We’re still in deadline hell and have a plane to catch so this topic should be a 3000 word essay, but we’ll just note it quickly. Two recent comics essays look at Paolo Rivera’s announcement that he’s giving up his Marvel exclusive in terms of a creator migration away from Marvel and DC. At MTV Geek Valerie Gallaher asks How Will Mainstream Comics Hold On To Their Talent?
Well, the issue is that having a regular gig at Marvel or DC has traditionally been a relatively cushy deal for artists and writers, especially if they have an exclusive (like the one Rivera walked away from at Marvel). Think about it: guaranteed work, royalties, maybe even health insurance. Whereas with a creator-owned comic — unless you have a progressive publisher willing to provide you with a deal where you keep some or all of your rights — you have to essentially set up your own business.
But, as in the case with Rivera, it boils down to owning your own characters and having enough equity to be able to survive the years when publishers aren’t knocking on your door (an issue made more urgent and timely since the tragic case of Static co-creator Robert Washington III).
Graeme McMillan has an even longer essay, Something in the air tonight which looks at a similar tide shift:
Whether it’s been Before Watchmen, the Avengers movie, the success of Saga and The Walking Dead (the fact that #100 is being estimated to be the top-selling book of the year, in a year when both Marvel and DC are desperately trying to outdo each other, makes me happy to an extent it’s difficult to describe and hard to explain the reasons for, I shamefacedly admit) or the tragic, truly heartbreaking news of the death of Robert L. Washington III, 2012 has been the year of … what? Creator rights? Not exactly, but perhaps people actually really thinking about creator rights and talking about it seriously again for the first time in … a decade? Longer?
Like I said, this should be a 3000 word article, but I’ll just briefly note this: Paolo Rivera is clearly one of the top talents of this generation as far as mainstream comics go. And all the stuff he did at Marvel was great but I always felt a little bad that we had never seen him bust out into his own thing. And now he has, posting some cryptic hints of his next project on Twitter:
Rivera’s moving on is clearly a very friendly one, but to be blunt, Marvel’s publishing infrastructure simply doesn’t support a new project by a creator—even one of Rivera’s stature. Icon is just for the chosen few (all writers). Other than that? What and how?
I’ll be even more blunt: you are simply not going to grow as a creator sticking with company-owned legacy projects all the time. The two hottest writers of the moment, Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire, both achieved great success with their own projects before taking on the DCU. And I suspect they’ll do more in the future when the New 52 is all in the rearview mirror. At Marvel, Kieron Gillen and Matt Fraction have similar resumes of books they created themselves. Just the other day, we were wondering about whatever happened to the superstar artist. Although it was batted about in the comments that you had to work on a top book before you became a superstar, I think you have to work on something that takes a total risk before you can be a superstar. Marvel and DC are not in the business of taking risks; they’re in the business of keeping their bottom lines from dropping, and they are in their office staring at those bottom lines right now with the intensity of that guy looking at the sonar screen in every submarine movie ever made.
In my post on Matt Groening ending Life in Hell, I noted that he had a great contract with Fox which, even though he doesn’t own the Simpsons, has made him very very rich many times over. Reading those old Life in Hell strips—and remembering the young journalist I used to see in LA riding the bus (the Angeleno equivalent of what leprosy is in every other city)—I became pretty amazed that he could wield that kind of clout with a studio like Fox. It’s not like he had a track record of much of anything except some cartoons, unlike, say, a Seth MacFarlane who had worked extensively in animation. James L Brooks knew Groening had something, though. Groening has proven he wasn’t just a flash in the pan, spearheading another successful show, a comic book company, and many other projects over the years. As I wrote yesterday, the Fox/Groening deal is a great example of how it should work: the company has the clout to make the Simpsons cartoon and to promote it all over the world, but the creator keeps a cut of EVERYTHING that happens and profits from it all. He’s kept happy and he does more great things for the company and everyone makes money. It’s all good.
Robert Kirkman is another example of this. I’d like to think that there will be more than two successful creators/entrepreneurs in the history of comics/media, so fingers crossed.
Okay I’m running out of time. But I’ll make it short and sweet: creators have to create. Marvel and DC no longer allow them to do that, except within rigidly proscribed guidelines. And the Paolo Riveras of the world are going to have to move on. It might not be too long before the Big Two are just steppingstones to get your name out there for even bigger things.
It’s beginning to dawn on the entire comics community that working for the Big Two isn’t really the only big opportunity in town; as you look at the grave of Robert Washington, you realize it might not even be a big opportunity at all.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.