Sunday, January 10, 2010

Golden Age of Reprints - Where does the gold go?

The past few years have been called the Golden Age of comics reprints, and it's hard not to see it, with every month seeing a few new announcements of long out-of-print works, both major and minor, coming out, sometimes in high quality archival presentations, sometimes in cheaper packages with considerably less care going into them (though usually just as expensive in price).  Certainly if you'd told me back in 2000 that by 2010 I'd be able to get every strip from the first two decades of Peanuts, thousands of pages of DC war comics in nice black and white editions, thousands of pages of Kirby reprints every year in a variety of formats, more than 4000 pages of John Stanley and Irving Tripp's work on Little Lulu in nice little affordable volumes, plus more books of Stanley's other work in  hardcover, and dozens of other things, well, I'd have wondered if all that came with the flying cars and jetpacks we're always promised about the future. And where the flrj my Sugar & Spike reprints are...

Still, we've got all that, and more.  One thing not often mentioned in those announcements is any details about where your money for buying them goes. Specifically, does any reasonable portion of the money for those books (not just a token payment) go to the writers and artists who created them in the first place.

Now, the comic strips are generally either owned by the creators, or by the newspaper syndicates, but with much more enlightened contracts than comic books had, so those I'm mostly confident some money is going to the right place (except for public domain stuff, more on that later).

And for DC I'm pretty sure some money does always go to the creators, to the point that the contract they had in place for a few years (specifying set reprint payments by page, not by percentage of retail price) makes cheap, thick black and white reprints (my favourite kind) of material from those years impractical unless they can renegotiate the rate.  In any case, Steve Bissette, one of the few to talk about it openly and never shy about being critical of DC, said DC "has honored and in many ways bettered the original agreements and contracts" with respect to the reprints of work he did for them.

Marvel's record is much spottier, at the very least they apparently have a policy in place only to pay reprint fees to living creators, not their heirs (not a policy DC has, I think), so all those Jack Kirby reprints they do every year are a freebie to them.  Not that they seem to pass along the savings to the consumer.  I've also heard a few statements that suggest they don't consistently make payments to living creators, but I'm not sure what exactly the situation there is.

Now, other publishers, especially those picking up reprints of material they didn't publish the first time around, that's where it gets tricky.  To get back to what Steve Bissette wrote at that link above, that was partly instigated by IDW and Dark Horse reprinting a few minor pieces he did for First Comics back in the 1980s, and not getting anything from the publishers, no notice that his work was in the books, no payment, no complimentary copies (as he later updated in that post, Rick Veitch did eventually get a comp copy of the Nexus book that reprinted his story, along with a ridiculously small payment.  $200 for 28 pages of art, $7.15 a page.  I think we can agree that if you get less than Siegel and Shuster got per page of Superman in 1938 that qualifies as a "token payment"), but I don't think Bissette ever did get payment for his cover reprinted in that book.

So what about all the other stuff that those companies reprint?  In addition to that reprint from First, I've heard a few times that IDW doesn't pay creators anything for all the Star Trek comics they reprint from various other publishers who held the license before them. Can I assume the same is true for their other reprints of material that's not creator owned?  How about Dark Horse for all the old comics they reprint?  Star Wars and Indiana Jones comics from Marvel, Tarzan comics from various publishers, old ACG comics.  Irving Tripp only passed away a few months ago, was he even getting copies of those Little Lulu books, or a few cents for every copy?  Dark Horse has done more than 20 of them, so I'm guessing they make a profit for someone.  Those $50 Creepy and Eerie books, if I buy those, does anything go to the estates of Archie Goodwin, Alex Toth and Wallace Wood?  To living artists like Gene Colan, Al Williamson and Steve Ditko?  It's not the skills of the people at Dark Horse or whoever happened to buy the rights to Jim Warren's publishing company that sell the books, after all.

And to expand this to other publishers, half of what Archie publishes is reprints, in their digests.  They frequently don't even have proper credits on those, so I'm going to guess if they can't be bothered to put on a name (or in some cases can be bothered to erase a name), they're not going to be cutting a cheque.  They've recently announced various "archival" collections, including artist based ones, but given their publishing partners are Dark Horse and IDW I wouldn't bet money on the artists getting more than that usual Archie treatment (apparently a current showing of Archie artwork at a museum doesn't mention the names of the artist who created the work on their walls).

And, of course, there are lots of examples beyond that.  Do the various artists of the EC books get anything from those $50 books reprinting their work?  I don't think most of the writers even get credited for them yet.  I'm pretty sure Disney comics reprints didn't pay the creators anything when Gladstone/Gemstone were doing them (at least from what I recall Don Rosa saying), has that changed any with Boom picking up the license? Fantagraphics has a book reprinting the four issues of Blazing Combat.  Looks really good.  No idea if Archie Goodwin's estate and the many talented artists represented see a dime.  I hope they do.

And of course there are a lot of books of public domain material.  Now, public domain is just that, and certainly I don't have clean hands since I'm not shy about posting public domain stories online.  It's an issue I still need to think about, I guess, but I'd certainly think that if you're going to do a high priced book with the name of a still living creator as part of the title and the work of that creator as the sole selling point, not having the participation and sharing the financial rewards with that creator doesn't seem right, somehow.

Well, anyway, those are some preliminary thoughts on the issue for a longer piece I'll never write (because you know, that would require research).  I'd be curious what other people think, and if you have any facts on payments given to creators for anything I mentioned, or any other reprints, please let me know (I kind of wish publishers would be required to include a note in their books, "A minimum of x% of the cover price of this book goes to the writers and artists responsible").  It would be a shame if in the Golden Age of Reprints, those that do the reprinting keep all the gold.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

In regard to licensed material being reprinted (not naming names, but I used to do this for a living): the publisher reprinting a given comic would pay a fee to the licensor, whose responsibility it is to then pass on however much a creator is owed per their original contract. As you might imagine, in many cases where early work-for-hire contracts were signed (in some cases predating the entire concept of 'reprinted comics'), this amounts to nothing at all.

There are other ways for more charitable-thinking licensees of material to compensate creators, should they be so inclined; introductions, for example, or 'commentaries' on the strips to be published along with the reprinted material. How common this is, I can't say.

Harry Mendryk said...

Hey I didn't see Titan in you list of publishers. (I'm kidding you, I realize that you know both Joe Simon and the Kirby estate benefit financial from Titan's Simon and Kirby books).

Joe Simon used to have a royalty check from a major publisher company (I will not say which one but it was one of the ones you wrote about) for an amount of $.50. Hey never cashed it.

Anonymous said...

Marvel pay royalties on US reprints, but not on foreign ones, IIRC.

bob said...

I think DC also has an unfortunate blind-spot in their royalty system for foreign publications, or did in the past at least.

As I said, I'm really not sure in the case at Marvel, since I've heard a few creators say they don't get anything for reprints, but others who definitely do.

I'm not sure if it's still the case, but I've seen some reference in fanzines when DC and Marvel started to pay royalties that DC instituted them as a contractual obligation on their part, while Marvel had it as a "gift" to their creators (so something they could take away or modify at their own whim). I've seen some fairly modern DC work-for-hire contracts so I know they spell out royalty structures, haven't seen a Marvel one.

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