On Business: Why Business?

By | Monday, August 22, 2016 Leave a Comment
Why study the business of comics? It makes sense if your goal is to make your living from webcomics, and you know you'll have to figure out Patreon and sell t-shirts and table at conventions and such. But even if your goal is just to draw Spider-Man every month, and you just want to let Marvel handle all the promotion and bean-counting and such, why does it behoove you to study the business of comics?

Let me put this out there: who is the most famous person in comics? "Most famous" is obviously a fairly qualitative, but you could make a fairly strong argument for Stan Lee pretty easily. But if you look back on Lee's career, there are a number of question marks in it. There's the perennial who-did-what debate over the comics he worked on in the '60s, not to mention the questions about the origins of those famous characters. And if you look at his work from, say, 1970 onward, it's not all that creative or, in some cases, very polished. His later ideas and scripts seem to be just imitations of what he worked on in the early 1960s.

But what Lee did have going for him was some business sense. It wasn't his forte, mind you, as proven by some of the poor business ventures that bore his name throughout the '90s and early 2000s, but he did smartly negotiate some of his contracts with Marvel over the years. The last one I'm aware of provided him with a base salary of $1 million, and $500,000 salary for his wife after he dies, and a $100,000 salary for five years for their daughter after they both pass. That doesn't include a $125,000 salary for writing the Spider-Man newspaper strip, the 150,000 shares of Marvel that he was given at the time, and the full-time assistant that Marvel pays for. That's not a bad deal for not really having to do anything else for the company. Now, sure, Lee didn't negotiate that contract himself, but he knew enough that he surely had his lawyer put in several of the benefits it has.

Bob Kane similarly had a cushy contract that paid him well for many years, despite not having to do much. And again, his actual comic book work is somewhat suspect creatively between the ghost artists he hired, deliberately obscuring Bill Finger's involvement in writing the early Batman stories, and blatantly swiping from other artists when he did draw something himself. We know Kane less for his creativity, and more for his ability to navigate and control his business opportunities.

Who else has done well for themselves? Jim Steranko. Todd McFarlane. Robert Kirkman. The level of creative talent among all these guys varies, of course, but where they did well for themselves was in their business. McFarlane wouldn't be where he is today if he dropped Spawn into a Marvel comic when he was drawing Spider-Man. These guys all had at least enough business sense to negotiate some good contracts (both in and out of comics). They knew enough of how the business operated to know what was worth how much to whom.

And that's why it's important to study the business of comics! The stories are great, and seeing someone pour their passions out onto a comic page is wonderful, but without taking the reins when it comes to how they handle their business as a business, it's unlikely to amount to much else besides an unappreciated creative exercise.
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