The Art of Scamming Artists: How The Comic Book Industry Deprives Creators of Their Rights
Racking up billions upon billions, everybody is a winner in the studios producing the blockbuster superhero films, with one exception: The original writers and creators of these storylines and characters.
Capes! Explosions! Magic! Flying men in spandex! These elements have taken the world by storm in the last few decades as we witness the golden age of Superhero films. A $30 billion industry, comic book film adaptations have never been as lucrative as they are today, with the biggest studios counting on tentpole superhero releases to save their investments.
The film industry's fondness of the characters garnishing old comic panels is not reflected in their treatment of the creators standing behind these iconic storylines: Comic book writers have always been treated unfairly within the industry, losing the rights to their own creations and gulping their pride when seeing their beloved characters appear on huge multiplex screens with no acknowledgment of their contributions.
A History of Malpractice
The American comic book industry has long been notorious for its shady dealings with comic book creators. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the duo behind the creation of the iconic Superman, died penniless while Bill Finger, considered by many as the actual creative force behind Batman -arguably the most beloved and lucrative superhero-, was never officially credited until 2015, 41 years after his death.
If the creators of the two most iconic comic book superheroes of all time were not fairly compensated, what is stopping the industry from abusing its power over other creators whose names are not plastered over the big titles?
Marvel Comics and DC Comics are the two behemoths of the industry, two Goliaths staring down at thousands of Davids who have long been avid fans of the medium. They have abused their corporate powers under vacuous titles of self-exemption such as “special contracts” which allow them to retain all profits made from the success of creators and writers.
Marvel and DC control 62.6% of the comic book industry's market share. The remaining 37.4% is divided amongst 8 other companies. This means that working for one of the two giants is always a prerequisite for writers and artists, a rite of passage into the more independent workforce. Yet it also means they will become subjects to endless bureaucratic mazes which require them to relinquish their creative rights in order to thrive.
Among the infamous comic book feuds is that of DC Comics and legendary writer Alan Moore, writer of classics such as Batman: The Killing Joke and V for Vendetta. In 1986, Moore proposed to write a 12 issue storyline with completely original characters for DC called Watchmen. Moore was at the height of success and his dealings with DC were pretty amicable thus far, creating a bond of trust. Yet Moore wanted to preserve the integrity of his story, so he added a clause in his contract stating that once all Watchmen publications are ceased, the rights of all characters will revert to him.
Yet Watchmen’s success was wild; it was hailed as Moore’s magnum opus, a literary masterpiece, and went to become listed in TIME Magazine's top 100 novels.
DC, seeing the success of Moore’s work, decided to retain the characters’ rights through one devious method: Never ceasing to publish the book.
Moore felt stabbed in the back and vowed never to work with DC, or any other major publication, ever again.
Alan Moore’s Watchmen has been adapted into a film, a series, a prequel comic book series before being rehashed with the rest of DC’s superhero catalog in a much-maligned storyline titled The Doomsday Clock. The characters now have been incarnated in all possible formats, creating an endless stream of profits for DC while their creator never sees a dime in profit shares. The irony is blatant, notably as Watchmen’s entire purpose was to send the superhero fad back into obscurity, not become the thing it vowed to destroy.
Enter the Capitalist Void
In the realm of the comic book business, there's a question boggling the minds of many: Why are the same superheroes rehashed at every turn? Why do Marvel and DC keep churning out countless reboots of every character?
The answer is simple: New characters would mean new creators and possibly, new contracts and compensation rights. The payment of massive royalties is something most capitalist corporations try to avoid.
Who amongst us has not watched in awe as the Marvel villain Thanos snapped half the universe into oblivion? Yet despite being featured as the main villain in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, the third and second highest-grossing films of all time respectively, the character’s creator, Jim Starlin, only received minimal compensation.
Another instance of this occurrence was the low checks offered to Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, co-creators of "The Winter Soldier" character, who was the main antagonist of multiple MCU films, notably Captain America: The Winter Soldier which made $714.4 million. Brubaker contemplated on the sad affair by regretting the fact that despite the massive success of his character, he is still "worried about providing for my wife if I die."
Some comic creators have attempted to dismiss this vampiric work model by establishing their own companies: Famous comic creator Todd McFarlane created Image Comics in an attempt to allow comic creators to retain the rights of their original creations and profit from their success. Despite its relative success, Image only constitutes 8.04% of the market share, making it a somehow limited company that cannot absorb all the US' massive comic book talent.
This takes us back to the essential conundrum: Why do these creators sign these contracts? Well given the massive pool of talent, proving oneself with a gig at Marvel or DC is the way to go. Although they do have contractual obligations, they are rarely treated as employees but always as "work-for-hire," freelancers of the sort. To make a living, they will have to relinquish the rights to their own creations or worse, be unable to afford a lawyer who would advise them otherwise. And besides, comic book creators are first and foremost fans of the medium whose main focus is to continue creating characters children might cherish and read.
In all seriousness though, if Scarlett Johansson, an international star, cannot force Disney to pay her full compensation after leading a box-office smashing Marvel film, are we really blaming these creators for signing a contract?