It has never been a big secret that comic book creators are notoriously underpaid and under recognized by major studios. Going back to their first major boom in the late 1930s, comic books were initially created with the intention of being disposable reading material to wring loose change out of kids. That is certainly not to say that there weren’t writers and artists who didn’t take their craft seriously, and strove to produce work that still holds up today. However, the mindset of making books as cheaply as possible has been pretty much the prevailing philosophy of publishers and editors. Comic book writing was considered to be, both then and now, work for hire. Whatever is created for a publisher belongs to them, and comic creators are expected to give up any rights they might in exchange for their initial commission. You could also forget about any related residuals from merchandise or adaptations into tv shows or movies.
How Did We Get Here?
The history of the medium is riddled with stories of creators given meager pay for their work and almost none of the residuals if their work breaks through into the mainstream. One of the most well known is how the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster, were expected by DC comics to give up the rights to their creation for free. When the character became a pop culture icon, it sparked a decades long legal battle for the two men to get the recognition and residuals they were owned, which continued long after their deaths. In a perverse way, the high profile nature of the character ensured that they could stay in the spotlight long enough to fight for what was owed. Many, many other creators are not nearly as lucky in retaining the rights and profits of their work.
Even people as high profile as Alan Moore have very little say in what happens to their creations after they are done with them. Part of the reason why DC continues to make new “Watchmen” stuff is so they don’t have to give up the rights to Moore.
What complicates matters is the fact that, not only were comic book publishers very stingy, but you then had publishers get bought up by, or merge with, other companies. Whatever oral agreements or handshake deals a creator might have had with an editor or publisher would be easily negated when a new CEO steps in to mine the intellectual property of what they just paid for. There are many examples of those who either created a beloved character, or who improved an existing one, become pushed aside or forgotten and are left without money or claims to any future profits. To bring up Moore again as an example, he very publicly expressed his distaste for how he was treated by DC and swore to never work with them again in the years after “Watchmen.” Cut to several years later when he creates work under Jim Lee and Wildstorm comics, including “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” When Lee sold off Wildstorm to DC, Moore was powerless to watch years of work become owned by the company he already loathed.
Even before their purchase by Disney, Marvel Comics fought numerous lawsuits to make sure they controlled all the profits of creations made under their label. People like Steve Gerber (“Howard the Duck”) would have their work taken from them and simply watch as their characters become cross over figures and not receive residuals.
Once Disney came into the picture, that practice became even more egregious, as one of the biggest media companies in the world would fight tooth and nail to keep from paying creators more then what they absolutely had to. Legends like Jack Kirby would have no legal claim to get more than what they were paid for when it came to creating some of the most popular characters of the last century. From Disney’s point of view, the creations were all that mattered and they owed nothing to any one that helped come up with media and merchandise that was generating billions of dollars.
$5,000 And An Invitation To The Premiere…Sort Of
Lately, stories have started popping up to remind everyone that comic creators continue to get short shrift when it comes to being recognized for their contributions. Most notably, Ed Brubaker has been making the rounds recounting his frustration for how he has been treated over adaptations of his work on “Captain America.”
Brubaker, who came up with turning the long dead character of Bucky into the Winter Soldier, said in an interview that he has not been extended any additional revenue or residuals for his work. While “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” made over $700 million at the box office, Brubaker was offered was a courtesy check of $5,000, a cameo in the film (that he earns more from than as a creator), and a special thanks in the credits. A special indignity, as recounted by Brubaker in his newsletter, came when he was invited to the premiere of the film only to be told when they got there that someone forgot to put them on the guest list.
It should be noted that Brubaker is one of the most celebrated comic creators of the last twenty years, and has numerous awards for his work. Even if he is low balled on residuals and embarrassed at the premiere for a movie he helped inspire (he even has a cameo in the movie), he is probably doing ok professionally. Many other creators over the years are not as lucky, and have had to rely on each other or through public donations just to keep the lights on. Foundations like The Hero Initiative were created just to help creators who are struggling financially. Just a glance at some of the names of people helped by the initiative shows how little some people benefit from the work they made for publishers.
Some Publishers ARE Doing It Right
In the last few decades that have helped make the industry slightly better. Publishers like Image Comics have thrived while still giving their creators full control over the work they make for the company, probably because the company itself was founded, run, and maintained by a collection of creators. Self publishing has become more viable for many creators who can reach out to interested fans through Patreon or GoFundMe. A major change might be coming soon in the form of Substack, which is a digital publishing platform that allows writers to set up their own books. This week, big names who include Jonathan Hickman, Molly Ostertag, and Scott Snyder were announced to be producing work through Substack, which allows them full control over what they write. So when producers come knocking to turn their work into the next big franchise, they will have much larger sway.
Cause for Concern
Personally, its a mixed feeling to see a better future coming for comics made through digital channels or through self publishing. While I applaud and support creators getting what is due, it underlines how the traditional system of comics is due for a reckoning. It is probably necessary, even vital, to have the way things are upended, I worry about the collateral damage to things like the direct market and even physical comics as a whole. The companies that own DC and Marvel have never seemed to have the best interest in the history of these publishers at heart, except as an intellectual property mine.
Just last year, DC had a significant round of layoffs that wiped out almost a third of the company. Publicly, DC has said that they are doing just fine and that restructuring was necessary. However, as their parent company is sold, once again, from AT&T to Discovery, it is still concerning whether this pattern will hold. Will they be able to adapt quickly enough to stay solvent while also addressing the history of not treating artists as well as they should?
The same thing goes for Marvel, where Disney cares for the their acquisition for as long as it makes them money. As ubiquitous as superheroes might be, that may not always be the case. In the 50s, media was sick with westerns as a genre, both on television and film. Even comics had a brief period at the time where superheroes were not popular and publishers placed a large focus on western comics instead before the trend died down. My point is that trends are fickle, no matter how popular they may seem at the moment. Maybe it will never happen, but if the MCU starts to lose its luster, will Disney be as interested in having a comic book division? This was a company that was happy to shut down its traditional animation division once they felt it wasn’t going to profitable long term. Where would that leave publishers then? More importantly, where does that leave comic book stores and publishing as a whole?
Many of these things are hypotheticals and things could easily change for the better. Comichron and ICv2, which are firms who track industry trends, saw an overall increase in comic book sales that points to 2021 being the best year for the medium since the 1990s. At the same time, you are seeing comic-based projects continue to get broader in terms of the audiences they cater to and for whom.
I hope the industry has the room to grow and expand into something that more people want. However, that also means that they have to give the people who produce that work a fair share, and if that cannot be done, then it means that the industry probably deserves to turn into something very, very different from what we have now.