When you flip through a comic book, you enter a brightly colored world of heroes and villains where right is right and evil is vanquished at the end of the day. Unfortnately, the industry that creates those comic books isn’t quite as upright. Comics are a business, after all, and the lust for power is often stronger than the will to justice.Â Since the first comic book was printed in 1842, artists, editors, writers and publishers have been engaged in a nonstop campaign of screwing each other over for credit and profit. Blood and ink have been spilled at both the major companies, as well as some you’ve never heard of.
Join us as we go deep into the back issues to tell stories of bad behavior in the funnybook business. Some stories involve the most legendary characters ever created, while others are obscure but still awful. Face front, true believer: this is not a hoax, not an imaginary story.
Bob Kane’s credit-hogging
Even the most casual comics fan knows that the creator of Batman is Bob Kane, right? Well, sort of. Kane came up with the very basic idea (a guy who dresses up like a bat), but the vast majority of what we consider “Batman” came from a writer named Bill Finger. The trademark cowl? The cape? Robin? The Joker? Catwoman? The Batmobile? All Finger’s ideas. But if you consume any sort of Batman media created over the last 50 years, all you see is “created by Bob Kane.”
Why? Because when Kane signed his rights over to DC Comics, his contract stipulated that he would be given a mandatory byline on every Batman story in perpetuity. Finger had no such luck, and Kane never bothered to set the record straight in his lifetime. Things finally started to change in 2015 with his name added to the credits of Gotham and other DC properties.
Rob Granito, the convention copycat
If you’ve ever been to a comics convention, you know that outside the big booths from the major publishers, there’s a whole ecosystem of talent. Almost every con has an “Artists’ Alley,” where creative types set up shop to sell prints, sketches, books, and other goodies. Most of these artists are legit, but every once in a while a guy slips through the cracks and takes unwitting fans for a ride. Case in point: a gentleman named Rob Granito.
Granito had been a figure in Artists’ Alley for some time, but it wasn’t until 2011 that people began taking a closer look at both his resume and the pieces he had on sale. Granito’s “original art” had actually been ineptly copied from dozens of other creators. In addition, his claims to have worked on Batman: The Animated Series were also found out to be false. It was a matter of days before every major convention in the country had banned Granito from attending ever again.
Marvel destroys thousands of pages of original art
The Silver Age of superhero comics in the mid-1960s spawned the industry as we know it today, with legendary artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko churning out a flabbergasting amount of high-quality work as they created Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and hundreds of other heroes and villains. But copyright law wasn’t on their sides — they did the job as “work for hire,” which meant that Marvel owned everything they made. That extended to their original art as well, and that decision would lead to one of the greatest artistic crimes of the century.
In 1984, Marvel tried to get Jack Kirby to sign an insanely restrictive contract in exchange for the return of 88 pages of his original art. For comparison, the company at the time was sitting on something like 8,000 pages of Kirby originals. But they didn’t have all of them — over the last few decades, Marvel execs had given pages away, cut them up, or just destroyed them. It wasn’t until 1974 that the company finally started returning the work to its artists.
At the start of the 21st century, it seemed like comic books were a path to guaranteed big money. All you had to do was come up with an idea and publish an issue or two and movie studios would throw cash your way to option it. This brought us Cowboys & Aliens, so you decide how well it worked. Lots of people who previously had no interest in the business suddenly all had comics in the pipeline, and one of the most bizarre was Nick Simmons, son of long-tongued KISS frontman Gene.
In 2009, Nick released a preview edition of Incarnate, a series about immortal demons battling an organization hunting them. When scans of the preview hit the internet, comics fans (who have the eyes of eagles) noticed that it had more than a resemblance to Tite Kubo’s smash hit manga Bleach, down to copied panel layouts. Simmons tried to pass it off as a “homage,” but nobody bought it and his comic book career ended as quickly as it began.
The arrest of Mike Diana
Free speech is an essential part of our Constitution, and it’s made America one of the world’s leaders in the arts. But did you know that the very first artist in the United States to be successfully prosecuted for obscenity was a cartoonist? Mike Diana is a Florida metalhead who came to prominence in the 1990s with his self-published Boiled Angel, a violent, scatological collection of stories that left no taboo unbroken.
That would prove to be Diana’s undoing. In 1991, a police officer posed as a fellow artist and ordered some of his work through the mail. When he received it, the cop promptly charged Mike Diana with three counts of obscenity. Even with the aid of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Diana couldn’t beat the case in the right-wing Florida courts, and in 1994 he was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered him to have a psychiatric evaluation and submit to random searches by police for the rest of his life to make sure he wasn’t drawing.
Marvel screws Steve Gerber
The 1970s were a fertile creative time for Marvel Comics, as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby stepped aside to let a number of younger voices have their turn at the tiller. One of the most idiosyncratic of those voices was a writer named Steve Gerber, who started at the company in 1972 and brought a counterculture sensibility that Marvel desperately needed. Gerber made a name for himself at the helm of lower-selling books, but his crowning moment came in 1973 with the creation of Howard the Duck, a talking waterfowl from another dimension trapped in a world of hairless apes (that’s us, buddy).
Howard became a cult hit and Marvel started licensing him out, first with a newspaper strip and then selling the film rights (which would eventually result in the notorious 1986 movie). At the same time, they fired Gerber for his tendency to miss deadlines. He sued for ownership of the character, but eventually was forced to settle and hand over Howard to Marvel for the rest of eternity.
When the big comic book companies try to step out of their comfort zones, the results can be mixed. In 1999, DC hired a bunch of unusual talents to contribute stories to Elseworlds 80-Page Giant, a collection of “imaginary stories” offering different takes on their iconic characters. Maverick cartoonist Kyle Baker co-wrote and drew a 10-page story called “Letitia Lerner, Superman’s Babysitter” that chronicled the misadventures of a Smallville teen trying to watch over the Tot of Steel. Pretty harmless, right?Â Not to notoriously risk-averse DC.
Scenes of little Kal-El biting through and electrical wire and being put into a microwave freaked publisher Paul Levitz out so much that he ordered every single copy of the comic to be recalled and destroyed by the printer. A mere 1,500 copies had already been shipped to England, though, so the genie was out of the bottle. The “forbidden story” became a symbol of how little the company actually cared about creativity.
Uncle Julie’s wandering hands
For decades, the comics industry has been considered a “boy’s club.” Despite the vital contributions of talents like Marie Severin and Ramona Fradon, the vast majority of mainstream artists and writers have been male. And that can produce an atmosphere that is seriously unwelcoming to the fairer sex. Case in point: Julius Schwartz, the long-time editor at DC Comics lovingly known as “Uncle Julie.” Schwartz edited many of the company’s characters until he retired in 1984, and they kept him on as a “goodwill ambassador” until his death in 2004.
The goodwill Schwartz was peddling, however, wasn’t good for everybody. Artist Colleen Doran was one of several female talents who has publicly stated that Schwartz attempted to fondle her in a limousine when she was a teenager trying to break into the business. Despite multiple complaints about Julie’s wandering hands, DC never did anything to make him stop.
Financial hucksters almost destroy Marvel
Marvel Comics is on top of the world right now, but just a few decades ago the legendary publisher was almost driven out of business by the rapacious greed of a couple financial douches. The ownership history of the company is a complex one — it originated as Timely Comics in 1939, and changed names and hands several times before ending up in the possession of Revlon executive Ronald Perelman. Perelman used the speculator-driven success of the company to issue a staggering amount of junk bonds — some $700 million worth.
Starting in 1993, the bubble began to collapse and sales began to nosedive. Without all of the publishing and licensing money coming in, Perelman couldn’t pay off his debts coming due. In 1996, exhausted by all of these shenanigans, Marvel filed for protection in bankruptcy court. In 1998, Perelman was finally booted from company ownership, replaced by toy company execs Avi Arad and Isaac Perlmutter. It’d take that duo over 10 years to make the company a powerhouse again.
Shia LaBeouf copies comics
It’s hard to remember a time when Shia LaBeouf wasn’t totally insane, but his whole spiral into madness actually started with a comic — a little thing called “Justin M. Damiano,” written and drawn by alt-comix legend Dan Clowes. “Damiano” is a character piece about an acerbic film critic figuring out his place in the world, published in 2008. So when LaBeouf released his short film Howardcantour.com in 2013 that was a character piece about an acerbic film critic figuring out his place in the world, it didn’t take long for someone to notice.
LaBeouf copied the plot and even much of the dialogue from Clowes’ comic, and didn’t credit him or even contact him and ask for permission. After lawyers got involved, the actor issued a series of insincere apologies, claiming he “got lost in the creative process,” and embarked on a new career as a low-rent conceptual artist.
Superman’s creators get nothing
One of the most famous origin stories in comics is the tale of two nice young Jewish boys named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who put their heads together in the 1930s to create a champion faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive. Superman was an instant success and radically transformed the comic book industry, paving the way for just about every long underwear hero to follow. As was the norm, the two men sold off all rights to the character upon publication for a measly $130.
Considering that Superman was the ox that pulled the company, you’d think DC would set aside some additional cash to take care of his creators, right? Wrong. After the duo stopped working on the book, they tried to regain the rights, only to get shut down in court. To add insult to injury, DC also took their byline off of all Superman books as creators of the character. By the late 1960s, Shuster was working as a delivery man and Siegel was taking low-rent writing gigs with publishers like Western Publishing.
The lesson here? Every industry, no matter how fun, has its demons.