Aug 08, 2014

    Creators of comic heroes fight for cash and credit

    LIKE millions of moviegoers over the weekend, Bill Mantlo watched Guardians Of The Galaxy, the Marvel Studios space adventure that has sold more than US$172 million (S$215 million) in tickets worldwide in its first four days of release.

    The film's success is particularly meaningful to Mantlo, 62, a comic-book writer who helped create one of the movie's main characters: the foul-tempered, gun-wielding anthropomorphic Rocket Raccoon.

    Mantlo did not see Guardians Of The Galaxy in a cinema, but in his bed at the nursing home where he is being cared for following a 1992 accident, in which he was hit by a car and left with brain damage.

    Michael Mantlo, his brother, said Bill owed his health partly to Medicaid and partly to the grassroots efforts of comic fans.

    Michael said he was grateful that Marvel arranged the Guardians Of The Galaxy screening for Bill. He had not known a movie was planned until comic fans contacted him on Facebook a few years ago.

    Michael said he had then contacted Marvel executives and told them: "If you're making a film of Rocket Raccoon, you need to talk to me about the use of that character."

    "The negotiation started at that point," he said, "and we managed to secure a very nice contract for Bill."

    While movies like Guardians Of The Galaxy represent a certain triumph of multimedia synergy, they are also a reminder that, as comic-book characters increasingly provide the basis for lucrative film franchises, these characters' creators must take their own measures to prevent their rights from being crushed in Hollywood's engines.

    At certain publishing companies, writers and artists are given at least some ownership of the properties they help generate. But, very often, these creations are regarded as works for hire, owned by corporations that have little or no further need to reward the people who dreamed them up.

    With the biggest comic publishers supplying content to two major studios - Marvel is owned by Walt Disney and DC is a unit of Warner Bros - writers and artists accept that credit and compensation for their contributions to films come only with the expenditure of their blood, sweat and tears, if at all.

    "My attorney is very good," Michael said. "I'm not going to say Marvel came to me and opened up their hearts and their purse strings."

    And, as studios dig deeper into the publishers' rosters of heroes and villains, past Superman and Spider-Man to Rocket Raccoon and beyond, overlooked characters, often decades old, now possess new worth that is almost certain to be battled over.

    "As they see characters that were C- and D-level in the comics but can open a movie, everything becomes new again," said Marc Tyler Nobleman, an author who has written about the origins of comic publishing.

    "You can take almost anybody and make a big movie out of it," he said.

    There have been decades of ownership battles between comic publishers and some of the industry's most celebrated creators.

    Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, fought DC in the 1970s to have their credits restored to that character's comic books and other licensed products, including the Superman movie released in 1978. Their heirs have continued to seek a portion of the character's copyright.

    The heirs of Jack Kirby, the illustrator who helped create Marvel heroes like Thor and the Hulk, have appealed their fight for ownership all the way to the Supreme Court, which has not yet said whether it will review the case.