Dark Horse's "New Recruits" program

Dark Horse Comics has a program running through 31 Dec 2004 called "New Recruits", in which their publisher (think "editor in chief") will personally review any submission they receive which meets the guidelines detailed on their site. (In brief: 10 finished pages and a story outline.) This is a great opportunity for any cartoonist (or writer/artist team) who's been toiling away on their Great American Graphic Novel, because someone with the authority to publish it has offered to look at what you've got done so far. One of the requirements is that you sign this contract, which I'm going to explain in plain English, paragraph by paragraph:

DISCLAIMER: Although I'm excessively proud to have scored better on the LSAT (163, or 90th percentile) than most law school graduates, I am not a lawyer and this is NOT a professional legal analysis. Law is just a dirty little hobby of mine. You should have someone who actually went to law school (and preferably passed the Bar exam) review any contracts and advise you before signing them. Corrections and clarifications from those better qualified or better informed than I are welcome.

OVERVIEW: The entry form sets the terms under which Dark Horse will review your proposal. In that document, "you" refers to Dark Horse, and "I" refers to the creator of the book (or if that's more than one person, all of them). In my comments here, "you" refers to you, the creator(s). Note that mere writers can't submit by themselves; you need to draw it or hire someone who'll draw it for you. (Dark Horse does accept submissions from writers or artists through their regular procedures, but since they publish a fairly small number of books done by freelancers for hire, there isn't much potential there for work.)

1. This has to be your own work, not ripped off, borrowed, or based on anyone else's. Public Domain material (e.g. Shakespeare) would be OK, but this means no Star Wars or Buffy stories. Dark Horse manages those licenced properties very carefully, and they aren't going to let some creator off the street produce one semi-independently. This invitation is for Dark Horse's creator-owned division.

2. Dark Horse is going to assume (at first) that you told the truth about paragraph 1. But if it turns out that you lied, they can back out and walk away, and you can't accuse them of bargaining "in bad faith" when they do so. So don't assume that just because they say "let's talk", they've fallen for your ruse and are obligated to publish the script you stole from Alan Moore's house while he was at the pub.

3. Dark Horse doesn't have to send your proposal back or otherwise dispose of it; they can keep it. But they probably won't keep it; they'll toss it out after sending you a "no thanks" letter. So send copies, not originals. Never send originals to anyone unless you never want to see them again.

4. Someone shoot the lawyer who wrote this paragraph. Now. What he's trying to do here is condense everything found in Marvel/Epic's Idea Submission form into one run-on sentence. I'll break it up a bit: First, you're stating your intention to sign a contract with Dark Horse to publish your book if they want it. I'm not sure about this, but I think that means Dark Horse has dibs and you can't cut a deal with someone else until you've broken off talks with the Horse. Second, you're acknowleding that Dark Horse might have the right to (seemingly) "steal your idea". Dark Horse is in the business of coming up with ideas for comics and it's entirely possible that they've already come up with something similar to what you're proposing, or they might come up with (or get a proposal suggesting) something similar in the future. So don't assume that if they publish something that resembles your work down the line, that they ripped it off from you. If your proposal is an adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet", Dark Horse can do another adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet" as long as they don't base it directly on yours. They have as much right to do Shakespeare - or any other general idea - as you do.

5. Dark Horse lives in Milwaukie, Oregon, and they're not about to come out to Milwaukee, Wisconsin - or anywhere else - for a trial. Besides, they know how the Oregon courts will interpret the law and they'd rather take their chances with that, instead of letting some yahoo in New York or Red China or Andorra apply their kooky local laws to it. This stuff is way too simple to be worth a trial, so if there's a problem, it's going to arbitration*. If you wait more than 12 months to complain, forget about it.
* Arbitration is a bit like going to "Judge Judy" but without the stupid theatrics: You tell your side, Dark Horse tells their side, and the arbitrator decides what to do about it.

6. And if you lose, you're paying for the whole mess.

7. Another complete contract in a single paragraph. First point: If it isn't in writing, it doesn't count, so if Mike Richardson promises you they'll make action figures and lunch boxes and a movie out of your proposal and you'll get 90% of the gross, but doesn't put it in another contract, don't count on it. Second point: Dark Horse is going to keep this agreement on file and assume it applies to everything else you send in (which is really just a convenience for both parties) unless you two sign a new document that says otherwise. Final point: This is a standard "bathwater" provision to prevent any specific problem with this contract from wrecking the whole thing. If the Supreme Court says Dark Horse can't do what they wrote in the second half of the third setence of paragraph 9 the rest of that paragraph still stands, along with the rest of the contract.


You'll notice that there's nothing in here about what Dark Horse gets out of this. That's because regardless of any further contracts with Dark Horse, you'll remain the owner of the material, and all they'd get is a share of the profits. It don't get no better'n that. Of course when/if you sign a contract with Dark Horse to produce and publish your work, there will be conditions put on things, and obligations you'll have to meet, and you're going to have to nail down what "a share" is, and how it's calculated. My original article speculating about Marvel/Epic's creator-owned contract (before I got my hands on a copy) might be helpful, but since Dark Horse is very friendly to creator ownership (in fact, they own very little of the material they publish), you can lower the paranoia and cynicism of that essay a few notches. I'd still get a lawyer to look the contract over before signing it, though. Because you can be sure Dark Horse did, and their lawyer likes it. Always reason to be cautious. I don't know what the terms of Dark Horse' contracts are like, so I'm afraid I can't comment about them, except to point out that some highly talented (and often highly critical) creators have signed them, so they can't be too bad.

While it's conceivable that Dark Horse is going "steal your idea", that sort of thing is unlikely, and 99% of such lawsuits are jokes that just waste everyone's time. So I can't blame Dark Horse for requiring you to agree to their "right" to do so, and you're really not giving up anything by doing so, except the right to make a doofus of yourself by joining that 99%. Ideas are cheap and plentiful; they grow like dandelions in June. And even if Dark Horse did "steal your idea", unless they also stole your plot or your dialog or your characters, they didn't steal anything you really owned; you can't copyright or own a mere idea. In other words, stealing ideas may be immoral and unethical and Just Plain Wrong, but it's legal. And they have little to gain by doing so anyway, because then they'd still have to hire someone to develop the idea... so (unless you're really not any good) why not just hire you and save themselves a lot of grief?

I collected a bunch of advice for writers about making proposals to Marvel's Epic Comics imprint, and while a lot of it is specific to Epic, some of it's applicable if you're thinking of becoming a "New Recruit" for Dark Horse.

© copyright 2003, Todd VerBeek
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