SPOILER WARNING: Certain plot points of MAN OF STEEL are discussed.
A NOTE OF CLARIFICATION: This blog post explains how professionals are generally compensated for working on company-owned characters, not how contracts work for material owned by creators–that’s a whole ‘nother upcoming post. Onward…
A whole bunch of fans were asking if I have been or will be compensated for whatever ideas from SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT showed up in MAN OF STEEL. I answered “no, but I’ve no reason to expect compensation,” and thus erupted a wide–but poorly informed–comics-internet discussion about what DC should do, what DC doesn’t do, what contracts are for, and so on and so forth. So since I inadvertently started this conversation, I feel I ought to stretch beyond a 140-character limit to explain basic comics work-for-hire, contracts, etc. Even if you’re “just” in the entertainment industry and not a die-hard comics fan, it’s probably useful to know.
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 Chapter 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.
Every great once in a while, people (like Levitz) inside a corporation will bring a personal sense of ethics to the table and contend that non-profit gestures have lasting financial benefit. What we need to understand is that when this happens, it’s a fluke. Some companies allow more flexibility in this arena, some less. But without being an apologist for Big Business–just being fair–I have to say that when courtesies are extended that reach beyond the corporate system parameters, being angry that it doesn’t happen more often seems a waste of energy given that, by design, it’s not supposed to happen at all.
Or to put it another way, if you have a legal, binding agreement, you’re entitled to whatever it promises. Anything else that may come your way outside the boundaries of that agreement is terrific–good for you–but to expect extras and then be pissed when they don’t come does nothing but shorten your life.
So, no, I get no financial compensation for Man of Steel, nor does Grant Morrison whose words in ALL-STAR SUPERMAN were given voice by Russell Crowe, nor does John Byrne (maybe something for having created the robot Kelex, since that’s a character, not a concept like “Room full of Kryptonian embryos”), nor do the other writers and artists (other than creators Siegel and Shuster) whose contributions to the Superman myth were used in the film. And that’s okay. It’s not optimal, but we knew the rules going in. Hell, for me, honestly, the smile I got on my face the first time I heard lines from BIRTHRIGHT in the MoS trailer–the confirmation that I really did give something lasting back to the character who’s given me so much–is worth more to me than any dollar amount. (Your mileage may vary.)
Forgive me for repeating this, but the internet is a reductive place, and I’m not eager to start seeing more “Mark Waid Bashes On DC” tweets: I’m defending the joint. Fair is fair. I just thought it would be illuminating to take this ongoing question of compensation and contractual obligations (or lack thereof) out into the sunlight. No malice alleged.
I do a lot of work-for-hire because I enjoy the (actual) compensation and the work itself, but I’m also a huge believer in creator-ownership. I truly do believe that the more deeply creative folks feel invested in their work, the better it becomes in all media. Thrillbent, the site you’re on now, was built on that belief, and all the stories we host here are copyrighted and trademarked by their creators. (That’s my way of hinting that I really would appreciate it if you’d take a moment to explore our site full of free-to-read comics while you’re here, especially if you, too, are an advocate of creator rights.) It’s a risk for artists and writers to forego established comics publishers and launch on their own, but it’s a good way to ensure that they’re going to get what they want out of the process and be the captains of their own fate.
Thanks for reading.