Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story but I can’t help but spot loads of creator-rights issues in comics these days.
The most recent example came during my epic immersion into Ultimate Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis (with Mark Bagley and now Stuart Immonen on art duties). The below panel is from Ultimate Spider-Man #122 after Shocker, a running joke of a villain throughout USM, captures and tortures Spidey.
Now, I can’t say how much of this is really personal for Mr. Bendis (as far as I can tell he’s been treated pretty well – with very good reason – by Big Brother Marvel), but Shocker’s sentiments very clearly echo the sentiments modern day creators might feel looking back at the likes of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Steve Gerber, etc.
Shocker: They – They take those who are creative or – or imaginative, who have a vision for the future, and they steal from them and then they destroy them. Why? Because they hate those of us who are creative. They need us and they hate us. They hate us because we are that which they know they will never be.
Again, hard to say if this is Bendis railing against his corporate benefactors in a moment of frustration (maybe they wouldn’t let him actually kill anyone in Secret Invasion?), or if it’s simply the modern creator’s call to honor disrespected genius of the past.
Regardless, I find it interesting that the speech comes from Shocker, a joke of a villain inevitably put down by Spider-Man. While the reader feels sympathy for Shocker’s hopeless plight, and for the way his employer stole from his talent, he’s ultimately an unlikable character here. He sounds petty, and vindictive, and when Spider-Man asks why he doesn’t try to help anyone with his creation, he responds with child-like rage. If this is Bendis’s stand-in for creator-rights, the underlying message is clearly “Man up, wimps. Do the right thing, and man the heck up.”
Or, if we take it one step further, there could be some element of satire here. Shocker makes his impassioned plea for respecting creators and is then immediately beaten down by Spider-Man? One of the strongest icons in corporate comic book America? Bendis might not be saying this is what he thinks should happen so much as this is how it always plays out. You can whine and moan all you like Steve Ditko supporters, but Spider-Man (and vicariously Marvel and Stan Lee) will win the day.
Personally, I prefer this interpretation. It’s less judgmental on the part of Bendis, and instead cleverly plots in both a Spider-Man win and a clear sense of empathy towards the victim. Spider-Man himself leaves as a beaten and broken hero, nearly driven to kill Shocker. At the end of the day, maybe this is Bendis’s point: There aren’t really any winners here.