In Avengers: Endgame, Tony Stark says, “I love you 3000.” Little did we know, he was actually describing the amount of money Marvel (and DC) typically pay the creators of the comic books where these stories originate.
Avengers: Endgame made $2.8 billion at the box office. Most comic book creators get checks for about $5,000 and an invitation to the premiere of the movie they helped inspire.
On August 9, The Guardian published a damning new report on familiar news: The monoliths behind Marvel and DC underpay writers, artists, and creators whose comic book creations inspire big-screen adventures. A few weeks earlier on July 16, The Hollywood Reporter published its own story that called low sums of payment as “Shut-up Money” in its headline.
Both outlets centered on celebrated comic book writer Ed Brubaker, who was shut out of film premieres for Captain America: The Winter Soldier in 2014 and expressed “mixed feelings” in his newsletter about the Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
In an April 2021 appearance on Kevin Smith’s podcast Fat Man Beyond, Brubaker said: “There’s nothing preventing anyone at Marvel from looking over how much the Winter Soldier has been used in all this stuff and calling me and [co-creator] Steve Epting and saying, ‘You know what, we’re going to try to adjust the standard thing so you guys feel good about this.'”
Brubaker is just one person, but his situation is a microcosm for hundreds of other comic creators whose stories and characters for Marvel and DC — almost always in work-for-hire capacities — make the leap to Hollywood. But outside seeing their names in credits, which fans only stick around for to watch the next teaser, these creators get little thanks.
This isn’t just a question of giving credit where credit’s due, it’s a bigger problem facing the superhero industry right now. If comic book writers and artists feel less compelled to produce noteworthy original ideas for Marvel and DC, that could mean an end to the original ideas that power the biggest genre in Hollywood today.J
Journalist Reed Tucker, who wrote Slugfest, a nonfiction chronicle of Marvel and DC’s historic rivalry, tells Inverse these consequences are already being felt.
“Marvel and DC aren't in danger of losing out,” Tucker says. “They've already been losing out for decades.”
“No one is going to give away the next Superman to Marvel or DC these days.”
In the late ‘70s, creator compensation “got a lot of attention” when industry giants like Jack Kirby, and Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, had public spats with publishers over inadequate payment for their popular works, Tucker says.
“At that point, a lot of writers and artists began to become more aware that they weren't going to be fairly compensated for their creations, so many of them stopped creating new characters for Marvel and DC. That's why — in part — if you look at the last few years, most of the ‘new’ characters are derivative of existing characters or gender-swapped heroes, like Lady Bullseye or Jane Foster Thor. No one is going to give away the next Superman to Marvel or DC these days.”
In the story by The Guardian, the most revealing bit of information is Marvel’s “company practice” to send a check for just $5,000 and an invitation to the premiere of the film or TV show. (Brubaker’s story is proof even that isn’t guaranteed, telling The Guardian he was only able to attend the premiere of the 2014 Captain America sequel by texting actor Sebastian Stan, who played his creation Winter Soldier on the screen, for help past security.)
Given that any given Marvel or DC film includes characters and/or stories inspired, however loosely, by an existing work made by real people, the $5,000 payment feels paltry when the same superhero movies continue to set box office records. Even during a pandemic.
The Guardian further looked into both Marvel and DC’s respective contracts — “special character contract” at Marvel, and “creator equity” at DC — and describes them as “ways to keep creators happy enough that they don’t hold back all of their original creations for competitors.”
Further illustrating how bizarre writers receive any money for their work: Jim Starlin wrote on Facebook in 2017 he’s received more money from Warner Bros. for using a version of his DC villain KGBeast (in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) than he’s received from Marvel Studios for Thanos, his iconic villain who ruled the big screen in the MCU.
Brubaker, too, has said he’s seen more money from “SAG residuals” for his cameo role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (his one line was cut) than for actually creating The Winter Soldier in the Marvel Universe.
That Marvel and DC fail to appropriately pay creators what they’re owed is not a new story. DC infamously paid Schuster and Siegel just $130 ($2,505 today, adjusted for inflation) for Superman, the prototype for the modern superhero. It wasn’t until relentless campaigning by the comic book community during the release of Superman in 1978 that Schuster and Siegel finally received appropriate payments for creating a global icon.
Unfortunately, the saga continued, and Hollywood’s nearly 30-year obsession with comic book adaptations — which also means further merchandise and royalty mathematics — has made the disparities far more severe.
In the 1980s, Watchmen and V For Vendetta creator Alan Moore soured on working for DC over the low payments he received in profits of his heavily-acclaimed Watchmen series, and his lack of payment at all from royalties for related merchandise. In 2006, prompted by the release of the film V For Vendetta, he recounted to The New York Times how he left DC: "I said, 'Fair enough.' You have managed to successfully swindle me, and so I will never work for you again.”
In the early ‘90s, Marvel saw an exile of its best talent at the time, including Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, and more. The group founded Image Comics, which prioritized creator’s copyrights over their work. Some of Image’s biggest successes include Spawn, The Walking Dead, Invincible, and Kick-Ass, all of which have made their way into films and TV.
In a 2021 interview with Polygon, author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who spent years as the writer of both Marvel’s Black Panther and Captain America comic series, laments the treatment of talent.
“I wish that Marvel found better ways to compensate the creators who helped make Black Panther Black Panther. I wish that they found better ways to compensate the folks who made Captain America Captain America,” Coates said. “I wish they found ways to compensate the author of the greatest Winter Soldier stories that you’re ever going to read ... The corporate side of this is not pretty. It’s not pretty at all. How you treat people who create the basis for this, I don’t love it.”
It should be said that Brubaker and Coates have both spoken highly of various levels of Marvel’s management. In his original newsletter that got the industry talking once again about equity, Brubaker went as far to write that “everyone at Marvel Studios that I’ve ever met (all the way up to Kevin Feige) have been nothing but kind to me.”
But kindness doesn’t pay bills, and creators are known to fall on hard times when work dries up. The mere existence of the non-profit charity Hero Initiative, which serves to provide assistance to artists in need, is illuminating.
“Marvel and DC will potentially miss out on a lot of great stories.”
Marvel, DC, and many other big comic book publishers have relied on freelancers to fill its pages with stories about good and evil, justice and injustice. But for many years the industry has taken advantage of talents, who in turn provide the basis for pop culture that gross billions worldwide. While the creators are not (normally) involved in the actual scriptwriting or filmmaking process, their imaginations still fuel everything fans latch onto. In that way, just a few thousand bucks hardly feels like a tall leap in a single bound.
Adds Reed Tucker: “One huge downside for the publishers is that some of the bigger talent will no longer work for them, instead preferring to create their own comics with characters they own. That means Marvel and DC will potentially miss out on a lot of great stories that could sell a lot of copies and could have been mined for TV and movies.”