There’s a famous quote attributed to Jack Kirby, the visionary writer-artist who co-created the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Hulk, and countless other indispensable parts of both the Marvel and DC universes.
“Kid,” the quote goes, “comics will break your heart.”
The original source of the quote is sometimes called into question — it’s almost too good of a quote to be real — but Kirby’s biographer and long-time assistant Mark Evanier confirms that he did in fact say it, or something like it, many times. Evanier also specified why he said it: “When he did say things like that it came from a frustration not with the form of comics, which he loved, but with the working conditions, bad compensation and loss of control of one’s work he encountered.” Kirby, who spent much of his career fighting for recognition and creative control, would have known.
At the time of this writing, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse has grossed over $500 million. One of the main characters in the film is Miguel O’Hara, AKA Spider-Man 2099. Miguel was co-created by Peter David, who has written hundreds of comics for both Marvel and DC and has been a key architect for franchises like the Hulk, X-Men, Aquaman, Supergirl, and Young Justice.
Last year, David experienced a series of health issues, including strokes, a mild heart attack, and complications relating to kidney failure, all on top of previously existing conditions. Friends and loved ones have had to crowdfund to pay his medical bills.
Peter David has not received any of the box office profits from Across the Spider-Verse.
Stories like this go back to the dawn of comics. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, famously sold all the rights to Superman to DC Comics in 1938, for a paltry $130, and bitterly regretted it when the character became a sensation. They sued DC twice for the rights to the character and fair compensation, and struggled financially over the next few decades, particularly Shuster, whose failing eyesight prevented him from drawing. There’s a painful story from comics legend Jerry Robinson (a staunch proponent of creator rights) about Shuster, who was working as a deliveryman, showing up at the DC building to deliver a package; the embarrassed CEO gave Shuster $100 and told him to buy a new coat and find a new job. It was only in 1975, after Warner Brothers announced their plans to make a Superman movie, that Siegel went to the media and told their story. The public scrutiny shamed DC into giving both men a lifetime stipend and creator credit on every subsequent Superman story.
And then there’s #comicsbrokeme. On June 8, comics artist Ian McGinty passed away at just 38 years old. The official cause of death is not known, but it’s widely speculated that overwork and exhaustion contributed. During the outpouring of grief on Twitter, McGinty’s friends spoke over and over again about how much McGinty loved comics, how hard he worked, and how unsustainable the industry’s demands were. In response, Shivana Sookdeo tweeted “You know what, fuck it time to trend #ComicsBrokeMe.”
The hashtag, which did in fact trend, was full of horrifying stories of overwork and exploitation. Creators shared page rates that hadn’t gone up — or in some cases, had gone down — since the 1980s. (Most creators are paid by the page, which means their hourly wage depends on how fast they can write or draw. If it takes 12 hours to draw a page at a $100 rate, that’s $8.33 an hour — about half the minimum wage in New York, where the industry has been historically based.) They talked about being strung along by publishers, laboring over pitches for which they were never paid, being ghosted when they were owed money, and more.
Most shocking to me, though they shouldn’t have been, were the stories of severe injuries. Drawing is an extremely physically demanding act, and drawing for 12 hours a day or more to meet crunch deadlines is a recipe for nerve damage, tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, back and shoulder injuries, and more — and that’s to say nothing of the mental toll. And, of course, comic book artists are almost all contract workers, which means that the publishers don’t provide health insurance. Between the physical strain of drawing, shockingly low wages, job insecurity, and constant emotional pressures of the industry, it’s almost more surprising that more lives haven’t been lost.
So what’s the solution? The most obvious one is for publishers to pay more and assign work on more reasonable schedules, and for creators to retain more rights to their work than they currently do. But DC and Marvel are owned by enormous companies that are unlikely to cave to workers’ needs if they don’t have to. And even the smaller publishers are hard to bully into better behavior — in fact, the worst stories I’ve seen have come out of the indie presses — because for every creator who gets burned out and leaves the industry, there are a hundred eager young writers and artists who are so desperate to work in comics that they are easy prey for an exploitative business model. It’s the same thing we’ve seen leading up to the WGA strike, and with stories of unsustainable crunch periods in video game and animation studios: these industries come with a passion tax, and there are thousands of people willing to pay it at their own expense.
The second option is unionization. This is hard, with freelancers working across multiple publishers, but it’s not impossible — again, the WGA and other Hollywood unions come to mind. Image Comics ratified their union contract earlier this year, although that union is made up of staffers at the publisher rather than freelance writers and artists. Still, the name of the union, Comic Book Workers United, heavily suggests growth. There’s also the Cartoonist Cooperative, “a member-driven organization that aims to improve and protect the careers of comics workers globally.”
In the meantime, there’s the Hero Initiative.
The Hero Initiative is a nonprofit organization founded in 2000 by a consortium of publishers, including Marvel and Image, to assist comic book creators with medical and quality-of-life assistance. As they put it on their website, “The Hero Initiative creates a financial safety net for comic creators who may need emergency medical aid, financial support for essentials of life, and an avenue back into paying work.”
The list of testimonials on their website speaks for itself. Gene Colan, longtime Marvel artist and co-creator of The Falcon, Carol Danvers, and Blade, said before his death in 2011 that “If there was not a Hero Initiative, I probably would have gone under…They saved me, and my family.” For Russ Heath, who co-created many of DC’s military characters in the 1950s and ’60s, the Hero Initiative not only helped pay for his knee surgery, they helped him navigate complicated legal and financial documents to get the full amount of money he was owed. They covered medical and living expenses for Steve Geber, co-creator of Howard the Duck, during his battle with pulmonary fibrosis.
Not everyone helped by the Hero Initiative is elderly or with a life-threatening condition, and not all of them are industry titans who have created famous characters. The Hero Initiative has helped many younger and still-working creators get back on their feet after setbacks, including names you might not know, but who have contributed to this vital medium, and who deserve to be helped with dignity and compassion.
There are multiple ways to donate to the Hero Initiative on their website, as well as merchandise to buy and ways to volunteer. They also attend many comic cons, so if one of those is on your schedule, stop by their booth if you can to pick up some merch and learn more. Even if you don’t read comics, if there is a superhero movie, TV show, or video game you love, I guarantee it would not have existed without the work of someone who has been helped by the Hero Initiative.
At the end of the day, the comic book industry is broken, and it’s broken so many people in turn that there’s a whole hashtag about it. A charitable nonprofit is not going to create the systemic change the industry needs. But it’s a way we can help support a medium that has given so many of us so much joy and entertainment. We can simultaneously call for a better system, support the unions that are fighting for exactly that, and help the people who need assistance now.
It’s what a superhero would do.
For more news, reading recs, and musings on the world of comics, check out our Comics and Graphic Novels archive.