Superhero Comic Creators Are Demanding More Money As Their Creations Make Billions For Disney And WB

There's a long history of comic book writers and artists seeing characters they created turn a considerable profit, most of which never filters back to them personally. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, for instance, sold the rights to Superman to Detective Comics (now known as DC) back in 1938 for a scant $130. This was long before the character had become a screen icon whose films have since grossed over $2.5 billion at the worldwide box office.

Now, more superhero creators are starting to speak out about the business practices that have left some of them relegated to the sidelines while their work-for-hire ideas make big money for studios like Disney and Warner Bros.

Writer Ed Brubaker, who resurrected Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier in Marvel Comics, appeared on Kevin Smith and Marc Bernardin's Fatman Beyond podcast earlier this year, where he laid out his feelings on the character's appearance in the Disney+ show The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. According to Brubaker (via The Hollywood Reporter), he made more money from residuals as a cameo actor in Captain America: The Winter Soldier than he did as the Winter Soldier's original comics creator.

In an interview with Polygon, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates — who had a memorable run on Marvel's Black Panther comic and is now attached to pen an upcoming Superman film — seemed to echo Brubaker. Speaking of his own experience with Marvel, he said, "I wish that Marvel found better ways to compensate the creators who helped make Black Panther Black Panther."

The Plight of Unsung Comic Book Creators

Some creators who have spoken out have been able to negotiate greater compensation from Marvel, DC, and their parent companies. One unnamed source likened this to "shut-up money," while Marvel itself is said to regard such payments as thank-you gifts, since its movies often draw inspiration from comics without directly adapting them. Unfortunately, it's not unheard of for other creators to feel less satisfied, languishing in relative obscurity, while the superheroes they invented go on to become big cash cows for multimedia conglomerates.

It was only in 2015 that artist Bill Finger finally received proper credit as the co-creator of Batman. For years, DC credited Bob Kane as Batman's sole creator. Finger's struggle to receive credit was documented in the film Batman & Bill, and he's just one of many creators who, while not altogether forgotten, look to have been at least partially bilked out of their share of the recognition for creating iconic superheroes.

There's also the complicated legacy of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Lee was a beloved figure, known for his frequent cameos in Marvel movies and his soapboxes and editorial replies in the letters pages of Marvel Comics. Kirby went on to create the New Gods for DC Comics, but over the years, his name fell by the wayside. To the general public, he was never the grandfatherly face of Marvel like Lee was.

As THR notes, sometimes partners have even gone behind each other's backs or fought publicly in an effort to receive sole credit. Len Wein notably received more money for creating Lucius Fox, Morgan Freeman's supporting character in the Dark Knight trilogy, than he did for creating Wolverine, the hero embodied by Hugh Jackman across nine different X-Men films.

Consider, also, the case of Jim Starlin, who created Gamora and Drax, two important members of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Starlin wrote The Infinity Gauntlet miniseries, which inspired key plot points in Avengers: Infinity War. He also created Thanos, the villain and arguably the real star of the movie.

Yet it was a lesser-known DC villain called K.G. Beast, AKA Anatoli Knyazev, who earned Starlin more money. Said character appeared briefly in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, with actor Callan Mulvey portraying him. Mulvey also played another bad guy, one of the HYDRA agents embedded in the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Back in 2017, Starlin wrote on Facebook:

"Just received a very big check from D.C. Entertainment for my participation in Batman V Superman, Dawn of Justice (Anatoli Knyyazev), much bigger than anything I've gotten for Thanos, Gamora and Drax showing up in any of the various Marvel movies they appeared in, combined."

Down in the Dungeon of Heroes

Fans who grew up reading Image Comics in the 1990s may remember the special issue of Todd McFarlane's Spawn, guest-written by Dave Sim, where Spawn encountered a dungeon with famous superhero arms hanging out of it. Since then, Sim has courted controversy for other reasons and McFarlane has had his own legal issues with Neil Gaiman over the character of Angela, who is now owned by Marvel. Yet it's hard to forget that image, with creators — company men — hooded and lined up like a shooting gallery outside the dungeon.

"They are heroes," it read. "Champions. Watchmen. Avengers. Defenders. Men of Steel. Women of Tomorrow. Gods of Thunder. They are justice. They are nobility. They are trapped ... they are screaming. Behind me, the hooded men tremble. Beneath their hoods, they are weeping."

Speaking of thunder and gods, the term "stealing [one's] thunder" supposedly originated when a frustrated playwright caught a theater that rejected him using his own patented thunder effect, during a performance of Macbeth. It's a little different when comic book creators sign a legally binding contract whereby they agree to work in-house for a House of Ideas like Marvel, giving up any rights to characters they have created while affiliated with the company.

Still, imagine watching a superhero film or TV character you helped create become a big success, raking in millions upon billions of dollars all around the world, only to see the closing credits roll without your name in them. Many movies do list comic book writers and artists as creative consultants and thank them by name in the credits, so this isn't necessarily the experience of every creator or even most creators. However, one can't help but think that some of them deserved better over the years in terms of royalties and/or recognition.