PROTECT YA NECK
So a big-time editor at Fancy Pants Fun Time Comics has just called you up to say he loved your pitch for Jasper Bingo and His Magic Dungarees and wants you to write the next issue. Congratulations and welcome to the world of the freelance comic book creator. Here are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind.
First thing that’ll happen is they’ll send you a contract to sign. You’re gonna want to actually read it. Not only that, but you’re probably going to want a lawyer to read it as well. Preferably one who’s used to working within the entertainment industry. Hardly any comic creators I know use an agent for their comic work, but pretty much everybody employs a lawyer now and then. If you don’t know one, ask other creators who they use and find someone you’re comfortable with. Some lawyers will charge you by the hour, but most entertainment lawyers will want a percentage of your profits. Weigh your options and go with whatever you’re comfortable with.
Either way, you just want to protect yourself. There’s no union for comic book creators and likely never will be, so no one else out there is going to look out for your best interests. You got to do that for yourself. You don’t want to be the guy who’s sitting around bitching about how he got screwed on some deal from back in the day. If you signed the contract without fully understanding what you were signing, it’s your own damn fault.
If you’re signing a work-for-hire deal with a big time company, the contract pretty much is what it is. There aren’t going to be many points you can haggle over when they’re hiring you to write a character they already own all the rights to. But things like royalties for collections, for foreign editions and for digital downloads are details you’re going to want to know about. If you create a character for a company and they make an action figure of it, do you see any money off that? If they use your story as basis for a film or cartoon, are you owed any credit or recompense? These are questions you should know the answers to. If you’re signing some sort of creator-owned deal, there are even more questions to be asked, and the particulars of publication and media rights are things you’ll definitely need a lawyer to help guide you through.
Just because you have a lawyer doesn’t mean you can expect to get a perfect deal, not at all, especially if you’re new to the industry. You just want to put yourself in a position where you can intelligently weigh your options before you sign anything. I do not control the media rights to my series “Scalped.” I signed away those rights as part of my Vertigo deal. It is, for all intents and purposes, a Warner Brothers property. Though if anybody ever makes a “Scalped” Saturday morning cartoon, artist R.M. Guera and I, as co-creators, still get a cut of the money. That’s really more of a creator-participation deal than a creator-owned one. Now I could’ve tried to take “Scalped” somewhere else instead of signing with Vertigo and maybe retained control of those media rights, but looking back, I don’t regret the choice I made, not in the least. The point is just to understand your options and to be able to weigh the pros and cons.
Which brings up another point: always have a contract. It doesn’t matter if you and the guy you’re doing the comic with have been best friends ever since you were in diapers. Nothing can sour a friendship faster than squabbles over money, even imaginary money. It doesn’t make you an asshole if you want to get things in writing. It doesn’t mean you don’t trust your friend. It’s just good business. Are you and your buddy co-creators with equal rights or will one of you have more control over the property than the other? These are things it’s best to figure out before-hand and get down on paper all legal-like, so there are no surprise problems down the road.
I said you wouldn’t need an agent for comic book business, but you will definitely need one if you’re looking to navigate the waters of Hollywood at all. If you control the media rights to your work and you want to shop around your property and try to snag some of those gold doubloons that Hollywood tosses around like confetti, you’re going to need an agent to help you with that. As well as a remarkably strong constitution. Good luck.
Okay, so you’ve got your first work-for-hire contract from Fancy Pants Fun Time Comics in hand. Part of that contract will tell you what you’re going to be paid. Generally, you’ll get a page rate and maybe some royalties on top of that, depending on how your book sells. If you’re doing a creator-owned book or working for a smaller company, you may not get a page rate at all, and the only money you might see would come on the back-end, after the book has been sold in stores. But anyway, how do you know that the page rate this company is offering you is a fair one? You don’t. Unless you ask other creators and find out what they’re getting paid. That’s sometimes an awkward thing to do, even among friends. Sometimes especially among friends. But it’s good business. I’m all for creators being open with their peers about what they’re getting paid. Otherwise, you’d never have any idea if you’re getting screwed or not. I don’t remember my first page rate for Marvel, from back in 2002 when I did an 8 page Wolverine story as a contest winner, but in 2004 when I first started writing for Vertigo, I got $90 a page. Now I know guys who get page rates that are much less than that. Depends on the company you’re working for. But as I understand it, if you’re doing a book for Marvel or DC, that’s probably a pretty typical starting page rate. For a writer at least. If you’re an artist, it should be much more. If you’re a letterer, probably a good bit less. Again, ask around to other creators who are in the same boat as you and are comfortable talking about what they make in order to find out where you really stand.
Once you start getting paid, your money will come to you untaxed. You are an independent contractor, meaning you work from home or wherever the hell you want, use your own equipment and can work for multiple companies at a time if you want. It also means you have to do your own withholding and filing when it comes to taxes. You’re probably gonna want to talk to an accountant about all that. And you should also ask them if it would make sense for you to become incorporated. Having a corporation can maybe save you a bit on taxes and help you organize your expenses (you get to write-off comic book purchases now, how cool is that), and it can also insulate you a bit in terms of legal liability. Again, talk to an accountant.
Before I started writing comics, I had only ever worked jobs where I got paid a regular salary or an hourly wage. So every two weeks I knew I’d be getting a pay check for the same amount, whether I had actually done much work those weeks or had spent the whole time secretly asleep at my desk. Becoming a freelancer is a bit of an adjustment. If I was playing Fruit Ninja on my phone all last week instead of writing anything, I can’t be expecting a check to show up any time soon. You get paid by the project. You get paid when you turn that project in. If you’re an artist, you can maybe get paid for turning in a few pages at a time, depending on the rules of your company. If you’re a writer, you generally have to turn in a full 22 page script (or 20 if you’re working for DC these days) before you get paid. Everybody has good weeks and bad weeks. Last week I pulled a muscle in my back and was laid up in bed, all goofy on muscle relaxers. I didn’t turn in anything all week. That obviously affects my finances going forward. There’s no such thing as sick pay for a freelancer. No paid vacation. You have to keep things like that in mind as you survey your bank account and schedule bills to pay and such.
If you write a few stories for a company and they really like what you’re doing, they may want to offer you an exclusive deal. This doesn’t change your employment status. You’re still an independent contractor. This just limits you in terms of what work if any you’re allowed to do for other companies. The upside is that it guarantees you a certain amount of work for a specific period of time. As a freelancer who gets paid by the project, you’re always having to look ahead to what your next gig is going to be. If this is how you’re making your living, you don’t ever want to finish up a project and then realize you have nothing else lined up next. If you sign an exclusive, that worry goes away. You’re guaranteed work for the duration of your contract. An exclusive may come with other perks as well, like an increased page rate or maybe even health insurance. The downside is that it restricts your freedom. I’m in the midst of my second exclusive contract with Marvel and I remain extremely happy with the whole deal, but I have had to turn down offers from other companies that normally I would’ve jumped at. Again, it comes back to weighing the pros and cons. If you don’t want to be restricted, don’t sign the exclusive.
Okay, that’s enough business talk for now. Next week, we’ll talk about something completely different. Until then, keep fucking that chicken.
Jason Aaron is an Eisner and Harvey Award nominated comic book writer whose current work includes the critically-acclaimed crime series “Scalped” for DC/Vertigo and “Wolverine,” “Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine” and “PunisherMAX” for Marvel. He was born in Alabama but currently resides in Kansas City. His beard is bigger than yours.