"[T]hey broke my spirit," Don Rosa wrote in an epilogue to his autobiography in comics, explaining why he retired from the job he so dearly loved. The whole tale is heart-breaking but also beautiful in the cartoonist's abundant gratitude and humility.
"They" of course are Disney and its publishing licensees who don't pay their comics talent any royalties whatsoever despite the incredibly healthy exporting of Disney comic books around the world. Rosa created Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics for almost 20 years and only ever received a flat page rate, as though it were the 1940s. His rate was better than other Disney comics artists at the time because he was so popular, but his wife was still the primary provider for the family. She was a school teacher, a profession not typically known for financial excess.
Whenever I hear about these kinds of stories, I always wonder why the creator doesn't turn to creator-owned comics, which allow freedom on many levels, and a greater potential for financial benefit. The Walking Dead, anyone? Rosa, the internationally beloved cartoonist, doing his own comic book series or graphic novel would be an event. It seems like a no-brainer. But it's easy to forget that for some creators, despite the opportunities, that option is a non-starter.
Rosa addressed this very topic in his epilogue. He's been told by publishers they would publish anything he creates. Despite the guaranteed money and creative freedom, it just wouldn't match his love for Carl Barks and his wonderful Ducks. "But my reply has always been 'Any character I might create next week … I would not have grown up with that character,'" he wrote. "'I wouldn’t care about him. My thrill is in creating stories about characters I’ve loved all my life.' I’m a fan."
That opinion doesn't get a lot of attention, but it isn't unique. I've spoken with a number of cartoonists who have done major comics work, some who are struggling as they get older, and I've if they've ever considered creator-owned comics. A surprising number of them have very similar responses. They just aren't interested. In fact, for some it's such a turn-off, it's as if I suggested they switch careers and go into selling time shares.
I'm always a little disappointed by that response, but I respect their choice and their honesty about what speaks to them creatively. The simple fact is that DC, Archie, Marvel and Disney all have beloved characters and legendary stories that dominated many of our childhoods. The desire of creators to interact with those characters can become so great that all other creative desires are eclipsed.
It's still happening today. That's one of the reasons why advice to prospective talent from editors at those legacy publishers is almost always to create their own comics first. They know that so many people come to them only wanting to do Batman stories (or Spider-Man or Donald Duck or Archie stories). Are they robbing the world of the next Don Rosa? Maybe, but they also need some way to judge whether that fresh talent can actually make comics, and the Don Rosa days of stumbling into a job as a fan are probably long gone.
Whatever a creator's ultimate muse or aspirations, the option of creator-owned comics doesn't remove reasonable obligations for publishers. As Rosa mentions, royalties and other benefits for creators are industry standards in every other form of entertainment. And the money is no doubt there when looking at international sales of these stories over and over again.
Fortunately, Rosa was able to take some action by protecting the rights to his name, and Disney licensee Egmont eventually did the right thing. But you can count the number of world-renowned Disney comic book artists of the caliber of Carl Barks and Don Rosa on one hand, arguably on two fingers. Most wouldn't, and currently don't, have the clout that Rosa had. And so it falls back to the publishers. If they want quality talent to produce quality stories that sell, they need to reasonably support that talent financially.
A fan will feel honored to do the work for only so long before they finally realized they're being screwed over. It's time Disney did the right thing out of respect for the legacy of their characters and the people that brought them to life.