Within about 10 minutes of the trailer for Thor: Love and Thunder dropping online, comics fans noted how one shot was identical in composition to a panel that artist Esad Ribić drew for his run on the series Thor: God of Thunder with writer Jason Aaron. Some sites have already lauded this for the “comic book accuracy.” To others, this feels more transparently like an artist being taken advantage of, with Ribić serving as “the cheapest possible designer” for one of Hollywood’s most expensive ongoing projects. Too often, the creators who forged the foundations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are given a “special thanks” credit and little else, and that’s being thrown into sharper relief as these films double down on lifting imagery from page to screen.
It’s even part of the press cycle for these films at this point — Marvel Studios will prove their “loyalty” to the source material by perfectly replicating something from it. The increasing pride with which the studio uses exact replicas of artists’ work leads one to wonder whether those artists are being fairly compensated for that usage, if at all. While it’s not easy to find concrete numbers, the first answer that comes up is often a resounding “No.” The Guardian reported that artists have been receiving “thank you payments” in the range of $5,000, along with invites to the premieres of the movies based on their respective works. Measure that against the billions that Marvel/Disney makes off these films each year.
In the 1970s, comics veteran Jim Starlin created the supervillain Thanos. Decades later, that character became a focal point of the MCU. In 2017, Starlin spoke to Vulture about his frustration with Marvel. He noted in a Facebook post that Warner/DC paid him more for their use of a single minor character in 2016’s Batman v. Superman than Disney had for every Thanos appearance in a film combined. Writer Ed Brubaker had a cameo in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, since he was the one who created the Winter Soldier during his run on the Captain America comic. Among many other indignities, he says he’s “made more on SAG residuals [for that cameo] than I have made on creating the character.” In response to Marvel lifting his art style from his work on the Hawkeye comic for posters for the Disney+ series Hawkeye, David Aja (though vague and tongue-in-cheek about it) also suggested that some money should be sent his way. (Disney+ has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)
There are some positive cases. Mike Mantlo, the brother of Rocket Racoon creator Bill Mantlo, who suffered permanent brain damage in a car accident, wrote in a guest column for the Hollywood Reporter that Marvel sent him a compensation package for the first Guardians of the Galaxy film. But as Starlin noted after renegotiating with Marvel, the old adage that the squeaky wheel gets the grease seems to be the standard here, and “the way these agreements are written up, Disney can be more generous if they want.” Only the loudest problems get solved, while others slip through the cracks.
A more recent grievance came from Joe Casey, the co-creator of America Chavez along with Nick Dragotta. Chavez made her cinematic debut in the recently released Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Casey spoke about receiving an “insult of an offer” from Marvel, which he declined. As noted in a writeup by AIPT, Casey is fully aware of Marvel’s legal ownership of the character (a point defensive fans often argue). But that doesn’t make it right for them to stiff these creators. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote the Black Panther comic beginning in 2016, who also speaks of being treated well himself by Marvel, calls it a moral obligation, not just a matter of legality. Speaking to the Guardian last year, Coates said, “it doesn’t seem just for them to extract what Steve and Ed put into this and create a multi-billion dollar franchise … just because it’s in a contract doesn’t make it right. If I have some kind of leverage over you, I can get you to sign a contract to fuck you over.”
Surveying this recurring frustration among writers and artists, Brubaker notes that it’s clear the problem lies as much in the lack of protections the comics industry provides creators as it does with Marvel Studios. DC and Marvel, the “Big Two” publishers, tend to offer them meager “work for hire” deals. This issue didn’t start with the MCU, either. It goes back to the very beginning of the field, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold their first Superman story for $130 (and the copyright for free). They later had to fight tooth and nail to see compensation as Superman became a lucrative pop culture icon, and they never captured ownership of the character. Legendary artist Jack Kirby (and then his estate) fought for proper credit and recompense for his work for decades. It was a fight in which the great Neal Adams, who sadly passed away recently, was a major force, seeking better contracts for freelance creators and even securing a pension and proper credit for Siegel and Shuster.
You would think that a commitment to replicating the work of artists would come with some reverence toward them. Yet so often, legal technicalities and obligations toward business win out over the rights of artists or simple common decency. Look at any replies section on a post about this problem, and you’ll often see a disturbing fealty to product and company rather than human beings. Thankfully, anecdotally speaking, most people have the right idea, but it’s a worrying element of the dominance of Marvel Studios, the favoring of the corporate and the reduction (or outright erasure) of individual authorship. Just as directors and cinematographers are effectively made invisible by the studio’s house style, the comic artists are considered less important than the machine they work within.