Even before I became Editor in Chief at Marvel, I’d heard plenty of creators grumbling about Marvel’s artwork return policy.
Technically, the artwork was a “gift” being given to people involved their creation. Using the word “return,” implying that creators were getting back something they had any shred of a claim to whatsoever would have infuriated the lawyers, probably, but everybody used that term anyway.
Marvel gave artwork to creators at it “sole discretion” according to the formula developed by Roy Thomas, who was the one who somehow talked the brass into allowing artwork to be given away, returned, whatever, back in 1974 or so while Roy was Editor in Chief.
Pencilers got most of the pages, inkers substantially fewer and writers got the smallest share.
Pencilers and inkers grumbled because, without exception, they felt that writers shouldn’t get any pages at all. Writers grumbled because pencilers had first choice of the pages, inkers picked second and the pages left for the writers were usually the least appealing ones. Write a heavy-copy page, and guess what, writers, that one’s yours.
Personally, I felt that if the company was giving pages to anyone, they should be given to the artists. I wrote a fair number of comics in those days. When pages were “returned” to me, I gave one page to the penciler and one to the inker. Other writers did that, too. Archie Goodwin and Don McGregor, for instance.
Once I became EIC in 1978, as if I didn’t have enough disasters to deal with, I was suddenly the central figure in the artwork return policy debate. I got a steady stream of protests, complaints and appeals about it.
After I brought this subject up yesterday, the debate that ensued among the commenters was like déjà vu for me. I heard much the same during my first couple of years as EIC.
Some commenters stated cases in terms of who they thought the art belonged to. That was not an issue. It belonged to Marvel, or at least that was the position of the company, the position I was expected to represent as EIC, and honestly, what I believed to be true, according to the work-for-hire provisions of the copyright law. You may disagree with the law, you may not like it—I don’t—but it is the governing doctrine upon which Marvel’s position was (and is) based, and Marvel has prevailed in every legal contention.
So, the question was, if Marvel is going to give “gifts,” to whom should they be given?
While most commenters seem to think artwork should be given to the artists and not to the writers, and I already leaned that direction, it wasn’t an easy call back then. Roy established the policy. Change Roy’s policy? I wasn’t afraid to do that, if it seemed to be the right thing to do, but consider this, as I did. Roy, if I know him at all, didn’t arrive at his formula for the division of the pages capriciously or selfishly. He made a judgment that he considered fair. He made it thoughtfully. I wasn’t about to undo it on a whim. Even after he was gone.
Changing an established policy is harder than initiating one. Some writers derived a significant amount of income from the sale of the pages they received.
So, I gave it a lot of thought.
Joe Sinnott was among those who weighed in on the subject (in general, not specifically on the writers’ share issue) with a letter to me. A long, well-considered, sincere and eminently reasonable letter—and such beautiful manuscript! Good hands has Joe.
Joe is a trouper if there ever was one, a gentleman and an honorable man. I passed the letter along to Stan and asked for his thoughts.
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I guess I was hoping that Stan would, with Solomon-like wisdom, tell me how to make everything right. Nah. As I’ve mentioned before, Stan was controversy-averse. He was sittin’ this one out.
So, it was up to me to “arrange things to satisfy Joe.” I saw no way to do that without pissing off lots of other people. Sigh. Solomon didn’t actually have to divide the baby. I did.
While I was pondering, the debate continued among the creators themselves. I think that because, my artist-favoring leanings were public knowledge, the writers were nervous. Bill Mantlo was one of the most outspoken proponents of the writers’ side. He famously wrote a letter to Bob McLeod (with whom he worked on Micronauts) on the subject which inspired a series of reactions. Bob copied me (and a number of other people) on his reply, which became sort of the cornerstone of the artists’ position. I have redacted any personal banter, irrelevant or private stuff and anything not policy-related on this and the other letters shown here:
Steve Leialoha commented on Bob’s letter and had some interesting insights:
Terry Austin responded to both of the above. Basically, Terry agreed with the sentiments expressed, but felt that the penciler (or the penciler’s agent/dealer, as with John Byrne and others) always having first choice was unfair. Terry was sympathetic to my dilemma and even went so far as to suggest that this might be a matter appropriate to let the Comic Book Creators Guild handle.
Ultimately, I had to make decisions. In 1978 and/or in 1979 I made some minor adjustments/clarifications to the policy. In late September of 1980, I changed the artwork return policy to eliminate the writers’ share and adjusted the penciler/inker and pencil breakdowns/finisher split to make them fairer. I also made it possible for penciler/inker teams to make their own, private deals. Some teams preferred, for instance, to keep each issue intact and split books two to the penciler, one to the inker, or whatever. Later (I think), I made the selection of pages random, rather than allowing the penciler first choice. Since the penciler received the majority of the pages anyway, he or she was still likely to get most of the “good” pages.
Some writers were less than supportive. Here are two memos from Bill Mantlo, a letter from Chris Claremont and one from Doug Moench:
Bill’s “Angry” memo:
Bill’s “More Moderate” memo:
Bill did this a lot—react quick-and-angry about something, then hours or a day later, come to me with an “I’m sorry I got upset” apology (though there were times I couldn’t blame him for being upset, like when accounting screwed up his check again) or a more thoughtful protest about the issue.
Chris Claremont's letter:
Chris Claremont's letter:
Doug Moench's letter:
Bill, Chris, Doug and others had reasonable, well-considered objections. Being writers, they stated their cases eloquently and persuasively. These are very smart people with very thoughtful, rational points of view.
Do you see why this was difficult?
And by the way, throughout this process everyone was very civil, decent and rational. Even Bill’s “angry” memo was pretty sedate. That didn’t make dealing with the issue easier, but it lowered the ulcer-generation potential.
Bill’s suggestion, which Chris and Doug also brought up independently, regarding an across the board rate increase wasn’t a bad one. I didn’t accomplish that, but I did manage to get rate increases for almost every regular writer soon thereafter, which helped to blunt their pain. And ease my conscience.
At least the artists were happy.
MONDAY: I’m not sure. Probably Spider-Man’s marriage, if I can find the ref…. Plus, a few final comments on art return and the fate of creators in general now that Marvel is the House of the Mouse.