Character Issues

By Paul Kupperberg

 Created by me (with John Byrne and Steve Irwin), owned and © DC Comics

Created by me (with John Byrne and Steve Irwin), owned and © DC Comics

Recently, Bob Greenberger wrote about the satisfaction of creating and writing a recurring character of his own and that got me to thinking about characters I’ve worked on in my career. Having spent more than a little of the past forty years laboring in the comic book field, a majority of the stories I’ve written were about OPCs (Other People’s Characters), from the Atom and Archie to Superman and Scooby Doo. I’ve never had a problem with that; as a lifelong comic book fan, I was always happy to get my paws on the classic characters I grew up reading. But a writer comes to these established and long running characters weighed down by the character’s baggage, allowed to bring to them a certain limited amount of individual interpretation but always bound by what came before…and with full knowledge that no matter what story they tell, things have to be reset to the status quo when they’re done.

Still, along the way, I managed to create a few new additions to the DC Universe of characters. A sorcerer here, a spy agency there, a science fiction hero way out there in deep space…but though I created them, they aren’t really mine. Mainstream corporate comics operate (for the most part) under the work-made-for-hire provision of copyright law, meaning that the corporation is considered the legal “author” of the work. The actual creators have some (small) equity in the creation, but no real control over its destiny or use. The editor, as representative of the “author,” has more control over the character than does the creator and the corporation is free to make whatever changes or alterations it deems necessary.

I’ve also written a considerable number of words in prose for OPCs, including the Green Hornet, the Lone Ranger, Star Trek, Doctor Who, the Avenger, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Archie, Powerpuff Girls, and others, and I’ve enjoyed them all. But, again, these characters were all well established before I got to them and I was obliged to leave them pretty much as I found them once I’m done. As much fun as I’ve had with all the neat toys in those different sandboxes, I always knew they belonged to someone else and that when I went home at the end of the day, I had to leave them where I had found them for the next writer to play with.

The difference between writing OPCs and your own creation is the same as the difference between running a race with and without leg irons. In corporate comics or prose featuring licensed properties, you’re hobbled by the rules of the characters’ owners. But with your own characters, you’re free to run like the wind, limited only by your own imagination.

And, thanks to the paradigm shift in publishing I wrote about last month, I’m free to write my characters, my way. Of course, I was always free to write the stories…I just wouldn’t necessarily have had a venue in which to publish them so someone other than myself could actually read them. But thanks to Crazy 8 Press (and Charlton Neo for comics projects), now I do. And what I write remains mine, to do with as I wish and retain full rights to them should I ever be lucky enough to have any of them optioned for licensing or other media.

Created by me and Rick Burchett and owned and © me and Rick Burchett
Now: Created by me and Rick Burchett…and owned and © me and Rick Burchett

Maybe corporate comics and book publishing can offer me greater exposure (although neither seems to be offering much these days in the way of anything except to the Big Names who can sell Big Numbers), but they take away much more by what they demand in exchange for the privilege of being published by them. Junker George and F.B.I. Special Agent Irwin Benjamin in the ReDeus stories, shabby and put upon little Weekly World News investigative reporter Leo Persky in a quartet of tales (previously published in R. Allen Leider’s Hellfire Lounge anthology series and soon to be included in my upcoming Crazy 8 collection of short stories, In My Shorts: Hitler’s Bellhop and Other Stories), the comics characters Blank and Neo (and others to follow) in various Neo publications…mine, mine, mine, all mine.

As Janice Joplin sang, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” but in this instance, I think it means everything to gain.

One thought on “Character Issues”

  1. Not being allowed much freedom with OPCs may be a good thing. I’ve written elsewhere that writers who aren’t really suited for their assignments really do more harm than good with their “visions”. One reason I dropped both Marvel and DC is that the mainstream characters really don’t much resemble the versions I enjoyed even 10 years ago. Back in the day I cheered bad writers being booted from assignments because the status quo (that I liked) was more or less restored. Now I see no way to reconcile the damage being done short of yet more reboot. And I’m too old a reader to invest more money in the hope that such a result would be more palatable. For that reason I tend to read more independent stuff that is creator-owned.

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