Today is the premiere of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+, and unfortunately not everyone associated with the characters is celebrating. In the latest installment of his newsletter, former Captain America writer and Winter Soldier co-creator Ed Brubaker has expressed “mixed feelings” over the series, and over Marvel and Disney’s treatment of the creators behind their cash cows.
In his semi-regular newsletter, Brubaker typically includes recommendations for things by other people that are coming out soon. That section this week, which included a few books and movies including Happily and The Kid Detective, closed with his thoughts on the newly-debuted MCU series:
And of course, today the FALCON AND WINTER SOLDIER show debuts on Disney+, which I sadly have very mixed feelings about. I’m really happy for Sebastian Stan, who I think is both a great guy and the perfect Bucky/Winter Soldier, and I’m glad to see him getting more screen time finally. Also, Anthony Mackie is amazing as the Falcon, and everyone at Marvel Studios that I’ve ever met (all the way up to Kevin Feige) have been nothing but kind to me… but at the same time, for the most part all Steve Epting and I have gotten for creating the Winter Soldier and his storyline is a “thanks” here or there, and over the years that’s become harder and harder to live with. I’ve even seen higher-ups on the publishing side try to take credit for my work a few times, which was pretty galling (to be clear, I’m NOT talking about Tom Breevort, who was a great editor and really helpful).
So yeah, mixed feeling, and maybe it’ll always be like that (but I sure hope not). Work-for-hire work is what it is, and I’m honestly thrilled to have co-created something that’s become such a big part of pop culture – or even pop subculture with all the Bucky-Steve slash fiction – and that run on Cap was one of the happiest times of my career, certainly while doing superhero comics. Also, I have a great life as a writer and much of it is because of Cap and the Winter Soldier bringing so many readers to my other work. But I also can’t deny feeling a bit sick to my stomach sometimes when my inbox fills up with people wanting comments on the show.
So… I’m sure I’ll watch it, and you should too if you’re a Marvel movie universe fan, but I’ll probably be waiting a while to check it out myself. So please don’t email me any spoilers, I guess, but go give Sebastian Stan lots of love wherever he is online.
Brubaker and artist Steve Epting reintroduced Bucky Barnes in his current iteration as The Winter Soldier back in 2005. Their depiction very clearly formed the basis of the character as it is known in the MCU, from the origin to Bucky’s new hairdo.
When the character made the jump to the big screen in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Brubaker had a small cameo in the film, a pretty common perk in the current studio system for creating the IP on which superhero blockbusters are based.
But surely creating a character as beloved and meme-inspiring as The Winter Soldier comes with some monetary recompense as well? That’s where this becomes more troubling.
Both Marvel and DC are known for paying “creator equity participation” to the creators of characters who are used on screen. This sounds great, but in practice, it’s a tangled trail. First off, today’s comics characters have many many fathers and mothers — the long list of “Thanks” in the WandaVision credits is just one example. Sorting out who gets what is no easy task. Also just what money is being shared is often not a lot. Creators who have had their characters used in the sprawling CW DC Arrowverse often say payments amount to the cost of a moderate dinner.
DC is known for formerly scrupulous accounting over every scrap of creator participation – although even this has been fading away under the new AT&T regime.
At Marvel, things are much less clear, and even before Disney bought them, they had a pretty awful track record of giving creators a payment for the use of their characters. Marv Wolfman famously sued over Blade, and lost. Joe Simon sued over Captain America, and of course there was the famous suit by Jack Kirby’s family against Marvel and then later Disney.
In all of these cases, there was no question about who created the character. Unfortunately, most of the work was under “work for hire” contracts which publishers said gave them all the rights to the characters.
Marvel/Disney eventually settled with both Simon and the Kirby estate — it could be argued that things improved under Disney, oddly enough, because the studio understood that the image of an impoverished but beloved older creator shaking his/her fist at a corporate giant making a billion dollars off of their work was a bad look. Frankly, the money needed to make these creators happy was so small in the greater scheme of things that it was a sound investment for Disney.
While Marvel hasn’t been as forthcoming in their creator equity payments as DC — in part because they have no paperwork backing any of this up, but that’s another story — they have made some people happy. Len Wein, co-creator of Wolverine, was treated well, by his own account. Jim Starlin calmly pointed out drawings of Thanos in his high school notebooks, and you never heard another peep out of him because Marvel/Disney knew the costs of a legal battle would be even more. With so much of Starlin’s work underlying the entire Infinity Gems storyline, Disney knew a happy creator was their best option. (Starlin got the requisite creator cameo as well.)
A more complicated case is Rocket Raccoon co-creator Bill Mantlo — who has been hospitalized for years after an accident. While Marvel did pay enough to cover his basic care costs, Mantlo’s brother, who is his caregiver, ran an Indiegogo to cover his own $100,000 in debt, leading to a lot of discussion and criticism of whether Marvel should do more.
Which brings us back to Brubaker and Epting. That they created the version of Bucky that the world knows and loves in the MCU is indisputable. The nature of work-for-hire is that the publisher owns all of the characters and stories created by the writers/artists/etc. behind the work, and Brubaker acknowledges that reality. Although he must get royalties from increased sales of the Winter Soldier books by Marvel, the fact that he gets no more creator equity, given the vast success of this character, is indeed, troubling.
Since his Winter Soldier days, Brubaker has turned to creator-owned work, including his incredible partnership with Sean Phillips on an ongoing series of stories. He’s hardly the tragic older figure that some creators who went up against Marvel are; Brubaker has had the options given to him by the long fight for creators’ rights in comics, and taken full advantage of them.
But that’s doesn’t make Marvel/Disney stiffing him and Steve Epting any more palatable.
Perhaps Brubaker raising the topic again in his newsletter will reignite discussion about creator compensation, and lead Marvel/Disney to reconsider things. Perhaps they already paid out what was legally obligated by the contracts The Winter Soldier was created under. But there’s something to be said for just doing the right thing. After all, all that IP didn’t come from nowhere….it came from real people with real bills to pay.
– Additional reporting by Joe Grunenwald