In Part 1 of our interview with Dylan Horrocks, we discussed his connections with Canada by way of Guelph’s Black Eye Comics and later, Drawn and Quarterly. At the end of that part, we started to discuss his journey into the world of superhero comics and how he suddenly felt lost artistically within the corporate structure of DC.
In part two, Horrocks expands on his sentiments and we focus on the development of his ideas regarding copyright and intellectual property. This is closely related to his DC experience, about which he is quite open and honest.
The time at DC for Horrocks comes across as one that provided opportunities for learning and introspection, and we explore the copyright side of that here.
So the intersection between art and commerce complicated your artistic vision?
Yeah. Suddenly it was a job, and it was a job that I wasn’t as good at as I thought I might have been (chuckles). So that was difficult, I found that difficult. That affected the comic I was doing for Drawn and Quarterly, which was Atlas. It was probably the main reason there was a three year gap between issues one and two. Then another couple of years before the third issue of Atlas. It was partly because I was spending so much time writing for DC, but it was also because I was becoming increasingly lost.
That kind of ties into your views on copyright and intellectual property. And that for you, you shouldn’t be doing art for commercial reasons, that it’s about self-expression rather than trying to pad the bank account?
It’s not that I think people shouldn’t be doing art for commercial reasons, I think that’s absolutely fine- a lot of art I personally like is done for commercial reasons, and I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with that at all. But I think I learned that I shouldn’t do it for commercial reasons, that it’s not healthy for me.
So there’s that. Writing for vertigo, I had a lot of trouble trying to get on top of writing a comic that worked in that setting. Once I was writing Batgirl, that became much more difficult. I had never been a superheroes comics enthusiast. I had an appreciation for superhero comics, but they were not like the Batman comics being published under the umbrella at the time. If I had been a different kind of writer, I’d have gone into Batgirl saying, “OK, this is how I’m going to do it”, and if they don’t like it, fine I’ll quit. And a lot of writers go into it that way and it works and it sells comics. So I’m thinking Alan Moore, Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, guys like that. They shake it up, and they do it their way. But I’m not that kind of person. Still, I went into it thinking that it was just a day job, let’s try and work at it and do these things, and that was a terrible mistake as well.
So really, the Batgirl stuff was a low point for me personally as a writer and there’s some things about those stories I’m fond of too, but overall I think it was a mistake for me to do it the way I did.
The thing I learnt writing Batgirl particularly that even applies to Vertigo—a lot of people think Vertigo comics are much more like indie comice, but they’re kind of not. Vertigo comics are still part of the corporate structure. And though there are some lovely editors there, and a lot of creative stuff goes on, there are still corporate pressures as to what the corporation wants to get out of the comics.
Writing for DC, what I learned is that DC really doesn’t exist anymore to create great comics. It doesn’t even really exist to sell comics. The primary existence of DC now is to serve as an intellectual property platform for Time Warner. That’s why the movies are such a big deal. The movies make money. And the movies make the brands massive. So the comic books aren’t just there to provide product for the movies either, they are the origin of the brands. Batman is a brand. Superman is a brand. Wonder Woman is a brand. Sandman is a brand, and so on. The comic books provide new brands but most importantly they maintain existing brands.
Every so often someone like Frank Miller will come along – or Neil Gaiman—and they’ll take a brand and they’ll refresh it. They’ll rebrand it.
Exactly. Batman: The Dark Knight was one of the most successful re-brandings of all time for comic books. And I think that the role of the writers is ultimately to be re-branders. Well, for most of the writers it’s to maintain the brand, to keep them going, but you should also manage to enhance the brands value.
When you’re working with a brand like Batman, you’re working with a brand that is generations old. Batman is what- 70 years? Older? And frankly, it’s a tired old brand. When a brand gets that old, when people involved in the initial creation are long gone… I think there’s two ways that a brand can really be healthy, producing wonderful stories and adding to culture.
One of them is when the people whose daydreams, whose fantasies the character came out of are still the ones shaping the comics. So you look at something like Tintin, where Herge wrote and drew stories about Tintin for 40 or 50 years. And then he died. Those very last Tintin books are still masterpieces. The tone of those comics changed dramatically, but the thing is they’re all very personal. Every single TIntin book has grown out of Herge’s personal obsessions and personal dance he was having with his creation. And you see the same thing with Peanuts, where you have 50 years of Schulz using this little ensemble of characters to build a very personal, internal landscape. So that’s one way, where you get this whole enormous body of work via a very personal thing.
But the other way you can have an iconic creation like Batman really thrive in the culture in a way that I think is culturally healthy rather than just commercially, is to let the whole fucking society play with it. Let everyone play with it.
And the best Batman comics I’ve read over the past 30 years have been done outside of DC. So you know, Dark Knight was a really strong comic that was done under DC’s purview. But to me, the best one in that period was a little comic called Illegal Batman by Ed Pinsent, a mini-comic published in Britain. He called it Illegal Batman because it’s, you know, illegal (laughter). And it’s a great little comic. It’s like a little poem about loneliness and loss and sadness. But it’s done using Batman. He goes completely outside the canon and makes his own Batman world. There’s no way in hell DC would publish that, unless a couple of the really great editors got their way. And it certainly wouldn’t be published at the time—the late 80s or early 90s. Although DC has experimented with bizarro comics, even then they’ve tended to be very very cautious. And Marvel is doing Strange Tales now, which to me is the most interesting thing happening in mainstream comics because to me it’s them going, “Hey, let’s just have some fun” and get some fun people doing interesting comics to do it.
And stories about emo guys in their underwear, they can be kind of goofy.
Well I’d rather be reading about emo guys in their underwear than macho pricks in their underwear.
Anyway, what I was getting into is that those brands- the brands that DC and Marvel are built around- they’ve outlived their status as commercial property, as intellectual property. They totally need to be in the public domain now.
A story that has been told over and over again for 70 years in every way they can think of to squeeze money out of it? I’m sorry, but I think the right is there to play with those characters. And, when you think about a character out there like Batman, how many people out there have daydreams about Batman stories? I mean, every bloody comics fan in America is itching to write Batman stories. And that’s why you have all these fan fiction stories and so on. You have endless version of indie comics of people doing a twist on Batman, but what they really want to do is write Batman. Let them do it.
So, if I understand what you’re saying, it’s that Marvel/Disney and DC/Time Warner are massive corporate entities which somehow aren’t in touch with their midtown New York Jewish roots of the 1930s. And that they shouldn’t have the same privileges with their characters since they’re not in touch with them.
Well, they never should have had the privileges they had over a creation like Superman or Batman.
Copyright was initially for a very limited period of time, something like 7 years. And step by step it’s been expanded until it’s the death of the author plus 50 years, so the estate can continue to profit from it. But really it wasn’t the estate, it was the publisher. I mean, copyright was set up to control the relationship, the process, of what was published. Initially, that was the sole purpose of copyright, was to enable a certain publisher a monopoly right to publish a certain work.
The first real copyright act was the Queen Anne Act in England. And what you had before that, the initial template, was a system to control what could be published, where the state, the crown, could control what could be published. I mean, it was a censorship system. The crown could prevent people from publishing things the crown didn’t want published. And so, the publisher had to apply for the right to publish. And the crown gave a monopoly right to publish to one publisher. And that became very unpopular because monopoly rights aren’t too widely popular. And the States knows all about this because one of the chief reasons of the American Revolution was monopoly rights.
So, American copyright law was something that was initially put into place around the time of the constitution. In fact, there’s a phrase in the constitution which allows the state to establish copyrights, which was always at that time seen as granting a monopoly right—this publisher has a monopoly right over publishing this material. That’s a monopoly right. And monopoly rights being unpopular at the time, this was one of the great periods of debate over mercantilism and liberal economics and so on. So, because monopoly right are unpopular, the idea is you limit them to a time period sufficient to encourage people to create new works—so they can profit from them—and sufficient to encourage publishers to print them. But not so long as to encroach on the community’s right to benefit from that work, and importantly not so long that it prevents other authors from creating new work that builds off of that previous work.
The moral consideration is that we want to add to learning, to creation, and if you have a copyright that lasts more than several years, then you won’t get other authors to take what Newton wrote and build on it. So that was the thinking behind it. And unfortunately over time, that’s changed. You have these publishers and monopoly rights, and the publishers bloody well want to keep the monopoly rights as long as they can.
It’s funny you mention Newton too, because back then science was very closed—people wanted to protect their thoughts and ideas, and so they didn’t share them at all. They created ciphers to try and hide them from each other, so that only they could have ownership over that material, that idea. Of course, that’s not the view we take now– by sharing this information in science we’re all better off for it and can build off of one another’s ideas.
In theory, that’s the idea we have now. But the idea of intellectual property has become hugely influential in the science research world as well. You look at universities now, a lot of universities have come under enormous pressure to commercialize the research process and even universities now try and actively protect their intellectual property rights. Of course, they’re not protecting the intellectual property rights of the scientists doing the research, they’re protecting the rights of the university who employ scientists.
Again, there’s that parallel with publishing. DC is not fighting to retain control and ownership over Superman in order to protect the rights of the creators of Superman. In fact, quite the contrary (sad laughter) they’re in court to keep that ownership out of the hands of the heirs of Siegel and Shuster.
Which is part of the reason why the next Superman movie is going forward, to exercise those rights before they expire.
Exactly right. So, working for DC, one of the big things is that it made me realize the extent to which the decisions are ultimately made around intellectual property, around the ownership and exploitation of intellectual property. What I think is unhealthy about that operates on so many levels, but I think it means that writers working on those comics now are constrained by those underlying goals. So if you wanted to do a story which was deemed to be detrimental to the brand, ultimately that’s not happening. Unless your editors are really smart and clever and can sneak it through—and that happens.
But what I increasingly think is a more important issue is that it prevents other people from creating new stories. I feel as though a brand like Batman should stop being a brand, because by now it’s a piece of folklore. Batman is part of our folklore now the way Robin Hood and King Arthur and Jesus were in parts of the middle ages. And no one should have control over that.
I mean, the creators are no longer around. There’s no question about whether we are protecting the author’s intention.
With Batman in particular, its original creative ownership is fairly murky to begin with.
Absolutely. And Bob Kane’s notorious for that (that sad laughter again). And that’s a big thing in comics too, that you have these entrepreneur artists. And some are more entrepreneur than artist.
Yeah, exactly. Although, Stan Lee kind of made entrepreneurship into an art form as well.
Well, he and Don King.
(Laughter). A different kind of King of Comics.
I think that an issue like Bob Kane’s or Stan Lee’s creative rights over their co-creations and how they played them, those are really complex moral and ethical issues, especially with Stan Lee.
When Lee was collaborating with Kirby and Ditko, it was a very complicated relationship. I think people will still be debating that for quite a long time. I don’t kind of want to… make any simple announcements about those.
To me, what is kind of simple is the corporations who claim ownership over these icons and characters who are really central to the history of American comics, and which have become very powerful presences in the broader culture.
Those corporations, to me, no longer have any moral ground whatsoever over those characters. And I feel that the law, which takes completely the opposite view, is an absolute moral disgrace.