Throughout my professional lifetime, I've watched talent go to Marvel or DC and occasionally other places, simply so they could work on Jack Kirby's characters. And do "their" version of Kirby...
I only spoke to Jack twice in my life, but one of those times I asked him about this.
In fact, Jack did not feel honored. He wasn't upset about it, and didn't complain (like others I've known in similar positions have) that he hadn't been hired instead to work on his own characters. He was saddened. Why? Because he hadn't spent his career just working. He'd spent it creating, and constantly coming up with new characters and new creations wherever he had the chance.
What saddened him was that message – create your own, create your own, create your own - wasn't the legacy his career was leaving for new talents instead.
For a long time I believed that people preferred to work on existing comics characters because it was difficult to create and sell their own, especially without getting ripped off, and if you weren't, say, John Byrne or Alan Moore then you had even less of a chance of success. (And never mind that Byrne and Moore made their professional bones on other people's characters.) But I am finding that Grant is right --many wannabe comic stars dream of nothing but the chance to revamp, retread and redo, and this is no longer merely a kind of career choice, it's actually seen as an artistic vision. If I can "create" the definitive Iron Man, or at least one that makes the most money and biggest cultural impact yet, well then I've accomplished greatness, haven't I? Why bother gambling on some stupid original character no one but me has ever heard or cares about when I can redo Iron Man? This isn't merely a greed issue, though obviously money plays a huge part in wanting in on this aesthetic. It's the fact that for some people it literally is an aesthetic.
If I try to write a Sherlock Holmes story I am stomping on the feet of Conan Doyle, the character's singular creator. But if I want to write Spidey or Iron Man, I am merely competing with a long line of work-for-hire employees whose visions, if any, are merely fodder for my own indulgences. It's a perversely attractive view, I guess, one that certainly eliminates the bother and toil of creating one's own characters and concepts. But of course, that's where the real joy is. I'm currently writing two wholly original (if respectably derivative) children's comic books, and there is no greater delight than seeing my scribbly layouts made bright and shiny by my artist partner, knowing that -- for better or for worse -- we own them in our hearts and in our heads, never mind their value as intellectual property. (Though as mama liked to say, some money is always nice.)
This all does explain the dearth of singular creators of wholly new characters. As Grant points out:
Who in comics can be genuinely considered a star today? I'm not talking about people whose work you like. I'm not talking about people who get namechecked at Newsarama. I'm talking about talent known to the general public. Which has been paying more and more attention to comics.
I can think of three.
Stan Lee. Frank Miller. Alan Moore.
Maybe Neil Gaiman, if you hit the right segment of the public.
Does anyone else find this mildly disturbing? Shouldn't there be more by now?
Now that's pretty fuckin' dreary.