Writer and editor extraordinaire Scott Edelman appeared on the latest episode of Project iRadio's The Horror Show with Brian Keene tonight in a really interesting interview where he spends a long time talking about his career, which includes a large chunk of time spent at Marvel Comics back in the 70s. If you're a fan of comic industry history, which I personally find more fascinating than most of the comics themselves, you definitely want to check this out.
But of particular interest to us here are comments Edelman made about a contract Marvel tried to get him to sign when they asked him to write an essay for a Captain Marvel collected edition. Apparently, in this standard contract, Marvel wanted Edelman to sign away his right to ever say anything bad about Marvel, anywhere, ever again!
Here's what Edelman had to say during the interview:
I just had an issue with Marvel in that I was asked to write an essay to go with the Marvel Masterworks for Captain Marvel. They just got up to volume #5. And they said, "Would you like write about it?" because of the twelve issues, I think I'd written eight of them or something like that. So I said fine. I started writing the essay, because I remember buying the issue of Marvel Super Heroes that had the original Gene Colan and Arnold Drake, if I'm remembering correctly*, Captain Marvel in it with the old costume. The green and white costume. And so I started writing the essay and the contract shows up, which is, I don't know, eight, ten, twelve pages, and it included such clauses as... The clause that really leapt out of me is I would not say anything derogatory about Marvel or its employees or anything like that.
In the introduction.
No, no. Ever. Because this was not a contract dealing with this one thing. This was a contract dealing with the entire relationship and talking about who owned characters, talking about how I couldn't put any of my original comic book artwork on exhibition without the permission of Marvel Comics.
I contacted people like Roy and a bunch of other people and said "Did you guys sign this kind of thing?" And they all said no. But this was all pre-Disney that they signed it. I asked Neil Gaiman, and he said no, of course, but he's Neil Gaiman. They don't ask him to sign that. And I have to admit, when I had a conversation with them, they did remove the clause, because I said, "If I tweet that I hated an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., that's saying something derogatory about Marvel Comics. So I wouldn't want to be in breach of contract by having an opinion about a movie.
But I ended up never signing it. They were willing to take that out, and I did get a phone call saying "we don't want old creators to be angry at us" and that kind of thing. I don't want to nitpick it, but I have original artwork from the seventies and I don't want to be asking permission, and I finally said, look, what I would like is just a contract that says "I'm selling you a 2000 word essay, you're paying me X hundred dollars, it's about this one thing. It's not a whole relationship. We're not doing a relationship. We're just selling the one thing. Can there be a contract like that. And they really don't do things like that. It would be one thing if I was trying to write five monthly books or something, and even then I would have to think about it.
Would you ever go back to comics?
Well I don't think I can. Not with the way the rights situation is.
We'll I'm blacklisted from DC.
There's always that tug of doing stuff like that. Sure, it would be fun to do things like that again. Certain characters that you would enjoy playing with. But the idea of selling everything away for all eternity is one thing. It would be different if I was writing a comic book. I can understand you wanting to protect Spider-Man. I'm not gonna say I own Spider-Man. But to say a 2000 word essay about how I wrote Captain Marvel, can't we just make it a handshake thing?
Edelman pointed out that, when dealing with contracts, though you may be talking to a "sane and rational person," you have to look at what's actually written. Though they were willing to remove the clause, Edelman declined to write the essay, not wanting to go line by line through the contract looking for more stuff like that. Edelman allowed Marvel to use whatever artwork and other material they could find on his blog for the book.
Though it seems like big name creators might be able to push back on the clause, I wonder how many lesser known creators have been forced to sign something like that, or how many didn't even notice it? If you were looking for your first big break in the industry, would you think twice about signing away your right to free speech for all time?
This could be why we don't see as much public dissent from employees and former employees of Marvel as we do with DC, despite several big name creators, like Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, departing the company for the greener pastures of creator owned books, and Image Publisher Eric Stephenson talking about a culture of bullying at both Big Two publishers. Let's revisit Stephenson's comments from 2013:
I think a lot of it has to do with creators realizing they don't have to toil away in a culture of intimidation and fear to be successful in this business. A lot of people aren't familiar with how the comics industry actually works, but there's a lot of bullying that goes on behind the scenes, on a lot of different levels, and I think many creators have grown tired of being wined and dined by their pal in talent management so that anecdotal information about their personal lives can then be turned over to some desperate little suit who calls up and makes all these veiled threats about their family's well-being while hammering them with a contract.
It's a story I've heard more and more often the last few years, and it's almost comical, like a bad TV movie version of how the comics business works. It's not everyone or everywhere, but there really is a consistent pattern of behavior that involves degrading talent in order to buy their loyalty, and I think people are getting wise to it.
In the wake of Stephenson's comments that year, Mark Waid penned an open letter to freelancers addressing the topic of corporate bullying which was retweeted on social media by industry pros with histories at both big companies. From that letter:
There is no guild in comics, no union, no ombudsman for freelancers. You're on your own when dealing with publishers, and given the current state of the industry, I can tell you without hesitation that if I were just starting out today and had to deal with half of the nightmare stories I hear from you guys about what it's like to work at certain places–executives flat-out lying to your face, higher-ups demanding loyalty from you while offering none in return, editors calling you at the eleventh hour to demand 180-degree changes in stories that have already been approved and then acting as if the fault is with you–if that had been the Way Things Were 29 years ago, I'd just be getting out of prison about now.
Edelman's story certainly sheds some light on just how much control Marvel tries to exert on their image, and why their executives seem so angry when bloggers and fans have a differing opinion. The House of Ideas seems more like an out of control corporate dictatorship every day, and if creators are now being contractually prohibited from even talking about any problems they might have with the company, now, or even decades after they're employed there, things are only going to get worse. Guys like Tom Brevoort already police the thought crimes of fans on social media. Now the company is contractually policing the future thought crimes of its employees.
But hey, we're all excited for the All-New, All-Different Marvel NOW!, right? Except the more things change the more they stay the same, and Marvel's treatment of creators doesn't seem all that All-New and All-Different than it was fifty years ago.
Kudos to Edelman for speaking up about this kind of thing.
You should check out the podcast to hear more stories about the comic business and Edelman's work in other mediums as well. Head here to listen, download, or subscribe!
* It was actually Stan Lee and Gene Colan that handled Captain Marvel's first appearance in Marvel Super Heroes #12, if that's the issue Edelman is referring to. Drake and Colan handled the first appearance of the Guardians of the Galaxy in Marvel Super Heroes #18.