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On Aug. 9, a shot across the bow was fired at DC Comics as star Batman writer James Tynion IV left his longtime publishing home at the WarnerMedia division for the upstart newsletter platform Substack Pro. To hear Tynion tell it — which he did, on Substack — the writer had a choice: Sign a new three-year exclusive contract with DC or a contract with the San Francisco-based platform. “I remember sending it to my lawyer asking if it could be real because it was exactly the kind of offer I was dreaming would fall out of the sky and into my lap,” he wrote of Substack’s offer.
Sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that Tynion nabbed around $500,000 for an upfront fee, with, importantly, Substack making no claim to the intellectual property created during that time. Meaning, in addition to a revenue split on a $7-a-month subscription fee, Tynion holds rights to sell IP to studios for future film or TV adaptations. His first comic for Substack, Blue Book, begins later in September.
That deal may mark a paradigm shift for top creators who work at major comics firms like studio-owned Marvel and DC, known within the industry as the Big Two, as well as those at midlevel publishers. Just as Substack’s lucrative offers to top journalists invited a wave of media pros at outlets like The New York Times or Vox Media to become independent operators and decamp for upfront payments to start subscription-based newsletters, Hollywood may be the next target for Substack. The venture capital-funded newsletter platform is investing heavily in enlisting creators for its push into original comic books, with one source pegging the figure north of $30 million over the next few years.
In the wake of Tynion’s move, several other creators have signed with Substack, including Jonathan Hickman, the author who reinvigorated Marvel’s X-Men line in 2019, and Justice League and Iron Man: Noir writer Scott Snyder, who signed a Substack Pro deal to launch an online comics writing class. Substack’s initiative is headed by Nick Spencer, a longtime writer who has worked on such titles as Amazing Spider-Man and Captain America and who is leading the outreach after joining the company in June. “Better than doing research, he has actually lived the experience as a comics creator and fully understands the perspective and needs of his peers in the industry,” Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie says of Spencer in an email.
Substack is part of a wave of platforms — including Amazon-owned ComiXology — that are seeking to create comics for the digital age as the medium is booming. In 2020, graphic novel and comic sales in North America totaled about $1.28 billion, up 6 percent year-over-year, per industry analysts Milton Griepp and John Jackson Miller.
On Substack Pro, top creators receive a one-time upfront payment from the company with no expectation of output beyond the publication of a set number of newsletters available only to paying subscribers. Substack takes 85 percent of all revenue generated by the paid subscriptions, leaving the remaining amount to the creators. At the end of one year, that split essentially reverses, with Substack taking 10 percent of generated revenue and creators receiving 90 percent. Most enticingly, whatever intellectual content is created using the Substack funds remains the sole ownership of its creators. McKenzie adds that the company wants to “enable comic creators to have full ownership of their work, mailing lists, and more.”
That offer may prove appealing for some. “People work at DC or Marvel because they love the characters and want the exposure,” says one insider at the Big Two, adding that top talent at both can make well into the six figures. This source, however, concedes that Substack money is becoming the writer equivalent of Netflix dough to creatives when the streamer initially courted Hollywood’s top talent extravagantly as it jumped into programming. “They have deep pockets,” says another source, a comics creator who was approached by Substack, noting, “They are paying for names.”
While Marvel or DC may choose to counteroffer and keep their top talent with new deals, Substack’s new offers may impact the midlevel publishers like Image Comics, Dark Horse, Boom! Studios, Vault or Aftershock, home to titles like The Walking Dead, Lumberjanes, Umbrella Academy and Barbaric.
These publishers try to nurture talent and give both up-and-comers and established writers a place to create original properties, which then can get scooped up by Hollywood. Some of these publishers rely on studio option money and producer fees and may have their own dedicated divisions to handle adaptations. One executive at a comics company, commenting on Substack’s lucrative move into the space, warns: “This is a message to publishers: ‘Justify your existence!’”
However, another executive thinks any death knell is premature. “Not everyone can be a Tynion,” says one mid-tier comics exec who believes “creators will discover that running everything on their own is not easy.” Many observers, however, agree that companies will have to find ways to lock down talent in ways they haven’t before from either getting poached by DC and Marvel or lured away by Substack or its rivals.
That would include Amazon’s digital comics platform ComiXology, which has been publishing original content since 2018. ComiXology’s business model — which allows readers to purchase individual comics in addition to subscribing to a monthly service that provides access to a curated reading list — is more traditional than Substack’s approach, with ComiXology acting as both retailer and publisher. “We see the benefit for making a longterm investment with creators, especially those creating exciting and challenging work in multiple genres. Great content always resonates and we’re betting on the future,” says ComiXology head of content Chip Mosher. A clear benefit for investing in original comics content is a synergistic one for Amazon, with its studios division developing two ComiXology titles for Prime Video: Curt Pires and Alex Diotto’s Youth and Chip Zdarsky and Jason Loo’s The All-Nighter.
Meanwhile, Substack’s business — aside from the lucrative upfront payments — may resemble a new twist on a reader-revenue model in place on a platform that has been home to comics creators for many years: Kickstarter. To date in 2021, $18.6 million has been raised this year alone for comics creators, with 1,253 projects successfully funded, the company says. That approach, however, may be primarily open to well-known and even emerging creators “with a sophisticated crowdfunding strategy that leverages strong audience support from a devoted fanbase,” notes Kickstarter’s director of publishing and comics outreach Oriana Leckert.
While Substack may begin to make noise in Hollywood, there is no guarantee that the format of newsletter comics will be embraced. Recent history is littered with companies that tried to shake up the status quo — Tekno Comix, Crossgen Comics, Virgin Comics — by attracting talent with big dollars only to flame out without a long-term business model. And without ancillary revenue from film or TV adaptations, it’s an open question how long Substack will want to spend big on top comic creators. But there also is plenty of optimism in the industry, even among those that will be disrupted. Says one source who works at a traditional publisher, “Experimentation in distribution, money coming into the industry, it’s all good for the business.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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