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No rights in “Gotham”: DC tightens its Babs

July 22, 2014
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Brennert contemplates truth, justice and the corporate way.

Here’s one for Neil deGrasse Tyson to explain: Did you know that a mother can be considered to be “derivative” of her own daughter?

At least she can if you’re a lawyer for DC Entertainment. Because the aforementioned miracle of metaphysics is part of the company’s rationale for refusing to pay writer Alan Brennert for the use of one of his characters in its upcoming TV series Gotham (which gets a sneak preview Saturday at the San Diego Comic-Con).

Some quick backstory: Back in 1981, when he was writing for DC, Brennert created the character of Barbara Kean Gordon, wife of police commissioner Jim Gordon.

“In the 30 years since a ‘Mrs. James Gordon’  last appeared in a DC comic, in 1951, no one had ever thought of introducing a wife, even in flashback,” Brennert explains via email. “After my story, Barbara Kean Gordon has appeared 52 times since in comics, and in two movies. “

Yet not a penny has been paid to Brennert for those appearances, and current DC management says he won’t see any equity in the character as depicted on Gotham. The company’s stance is that she’s a “derivative” character based on her daughter – Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Batgirl – who was introduced first.

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“What they’re saying is that artist Dick Giordano and I ‘reverse-engineered’ Barbara Kean out of Barbara (Batgirl) Gordon—because I liked the notion that Babs Jr. got some of her beauty, brains, and even name from her mother—and that therefore she is derivative of her daughter.”

In the real world, this is known as “genetics”; as far as DC is concerned, Brennert would presumably be in a better negotiating position had he made the character a plain-but-goodhearted dullard by the name of Louise.

Or maybe not. Because as Brennert and other comics-industry watchers have pointed out, DC has been fairly inconsistent over the years in deciding what makes a character “derivative.” And they can get away with it, because no watchdog organization exists to force them or any other publisher to pay according to an ironclad policy — or even at all.

There is, Brennert says, “[n]o union, no contracts an employer has to live up to.  You have to understand, the whole question of equity is entirely at DC’s discretion.  Creators apply for it, but ultimately it’s the company’s call.  No messy WGA contract terms they have to abide by.”

DC, he says, used to be better about granting creators such indulgences: “[U]nder the management of Jenette Khan, Paul Levitz and Dick Giordano, the company was offering more in the way of creators’ rights than it ever had before—more than any major comic book company ever had offered.”

But the current crew are playing harder ball – perhaps because the company has come under the closer control of parent Time Warner, which is very interested in maximizing the profitability of DC characters in other media.

“As I’ve said elsewhere, having worked in Hollywood for over three decades, I can assure you that all the protections I enjoy as a screenwriter—residuals, pension and health, recurring character payments—the studios would take away in a fast minute if it weren’t for the creative guilds,” Brennert says. “Comic books aren’t unionized, so studios like DC/WB can take away all these bothersome payments to writers and artists, so of course they’re going to try.” (Brennert and some others, like reporter Heidi McDonald at The Beat, say they’ve head rumors that DC is going to try to eliminate creator equity in all characters – not just the “derivative ones.”)

It’s his career in Hollywood that puts Brennert in a better position to make a fuss than is the typical comics scribe: He was already working in TV when he started freelancing for DC, and he’s since become a published novelist. He doesn’t depend on comics for his bread and butter, and he’s quick to admit that the yeast and dairy in question wouldn’t be very filling to begin with: Even if he received monies for the use of “Barbara Kean” on Gotham, the payout would amount to less than $45 per episode. It’s the principle of the thing he’s concerned with, and the implications for those who do depend on comics work for their livelihood. Oh, and there’s also the little matter of the future of our entire socioeconomic system.

“Why doesn’t Walmart pay its employees a living wage that they can subsist on without getting food stamps?  Because they can.  For every company with a conscience, like Costco, who treats their employees equitably, there are five more who don’t simply [because] they don’t have to.  It seems to me sometimes that we are entering an age of corporate feudalism in this country, and we’re all supposed to be serfs.  DC has, for the last thirty-some years, been a company with a conscience.  But that can always change.”

Days without a response from the publication that plagiarized from me and won’t come clean: 397.

Follow me on Twitter: @Schneider_Stv

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  • Arben

    Good piece. It’s Neil, rather than Neal, deGrasse Tyson.

  • Steve Schneider

    Corrected. Thanks.

  • LaRue Foster

    Soon Time Warner won’t be a problem. Rupert Murdoch has made his opening bid for TW and we all know that whatever Rupert wants, Rupert gets. Besides, he should like the older Barbara since he’s an old guy himself. But you gotta admire a fellow in his 80s whose opening bid is $80 billion. Do I hear $90??? If Rupert wins, Time Warner will undergo a major liberalizing overhaul.