The juggernaut rise of Marvel (pun intended) is the stuff of Hollywood legend. They were a comic company that flourished in the '60s and '70s, but largely were going bankrupt in the early 2000s. They had to sell off characters, were eventually acquired by Disney, and then after Iron Man was a huge success, they became the foundation for one of the most profitable runs of films in cinema history. Franchise characters like Captain America, Black Panther, Black Widow, Thor, and Rocket Racoon captured fans' hearts and anchored these movies in humor and humanity.
DC Comics paints a similar story, with Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman headlining movies that have been successful over the past forty years. Even more so today.
But there's been some controversy in recent weeks. The people who created those characters worked for the comics. They wrote lengthy comic storylines and introduced these characters from nothing. They were paid a salary by Marvel and DC, but since they created these characters while working there, those companies own them. That means when they put them in movies, they're using IP created in-house, and therefore don't have to pay to adapt it.
This makes a lot of business sense, but now creators are speaking out as they see Marvel use their characters and direct storylines to make billions of dollars when the bonus they get if a character or story is turned into a movie is a pittance.
Credit: MarvelAccording to The Guardian: “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.”
The Guardian says its sources told them that Marvel’s standard pay for an artist whose ideas are adapted into a movie is a flat $5,000 check along with an invitation to the premiere. That's not even enough money to rent an apartment for a few months, while a lot of these movies set records at the box office.
Comics writer Ed Brubaker who crafted the Captain America: Winter Soldier run in comics (along with artist Steve Epting, colorist Frank D’Armata, and letterer Randy Gentile) spoke about how he didn't make almost any money when that story made it to the big screen and when the character he created was given his own show on Disney+.
“For the most part, all Steve and I have got for creating the Winter Soldier and his storyline is a ‘thanks’ here or there, and over the years that’s become harder and harder to live with,” Brubaker wrote in a newsletter. “I have a great life as a writer and much of it is because of Cap and the Winter Soldier bringing so many readers to my other work. But I also can’t deny feeling a bit sick to my stomach sometimes when my inbox fills up with people wanting comments on the show.”
Other artists and comic writers are uniting to try to ask these companies to retroactively compensate artists, but Marvel has taken the stance that all work-for-hire contracts are negotiable. Current Marvel Comics writer Ta-Nehisi Coates told the Guardian, "Just because it’s in a contract doesn’t make it right."
This is a complicated issue with no perfect solution.
Marvel and DC are now Fortune 500 companies thinking about profit margins and returns, but they stepped on the backs of artists and creators to get there. They should have some sort of compensation number of more than $5,000 to thank people for creating the characters and storylines that have built success for them now and in the future.
Many artists and writers are leaving those companies, asserting that they can make more money and have more fairness elsewhere.
What's your take on the situation? Let us know in the comments.