Marvel and DC’s “Shut-Up Money”: Comic Creators Go Public Over Pay

The star writers and artists behind major comic book characters are becoming increasingly outspoken about "paltry" deals that don’t account for their work being adapted into billion-dollar blockbusters.

Marvel fans were flying high with the release of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, as the Disney+ series rose to top Nielsen’s closely watched streaming chart with 855 million minutes viewed during the April 12-18 frame. Yet one person fans were surprised to learn wasn’t watching was Ed Brubaker.

The comic book writer, who co-created the Winter Soldier character and whose work helped inspire $1 billion grossers like 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, made waves with a widely circulated interview in which he expressed dissatisfaction with his Winter Soldier pay. “I have made more on SAG residuals than I have made on creating the character,” Brubaker told Kevin Smith and Marc Bernardin on the Fatman Beyond podcast, referencing his cameo in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). In May, Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose run on Black Panther comics helped the $1.2 billion- grossing Chadwick Boseman film get greenlit, backed Brubaker in an interview with Polygon, noting that he was fortunate not to depend on comics for a living. “I wish that Marvel found better ways to compensate the creators who helped make Black Panther Black Panther,” said Coates.

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Comic book history is full of stories of writers and artists who signed meager deals only to see their creations become icons, dating back to 1938, when Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster signed away the character for $130. But it was unusual to hear Brubaker and Coates, creators at the height of their careers, speak openly about the issue. It reignited a conversation about creator pay, and what obligation companies have to creators who signed contracts years before movies were grossing billions and media conglomerates were building streaming services on the backs of their characters.

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Creators working at Marvel and DC sign work-for-hire contracts granting the publishers ownership over their characters and storylines. While it’s relatively simple to determine who gets compensation for a character, insiders familiar with Marvel and DC contracts note that it gets murky when it comes to storylines being adapted for film. There is no concrete policy at either company.

Multiple comic creators have publicly stated that DC’s payments for adaptations, in general, is higher. Comic creator Jim Starlin turned heads in 2017 when he publicly noted that Warner Bros. paid him more for a minor character that appeared in DC’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice than he received for Marvel’s major Guardians of the Galaxy characters Thanos, Gamora and Drax combined. After Starlin’s airing of grievances, Disney renegotiated his deal for Thanos, the villain of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Those films went on to gross $4.83 billion globally, and Starlin, while not sharing details of his deal, walked away happy. “The cliche is that the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Starlin tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The way these agreements are written up, Disney can be more generous if they want. It is written right there that they can change the terms to make it better.”

There’s no legal obligation to make additional payments for adaptations, with companies such as Marvel viewing these payments as thank-you gifts — and a way to avoid the bad publicity of warring with a creator. “It’s ‘shut-up’ money,” as one Marvel creator who receives such payments, but also declined to share details of compensation, likes to call it. Even if companies have no legal obligation to compensate these writers and artists, paying more is akin to contract renegotiations with an actor. If a TV show or movie is a smash success, studios believe it makes sense to offer an actor more money for the sequel (or the next season of TV) to keep them happy. No one wants a bitter actor on set.

Since the 1970s, DC creators who added a new character to the mythos have been entitled to payments from film, TV and merchandising, an idea spearheaded by then-publisher Jenette Kahn. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, for example, drew upon the work of dozens of creators who received some form of compensation, sources say. Len Wein, the late Wolverine co-creator, said he received more money for creating Lucius Fox, the Batman character played by Morgan Freeman in Nolan’s films, than for creating the iconic X-Men hero portrayed by Hugh Jackman in nine movies.

For years, the job of determining payments on something like The Dark Knight fell to Paul Levitz, who served as DC’s president and publisher from 2002 to 2009. One payment category was money owed for creating a character. Other categories were murkier, such as comic storylines Nolan borrowed from, like the classic storyline The Long Halloween by writer Jeff Loeb and artist Tim Sale. Then there were categories even less easy to define.

“Christian Bale liked looking at Tim Sale’s work before he would go out and strike a pose,” says Levitz. “I’m not sure how you value that. But when you have a movie that is as successful as Batman Begins or Dark Knight, it says that there’s something there. And you should say thank you in some fashion.”

Conventional wisdom within the comic book industry is to go to Marvel and DC to build your personal brand, then leave, bringing that audience over to publishers that allow you to retain character rights.

“It’s copyrighted by you,” says comic book historian Alex Grand. “When the movie people come, they are talking to you, not Marvel.”

Todd McFarlane was among the creators who popularized this notion as the co-founder of Image Comics (publisher of The Walking Dead). He launched the publisher in 1992 after becoming a star writer-artist on Marvel’s Spider-Man, where he co-created Venom. McFarlane gets checks for Venom, which has a new movie due out from Sony in September.

“You are paying the original creators crumbs,” says McFarlane. “The first person who says we’re going to pay three times crumbs is going to look like a genius and have a flood of talent coming in your direction.”  McFarlane is taking that lesson to heart as he attempts to build out a shared universe based on Spawn, the popular character he owns and is developing into a movie with Blumhouse. “I’m putting together a contract that will address that in a much more significant way,” McFarlane says of recruiting creators to contribute.

Levtiz had a similar viewpoint at DC. “It’s really good business,” says Levitz, who is now retired. “No contract can cover every possibility in a creative world.
If you act in a fashion where you treat people in a way that they think they’ve been treated fairly, the next creative person is more interested in working for you.”

When a creator has created dozens of characters, it can be a full-time job trying to make sure credit is given where it’s due. Former Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas receives checks for his characters. If there are issues, he takes them up with two Marvel employees who act as an in-between to the Disney side. Earlier this month, Thomas flagged that he wasn’t being properly credited on Loki for his role in creating the Time Keepers, the mysterious beings at the center of the Disney+ show. Thomas, who is positive about his relationship with Marvel and has long maintained satisfaction with his treatment by the company, was assured it would be fixed. On July 7, Thomas’ manager, John Cimino skipped to the end of that week’s episode and was disappointed not to see his clients’ name. A few days later, Cimino checked out Black Widow and was happy to confirm Thomas was thanked for his role in co-creating Red Guardian, the character played by David Harbour. And he was relieved to tune into July 14’s Loki finale to see Thomas credited as requested.

“A lot of people want that money. For me, wouldn’t you want to have your name there forever?” says Cimino.

Credit and legacy is indeed key for many. The 2017 documentary Batman & Bill chronicles the campaign waged by the family and supporters of the late Bill Finger to get the writer credit as co-creator of Batman. As documented in the film, Warner Bros. offered granddaughter Athena Finger money in exchange for ending claims on the character around the release of 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. The family persisted, and in 2015 he was awarded co-creator status.

Credit can be so important that it can even lead to surprising behavior. THR learned of an instance in which the co-creator of an A-list DC character secretly maneuvered behind-the-scenes to have themselves listed as the sole creator on paper, with regard to merchandise or adaptations, cutting their partner out of payments. According to a knowledgeable source, the other co-creator only learned of this maneuvering years later when a Warner Bros. theatrical employee noticed the discrepancy ahead of the release of a movie featuring the character. (The wronged co-creator now receives payments, but is said to not be on friendly terms with their former collaborator.)

Starlin, who has made peace with Marvel over Thanos and speaks positively of his relationships there, has another 1970s creation hitting the big screen Sept. 3: Shang-Chi. He notes he hasn’t heard if Disney will be giving him pay beyond the “paltry sum” in his original deal. Says Starlin with a laugh: “Let’s see what happens. You may have me squeaking.”

A version of this story first appeared in the July 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.