Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes' Omega and John Byrne's Action - Why These Situations Are Accepted

Yesterday, in the comments section, a reader pointed out a problem he had with Jonathan Lethem's upcoming Omega the Unknown project. RAB stated:
I'm REALLY not impressed by the idea of him writing an Omega series against the express wishes of the creators of Omega. Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes never signed away the rights to that character, but Marvel assumes it can do anything it likes because, essentially, "that's how things always worked back then" and it was just "understood" that characters were owned by the company. Lethem wouldn't tolerate it for a moment if his publisher decided to give away his characters to another author without even asking his permission...but because this is comics, he accepts that without blinking. If he loves Seventies comics so much, why does he not realize that what he treasures is the work of OTHER WRITERS, and want to do right by them?

And yes, you can say Marvel has some legal precedent on its side. But can't we ask what the MORAL question is?
Like what RAB says, it does appear as though the law is on the side of Marvel, but the moral question still remains.

Paul O'Brien had a nice piece on the topic here, but Paul ends the piece with, "That leaves the unfortunate Lethem, who seems to have had the best of intentions, caught in the crossfire between the two. Not a position I'd want to be in." The interesting thing to me is how Lethem would still REMAIN in such a position. And I think the answer lies in the recent reaction to John Byrne's pencils being (at times) drastically changed in the pages of Action Comics.

Here are some of the changes, for example.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

Now here are some reactions from a comic messageboard to the question of whether this is any reason to be upset...
I don't really see why people are so upset about this. I mean Action Comics isn't exactly some personal indie comic, its a corporate product. Since Byrne posts his original pencils for anyone to see, people are free to enjoy his art unaltered, in addition to the touch-ups and alterations that Nelson has done in the published issue. Obviously Byrne is less than enthused that someone is altering his work, but he's being a professional about it, which I must commend him on...[snip off-topic stuff]...Art is altered by inkers and scripts are rewritten by editors all the time at both DC & Marvel. It goes with the territory. These are the company's characters, if they want to tweak the work of the creators working for them in order to get the product they want, they can do so.
and
Key words: "Work for Hire."

Hard to believe in these days of comic artist as rock star, but the fact is, in the work for hire world, the person writing the checks can do whatever the hell they want to your work and they don't have to inform you at all. Those are the rules going in, and Byrne knows it, and he's obviously willing to play the game. If he's cashing the checks and the books are hitting the stands on time, who cares?

Work for hire is what it is. There is no difference between work for hire as a comic artist and work for hire in any other field, except that the work for hire drones in other industries do not have a small but vocal band of loyal fans working themselves up into a dither about changes to their work. Did anybody care when some anonymous artist's illustration got altered by the art director before it was printed in an ad for some antidepressant? Did anybody care when some work for hire photographer had his work in the last Frederick's of Hollywood catalog heavily retouched without his permission?

The Work for Hire motto is "they pay me and I do what they say, and once I deliver it, it's theirs to do with as they wish." If that offends you, I suggest only buying creator-owned comics from now on.
I believe that these two quotes represent the prevailing viewpoint, which, to me, explains the main reason why Jonathan Lethem has no real problem (he may have a qualm, but not enough to NOT do it) re-doing the work of Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes and why Nelson has no problem re-doing the work of John Byrne, and why folks generally do not have a problem either, and that is the acceptance of "Work for Hire" as the universal truth of creation. If you do something work for hire, you are hereby forfeiting any say in the future of your work, and therefore, people will also not have a problem with any changes to your work.

Well, that and the SECOND aspect, which is that the prevailing thought must be that the change was a GOOD one. An acclaimed novelist doing Omega the Unknown is likely to be good (check out Dalrymple's preview art...Image hosted by Photobucket.com). People feel that Nelson's changes are improvements on Byrne's work.

Therefore, I think the overall silence on the issues come from two places:

1. It is work for hire, and you can't complain about work for hire
and
2. The resulting product is good, and readers find it hard to complain about products that they enjoy.

Please note that I am not suggesting that the reaction to these events is GOOD, but I am merely addressing why I think this reaction has occurred.

Anyone agree or disagree?

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32 Comments:

Blogger Tom Foss said...

If Steve Gerber wants to write more Omega stories, the only thing stopping him is himself, and possibly the folks at Marvel who don't want to try old things. Lethem's book, good or bad, doesn't negate the previous Omega work, nor does it prevent other Omega work in the vein of Gerber's original series. Since it seems like Lethem knows and enjoys a purportedly "unknown" character, and it seems like he'll be treating the property with respect, Gerber looks like he just doesn't want to share his toys.

As far as John Byrne goes, the man has a schizophrenic fanatacism for "original intent," raving about Etrigan not being a rhymer or even remotely evil, even as he writes Spider-Man: Chapter One, gutting Lee and Ditko's work. The man will muddy Wonder Woman's origin in order to put a WW in WWII, but ignores Wonder Girl's only origins in an attempt to make them even more confusing. His work has been going downhill ever since he left the Superman comics after the revamp, and his pencils in the examples above looked rushed, sloppy, and poorly-proportioned. If he wants his work to remain unchanged, then he should put some effort and professionalism into it.
If I write an article for a newspaper and don't correct the spelling and the grammar myself, I have no right to complain about the editor changing it to clean it up. If Byrne can't use more than half his ass illustrating a flagship title, then he shouldn't be complaining about this artistic editing that's going on with his work.

9/07/2005 02:09:00 AM  
Blogger Martin Wisse said...

Was Omega the Unknown actually work for hire? It came out before the great copyright revision of 1976, didn't it? Marvel may be laying claim to something it does not actually own here.

Colour me skeptical about the whole idea of getting a cult novelist doing an Omega revamp in the first place. Why couldn't he have done something original instead of rehashing other people's concepts?

9/07/2005 02:44:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

In regards to Lethem's interest in Omega, Omega is featured often in Lethem's novel, Fortress of Solitude, so it appears as though Lethem has had an affinity for the property before being approached by Marvel to write the comic.

9/07/2005 03:54:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

It's obvious why RAB wants to remain anyonymous.

He hasn't gotten rid of the Horcrux yet, and is afraid of the Death Eaters tracking him down to reclaim it for Lord Voldemort.

9/07/2005 09:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lethem's jumping on to write Omega the Unknown over Gerber's protests is disgusting.

It's a little less than amusing to think that because comics creators signed shitty contracts in the thirties that that becomes tradition that ensures their creators get screwed and anyone who follows in their footsteps gets screwed.

I would love to see the characters in Fortress of Solitude get turned into a franchise by the publisher and have Lethem evicted from control of the copyright, assigning sequels and follow ups to be written by V.C. Andrews and Danielle Steele. Never going to happen, because above-board publishing doesn't work that way, but it would be appropriate irony.

And "work-for-hire" is not interchangable with "slavery". If you hire me to do a job the work I do should not be gratuitously interfered with. If so there are legal actions and greivances that can be sent to arbitration.

Of course, this doesn't happen in comics. Comics is a slum medium, not because of the work, but because of the working conditions.

9/07/2005 10:27:00 AM  
Anonymous A.L. Baroza said...

I'd guess that the resolution of Marv Wolfman's claim to Blade and Nova probably set a bad precedent for creators from the 70s. Legally, Marvel has the upper hand, even if, as mentioned in the Jack Kirby Collector, they forced work-for-hire on their creators by having them sign their consent on the paychecks themselves. If you didn't agree, you didn't get paid.

I'm sure things would be smoothed over considerably were Gerber and Skrenes given some kind of monetary share of the Lethem project. I fear that Lethem probably stands to make more from his Omega reboot than Gerber did for a year's worth of writing numerous Marvel titles in the 70s.

Comparing Gerber's complaint to Byrne's situation isn't quite fair to Gerber. Steve's been an advocate of creator's rights for decades, during which time Byrne proudly proclaimed himself a cog in the corporate machine. Which is an easy position to take when you're Marvel's hot "young gun", I guess. For Byrne it's a matter of the chickens finally coming home to roost. Byrne's forfeited any right to complain about editorial tampering of his work, IMO.

9/07/2005 10:52:00 AM  
Anonymous A.L. Baroza said...

Hell, let's give some of that Lethem money to Jim Mooney, too.

9/07/2005 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Ed Cunard said...

And "work-for-hire" is not interchangable with "slavery". If you hire me to do a job the work I do should not be gratuitously interfered with. If so there are legal actions and greivances that can be sent to arbitration.

It depends if your work is done in service to art or to commerce. If it's the former, I can see the issue one might have with it (although in most publishing fields, editing does happen, and rightfully so in most cases), but if the point is to sell comics and lunchboxes and pajamas and the like, then it's nothing more than a company "protecting its brand," as it were.

As to the Lethem/Gerber situation... It's not just comics, kids. Shane Black wrote LETHAL WEAPON, creating new characters owned by a studio. If you look at the writing credits for LETHAL WEAPON 4, you'll find the characters credited to Black, the story credited to Jonathan Lemkin, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, and the screenplay credited to Channing Gibson.

Lethem's got a story to tell, evidently (didn't he pitch it himself, or did they come to him to work on OMEGA?) If there's any blame to be placed, it's on the corporations and the history of work practices in the industry. Because, let's face it, I'm doubting that Gerber will get the same nod that Shane Black gets for creating the characters.

9/07/2005 11:49:00 AM  
Anonymous RAB said...

First, referring to myself as "anonymous" was a poor choice of words. I meant it only in the sense that I was just another reader, no one special, just a face in the crowd. In retrospect I can see how the word choice would be confusing; my bad. In all fairness, I did sign my comments "RAB" which isn't any attempt to conceal my identity; those are my initials and that's how I sign pretty much everything.

The "work for hire" aspect -- whether or not it actually applies in this case -- doesn't answer the question I was asking. What a business entity can get away with doing is almost always a matter of how deep its pockets are; whichever side is able to threaten the opposition with long and expensive litigation will almost always win. Is something automatically moral and just, simply because it's considered legal? Okay, swell, the company can do this because they've always done it before. But my question here is about about Jonathan Lethem, not about Marvel Comics.

I honestly don't understand why, if Lethem values Omega so much, none of his good feeling carries over to the writers of that comic and why he would knowingly choose to place himself in the position of screwing Steve Gerber. For all his success, Lethem may still see comics as a child does. He may never have realized that the writers of his favorite comics were actually real writers making a living, just like himself. Presumably this has been explained to him, but the lure of living his childhood dream and Actually! Writing! A! Marvel! Comic! has overwhelmed the common decency he ought to be showing a fellow professional writer.

-- Richard Bensam

9/07/2005 12:04:00 PM  
Blogger T. said...

Am I the only one that thinks Nelson's "improvements" made the final product look worse? Granted, it looks better than what the final result would have been than if Byrne inked it himself, but the redrawings of the original pencils look awful, particularly Superman's face and hair. He has Wayne Newton hair for Pete's sake!

johnnytriangles.blogspot.com

9/07/2005 12:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Jesse Hochstadt said...

"Colour me skeptical about the whole idea of getting a cult novelist doing an Omega revamp in the first place."

Since when is the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel a "cult novelist"? (By contrast, I, a NY Times Book Review reader, had never heard of "NY Times bestselling author Brad Meltzer" before....)

9/07/2005 01:38:00 PM  
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9/07/2005 02:24:00 PM  
Blogger kelvingreen said...

If Marvel were to put out an Essential Omega The Unknown as part of this event, would Gerber get any money from that? Just wondering.

9/07/2005 03:16:00 PM  
Blogger Sleestak said...

"Essential Omega the Unknown"? But that would have to include the horrible conclusion from Defenders...

9/07/2005 04:35:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Richard, I was just struck by your stressing the anonymity part in your response...it seemed weird, because, like I said, it did not seem to be all that controversial.

But I see how you meant it now.

I'll edit it now.

9/07/2005 04:45:00 PM  
Blogger Derek B. Haas said...

This is the most nitpicking of asides, but:

I feel that it'd be more accurate to call this, as you are addressing it in this dialogue, a matter of professional ethics more than one of morals.

9/07/2005 08:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of creator credits, why doesn't Gerber include Jim Mooney as a co-creator, choosing instead to give the credit solely to himself and Mary Skrenes?

Makes you wonder...

9/08/2005 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger Eli said...

Here's another question: Imagine that, despite the fact that they created Omega in a setting where it was almost certainly clearly understood that they couldn't control the character forever, somehow Skrenes and Gerber were granted the power to stop Marvel from putting out the Lethem book and did so. What are the ethical implications of that?

Lethem is a phenomenally talented writer with a large readership. The art on the book looks amazing. It is certainly possible that the end product will be disappointing, but it seems pretty likely to me that the new Omega series will not only be very very good but also very very good for comics. Would it be at all justifiable to make that impossible because the creators didn't, as an earlier commenter said, want to share their toys? The creators right now remind me of copyright holders who won't allow their songs to be sampled and make great new recordings with new perspectives impossible or illegal as a result. Frustrating.

9/08/2005 06:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Jesse Hochstadt said...

Since no one's corrected me, I'll do it myself: Lethem is not a Pulitzer Prize winner; I was mixing him up with Michael Chabon. But Lethem isn't exactly a "cult writer" either. His novel "Motherless Brooklyn" won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999, and when I first mentioned him, in the context of "Fortress of Solitude," to several (admittedly rather literate, certainly more than me) friends, I was surprised to hear them ask me if I'd read that book.

With respect to the ethics of Lethem writing Omega, I think a relevant point here is that comics characters and series differ in the extent to which they represent - or seem to represent, or successfully represent - personal expression. Putting aside legal issues, there's a reason why Howard the Duck didn't really work when written by anyone other than Steve Gerber - because Howard's "voice," and the world he lived in, were so unmistakably Gerber's. No one else has that sensibility. I think the same is true of Omega the Unknown (OK, not the "voice" exactly, since Omega was silent, IIRC), which leads me to suspect that Lethem won't do justice to the characters, even if, considered on its own terms, the story's a success. If (nearly) the same stories were packaged as something other than "Omega," it wouldn't be a problem for me. (The proof's in the pudding, though, so I'll probably be checking out the series in any case.)

By contrast - and again, legal issues aside - I don't think Blade was a highly personal creation of Marv Wolfman's; he was an amalgam of stereotypes and pulpy cliches (though the twist of a vampire's having attacked his mother as she was giving birth to him - right? - may have been novel). And there are dozens of comics characters who in my opinion are best viewed as "vehicles" into whom creators can inject a wide - though finite - variety of portrayals and characterizations. Batman's a chief example: I don't perceive even the early Batman as a highly personal expression of Bob Kane (or Bill Finger), and that's one reason why the character has been able to support being portrayed as a "dark knight," a straightforward detective/crimefighter, even a science-fiction adventurer (though one could quarrel with the quality of those latter efforts) over the years. Interestly, this might not be equally true of Superman, who strikes me much more as a personal fantasy of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster's.

9/09/2005 12:35:00 PM  
Blogger Marionette said...

Okay, perhaps I'm missing the point here, but wasn't Omega a riff on Captain Marvel for most of its life?

I mean, as I recall it was quite an interesting exploration of the Captain Marvel/Billy Batson relationship, but it was still quite some distance from original.

9/12/2005 04:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While interesting, I think a lot of this misses a very important point, which is that Omega was not only never completed but really barely begun...there can be no "revamping" of it since no one outside of Gerber and Skrenes knows what the hell was going to happen. So Lethem will necessarily be doing a completely new book, only using an old trademark. For him even to want to do this is flatly incomprehensible to me; how can he imagine that "his" Omega will even rise to the level of being capable of comparison with Gerber's work? Since the meat of that story was never revealed, no homage is possible here, much less any way of "treating the property with respect." It's simply impossible.

And it certainly is disgusting.

Eli: Your argument's kind of spurious, here. The sampling/music copyright thing doesn't apply, because anyone can already draw on the elements of any superhero comic to create their own story, only providing that they don't actually rip it off so bad that a judge will call it infringement. Invincible from Spider-Man, Spider-Man from Superman...people do this "sampling" all the time, and the Superman vs. Captain Marvel decision from way back when pretty much made that as legal as you please. Of course, you can't just go out and "rewrite" all the songs off The Joshua Tree either, can you? Well, but I think that's all not-too-applicable in any case, because those musical copyright issues are not a one-to-one match for comics. Just once consider Omega as a literary work, and the picture changes completely: does anyone want to read "The Mystery of Edwin Drood", as finished by J.K. Rowling? It's absurd. That wouldn't be legitimate, even if it were technically legal.

A.L. Baroza: I don't see that it's so obvious Gerber and Skrenes' objections would all puff away if they were only confronted by a little cold hard cash. This seems to imply their displeasure is just a mask for their greed, which I'm sure isn't the case.

Tom: Whether or not Gerber wants to write more Omega stories is of course not the issue - I don't believe he's even claiming that Marvel's going to make that impossible for him to do. And anyway there's no time limit involved here; it isn't like Marvel can say "well, we gave him every chance to get off his ass and follow through with this...now it looks like it's up to us."

Other anonymous guy: If you're really wondering why Gerber and Skrenes aren't cutting Jim Mooney in on the credit (I'm not, but there you go), why don't you go and find out, and then tell the rest of us? Otherwise it just sounds like you're accusing them of being hypocrites, but minus any proof. Jim Mooney might be fine with it. Hell, Jim Mooney might be dead, for all I know.

Marionette: Interesting interpretation, thanks for bringing it up.

1/08/2006 05:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous above me, you're a fucking imbecile.

And your inability to refrain from demonstrating your stupidity is far more "disgusting" than using a nothing character that no one gives two fucks about.

In addition, the Omega revamp was awful, mostly because Lethem is a hack.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem, in Byrne's case with and artist's work being changed or altered, is that comics were and are built on the artist who draw them then the writing. Some people become fans of a book because of the art. I don't want to buy a John Byrne drawn comic book and not have John Byrne drawn comic book. It could change my outlook on him. The changes that they made are thing that John Byrne simply wouldn't do and didn't.
Granted when you pay for it's yours, but why pay for something to be done just to change. If your not satisfied then have the artist redraw it or have another artist draw it out again completly.

This can't be compared to any "work for hire". An artist integrity is at stake.

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Anonymous John Shine said...

I think it's funny that so many people here say that Lethem wouldn't want his characters used by others, when they obviously have no idea what his thoughts on the subject are. He has actually written quite eloquently on the fact that he feels copyright is an over extended power that inhibits the evolution of culture. From what I have read, he would love to see his characters written by others. Look up his brilliant article, The Ecstasy of Influence some time.

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