sequel are beyond clear that Kent is the disguise. Pretty much every superhero that came after Superman has played the heroic role as the alter ego of the secret identity. So why make Superman just like everyone else?

2. The focus of a good Superman story is on Superman doing super stuff. The character has accumulated a large supporting cast including not just Lois Lane, but also Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Ma and Pa Kent, Lex Luthor, Lana Lang, etc. And too often it feels like writers are trying too hard to fit as many of these characters into every Superman story at the expense of a focus on the Man of Steel himself. How about not using Jimmy et al. too much for a while and see if anyone really does miss them?

3. Superman should return to being “champion of the oppressed.” I think it would be very interesting to set Superman against some of the oppressors of the modern world. Yeah, it would be controversial, something DC has historically avoided with Superman. But comics are often at their best when — like good rock ’n’ roll — they’re subversive, challenging the reader by doing something different. There’s not much of this spirit left in comics, especially in corporate superhero comics.

Lastly, I had most of this post drafted when I learned of the death of Joanne Siegel, widow of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. I never met her, but by all accounts, she was a pretty amazing woman.

Anti-Siegel Superman “fans'” arguments are inaccurate and lame

After my last post, I expected to get some comments. But I didn’t expect them to be quite as lame as this one I got from someone named “Media Monkey Ninja.”:

I agree, the heirs are going to be the “REAL” death of The Mam of Steel. I’m not a huge Superman fan (I’m more of a Batman kinda guy), but The Boyscout is an American icon. If there is no Superman, what character is going to uphold Truth, Justice, and the American way. I’d hate to see this happen to any copyrighted character that is this loved by millions. I say if you work for a company and you create copyrighted material while working at that company. The copyrighted material should be owned by the company. If someone whats to have complete copyright ownership, they should create the character solely by themselves while working solely for themselves. That way no company can lay claim to your copyrighted material.

And this is exactly what I was arguing against — fans whose instincts are completely counter-intuitive to the facts of the case (assuming they know the facts, which this poster does not).

So let’s start from the top and try to explain this to anyone who may be interested in actually understanding what’s going on and have some interest in actually learning something. It’s distressing to get such comments, because I generally think comics fans are smart people. And I’m not saying this because “Mr. Ninja” disagrees with me — but if there’s a good moral and legal case for Warner Bros. to not share proceeds from Superman with the Siegels under the current law, I have yet to hear it. And, “DC may stop publishing the Superman comics I so love” does not qualify because no one with any real knowledge of this case or authority at Warner Bros. or DC has even suggested that would happen.

But let’s get into the details of why this kind of this panicky, selfish, pro-corporate position put forth by “Mr. Ninja” is complete bullshit.

First, let’s review copyright law. The United States Constitution states in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8:

The Congress shall have Power [. . .] To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

What’s key is the “limited Times” element, which has constantly been extended from the original 14-year term with a single 14-year renewal to the current law which establishes copyright for corporate works made for hire at 95 years and individual copyrights at 70 years after the life of the author.

All works eventually fall into the public domain. This is important to society and to education — the works of Shakespeare are public domain more than 400 years after his death. The benefit to society of his work being freely accessible outweighs the interest of whatever distant descendant (and he has none) may have in milking it for all its worth. Most works in the public domain are not well-known, and being free increases the likelihood that they will be used, republished and generally benefit our society.

At the time of the creation of Superman in the mid-1930s, the law stipulated a term of 28 years for copyright that could be renewed for an additional 28 years. Copyright was bestowed automatically upon the creators, which applies directly to Siegel and Shuster. As teens, they created the character of Superman and his world, and spent years trying to get it published before Detective Comics Inc. bought the material to appear in Action Comics #1. By paying Siegel and Shuster the grad total of $10 a page — $130 total for 13 pages of art and story — DC acquired all rights to the material therein. That was a transfer of copyright, from Siegel and Shuster, to Detective Comics Inc., which is distinct from a work made for hire, in which a company hires people to create material for it. Most Golden Age and Silver Age comics qualify as work made for hire. Stan Lee was employed as editor of Timely/Atlas/Marvel when he came up with the typed plot for Fantastic Four #1 and hired Jack Kirby on a freelance basis to draw it. That’s a quintessential example of work for hire.

The original deal between Siegel and Shuster was iron-clad and held up more than once in court — in DC’s favor. The pair tried to reclaim the copyright to the character in the 1940s and were rebuffed by the courts. They tried in the mid-1960s to argue that they had the first right of renewal of copyright, only to have the courts rule that that right had been sold along with all the others in the original transaction. Under that deal, the Superman material in Action Comics #1 would have entered the public domain in 1994 — more than 15 years ago, for the math impaired among you. Each subsequent issue of Action Comics and Superman would have lost its copyright over time and we’d now have all the Superman material from Action #1 through 1953 in the public domain.

But that deal — which I think is quite reasonable and should remain the standard term for copyright — was no good for the corporations that held copyrights to the likes of not just Superman, but Popeye, Mickey Mouse, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and countless others. So, enter the copyright act of 1976, which was the most significant revision to the copyright law in the nation’s history. It not only extended copyright terms, but in a rare show of justice adjusted the law to compensate folks who had sold copyrights that, due to the extension, were now more valuable than they were when originally sold. So to make up for the fact that companies like Disney and DC Comics now had decades more to exploit characters they had acquired, a complicated clause was put in that allowed for the original copyright owners to possibly benefit from the longer terms by terminating the transfer of copyright.

So now comes a common complaint from the anti-Siegelites: If they signed over the rights, they signed over the rights and have to live with that mistake no matter what. But this ignores not only what I stated above about the change in the copyright law, but also the entire area of contract law. No matter what kind of contract you sign, it’s subject to copyright law, i.e., you can’t make a contract that contradicts the law. So the revisions to the copyright law that allow that allowed DC to keep the Superman contract beyond the original term, also allow the Siegels to terminate the original transfer. Still, some seem to think that’s unfair — to DC. But anyone who’s ever signed a contract, be it a lease or rental agreement or deal to buy a house or whatever, will come across a clause that states, essentially, that should any clause in a contract be found illegal that the legal elements will still apply. That should indicate to the vast majority of people that contracts are subject to law. You can’t, for example, contract someone to commit an illegal act and then sue them for breach of contract. The contact, despite the fact that both sides agree to it, is not a legal contract.

So what does “Mr. Ninja” mean when he calls Superman an American icon, and says that he hates to see this happen to any copyrighted character beloved by millions? His position, whether he means it or not, is that the corporate right to copyright is absolute and should never be questioned. Which not only runs counter to the Constitution and copyright law, but also the very truth and justice he says the Superman character stands for. Justice, in essence, is another word for fairness — and who can say it’s fair for DC Comics to have exploited the character of Superman for immense profit for more than 70 years, 15 years beyond the original copyright terms, and then not have to honor a part of the law that says the Siegels as the heirs of the original creator deserve to share in those profits?

What’s missing, of course, is the American way, which apparently is to bow to corporate interests at every opportunity and to support DC’s decades-long piss poor treatment of the Siegels, which included all kinds of demeaning treatment, blacklisting and persistent efforts to deny any legal claim they have to the millions — if not billions — of dollars DC has earned from the character in the past seven decades.

The other point “Mr. Ninja” brings up is that if you want control of your copyright, you shouldn’t create it for a company. Ignoring the factual error — Siegel and Shuster created Superman long before they took it to DC and never created it “for” the company or at its behest — the technology of publishing and the business realities of distribution at the time made it near impossible for a pair of newcomers like Siegel and Shuster to publish their idea without going to a comic book publisher or comic strip syndicate. No comic book publisher of the era let any creator keep the rights. And only the most powerful or business-savvy of the comic-strip artists — like Milton Caniff in comic strips or Will Eisner, who kept the rights to The Spirit comic book inserted in newspapers at least in part because he was a good business man and wasn’t the first to demand and get it — were able to retain their copyrights. Siegel and Shuster, proposing an outlandish idea that was completely untested, had no such leverage.

Which brings us to another point, which is that you can’t determine the value of the copyright to an intellectual property before it hits the marketplace. Publishers have always liked to play the odds and use the failure of the bulk of their ideas to justify stealing the ones that do work. But that’s hardly fair and it’s even arguably bad business. Would the Harry Potter books have become the sensation they are now if the publisher had treated J.K. Rowling — now one of the richest women in the United Kingdom, if not the world — even half as badly as DC treated Siegel and Shuster? They certainly would not be as creatively rewarding for the millions of fans who believed in them to preorder and line up to buy each book in the series the moment it was released. But that’s not how corporations and the small minds that run them think.

At its core, what trolls like “Mr. Ninja” seem to be most afraid of is change. That the victory the Siegels have already won will somehow change or even end the parade of Superman material from DC Comics and Warner Bros. they have come to love in an almost fetishistic sort of way. Which is the most embarrassing part — because Superman remains a vital and extremely viable commercial property. That DC and Warner Bros. would balk so thoroughly at having to share their profits with the heirs of the creators after more than seven decades of exclusive and extremely profitable exploitation is the height of corporate greed. It’s also eminently excusable, justifiable and even admirable in most circles of American society and, apparently, even among fans for whom the worship of the character through the purchase of stuff is more important than the truth and justice they believe the object of their affection represents

Fans’ anti-Siegel position in Superman case is frustrating

I’ve had more than my share of frustrating moments this week — Why, yes! I have been dealing with the health care industry. How did you guess? — nothing upset me quite as much as getting a message from the DC Comics Movies Group on Facebook that included the following bit of blood-boiling idiocy:

In saddening news, if the heirs of Siegel and Shuster have their way Superman will die in 2013 and DC will cease publication of all related Superman comics. Talk about punch to the collective American nutsuck, right?

I instantly sent a message back to the moderator, Allynd Dudnikov, explaining his claim was factually challenged in the extreme and that I was leaving the group immediately because of it.

What he’s talking about is the most-recent development in the ongoing legal proceeding between the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and DC Comics, which produced a minor victory for the publisher and its parent company the other day. But I continue to be amazed at the number of people who profess to be fans of Superman in particular and comic book superheroes in general who propagate this idiotic notion that Warner Bros. and DC Comics are somehow the injured party in this dispute and that the Siegels are opportunistic and greedy people out to deprive the fans of the character they’ve come to know and love.

I’ve written about this before and there are plenty of great sites on the web that recount the facts and provide the original documents (which are fascinating reading and highly recommended.)

I’m not an attorney, but what I undstand from following all is this is that the court decided so far is that his heirs have successfully terminated effective in spring 1999 the transfer of Jerry Siegel’s half of the copyright to the Superman story published in Action Comics #1. That means DC owes the Siegels a share to be determined at trial of the money the character earned in the time since the copyright transfer was reclaimed. Similarly, the estate of Joe Shuster has an opportunity to reclaim the other half of the Action #1 copyright in 2013. Should Shuster’s estate succeed, then DC will lose the complete copyright to that original story and will have to license the rights to it back from the creators to use the elements it introduced or to reprint that story.

This most recent ruling states that when the trial to determine the amount of money owed to the Siegels, it will include only the profits earned by DC Comics, and not of Warner Bros. as a whole. The Siegels had argued that the companies are one and the same — a claim the judge rejected. That means the Siegels’ share will come out of a smaller pie, but it’s still coming.

But it doesn’t mean the end of Superman as he exists today — or will exist tomorrow. While Action #1 introduces some of the most significant elements in the Superman mythos — the orphan sent to Earth from outer space, the alter ego of newspaper reporter Clark Kent, the love interest in Lois Lane, the basic costume and powers such as strength, invulnerability and leaping tall buildings — everything that came after Action #1 is solidly work-for-hire owned lock, stock and barrel by DC Comics for a full 95 years.

And I can’t see it making sense for DC or Warner Bros. to stop putting Superman content out there because they have to pay a percentage of the character’s profits to the Siegels. A percentage of the profits is better than no profits. And neither Warner Bros. nor DC is going to go out of business because the courts say they have to pony up to the Siegels. As Harlan Ellison, a wise and smart man — as well as a terrific writer — said about one time the studio asked him to work without pay: “What is Warner Brothers, out with an eye patch and a tin cup, begging for money?”

As I’ve said before, what’s really shameful in all of this is that this conflict was, in my opinion, unnecessary. Warner Bros. got off to a good start in the mid-1970s by restoring Siegel and Shuster’s credit and establishing an annual stipend. Had they gone a bit further and given them a sum that would have been small for so large a conglomerate but lavish for Siegel and Shuster’s final years. Even just making a big deal of the pair — sending them to festivals, comics shows, putting them on TV every now and again — I think would have done a lot more to put this dispute to rest than taking a hard position that may make good legal and business sense but is morally and ethically bankrupt.

Publishers’ shabby treatment of the folks who create and give life to the comic books we love is truly the great shame of the industry. And it’s not just folks from the past, like Siegel and Shuster, Jack Kirby or Alan Moore who are the sole victims. Ask Hero by Night creator DJ Coffman how work for hire worked out for him at Platinum Studios. And as it becomes harder and harder to make money solely by publishing comics, many of the gains made in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s by folks like Dave Sim, Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, the Image boys and Neil Gaiman have been pushed back by publishers who need those licensing and movie option dollars to stay in business. A quick look at the indicias and copyright notices on publishers that once used their creator-friendly deals as a selling point with fans will reveal a lot of shared copyrights — and I’ll give you one guess which party has the majority share. I expect this to get worse as more and more people create content — comics and not — with no sense of the lessons learned by the likes of Siegel and Shuster and have to learn this unnecessary lesson all over again.

I have had creators tell me revised contract terms have prompted them to stop working with publishers they had long worked with and take their work to houses like Image, which along with Fantagraphics and one or two other independent publishers, are perhaps the last bastions of creator ownership in comics.

What amazes me is that so many people buy the line that Warner Bros. and DC are entitled to make as much as they can off of Superman without any kind of legal or moral obligation to the Siegels of the world. It’s some strange kind of American corporatist thinking that gives all the power and rewards to the corporate executives who exploit a work and cuts out completely the creative people elements that give a character and a story life in the first place. (Again, I’ve been dealing with the health-care industry in a relatively very minor way this past week. It’s clear and logical to me that if someone is in the position of benefiting themselves, the company they work for or their investors by denying care, then making such a decision even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is inevitable. And there are such people making that very decision at every level of the American health care system. No wonder the industry has become a black hole for money and morals.)

Given the United States is a country that, particularly of late, has sadly been more pro-business than pro-people, I’m not surprised to see the attorneys and execs for Warner Bros. acting this way. But I wish the fans of Superman, who represents an ideal of fairness above all else, were better represented in the online chatter than by this kind of remark, which exudes above all else a selfishness and short-sightedness that the Man of Steel, were he real, would hardly approve of.

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