We Will Avenge Them Or… Be Avenged?: The Individual in the US Experience

The Avengers’ global success on the big screen marks the culmination of an intricate creative and corporate endeavor. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which began with Iron Man (2008), represented a creative and financial risk for Marvel Studios. Nonetheless, the company has successfully produced a series of films designed to bring Marvel Comics characters to the big screen in a style that captures the tone of 1960s comic adventures while creating a cinematic world informed by millennial anxiety. In doing so, the creative team at Marvel Studios has exceeded expectations and overcome Marvel’s history of well-meaning but dubious adaptations to create a compelling cinematic world. The significance of their success is evident in the Avengers financial (and critical) achievement. At the same time, this blockbuster summer event also reveals a cognitive dissonance within the broader U.S. experience. While comic books may be kid stuff, they are not a funny business. These characters, rooted in pulp entertainment from the early twentieth century, are grist for transnational media companies searching for profits. Superhero comics have emerged as valuable intellectual property for a global marketplace.

While issues of identity and culture are intrinsic to the foundation of superhero comics, the questions of property and power linked to contemporary comicbook media are often concealed to the broad audience. Yet for decades, lawyers have been locked in legal clashes over the compensation granted to creators. These struggles have grown in importance as companies have come to rely on merchandise revenue from content distributed across myriad platforms.

The considerable success of films such as Batman Begins and Iron Man (and their sequels) has added fuel to the debate as the current generation of creative professionals recognizes the narrative legacy used to fashion these cinematic spectacles. With roots stretching back for decades, these stories are based on the creative efforts of countless woefully under-compensated writers and artists (not to mention letters, colorists, and editors). With recent decisions against Jack Kirby’s estate related to the Avengers characters and the ongoing battle between the estates of Superman creator Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster against DC Comics, contemporary critics and creators are starting to speak out. Recently Chris Roberson, iZombie creator, writer on Superman, Fables, and Starborn publicly ended his association with DC Comics citing “ethical concerns.”

When asked to comment on the situation he responded via email, “My reasons for no longer wanting to be associated with DC don’t stem from anything to do with my personal experiences there, but from watching the way that the company has treated and continues to treat other creators and their heirs. The counter-suit against the Siegel estate attorney and the announcement of the Watchmen prequels were the specific incidents that crystallized my feelings on the matter. I’d like to make clear, though, that I have nothing but nice things to say about the editorial staff at Vertigo with whom I’ve worked for the past few years.”

Roberson’s decision parallels negative reactions to DC Comics’ decision to create a series of prequels to Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel, Watchmen (1986). Moore’s documented enmity toward DC Comics over ownership of his work is perhaps the best-known example of a living comic creator feuding with a publisher. Despite the expected negative reaction, the response by Jim Lee and Dan Didio, co-publisher of DC Comics, in defense of the company’s action has rejected charges of victimization, emphasized the sanctity of contracts, and pointed to market demands. Furthermore, writers tasked with producing the prequels have responded to criticism by pointing to opportunity for creative revitalization and the need for the comic industry to challenge its own orthodoxy.

The narrative is all the more jarring because Lee, perhaps one of the most recognizable creators of recent memory, defected from Marvel Comics as one of the founders of Image Comics in 1992. At its inception, Image became a focal point of positive and negative feelings linked to modern superhero comics. Lee along side Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, and Whilce Portacio rejected the exploitative power structure facing comic creators. In words and actions they articulated a desire to avoid the mistreatment associated with earlier generations and formed a vehicle to retain control of their intellectual property.

Those same views inspired the “Creator’s Bill of Rights” and drives the battle over ownership of superhero comic characters currently enjoying their cinematic renaissance. Indeed, most of the characters we see on the big screen have their origins linked in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. At that time, cultural norms devalued comics as disposable and their creators as dubious talents. This is not to say ownership was not contested, merely that the economic stakes in those debates were minimal. Today, superhero comics are a kaleidoscopic point that highlights the evolution of the urban/industrial order.

The clash over creator’s rights is one part of a debate in our current sociopolitical landscape over equity. At its core, questions about liberty linked to the broader historical experience inform this schism. Broadly defined, the struggle between comic book creators and their corporate adversary rests, not just on questions of law, but also on questions of equality. The query can be interpreted in elastic terms. Do you believe in the impartiality of process or an ethos of fairness?

For those that believe in process, then the rule of contracts, as confusing as they may be, are black and white on the page and you, as an independent actor in a free market, must study those rules before signing an agreement. If you believe in fairness, you challenge this view because the mechanisms of the market do not respond to individuals as they do corporations. Businesses can promote inequalities within the system that effectively determine outcomes, robbing the marketplace of freedom. The gravity of this conflict is at once obfuscated and amplified by the association with comic book superheroes. Despite the “geek cred” associated with comics, society struggles to balance the value of superheroes, and by extension their creators, with other artistic endeavors. The marginal status of the genre serves to trivialize the copyright debate.

While issues of art and culture explain some of the problem, we should also understand the part played by the link between community and urbanization. The shift from a rural to urban society brought with it the growth of institutions that alleviated interpersonal conflicts over questions of process. Indeed, towns and then cities required the establishment of institutions to allow vast communities of strangers to work and live together. The systems created blunted the tension produced by leaving homogenous agrarian communities where family, religion, and tradition create natural points of commonality.

In growing commercial centers, individuals interacting with unfamiliar persons found reassurance in matters of economic, social, and political process by supporting communal institutions. Without these structures, communities risked conflicts that arose from suspicion of the “other.” Communal institutions worked to blunt these qualms, but they could not and cannot stop them. Today, this essential tension persists as differences in region, religion, and race fused into the sociopolitical dialogue as benchmarks of caustic contention.

The legacy of this debate places intellectual property in a contested emotional space in the United States. Creative products do not have the same cultural meaning in U.S. experience as manufactured goods. This is not to say that Americans don’t value invention, but for much of the country’s history, to create something represented a physical process marked by a tangible finished good. The mythology of labor so enshrined in U.S. popular discourse is not linked to intellectual pursuits. The vision of American economic health suggests the building of commodities that can be sold. Worst, the value of art rests within narrow confines, defined and supported by social and economic elites who are separated from the laboring experience of the majority.

This underlining point too, also tells us something about the schism between the agrarian vision and urban existence. In the idealistic narrative of the U.S. experience citizens have inalienable rights that serve as a foundation for autonomous individuals to act as the authors of their destiny. Sacrosanct in the collective U.S. consciousness, the link between industrious activity and success has had a powerful impact on the history of the United States. While the initial meaning of “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence was connected to land (the source of real wealth for thousands of years), land’s importance to prosperity was quickly supplanted by urban commercial activities.

In growing commercial centers, the definition of success could be defined apart from agrarian pursuits as artisans and traders provided goods and services to a robust colonial economy. Complex economic interactions governed by markets and policed by colonial institutions allowed enterprising individuals to acquire wealth through commerce. From a historical perspective, U.S. residents (and others around the world) recognize the historic conflicts linked to slavery as a battle over property rights, yet the schism between the wealth built through physical work versus that success achieved through intellectual endeavors created its own tension. Throughout the late colonial period and in the aftermath of the revolution against British authority in North America, the newly free colonies saw social and political tension related to “corruption” coming from major cities as a threat to liberty. Our framing of the Federalists versus Anti-Federalists debate often centers on individual rights, but that conflict also hinged on inequality between those working the land and those working the system.

The growth of urban and industrial activities then, threatens liberty, but also fuels resentment against the cosmopolitan elite working and trading in growing commercial centers versus settlers struggling to transform the frontier into productive farmland. The tension became and remains a political and social touchstone of the U.S. experience. Arguably, the intellectual efforts necessary to create the fiscal structures necessary for taxation and controlling debt stabilized the young republic. Yet, that same ingenuity created resentment that continues to aggravate the United States’ collective consciousness. Indeed, the fear that a socioeconomic order dominated by the city would ruin the country concerned Thomas Jefferson so much that he purchased Louisiana to ensure land enough for a republic of independent farmers.

The end of the Civil War saw the rapid corporatization of the United States. With the growth of corporations the suppression of individual opportunity also became a glaring concern. While industrialization and urbanization created massive fortunes, average individuals’ ability to enjoy the fruits of their labor was at best uneven or worst nonexistent. Gilded Age excess saw fraud on a grand scale linked to financial manipulation and corporate corruption that victimized the individual. The reaction against this inequality led to reforms in the early twentieth century creating a new regulatory standard to promote the collective welfare. In this realignment, corporate power was curtailed and individuals protected.

Not surprisingly, the active individual became a focal point in popular entertainment. Frank Munsey’s Argosy Magazine (1896), the first all-fiction pulp magazine, fed the public’s demand for adventure literature with heroes who challenged the status quo and overcame entrenched corrupt powers. Mirroring long established fears of urban life, the pulp adventure hero helped its audience navigate the complexity of modern urban society.

Ironically, whatever the success of these heroes in print, their creators labored in a marketplace dominated by businessmen who employed duplicitous tactics. Adding to their woe, while newspaper cartoonist had a social and political legacy that offered societal standing, artists working in the new superhero genre did not share in their counterparts’ professional reputation. Working in the midst of the Great Depression, countless creators produced volumes as work for hire in a disposable industry. The comic industry, like the pulp magazine before them, was not the final destination for those seeking a respectable career.

Even today, while love of art is admired, a career in art is not. Moreover, within the art world’s confines, conventional logic still holds that becoming a comic book professional is a gamble unless one is employed by a major publisher. The standard wisdom, however, is under assault by the shift from an industrial/manufacturing to a service/information economy. In this new model, the rise of the “creative class” undercuts the historic power associated with corporations and the institutions built to support the urban/industrial order. The digital economy allows individual artisans to bypass the established gatekeepers (corporate giants) and sell directly to a global market. Many critics are quick to point out that profitability for digital entrepreneurs is spotty, but reality is more complex. While statically it’s rare for an unknown to achieve a financial windfall, individual creators can create engaging products that sell. Although the link between technology and comics may seem far, the reality is that comics demonstrate how individual creative endeavors can strive in the era of Web 2.0. Comics are at the forefront of a wider discussion of the new economy as a result of the innovative efforts of individual artists and writers to leverage the new digital landscape for economic gain. Those creative professionals that have established themselves on corporate characters are using that resume to support creator-owned endeavors. If Mark Millar’s mini-media empire demonstrates anything, it’s the ability of a strong creative voice to attract attention.

Framed in this larger context, the Avengers’ success should heighten our understanding of the modern U.S. experience. Beyond escapism, comics in the contemporary marketplace are fodder for games, movies, and television. Indeed, the successes of creator-owned projects feed the tumult over the future of the comic industry. While the viability of creator-owned properties is debated, the value of iconic established characters is not, inspiring current maneuvers by corporate owners to retain control. The rise of the creative class serves to heighten the need for corporations to maintain control of legacy property. In a marketplace splintered by infinite choice, brands with an establish history increase in value because they have cultural currency. While established comics fans may bemoan the creative sacrilege represented by Before Watchmen, the name recognition linked to Watchmen, one of TIME magazine’s 100 best English language novels published since 1923, will draw readers outside the traditional comic audience. Whatever the artistic implications, the profit is certain.

In the aftermath of the Avengers historic success, perhaps we should take a moment to consider comics in this broader light. The Avengers tells the story of individuals coming together to protect the collective, yet the industry that gave birth to their fantastic adventures, like this country in general, struggles with changes to the social, political, and economic status quo that upset the established order. In this new digital world, the question remains, who will be avenged?