Work for a Corporation or Work for Yourself

Realities of the Comic Book Marketplace

In a previous article on creator rights in the American comic book industry, we discussed the practice of working creatively on a corporate-owned character such as Superman. Of course, working for a corporation is not the only way to live as a comic book artist. Another option open to illustrators is to build an audience doing work-made-for-hire on corporate characters before moving on to creator-owned material, hoping the audience will follow. This is an option that has existed for decades, and one which defined the landscape of mainstream comics in America in the 1990s. At that time, comic book artist Rob Liefeld and six other popular artists from Marvel to form Image, a company where those artists owned the intellectual properties they created. Liefeld was 23 at the time and sold more than 1 million copies of Image’s premiere comic, his creation Youngblood, cementing the fact that a properly marketed independent title could perform just as well (in fact, far better) than anything released by Marvel or DC. “Look at what I accomplished when I was a youngster...match that punk!” he once said enthusiastically. From Image’s formation in 1992 to 1996, when he resigned from Image to completely self-publish, Liefeld himself earned $27 million from publishing his own titles and those of artists who in turn did work-made-for-hire for him without retaining ownership of their work.

Today, despite a vast personal fortune and a library of trademarked characters that exceeds 500, Liefeld again works for Marvel on projects the company owns. In fact, the publishing rights for the characters he created and once owned outright was in dispute for a time. “The legal maneuvering has begun and will continue for quite some time until the matter is settled,” he said recently. “I have not shepherded my characters to perfection. But I have always put their creative interests at the fore.” Thus, Liefeld was temporarily unable to even publish his own characters because of past business dealings where he sold portions of his interest in the multimedia rights of his characters.

However, just because Liefeld has 500 of his own characters does not mean he is not still willing to work on corporate-owned characters anymore. Since 1996, when he returned to Marvel for a best-selling run on Captain America, Liefeld has done stints on Marvel and DC books, most recently a run on DC's Deathstroke that he both wrote and illustrated. Unfortunately, sales on comics published by Liefeld continued to decline since their height in the early 1990s, a combination of chronic late-shipping coupled with an aging audience that led to diminished interest in his creations. “The days of an artist being able to build an audience and credibility are gone until someone else forces it into being,” he said. “Image burned too many people and as a good friend told me, hot artists are bad for management.”

What may be even worse for management, though, is a hot artist that cannot deliver in a timely manner. While certain creators can still drive sales, consistency is key in maintaining an audience in serial fiction. DC found proof of this through the steady publication of 52, a comic published every week for 52 weeks from 2006-2007. The creative team consisted of four writers and a rotating roster of illustrators to keep the trains running on time, and the result was a comic that made more money for the company than any other title over that year of publication. This was because the publisher had the opportunity to sell more than four times as many issues of 52 as of their other regular titles, which generally only publish 12 issues per year. And many regular titles were not even able to meet the customary one per month shipping schedule, as books such as Action Comics, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern faced numerous delays and issues from fill-in creative teams during that same time period, both of which dampened sales figures.

“The ‘event’ related [books] can be counted on to stir sales and can be handled by multiple talents that are switched and inter-changed like lego pieces,” said Liefeld of the trend. “52 re-enforces this notion. Character and event driven books don't talk back, miss deadlines or ask for raises.”

But for the rarefied stratum of comics creator who can achieve both high sales and critical acclaim for the company on any project they approach regardless of how long it may take them to complete it, a corporation is willing to allow a lot of creative slack for that artist, or “tweak” the creative conditions, as independent artist Dave Sim puts it. “‘Tweaking’ is do-able”. Marvel does ‘tweak.’ Obviously Marvel would ‘tweak’ for, say, Frank Miller,” Sim said of the artist known for creating some of the most seminal mainstream comics works of the last 30 years, with projects that include The Dark Knight Returns, Daredevil: Man Without Fear and his creator-owned Sin City. And at this point in his career, Miller cannot see it any other way, as he told the Los Angeles Times.

“I am going to do things my way. It's the only way I know how, and it's how I got here,” said Miller, referring to his success in Hollywood with film adaptations of his works Sin City and 300, movies notable for being almost literal page-by-page adaptations of the source work rather than the more typical patchwork quality in many comic-adapted films. “They finally realized that my vision is the way to do it. And I couldn't agree more.”

The Curious Case of Alan Moore

More on Creator's Rights

Miller’s words echo the sentiments, if not the concrete assertion, of a note written by Sim in the 1980s, about his perception of editors in the production of a creative work. “No creative person is apt, in the middle of producing a piece of work, to say to themselves, ‘Gee. I really don’t know what I want the next two pages of my story to be like. I think I’ll phone [an editor] and ask them what I should do.’”

When Sim originally wrote those words, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and another classic, Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, had both recently been published by DC. However, because of disputes between talent and management about the promotional materials sold by DC without compensating the artists, Miller and Moore at the time stated they would never work for the company again. Eventually, with capitulation to terms by the company, both men returned to work for DC, but in the case of Moore, exceedingly special arrangements had to be made. And those arrangements are the subject of the next article in this series, regarding the creative process of comic book creators such as Moore.