Why Marvel and DC Comic Creators Are Signing Deals With Substack

  • Top comic book creators have signed deals with newsletter subscription company Substack.
  • Comic pros say it’s because creators want IP ownership and there are fewer limitations.
  • Marvel and DC have recently come under scrutiny for their cash-for-work contracts and compensation.

Last week, Hamish McKenzie, co-founder of up-and-coming subscription newsletter company Substack, published an article titled “We’re betting on comic book creators.”

“There are few industries where we believe the Substack model could be more of a game-changer than in comics,” McKenzie wrote, “where the gap in power and revenue potential between publishers and creators for vicarious account is huge, and where the creator of a story can run a nine-figure deductible and yet take home little more than a standard paycheck.”

On the same day, several high-profile comic creators, such as James Tynion IV and Jonathan Hickman, released their own Substack posts explaining why they signed deals with the company. The posts came amid scrutiny of cash-for-work contracts and compensation offered by ‘Big Two’ publishers DC and Marvel, which was sparked by recent stories from The Hollywood Reporter and The Guardian.

The contracts at DC and Marvel — which are owned by WarnerMedia and Disney, respectively — give publishers ownership of 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 introduce into comics, and there’s no guarantee they’ll be compensated if their work inspires a hit Hollywood movie or TV show. .

In Marvel’s standard contracts, an example of which was obtained by Insider, there’s a “special character” policy that says Marvel can offer a creator a separate deal in the event a character they created is used in another medium (such as television or film). He specifically says that Marvel still owns the character if a deal is made and that 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, based on 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 contracts, but declined to comment on contract details. DC declined to comment.

A Marvel artist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect career prospects, said he believes the lack of unionization in the industry is contributing to Marvel and DC continuing these practices.

“Creators are terrified,” the artist said. “We work for hire. Some have the benefit 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

Comics veteran Gerry Conway, who co-created The Punisher, among other characters for DC and Marvel, told Insider that’s why he suspects Substack won’t cause a sea change at Marvel and DC.

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

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

Joe Illidge, former DC editor and current editor of comics magazine Heavy Metal, was more optimistic that Substack – and other publishing alternatives – would force some kind of change in the way Marvel and DC compensate creators. But he acknowledged 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’re looking at five years.”

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

“It’s a brave new world right now,” said the Marvel artist. “There are so many different platforms and creators find their way through that.

“Those who only seek security in big business will be fine, but the more you do that, the more you realize you have to take ownership of your career.”

Creators want to own their work

Tynion, who is the writer of DC’s flagship ‘Batman’ series, published a Substack article last week – titled ‘A Whole New World’ – explaining why he turned down an offer from DC for a three-year renewal. of its exclusive contract in favor of the start of the newsletter.

He called Substack’s offer the best contract he “has ever received in a decade as a professional comics writer”.

“A grant from Substack to create a new slate of original comic book properties right on their platform, which my co-creators and I would own entirely, with Substack not taking any intellectual property rights, or even publishing rights,” said he wrote.

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

Other high-profile creators joining 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 the comics company. digital comics from Amazon, ComiXology. As part of the deal, Snyder and the artists retain all rights to the comics and aren’t obligated to license any rights to Amazon with respect to movie and TV offerings. The titles will eventually appear in print from the publisher Dark Horse.

“It’s a tumultuous time in comics,” Snyder told THR of his deal with ComiXology. “I think a lot of big companies are cutting their prices and becoming more corporate. But because all these companies [networks and streaming services] are so desperate for content, there’s more demand for good storytelling than ever before. You have more agency.”

Illidge predicted that other creators would follow.

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

blue book comic book james tynion substack

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

Michael Avon OEMing

The pandemic has highlighted the limits of printed comics

Other publishers, including Image Comics, already publish creator-owned titles, including creators with Substack agreements. Production company Sister recently acquired the rights to Tynion and Image artist Martin Simmonds’ comic strip “The Department of Truth” to adapt as a television series.

There are plenty of comic books in print that sell well, give creators ownership of their ideas, and get Hollywood attention that isn’t Marvel and DC. For some retailers, this could be a reason to be optimistic about the future of the industry as some creators go digital.

Steve Anderson – the owner of Third Eye Comics, which has offices in Maryland and Virginia – said he had “never seen digital as a threat”. He has always viewed digital and print customers as two different audiences with some crossover. And from his experience, he found that digital can attract new readers who will eventually seek out comics in print.

“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 and anytime,” Conway said.

Hickman, who recently oversaw the revival of Marvel’s “X-Men” comics, wrote in a Substack article that the pandemic influenced his decision. During the first months of last year’s pandemic, print periodicals (single-issue comic books) were not 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 entirely based on an existing business model,” Hickman wrote.

Print comics operate on 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 “preorder hierarchy” had “systematically erased surprise from the industry”, as publishers offer previews of their comics months in advance to entice readers.

“The pandemic has revealed the limitations of an exclusive print model,” Illidge said. “Many creators had their projects canceled, which impacted their pay. Creators had a wake-up call. Digital is the future of comics and their careers.”

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

Lisa M. Horner