“This Has Been Building”: An Interview with Chris Roberson

Last week, Chris Roberson, a novelist and publisher who has worked on several comics titles for DC and Vertigo, including his own co-creation iZombie, announced via Twitter that due to ethical concerns, he was no longer comfortable working for DC Comics. The remarks, following in the wake of several other controversies (including the Before Watchmen announcement, and general disappointment over the handling of Jack Kirby's legacy, among other things) very quickly spread throughout the comics internet, and shortly led to DC terminating Roberson's contract. Roberson's public statements, and the sometimes fiery arguments that they have provoked, seemed in some way to augur a possible modest paradigm shift, and we were very pleased when he agreed to speak to us about what happened, his relationship with DC, and the ethics of the comics industry.

What led you to decide you could no longer work for DC?

Well, this has been building over the last few months, and mostly had to do with what I saw DC and Time Warner doing in regards to creator relations. I think the first thing—you have to understand that when I first started working for DC in 2008, the Siegels had just recaptured half of the copyright for Action Comics #1 and I felt very good about that. That seemed like a very positive step. And then over the course of the last few months there has been the counter-suit against the Siegels' lawyer, Marc Toberoff, and I was less sanguine about that, and starting to get a little itchy about it, and then there were just a few general things about the way that it seemed that DC regards creators now that are working for them—and I can talk about that more in detail—but the real kind of proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was the announcement at the beginning of February of Before Watchmen, which I just thought was unconscionable. And so I had already signed a contract by that point to do six more issues of iZombie, of which three of them had been turned in, and so I just made the decision to go ahead and turn in the remaining three, not wanting to jeopardize the livelihood of my collaborators Mike and Laura Allred. But once I turned in the last one, even though I had other work lined up, I would have to at least—if only for my own peace of mind—let people know that I wasn’t happy with it.

Did you hear about Before Watchmen at the same time everybody else did?

Yeah, I’m not on the super-secret don’t-tell-anybody list at DC and so I’m never told anything before anybody else is. To be honest, I think it was a weekday and so we were up early getting our daughter ready for school and when I came across the headline I swear I thought that I’d misread the calendar and it was April 1 because I couldn’t believe it was actually a thing that was happening.

I think a lot of people had that reaction. And just to be clear, your decision to leave DC wasn't based at all on the way you were personally treated?

Well, I mean I have, like anyone does, a list of grievances, things that I feel could be handled better and I think there are larger kind of systemic issues with the way that talent and creators are regarded, but none of them were enough to force me to make some sort of public declaration and drastic break.

And that’s really an issue above and beyond why you decided to leave DC -- making your decision and motivation publicly known via Twitter. Was that something you deliberated about before doing?

Over the course of the last few months, I have been reining myself in from complaining too vocally and publicly about things like Before Watchmen. I couldn’t completely restrain myself so if you go through my Twitter feed or my Tumblr posts back through February there are an awful lot of quotes from Alan Moore from interviews and panel descriptions dating back to 1987 about what the terms of that deal were. But then I was very much trying to bite my tongue and not be too vocal about it. I had literally mailed in my last script and had that morning read David Brothers' essay on Comics Alliance, which I thought was a very concise and thorough examination of all the problems I had with DC and also that I had with Marvel. Those kind of collided in a very unscripted unplanned declaration of my feelings on the matter, and to be quite honest I thought that that would be read by the few thousand people who follow me on Twitter, who would then shrug and it would be no big deal. I’m not walking back from those statements in the slightest, but I was in no way prepared for the kind of response it got.

When you made those earlier comments, had you ever gotten any blowback from DC, or did anyone ever take you aside and say you shouldn’t be talking like that?

Not a bit. In fact starting at the beginning of February I did a number of interviews that were specifically and only about that, but I think that because many of them were audio podcasts, no one took the time to listen to them all the way through and realize that I was making all these very disagreeable statements about company policy, which in some cases were much more confrontational and inflammatory than what I ended up getting castigated for. So yeah, I expected at any moment for there to be blowback, but no one appeared to be paying attention until the day that three of my tweets were quoted on Bleeding Cool. And within two hours of that appearing on Bleeding Cool, I got a call that I was no longer employed by the company.

And they told you that the reason for this was because of what you'd written on Twitter.

Yeah, and specifically the one tweet which questioned the ethics of the company. Because I have done one or two work-for-hire things using DC properties I would occasionally get questions from readers asking was there a chance I would work on X character or this particular book, and after I said I don’t have any intention of working for DC again, somebody said, "So you’re not going to work on Legion of Superheroes then?" and I said, "In a better world, characters like the Legion would be owned by a more ethical company, but sadly not in this one." That was enough apparently to inflame the ire of the higher-ups at DC.

That’s really interesting, that it was the direct comparison to superhero ethics.

Yeah, and that’s really one of the things about it that has rankled me so much over the course of the last months. Because the only defense that’s offered of things like either Before Watchmen or the counter-suit against the Siegels or any number of different things that have been done historically is that the company is operating within the bounds of the law. The company is doing nothing illegal. There’s no defense mounted to the ethics or morality of their actions, and in many cases they will make kind of passing nods to the fact that what they are doing might be interpreted as unethical, but that because it’s not illegal, you know, they’re going to do it. And seeing as these are companies, both DC and Marvel, that are built upon stories about paragons of virtue who stand for what’s right, not for what’s nitpickingly legal, that was really bothersome to me.

Have you gotten much reaction from other creators about what's happened, and if so, what have they been saying to you?

Yes. I’m not comfortable naming names, but it has been overwhelmingly supportive and positive. I have not yet had any communication with any creator publicly or privately who doesn’t agree with what I’ve said.

Earlier, you mentioned that you did have some misgivings about how DC is treating creators currently. Was there anything in particular you were referring to?

I can’t speak for Marvel because I’ve never worked there, but at least at DC over the course of paying attention as a reader over the course of the last decade, and then definitely as someone employed by them over the course of the last few years, a culture has arisen which seems to devalue the role of the creator and prize the creation. The most telling examples I could point to are things like if you go to the DC website, there are categories for titles, there are categories for characters, and there are categories for movies or films. There is no category for creator. If you go to the listings for Superman or Batman or Wonder Woman, there is no mention of the people who created them. In many cases, there are listings for the the creative teams on individual titles and individual collections, but even there in many cases the names are wrong. They are legal names which have been pulled from contracts and not the names as credited. I am credited at least three different ways on that website, as Chris Roberson, John C. Roberson, and John Roberson. (John being my first name.)

But hand in hand with that there's been this awareness on the part of DC, it seems, over the course of the last few years that they need everyone to present a kind of unified front. And so you would get things like a few years ago before he passed away, Dwayne McDuffie was fired from DC for having the temerity in public on a message board saying that a plot point was not his idea but editorial suggestion. He didn’t argue with it, he didn’t complain, he merely answered a fan, saying, I was going to do something different but these characters belong to them. Now that can’t happen, because everybody that works on DC work-for-hire projects has to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and legal action can be taken if they say something even as innocuous as I didn’t want those two characters to date or whatever the case may be.

When did that start?

I can’t say for certain, because they never asked me to sign one, which I think might have been an oversight. But it was definitely in the run-up to their relaunch last year. I know that people started signing NDA's about a year ago because other creators would ask me in these kind of hushed tones, "Was I in the club? Had I signed?" and I’d be like I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Did you happen to see [DC co-publishers] Dan DiDio and Jim Lee's public reaction to your declaration over the weekend? What did you think of it?

I did. I thought that it was really telling in a lot of ways. First, the fact that I was dismissed after saying I no longer wanted to work there is, I think, pretty immaterial, because I had already publicly stated that I don’t want to work for them and I’m not comfortable being associated with them. I think the question was asked by the reporter from Publishers Weekly, Shannon O’Leary, but then the response, at least in large part, was just justification for why I was fired, which doesn't at all address the points I’d raised about ethics. What I found really fascinating was the last sentence of the first thing that Jim Lee said. He talks a bit about how Alan signed the contract, how Alan didn’t read the contract, that we’d paid him money, and then he said, "To say there’s clearly one side that’s right, I would dispute that." Which is a weird thing to say if you think that you’re in the right!

I think that in a lot of ways so much of the hue and cry for creator rights over the course of the last—forever, really, but definitely in the seventies and eighties—in large part was about remuneration. It was about getting fairly paid for one’s labor, and the fruit of ones labor, and definitely in that aspect DC has done a fairly admirable job, at least with stuff initiated after that. But the other part of the creator rights manifesto back in the '80s was over creator control and the moral rights that a creator could exercise, and that’s the part that they don’t talk about very much, because that doesn't seem to exist.

I’ve honestly never had anything like a privileged conversation with anybody at DC about these matters. I’ve spoken to Alan Moore a few times, but we've never discussed Watchmen, or DC for that matter. But I think it’s telling, if you go back through the history of the way they've exploited the various rights over the course of the last twenty-six years, that just a few years ago Alan was offered the rights to Watchmen back, along with I think a fair amount of money, for his permission for DC to do prequels or sequels or whatever the case may be. They wouldn’t have done that if they had the legal right to do so. If they had the clear-cut, indisputable right to exploit those rights, they wouldn’t have offered him that because already he was on the outs with them. I think it was about ten years ago DC was going to do a line of Watchmen action figures and they showed the prototypes at a toy fair, it was announced, and then the line was killed when Alan objected. Again, clearly, whatever the terms of that contract were, Moore and Gibbons had some amount of input into how those rights could be exercised. According to all accounts that I’ve heard, Paul Levitz was steadfastly against doing sequels or prequels to Watchmen since the late '80s, and it wasn’t until he left his position that suddenly these plans were put into motion. But again, I don’t have privileged information. That's just on the level of me from the outside reading public statements from people involved.

Alan Moore has implied that one of the reasons he hasn't sued over Watchmen is that if he did, he wouldn't be able to speak publicly about the situation.

I think there’s that. I think there’s also, and he’s joked about this a couple of times, but if he were to file suit against Time Warner he would likely have a protracted and very expensive lawsuit on his hands. We have the case of the Siegel estate who had a very clear-cut indisputable claim to recover the rights on Action Comics #1 after a certain amount of time passed. They exercised those rights and were awarded them, and still Joanne Siegel went to her grave never seeing the end of that, because Time Warner has a battery of lawyers who were going to fight her.

And unimaginable sums of money.

Yeah, and I think that honestly, you know, I see this complaint often by partisans on message boards and Twitter and whatnot, that for some reason Alan Moore just needs to get over this and stop whining about it. As though he were not constantly asked about it and then reluctantly gives responses. You know, because I don’t think he spends a lot of time dwelling on it. He’s moved on. He’s become a magician. He continues to write fantastic work. I don’t think it’s something that keeps him up at night. And I think that a lawsuit that would last into years or decades is just something that he doesn’t have a lot of interest in.

Another thing Jim Lee said was that he wished you had reached out to him before going public. Did you ever consider doing that?

Well, I tell you if I thought that I could go to the co-publisher of DC Comics and convince him not to do Before Watchmen and to return the rights to Action Comics #1 to the Siegel and Shuster estates merely by making a phone call, I would have done it in a heartbeat. That doesn’t seem realistic. I don’t think that the opinions of one very low-ranking peon freelancer who does a couple of books for DC and Vertigo is going to have a very great impact, nor do I think they could sway me with whatever their arguments are, so it would have been a wasted phone call.

One of the writers involved with Before Watchmen, J. Michael Straczynski, has argued that Moore's treatment hasn't been any worse than what happened to Siegel and Shuster, or what happened to Jack Kirby, and basically seems to suggest that this is just the way it goes in the industry. Does that argument hold any water for you?

The day that that appeared on the internet I first found out about it from other pros I saw reacting to it in kind of shocked disbelief. As I said on Twitter then, anyone who uses past injustices against creators to justify new injustices against creators is beneath contempt. I think that that is despicable and abhorrent. The mindset— I don’t agree with that, I guess you could say.

You have made your discomfort with DC's policies very clear. Would you have similar misgivings about working for Marvel?

I don’t have as clear an understanding of the internal workings of Marvel, of how they deal with their current creators. I can say that I would be deeply uncomfortable on ethical grounds making a living working on, for example, characters created by Jack Kirby whose family receives absolutely no remuneration for it. Yeah, so it’s largely a moot point because I have not been offered work, and at this point I doubt I will, but if offered I would turn it down.

[UPDATE: Chris Roberson has e-mailed in to offer the following correction: "I've learned since speaking with you that Marvel reached a settlement with the creators of Captain America some time ago, and in that instance at least the Kirby estate has seen remuneration for Kirby's creation."]

[UPDATE 2: Neal Kirby has e-emailed to correct the above: "The settlement Roberson refers to was only between Marvel and Joe Simon. My parents were not part of that action, and never received any remuneration from Marvel for Captain America. Also, neither the estate nor myself and my sisters (separate from the estate) have ever received any funds from Marvel for Captain America."]

Is there anything you can point to that DC could change that would make you feel comfortable working for them again?

There is, actually, and it was suggested not to me, but in a public forum, I think on Heidi MacDonald’s ComicsBeat.com, by Kurt Busiek. Kurt is tireless in wading into enraged inflamed conversations online and being a voice of reason. But what Kurt suggested was that if Marvel and DC both were to retroactively grandfather their current work-for-hire creator-equity deals— For example, now if you work for DC and you create a character that appears in one of their books, and then years down the line it’s an action figure or it appears in a movie or appears in a TV show or gets republished or whatever the case may be, the person that created that character gets a check. So what Kurt suggested was if DC and Marvel were to grandfather their current equity deals back to 1938 that they would obviate the need for the lawsuits that many of the creators and their estates continue to bring and that also they would have a public relations bonanza on their hands because they would be able to show how they were taking care of the people that made these characters that people cherish now. In much the same way that Time Warner settled with Siegel and Shuster in the '70s so they could trot them out for the premiere of the Superman movie. How great would it be if Time Warner could point to how they were helping pay for Tony DeZuniga's hospital bills while they were promoting the Jonah Hex film, or whatever the case may be. I think if they took better care of the people who created the characters that other hands now service, that would do a great deal to engender fonder feelings on my part.

One other thing I would add is that if DC and Marvel did retroactively grant the creator-equity deals to their former creators, we wouldn’t need a Hero Initiative now, because those guys would be getting money. It would reduce the profits a miniscule amount for the larger corporations, but it would take care of entire generations of now dying old men and women who have gone on to see their creations continue to generate revenue they or their children don’t have any part of.

Your career previous to comics was in science fiction and prose publishing. Do you ever have conversations with your friends from that world about creators' rights in comics, and if so, how do they react?

I’ve had those conversations and it depends. I mean, to people that have a blushing familiarity with prose novels, they're aghast at the way that the rights structures work, at least for work-for-hire stuff, but for those novelists who've done work-for-hire novels, whether it’s writing novels for tie-ins for TV shows or games or action figures or whatever the case may be, they’re perfectly sanguine about it, because it's the same thing. The difference is that in the prose world, the work-for-hire stuff is a very small sliver that is kind of—I don’t want to say the bottom rung, but it’s not the thing that the most attention is paid to. More attention is paid to stuff that people create themselves and own. And there are sometimes confused looks when I have to explain that the reverse is true in the comics industry.

One thing that is different now than it was say thirty years ago is that there are now a larger number of companies outside of just DC and Marvel that creators can work for if they're interested in doing this kind of comic. I imagine that helped make your decision easier than it might have been for others decades ago.

I was certainly conscious of the fact that even though DC and Marvel between them dominate most of comics sales that there are almost inarguably more outlets for creator-owned work elsewhere than there are inside those two companies. So I didn’t suffer a lot of hesitation on that count, knowing that I wouldn’t feel comfortable working for those companies and I could work elsewhere. I think the difference is that back then guys like Kirby and Steve Gerber just went to work for television when they got to the point where they would burn bridges with the bigger companies. I also think readers are by and large more aware of this stuff now because of the internet. I mean back then you had to wait for some fanzine or Amazing Heroes or The Comics Journal or whatever, and these days within minutes of me saying I didn’t want to work for DC any more on Twitter... I will say though that within minutes of me saying I didn’t want to work for DC anymore on Twitter, I not only got questions from readers, but I was also contacted by other publishers.

Which leads to the obvious question about your future plans in comics.

It’s all creator-owned stuff, meaning that I own it and the artist owns it. At least two projects are with publishers and there are other projects that aren’t, but I can’t really say what those are until July.

And regarding iZombie, the impression I got from your previous statements is that DC currently holds the rights, up until the books go out of print, and then they revert to you. Is that correct?

No, it’s actually tied to new work no longer being commissioned, which is suggestive in and of itself that the creator-owned contracts within DC have been changed, so that going out of print is no longer the trigger. Suggesting that someone at DC realized that that maybe wasn’t the best way to go. So now with iZombie, the rights will revert a certain amount of time after Mike Allred and I are no longer commissioned to do new work.

Is there anything you regret about how this all went down?

I don’t regret it in the slightest. I mean, the whole thing is for all these months I had just ... discontent I guess is the best word for it— discontent with the feeling that with each new odious thing that was announced or action that was taken, that I was somehow complicit with it or being associated with the company. And now that I have very publicly and clearly broken ties with it, it’s no longer my problem. And I can point out why I think it’s wrong, but I don’t have to feel like I am a silent or willing participant.

A lot of these objections are things that have been raised repeatedly over the decades, but they are easily kind of brushed away, but now with the internet... I mean I'm a very small fish—I’ve done a few books, a few people read them. DC is certainly not losing any sleep about not having me on the payroll tomorrow. But if nothing else it is very encouraging that my very small minor example has sparked discussion about a lot of this stuff that will hopefully cause more people to continue asking questions, and ideally lead more creators to express their feelings if they disagree with what's going on.