Originally Published 8/5/77,
The Santa Barbara News and Review


By Dan Gheno

On the surface, comic books seem all fun and games. For sure, the conglomerates which own the entire industry play games, but they are deadly games.

The corporate heads have given the creative people of the industry — artists, writers and editors — a large playground to play in. To participate, though, as “Little Annie Fannie” creator Harvey Kurtzman explained at the recent Comic Book Convention in San Diego (July 20-24), the creative people must literally sell their souls.


The original Superman, created by Siegel and Shuster.

If someone creates a salable book or concept, they suddenly become the slave of their own work, not allowed to deviate from the norms that the businesspeople know will sell.

Witness the new “Superman” movie, with an estimated $25 million budget, the largest of any film except Russia’s “War and Peace.” Today, the comic book character varies little from the original concept, but its creators must forever stand in its shadow. 

Joe Shuster, who co-created Superman with Jerry Siegel, kept a quiet, low profile at the convention; as he has done throughout most of his career. His polite attitude has endeared him to many people, except those who count the money. 

In the forties, at the height of his character’s popularity, Shuster was pushed off the strip, never to share in any of the hundreds of millions of dollars which Superman reaped in spinoff enterprises like movies, radio,  television, dishes, costumes and  toys.

Another man cheated of his own creation was the father of Captain Marvel, C.C. Beck. The same people who brought down Shuster caused the demise of this cartoonist. In a drawn-out lawsuit, they claimed Captain Marvel plagiarized the Superman concept. Everyone knew the battle was groundless, but the Superman publishers were fighting a war of attrition, trying to destroy their largest competitor, a twice-monthly magazine which sold in excess of a million copies each issue. 

In the mid fifties, Fawcett, the Captain Marvel publishers, decided to stop wasting their ‘energy and simply ceased publication, throwing C.C. Beck out on the streets. 

“I was type-cast,” said Beck at the convention. “No one would hire me anymore, because they thought I could only draw pictures like Captain Marvel. I had to move to Florida, change my name and start from the bottom of an advertising agency!”

What Happened to Inflation?

Several years ago, the same company that sued Fawcett decided to purchase the Captain Marvel character and publish it themselves. 

“When they called me up to draw the strip again,” explained Beck, “they told me they were only going to pay me $15 more per page than I received in the fifties. What happened to inflation, I asked? I should be receiving $500 a page!” 

He accepted the job anyway, for the sheer joy of drawing his own character again. But the scripts were so bad that he quit after a few issues. 

“They missed the whole point of the character when they revived it,” said Roy Thomas, Stan Lee’s protege. “Looking back at the old forties issues, they seem outrageously funny! But we took them seriously then.” Today, they’re treating the character like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, with no rest from the silly jokes and no attempt at epic adventure. 

More Camp and a Laughtrack

In a panel called “The Secrets and Scandals of the TV Industry,” screenwriter Stanley Ralph Ross, who won an Emmy for one of his “Columbo” episodes, said the producers of the Batman television show  had problems  trying to convince the network not to add a laughtrack.

The other man on the panel, Mark Evanier — former story editor for “Welcome Back, Kotter” and a prolific comic book writer — felt that “the show would have been written even more seriously than it was.” The network, however, felt that the show would only last as a fad, so they let it burn out, forcing it to remain as superficial as the first show which garnered such stupendous ratings.

 Early in his career, Evanier worked as an assistant to Jack Kirby, perhaps the most productive cartoon artist and writer who created Captain America  with Joe Simon in the forties. He also helped save the Marvel Comics group from financial oblivion and kept editor Stan Lee off the unemployment lines in the sixties with his creation of the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Sgt. Fury, Doctor Doom and the Black Panther. 

Kirby, whose real name is  Kurtzberg, started his career at five bucks a page in the mid thirties. After more than 40 years of never-ending deadlines and frustrations he said  "I still enjoy myself."

Despite his contributions, Kirby fared little better than Joe Shuster or C.C. Beck. Of course he received no residuals from the cartoons and other promotional spin-offs of his characters. But even worse, he often wasn’t given credit as writer for his magazines. Other scriptors took credit and payment as writers in the early years, even though they only helped dialogue Kirby’s stories. 

Kirby left Marvel for DC Comics in the early seventies, hoping for better treatment, but no such luck was there. After planning and drawing a long, beautifully-rendered series of books, his magazines were cancelled before he could finish them.

Still No Credit

He finally returned to Marvel as editor, writer and penciller. Regardless of his new “rank,” he’s not receiving the credit and esteem he deserves. One of his best works, “The Eternals,” has already been cancelled  in midstream. 

He also pencilled and wrote a giant size adaptation of “2001 A Space Odyssey,” which many people considered his finest piece, but which was slaughtered by callous, insensitive inking. 

It’s well known that one of the reasons comics were in such trouble in the fifties was the McCarthy-like campaign against the horror and crime titles which proliferated then. The Entertaining Comics (EC) group, the mainline blood and guts publishers, would have gone back to printing Bibles if Mad Magazine, edited by Harvey Kurtzman, had not saved them. 

Once again, Kurtzman did not get his rightful share of the profits. He later published “Trump,” with Hugh Hefner under a more equitable situation 

"Did you feel frustrated,” he was asked, “that ‘Trump’ failed after only a few issues only  because it was 15 years ahead of its time, while ‘National Lampoon’ later succeeded?” 

“No,” he said, “I had fun while doing it. I knew, when I started, that cartooning was perhaps the most frustrating and lonely field.”

At the convention, everyone, like Kurtzman, seemed a little tired, perhaps fatigued. But this doesn’t mean the writers and artists are resigned to fate. They have great enthusiasm for their work. In fact, one master artist, Joe Kubert, has opened a two year accredited school for would be comic book artists and writers. 

It was clear, however, that everyone was fed up with the games they have to play with the publishers.

Related Story

  Some things never change... The following Letter to the Editor of the New York Times  was printed on July 16, 2000 In the Arts and Leisure Section.

Share the Credit

To the Editor,

Bernard Weinraub, in  "An Unusual Choice for the Role of Studio Superhero" {July9}, refers to Stan Lee as the creator of "The X-Men," totally ignoring  Jack Kirby's status as the series  co-originator, as well as the contributions of the many writers and artists who intermittently revamped the often reincarnated comic book series.

Also, to set the record straight for the future, in advance of the upcoming "Spiderman" movie and the inevitable  article,  Stan Lee is not  the sole creator of that series either. Steve Ditko shares most of the co-credit for that series.

No doubt, Stan Lee is a very creative writer, and like Walt Disney, he was (and is) a good director and editor of  other artists and writers.  Popular myths not withstanding,  Mr. Lee is not the sole creator of every Marvel character, any more than Walt Disney was the sole creator of every Disney cartoon including Mickey Mouse (Ub Iwerks was the mastermind behind the mouse, and was credited with its creation in early movie posters).
Dan Gheno