WE NEED A HERO
How Marvel and Corporate Comics Are Failing the ‘Vulnerable’ Creators Behind Their Superheroes
Behind the veil of billion-dollar movie franchises and rotating comics series, creators often struggle with low pay, no labor protections, and harassment. And no one seems to care.
Last month, novelist Chuck Wendig—the bestselling author of the licensed Star Wars novel Aftermath and its sequels—stood before a crowd at New York Comic Con and announced he’d be working on Shadow of Vader, a miniseries for Marvel Comics. A week later, on October 12, Wendig made another announcement: he’d been fired. The reason given, Wendig wrote on his personal website, was “the negativity and vulgarity that my tweets bring. Seriously, that’s what Mark, the editor said... It was too much politics, too much vulgarity, too much negativity on my part.”
Wendig, an openly progressive and occasionally combative presence on social media, had been the target of a long-running harassment campaign* fueled by reactionaries in the Star Wars fan community. His books were review bombed; he dealt with SWATing attempts, harassment from bots and sock-puppet accounts, and creepy personal messages. “People have been trying to get me fired from Star Wars since Aftermath came out. Since before it came out, actually,” he told The Daily Beast in an email. “[Lucas Film Licensing] has always had my back, and with Marvel, my politics never came up. And I haven’t been shy about those politics—or about being vulgar, which has been part of my voice, so to speak, since my first novel, Blackbirds, which is a very vulgar book... I never received any warnings about my behavior.”
While Marvel had no official comment, a source close to the company said that the decision to fire him was made by Marvel editorial, and that the decision to drop Wendig was made solely on the basis of his public comments. Nonetheless, the decision provoked an outcry on social media. Many drew comparisons to other public figures targeted by harassment campaigns, such as Disney’s firing of Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn and the ginned-up outrage around MSNBC commentator Sam Seder, who was fired then re-hired over an eight-year-old tweet.
But there was another facet to Wendig’s departure that got less immediate attention: the way it reinforced the deep precariousness of most comics freelancers, who make up the vast majority of the industry and often feel pressure to keep silent about their own vulnerability. Behind the veil of billion-dollar movie franchises and rotating comics series, creators often struggle with low pay, no labor protections, and harassment from fans and colleagues. They do this while maintaining social media profiles, where corporate expectations about behavior are vague at best. In such a landscape, it’s not surprising that Wendig got fired. What’s surprising, in some ways, is that we heard about it at all.
The first comics came out of the fly-by-night pulps, where contracts were vague, dirty dealing was standard, and the notion of creator rights was nonexistent. The mistreatment and neglect of Superman creators Siegel and Schuster is an industry legend; as is the double-dealing of Batman “creator” Bob Kane; Jack Kirby’s struggle for his original artwork and equal credit for his work with Stan Lee; and Alan Moore being screwed out of the rights for Watchmen. Attempts at collective bargaining in the industry seldom got far. In 1968, a group of veteran DC writers pushed for pensions and insurance and were summarily purged, while a unionization attempt by artist Neal Adams ten years later failed to get off the ground.
Some things have changed in the last 40 years. Creator-owned work is now more common, and with comics fueling lucrative media properties, there’s a renewed push for creator credits and royalties. But the corporate comics industry is almost entirely made up of freelancers, with writers, artists, colorists and letterers operating with negotiated work-for-hire contracts, seldom with healthcare or benefits, and at the mercy of a handful of large companies. (Editorial and publishing is largely—though not exclusively—made up of employees.) Standardized page-rates and contracts are rare, and representation by agents is rarer; collective bargaining remains non-existent.
“If you’re coming from another part of publishing, how comics works contractually and financially/logistically is just completely different,” says Jay Edidin, a former editor at Dark Horse comics and co-host of acclaimed podcast Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men. “It varies wildly from comics publisher to comics publisher. There isn’t really a single industry-wide standard. It’s incredibly hard to negotiate. And the general paranoia and worries about burning bridges makes serious information-sharing a lot harder.”
Part of the trouble, Edidin says, is that comics is a prestige industry, which attracts people for whom the primary reward is simply getting to work in comics. And because there are always people clamoring to be part of the industry, even famous creators are ultimately disposable, and often disposed of. (The very existence of the Hero Initiative, which raises money for comics creators in need, testifies to this.) While the industry can be tight-knit and often supportive, it also leaves creators to fend for themselves. “You don’t really work in comics unless you really care about it, because it’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll be low-paid,” Edidin says. “So what we’ve got at this point is an industry full of people who are exquisitely financially vulnerable, and who generally feel extremely passionate about what they do... and can’t afford to lose their work or their jobs. And that includes publishing employees.”
In such an environment, the standards for what kind of public speech is acceptable are often either left unclear or inconsistently applied. Simply staying off social media isn’t really an option for freelancers, especially those still working to become established, Edidin points out: having an active profile somewhere like Twitter is vital for networking, getting the word out about projects, and talking shop with fellow freelancers and enthusiasts. But because freelancers aren’t official employees, these social media accounts are—by definition—personal. Lines between personal opinions and professional ones are blurry, and few companies offer solid social media guidelines for dealing with them.
“While larger comics companies have HR departments, that’s not really applied to freelancers,” says Mariah McCourt, an editor who worked on Sandman: Endless Nights, Womanthology, and Fables. “Work for hire contracts usually include something about conduct, but it’s pretty vague, and there are few if any protections for creators being harassed or targeted. Instead, you’re just supposed to guess what a property or publisher would object to in relation to that property.”
“Expecting people to dedicate the amount of time we do to these books means we should be offering a fair exchange of compensation, benefits, and support when problems come up,” McCourt added. “We should be giving clear conduct guidelines and be willing to go to bat for people we hire that we know have strong opinions... If you don't want creators to curse or respond to people online, OK, but make sure you say that before you hire them.” In Wendig’s case, she points out, a large part of his brand was his outspoken (and occasionally profane) progressivism—it seems odd to hire Wendig and then fire him for being Wendig.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the comics internet has a well-deserved reputation for being rough and tumble at the best of times, says CP Hoffman, a comics critic who writes for The Nerdist and Comic Book Resources: Marvel freelancers like Dan Slott, Mark Waid, Nick Spencer and former editor Steve Wacker have been publicly combative with fans and critics on message boards and social media alike. “Having a loose or non-existent social media policy tends to favor those who are well-connected within the system and hurt those who are seen as outsiders, whether they be writers coming in from another medium like Wendig... or individuals subject to racism and misogyny,” Hoffman says. “While established white men at Marvel can more or less say or do what they want on social media, others do not have that luxury.”
“There’s no balance between the interests of comics publishing employees and freelancers with those of publishers. The power dynamic is just completely one-sided,” Edidin says. “There’s really no one to advocate for comics creators in situations like this.”
Such an environment—where freelancers are disposable and uncertain about what might get them dropped from a book—is one that creators say fosters a pernicious culture of silence. When novelist Chelsea Cain talked to The Daily Beast in September about Marvel’s sudden cancellation of her upcoming miniseries The Vision (a much-anticipated sequel to an earlier installment) months before its scheduled debut, she noted that Marvel expected her to keep quiet about it, as she had done with the cancellation of her fan-favorite series Mockingbird two years prior. “I have so many friends who work in comics who this kind of stuff happens to in one form or another, not uncommonly, and nobody can speak up,” she said. “They’re always told what messages they can share and the things that they’re supposed to lie about. And you have to do it because otherwise, you won’t have the next job.”
That need to keep the work coming doesn’t just have a chilling effect on creators’ social media presence. It also leaves both freelancers and employees in a perilous position when it comes to harassment by editorial staff. Sexual harassment and emotional abuse are endemic in the comics industry, and have often been allowed to flourish because of the difficulty and paranoia people have about speaking out. (See the cases of Eddie Berganza—which Edidin helped break—a DC editor accused of harassing multiple women who maintained his position for years, and Scott Allie, the former editor-in-chief of Dark Horse Comics who gained a reputation for “out of control behavior while drunk and biting.”) That silence also makes it extremely difficult for most comics professionals to discuss labor conditions, compare notes about compensation and rates, or even to openly and honestly discuss the circumstances of their firing.
While you occasionally see people like Chelsea Cain or Chuck Wendig speaking up, they’re only in a position to do so because they largely make their living outside of comics, and thus don’t need to play by the industry’s rules if they don’t want to. Without job security or health benefits, freelancers are a single ill-judged tweet and a run of bad luck away from needing the help of the Hero Initiative. Under circumstances like that, a vague social media policy isn’t just a headache: it’s one more trap in a deeply financially insecure profession.
“I am just amazed that some lawyer or some union hasn’t come in, ’cause it’s crazy.” Caine told The Daily Beast in September. “And they’re all such adorable comic geeks and have all been doing this since they were 17 and they’ve never had any other kind of job. And I think they really don’t realize how insane it is.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Mariah McCourt’s name. We regret the error.