Back in July, the Hollywood Reporter picked up on an April interview with comic book writer Ed Brubaker bemoaning the fact that he felt he wasn’t properly paid for the Winter Soldier being adapted into other media. The article used Brubaker’s situation as a call to arms to change the system and help creators get their due. Other news outlets picked up on the story, including us. However, outside of this series you are reading right now, most of the articles dried up by mid-August. And while it looks like Brubaker is negotiating with Marvel directly to get more money–more “shut-up money” as it was called in that original article–there wasn’t some grand sea change that improved the situation for all creators.
Why not? Why did this public display have less success than the one Siegel and Shuster did in the 1970’s? Well, that’s the question we are going to examine in this installment. And the answer deals with Ed Brubaker being the wrong person at the wrong time to be the catalyst for such change.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a slam piece on Ed Brubaker. He is one of my favorite writers. I strongly recommend his work to just about anybody, especially his partnerships with Sean Phillips–Criminal, Fatale and his current series, Reckless. And those are all creator owned properties so if you are concerned with Brubaker’s financial solvency, most of your graphic novel buying dollar will go directly to him.
All I am doing here is playing devil’s advocate. I am providing possible reasons why Brubaker wasn’t the best poster child for this movement. It is not as if I subscribe to all these reasons, or that I necessarily think he doesn’t deserve the money. I’m just describing reasons why some fans might not have been willing to rally around him.
The first thing is something I touched on briefly in my first reporting on the story, springing out from this quote from Brubaker about the Winter Soldier (emphasis mine):
“I have made more on SAG residuals than I have made on creating the character.”
The thing is, technically, Brubaker didn’t wholly create Winter Soldier. As I have said before, the Winter Soldier is Bucky, Captain America’s wartime sidekick. Bucky was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Brubaker took their character, revived him, and created a new persona for him. But he built on what Simon and Kirby created. Without the bond Simon and Kirby established between Cap and Bucky, the Winter Soldier wouldn’t have been as good a character. When a creator revamps a character, and that happens a lot in comic books, he seldom gets the respect or credit that the original creator does.
Then there’s the other part of that quote, the “made more on SAG residuals” part. The reason why Siegel and Shuster publicity tour got the traction it did was because they were nearly penniless and in desperate financial straits when they made their plea. Brubaker is not. Brubaker worked on some of the biggest characters at the big two. He should have made more than average in royalties from his time writing them. On top of that, much of his seminal works at Marvel and DC still have trade paperbacks in print. He gets a part of that as well. In addition, he has worked as a writer on TV/streaming shows such as Westworld for HBO and Too Old to Die Young at Amazon. He is probably getting residuals for them too. Not to mention a number of creator-owned works still in print, which he gets a big percentage of the profits from. Is he rich enough to buy his own sports team? Probably not. Is he better of than Siegel and Shuster were? Certainly.
Another aspect that might have kept Brubaker from getting the sympathy he deserves was because he wasn’t complaining because he wasn’t paid at all but rather because he wasn’t paid enough. He was probably offered the $5,000 thank you gift that most Marvel creators get when their creations are adapted to the screen. Brubaker thinks he deserves more.
On the one hand, $5,000 is a pittance in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars of profits films featuring Winter Soldier have made. On the other hand, that $5,000 is a healthy chunk of money to many members of the court of public opinion. It’s hard to feel sorry for a man who thinks what amounts to one month’s salary for you isn’t good enough.
Another mark against Brubaker is this: Siegel and Shuster were portrayed as kids who were taken advantage of by a corporation that was making up the rules as they went along. Brubaker was 29 when he did his first work-for-hire assignment in 1995. He was 39 and a 10 year veteran of work-for-hire when he created Winter Soldier in 2005. The superhero movie boom was already underway at that point too. He should have known what the rules were involving creating characters and what he was or was not entitled to before he wrote the first word of those issues of Captain America. Certain fans might feel that his trying to change the agreement after the fact isn’t fair.
But even if Brubaker was the ideal candidate to lead the charge for getting creators what they deserve, it might not have made a difference. Corporations have the perfect thing to wave away any talk of improved creator compensation–the pandemic. Why it would be insulting to even consider asking for fair pay after what the world went through, I say, sarcastically.
Take Disney, Marvel’s parent company, for example. The company posted its first annual loss in over 40 years in 2020, to the tune of almost $3 billion. Disney has decided to make up for this loss by sticking it to their customers. Whereas many other movie studios when streaming the blockbusters day and date as their theatrical release for free on their affiliated streaming services, Disney made you pay $30 for the privilege. They also raised admission prices for Disneyland and it appears that a price hike is in store for Disney World next year.
And they replaced their free FastPass system, where you could reserve times to skip the lines on their more popular rides, and replaced it with the $15 per person per park per day Genie+. And that program does not include the two most popular rides in each park. Those can be bought a la carte at a sliding price scale based on popularity and demand, any where from $7 to $15 per ride. How can you expect Marvel to do right by their creators when their parent company is forcing their loyal customers to pay hundreds of dollars for a service that used to be free.
But for whatever reason, the struggle for all creators to get the proper respect an compensation will continue on. And it looks like it will continue on for quite some time.
Next time: We will take a look at some of the ways creators can take care of themselves in this new landscape.