Comics Broke Me And The Dark Side Of The Comic Book Industry

Via Nicola Barts/pexels.com

If you decided to go out to the movies this past weekend, you might have found it loaded with comic book content. Depending on the size of the multiplex near you, you might be able to catch Guardians of the Galaxy 3. They definitely should still have been showing Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. And one of the new releases that came in is the long awaited The Flash. All three of these films have roots in comic books. You might also be able to see The Little Mermaid, Super Mario Bros. Movie and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, three properties that have been adapted into comic books in the past.

And that’s just films. If we discuss network TV and streaming, the list of comic book properties increases dramatically. Fear the Walking Dead. The Boys. Superman and Lois. The Sandman. Gotham Knights. LokiThere is a plethora of comic book-based content everywhere you look.

This might lead you to believe that it is a great time to be a comic book creator. That all this exposure means a boatload of money funneling its way to them.

You would be wrong.

Image via Wikipedia

Ian McGinty was a comic book artist. He wasn’t a household name in the field, but he worked on a lot of high-profile projects. He provided artwork for Boom! Studios adaptations of Adventure Time, Bee and PuppyCat and Bravest Warriors and for ONI Press’ adaptation of Invader Zim. He also created Welcome to Showside, an all-ages book published by Z2 Comics.

McGinty died on June 8, 2023 of what is being reported as natural causes. He was only 38 years old. According to Heidi MacDonald at The Beat, he complained of feeling ill in his last Facebook post before his death (I couldn’t find the post on his FB page, but it could have been lost in the FB algorithms considering all the memorial comments on his page).

The fact McGinty might have been ill before he died, with the implication that he failed to seek medical attention for his ailment due to his job in comics, has started a movement on social media about the overworked and underpaid life of comic book creators. The hashtag #ComicsBrokeMe is trending on Twitter, as comic creators big and small are contributing to the discussion of the reality that McGinty’s death has brought to light.

But while McGinty’s tragic passing has shed light on a dark part of the comic book industry, the things that it is revealing isn’t anything new. People in a lot of jobs without healthcare are faced with a tough decision when they get sick, most often foregoing medical care because they simply can’t afford it. But in the comic book industry, that is only one aspect of how poorly some creators are treated. And such treatment goes back decades, to the very start of the medium.

Crooks and Gangsters

Image via Comicvine

The comic book industry was started by some shady individuals. A lot of companies were started by people who worked their way up from the streets. The comic books were published by people who were involved in pulp fiction, companies that sold disposable soft-core erotica and violent serials to a lower-class demographic. The mob was involved in the distribution of the books. The founding fathers weren’t magnanimous entrepreneurs with their workers’ best interest at heart. They were crooks and gangsters who were looking to make as much money as possible as cheap as possible.

The comic book as we knew it started as a pamphlet reprinting popular comic strips of the day. Even sold at ten cents an issue, this new venture made a ton of money. However, once reprint material dried up, demand didn’t. Publishers needed new, original material. Material that they would have to pay more for than the reprints they were using.

Luckily for these publishers, this need for new talent happened during the Great Depression. With unemployment a real threat and the soup lines looming, publishers were able to hire writers and artists cheap. And they hired them young too. Most of the legendary comic book creators were in their teens when they started. Stan Lee was only 16 when he started working for Timely Comics (as Marvel was known then). Joe Kubert was the same age when he started in 1942. Will Eisner was only 19 when he started working in comics in 1936, the same age as Jack Kirby when he started at a newspaper syndicate the same year.

In most cases, these young men were if not the primary breadwinners of their families, then they were a major source of their family’s income. With this looming over their heads, they could ill afford to lose their jobs in comics. The publishers knew this and used it to their advantage. The creators would sign over the rights to their creations. They would be slaves to the monthly deadlines the publishers. They would make good money for the time, but it was a pittance compared to what the publishers made off of their creativity. And if you dare to fight for your rights, you’d be replaced by someone new, because there were always new writers and artists looking to break into the field.

Jack Kirby’s opinion on working in comics by Dylan Horrocks

These problems that plagued comic book creators in the 1930s are also still plaguing the comic book creators today. Tweet after tweet demonstrates the environment that might have led McGinty to his death. They show that the world of some comic book creators has not changed over the 90 years the medium has been around. In some ways, things have gotten worse.

Amongst the horror stories housed in #ComicsBrokeMe, some trends can be seen throughout:

  • Creators are given an enormous amount of work with an impossibly tight deadlines and expected to meet it without problem.
  • The pay is so low that the creators often have to get full or part-time jobs in order to survive.
  • Being freelancers, they do not get offered healthcare. If they get sick or injured, they more often than not ignore the health issue or try to work through it.
  • Comic book work must be done whenever they can fit it in. This means at the very least their leisure time suffers and at most that work themselves into sickness trying to meet all their demands.
  • Sometimes all this work will be for naught. Projects could be cancelled leaving the creator looking to get paid for their work. Even if the work does get published, some creators have to chase after their employers in order to get paid.
  • If anyone asks for more money, complains about that working conditions or is unable to meet the absurd deadlines, they could be replaced. Because there is always someone right behind them looking to break in and are willing to take their job to do it.

These examples show the comic book industry as a predatory industry who prey on creators who grew up loving comic books. They turn that love and their desire to become comic book creators and use it against them. They are like some sort of corporate vampire, sucking out all their talent and creativity, leaving a broken shell behind.

It is at this point that I should say that not all comic book companies are as predatory as these examples. But even the big companies do whatever they can to get the most work out of their creators and employees for the least amount of money. An ex-employee of Marvel, which is owned by Disney, who was an editorial assistant said that the company adjusted by having to pay their assistants more by taking away a week of paid vacation to make up the difference. And an ex-employee of DC, which is owned by Warner Brothers Discovery, spoke on how he had to ask newer creators to accept lower than their going rate while the company would pay top name creators tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

One of the ways that people have suggested for creators to make a good living in comics is to go the creator-owned route. On paper, that seems like good advice. If you own the property you work on, you reap all the benefits. If it is adapted into movies of TV, the money flows back to you. In 2018, Yahoo! Finance published an article on the Top Ten Richest Comic Book Authors. The piece is so rife with inaccuracies that it can’t be taken all that seriously (they refer to the creator of Spawn as “Tom” McFarlane instead of his given name, Todd, and said Stan Lee kept the right to all the characters he created, which just isn’t true.). But of the seven out of ten creators on the list that worked in the American Comic Book industry, five of them (McFarlane, Frank Miller, Mark Millar, Robert Kirkman, and the team of Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman) made their fortunes through creator-owned properties (The other two are Lee and Joe Quesada, both who were part of Marvel Comics’ upper management). And they all share the commonality that their work was adapted into other mediums.

The five also shared other commonalities that many of the commenters on #ComicsBrokeMe do not. Only Laird and Eastman came from out of nowhere before they created the property that made them rich. The others all worked in comics and built up their names to a certain extent before coming up with their million-dollar idea. All the five are writers, artists or both. They aren’t letterers or colorists, jobs that are vital to the creation of comic books but not ones that get the most attention or money thrown at them.

What the proponents of going the creator-owned route fail to mention is the costs involved in creating your own comic book. If you go with an established company like Image Comics, they’ll charge you a fee for production costs on your book. If you decide to publish your own book, that will be around $3-$6 per copy. In both options, you will also have to do the lion’s share of promotion on the book, and that can add even more costs to your bottom line. If you can’t afford to go to the hospital doing work-for-hire, you probably can’t afford to publish your own book.

Nobody should get into comic books expecting to get rich, but they should expect to be able to make a living. Comic book writer Gail Simone offers some advice on how creators can protect themselves, but she shouldn’t have to. There should be a change in the industry that punishes predatory practices and rewards hard work and dedication. Until that change is made, comics will be breaking a whole lot more people.

Avatar für Bill Gatevackes
About Bill Gatevackes 2036 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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