When I recently went to see Captain America (a very enjoyable film) the other day, I stood up and cursed at the screen towards the end of the credits, where Marvel had thanked Jack Kirby in their 'special thanks' section. It's not that Kirby does not deserve thanks, he certainly does. But moments before the movie began, I had read on my phone that Marvel won the case against the estate of Jack Kirby to own any rights to his creations. Jack Kirby invented the modern comics landscape, best known for bringing light to such creations as Darkseid, Thor, Captain America, and more. His unique style is still referenced in todays comics, and even in song. Losing this case means that his family no longer has any stake in the creations of their father. The intracacies of that case are assuredly varied (and not alone - there is a similar case right now going on between the Shuester estate and DC over the rights to Superman) but it sheds a light on the difference between a creator-owned project and a publisher owned one.
At a recent SDCC 2011 panel,Robert Kirkman (Walking Dead) spoke to the differences between creator owned and publisher owned comics, saying that the best way to support indie created comics was to "read what you like". Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson added:
"I love Marvel, I love DC, I grew up reading nothing but Marvel comics," but at those companies there's always a consideration of "how it will be sold...[At Image], we'll find a way to back your play."
While I am sure Image is not as profit-whimsy as Stephenson suggests, he makes a good point: at what point are the characters just a vehicle for profit? Does a creator-owned comic escape this, and to what degree? I would be interested, for instance, in learning how much money (if any) Image makes off of "The Walking Dead" television show. This should ot be confused with me looking down at the company at all; companies exist because people want to make money, and it is great that companies like IDW, Image, Vertigo (owned by DC comics), etc exist to enable storytellers to find an audience. Without them, this blog would almost certainly be about the Green Lantern, or something similar.
The other issue at hand when examining creator-owned concepts is that of storytelling, probably the one I am most interested in. While it must be a great honor to write a line of dialogue for a character such as Superman, the fact that anyone (executives, another writer) may come in the future to change or erase the work you've just put into the character. In September, DC comics will be rebooting their entire line, erasing the work of countless artists and writers over the years. This is nothing new for DC, considering their past (and it may, in fact, be a very good thing, but that is for another blog), but where does it leave those who may want to make a mark on Superman one day?
Or is that the biggest difference? Is the difference between Creator-owned comics and publisher-owned comics the issue of the character? Iron Man, Superman, Batman, Hulk, Wonder Woman - these are iconic characters that seem to live outside of the books, in their own special category in the social subconcious. They might exist as archetypes unto themselves, a modern pantheon, where too much perversion in their character is blasphemous, and every story told is less of an issue of real character growth and more an instance of adding to a mythology (for a much, much more comprehensive look at this, please check out Grant Morrison's Supergods ).
Creator owned books, on the contrary, are about telling a story with a sense of cohesion. There is a solid plot structure, and in most cases, there is an end in mind - not just a plot end, but a final chapter in the entire universe. It is the fact that creator-owned comics are willing to put their creations to rest that sets them apart from the bigger universe comics, and (in my opinion) allows them to tell more varied and unique stories, without fear that their work may be taken away in the future.