The Grim Reality Of Superhero Movies For Comics Creators
When a book is turned into a movie that makes hundreds of millions of dollars, the author might end up becoming so rich that she can just do whatever she wants for the rest of her life, like buying mansions or, uh, constantly picking fights with marginalized communities for some pointless reason. But when a comic book is turned into one of those, the author ... might end up opening one of those "please help me not die" GoFundMes within a few years.
The disconnect between these hyper-mega-blockbusters and the regular folks who created the original stories can seem baffling to those not familiar with how the comic book industry works, so allow us to shed some light on this byzantine (or Bizarro, if you'd prefer) process ...
The Whole System Works Based On Public Shaming
Writer/artist Jim Starlin created Thanos and a whole bunch of other characters we won't bother mentioning here because you're already impressed enough by the word "Thanos." How did he find out his signature character would appear in a movie that racked up $1.5 billion dollars? The same as any other comics fan: via online spoilers. Starlin had no advance notice from Marvel and wasn't invited to any screenings for The Avengers -- he bought a ticket for a midnight showing at his local theater and sat in front of two loud nerds who talked through the whole film (but he says it was all part of "the experience").
Perhaps embarrassed by the "Thanos' Creator Paid For His Own Ticket" headlines, Marvel Studios began paying Starlin for the use of his creations, but it wasn't much. In 2017, Starlin said that DC Entertainment gave him more money for using his character Anatoli Knyazev in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice than Marvel did for Thanos, Gamora, and Drax combined, which is kind of shocking because who the hell is Anatoli Knyazev (you might know him as '80s Batman villain KGBeast or, more likely, not know him at all).
Again, once Starlin made the ridiculous situation public, his payments went up and he now says he has a very good relationship with Marvel Studios ... but not with Marvel Comics. He has sworn never to write for them again after they undermined his years-in-the-making Thanos graphic novel by releasing a comic with the same plot. After all, to Marvel, he's just another freelancer. One who wrote a comic that was adapted into the first and the fifth highest grossing films of all time, sure, but a freelancer still.
But at least Starlin could afford a ticket. Artist Joe Shuster couldn't afford to see the Superman musical, even though he invented the guy. Warner Bros. only started giving Shuster and his friend/co-creator/fellow poor person Jerry Siegel money when the first Superman movie came out, after they tried to raise a stink about it. That was back in the '70s, but things haven't changed that much. Gerry Conway wrote the famous girlfriend-killing issues of Spider-Man that were adapted into 2014's Amazing Spider-Man 2, but he had to campaign on Twitter to get invited to the premiere (every possible joke about how they were doing him a favor by not inviting him has already been made, sorry).
Then there's the sad tale of Bill Mantlo, the writer responsible for the fact that the MCU has a talking space raccoon in it, thus accounting for 83% of its coolness. Unfortunately, Mantlo was left with brain damage after a hit-and-run accident and his brother had to wreck his finances to keep him alive. Marvel Studios began helping them out when the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie came out, but by 2019, the Mantlos had been forced to turn to GoFundMe to survive. Again, Marvel stepped up, but let's not kid ourselves -- like with Starlin and the rest, none of this would have happened if someone hadn't gone to the media and made the big corporate giant look like a giant cheapskate.
It sure looks like the studios are only willing to share some of the obscene amounts of money that these movies make with comic creators if they are shamed into doing so. But it can't be that simple, right? What do the contracts say about this stuff? Less than you might think, it turns out ...
The Contracts Are Limited, And Full Of Tricky Loopholes
Up until the mid-1970s, if you created a popular comic book character your reward was officially a pat in the back and the satisfaction of seeing someone else get filthy rich off your idea. Creators had to sign away all rights to their characters before they could cash the check for the first issue in which they appeared. It actually said as much on the back of the checks:
Beyond that check, the creators got squat. That began changing in the late '70s as DC and then Marvel instituted equity programs that allowed writers and artists to get a piece of the action whenever their characters showed up outside comics. And that's great, but there are two big problems with those programs: first, most comics characters people can actually name of were created before the mid-'70s and technically still operate under the "you don't get squat" rules, which is why KGBeast pays more than Thanos and why Wolverine's creator Len Wein got more money for Bruce Wayne's buddy Lucius Fox (even though Morgan Freeman does zero cool air-flips in the Dark Knight movies).
The second problem is that the rules for cashing in on your creations are full of bullshit little limitations, and the companies aren't shy about exploiting them. For instance, Wolverine appeared in six films before Wein saw a single cent due to a clause about the movie having to be named exactly after the character -- The Wolverine counts for a payment, but X-Men Origins: Wolverine doesn't.
Speaking of The Wolverine, the movie was directly based on a "Wolvie goes to Japan" miniseries by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller that came out in 1982, so that means they got money from the movie, right? Nope! They didn't even get a credit since Marvel's equity program only applies to characters, not storylines, even if the actors literally read your words on the screen. Meanwhile, DC Comics publisher Paul Levitz (a writer himself) used to offer generous bonuses to creators whenever a movie lifted a scene from their comics, but they were just that: bonuses. When Levitz stepped down, that extra incentive was taken to a dark alley and given the Thomas and Martha Wayne treatment.
Another little loophole at DC is that creators aren't entitled to any movie money if their characters are considered derivative. What does "derivative" mean? Whatever DC wants, apparently. The character Artemis appears in dozens of episodes of the shows Young Justice, Arrow, and Stargirl, but her creators don't get anything from all that because she's the daughter of two supervillains (who look nothing like her and have different abilities).
But it also works the other way around: the writer who created Batgirl's mother got nothing for her (annoyingly) recurrent role in Gotham because DC considers her derivative of her daughter. Where it gets really infuriating is when you consider characters like Caitlin Snow/Killer Frost, one of the protagonists of CW's The Flash. Snow was created by Sterling Gates and Derlis Santacruz, but they don't get money from the show because the character is derivative of an older Killer Frost, created by Gerry Conway. Except that Conway doesn't get any money either. As he points out, DC is basically saying that the character was created by no one; it just magically manifested on the set one day.
On top of that, DC creators are expected to fill out equity forms for each character they created before they appear on TV or the movies, since payments aren't made retroactively. In the case of a prolific writer like Conway, that would mean hundreds of forms. Man, why does anyone put up with an industry that pulls this crap? Easy ...
The Creators Are Still Fans -- And That's The Problem
We mentioned that Chris Claremont wrote the comic that The Wolverine was based on, along with hundreds of other Wolverine stories, and didn't even get a tiny "special thanks" mention until X-Men: Dark Phoenix. His reaction to those movies? When Hugh Jackman said one of his lines on screen, Claremont shouted "Yesss!" Similarly, writer Mark Waid got nothing when Man of Steel borrowed from his Superman: Birthright series, but he says that hearing his lines in the trailer was payment enough. That is 1) adorable, and 2) kind of messed up, when you think about it?
Comics is what is known as a "prestige" industry, not because it upgrades your social status or allows you to be cloned by David Bowie, but in the sense that millions of people would kill to be a part of it. Even if the pay is crap, there's no job security, and you run the risk of accidentally making Zack Snyder richer. Why? Because you get to work with Batman and/or Spider-Man, and that's way cooler than having health insurance or lame stuff like that.
This attitude sort of made sense when superhero comics were precarious operations working out of crammed New York City offices, but they have since grown into a multi-billion dollar industry ... while the creators are still stuck living in "one car accident away from bankruptcy" mode, especially the older, no-longer-trendy ones. Not all comic book pros are as enthusiastic about the idea of being validated by Hollywood as Claremont. When Hugh Jackman thanked Len Wein for changing his career at Comic-Con, Wein said, "It was very gratifying and very nice. I would have preferred a check."
If things have improved at all for comic book creators, it's because of people like Gary Friedrich, who came up with the idea of a "guy with a flaming skull who rides a motorcycle" but wasn't even credited in the Nicolas Cage Ghost Rider movies. In 2007, Friedrich sued Marvel for ownership of the character, since it turned out that they'd neglected to copyright the first Ghost Rider comic in 1972. (To be fair, it was the '70s, and Marvel was more hangout spot for hairy Bohemians than a company back then.)
Anyway, Marvel countersued Friedrich and seemed perfectly willing to bankrupt this 69-year-old ill man -- until the case began swinging his way, at which point both parties settled "amicably." Other comic book pros like Roy Thomas (who co-created Iron Fist) and Bob Layton (who co-created Tony Stark's alcoholism) have directly credited Friedrich for the fact that they suddenly started getting Marvel Studios money. According to Thomas, if the studio had simply credited Friedrich in the first Ghost Rider movie, the court case never would have happened and Marvel would have saved a lot of money. So we're back to the initial point: these companies only treat their employees with dignity when they determine that not doing so would be more costly. EXCELSIOR!
Top Image: Marvel Entertainment