SpiderBaby Archives: “Fishin’ in the Freelancer Pool”

Above is the full-page editorial cartoon I contributed to WaP! #5 (July 1988), prompted by the initial DC Comics “creator contracts” we finally saw in 1988. I showcase it here to bring more attention to the ongoing WaP! retrospective, now in its third week here at Myrant.

That retrospective will, I hope, prompt serious scrutiny of the current scene.

A few words of comment (and remember, I’ve worked all sides of the fence, including publishing):

Note how that “sequel rights” clause cited in the cartoon has, in fact, materialized in our lifetimes into Watchmen spinoffs. Yep, you sign it, you live with it. That’s the rule.

The DC/Vertigo contracts which followed in the early 1990s were actually worse than the 1988 “creator friendly” contracts we saw, introducing a creative “options” clause (in which the creators would have to buy out the option, whether the accepted/paid for work was published or not, rather than benefit from traditional book publishing rights reversion clauses) that I have since seen more mainstream book publishers adopt, much to my chagrin.

Look, folks: the contracts I am seeing since 2001 have year after year, month after month, gotten worse, not better.

I posted the following on Facebook this evening:

“You know, comicbook industry, your contracts are SHITTIER THAN EVER, all in all. Work-for-hire has, incredibly, become even more odious from some of the major and non-major players.”

Discussion followed.

Now, much has changed, for the better. Creators owning their work are enjoying healthy relations with a handful of publishers (Top Shelf, Drawn & Quarterly, etc.), and Fantagraphics (one of the few) have survived from their late 1970s launch to the present. We’ve seen major book publishers like Scholastic, Abrams, etc. launch entire graphic novel lines, offering better terms to their creators.

That’s all to the good.

But seriously, the so-called “comics industry” is otherwise in a new dark age. The major players are in Hollywood-la-la-land, and locking down anything that movies—uh, moves, for as little as possible: Silver Age terms for Post-Millennial Media Golden Age non-shares in the bountiful riches. Page rates are in the toilet; “independent publishers” (i.e., not Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, etc., which is stretching the definition of mainstream, but there you go) are offering rates for work-for-hire gigs that are less than freelancers were earning work-for-hire in the late 1960s-1980s.

What’s worse than the low page rates are the contracts offered (“take it or leave it,” most often) at those rates—I’m now seeing retro-retroactive contracts (don’t get me going). I’ve turned down cover gigs that offered less than I was paid for covers in the 1980s (and those were for “lucrative, prestige” licensed character gigs—you bet your ass the licensor earns more than the freelancers ever will).

The gaming industry has had a further negative impact on these matters; I’d be hard-pressed to cite the worst work-for-hire contracts I’ve laid eyes on, and I’m not in a position to share the many stories I’ve encountered (usually from freelancers terrified to tell those stories, their experiences, for fear of retribution or black-balling—how little times have changed).

With precious few exceptions (and there are, thankfully, exceptions): Self-publishing and creator-ownership is the only way to go, unless servitude and impoverishment is the goal.

I am referring to across-the-board book publishing, too, in part (the “new industry”). Too much of it has turned into licensing/ownership and the ability to own all rights for future corporate absorption/transfer/licensing, period.

The “life of copyright” agreements aren’t much better, as they tie creator and creator’s heirs to a publisher for life on those projects; I’ve only agreed/signed one of those, when I was able to get my heirs cited in the agreement as benefactors.

(Freelancing, I have occasionally deferred to lower fees to retain copyright when that’s an option. More often, I just say “no.” I earn more teaching, in far less time and with far fewer headaches.)

In fact, the corporate work is simply a road to further impoverishment now. So, there it is. The editors are paid; the printers are paid; but it must be said that self-publishing is a major gamble, unless you have a following, an audience, and can work with ebooks/POD rather than offset (comics are still an expensive proposition there; price per copies is high).

Seriously: $15-20 is what Charlton was paying in the 1960s-1970s—and we’ve all seen how that went for Charlton contributors: their work thrust into public domain, for the most part, with contemporary publishers currently extending the life of that material (within the lifetimes of key creators, like Steve Ditko) sans any agreement or contract with creators or their estates, despite the exploitation of those creator’s names to sell the books.

Thus, further exploitation, sans income; further impoverishment, while their work earns money (packaged in expensive hardcover reprint editions) for publishers, editors, printers—not the creators.

The current myth, enjoying much play thanks to our increasingly leaning-to-the-Right culture, is “hey, the freelancers have to share the risks!”

Not for work-for-hire, they/we don’t.

Publishing is a risk.

It’s the publisher’s risk.

Work-for-hire should shift all the burden onto the publisher, since it leaves nothing or next to nothing for the freelancer—and certainly, with rare exceptions, no future.

But currently, I see a swing to arguing that’s a shared risk, a shared burden.

To which I say: bullshit.

Is that what you really sign up for?

You bet.

I was getting $20+ for creator-owned work with a handful of publishers in the 1970s-1980s, but I owned or co-owned the work.

I recently revisited my old 1980s contracts with DC: in 1983, I was earning $63 per page work-for-hire (original DC terms: reprint rate only, $4 per page, etc., all terms improved by DC on its own initiative in the subsequent years) for pencils; $45 for inks; by 1986, $65 per page for scripts. DC Comics still pays us quarterly royalties on our work, thanks to DC‘s initiative over the decades to offer fairer terms and arrangements as the market changed.

You’ll find much discussion of this in the WaP! retrospective ongoing here at Myrant, but I had to make sure that wasn’t seen as a “past problem,” that any “wars” had been fought and won.

Frankly, in the comics industry per se, we lost the war.

And this current generation of freelancers and creators must fight it anew.

You have many options, in this new environment.

Yes, times are lean, and mean, and tough. Don’t make them leaner and meaner and tougher by impoverishing yourself on low-paying work-for-hire sans royalties, reprint rates, or rewards.

Colleen Doran put it simply, and to the point:

“The only thing these companies learned is that people are desperate, will sign anything, and since there is all this nasty creator rights talk, let’s make sure we get everything locked down in writing forever. They didn’t learn to play fair, they learned to play dirtier. No reason to sign with ANY of these people. At least I can contextualize some mainstream credits into some great commission fees, but who gives a shit about this small press IP? Go your own way, don’t work for these jerks!”

Quoted with permission; thank you, Colleen.

Good luck, one and all.


“Fishin’ in the Freelancer Pool” ©1988, 2013 Stephen R. Bissette, all rights reserved. All WaP! images, content ©1988, 1989 the respective creative contributors and proprietors. All other cover art or comics images © respective year of original publication their original creators and/or proprietors. Permission to link, post pingbacks granted, but please do not quote excessively or post these essays on your own blogs, websites or venues; it’s not yours to play with. NOTE: All images are posted for archival and educational purposes only, under applicable US Fair Use laws.

Discussion (8) ¬

  1. Henry R. Kujawa

    Colleen Doran reminds me of Morgan Fairchild. SMART– AND gorgeous!

  2. John Platt

    That cartoon is more relevant than ever. It’s important to draw the line in the sand for creator rights and not sign on the dotted lines that hurt us all!

  3. patrick ford

    Things like Disney shutting down nearly it’s whole hand drawn animation department and Star Wars gaming ought to get the attention of the comic book world. I keep hearing people say Disney and Warner Bros “need” the comic book divisions in order to create new IP. I can’t take that seriously at all. The companies make a few movies per year and have decades worth of characters to employ.
    The plug could be pulled at any moment.

  4. Henry R. Kujawa

    Just moments ago I read that someone at the Masterworks board said they “never cared for Luke Cage until Bendis started writing him.” Apart from my having no idea who the hell “Bendis” is (TRUE!), it shows the utter contempt for REAL creators (including the likes of Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Billy Graham, and Steve Englehart), whose work, even when on a “creation by committee” project like HERO FOR HIRE (and let’s not forget, I’m pretty sure Roy Thomas & John Romita got the ball rolling) is still VASTLY superior to all the endless “sequels”.

    But not in the eyes of “Marvel fans”.

  5. Sam Gafford

    Thank you for posting these, Stephen. I hope that today’s creators will see this as a ‘wake-up call’ and fight back against such unfair contracts. Colleen is right in that the companies have just learned to “play dirtier” but I also feel that they are arrogant in their positions now to the point where they simply don’t care if their misdeeds are revealed because, with today’s fans, they will still sell the same amount of ‘product’ and that is all they care about.

  6. Ray Cornwall

    Steve, as a followup to Ditko and Charlton- in another post, you mentioned the notion that Ditko actually bought some rights to some of his Charlton work, but weren’t specific. I’m a little confused as to what Ditko actually bought, especially given how crappy a job Charlton did of protecting its own IP. What did they actually own that they could sell to Ditko? Just curious.

  7. Thad

    Bleeding Cool has just alleged that DC’s digital-first titles don’t even pay royalties ( http://www.bleedingcool.com/2013/04/16/digital-first-comics-and-straight-work-for-hire-contracts-with-no-royalties/ ). Unbelievable — and yet, ENTIRELY believable.

  8. John Pannozzi

    “Things like Disney shutting down nearly it’s whole hand drawn animation department and Star Wars gaming ought to get the attention of the comic book world. I keep hearing people say Disney and Warner Bros “need” the comic book divisions in order to create new IP. I can’t take that seriously at all. The companies make a few movies per year and have decades worth of characters to employ.
    The plug could be pulled at any moment.”
    Yeah, though I’d imagine that when and if it comes down to that, the characters would licensed out other publishers, who in turn might have even worse work-for-hire deals than the Big Two.

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