Brainiac On Banjo #101: Let’s Go Get Screwed

You know I work so hard, all day long / Everything I try to do, seems to always turn out wrong / That’s why I wanna’ stop by, on my way home and say / Let’s go get stoned – written by Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson, and Josephine Armstead, 1965.

You would think that after decades of legal entanglement, public ridicule, and media hostility, corporate America would have learned something from the Jerry Siegel – Joe Shuster “who owns Superman” slugfest. You might also think it would be swell if we could watch monkeys fly.

On his justifiably well-respected Word Balloons podcast last week, John Siuntres conversed with Alex Ross, and Alex dropped some shit. It seems the DC Comics daisy chain (DC < Warner Bros < WarnerMedia < AT&T, a.k.a. Ma Bell) no longer pays artists or writers when they use their work on screen. Alex discusses his Kingdom Come series with Mark Waid, his design of the current Batwoman, his re-design work with Wonder Woman, and his contributions to Black Lightning. His work has been seen, or closely imitated, in various WarnerMedia adaptations of the DC grimoire. Movies, teevee shows, streaming stuff, the whole enchilada has been heavily seasoned with buckets of Ross.

(Full disclosure: I am proud to brag that Ross, Siuntres, and Waid are ridiculously talented personal friends, and are all truly swell fellas. You wanna make something of that?)

There’s no question that the DC daisy chain owns the copyrights and the trademarks, and they had paid Alex (and others) for such use in the past. But today is another day, and it’s a day when pissing on creators is once again fashionable. Cue Jerry Siegel rolling his eyes.

Not that AT&T is alone in their corporate time warp. Disney owns Marvel and owns LucasFilm and therefore owns Star Wars and lots of other stuff, like ABC, 20th Century Fox, Hulu, ESPN… my attention span is not broad enough to list all of their cover-my-assets. They don’t own writer Alan Dean Foster, although they now own a lot of his novels. A couple of weeks ago, Alan revealed Disney had just stopped paying royalties on his many Star Wars novels… which, by the way, he’s been doing for LucasFilm for over 40 years.

Alan did not create Star Wars and he’s not claiming he did. Receiving royalties in the book publishing racket has been the standard operating procedure since Mark Twain started writing checks to Ulysses S. Grant. Royalties are in lieu of what Mel Brooks called “that other stuff.” It’s a contractual obligation – I still receive royalty statements for books I’d written back in the 20th Century.

I realize that both Disney and AT&T aren’t making the volume of money they had pre-Covid and they’ve fired thousands of people in order to maintain their top executives’ seven-figure compensation packages. Then again, both companies are still in business. A breathtakingly gargantuan number of companies, usually small mom-n-pop types, have not been so lucky. Nor have been their employees. But most of these folks have been paid for the work they had done and some of the people in their socially distanced unemployment lines used to be their bosses.

It’s a story that’s as American as apple pie and guns. Screw the talent; there’s plenty more waiting to take those gigs and they can be hired at lower rates than the creators who, until a month ago, were tilling their acres of intellectual property.

If you don’t like it, you can sue them. You can sue Disney. You can sue AT&T. Of course, taking them on requires more than simply being in the right – it takes more money than you are likely to earn in your lifetime. You wanna stand up to Disney? Ask the Air Pirates how that worked out.

Ma Bell and the Mouse. The biggest DC/Marvel crossover yet.