Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Comics' Original Sin

via Comics Reporter:

"Comics' original sin echoes over the course of its history. It rips to the surface in a variety of nasty ways to which old men, widows and children mournfully testify. It spawns a thousand and one grinning doppelgangers carrying a bag of the oldest tricks. It rains abuse on a creative class that at times bristles, at times is grimly accepting, and at times gives birth to one or two poor, depraved souls that will fight for the imagined rightness of someone else, many someone elses, to benefit from an inspired act of creation ahead of that creator. What happened to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster isn't history, not in the way history is usually defined. It is close, and it is awful, and it can't help but make you just a little bit sad."

The quote reminds me of that scene in the New Frontier animated movie where the artist at his table finishes his book about man's inhumanity to man and then blows his brains out. When I first watched that, I immediately read it as a reference to the angst many of these comic creators went through -- and read the artist at his drawing table as being a comic book artist. In fact, it seemed so obvious and stark a reference that it really really shocked me.

However, I will go one step further and say that I think this type of exploitation and frustration is everywhere in this society -- school teachers experience it, TV writers experience it, store clerks experience it. I think there is a fundamental mechanism built in some human beings -- or maybe it's in all of us, and it's only "active" in some -- that leads them to take from others without producing and exploit the weak.

In the Comics Reporter piece, the way Siegel/Shuster was treated by DC is referred to as the industry's original sin. That may be true, but it's just part of a far far earlier state of affairs. It's only the fact that superhero books like Superman are supposed to be about "Truth, Justice, and The American Way" that makes the story so remarkable, and so ironic.


  1. What happened to Siegel and Shuster was unfair and tragic. What is worse is the fact that their story was not unique for that time. The Golden Age of comics is filled with stories of unscrupulous publishers cheating creators out of their rights. What makes it even more sickening today is the fact that such tactics were "Standard Operating Procedures" during that time.

    Creators were treated as cattle and worth less than "a dime a dozen". That was the company mentality at the time and hundreds of influential creators never saw a dime from their work beyond the initial payments.

    We decry the S&S case because it shows comics at it's absolute worst. It exposes the dark, dirty secret of our history much like the men who made their millions from bootlegging in the 1930's. But it is especially painful because it was done by companies that promoted the adventures of superheroes who fought for justice and the little guy. In another world, it would have been the publishers that the superheroes would have gone after in the comics.

    "Comics' Original Sin" wasn't just S&S but the climate that bred and encouraged the companies who lied, cheated and stole the work of people who (sadly) believed they would be treated fairly.

    And, even more tragically, that company mentality existed for far, far longer than was right or moral.

  2. It's hard to feel sorry for DC, but isn't the sensitive, lone, creative genius a bit of a myth? In one sense Superman is a Siegel and Schuster creation. But on the other hand, is Superman as we know him solely the product of Siegel and Schuster's imagination? Isolationist, anti-corporate, and cruel - would the character have been a success for very much longer after the depression if there hadn't been other fingers in the pie?

    There is also some hindsight bias at work here. Sure, there were a lot of talented young creators being exploited in the thirties. But these were people working in what would have been regarded then, and for at least 25-30 years after, as a disposable medium. Out of the hundreds, thousands, golden age characters created in the forties, how many of them are really viable intellectual properties today?

  3. Anonymous3:02 PM

    I think this is loading the issue more than a little.

    Were Siegel and Shuster treated unfairly? Yes. They created something and someone else made a lot of money on it.

    But, to be honest, the company that made a lot of money on it also spent a lot of money on it. They printed the books. They negotiated merchandising agreements. They paid the lawyers, pre-press production people, and bankrolled the distribution.

    There's this tendency to lionize the little guy and demonize the big guy. Not that National and then DC were without fault in their dealings, but I think this kind of rhetoric isn't helpful in dealing with the root issue: the ignorance of the creators.

    Business-minded people have been winning out over artistic-minded people for time immemorial. That's why Barnes & Noble drives your corner bookstore out of business whenever it comes to town: it isn't because Barnes & Noble cares more about books, it's because they're better at the business of selling. Same thing, here.

    Honestly, I'd challenge this very idea of an "original sin". It's superlative. Siegel and Shuster weren't the first creators to be belittled and denigrated, only to have their work serve as the foundation for someone else's marketing plan.

    How many musicians made hits that they weren't paid for?

    The smart guys know how to work that. Or, at least, the educated ones. You use that album and the label's marketing machine to organize a music tour where you can make a ton in ticket sales. Or you take less as an advance in lieu of a greater percentage of profit.

    In any case, you treat the corporation for what it is: an entity only interested in making money. Honestly, to expect anything else is to be unrealistic.

    It's to expect that, out of the kindness of its heart, a corporation will automatically pay a fair wage, or not pollute the environment, or not try to control the marketplace as a monopoly.

  4. Just for the sake of clarification, Spurgeon refers to it as the original sin in reference to an older, longer, and more explicit reference piece by Abhay Khosla on the Image Comics Message board. That thing is available at:

    I don't know if I formatted that link properly, but it's an excellent piece of op/ed, and easy enough to find on google.

  5. Anonymous11:03 AM

    Thanks for the link!

    Still can't say I agree, but it's good to have that context.

  6. So mark and greysie are republicans, then. Possibly even Randians! See DC was right to rip off the original creators, because hey, they got away with it! Man, morality's easy when you don't, you know, use it at all.