Creative Freedom

As a child, I never paid much attention to the creators’ names printed inside of the comics that I collected each week. I was more interested in the characters within the books than who was responsible for their plight (wait, those characters are fictional?). As an adult, I pay close attention to the writers and artists that work on the books that I’m reading and have come to appreciate the work put into each title. But being a fan of (sometimes barely) established characters can be difficult because writers and artists are constantly changing from title to title and company to company. Roughly 75% of the comic books that I read are published by Marvel Comics, so when a creative team changes on one of their many titles, I notice. Recently though, many writers seem to establish prominent writing positions at Marvel and then leave the company. 

Extremely talented writers such as Brian Michael Bendis (Ultimate Spider-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy), Ed Brubaker (Captain America), Matt Fraction (Hawkeye, Iron Man) and Jason Aaron (Thor, Wolverine) were at the helm of many of Marvel’s titles when I began collecting comics in adulthood nearly a decade ago. More recently, writers Rick Remender (Uncanny Avengers, Venom), Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel) and Jonathan Hickman (Avengers) have become popular because of their excellent work for the publisher. Most of these writers, however, have either moved on are in the process of moving on to other publishers.

It’s so sad to see this series go…

It’s so sad to see this series go…

But why do writers and artists leave a title or a company? Is it a financial issue? Are they treated poorly? Can’t we just live in a perfect world where Matt Fraction and David Aja create a new “Hawkeye” book every single month for the next 50…ok, 45 years?! Who’s going to be writing the “X-Men” titles?! My babies! Please don’t hurt my babies (Check out these sweet coping skills)!!!!

Some writers may stick with a publisher for a lengthy period of time after signing an exclusive contract, guaranteeing the creator only works on content for the one publisher it signs with. However, in signing an exclusive contract with Marvel, the creator typically does not get to have creator-owned content published. “Creator-owned” means that the universe and its characters exist apart from any established fictional universe, and everything that happens within this fictional universe comes from the minds of the creative team. An example of this is “Kick-Ass” (one of few exceptions to Marvel publishing creator-owned content, through its “Icon” imprint), created, written, and drawn by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. These two men created all of the characters, the plot, and the artwork within that book. Millar and Romita Jr. get to keep the rights to the characters, meaning that Marvel will not hire another creative team to produce more “Kick-Ass” for the company to profit from without Millar and Romita Jr.’s consent. In comparison, Millar wrote a story arc for the solo “Wolverine” series, where the writer had to abide by certain rules that govern the character (like making sure he says “bub” a whole lot) and the Marvel Universe as a whole. Romita Jr. has been doing artwork on “Superman,” a character that has instantly recognizable features that the artist used as a template. Furthermore, Wolverine and Superman are creations from the minds of other writers and artists with the majority of royalties going to their respective publishers. 

Creator-owned contracts are few and far between at the “Big 2” companies, Marvel and DC. Those companies are responsible for instantly recognizable fan-favorites such as Batman, Spider-Man, and Wonder Woman (and Frog-Thor…someday…).  A common practice at both Marvel and DC is what’s known as a work-for-hire contract, wherein the characters and stories the creative teams submit immediately belong to the publisher, not the creator(s).  So if and when certain components of a story become extremely popular, the publisher doesn’t have to financially compensate the creative team for the mainstream success of its creations. This can leave writers and artists feeling understandably frustrated. 

The "Image Seven." Viva la revolucion! 

The "Image Seven." Viva la revolucion! 

Seven writers and artists left Marvel in 1992 to form their own company, Image Comics. These creators were unhappy giving up the rights for the characters and stories they created. This was at a time when the comic book business was booming and merchandise sales were high (There were characters with muscles growing out of muscles…it was the best time to be alive). These seven men were paid the same amount because of their work-for-hire contracts, while the publisher was making a huge profit. Another example of creator dissatisfaction is the case of Alan Moore, the author responsible for “Watchmen,” “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” and “V for Vendetta.” If you weren’t aware, those titles were comics before they were movies, and they were all made into films without Alan Moore’s consent. He was angry that DC used his creations for profit without his approval, but DC was perfectly within its rights to do so as none of those stories were creator-owned. 

The difficulties creators face don’t end with contracts. While writers and artists do the vast majority of the work that goes into a single comic, editors control exactly what content makes it to comic shops every week. Unfortunately, many creators have left books because of editorial demands and last minute changes. The editors and creative team behind “Batwoman” had an agreed upon direction for the book for over a year, when sudden changes were decided by the editing staff. This is a relatively common occurrence, and it can leave writers and artists scrambling to meet deadlines. Furthermore, writers and artists are not compensated for the extra work they incur to meet editorial changes. In the case of “Batwoman,” the creative team decided to quit working on the book. So not only is the comic book industry a difficult business to break into, it can be a difficult business to even work in. 

Certainly not Alan Moore.

Certainly not Alan Moore.

What choice do writers and artists have? Marvel and DC are two companies that together comprise more than half of the entire comic book market in terms of sales. Image comes in 3rd place with a mere 10%, and there are dozens of other publishers releasing comic books every month that are almost eclipsed into obscurity. What this means for a creator is that he or she must trade rights, control, and some peace of mind for the enormous exposure that the “Big 2” can (sort-of-maybe-well-we-can-always-hope) guarantee, considering almost every instantly recognizable super hero or villain has been produced by one of those two publishers. 

Fortunately, not all writers leave a company amidst a quarrel. Ed Brubaker and Rick Remender have both left on friendly terms with Marvel. Matt Fraction had an amicable split with Marvel after he was taken off of a title and replaced with a different writer. His response was, “It’s their company.” Fraction has been writing books for other publishers for some time and has a deal to produce television shows based off of his ideas. So it is at least possible for great writers to gain notoriety and then move on to bigger and better things. 

Creators that leave Marvel or DC are branching out because they have more stories to offer: original stories. Image is in the process of releasing more than a dozen new titles this year alone, all of which are creator-owned. Whether these books each sell one million copies or one thousand copies, at least writers are being given the freedom to tell the stories that they want to tell. I imagine that for some, creative integrity is more important than large sums of money. While these books may not amass as much attention as Superman does, some of them are absolutely amazing. For example, James Tynion IV (Batman Eternal) wrote a three-issue series for Boom! Studios, titled “Memetic.” I read it nearly a year ago and still can’t get over how fantastically twisted it was. 

Rai" by Clayon Crain. He could illustrate a book about moldy cheese and I would buy it.

Rai" by Clayon Crain. He could illustrate a book about moldy cheese and I would buy it.

If Marvel and DC were willing to expand their creator-owned imprints, maybe some of the publishers’ best writers would stay with those companies for longer periods of time. At the moment, there are very few titles being produced under Marvel’s “Icon” imprint (there have been very few, period). While DC does have its “Vertigo” imprint, not all of the titles are creator-owned; many are mainstream titles but are suggested for mature readers. Like Icon, the selection of titles from Vertigo is small.  

For fans, there is a bright side to talented writers and artists leaving a company—those writers and artists are still great at what they do (and what they do is very nice)! Kelly Sue DeConnick isn’t going to be writing “Captain Marvel” anymore, but she’s writing “Pretty Deadly” and “Bitch Planet,” both of which are awesome books of her own creation. My favorite artist, Clayton Crain (X-Force, Ghost Rider), was handling art duty on various titles for Marvel until a few years ago. When I heard he was going to be the artist for Valiant Comic’s “Rai” and Image’s “Savior,” I immediately knew I would be picking up those books regardless of their respective stories. Creative loyalty can certainly trump brand loyalty.

Though I’ve used Marvel and DC as examples of a greedy empire of capitalism, neither of those companies are super villainous (Heh heh…topical)— they simply do what works for them. And while I have painted Image as the holy land for creator-owned content, the publisher does use work-for-hire contracts. What I want to impart is that great creative teams are going to change titles and change companies, but these creative teams are much more than whatever top-selling title they are working on. The world of comic books is much wider than I believe most people imagine it to be, so it’s a good idea to look outside of the “Big 2” every once in a while. Great creators are going outside of the mainstream because they are finding publishers that grant them freedom. There are science fiction stories, dramas, comedies, crime thrillers, all right in front of you on the stands every single week. Find a writer or artist that you love and follow his or her work. I assure you, they can do much more than write or draw -insert famous super-hero name here. Support them by checking out whatever they’re working on, regardless of what company is publishing it.