Marvel's "Work Made For Hire" Packaging contract for Epic Comics

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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.

PREVIEW: This contract isn't available to the public, at least not yet. It presumably covers everything that happens after Marvel pays "you" (the writer) for your series proposal, including payment terms for each issue, the relationships between you and the artists you'll hire to turn your script into comics, how you'll work with Marvel, etc. The terms for packaging Creator-Owned series will be the same, except for any bits that refer to Marvel owning the property. Some of the requirements can be gleaned from the info on the Epic web pages, so there's something to go on here. Some of this probably isn't even covered in the contract, but I'll toss in my thoughts about it anyway. Any speculation or assumptions here may be contradicted by the contract itself, and obviously the contract is right, not me.

This is a chart from Marvel explaining the per-issue pay scale. I assume the Packaging contract spells out the same information in legal terms. A key "gotcha" to look out for: If for some reason Marvel refuses the finished 22-page book, and you can't resolve whatever their objection is, you and your artists could be left with only $1,000. And since $500 of that is earmarked for the writer, that leaves $500 to be split (as described below) between the writer and the art team... an art team that has collectively done the equivalent of (rough guess) 500 hours of work. So you better get those last 17 pages approved. Other possible scenarios to lose sleep over: the inker vanishes off the face of the earth along with a stack of finished pencils, or the colorist's Mac gets hit by lightning as he's finishing page 22 and he has to start over using his mom's 200MHz Windows ME system... and the files are due at Marvel on Friday. If any link in the chain breaks, no one gets paid until/unless it's fixed.

If a series is reprinted in paperback, Epic creators will reportedly get the same additional compensation for that as regular Marvel freelancers do for collections of their issues. Note that everything in this chart above $8,000 - what Marvel calls an "incentive" bonus - is officially at Marvel's discretion. They're not really "royalties" because (everyone together now) "it's Marvel's property, not yours"; they'd only owe you royalties if you still owned it. If money gets tight, or Marvel management changes their mind about bonuses, or someone there just doesn't like you, the bonus could simply not get paid. (I believe the same is true of the bonus scheme that Marvel offers to their regular freelancers.)

Before you start going "cha-ching" at the earnings potential of a single issue, keep in mind that established name-brand pro creators using well-known characters can have a hard time breaking 20K units; newcomers using third-tier super-heroes won't sell 100K+ in this lifetime. And the money isn't all for you. How the money gets split up among the writer, penciler, inker, colorist, and letterer is up to the several of you, but Marvel suggests (using their standard budget for books packaged in-house as a model) 25-30% for the writer, 35-40% for the penciler (who'll end up spending the most time and materials on it, so that's only fair), and letting the other three mud-wrestle over the rest. Something to think about: Historically, some publishers have paid different ratios betwen penciler and inker depending on how "finished" the penciler's work was expected to be; if the penciler does fairly rough work, leaving the inker responsible for making up the details or backgrounds, the inker deserves a larger share than if he were inking George Pérez. Likewise, a script short on "stage directions" (or merely plotted, using "the Marvel method") might warrant paying the penciler more. Some finished inks need more color-enhancement than others. (I'm not implying there's anything inherently wrong with rough pencils or brief scripts; dividing the work up differently from "standard" could be a way to take advantage of the respective creators' strengths. But people should get paid for how much they contribute.) It sounds like you'll have to specify the per-creator breakdown in the Packaging contract, and I've been told second-hand that Marvel will cut checks for each person rather than a single check for the writer/editor to divvy up. If the ratios aren't in that contract, put it in writing yourselves. And don't forget that all of this is pre-tax; the U.S. War Dept is going to want a share. Even from foreigners.

As for cancellation, the majority of Epic books will probably be limited series, so it may not come up as often as it would otherwise, but a limited series can be canceled before it's finished; Marvel's done it before, on higher-profile books than yours. Epic's production methodology is structured to keep their own costs to a minimum, so that books with smaller sales figures than mainline Marvel books will be financially viable, which helps, but doesn't protect you from basic economics. Editor Stephanie Moore says 12,000 units is the minimum, and they'll be approving Epic series one issue at a time. They could cut off a series with no advance notice to you, and just say, "Sorry, we don't need you to do another issue." If you had a cliff-hanger at the end of the previous issue, the poor fella's just gonna be left hanging on that cliff forever. Also, if the orders for #1 are right on the edge of unprofitability, #2 and #3 will presumably sell even lower, so Marvel might just cancel the series before #1 sees print, to avoid losing any more money on it. It's been known to happen.

You are responsible for hiring the artists you'll be working with, making your initial contacts based on only 5 scanned pages from Marvel's web site. Should be a real crap-shoot for everyone involved, so spend some time getting to know each other in e-mail/phone conversations and find out more about their work - and work ethic - before you make a commitment. (Another alternative - if you know artists you'd like to work with - is to bring them to your Epic editor for approval.) Some suggested questions to ask: Here's what the story's about... how would you feel about drawing that (e.g. excited, nervous, bored, offended)? Have you been published before? How many pages can you do in a week? Can you help with inks/pencils if the other guy gets behind? How long can you commit to doing this? What other time commitments do you have to work around (e.g. day job, school, family, community service, secret identity)? What percentage do you think you should get paid? How long have you been trying to "break in"? (Which may also give you a sense of how old they are.) Do you know where to find reference for [whatever less-than-self-evident visual elements you have in your script, e.g. Paris streets, 1930's cars, traditional Navajo dress, the original Fantasticar, automatic weapons]? Do you prefer to follow a detailed script, or make up the page layout and scenes yourself? How do you feel about someone else "fixing" your work?

From the other side of the fence, I'd start by asking the writer-editor for a copy of everything he sent to Marvel, so you know as much as possible about what you're being asked to do. Then ask a lot of the same questions as above, in reverse (What else will I have to draw? How many pages/week? etc.) I'd also ask things like: How many issues do you have scripted, and how long before I can see the rest? How do you feel about me deviating from the script if I have a better idea of how to show it? What aspect of my samples appealed to you? What sort of "feel" do you want this series to have? And make sure you all understanding who's responsible for what. For example: Is the penciler sending his pages directly to the inker, or to the writer for approval? Is the inker or the colorist scanning the finished inks? Who keeps the originals?

The artists will be working for the writer, making you the editor of your series as well. The folks at Marvel will be acting as gatekeepers not project managers, solely saying "yea" or "nay" to the finished set of pages (and presumably offering suggestions to fix it if they say "nay"). Keep in mind that they are allowed to make changes without your approval (and probably even without your knowledge) if you're uncooperative or if they feel it's more expedient than asking you to do it. The main reason they probably won't micro-manage you is the fact that they don't have time. One of the things that's supposed to make Epic financially viable is not having paid editors on each series. That probably sounds really cool to you as a writer, and maybe it is, but it also means you're sticking your neck out without a pro to guide you along. Writers - especially inexperienced writers - make lousy editors of their own work. I'd strongly suggest recruiting someone you know and whose opinion you trust to serve as your "co-editor", advising you on what's working or not. Listen to your penciler as well. And for the love of god, please find someone with good spelling skills to proofread the dialog! As front-line editor, the writer will also have to figure out how to manage "his" people. If the inker has been waiting over a week for overdue pages, is the penciler fired? Fined? Not invited over for D&D next week? Merely expected to get to work and this issue comes out late? Make sure he knows ahead of time.

Someone in your team (the letterer would be a logical choice) is going to need to have (or have access to) a licenced copy of Quark XPress (a professional desktop-publishing program, available for Mac OS or Windows) and know how to use it well enough to put together the final printer-ready layouts of your book. Feebleware like Microsoft Publisher ain't never gonna cut it, and Adobe Pagemaker - while up to the task, I'm sure - can't produce the Quark-format .QXD files Marvel uses. Whether they'll make an exception to allow Pagemaker or PDF files probably depends on how well Quark imports them. Marvel does this compositing work in-house for their non-Epic books; they're saving money - again, giving Epic books a shot at financial viability - by getting you to do all of it but the ads. Keep this in mind when deciding how much to pay the team member who takes on this chore. Given the per-user cost of Quark ($700-900) and the limited number of people outside of the design/publishing professions who are experienced with it, I wouldn't be surprised if a small cottage industry of freelance Compositors springs up around Epic. (Oh, and by the way, I know Quark.) The other software Marvel specified (Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator) should be less of a problem; any paint/photo program good enough for a colorist to bother trying to use (e.g. Deneba Canvas, JASC Paint Shop) can save standard .TIFF and Photoshop .PSD files, and any good vector drawing program (e.g. Macromedia Freehand) should be able to export Adobe Illustrator .AI and .EPS files.

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© copyright 2003, Todd VerBeek
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