A few weeks ago the #comicsbrokeme hashtag was trending on social media. I, like so many others, was both saddened and unsurprised by the stories I read. The comics industry is notorious for low pay, bad hours, and poor treatment, and the stories shared recently only show that things have not improved.
As an attorney who works with comic book creators, seeing these stories frustrates me and, to some extent, breaks me too. I have seen firsthand some of the deals publishers, studios, and others offer comic book creators, and too often they are terrible. Flippantly, it is easy to say that the only way to avoid a bad deal in comics publishing is to not sign any deals. Creators can get screwed over at every stop along the creative process: by other creators, by agents, by publishers, and by producers/studios. If only the bad deals were just work-made-for-hire deals, it might be easier to handle, but they have even pervaded “creator-owned” comics. Even with lawyers, agents, and other advisors counseling them on the strengths and weaknesses of deals, creators still often accept bad deals—mostly because they feel they have to in order to advance their careers and because they don’t feel like they have other options.
I wish I had answers, but the only answer I have is to say no, which I have discussed on this blog previously. And I know that saying no can be incredibly hard for many creators. Perhaps the best way to protect yourself, at least in the creator-owned space, is to know what matters the most to you and not compromise on it. Do you want to make sure you retain ownership and control over your work]? Don’t compromise. Don’t give publishers an interest in your copyright. Don’t let others make decisions about your work without your permission. Is it fair pay? Figure out ways to structure the deal so that you are a more even footing with other creators, publishers, etc. Do you just want to make sure you get paid? Then make sure you get paid upfront, or on a fixed schedule, at a rate you can live with. These are not certain solutions, but they tend to avoid some of the worst heartbreak I see—at least in creator-owned.
For work-made-for-hire comics, things won’t improve until publishers are forced to improve working conditions. It may happen from guilt; it may happen due to a change in the law. Like I said above, I don’t have great answers—other than saying no. Say no to poor pay. Say no to unrealistic deadlines. Say no to terrible treatment.
Unless something changes, the only way to protect yourself is to stand up for yourself, and hopefully, by standing up for yourself, you may inspire change.