How Comic Book Writing Contracts Work

Insufferable by Mark Waid

From time to time people ask us how comic book writing contracts work, as in what rights, royalties, etc. comic book writers have. Usually we just shrug and say, “Not our Department, dood. Sorry.”

But the other day we ran across a blog entry by comcs writer Mark Waid which gives the lowdown on what’s happening in this department at D.C. So it’s definitely time to share. And, yes, of course it was inspired by MAN OF STEEL:


by Mark Waid

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.

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