Times have changed. Working in comics was a thankless job with low pay. It's now a big fish in a small and growing smaller pond. Jack Kirby taught us the importance of reading those contracts. Steve Gerber taught us the importance of not trusting The Machine. I tend to view what kinds of contracts and deals companies offer up as an indicator of what kind of headaches I can expect from them if things hit it big. I mean, anyone can be kind and generous when there's nothing on the table. I've seen a lot of great friendships bust up when something becomes successful. "I did this! And that bastard is taking all the credit!" It's also the reason why, when people find out I can write and draw comics, I encourage them and show them the ropes, but will diplomatically decline working with them directly.
To some degree, those great deals made years ago are no longer so great. There is a reason people go over the contracts in detail now or will balk if things just aren't right. Ask Alan Moore. The deal he signed for Watchmen was that he get the rights to all the characters one year after the books fell out of print. At the time he signed it, no book had ever been in print for more than a couple of runs. But DC has kept churning out Watchmen GN's, tying up Moore's rights with no end in sight. The deal for the creators of MXC was the same, they would get the show back if MXC wasn't shown for one year. Spike has run an episode or two at 3AM just to keep the deal in place. As far as I'm aware, the crew that created the show has busted up and are hoping to find new success elsewhere. Trey Parker and Matt Stone can leave their contract at Comedy Central any time they want, but they would never be able to take South Park with them. What would be worse, Parker and Stone leaving South Park, or what other writers would turn it in to?
There's a reason so many shows are being developed at independent studios instead of through the networks. It creates a sort of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD as we who grew up during the Cold War called it. It gives the creators more say in what happens with properties. The only way to achieve any career success, where you are actually creating for a living instead of drawing on weekends and busting suds during the week, is with the exposure and money the networks provide. But we've seen they will seize on anything, regardless of assumptions at the time, just to exploit properties and make a buck. Did we really need a remake of Arthur? How about a remake of Total Recall (Kate Beckensdale has been cast in Sharon Stone's role)? James O'Barr famously sold off the media rights to The Crow for one lump sum. He doesn't see a dime from any of these revivals -- not the movies, not the TV show, not the new movie being developed, nothing except his original comic books (and given that Brandon Lee was not only his friend, but modeled some of the panels for O'Barr, you know he's in Hell). Eastman and Laird had it right -- they just licensed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (at least, until recently. They are now owned lock, stock, and barrel by Viacom). I was one of the people begging Sony to release Mark Isham's beautiful soundtrack to Fly Away Home, and they refused, saying there wasn't enough money in it (the petition had more signatures than sales of half the soundtracks out there! Are you shitting me?!?), forcing fans to resort to torrents and downloads to get what they would gladly pay for if the people holding the rights didn't act so snooty. It doesn't even have to be something big, just an editorial decision that alters a character just to squeeze some extra publicity or just to piss off the creator about how he has no say in what happens to his creation anymore.
Creative rights are a minefield. And no one created a worse minefield than Tokyopop. Oh, sure, others did questionable things (hi, Bluewater. You doing fine at this table?), but Tokyopop specifically exploited the dreams and hopes of creators. Not just through their talent search, which I've already discussed, but also their standard publishing contract. It was actually draconian, far harsher than what a lot of other publishers offer. Creators of original content for Tokyopop worked under a joint-copyright joint-trademark deal and while Tokyopop didn't spell out the control they exerted, they demonstrated it (the wonderful world of the punitive rewrite). Stu Levy started Tokyopop as a media company, and specifically wanted to create a stable of IP he could leverage. For example, a couple of creator projects have movie deals attached. Means nothing, deals like that get made all the time and nothing comes of them, but it does mean a deal and that means a revenue stream, however small. Even just a pack of stickers at the dollar store. Levy didn't leverage it correctly, as Tokyopop has gone under. Only the German division survives.
This is important.
Had Tokyopop gone under, the rights would have reverted back to the creators. But with the German division still in operation, that clause does not kick in. And by keeping everything so small and focusing on the option deals that have happened, all those people who created things find their works in legal limbo. They cannot take them anywhere else without Tokyopop's permission. And they've been asked. And they aren't doing it. (A few people who weren't plugged in had suggested I pitch Sound Waves to Tokyopop. I was diplomatic and said I was happy self-publishing. But if they could have read my mind, they would have known the real reason.)
I feel the ghost of Steve Gerber, the patron saint of the trenches, standing next to me. He looks at my characters and smiles. Rhapsody and Melody are stuck in a book that barely sells thirty copies. No one knows who they are. There are no TV shows, no webisodes, not even a reprint deal with Disney magazine on the horizon.
But should those opportunities present themselves, I can do it without the permission of someone I either sold their souls to or who tricked their souls from me. And I can keep them as I think is best for them. Like Bendis and the other big names, I'm not a success on anyone else's terms but mine. It may not be the best terms, but they are the best terms available to me. And that's what keeps me happy.