Comic Book Comics’ Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey at Midtown Comics

Want to get schooled in comic book history, but not bored to tears? Look no further than Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s series Comic Book Comics, which teaches historically accurate lessons about the graphic format – but, you know: fun. To celebrate the release of the fifth, “All Lawsuit!” issue of the book, which illustrates (literally) events ranging from the Marvelman controversy, to the legal flap between Siegel & Shuster and DC Comics over Superman, Midtown Comics welcomed the Author/Illustrator duo for an extended chat and signing, and we were on the scene! I’m Scoops McGee, and… Okay, never mind, here’s what happened:

The majority of the event was taken up with Van Lente and Dunlavey reading a story each from the issue. Van Lente read first story in book, “Grabbers,” which is all about DC’s copyright battle with Siegel and Shuster, and Marvel’s battles with Steve Ditko – among others. One of the highlights of the issue, the literate and reader-friendly breakdown of just what “work-for-hire” means in the comics business is a great argument for why it’s necessary that Comic Book Comics exists. Van Lente read the story along with a PowerPoint presentation of the panels, peppering the reading with asides to the audience, and voices for the characters ranging from Ziggy, to a slightly hip-hop Darkseid.

Then it was Dunlavey’s turn to read “Mouse Pirates,” the very, very weird story of a collective who created a tempest in a teapot when they put together a lewd parody of Disney comics…and no one really cared.

With the readings over, the evening turned over to a brief chat about comic book history, as well as the process of putting together the book. One of the first bits asked was whether Marvel – who both Van Lente and Dunlavey have written for – were at all upset about the content of the book, which isn’t, shall we say, very kind.

“I know that Marvel is a big fan of this series,” said Dunlavey. “I was asked last year to do the Marvel equivalent of this, but it didn’t pan out.”

“I think until the process server shows up…” joked Van Lente. “The distinction I would make in terms of the treatment of the characters in this story… They were very different regimes. And while we were doing this, Disney bought Marvel, so the regime is entirely different.” He reiterated that Marvel was actually a fan of the series, and it was brought up that most companies – DC and Marvel in particular – now want to be very transparent about what went on in the past, because they took a bit of a “black eye.”

When asked about issues that will be facing comics now, Van Lente quipped, “Why don’t I have more money?”

More seriously, he continued, “The copyright issues in this era have shifted almost entirely over to digital issues and piracy, and the villain is rogue consumers. So the creators and the companies have a common enemy, which is why there’s not as many creators rights suits.”

An audience member, riffing off of this, asked if things were better since Siegel and Shuster’s time. Van Lente answered, “If you want a job, you’re in a very bad position. Particularly the big companies don’t accept those kinds of pitches, because they are afraid of litigation. They don’t even want to see pitches for their characters. If you mean are your legal rights protected better than Siegel and Shuster? Yes. But they’re protected by you not being hired.”

They were then asked what didn’t make it into the book. Apparently the characters on the cover were in a story explaining the history of copyright and trademark, but it wasn’t comic book specific, so they nixed it. And they got permission to adapt the Creators Bill of Rights from Scott McCloud as an airline safety fold out, but it just didn’t work out the way they wanted it to.

Before wrapping up, Van Lente was goaded into telling a story about the craziest thing that’s happened while writing the book… Which turned out to involve some “fans” who received copies of Comic Book Comics #4.

“A reader put me in touch – or asked me to send some copies to Dave Sim,” author of Cerebus, said Van Lente. “I sent them to him, and he sent me a very nice letter, and sent a copy to Steve Ditko, who is like the J.D. Salinger of comics. He sent our comic about the creation of Marvel Comics to Steve. Neither of us thought he’d respond… And I should point out I’m the biggest Steve Ditko fan, I’ve read every issue of his Spider-Man until they were in tatters. Not just a week later, Dave sends me this photocopy of this letter Steve had sent. It’s a hand written, three line note, with the Steve Ditko signature at the bottom, and it said:

‘I’m not interested in this kind of material at all. It is a personal fantasy. It has no relation to anything that ever happened.’

And we had directly quoted Steve Ditko in the issue! So I don’t know who’s fantasy it was.”

Van Lente added that Sim mentioned in the same note that Ditko had sent Sim a note cutting off all ties with him. Not only that, but Sim then sent Van Lente another letter saying, “In order to continue this correspondence, you have to go online and sign a petition that says I’m not a misogynist.”

And that was the end of that.

Lastly, the creators talked about the final issue of Comic Book Comics. Next issue will be about Japanese comics, digital comics, piracy – and the future of comics. “We’re ending with the future, because we’re so optimistic,” said Dunlavey. Van Lente added, “We’re putting a mirror at the end of it.”

“Comic Book Comics” #5 is on stands now!

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