A big name in the world of comics publishing arose in the ongoing drama of the Writers Guild of America strike last week. Marvel Studios emerged as one of a few production companies that signed side deals with the WGA, ensuring its movie-production efforts in 2008 and beyond would continue uninterrupted. Given how popular opinion seems to be solidly behind the picketing writers, it’s likely a good move on Marvel’s part, not only from a business perspective but also in terms of public relations, both within and outside the industry.
The move by Marvel Studios was applauded by several comics-industry observers, and understandably so. I found the announcement to be rather intriguing not for what it means for the development of future Marvel film projects, but instead about how it could give rise to a philosophical conundrum within the Marvel corporate structure.
The WGA strike has been primarily about compensation for wider distribution of work offered on the Internet and through home video. It’s a logical position; if one’s employer is making more money from one’s work through new avenues revenue, a corresponding bump in the value of that work ought to follow. One could argue it’s laudable for Marvel Studios to support this ideal by inking an agreement with the WGA, but let’s be realistic — the comic-book moviemaker made the deal to ensure its interests were addressed, not to ease the plight of striking scribes. And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with a business tending to its own priorities.
What I find interesting about the development is that Marvel has seemingly taken a different stance on creators’ rights when it comes to its publishing operations. It’s a work-for-hire outfit, and it’s clashed with creators in the past over the ownership of its properties and obligations to those whose ideas adorn the pages of its publications. Marv Wolfman sued Marvel over Blade, a comic-book character he created that ended up spawning not one but three movies. Steve Gerber has had idealistic clashes with “the House of Ideas” over Howard the Duck and other creations.
Is it hypocritical? Perhaps it might seem that way, at first glance. The two situations are completely different, though, at least from a business perspective. The Marvel Studios deal ensures that the production company can avail itself of writers — of any writer. The conflicts such as the Wolfman and Gerber scenarios each involve a single creator. Marvel Comics higher-ups know they can always find someone else to pen a script or illustrate 22 pages to fill its publications.
To give credit where credit is due, Marvel Comics does offer better benefits for talent today than it did decades ago. Royalties aplenty factor into compensation for creators these days, and in recent years, Marvel has even launched an imprint specifically for creator-owned properties. Presumably, the Icon line enables Marvel to keep some of its most valued creators — albeit a select few — happily ensconced under its corporate umbrella.
But let’s look at the WGA deal and the issues that led to the strike. Specifically, let’s consider compensation for work broadcast or distributed online. TV networks, movie studios and production companies are bringing in big revenues from digital distribution, such as iTunes, from online advertising and sponsorships they sell to accompany free content on their websites and from on-demand services. Given that the WGA strike is ongoing, it’s safe to assume that Marvel Studios fulfilled those contract demands, basically admitting one has to assign a greater value to the writers’ contributions in light of the new opportunities of the digital age.
Now consider Marvel Entertainment’s recent launch of an online archive to a multitude of its comics. As part of that launch is a subscription service, allowing customers immediate access to content. Marvel’s “Digital Comics Unlimited” is available for $59.88 US per year or $9.99 US per month. The comics publisher is looking to combat digital piracy of its output while also profiting from its new online interface. It’s a smart move on Marvel’s part, or at least a natural one to ensure the publisher’s viability in an ever-increasingly digital future.
These recent developments give one pause and give way to questions. Has Marvel factored this new revenue stream into its contracts with the men and women who create their content? If not, could Marvel justify any kind of resistance to such additional compensation in light of its sister company’s acquiescence to the demands of the WGA? Might comics writers and artists look at the WGA’s actions and see the advantage of organization and solidarity, leading to a similar labor entity in the North American comics business?
It’s possible these questions may be moot. For all I know, Marvel is ahead of the game and has already acknowledged an obligation to beef up its payment package for talent. Then again, it’s possible that Marvel sees the online venture as a life preserver in an ocean of business challenges such as shifts from print to broadcast and online advertising, the added costs of the afore-mentioned creator royalties and dwindling circulation numbers (at least as compared to the industry’s heyday decades ago).
I suspect it’s an issue that has yet to be broached, and it will likely be some time before it becomes a stumbling block. Marvel’s online efforts have only now just proceeded beyond a promotional role, and its “Digital Comics Unlimited” service is in its infancy. If that service (or whatever it may evolve into) proves to be a success, it will be interesting to see how the new way of delivering super-hero stories to readers could lead to a new way of thinking when it comes to creators’ rights.
Addendum: Johanna Draper-Carlson ponders what the Marvel/WGA deal might mean given editor-in-chief Joe Quesada’s upcoming appearance on the writer-less Colbert Report.
Comments from comics creators, Marvel editors/managers and other industry stakeholders are welcome, either in the comments thread below or via e-mail.