Mark Waid states that he is not angry about the nature or function of comic book corporations or that rules are followed coldly by those same corporations when he details a history of work-for-hire and DC Comics compensation.
From the beginnings of American comics in the mid-1930s right up until the early 1980s, comics artists and writers were what we call today “work-for-hire”–they were paid a per-page rate by publishers, nothing else, and had no ownership stake in or claim to their creations. There were exceptions: though Siegel and Shuster were unquestionably undercompensated for Superman, they at least shared heavily in the royalties of his lucrative newspaper strip. Bob Kane cut a hell of a deal with DC on his co-creation Batman in the late 1940s by threatening to throw his weight behind Siegel and Shuster when they sued for Superman ownership unless DC renegotiated with him–consequently earning a hefty gross percentage on all things Batman until he relinquished most of his rights in the late 1960s for a reported million dollars. Simon and Kirby were guaranteed a percentage of Captain America and, when they suspected they’d been cheated, let DC hire them away for a sizeable sum. There were a few other creators in that time who were powerful enough or savvy enough or both to carve out unusual deals, but 95% or more of their peers were paid flat rates, and to some degree, that’s how it works today if you’re working for a comics publisher–you’re paid an agreed-upon rate for each page of material you produce.In the ‘80s, the powers that be at DC and Marvel (at the time, really the only games in town) overhauled their systems and added royalties to the mix. Unless you were working on top-tier characters like Spider-Man or Teen Titans, the thresholds weren’t easy to meet–initially, at DC, books available on the newsstand had to sell 100,000 copies before royalties were paid, 40,000 copies for books sold strictly to comics shops, and not many did, (but you could dream!); at Marvel, sales were higher but royalties were divided differently between writers and artists. Pluses and minuses to both sides, but an upgrade nonetheless. Both companies also revamped their work-for-hire contracts to guarantee payment for reprints, collections and reissues. Moreover, DC (under the guidance of publisher Jenette Kahn and exec Paul Levitz) drew up a creator-equity agreement for the talent, granting a small but significant percentage of all revenue on new characters created by writers and artists. Marvel later followed suit with something similar, and while sales (and royalty thresholds) have moved up and down over the years, that’s pretty much the way the system’s worked ever since.
By way of example, let’s take Impulse, a character I co-created with artist Mike Wieringo. Mike and I signed a contract that grants us a small percentage of all revenue DC might earn off Impulse action figures, merchandise, guest-starring roles on Young Justice or Smallville, what have you. It’s hardly buy-a-boat money; I get maybe a couple hundred bucks off of every action figure (because of the equity deal) and a few cents off every trade paperback collection or digital sale (because of the royalty agreement), but it adds up and I do see something, enough for a nice meal every few months. And that’s the deal I agreed to at the time, and that’s fine. But that’s the limit of DC’s legal, contractual obligation to us.
The confusion about extra-media compensation arises in that Levitz, while he was DC’s publisher, made it a policy to cut respectable bonus checks to writers and artists, regardless of legal obligation, if elements from any of their stories (even work-for-hire ones) made it into outside media adaptations movies or TV shows. Did you like the scene in Batman Begins where young Bruce Wayne climbs a Himalayan mountain holding a blue flower? Christopher Priest got paid for having come up with that. Or the scene where Bruce Wayne picks out a potential Batmobile from among his own holdings? That was lifted from a Chuck Dixon-written comic, and Paul sent Dixon a check to acknowledge that. Same with dozens of similar moments in cartoons, DVDs, and so forth and so on. It wasn’t legally necessary, it was totally at Paul’s discretion and only Paul knows what math he used to determine what he felt would be fair, but it was a goodwill gesture from an exec sympathetic to the creative community.
And most critically, it wasn’t a written policy or guarantee. It was a courtesy.
Once Paul left, that courtesy was deemed no longer necessary by the executives and the policy was rolled back, as was DC’s absolute prerogative. Currently, DC pays bonuses only on material that’s a straight and highly faithful adaptation of existing work; for instance, Frank Miller (rightfully) got a check for the recent DARK KNIGHT RETURNS animated movies, but if the next animated film takes its plot from (say) BATGIRL: YEAR ONE but calls it “BATMAN: BATGIRL BEGINS” and adds anything to the story, Chuck Dixon and Marcos Martin will receive nothing. DC has removed itself from the complicated business of having to evaluate how much certain adapted elements are “worth” and instead simplified the system to “pay” or “don’t pay,” with “don’t pay” the default. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed to learn, for example, that I’d be receiving no compensation for the JUSTICE LEAGUE: DOOM animated film even though WB was actively billing it as based on my and Howard Porter’s JLA: TOWER OF BABEL, but I couldn’t be angry or resentful and have a leg to stand on. DC or its owners, Warner Bros., were not legally entitled to compensate me for re-use of dialogue or plots or concepts because there was no contract that said they’d have to (and unless things have changed recently, such a contract would never have been an option). Moreover, they have no motive to issue compensation; paying courtesy bonuses don’t benefit the stockholders in any way, nor do they in any way uptick profits or sell more comics.
Would it be nice if the policy were different? Sure, but “nice” is a human behavior, and I say this without one hint of snark or cynicism, simply as fact: corporations are not designed to act based on society’s expectations of ethics or morality. They are designed to generate profit, and a responsible, publicly traded company will by design prioritize profit over all else. “Yeah, but…” No. Corporations aren’t people, my friends. It’s not unfair for us to expect people to base their behavior on a variety of factors–that’s kinda the definition of “society”–but a corporation isn’t built to be “fair” any more than is my coffee table. You may not like that, you may wish it were different, but that’s reality in the here and now. It is not a complaint any more than it is to say that the speed of light is constant. It just is.
A short summary that surprised me a bit is that DC Comics will pay you for when your character is used as merchandise or toys and your trade paperbacks will receive royalties but that when DC Comics paid you for your story concepts being used it was a courtesy and not part of the rules.
I cannot help but admire Mr Waid more than just a bit for not railing at an injustice for the pay structure, knowing that it is what it was when he signed his deals. That said I’m disappointed that his work basically generated a movie for Warner Bros, Justice League: Doom, and he got nothing more than an acknowledgement on the packaging and in the promotions.
To be honest I suspect the biggest reason he does work-for-hire for DC Comics is simply that he enjoys working on these particular characters and would not have the chance if he created his own stuff and stuck to that exclusively. I speak from ignorance on that front, of course, and could not say whether he gets paid more or less than for his own creations.
In an interview with The Wrap Len Wein directly compared these rules concerning Marvel Comics’ compensation to DC Comics’ compensation. Mr Wein co-created Wolverine, whose fifth movie (as I count the films) just came out last month, and Lucious Fox, who was a prominent character in the Dark Knight Triloy, as well as many other characters.
“When I work for DC, anything I create I get a piece of,” said Wein. “Lucius Fox, for example, who was in the last trilogy of Batman movies played by Morgan Freeman, bought my new house. At Marvel, I did see a check off ‘The Wolverine,’ the current film. But as a rule I don’t any of the ancillary money off of all of the toys and soaps and shampoos and skateboards and God knows what else that features the character.”
Though Wolverine has appeared in six films, Wein was only paid for the latest one because of esoteric rules requiring the film to be named after the character, he said. The rules are strict enough that he wasn’t paid for “X Men Origins: Wolverine.”
“They sent me a not-unreasonable check for the latest one,” he said.
When pressed on the amount, he only that it wouldn’t be enough to pay for another house.
These rules definitely seem twisted to me. Despite that, Mr Wein, as well as Gerry Conway, did not seem angry. I like how Mr Conway put it when describing his financial relationship with his co-creation the Punisher.
“To be fair, the companies are at this point trying to find ways to compensate people,” Conway said. “Because of the nature of the way the business was at the time … we knew what we were doing. We didn’t think any of this was going to have any legs. We thought the business was going to collapse, to be honest with you.”
If my opinion meant anything then certainly the respective companies should not act as if they owe the creators anything however the best thing to do would be to extend a very generous set of courtesies, if nothing else to create incentive for more original creations. The most recently created Marvel Comics character is Deadpool, from the 1990s. Before that the youngest Marvel characters to receive video games and movies are the Punsher, Ghost Rider, and Wolverine! Those are Bronze Age 1970s characters! That basically means that aside from four properties all of Marvel Comics’ multimedia franchises were created in the 1960s by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko! I am not counting revamps like what happened to the X-Men in the seventies.