Why Marvel and DC comic book creators sign deals with Substack

  • Leading comic book creators have signed deals with subscription newsletter company Substack.
  • Comic book pros say it’s because creators want intellectual property and there are fewer limitations.
  • Marvel and DC have recently come under scrutiny for their hire-purchase contracts and compensation.

Last week, Hamish McKenzie, co-founder of Substack, the emerging subscription-based newsletter company, published an article titled “We Bet on Comic Book Creators”.

“There are few industries where we think the Substack model could be more revolutionary than in the comics,” McKenzie wrote, “where the power and income potential gap between publishers and creators business is huge, and one where the creator of a story can grow a nine-figure franchise and yet earn home little more than a standard paycheck. ”

On the same day, several prominent comic book creators, such as James Tynion IV and Jonathan Hickman, published their own Substack articles explaining why they signed deals with the company. The posts came amid close scrutiny of employment contracts and compensation offered by “Big Two” publishers, DC and Marvel, which were sparked by recent stories of Hollywood journalist and The Guardian.

The contracts at DC and Marvel – which are owned by WarnerMedia and Disney respectively – give publishers ownership of the characters and stories. Some creators are able to sign more lucrative contracts than others, but they never own the rights to any new characters or ideas they bring into the comics, and there is no guarantee that they will be compensated if their work is done. inspires a blockbuster Hollywood movie or TV show. .

In Marvel’s standard contracts, an example of which was obtained by Insider, is a “special character” policy that says Marvel can offer a creator a separate deal in the event that a character they created is used. on another medium (such as television or cinema). He specifically says that Marvel still owns the character if a deal is made and Marvel, not the creator, determines what is and isn’t a “special character.”

In short: Marvel has the power.

Two people Insider spoke to said DC’s pay for movies and TV is generally better than Marvel’s, in their experience. But on a fundamental level, DC still owned the rights to the characters.

A Marvel spokesperson told Insider that Marvel has ongoing conversations with the creators regarding the contracts, but declined to comment on the details of the contract. DC declined to comment.

A Marvel artist, who requested anonymity to protect career prospects, said he believes the lack of unionization in the industry is helping Marvel and DC continue these practices.

“The creators are terrified,” the artist said. “We’re work for hire. Some have the edge of a reputation, but let’s face it, we’re all cogs in a machine. What sells is Spider-Man, not necessarily the creator. . They can stop giving us work at any time. “

James tynion iv

Tynion went to Substack instead.

Michael Stewart / WireImage

Comic book veteran Gerry Conway, who co-created The Punisher, among other characters for DC and Marvel, told Insider that’s why he suspected Substack wouldn’t trigger a drastic change at Marvel and DC.

“There is an endless supply of young designers who are desperate to work in the field and will work for anything,” said Conway. “It really is the IP that sells. I am the ultimate example. I came to Marvel with little experience as a writer in the early 70s and replaced Stan Lee in Spider-Man. .

“It didn’t hurt sales. It only makes sense for PR to negotiate better deals for creators.”

Joe Illidge, former DC editor-in-chief and current editor-in-chief of comic book magazine Heavy Metal, was more optimistic that Substack – and other publishing alternatives – would force some sort of shift in the way Marvel and DC pay them. creators. But he recognized that it would take time.

“I don’t see enough seismic events happening inside the market to cause a pivot in the immediate future,” he said. “I think we are looking at five years.”

In the meantime, some comic book creators will continue to sign deals with digital companies like Substack, Illidge said. Comic book pros Insider spoke to said the lack of ownership over characters and stories has pushed this trend forward. The pandemic has also opened the eyes of creators to the limits of printed comics and the opportunities in the digital space, they said.

“It’s a brave new world right now,” artist Marvel said. “There are so many different platforms and creators come together.

“Those who only seek security in large companies will be fine, but the longer you do it, the more you’ll realize that you need to own your career. “

Creators want to own their work

Tynion, who is the author of DC’s flagship series “Batman,” posted a sub-stack post last week – titled “A Whole New World” – explaining why he turned down an offer from DC for a three-year renewal of his exclusive contract to start the newsletter.

He called Substack’s offer the best deal he has “ever secured in a decade as a professional comic book writer.”

“A grant from Substack to create a new list of original comic book properties right on their platform, which my co-creators and I would fully own, with Substack taking no intellectual property rights, or even publishing rights.” , he wrote.

Insider first reported in June that Substack hired “The Amazing Spider-Man” writer Nick Spencer to lead its comic book efforts and help recruit renowned creators.

Other renowned creators join Substack to write newsletters and create digital comics include Saladin Ahmed, Hickman, Molly Ostertag and Scott Snyder, who also just signed a deal to co-create eight original comics for Amazon’s digital comic book company, ComiXology. Under the agreement, Snyder and the artists retain all rights to the comics and are not obligated to grant any rights to Amazon with respect to the film and television offerings. The titles will eventually appear in print at the publisher Dark Horse.

“It’s a tumultuous time in comics,” Snyder said. THR of its ComiXology contract. “I think a lot of big companies are cutting their rates and getting more corporate. But because all of these companies [networks and


services] are so desperate for content, there is more demand for good storytelling than ever before. You have no more agency. “

Illidge predicted that other creators would follow.

“They’ll go to Substack or ComiXology, or wherever they can keep a higher percentage of intellectual property rights,” he said. “We find that comics are one of the major food groups for the film, television and gaming industries. Creators are looking at that and thinking about their future. That future is built on intellectual property ownership. . “

blue book comic james tynion sub stack

One of Tynion’s Substack projects, with artist Michael Avon Oeming, includes “Blue Book”, on alien encounters.

Michael Avon OEM

The pandemic has highlighted the limits of the printed comic

Other publishers, notably Image Comics, already publish titles owned by creators, including creators who have signed Substack agreements. The production company Sister recently reclaimed the rights to Tynion and the comic book Image by artist Martin Simmonds, “The Department of Truth,” to adapt it into a television series.

There are many print comics out there that sell well, give creators ownership of their ideas, and get Hollywood attention that are not from Marvel and DC. For some retailers, this could be a reason to be optimistic about the future of the industry as some creators turn digital.

Steve Anderson, the owner of Third Eye Comics, which has offices in Maryland and Virginia, said he “never saw digital as a threat.” He has always viewed digital and print customers as two different audiences with a certain crossover. And from his experience, he’s discovered that digital can attract new readers who will end up looking for printed comics.

“Anything that gets people excited about comics is good for business,” he said.

But some see digital comics from companies like Substack or ComiXology as a bigger opportunity in today’s market.

“Digital can reach anyone, anywhere, anytime,” Conway said.

Hickman, who recently oversaw the relaunch of Marvel’s “X-Men” comics, wrote in a Sub-stack station that the pandemic influenced his decision. In the first months of last year’s pandemic, print periodicals (single issue comics) were not being distributed and comic book stores across the United States closed, forcing creators to re-evaluate industry business practices.

“We’re locked into a static storytelling format that’s based entirely on an existing business model,” Hickman wrote.

Printed comics operate under a “direct market” model in which a distributor sells comics to a retailer on a non-returnable basis, making pre-orders essential.

Hickman wrote that the “pre-order hierarchy” had “systematically erased the surprise from the industry,” as publishers offer previews of their comics months in advance to attract readers.

“The pandemic has exposed the limitations of a print-exclusive model,” Illidge said. “Many creators have had canceled projects that impacted their salaries. Creators have been awakened. Digital is in the future of comics and their careers.”

Are you a comic book maker with more to share? Contact the author at [email protected] or send him a DM on Twitter @ TravClark2

Lisa M. Horner