Opera, Comic Books, and Other Collaborative Art

Gary Friedrich just lost a couple of court cases.  If you haven’t heard of him, you may have heard of one of his creations, Ghost Rider.  Ghost Rider is a comic book character that was turned into an absolutely hideous movie starring Nicolas Cage, the sequel to which may just still be at a theater near you.  Now, Gary did not create Ghost Rider on his own; he is a writer.  There was also an artist and an editor involved, but there is no doubt that Gary wrote the first Ghost Rider stories about a demon with a flaming skull head fighting crime on a motorcycle.

When Ghost Rider was turned into a big budget movie, Gary received no compensation, despite having co-created the character, and so he sued Marvel Comics for a lot of money.  He is old, broke, and has health problems, although legally that doesn’t really matter.  What does matter legally is that he lost the suit, because he was a freelancer back then, and everything he created legally belonged to Marvel.  But then, as if to add injury to insult, Marvel sued him back for $17,000.  They sued him for selling Ghost Rider stuff at conventions over the years.  And they won.

Now this story brings to mind other similar stories that have come out over the years, including the settlement with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, in which DC Comics is paying each of them $20,000 a year for the rest of their lives, and agreed that every Superman anything from then on out would state that he was created by these two guys.  And don’t they deserve that?  I mean, they created Superman!

Then we have the case of Jack Kirby.  Kirby is an artist, not a writer, and he created most of Marvel’s mainstays.  Captain America, The Fantastic Four, Thor, The X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, and countless others were all “co-created” by Kirby.  For most of these collaborations, his partner was comic book real life superhero Stan Lee.

If you have heard of anyone in the comics world, it is probably Stan Lee.  Stan ran Marvel Comics for years.  Stan goes to conventions.  Stan gets paid a lot of money by Marvel.  Stan has his own entertainment company.  He had his own reality television show.  He has cameos in all the Marvel movies (plus Mallrats).  Stan created all of those characters, plus Spider-Man, and practically everybody else.  He is rich and famous because of what he created.  How does all of this make sense?

Comic books, like opera, are collaborative.  Yes, there are people who create them on their own, but on the whole it takes more than one person to make these works of art.  And generally somebody gets more of the credit than the other.  In the world of opera it is the composer we all love.  Few people talk about going to see a Da Ponte opera, even though he wrote the libretti to some of the best loved operas of all time.  No, we say we are going to a Mozart opera.  After all, he wrote the music.  Could Mozart have written Don Giovanni without Da Ponte?  We’ll never know, but it’s fairly clear who gets put on the higher pedestal.

“Now, wait a minute,” you are saying to me, “isn’t it agreed by all that opera plots are stupid and it is only the music that makes them good?”  Well, you do have a point.  But my point is, that I don’t really have one.  I just wanted to think for a few minutes about the nature of collaborative art and what sorts of contributions we value.  Who gets the credit for making a movie, or for writing a song?  How can you decide who the biggest contributor is, and should you even try?

In the world of comics, I would say there is close to an even split between those who read for the stories and those who love the art.  But honestly, without the art you are reading a regular book, and without the story you are looking at a painting.  It takes both pieces to make a comic book, just like it takes words and music to make an opera.  Is one sometimes better than the other?  Sure, but without Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa we wouldn’t have La Boheme, and Stan Lee may run the world, but Jack Kirby’s work is on postage stamps.

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