Category: Movies

Kirbys and Marvel Settle

Today, Marvel and the Kirby Estate released a short joint statement:

Marvel and the family of Jack Kirby have amicably resolved their legal disputes, and are looking forward to advancing their shared goal of honoring Mr. Kirby’s significant role in Marvel’s history.

It's finally over.

I've revised my 2010 form post, The King's Ransom, for what I hope will be the last time.

A bit of context, since I wasn't updating the blog back in June (though I did tweak the aforementioned form post): the Kirby heirs were appealing the case to the Supreme Court, and a number of amicus briefs were filed in the case by prominent groups including the Artists' Rights Society and the International Intellectual Property Institute. Among others, Bruce Lehman, former director of the USPTO, argued that the instance and expense test that the previous judgement against the Kirby heirs hinged on violated Supreme Court precedent.

The Supreme Court was set to decide whether or not to take the case in just a few days.

Kurt Busiek says, in the comments section at The Beat:

Considering that the Kirby Estate didn’t seem to have anything to lose by going to the Supreme Court, but Marvel/Disney had a lot on the line, I’m thinking (or hoping, at least) that this was a decent settlement for the Estate. Given the timing — if the Supreme Court had chosen to hear the case, no settlement would then be possible — it virtually has to be a deal spurred on by the side that doesn’t want the case to go to the Court.

However unlikely onlookers think it might be that the Court would take up the case, and however corporate-friendly the Court may seem to be, the stakes are very high, and a settlement may have seemed a better plan than rolling the dice.

Busiek, of course, doesn't have any inside knowledge of the case, but I find he's been extremely knowledgeable about the facts and issues involved.

Mark Evanier -- who does have inside knowledge of the case -- started off this morning by joking that he can finally finish his Kirby biography, and then added, in a second blog post:

If you're coming to this page in search of details and commentary, you've come to the wrong place. I will be saying nothing about it other that I am real, real happy. And I'm sure Jack and his wife Roz, if they're watching this from wherever they are, are real, real, real happy.

I noted, back in a 2013 post about Archie v Penders, that the thing about settlements is that their terms are typically confidential. It's likely that we'll never know the precise details of the Kirby settlement. (If I were a betting man, I'd say Marvel probably agreed to give them the same profit-sharing deal that it gives current creators -- but that's just a guess, and it's worth what you paid for it.)

One thing we will know is whether the settlement involves more prominent creator credits for Kirby. Marvel's creator credits have been inconsistent up to this point -- the original 2002 Spider-Man movie has a "Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko" credit right upfront, and Agents of SHIELD credits Lee and Kirby at the top of each episode, but other movies have buried creators' names at the bottom of the end credits under a nebulous "special thanks" section. I expect from here on in we'll be seeing much more prominent "Created by Jack Kirby" credits in comics, movies, and TV shows. Guess we'll know soon enough.

And speaking for myself -- I guess my boycott's finally over.

Which is good, because that Mike Allred Silver Surfer sure looks great.

The Propaganda Schlock of Starship Troopers

The last time I saw Starship Troopers was on VHS. I'd have been about 15, so you can forgive me if what I remember most about it is Denise Richards's titties. Which should give you some idea of just how well I remember it, because Denise Richards's titties are not actually in the movie. (Denise Richards's titties are actually important to the theme of the movie. I will be getting back to them in a moment.)

I also remember the film getting pretty mixed reviews on release -- it's quite clearly a big dumb action movie, with extra big and extra dumb, but there was also a vocal contingent of critics lauding it as a brilliantly subersive piece of satire of wartime propaganda. In the years since, it's become a cult hit among people who enjoy it for both -- because it manages a pretty interesting tightrope walk of playing itself totally straight while also being a wicked piece of satire.

More specifically, Starship Troopers the movie is a parody of Starship Troopers the book.

Well, maybe "parody" is a little strong -- again, it plays itself far too seriously to be considered a comedy per se. But it's certainly a movie about crazy, over-the-top wartime propaganda -- and the novel is crazy wartime propaganda (or, almost -- it was too late for Korea and too early for Vietnam).

Heinlein's an interesting dude, and Starship Troopers fills an interesting place in his oeuvre. For a guy who's typically identified as a libertarian, he sure has some weird ideas about only allowing soldiers to vote, and how public floggings are the best tool for disciplining them. With an extra bonus chapter where he really goes off the rails with that public flogging thing and rants about how anyone who doesn't spank their children is stupid.

Starship Troopers the movie gets how ridiculous the book is, ratchets its ridiculousness up to 11, and plays it completely straight.

And while the homages to WWII-vintage propaganda films are great, what it gets most about the nature of wartime propaganda is the dehumanization. Not only Heinlein's choice to very literally dehumanize the enemy by making them giant bugs, but the heroes are dehumanized, too -- and here's where I get back to Denise Richards's titties.

Because the coed shower scene is disquieting.

It goes beyond the obvious ideas of discipline and respect in a coed military and straight on into having a bunch of men fail to even notice Denise Richards as female. And when the Main Guy finally does go for a perfunctory roll in the hay with her, it's all just rote, mechanical "this is happening because it's a movie and the leads have to hook up" stuff.

All in all? Well, to make another Spinal Tap reference, there's a fine line between stupid and clever, and Starship Troopers walks it. It's a winking, biting homage to the source material, that looks and feels like it's a dumb movie made by people who just don't get it. (And it could be both -- there are a whole lot of people involved in making a movie.)

Its cult status is well-deserved -- and even if its comedy is intentional, it seems unintentional enough that it's perfect fodder for Rifftrax.

Which is what I'm headed to see right now, as I write this, though by the time you read it I should already be home. Maybe I'll share more tomorrow!

Bodgie Dada excerpt

A clip from a 1973 appearance on Australia TV, used in Bodgie Dada, a documentary on the history of Australian jazz. Uploaded by Brian Smith.

Formula

I watched Life of Pi tonight.

At one point, I turned to my wife and said, "In the formula, that's what's know as the All Is Lost Moment. Guess that means we're in Act 3 now."

I read an article recently called Save the Movie!, by Peter Suderman of Slate. It's about Save the Cat!, the 2005 screenwriting book by Blake Snyder which defined the formula that seemingly every successful American film since has followed, on down to explaining why Joker and Khan both have such a penchant for gloating at their captors from jail cells.

I really enjoyed Life of Pi. I think it's a great film. But it came with plenty of déjà vu. Hell, it wasn't even the only 2013 film that featured an orphan, a storm, lifeboats, a confrontation with terrifying beasts, and magical realism, and received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.

But formula's not bad, not inherently. Particularly in a story like Life of Pi which is itself about storytelling.

I don't have any problem with Joseph Campbell, either. Well, I mean, his writing gets pretty didactic, but he was a man who loved stories and loved taking them apart and seeing what made them tick and what the great ones had in common.

I do hate the extent to which his work was taken as an instruction manual instead of simple academic deconstruction, though. Which is pretty much how I feel about Watchmen (and how, not for nothin', Alan Moore himself feels about Watchmen) -- a perfectly good, interesting, insightful work that far too many people decided was a mathematical formula.

Which I suppose leads into some sort of irritating movie reviewer's wordplay about Pi. Fill that in for yourself, I guess.

Marvel's Statement of Purpose

I'm in the home stretch of Sean Howe's excellent Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and this quote from the beginning of chapter 17, I think, sums up what's wrong with the company in a nutshell:

The Los Angeles Times, CNN, and USA Today all chimed in about Liefeld, Lee, McFarlane, and the other renegade artists who were standing up to big business. In response, Marvel president Terry Stewart made a statement that "the importance of the creative people is still secondary to the (comic book) characters," a stance that hardly discouraged Marvel's new image as a corporate overlord.

(Brackets in original.)

Howe comes back to this point in chapter 19:

In June 1994, Frank Miller paid tribute to Jack Kirby, delivering a keynote speech at an industry seminar in Baltimore. [...]

Marvel Comics is trying to sell you all on the notion that characters are the only important component of its comics. As if nobody had to create these characters, as if the audience is so brain-dead they can't tell a good job from a bad one. You can almost forgive them this, since their characters aren't leaving in droves like the talent is. For me it's a bit of a relief to finally see the old "work-made-for-hire talent don't matter" mentality put to the test. We've all seen the results, and they don't even seem to be rearranging the deck chairs.

Creators who complained about defections to Image and other companies, he continued, were "like galley slaves complaining that the boat is leaking." The age of company-owned superhero universes -- the Jack Kirby age -- was over. "It's gone supernova and burned itself out, and begun a slow steady collapse into a black hole. We couldn't feed off the genius of Jack Kirby forever. The King is dead, and he has no successor. We will not see his like again. No single artist can replace him. No art form can be expected to be gifted with more than one talent as brilliant as his. It's a scary time because change is always scary. But all the pieces are in place for a new proud era, a new age of comics. Nothing's standing in our way, nothing too big and awful, nothing except some old bad habits and our own fears, and we won't let that stop us."

The crowd rose to its feet.

(Ellipsis mine.)

Miller was right in some ways and wrong in others.

The bottom fell out of the market soon after, for both Marvel and Image. Jim Lee is now one of the Editors in Chief at DC; McFarlane and Liefeld have become punchlines (and so, for that matter, has Miller). Post-bankruptcy Marvel has done a pretty damn good job feeding off the genius of Jack Kirby -- in films. As for the comics, well, they're selling decently enough but are, at this point, largely the R&D branch for upcoming Disney movies.

Marvel still believes the creative people are secondary (and that's giving them the benefit of the doubt). Marvel is wrong.

Yes, Iron Man is more popular now than he was during Jack Kirby or Don Heck's lifetime. That's not just because Iron Man's a great character -- though I happen to think he is --, it's because of Robert Downey Jr, and Jon Favreau, and Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges.

When you think the characters are primary and the creative people secondary, you get a film like Daredevil. Or, at best, Fantastic Four. Compare the numbers -- and you'll forgive me from switching over to DC for this, but they've got a much longer history of film franchises -- compare the numbers from Batman and Robin to the numbers from The Dark Knight, or the numbers from Superman Returns to the numbers from Man of Steel, and tell me that the characters are more important than the creative people.

And that, of course, is just looking at it from a mercenary standpoint -- because really, that's what Marvel as a company cares about. That's not even getting into quality. My unsurprising opinion is that you're a lot likelier to get a high-quality film or comic when you've got high-quality creative people working on it.

And Marvel's policy of treating its characters as primary and their creators as secondary has resulted in fewer and fewer original characters added to its stable. Sure, lots of creative people still love to play in Marvel's sandbox -- and then save their original ideas for creator-owned work.

Take a look at the characters who've starred in films or TV shows over the past couple of decades. Superman and Batman are from the 1930's. Green Arrow and Captain America are from the 1940's. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Daredevil, and the Avengers are from the 1960's. The X-Men are also from the 1960's, though their most popular character, Wolverine, is from the 1970's. Blade, Ghost Rider, and Swamp Thing are from the 1970's too (and so is Howard the Duck, if you really want to bring that up). The New Teen Titans, Elektra, the Tick, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the Mystery Men are from the 1980's. Static, Spawn, Hellboy, and the Men in Black are from the 1990's. The Walking Dead started in 2003, Kick-Ass in 2008.

It's not an exhaustive list (see Nat Gertler for that), but it's an eye-opening one. Marvel and DC have a strong library of characters -- from decades ago. Most of the successful new characters, though, are creator-owned.

But hey -- Disney's biggest franchises are already from the 1920's to the 1950's (and many of them are based on public-domain material that's a lot older than that). Disney doesn't need to create new product. When the copyrights to the first Mickey Mouse cartoons come close to expiring, Disney can bribe Congress to extend them. If Disney needs to add new material to its portfolio, it can buy a company like Pixar or Marvel.

And as Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm and, to a lesser extent, Viacom's purchase of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, shows, even the most successful creator-owners eventually want to retire and are willing to part with their works.

Star Wars -- hm. Maybe I have found an example where the characters are more important than the creator.

Course, that's just because he was ripping off Jack Kirby.

Day in the Life

Woke up this morning with a nasty headache. After some coffee and ibuprofen I managed to get it manageable enough that I made it to work, but I was still achy, and the extra coffee made me jittery besides.

Felt better by around lunchtime, and the second half of the day wasn't so bad. Aside from having some tedious tickets. The good news/bad news is that I've become the go-to guy for putting together websites for extra-difficult or -particular sets of requirements.

Latest OpenSUSE upgrade gave me a KP on reboot, but rolling back a few versions let me boot okay. Then my speakers were making horrible noises; inexplicably, rebooting and removing and reconnecting the audio cables didn't do anything but removing and reinserting the USB cable for the external sound card did.

Went out to my in-laws', played with my nephew, and ate a calzone from Spinato's, my favorite pizza place. Watched Jack the Giant Slayer on DVD. Entertaining if forgettable action flick.

Got home and saw the black widow who lived under my door was out. I first saw the little fucker a few weeks back; back then I tried to find something to smash it with but by the time I did it was gone. (I wear sandals in the summer, and I'm not about to try to step on a black widow with an open-toed shoe.) I vacuumed up its webs, sprayed Raid around the area, and hoped I'd killed it, and didn't see it again after that, but tonight made it clear that either that hadn't killed it or another one had moved into its spot.

Tonight I managed to get into the house and get my hands on a shoe (closed-toed) without disturbing it, and gave it a good and thorough smashing. Sprayed Raid around the threshold afterward, just in case it laid eggs. If it didn't work last time, I don't know if it will this time, but while I have stronger poisons I'd really rather not sprinkle them in an area where they're certain to be tracked into the house, so hopefully Raid will do.

...I just noticed I'd been reflexively writing "RAID" in all caps and went back and fixed it. Funny the things your mind does.

(The last time I took a typing test -- which was sometime around late 2005 or early 2006 -- the only error I made was writing "Thad" instead of "That". Obviously it's a word I write fairly frequently.)

Anyway, got a good 25 minutes left in the day; guess I should probably go find me a Zappa something to post.

"The Writing is On the Wall" is a Biblical Reference

Here's what Orson Scott Card said to EW the other day about his well-known political advocacy against gay rights:

Ender’s Game is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984.

With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot. The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state.

Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.

Ken White at Popehat assumes that paragraph two means Card doesn't understand what the Windsor ruling entails, but that's not how I read it. I read this as Card simply realizing that Windsor is the latest in a long list of signs that make it clear that his side will lose, gay marriage will come to be not only legal in all 50 states but commonplace, and it's going to happen sooner, not later.

On some level, that's kinda heartwarming to see, a guy acknowledging he's on the losing side of history and asking that we don't judge him too harshly.

I mean, you know, in kind of a bullshit crybaby "Who's the real bigot here" way. ("Who's the real bigot here, the man who says all gay people are pedophiles and expends a significant amount of his personal wealth on trying to prevent them from receiving equal treatment under the law, or the people who call him names and boycott his work?" It's you, Orson. It's still you.)

But you know what? I'll take it. Card is swallowing his pride here and acknowledging that he's lost. No sense kicking him when he's down; it may not be an apology but it's still the closest he's ever come to one.

Tell you what, Mr. Card -- if you put your money where your mouth is and step down from the NOM board, and pledge that you'll stop donating to anti-gay causes, I'll go see Ender's Game.

The book was pretty great.

Gumbel Interview

The Today Show, 1990. Discussion of Zappa's influence in Czechoslovakia before, during, and after the fall of communism, his contribution to Jacques Cousteau's Outrage at Valdez, and his interest in politics combined with his distaste for major and third parties alike.

The Zappas on Video Games

The benefits of being a pack rat:

Sharkey posted this on his blog in...according to the date stamp, November of 2002.

I remembered it a couple days ago and I thought, you know what? I bet I don't even have to dig through old hard drives to find it. I bet my obsessive process of backing up data and copying it over from old computer to new has survived two new computers, four different Linux distributions, and I don't even know how the hell many hard drives. (I am, after all, the guy who corrupted his hard drive when he installed Windows 98 and recovered the data in 2008.)

Anyhow, I was right. Sitting right here on my current computer, after all those moves.

(And then I get to thinking, "Wait...I've only gotten two new computers in the last decade?" But then I remember no, there's also the Mac Mini I used to have hooked up to my TV and now use as a backup server, the Win7 desktop I currently have hooked up to my TV, my laptop, my phone, my tablet, and assorted old towers that have managed to pile up in my office and get used occasionally for various purposes. Plus my wife's desktop and two laptops.)

You know, just the other day my coworkers were talking about Hoarders, and I commented that the nice thing about being a digital packrat is that the data I've been holding on to for decades doesn't take up a hell of a lot of space. My comic collection, on the other hand...

Anyhow, not the point. The point is, here's Innerview: The Zappas on Video Games, by Merl H Reagle, JoyStik, January 1983. Scanned by, and from the personal collection of, Scott Sharkey, and preserved through over a decade's worth of computer migrations by packrat Thaddeus R R Boyd.

Innerview, Page 1Innerview, Page 2

Interesting, but not altogether surprising, that games were already being scapegoated by politicians and the media for juvenile delinquency as far back as 1983.

I also love the story of Frank recording the noise in an airport arcade and then listening to it on the plane. I think he also tells the story in The Real Frank Zappa Book -- that or I've been misremembering where I read it for the past decade.

(Christ. An interview from 30 years ago which I've been copying from hard drive to hard drive for one-third of that time...)

Gary Friedrich

There have been a lot of disheartening rulings, over the past few years, in cases where comic book creators or their heirs attempted to reclaim the rights to their work: the Siegels, the Shusters, the Kirbys. And Gary Friedrich.

Friedrich -- co-creator of Ghost Rider with Roy Thomas and Mike Ploog -- has fallen on hard times. Like far too many creators in comics, he's gotten old and poor and sick while the company he used to freelance for has made millions off his work. Like far too many creators in comics, he tells a story of the company promising far more than what it delivered.

Friedrich sued Marvel in an attempt to reclaim the rights to Ghost Rider. Marvel countersued -- Friedrich had been selling signed Ghost Rider prints without giving them a taste -- and, because Friedrich is not an artist, he was signing other people's Ghost Rider art.

Friedrich lost. And not only did he lose, but Marvel made an example of him. They sought not only $17,000 from a man who was too broke to pay his medical bills; they also demanded that he stop publicly referring to himself as the creator of Ghost Rider. I've seen lots of creators lose cases like this -- but never seen terms that seemed so punitive and downright mean-spirited.

Friedrich appealed. And today, a three-judge panel unanimously vacated last year's ruling.

Via Reuters:

On Tuesday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the appeals court deemed that Friedrich's 1978 agreement with Marvel was ambiguous.

"First, the critical sentence defining the 'Work' covered by the Agreement is ungrammatical and awkwardly phrased," Circuit Judge Denny Chin wrote in the 48-page opinion. "Second, the language is ambiguous as to whether it covered a work published six years earlier."

The appeals court found that Marvel was not entitled to a judgment based on its argument that a statute of limitations has expired. The court also found that there is a genuine dispute of facts regarding the authorship of the character.

And The Hollywood Reporter quotes Chin further:

Spotlight 5 had been published six years earlier by a different corporate entity (Magazine Mgmt.) and had grown so popular that Marvel had already reprinted it once and had launched a separate Ghost Rider comic book series. Given that context, it is doubtful the parties intended to convey rights in the valuable Ghost Rider copyright without explicitly referencing it. It is more likely that the Agreement only covered ongoing or future work. Hence, there is a genuine dispute regarding the parties' intent for this form contract to cover Ghost Rider.

There are several points at issue. First, like in the Kirby case, the question of whether the work was created for-hire, in which case Marvel would be the legal author, or whether Friedrich and Ploog created that story independently and therefore co-authored it and sold it to Marvel. Thomas, unlike Friedrich and Ploog, was an employee of Marvel, and the extent of his role is disputed -- was the book authored by Marvel? Co-authored by Marvel?

And, like in the Siegel and Shuster cases, there is a question as to whether (if Friedrich was a legal co-author of the work) he gave up the right to reclaim the copyright. Chin's quote above is instructive: put frankly, it requires quite a stretch to believe that Friedrich would have knowingly given up his right to termination for such a small amount of money.

I believe that legal point is also at the root of the Siegel, and especially the Shuster, cases. That the Siegel and Shuster heirs would have deliberately given up their rights to reclaim Superman for the small amount of money DC offered them -- especially the Shusters, whose payout was reportedly only tens of thousands of dollars -- defies common sense.

All that said, while this gives Friedrich another chance, it doesn't give him any guarantees -- indeed, the appellate court has already noted several facts in Marvel's favor. Jeff Trexler runs down the facts, and compares the case to Siegel's 1974 case against DC.

I don't know what Friedrich's chances are -- I wish him the best but fear that recent trends aren't on his side -- but this case has repercussions beyond his case. Even if he loses again, this case raises more questions about Marvel's 1970's-era contracts -- and that could have some serious repercussions throughout the industry.