by BK Munn
So I’ve been reading comics and about comics and their creators for decades now, and one common theme has been how hard it is to make a living and how unfair the North American “industry” is to those who work in it. I had a subscription to the Comics Journal when that issue about the Disney strike came out. I really thought something like a union for comics creators was an inevitability and was probably going to happen sometime in the late-80s. But I was a kid then, I guess. Still, even though I’m much more cynical now I can’t help but think a union would be a good idea.
The recent beginnings of organization in the comic book industry fan and creator community around issues of creator rights and renumeration have led to several online conversations about the need for some sort of union or guild for the people who write and draw comic books for corporate clients. Controversies involving Alan Moore and the Watchmen property, Gary Friedrich and Ghost Rider, Tony Moore/Robert Kirkman and The Walking Dead, and Jack Kirby and the bevy of characters he created and co-created while freelancing for Marvel, including Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and The Avengers, have highlighted the basic inequalities that have historically existed between creators and corporations in the business of comics in the North America.
In other industries, notably film and television, creative people and other professionals are largely protected by their membership in the various unions with standard agreements and pay scales that guarantee them a minimum standard of credit and payment. In book publishing, an industry perhaps more closely related to comics in some ways, a century of contracts negotiated by agents have resulted in a more-or-less fair system of advance payments, royalties and copyrights that benefit writers, illustrators, and publishers equally. So why not comics?
Historically, attempts at organizing creative people in the U.S. comics industry have been stifled by any number of factors. Comics is a very small business, with only a few thousand artists making a living in some way in the current system. Since the 1950s, workers no longer even work together in small sweatshops or bullpens, and are no longer concentrated in New York. A group of far-flung freelancers in going to be alot harder to organize than a group of people working together in a factory or animation studio. As well, the industry owners and publishers have always been very good at crushing even the talk of organization, playing one creator against another, and using the threat of termination or no work to scare people into accepting the status quo. Sometimes these threats have actually moved into the action stage, with writers and artists losing work/being fired for trying to fight for better rates and health benefits. These days, its possible for many people to make a good middle class living, all seemingly without the benefit of a labour organization. So who needs a union?
Add to this the fact that most people who create comics are highly individual, self-motivated people who for the most part just want to create art and entertainment in a medium they love, without having to join a group or pay dues for the privilege. And since most work from the major publishers is negotiated one-on-one with editors and the business agents of those companies, seemingly based on a system of meritocracy, most people who do this work see little need for anyone else’s participation in the process. Plus, and especially in today’s economic climate, most people seem just happy for the work. So who needs a union?
And of course, there are options outside of Marvel and DC. Since the days of the Undergrounds, smaller companies and self-publishers have existed that operate more like traditional book publishers, where authors negotiate contracts, keep the copyright to their creations, and receive royalties on all sales of their books. Rip-Off, Kitchen Sink, Fantagraphics, and Drawn and Quarterly have all been the poster children for this movement. All outside of the work-for-hire system. Image Comics provides a compelling alternative to creators who would like to create genre work and maintain control of their own characters and stories. Now graphic novels are big business, with success stories and bestsellers from a ton of “mainstream” book publishers, movie deals, and merchandise windfalls. So who needs a union?
The original work-for-hire contract was on the back of the checks given to creators after they had created work. What contracts there were were usually fairly insulting, like this one that Jack Kirby signed with Marvel in 1975. Imprints like Marvel’s Epic line had slightly different contracts, with new language about creating new characters. Daniel Best, who broke the Gary Friedrich story, has some documents from the case, including contracts and royalty statements for Ghost Rider reprints. The money he has earned from those reprints is miniscule. He has of course earned nothing from any other corporate iteration of the character he created. Marvel, on the other hand, has some great contracts by which it licenses the use of its characters to other companies. But who needs a union?
In 1978, during a time of instability in the comics publishing world, Neal Adams initiated The Comics Creators Guild along with original members Terry Austin, Mike W. Barr, Cary Bates, Rick Bryant, Michael Catron, Howard Chaykin, Chris Claremont, Tony DeZuniga, Steve Ditko, Peter B. Gillis, Michael Golden, Archie Goodwin, Klaus Janson, Joe Jusko, Alan Kupperberg, Paul Levitz, Rick Marschall, Roger McKenzie, Bob McLeod, Frank Miller, Michael Netzer (Nasser), Martin Pasko, Carl Potts, Ralph Reese, Marshall Rogers, Josef Rubinstein, Jim Salicrup, James Sherman, Walt Simonson, Roger Slifer, Jim Starlin, Greg Theakston, Len Wein, Alan Weiss, Bob Wiacek, and Marv Wolfman. The Guild eventually fizzled out, in large part because of the DC Implosion threw a large number of freelancers out of work and made the competition for jobs tougher, with a reduction in page rates and even paying gigs a new bargaining chip to be used to threaten creators. So who needs a union?
At the same time, the industry was fighting for some sort of settlement for Superman creators Siegel and Shuster. An embarrassed DC, newly acquired by Warners and with a slate of Superman films hitting theaters, finally awarded an annual stipend to the duo and their byline still appears in the little “created by” box that accompanies every appearance of the character. Coupled with the growth of the direct market and the introduction of new publishers hyping creator-owned work, these events saw DC and Marvel begin to develop more creator-friendly deals, including royalties. DC seems to have the better royalty and incentive deal, and under Paul Levitz even made some effort to ensure that creators like Jack Kirby benefited retroactively for the creation of characters (Stephen Bissette is perhaps the most well-know example of this seeming largesse: he famously received a large payday for the use of a minor character he helped create in Swamp Thing when Hellblazer/Constantine became a Keanu Reeves movie.) Marvel, on the other hand, stops royalty payments after a few years and pays no royalties on foreign reprints and translations. Both companies have yet to iron out a cohesive digital policy, let alone royalties for digital. So who needs a union?
In 2000, the Hero Initiative started up as a non-profit to help out older comics creators in financial need. This charity, which counts an executive from Marvel on its board of directors, exists as a bandaid solution to the problem of an industry built almost entirely on the work of freelancers who work without benefits like medical insurance or retirement pension plans. So, when someone like Gary Friedrich reaches the end of his rope, loses his lawsuit against his former employer, and is then sued by the same former employer, the Hero Intitiative can step in and offer a few dollars in grant money. The charity is funded by donations from fans, pros, and as I understand it, some corporate donations, as well as tons of volunteer hours. Over ten years it has handed out over $500,000, which, if you think about it, would average around $1000 to 50 people per year. Not quite a viable retirement plan. So who needs a union?
Most recently, artist Tony Harris called for the formation of a Sequential Arts And Entertainment Guild, envisioned as an advocacy organization along the lines of the Graphic Artists Guild, that would collect dues, run workshops, and call attention to the plight of creator rights. Some big name creators like Steve Niles appear to have signed up, but aside from a recent manifesto of sorts on Harris’ blog, there have been no public announcements and Harris has severely curtailed his online presence since 2010. Things remain essentially as they were. So who needs a union?
One of the big comics-related stores last year was the saga of the Spider-Man musical. Plagued with a series of disasters before it opened, the director of the production, July Taymor, was eventually fired. Through the director’s union, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, she subsequently sued the producers for royalties due to her as the first director of the play, arguing that much of the staging has been retained by the subsequent director. Last week, the case was settled in Taymor’s favor, with the producers agreeing to pay her the approx. $10,000 per week she is owed. Still in contention are royalties owed Taymor as one of the original writers on the project. Apparently Taymor is pursuing the writing suit on her own, without benefit of a union, and some have speculated she may be on shakier ground since the actual story of the play has been changed to keep it more in line with previous iterations of the Spider-Man mythos, as originally constructed by Lee and Ditko and most recently reimagined for the movies. Even though she didn’t create Spider-Man and had nothing to do with writing and drawing the character for the last 50 years, Taymor stands to earn substantial royalties. I’m not sure how these things work out in the world of theater, but in film there is a very clear template for how credit is assigned, and a basic pay scale system is in place for everything from “based on characters and situations created by” to “story by” to “screenplay” and everything in between. The Writers Guild sees to that. But who needs a union?
The Animation Guild is local 800 of IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes and Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts. The Guild represents animators, writers and technicians, including some visual effects technicians at the Cartoon Network, Disney, Dreamworks, Fox, Sony, Universal, and many others. The current president of the Guild is Bob Foster, an animator, director, writer, and cartoonist (Disney Comics and the fondly-remembered 1980s Fantagraphics series Myron Moose Funnies). In the past, the Guild has helped Simpson animators get back pay from Klasky-Csupo, and currently negotiates contracts for studio employees that include vacation pay, health care, pensions, and more. But who needs a union?
Another guild within IATSE is local 800, the Art Directors Guild, which includes illustrators, storyboard artists and matte artists, and is different from the Writers Guild, which many comics professionals are already a member of. Comics are just storyboards for movie pitches, right? Besides making appearances at several comic cons in the U.S., one of the Art Directors Guild’s main job is fighting for credit of its members, like in the current case of the lack or credit for a production designer in the Tintin movie. Help with workplace grievances, portable health care, contracts, lack of payment, shady business deals. It wouldn’t hurt to talk to these guys. But who needs a union?
I think this is a conversation that should happen. Most union organizing has to happen using a fair amount of secrecy, but there is no harm in talking publicly about the issues and the unique needs of comics pros. Nor is there any harm in picking up a phone or emailing one of the organizations mentioned above.