Behind each and every one of Marvel Studios and DC Entertainment’s comic book adaptations are teams of comic book creators whose ideas laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the films and TV shows powering the megacorporations’ respective multi-billion dollar entertainment franchises. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean these creators are getting paid anywhere near what they deserve.
It’s been largely understood that most creators at the Big Two and in mainstream comics are generally “work-for-hire” contractors who have no ownership of the intellectual property they create for the publishers. Recently though, more and more comics creators have been speaking publicly about the experience of watching their ideas be capitalized on by some of the largest corporate juggernauts, only for the creators themselves to receive little to none of the financial profit generated by the properties derived from their work. While there have been multiple stories about comics creators getting the cold shoulder both from the comics companies and the film studios they’ve been connected to, a new report from the Guardian lays out in detail how the situations at Disney/Marvel and DC/Warner Bros./AT&T have been particularly galling.
According to the Guardian’s sources, Marvel’s standard approach to compensating writers or artists when their work appears in a Marvel Studios film is a flat $5,000 check along with an invitation to the film premiere. Writer Ed Brubaker—who along with artist Steve Epting, colorist Frank D’Armata, and letterer Randy Gentile, crafted the Captain America comics run that defined the Winter Soldier—previously spoke fairly openly about how he basically made nothing from the character’s jump to the MCU in multiple films and his own streaming series.
Brubaker’s also spoken about how he wasn’t actually invited to the premiere events for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but the deeper issue with Marvel’s approach to compensating creators whose work is adapted lies in how the studio allegedly does not make a point of letting all of its talent know about the larger process. Aside from one-off checks and premiere invites, Marvel also offers a “special character contract” to certain creators guaranteeing different degrees of remuneration in the event of their work being adapted. The problem is, these contracts aren’t offered to creators as a rule, meaning that individuals have to take it upon themselves to ask for it, and there’s no guarantee the company will come through.
The Guardian piece says: “For some creators, work they did decades ago is providing vital income now as films bring their comics to a bigger audience; they reason—and the companies seem to agree—it’s only fair to pay them more. DC has a boilerplate internal contract, which the Guardian has seen, which guarantees payments to creators when their characters are used. Marvel’s contracts are similar, according to two sources with knowledge of them, but harder to find; some Marvel creators did not know they existed.” How much is another story.
Regardless, the way the corporations making some of the most lucrative comic book adaptations are dealing with compensation creates a larger system of structural inequality in which some creators end up being paid more—and some not at all—for their labor than others. This is all a result of people in positions of power not establishing well-defined and transparent avenues to gaining this kind of compensation. Unlike actors, directors, etc. who have unions helping them fight for certain things, comic creators are left to fend for themselves, and in many cases hope that their grievances are aired in public to draw more attention to the challenges they’re facing.
Studios are digging deeper into their catalogs of IP for source material to fashion into even more movies and shows meant to lure audiences back to theaters and into the companies’ streaming walled gardens. There’s likely going to be more scrutiny into how comics creators are factored into the equation going forward, or if the companies will just continue with business as usual.
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