From the start of the comic book industry in the 1930s, creators have been at the center of the industry's success, dreaming up superheroes, creating mystical worlds and pulling stories out of thin air. But prior to the mid-'70s, writers and artists alike had very little reward, aside from a freelance check and at best, a small weekly stipend, to show for it. Even Stan Lee didn't own his most famous characters like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four or the X-Men. They were all company property and remain so to this day.
After the departure of Jack Kirby to DC and a dip Marvel's readership, Lee in 1970 lamented on the nature of the business he was creatively dominating. As recounted in Sean Howe's book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Lee told his colleagues, "It is a business in which the creator owns nothing of his creation."
On top of a lack of royalties for creators, even original art was subjected to the whims of the publisher. In a time when demand for original comic book art — especially from the Golden and Silver ages — has skyrocketed, it's hard to think that even through the early 1970s, both DC and Marvel regularly cleaned out their back stock of original art, giving them away and in some cases cutting pages up and destroying them to make room for new stock. Today, it's not hard to find examples of work by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko or John Romita Sr. selling for thousands on the internet and sometimes millions at auction houses.
With the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the comic book business has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Still, current artists can expect to make around $37,000 a year. Both DC and Marvel still use freelancers or work-for-hire agreements, and current rates range from $150 to $260 per page. But back in the early days of Marvel and DC, artists were lucky to get $50 per page. As comic books grew in popularity, Neal Adams told SYFY WIRE this week, creators started to wonder when they would get a piece of the growing multi-million-dollar industry in which they had toiled for so long. From initial talks in the late '60s, Adams said it took more than a decade before comic book creators enjoyed royalties and received their original artwork back. Here's how it went down.
The Academy of Comic Books Arts
To be fair, things like creator ownership of original art and royalties were the last thing on creators minds in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when it was a distinct possibility the industry wouldn't last another year. After enjoying creative freedom through comics' Golden Age, the industry was decimated in the '50s by Fredric Wertham, the U.S. Senate, and the Comics Code, as comic books were declared a cause of rising juvenile delinquency. After congressional hearings on the subject in 1954, more than a dozen publishers shuttered their doors and creators were put out on the street. Fearing the industry was on the brink of collapse, those who stayed were forced to scrape by with whatever work they could find. Simply put, comic books were out of vogue and worth very little.
All of that changed when Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko revolutionized the form in 1961 with their now-famous stable of Marvel superheroes that included the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men and more. By the end of the '60s, Marvel was selling more than 50 million comic books a year and the industry boomed in the wake of Marvel's success.
According to Adams, the movement for creator rights started with Creepy and Vampirella publisher Jim Warren in 1969 and the creation of the Academy of Comic Book Arts. After the demise of EC Comics in the 1950s, Warren hired many of the EC artists who found themselves without steady work, including Al Williamson, Alex Toth, Alden McWilliams, George Evans, and Wally Wood.
At the time, Adams said, many of the artists had scattered, sensing the impending doom of the industry. Wood was doing illustrations for sci-fi magazines, Toth was out in California working on cartoons like Space Ghost for Hanna-Barbera, and Williamson was ghosting for other artists. Eisner-winner Reed Crandall, for example, was working as a security guard at night to supplement his income.
In 1969, Warren decided to have a meeting of creatives at his penthouse apartment in New York City and floated the idea that maybe there should be a guild or an academy of artists.
"There were those of us who agreed," Adams said. "So, we decided to follow that idea and although Warren dropped away, we were able to get a group together to form the thing. With anything like that, there were guys who did the work and others who were 'rah, rah'. I was one of the guys who did the work including calling the lawyers and organizing the meetings etc."
Adams said after a few discussions the creators established the Academy of Comic Book Arts, leaving the option open to organizing into a guild later if members wanted to do so. The founders were a murderer's row of the era's best talent, including Adams, Stan Lee, Jim Shooter, Dick Giordano, Sergio Aragones, Carmine Infantino, Frank Brunner, Howard Chaykin, Dave Cockrum, Reed Crandall, Frank Frazetta, Michael Kaluta, Gil Kane, Gray Morrow, John Romita Sr., Mike Royer, Syd Shores, Jim Starlin, Jim Steranko, Herb Trimpe, and Wally Wood.
Ever the industry cheerleader, Lee decided he wanted to run for President, Adams said.
"We took Stan aside and told him, 'look, Stan, you're management, this doesn't make any sense.' And he said, 'No, no, look, I'm freelance like you guys. I write all the books at Marvel and I get paid by the page and we have an office we can have meetings in,'" Adams said. "It was sort of pre-ordained that Stan would be the first president of the ACBA."
In the first few years of the ACBA, the group, spurred by Lee and Infantino, gave out awards with the goal of hoping to light a spark in the industry, which was going through a lull. In 1973, when Adams became president of the Academy, he thought it might be time to establish the organization as a guild, with more power to negotiate rights for creators. First, though, the ACBA needed a set of rules and goals. For Adams, it was simple: Creators should get their original art back from publishers, they should be afforded royalties when their books sold well and they should encourage better materials for publishing.
At a meeting in Stan Lee's office in 1973, after Lee had left for the day, Adams approached the ACBA board about his goal.
"I explained this to the group and then I read the part of the return of the original art and the royalties and suddenly we had a s**t storm," Adams said. "There were people who were on the board who said, 'Neal you're going to get us all fired.' I said, 'No, these are just goals.' 'No, they said, 'We'll be fired and we can't say these things.'"
Adams said despite explaining that the goals would simply be things the ACBA believed in, many of the creators were scared and didn't think getting their originals back was worth the risk of getting fired. It was a real risk, since requests for medical coverage and other rights had contributed to DC ridding itself of older creators like writers Gardner Fox, Arnold Drake, Otto Binder, and others in the last few years of the 1960s.
"They said, 'I don't care if I get my work back, it's not worth anything,' Adams said. "I said the principle is that it belongs to the artist. It doesn't belong to the company and that's why we have the copyright law, they're only buying the right to copy our work."
Unable to reach a consensus, Adams tabled the issue. Ultimately, it went nowhere, he said, and even led to some of the members wanting to impeach him, afraid he would get them fired. Things came to a head at a contentious meeting at the Society of Illustrators Club in 1974, as the members decide whether or not they would become a guild.
"Some were in favor of it, others weren't, so we had a debate," he said. "It lasted about an hour or so and it was pretty fiery. In the end, it was decided when we were going to take votes that they didn't want to become a guild. They basically made the decision and walked away satisfied."
But Adams was not and decided to take things into his own hands.
The Returns of Original Art
In the early 1970s, Adams went around the Academy and met with the heads of DC Comics several times about creator rights and royalties. It all started, he said, when walking through DC he saw someone cutting up original artwork in the production room. Racing over to the man, he asked what he was doing and why.
"He said 'I'm low man on the totem pole and every few months we pull stuff out of the drawers and cut it up and throw it away.' I'm watching this and I said, 'Just stop. We're not going to be doing this anymore.'"
"At the time I was just a freelancer," Adams said. "I said I'm going to go speak to some people but in the meantime, you just stop. The guy said [sarcastically], 'Sure.' I said 'Let me put this another way, I'm going to have a meeting with some people about this original art, and between the time I have the meeting and the time I come back I don't want one page cut up, because if you do I'm going to come back and punch you in the face,' which offended his sensibilities and he went back to his desk."
Adams left and immediately spoke to Carmine Infantino, who had recently been promoted to art director at DC. Adams said Infantino remained unconcerned until Adams threatened to quit.
"He said, calm down, what's the problem?"" said Adams. "I said, 'they're cutting up original art!' He told me some people take their art, and then finally went to talk to DC Comics Executives Irwin Donenfeld and Jack S. Liebowitz."
"He came back and said, we're not going to cut up artwork anymore," said Adams.
Marvel started returning original art to creators in 1974, although that didn't cover any art made prior to the year. In 2011, Jim Shooter wrote on his blog that even before he took over at Marvel, many creators had complained about the company's artwork return policy. During Roy Thomas' tenure as Editor in Chief, even Stan Lee had suggested returning original art to freelancers.
During that time, Shooter explained the artwork was a "gift," being given to people involved their creation. It was Thomas, Shooter said, who somehow talked the executives into allowing artwork to be given back in 1974.
"Using the word "return" — implying that creators were getting back something they had any shred of a claim to whatsoever — would have infuriated the lawyers, probably, but everybody used that term anyway," he wrote. "Marvel gave artwork to creators at its 'sole discretion,' according to the formula developed by Roy Thomas. Pencilers got most of the pages, inkers substantially fewer and writers got the smallest share."
Shooter said there was a loose system, as pencilers got first shot at pages with inkers and writers following behind.
"When pages were 'returned' to me, I gave one page to the penciler and one to the inker," he wrote. "Other writers did that, too. Archie Goodwin and Don McGregor, for instance."
Irene Vartanoff, who was tasked with the job of returning art at Marvel starting in 1974, said some artists received their original work via other arrangements that dated from before her time.
"I was the first person there tasked with the official return of original artwork to artists and writers. The returns were done by a formula that divided up the pages among the penciler, the inker, and the writer. Those pages were rubber-stamped on the back, with a date added, and the recipients had to return a signed acknowledgment," Vartanoff wrote on her blog in 2017.
Vartanoff created a master list of every piece of original art in the Marvel Comics warehouse at the time, opening brown paper packages of art with the title of the comic and the issue number scrawled on the front.
"[There was] no page count," she recounted. "Sometimes, pages from other comics were casually tossed into those packages, too."
Creating a master inventory list, she identified and counted each piece of art, repacking it and properly labeling what was inside.
Jack Kirby, who allegedly asked for his art be returned as early as the 1960s, was a different story. Starting in the late 1970s, Kirby became embroiled in a struggle with Marvel over his artwork that would last until 2014.
According to several accounts, both Marvel and DC kept vaults of original artwork. Before Marvel started returning the work in 1974 and DC in 1979, original art was occasionally cleared out to make room for new stock. In 1998, Glen Gold wrote about the history of the original artwork in Jack Kirby Collector #19, explaining some of the art was lost, given away or — in some instances — stolen.
The art was sometimes stored in offices, sometimes in a warehouse. Some was lost in transit, and some mysteriously disappeared, he explained. In 1969 and 1970, Gold wrote, two Marvel staffers showed up at a Saint Louis Convention with hundreds of pages of art for sale, including Kirby Fantastic Four pages from 1963.
According to Adams, it took about seven years from his first meeting with Carmine Infantino at DC to make some traction on the issue, but true to their word, DC stopped destroying the increasingly valuable art in 1973. According to a source at DC, that company, not Marvel, was the first to return original art to creators, starting that year.
"In the meantime, although it had stayed stored up, people were going into the drawers and taking the artwork," he said. "Sometimes it was their own, sometimes it wasn't. But that's why there is original artwork from those days. You can say 'hey, you're not supposed to steal artwork from those days,' but if people didn't there wouldn't be any today. That's the yin and yang of this issue."
When Adams finally sat down with then-DC publisher Jeanette Kahn in the late 1970s, DC had started selling original art without the knowledge or consent of the original artists. In one instance, Adams said, they sold one of his covers at a Detroit comic-con for $200. Word got back to Adams, who amped up his push at DC. Sparked by a visit from the New York Dept. of Taxation and Finance regarding the sale of his work, Adams decided to turn the tables on DC using the sales tax law.
"I was visited by people in the Sales Tax office in New York, who told me that I hadn't paid sales tax on my work I 'sold' to DC. I told them that was because I didn't sell it to them, I had sold the right to copy to them," he said. "They said, then you must have the pages right? Of course I didn't, because they'd kept them."
Adams was told he would need to produce the pages from a three month time period, to prove the art wasn't sold. If he was unable to, he would be given a three year period in which to do so, if still unable to, he would be charged on all of the art he'd produced during his lifetime.
"Following that incident, I had a meeting with DC and told them, someone — not me because I'm a nice guy and I like you guys— is going to go Albany and tell the Dept. of Taxation and Finance that there's a company in New York that thinks they bought 50 years of comic book art and they haven't paid a single dime on sales tax on," Adams said. "A week later, they started giving the artwork back."
By 1976, both DC and Marvel had started routinely returning new originals to creators and in 1978, DC explicitly acknowledged that right, including it in its creator contracts, a first for the big two.
According to a 2002 The Comics Journal article by Michael Dean, "DC industriously went through its back stock of original art, cataloging it and mailing it to artists." According to Dean, DC's new policy was to return new original art within a year or compensate the artists by paying an amount equal to the originally paid page rate. In the case original art was lost and then found after the artists had been compensated, the art would be sent to the artists who would also be able to keep the stipend.
In 1984, after years of returning current work to creators, Marvel decided to return its back stock of original art — but artists were required to sign a brief release agreeing that the art had been work for hire and that the company was "the exclusive worldwide owner of all copyright." Additionally, creators were required to grant Marvel the right to use the artists' names and likeness in promotions, something that didn't sit well with many artists.
Royalties and reprints
In further meetings with DC throughout the 1970s, Adams said he pushed for royalties for creators, something that had been absent since the start of comic books in the 1930s. Adams, who was involved in getting Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster their due along with Joker creator Jerry Robinson in the early 2000s, said he approached the DC in the late 70s about their business model.
"After many meetings I just said, let's cut to the chase," he said. "If an artist and a writer come in with a book and they do it and sell a million copies, do they deserve a royalty? They said, well yes, a million copies.' Then, I said, the conversation is over. You just told me there is a place where royalties should be paid and there's a reason for it. This person has put out an effort on your behalf and they deserve to be compensated. The question is, where is that moment."
Adams said he never wanted to dictate where the number should be drawn, although he said it's hovered around 35,000 copies of a comic book in recent years. For him, it was all about simply getting publishers to agree to pay royalties in the first place.
"I don't care, rip us off, set your own standards," Adams recounted. "You're a corporation and you can make your own decisions. But if you want someone to come into sell a million copies for you, the best thing for you to do is to pay them a royalty if they do it."
By 1976, Adams said, DC had folded a generous royalty plan for creators into their contracts.
At Marvel, things were a bit different. In 1976, Jim Shooter joined the company as an assistant editor and writer. With quick turnover after Roy Thomas stepped down from the Editor in Chief position at Marvel, a succession of other editors, including Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, and Archie Goodwin passed through before Shooter ascended to the position in 1978.
"Before my time as Editor in Chief at Marvel, there was no "creator plan," Shooter told SYFY WIRE. "All work was done Work for Hire. Creators were paid by the page, and not very well, and that's all they got. No rights, no royalties, no incentives, no nothing. And the page rates were pathetically small. There was no 'creator ownership.'"
According to several sources, when Marvel and DC Comics cut checks to their creators, they included language on the back essentially saying that by signing this the creator agrees that the company owns the rights to the work.
Adams said while it wasn't a contract, some courts might hold that if it was standard practice of the industry during the time, it could stand up to a certain extent. During his time with ACBA, Adams wrote a letter for all creators and publishers decrying the practice.
"When I would cash my checks, I would always cross that part out, sometimes writing under protest, before I signed them," Adams said.
The issue over royalties and rights was highlighted by the plight of Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber at Marvel in 1978, who was fired by the publisher shortly after Shooter took over. Gerber's struggles with Marvel over his creation and the fight for royalties stayed with Shooter as he argued for an incentive program at Marvel in later years.
"When I took the job as EIC, Marvel was losing money, especially the publishing parts," he told SYFY Wire. "I took the job on the condition that I could change things for creators, which was key to turning the business around."
Then-Marvel President Jim Galton was relatively new the comic industry, Shooter said, coming from the world of regular book publishing.
"He was actually unaware that we did not pay royalties and offer rights, as is standard in book publishing. Galton had never opened a comic book, didn't care about that part of the company at all," Shooter said. "He concerned himself mainly with licensing, international licensing and other business. He saw comics as a loser, and wanted to get Marvel out of the comics business and into children's books and animation. He said that, until he accomplished those goals, it was my job to 'preside over the death of Marvel Comics' and that I could do anything I wanted as long as it was self-liquidating, made money or didn't lose much."
Hoping to boost creativity and attract new talent, Shooter dramatically increased page rates and introduced a "continuity bonus" that rewarded creators for staying on the same title.
"I paid for these things by instituting cost-saving measures in production, too long to explain here, by getting the books on time, which saved a fortune in late fees, and by rooting out embezzling and other corruption that was costing the company millions," he said. In addition, Shooter introduced benefits for all creators, freelance and contract, including life insurance, health insurance, rights to characters, creator-owned publishing, participations in new characters and titles and more.
"I established a program under which Marvel paid for all materials, paid for business phone expense, postage and even travel, if we asked a creator to come to the office," he said. "Eventually, we established royalties. All of the above brought in new and excellent talent. The books got better. Sales soared. As revenues climbed, I had more money to play with."
By that time, Stan Lee wasn't involved with the day-to-day of comic books at Marvel, Shooter said. Instead, Lee was out in Hollywood trying to sell the West Coast on the movies and TV shows starring Marvel characters.
"That said, he was Stan Lee, and of course I, and everyone else listened when he spoke and would do whatever he asked," he said. "And he had the ear of the president. I was hired on Stan's recommendation. My joke is, 'If Stan asks me to join the Boy Scouts, look for me in short pants rubbing sticks together.'"
In the late 1970s, Lee joined Shooter on a visit to a Cadence Industries (Marvel's parent company) board meeting to offer support when Shooter was trying to get approval for Marvel's creator royalty plan.
"Stan, of course, always had sympathy for the plight of the creators, but he wasn't much of a businessman," he said. "He wasn't equipped to win fights against the bean counters. However, when it came to pitching the royalty plan to the board, he was a great help. With me to crunch the numbers and present the logical case, and Stan helping to make the human side of the argument, we won. Understand, we were asking for a plan that, unless sales rose dramatically to compensate, would take nearly a million dollars off of the bottom line."
Shooter said the pitch to the board about royalties was the culmination of months of number crunching and working with Marvel's VP of finance, Barry Kaplan.
"No creators were involved," he said. "Like Stan, most creators aren't prepared for or interested in fighting business issues. Of course, many were vocal about better terms and conditions, but getting it done was my job. Neal Adams, owner of Continuity Studios was/is a champion of creators. He tried to exert pressure on Marvel, but with not much effect. The upstairs execs were sufficiently disinterested in the comics that none of them ever heard of Neal or cared about what was going on with the comics, other than that we started making money."
In the end, Shooter said, all creators did better and better as the company introduced benefits and incentives.
Danny Fingeroth, an editor at Marvel who worked on Spider-Man and various other titles in the 1980s, said after the incentives were in place, people could do fewer pages to make decent money, assuming the comic sold well.
"Incentive money was what gave people like the Image founders the financial cushion to go off and become independent publishers," he told SYFY Wire.
"Some became millionaires," Shooter said. "I couldn't change Work for Hire, but we made it fair. Whether they liked me or not, I think all creators appreciated the change. I ran into Bernie Wrightson and Joe Jusko at a con a few years back. Joe said, 'We didn't know how good we had it back then.' Bernie agreed. I've heard similar from many creators."
Thomas, who created Iron Fist and Morbius and many other characters during his time at Marvel, said there were originally no provisions for any kind of royalties or reprint fees before he joined.
"By the early '70s or so, they began paying something like two dollars a page, if I remember correctly. Maybe it was a bit later," he told SYFY Wire via his manager John Cimino.
Currently, Thomas said, he receives some payments from Marvel for characters like The Vision, Ultron, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and several others, but they aren't exactly royalties.
"They call them "incentive payments," he explained. "I don't get anything for characters where I wasn't also the initial writer but did my creative part in my editorial capacity (such as Wolverine), but they've been quite generous otherwise."
For Adams, the work to secure rights and royalties for comic book creators was a long journey and one that continues to this day, pointing to creators like Carmine Infantino, Stan Lee, Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel and Jack Kirby getting their due from the big two.
"One of the things Jim Shooter said in front of me, he said, Neal you were fighting from the outside and I was fighting from the inside," Adams said. "Jim started as a 15-year-old kid and I did some of his first covers. I knew him and I knew the odds against him against him if he opened his mouth. The things I was fighting for were so black and white, though. Destroying art, no royalties at all, printing on toilet paper, there was so much that was wrong."
"Things have changed though," he concluded. "We've helped the business grow up and maybe it's not an adult but it's getting there."