Thursday, February 5, 2009

Carl Stalling and Batman

Last week, when I discussed all the men who became giants of the animation industry, I left one person out – Carl Stalling. Stalling was the man who eventually would come to Disney at the beginning of the Mickey Mouse cartoons, after he and Walt had worked together in Kansas City. Stalling would end up scoring the second and third Mickey Mouse cartoons released, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho.

Stalling left the studio with Ub Iwerks, traveling to New York to find work, but eventually coming back and settling in with Iwerks at his studio. Soon, though, he became the in house composer for the Warner Brothers Studio, under the guidance of Leon Schlessinger. From there he would go on to become the king of the animated score, creating many of the sound effect and score gags that we recognize today.

What got me thinking about Stalling is Batman. Stick with me, I’ll make the connection. Today I was reading some Batman comics by one of my favorite writers, Greg Rucka. As I read, I saw some of the fascinating characters that Rucka was creating, like Sasha Bordeaux, Renee Montoya and others. And that’s when I realized that Rucka would never get a dime from those characters.

Image copyright DC Comics

Creators in comic book companies like DC Comics are “work for hire” creators. They are paid a flat fee for their work, then royalties on what they sell, but they do not get royalties on their characters. Similarly, a man like Carl Stalling, who created sound effect gags that are used throughout animation today, does not get one red cent when those gags are used by others.

Creators’ rights are a thorny issue to be sure, and I don’t want to simplify things. But simple fairness seems to demand that people who contribute so much to a character or a mythology should be compensated. But that is not the way we do things.

People like Ub Iwerks and Carl Stallings built the foundation upon which people do things today in animation. Yet neither of them is paid for what they did. When Mickey Mouse appears in a film, Ub Iwerks’ family does not receive any money. Yet this is the man who designed how Mickey would look. Shouldn’t that mean something?

It’s hard to say for sure where to draw the line. For example, Stalling would often use pun songs in his scores, such as “Flight of the Bumblebee” when a bee appeared. He should not get credit for that. But if he composed an original score derived from that song, does he get something then? If Mickey as designed by Ub is used on a t-shirt, should he get money? But if a later version of Mickey is on a shirt, does Ub get credit?

As I said, it’s a thorny issue, but my personal feeling is that creators in modern day, although getting a better deal than their predecessors, still do not get enough credit when they do work for hire. Walt Disney went to great lengths to make sure he would own Mickey Mouse when he was created, to avoid someone exploiting his work. Surely we could extend that same privilege to current animators, writers, etc.? Something to think about.

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