So, last week in my blog post The DC Comics Double-Cross I wrote about Gerry Conway’s post regarding DC’s policy about “derivative” characters and how they are using it to avoid equity payments to creators.
I usually have a lot to say about issues that involve creators rights but I do not have the clout that Neal Adams does nor his long history as an advocate.
Adam’s, who led the charge in support of Superman creator’s Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster back in the 1970′s, was quick to publicly back Conway with his own take on the subject and a warning to creators about reading contracts. His response is an important read that can be found in this Bleeding Cool post by Rich Johnston: Neal Adams Talks Gerry Conway, DC Comics And Who Owns What?
In the post Adams refers to the relationship that book publishers have with creators and how it differs from the type of relationship that Marvel and DC have had with creators for way too long. It is this difference that needs to be examined more closely.
Marvel and DC are two of the oldest comics publishing houses each having been publishing for over 75 years. Back in the late 1930′s when comic books began to grow as a viable industry, comics which sold millions of copies at the low price of 10¢ were considered a high-volume, low-yield product that relied more on ad sales based on circulation to generate income than actual unit sales. They were more concerned with paying sales commissions to the ad salesmen than they were to paying royalties to creators. Content along with its copyright was bought from creators and treated as “work for hire” which meant that the Publisher owned the work lock, stock, and barrel. The publishers, who now held the copyright were considered the “Author” and enjoyed the benefit of royalties as other mediums like film, radio and television began to license the characters as they grew in popularity. The actual creators of those characters saw nothing because they had signed away their legal rights or assumed they had none because of the conditions of work for hire. This, with few exceptions, remains the general practice of Marvel ad DC to this day.
Most book publishers have a distinctly different relationship with creators. A creator owns the copyright of their work. They enter into a contract with a publisher that grants the publisher exclusive rights to publish the work for an established duration in return for a royalty payment based on a percentage of the cover price of each book sold. The agreement usually puts the publisher in charge of marketing the work to other mediums and foreign publishers. There is usually also an exit clause that will allow the two parties to terminate their relationship if either party does not fulfill their obligations.The creator is the author and owner of the copyright and generally shares in all the profits made from the licenses of the work. The publisher is the contracted caretaker. This post, Book Advances and Royalties, does a good job describing how this relationship works.
As the comics industry grew and characters began to generate obscene amounts of money for the publishers, creators realized that they had been duped. To make matters worse, comic creators who were content to “work for hire” anticipating a life-long, secure career were finding that they were often tossed to the side in favor of the next, hot talent. Older and unemployed these creators watch as their work continues to make tons of money for the publisher while the creator faces poverty with no benefits.
This is a business model that has to change. Comic books are no longer a high volume low yield industry. Marvel and DC have adapted to change regarding distribution, production and marketing of the IP. It is time they change their relationship with creators to one that is fair.
Independent comics publishers have adapted to a model more similar to book publishers and creators are enjoying the benefits of profiting from their works as they are developed into other media. It is a model that can and does work for comics.
It is a wonder why creators continue to work for Marvel and DC when they could better control their destiny elsewhere.
Whenever I see young talent working for the big two I can’t help but compare them to teenage smokers. There is too much information out there that proves smoking is bad for you, why if you have half a brain, would you risk your life to cancer for that cheap thrill? I expect they think it is just a phase, something they can kick, until they are caught in the vicious cycle.
Young comic creators have a choice. Say no to work for hire. Create unique work and own it. Enjoy the success of your creations instead of watching others profit from your work while you are tossed aside like yesterdays news. If no one will work for publishers like Marvel and DC they will have no choice but to change their relationships with creators. Until then it will be business as usual.