There hasn’t been a new breakout comic book character at the two big comic book publishers since 1990’s. Moreover, there hasn’t been a breakout creative talent in the comic book industry at the big two comic book publishers since the 1990’s And there’s a reason for that.
When a writer or an artist creates a character for a comic book company like Disney’s Marvel or Time Warner’s DC it’s under a “Work for Hire” clause. This means that any work a writer or an artist does at the company belongs to the company and the only compensation the writer or artist gets for creating said is their salary.
Sounds fair doesn’t it?
Not if one counts the millions and sometimes billions some characters reap from licensing and merchandising.
All of that money goes to the corporate parent. While said comic book writer and artist who created the character who makes billions for the corporate parent sometimes struggle for years. Some go on to other jobs on other comic book series, others do work on commissions for fans until that next job comes in while others struggle in poverty.
Meanwhile their creations reap profits for corporations in the form of action figures, T-shirts and other licensed products for corporate owners. If they’re lucky to get their work reprinted, they may get the royalties from those sales.
Sounds fair doesn’t it?
That’s why many writers and artists like myself are thinking twice about bringing our original creations to the big two. Some are even thinking twice about looking for work in the comic book industry period.
While it would be great to see one’s creation on a comic store shelf under a Marvel or a DC banner, today most writers and artists are realizing being part of that brand just isn’t worth it in the long-term. Who wants to create the next Batman or Spider-Man only to watch as someone else reaps the profits? Who wants to create the next Superman or Captain America only to be told that their only compensation pay-per-story? Or in the case of an artist a price-per-page?
In an age where comic book characters are merchandised regularly as posters, backpacks, apparel, action figures, video games, Television shows, and even sold and repackaged in other mediums like children’s fiction and movies it feels like a rip-off.
Today a writer or an artist can make much more money by taking their work elsewhere. In this digital age, the same character and story developed as a comic book can be packaged and sold through self-publishing as a novel, YA novel, graphic novel or as an eBook. In those venues a writer reaps one hundred percent of the profits. And they hold one hundred percent of the rights to their work.
In addition to the ownership of their properties, self-publishing offers aspiring comic book writers and artists access to retail venues outside of comic shops. When a writer or an artist publishes their work through print-on-demand, or through an eBook retailer, they gain access to retailers such as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com and an opportunity to reach millions of customers all over the world.
While self-publishing may be an uphill struggle for many writers and artists in the beginning, long-term a creator can reap the rewards for their work in the form of fair compensation. By owning all those rights they can create their own merchandise with a second party vendor if their work is successful. Or they can directly negotiate a licensing deal with a retailer or a manufacturer. Some may even negotiate a distribution deal with Diamond to get their work into comic shops. A few may even negotiate film or TV rights to those same studios which own the Marvel Comics and DC Comics catalogs.
It’s clear the work-for-hire model used by large publishers over the past seventy-five years is one of the major forces stagnating creativity within comic book industry. As long as this obsolete business model exists, writers and artists don’t have an incentive to take their creations to a major comic book publisher. Nor do they have an incentive to go to work on existing characters in the comic book business. That keeps the innovation and imagination fresh talent would offer publishers from reaching the comic book marketplace.
Moreover, it prevents the comic book industry from competing against other forms of media. Most that fresh talent who would have been writing comics today are now working in other forms of media. Some are working for trade publishers. Writing YA stories, fantasy or sci-fi or even commercial fiction. Others are writing Teleplays and screenplays. Artists are doing covers for those books or other commercial work.
All are making more money than they would writing comic books. And profiting from it.
Which is why comic books are still the bottom of the social food chain. In spite of all the blockbuster movies, merchandise and TV shows.
If the big two publishers hope to stay competitive in the twenty-first century, they’re going to have to offer a compensation package to writers and artists to work for them. This may include full ownership of their properties, profit sharing on licensing and merchandising or even bonuses for increasing sales or finding new demographics of readers when they promote their work. Without these new compensation incentives, the industry won’t be able to attract and retain new talent that will create the next big comic book character for the 21st century.