Love is in the air and to commemorate the spirit of St. Valentine (resenting happy people), we’re reviewing the recent trend of partnership disputes plaguing the comic book industry. The first case portrays the culmination of a decade-long feud between two industry greats. The second depicts the early stages of a dispute between childhood friends. Both cases involve Image Comics, a comic book publisher founded by Todd McFarlane.
Todd McFarlane and Neil Gaiman finally ended their decade-long ordeal. Todd McFarlane, the creator of Spawn and collaborator Neil Gaiman had been disputing copyright ownership over a few characters from the Spawn drama. Spawn was a graphic novel series created in 1992 and centered on Al Simmons, a dead soldier who makes a pact with Satan in an attempt to reunite with his wife.
After ten years of litigation, a Wisconsin federal judge confirmed a settlement between the parties. The settlement declared Neil Gaiman the copyright co-owner of five comic book issues in dispute. (Two Spawn book issues: #9, #26, and the first three Angela issues.) The judge relied on evidence that when Todd McFarlane left Marvel to start his own studio, Image, it was “[f]ounded on the principle of creators’ rights rather than the work-for-hire system at Marvel.” While at Image, McFarlane and Gaiman entered into an oral agreement for Gaiman’s work on Spawn. Gaiman produced Spawn issue #9, which introduced new key characters including Angela and Medieval Spawn. Gaiman claimed that he was asked to write a spin-off mini-series for Angela after the success of Spawn #9. He also declared that a partial script he created was published in Spawn #26. He also maintains that McFarlane attempted to circumvent their deal by recreating the disputed characters under different names.
Some faxes are the remaining shreds of written evidence supporting this claim. According to Gaiman, they agreed to trade the rights to these new characters in exchange for the rights to Miracleman, a character created by Gaiman but owned by McFarlane through auction. While the transfer was inked to for performance on July 31st of 1997, court records show that McFarlane filed for trademark applications and an “intent to use” Miracleman just three months later. This prompted the lawsuit filed in 2002 that has just come to an end after a decade.
Looking back, there was a jury trial, two major decisions at the federal court level and an unsuccessful appeal to the 7th Circuit. At trial, a jury found Gaiman to be a co-creator of the disputed. Now, the parties have agreed to enter a final judgment in favor of Gaiman declaring him joint fifty-percent owner of the copyrights in Spawn # 9 & 26, and Angela # 1-3. The parties have also agreed to dismiss all other pending claims and bear their own attorney’s fees and costs.
The second case will sound eerily familiar. Robert Kirkman, the creator of The Walking Dead, is being sued by his childhood friend and collaborator Tony Moore. It is still unclear whether this marks the beginning of a long and drawn out dispute or if Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore will use superhero powers to look into the future and realize they should settle.
The Walking Dead is premised on a police officer attempting to protect his family in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by deadly walking corpses. Less than ten years after its creation, it has been converted into a golden-globe nominated television series. It’s mid-season premiere four days ago broke basic cable records with 8.1 million total viewers. Despite this success, Tony Moore had a bad taste in his mouth. His suit claims that he has not received his share of the newfound success and that Kirkman “duped” him into assigning his rights away to the lucrative franchise.
In 2003, Moore and Kirkman co-created the series while working at Image. Moore served as the artist for issues #1-6. In 2005, Moore claims that Kirkman notified him of a potentially big TV deal. Apparently, the deal required Moore to assign his rights to Kirkman; Moore agreed. Now, Moore claims he was fraudulently induced and that he has been denied access to profit statements for The Walking Dead. Kirkman claims that the Moore suit is “frivolous” and that both parties had proper legal representation when the deals were made. He also alleges that Moore continues to receive payment for the work he performed on the first six issues.
Both these cases involve onetime friends turned foes. More importantly, they both lacked a meeting of the minds. As authors assert greater equity in contractual relationships, it becomes vital to lay down the rights and expectations of both parties in advance. A prior relationship with a business partner is no excuse for the lack of documentation. Otherwise, the cases we reviewed could become your future.
It is difficult to determine how this will play out. One thing is certain; Kirkman is not giving in without a fight. He plans to dispute this claim vigorously and will seek attorney’s fees in a counter claim.