Blue Fire, Part 3: The Dirty Business of Comics

(Another in a series of posts about the inspiration and the history behind BLUE FIRE, my new mystery novel, which will be available on Amazon at a special New Release Price – 99 cents from April 8th through April 15th)

 

As a kid, I never knew comic book heroes would end up as the hub of a multibillion-dollar business. Unfortunately, neither did the guys who created them.

When I was growing up, comics were mostly for very young children. That was because, in the early 1950s, comic books were vilified by “experts” as morally suspect, much like early rock music would be a few years later, and sales began to plummet. In response, the industry formed the Comics Code Authority to police their own content. Sex, drugs and extreme violence were suddenly a no-no, and respect for government and parental authority was emphasized (you can read more about the Code here).

So the comics survived, but barely. DC, the company with Superman and Batman, still prospered, but many of the other comic lines either severely slashed the number of titles they released or went out of business altogether. And that was the state of the business when I started reading comics – mostly Superman and such kids’ stuff as Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost and the like.

Then one day, my older brother brought home the third issue of a new comic, The Avengers.  I remember vividly staring at its cover, which featured all these strange-looking colorful freaks threatening each other, freaks who immediately intrigued me, even though I had no idea who the hell they were. Yes, I went on to find out these freaks’ names were the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner, Iron Man, Giant Man and Thor and I would end up reading their adventures for years to come, but, at the time, all I could think was…

“These guys are different. These guys aren’t like anybody else.”

Marvel’s heroes frequently had bad attitudes and nasty tempers. They fought each other as much as they fought their villains of the month. It was a whole different vibe, more grown-up, self-aware, with a unique balancing act of hilarious irreverence and ever-more-cosmic epic storylines.

Soon, Marvels were my comics of choice. We had just moved from a small town, where everybody knew everybody else’s business, to a new suburban development, where no one had any connection to anyone else. I felt isolated and alone, so I threw myself further into comic books. I made scrapbooks, I drew my own and I had collected hundreds of them by the time I hit Junior High. And the artists and writers of my favorite comics were superstars in my mind. Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, Curt Swan, Jim Steranko, Neal Adams…to me and other kids like me, they were creative legends (and they continue to be to this day).

To the comic book publishers, however? They were the hired help and expendable if they got uppity about it.

I never thought about the business behind these comic books when I read them. What kid would? But a few years ago, when I was living in New Zealand, I picked up a British book entitled Men of Tomorrow. And that’s when I learned the ugly truth about how horribly these guys were treated, even though they made their employers millions.

For example, take Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the guys who came up with Superman, the original superstar superhero and one of the few to bring in big bucks in the early days of comics. They sold the rights to the character for all of $130 – but, in those days of the Great Depression, they were glad to get paid anything for an idea. Then, when Superman was suddenly being made into movie serials, cartoons and, later on, a TV series, they thought maybe they deserved a piece of the action. They thought the management would see the fairness of their request and negotiate with them. Instead, after the duo’s repeated attempts to claim part of the copyright all failed, they were shown the door. For years, they struggled to survive while their creation prospered in almost every medium available.

This set a pattern of artist abuse that continued on through the early days of comics, right through to the period when I read them. For example, Jack Kirby, who co-created many of Marvel’s most popular heroes and Steve Ditko, who co-created Spider-Man, also saw no rewards for their efforts when those characters became huge successes. They both left the company after promises of profit participation never came through. Of course, Kirby had been through these soul-crushing circumstances before – he and Joe Simon, his partner at the time, had created Captain America in the 1940s and also had received nothing for their efforts, except a token payment.

I often think of those guys – and the overwhelming majority of them were guys – drawing as fast as they could just to scratch out a living, while the publishers became rich off of their efforts – and I knew I wanted to use one of them as the lynchpin for Blue Fire, the second book in my Max Bowman mystery series. Not a real one, of course, but one of my own creation, a comic book artist who had disappeared into near-obscurity (much as Ditko did) after being treated shabbily by the comics industry.

Why was using this kind of character important to me? Because the best of the comic book creators were geniuses in their own right – but completely unrecognized at the time by anyone over twenty, because they worked in a business that had no prestige or standing, a business that was frankly looked down on by most adults until the Baby Boomer generation grew up. But now, miraculously enough, their creations are at the center of our most popular movies and television shows. In a sense, they brought to life today’s equivalent of the ancient Greek and Roman mythical gods, represented in Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and all the rest of those super-powered heroes running around in their long underwear.

Sound pretentious? Maybe. But it’s also the truth.

So Blue Fire is, in part, my salute to those artists and writers. Thanks to recent court cases, they’re finally receiving their financial due – well, at least their surviving family members are, since many of them passed away years ago. But then again, it was never really about the money for them – or they certainly wouldn’t have picked the comics field to work in.

No, for them, it was all about having the ability and freedom to create. And that’s a feeling I can understand.

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