A sad but illuminating read

I recently finished Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. Wow.

Basically it's a story of a company making the difficult transition from being a mom-and-pop to being a large public corporation. But from the point of view of the writers and artists, it's a story about getting screwed, very, very badly.

Now, the comics industry has evolved, so these days people are much more likely to get an ownership share of what they create. But that didn't used to be the case--it used to be that, if you wanted to work in comics, you had to work as a hired hand--and what's alarming about it is how normal that seemed to everyone.

In fact, there are a couple of places in the book where people--sometimes other comics people--express surprise at the notion that the creator of a character would dare expect an ownership share! After all, they didn't contribute anything!

Wow. Wowowowow.

And very enlightening, no?

What does a person mean when they say that the creator of a character didn't contribute anything to it?

Well, for starters, I think there's that very human tendency to give yourself credit for anything that is successful, even if your involvement was tangential. That's definitely a major issue in comics--often you've got one person coming up with the character with input from others, and then still other people develop it. So if you contributed, say, the money, you might well say, "I contributed the money! You, the creator, didn't! My contribution is the only one that matters!"

The other thing is I think an important insight to the corporate mentality: For-profit corporations exist to make money. Ergo, it's easy for people working at corporations to assume that the only thing that counts for anything is money.

I remember at one point someone was confused because some corporation was claiming that they needed to restructure because they weren't getting enough "respect." The person found that baffling, because why the hell would you undergo the trouble and expense of restructuring in order to get respect? That sounds neurotic at best. And I had to explain that, in business speak, "respect" means "money from investors." A "good" business is a profitable business--it doesn't matter if they make money by poisoning small children, as long as they are making money, they are "good." If they are making more money, they are "better."

If you are in an environment where the only thing that is recognized as positive and worthwhile is money, then it can become very, very easy to dismiss other kinds of contributions. That's why one person can create (out of thin air) a character worth billions of dollars, and another person can, with complete honesty, express their sincere opinion that the first person did not contribute anything to that character.

Many of Marvel's artists and writers experienced true poverty, and in some cases they got desperate enough to sue. Marvel defended itself very aggressively (and why shouldn't they, these people had contributed nothing), and even went so far as to countersue people for amounts of money that were piddling to Marvel but doubtless ruinous to those people. They don't apologize for this--they regard these people as thieves who are trying to get something for nothing.

The only thing protected people was insisting on having fair contracts. That was it. Anyone who expected largesse at any time from any of Marvel's various owners got the shaft. Of course they did. They hadn't contributed anything!