It's Impossible To Make Money for Most Writers and Artists in Comics

Marvel and DC use their characters to tell stories about justice, heroism, and, righting historical wrongs, but their creators are left to flounder.
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Image Source: Disney

Comic books—and the characters that inhabit their pages—have never been more mainstream, but the writers and artists who work in comics say it's way too hard to make a living in the industry.

Last week, some of the biggest names in comics announced that they were making a deal with Substack to publish original works on the platform. Batman writer James Tynion IV said in the inaugural post that he was excited to "dedicate my whole brain to building a bunch of really cool stuff on my own terms, without having to get permission from any publisher to make it."

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Substack framed this as an investment in talent, pouring money into an industry where creators say that they aren't earning much. But people who work in comics have seen this happen before, and sources told Motherboard that they are unsure the kinds of deals that the biggest names in comics have made with Substack will benefit other people in the industry much, if at all.

"Every once in a while an outfit will show up just with millions burning holes in their pockets, and they will absolutely be the coolest kid in the room for two, three years. They will pay huge amounts to fan favorites to produce work," C. Spike Trotman, founder and editor of independent comics publisher Iron Circus, told Motherboard. "More often than they don't, they reach the bottom of the war chest and they kind of drop out of sight. They sink beneath the waves. I'm not going to say that's what's going to happen to Substack, I don't know their financial situation. But it's not an unfamiliar phenomenon."

Multiple surveys of comic book writers, pencilers, inkers, colorists, and letterers show how bad the underlying problem is. According to an industry survey from Fair Page Rates, which surveyed 123 creators in 2015, Marvel offered an average rate of $81.43 per page for writers, and $372 for line art. DC's breakdown was broadly similar, at $111 for writers and $352 for line art. In a 2017 Creator Resource Survey, the average rate per page for writing at Marvel was $60, and the average page rate for line art was $173. DC fared slightly better, with an average of $99 per page of writing, though there wasn't enough data to determine an average rate for line art. (These low rates mean that the production of comics art for even major companies is in many cases essentially subsidized by the artists' relatively lucrative sales of their original, physical art.) 

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Motherboard reached out to Marvel and DC to ask about the rates they pay for art and writing, but they did not respond in time for publication.

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Multiple sources told Motherboard that in the time since those surveys, not a lot has changed. One artist, who asked to remain anonymous because they still work in the industry, provided art for a popular licensed intellectual property on a work-for-hire basis and said that they were paid $170 per page. They said that each page took from six to eight hours. Assuming one keeps an eight hour work day, for a full day of work, pay at this rate works out to $21.25 an hour. Because this work is for hire, it means this artist also has to deal with all the economic difficulties of not having a regular salaried job.

"Because comics are SO labor intensive, it's hard to balance multiple comics gigs, and so often folks have to find alternate revenue sources like Patreon or Twitch or making prints & merchandise (which is all still laborious), or relying on employed partners," this artist said. "And since cons couldn't be a thing during the pandemic, that was also a huge loss of income for a lot of people."

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Substack's entrance into the field—and that of rivals, should any decide to join the fray—may or may not lead to direct increases in income for writers and artists. It will, though, do something to address another central problem in the industry, one that has long contributed to the success of independent publishers like Image.

One consequence of doing work for hire is that ultimately, what you produce doesn't belong to you—in a literal sense, writers and artists for major publishers generally don't own the characters they're writing and drawing. Superman is owned by DC, and Spider-Man is owned by Marvel, even if I write stories about them on the company's behalf, and that's almost invariably still true even if I invent new friends and foes for them. Writers like Ed Brubaker, who created the Winter Soldier featuring in the eponymous Falcon and Winter Soldier show, get little more than token recognition when their creations are turned into derivative properties, even ones featuring in movies grossing billions. A check in the area of $5,000—reportedly what Marvel creators are paid when their inventions are used in movies—does not reflect the work he put into what is now a popular, and lucrative, character for Marvel and its parent company Disney, or its value. But comics corporations have no obligation to offer more. If you want to write about the characters you grew up reading, you don't have a lot of leverage—there are so many other writers and artists who grow up with the same dream.

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Original and new creations also fall prey to this system. In December of last year, Disney announced a show based on RiRi Williams, a young Black girl who builds her own Iron Man-style suit. The character was popularized by Eve L. Ewing, who wrote the Ironheart series, whose assistant told Motherboard, "She does not retain any rights pertaining to Ironheart nor is she expecting any additional compensation from the forthcoming Disney+ show."

One-sided work arrangements don't only affect writers and artists economically, but creatively. Imagine you're a writer at Marvel, and you have a great idea for an arc. Your bosses love this idea so much they cancel the book you've been working on—after only 10 issues—so you can concentrate on turning your pitch into a huge event. During an already bittersweet moment, you have to rush a final issue of your book out the door, and the final product includes things you didn't write, some of which end up becoming a minor scandal. 

In a recent podcast with Leah Williams, writer for the recently canceled X-Factor book and writer for the upcoming Trial of Magneto, she describes this happening to her. She also says at the end of the day, Marvel has the right to use its intellectual property in this way.

"X-Factor #10 was kind of my first experience learning how little control I have. There are pages I didn't write and were added to the issue after the fact. There was dialogue I didn't write. I kind of found out around the same time readers did," Williams said. "This is a huge company, this is their IP and they're allowed to do that kind of thing without me being involved in the process."

That's the reality for many people working on comics—when you work for Marvel or DC, the things you create aren't owned by you, and what becomes of them is ultimately dictated by a myriad of forces outside of your control. And even for the most successful creators, it's hard to access the fruits of your success. Marvel and DC use their characters to tell stories about justice, heroism, and, increasingly, righting historical wrongs. The fact that the increasingly diverse creators who tell them get the same old treatment seems like an ever-more glaring blind spot.

Correction: Due to an editorial error, this story initially referred to Ironheart as Eve Ewing's creation; Brian Michael Bendis created the character.