Wednesday, December 16, 2015


One of the boxes in Leonard Starr's attic was filled with legal papers from his failed lawsuit against the Rankin/Bass production company .

In the 1970s, soap opera strips such as On Stage were dying off.  Newspaper readership fell as audiences migrated to television. Starr ended his strip and took over the simpler, more cartoony strip Annie.  This left Starr with spare time, so he decided to try writing and drawing for the new media.  He wrote TV specials for Rankin/Bass -- creators of animated Christmas shows such as Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.

In March 1984, Jules Bass received a proposal for a new show about cat people from outer space (combining the success of Star Wars and Cats) but didn't know what to do with the idea.   Bass called Starr and asked if he would take a crack at developing the program, including inventing the characters and plot lines that might be extended into a series.

The result was the hit show ThunderCats which began in 1985.  The series was so successful that it spun off other shows, comic books, computer games, and worldwide product lines.  It is reputed to have generated a billion dollars in revenue.

 In a later interview with Jim Gauthier, Starr recalled how he came up with the series:
What came to me immediately was Egypt, because of their ancient animal gods-- jackal, cat, etc.  It could also bring in mummies, tombs, things that twigged me when I was a kid..... So I said I'd give it a shot, did it the next day, just a few pages, pretty much a précis of what the first show would turn out to be, the imminent destruction of Thundera, their Exodus and so on.  Jules had wanted a team of Cats so I added the other Tcats, their specific weapons, Snarf for comedy relief, named them, also the bad guys, Slythe, Monkian, Jackalman, etc,   I called them "mutants" because it was a word that resonated with kids as bad guys… Mumm-Ra the Immortal…no, the Everliving because "immortal" had a benevolent sound to it, anyway, as the overarching evil that awaited them on Third Earth, which was what remained of Earth after two nuclear holocausts. 
Bass loved Starr's ideas and asked him to come in the very next day.  Starr recalls: 
When I got there Jules had had a "Deal Memo" prepared, specifying a certain sum for agreeing to the Memo, another for completion of a "Bible" which is a basic format for a series of 65 half hour shows for other writers to base their scripts on, another sum in the event of commencement of production, a price for each following script, a specific percentage of any merchandising revenues, all else to be further defined in, quote, "a more formal and complete contract now in preparation."
 Starr told Bass that if he was going to put everything aside and develop such a major project he wanted residuals.  He recalled, "Jules said we'd work that out when we did the formal contract. "  There was no time for formal contracts just then; the important thing was to meet the tight deadlines.  Starr jumped on the project and worked day and night to get the first shows out.  He wrote and rewrote the scripts.  The show became a smash hit but unfortunately, the promised "formal contract" never appeared.

When the first show aired, Starr was upset to discover that his credit had been reduced to "head writer" instead of "developed by."
It was important to me was that my credit should have been "developed by" in addition to "head writer." I asked Jules about it, he said they had to do it that way. Why? He shrugged as if he didn't really know himself, it was out of his hands.
Starr also drew a map of the world he envisioned for the ThunderCats:

Rankin/Bass took that map and had it redrawn by a Rankin/Bass artist without any credit or acknowledgement to Starr:

If you'll notice, the resemblance between the two maps was uncanny:

Starr original version
Rankin/Bass copy

A suspicious Starr asked Bass,  "has that 'formal contract in preparation' been prepared yet?"
 "Look,"says Jules, "If you want to sue us, sue us. It'll cost you a lot of money and you'll lose." 
So Starr sued but as Bass predicted,  got nowhere because he did not have a contract.  He  only received what he was owed under the "preliminary" Deal Memo.  Starr reflected,
"I didn't realize that 'A formal and complete contract now in preparation' turned out to be one of those complex legal terms that translates as 'Up yours.'"
 Looking over the legal papers, it's clear to me that Starr never had a prayer against the corporate armies of Rankin/Bass.  He later recounted, "I mostly remember being disgusted, that such a fascinating, frustrating, exhausting, exhilarating, ultimately successful venture should have come to such a shabby end. ...These stories are Legion in that business. "

A lot of things changed as the comics industry evolved over Starr's lifetime.  The business went from soap opera strips drawn in india ink on strathmore paper to television to multimedia global entertainment.  But some things in the business remain the same.  As the wise David Sims said, "No comics publisher will ever pay an artist enough to sue the publisher successfully."


Anonymous said...


António Araújo said...

"No comics publisher will ever pay an artist enough to sue the publisher successfully."

Isn't that one of the reasons why people form unions?

On a related note, I find it hard to believe that the whole fiction of "intelectual property" is there to protect the interests of creators. Every right is a fiction, but the fictions we choose are important. To treat a creative work as "property" is good for corporations because property can be sold, and they will always make sure that the environment is such that creators will be coerced to almost give it away. If the rights of creators were a priority then the fiction to be used would have been more in line with the "human rights" fiction than the "rights over property" fiction. That is, some of the rights would have to be inalienable, in the same sense that you can't sell a kidney to a rich man even if you find the sale to be in your interest (because it is recognized that if you could then rich people would make sure that you would find it "in your best interest" by making your other options even worse)

But if you take the option of the "property" fiction then you need to give the creators some muscle to defend said property; hence, unions, or something like that. I find it especially troubling that artists I know seem to be more disturbed by the random dude "stealing" (i.e., copying without paying) their work online than with the corporate clients who treat them like cattle on a regular basis and make use of their work under unfair terms that they only accepted because "that's how the industry works".

Great series, by the way.

António Araújo said...

"Starr found his credit had been reduced to "head writer" instead of "developed by."

This is an example of what I meant above: It was developed by him, so the credit should not depend on how the sale of "intelectual property" was conducted or what agreement was or was not signed. That it was "developed by" Starr should be a mere matter of fact and defended as such by law. That is what I meant by some such rights being inaleanable.

jaleen said...

Sounds a bit like David Boswell's tragic loss:

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- Well, yes....

António Araújo-- The power of the corporation over the individual artist is particularly acute in television or movies, where the artist is dependent upon traditional property rights. An artist cannot lure the necessary corporate shareholders, institutional investors, corporate infrastructure, distribution networks, marketing agreements, etc. to a business venture based on a "human rights" model. Corporate shareholders who own the Hollywood studios or the television networks will not pay for the computers and cameras and advertising campaigns and animators if there is a variable in the equation for the "human rights" of the creator. Investors are looking for a particular return on their investment, which means the artist's rights must be quantified as property.

Of course, this doesn't mean that people like Jules Bass should prey upon the inexperience and lack of bargaining power of individual artists. It would've been handy if there were a union for Starr to go to.

Jaleen Grove-- I was not familiar with the story of Boswell and Warner Brothers. Sadly, it does not surprise me. That's a great video, thanks for sharing.

António Araújo said...

Boswell is new for me too. I must find that cartoon now. :)

"will not pay for the computers and cameras and advertising campaigns and animators if there is a variable in the equation for the "human rights" of the creator"

Why not? The question is always what specific rights we are talking about - "human rights" vs "property rights" is just a general attitude; whether it works or not is in the details. Capital always argues that *any* rights of other people will make business impossible, yet it always ends up managing quite well in the end, whether we are talking about not letting children work in the sweatshop or miners getting proper safety equipment or, say, writers having a guarantee that Hollywood will either make the movie in a reasonable timeframe or give them back the rights to use their work elsewhere.

Another example that bugs me: publishers who argue that copyright law is necessary for the protection of a writer's work, yet will sit on a book for years, keeping it out of print and unavailable, no matter what the author wants. Either keep it in print or lose the rights, would be pretty reasonable and wouldn't stop anyone from turning a profit. It just stops the suits from being predatorial and destructive, like in the Boswell case, and that can only be good.

Gunnar said...

In fact, most countries have a notion of inalienable "moral rights" that the artist/creator holds over the work, and which are passed on to his or her heirs. These typically include at minimum the right to be properly credited and the right to defend the "artistic integrity" of the work. A lot of the infamous cases of creator mistreatment in US (superhero) comics would have gone quite differently if the US had the same.

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Unknown said...

Hello Mr.Apatoff,

I couldn't find a better way to contact you, so I'm hoping this works and you see it. I'm currently gathering data for a video concerning Leonard Starr's life; and focusing on his work on ThunderCats. I was pointed to this blog entry for some background on what happened between him and Rankin Bass. If it wouldn't be too much of an inconvenience, could you please e-mail me at so I can pick your brain on this subject?

-Thomas Guerra