Over the last couple of years, a somewhat unprecedented (within the relatively short history of the medium) number of company exclusive agreements have taken hold within the realm of mainstream comics. While the idea of a creator exclusively working with a given publisher is not a new one, it seems like its becoming standard practice for any creator that achieves a modicum of “notoriety” to exclusively sign with one of the Big 2 these days. But what are some of the implications of these deals? Are they a universal good, as some may think, or are there damaging aspects of them as well? Click below and lets explore!
Since the regular practice of this column (at least when I’m at the helm) is to rip the basis of our exploration from the headlines, our case study for at least part of this will be none other than Multiversity hall of famer Nick Spencer. This past weekend, it was announced at Emerald City Comic-Con that Spencer was the newest in a rather long line of exclusive agreements Marvel Comics has signed pretty consistently for the last five or six years. As with most exclusives in recent memory, all of his currently ongoing projects at other companies will be allowed to continue (most notably T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents over at DC), but all newly conceived properties or works by Spencer will ship with a Marvel banner for the foreseeable future.
Let’s take a step back for a second though, and define what an exclusive agreement means. Obviously, it means a creator will work exclusively with a given company, but what this means is that, effectively, said creator is signing a contract with a company whereas previously (and largely still) the standard for comics was work for hire. In the past, if a creator wrote for a company, there was no real propriety a company could claim over the creator themselves…but now it seems companies are becoming more willing to guarantee the services of creators they believe in. In short, work for hire morphs into salary (guaranteed amount of pages written/drawn over a set amount of time, generally) once an agreement is signed. The advantages to this, for anyone that has worked a steady job, is immense for the creator signing it. Making a living from your art, especially within comics, is no easy task, and a company saying “come write for us and only us and we will guarantee you income” is a pretty big incentive. Even outside of the financial realm, having a company with as much history as Marvel or DC say “we like your work so much we want to give you exclusive access to some of the most well known characters in literary history” is a pretty big honor as well.
I think the pros here are pretty obvious from a creator standpoint. From a fan standpoint, theres a lot to love too. Usually when a creator gets offered an exclusive, its often due to great success on a given title worked on by that creator (at least in the case of writers…less so artists.) Generally speaking, an exclusive contract means that creator is not likely to be pulled from the book that gave them their name. Like Matt Fraction on Invincible Iron Man or Grant Morrison on something Batman related? Well, as long as they enjoy writing those books, my guess is they always will. Though on the other side of that token, if you want to see Fraction write, say, The Flash or Morrison try his hand at a Defenders reboot (think about, it’d rule), you are one unlucky bastard.
Another pro is that by “building their teams”, the companies can effectively create a standard of quality for their entire line, building a consistent standard for the books they come out. Sign enough top quality creators, then you end up with top quality production output. That said, the downside here is it divides up the creative community in a very real way, and, admittedly broad, limitations on the general creativity of a creator is still a limitation. My guess is that most creators don’t mind giving up their ability to write for the other company, but its unfortunate that the choice needs to be made in the first place.Continued below
Another two-pronged con is the fact that exclusive agreements not only have the potential to keep new blood away from the Big 2, but also keep a lot of creators away from smaller publishers. In short, while the following has NOT happened yet nor am I necessarily insinuating that it will, I have to wonder what happens when a company signs TOO MANY exclusives. Of course, for all I know there is no ceiling and companies can keep on signing creators forever, but something tells me there is one. Just like sports teams have salary caps, each company only has so much money. If they continue placing their bets on certain writers, what happens if there is just no money to pay anyone else? Not only would the stories the company puts out run the risk of becoming static and boring as the signed creators lose steam, but it would lock new writers out of them as well. Again, this whole line of thought is pure speculation and largely hypothetical, but given how basic economics works I’d say its worth hypothesizing about.
More realistically is the second prong of this con: exclusives keeping creators away from smaller publishers. Sure, most agreements are like the Spencer one and allow for creators to continue existing work at other publishers and some even allow for new work to be produced as long as it isn’t with the other Big 2 company, but what happens when pre-exclusive book comes to an end and that writer is not allowed to continue on something else for that company? On the same token, time itself becomes a very big issue, and for creators that are contracted to work for one of the Big 2, even if they are ALLOWED to work for other companies, chances are they simply won’t want to in the name of comfortable time management.
While Marvel and DC can offer a lot to a creator both financially and creatively, there are still some very real walls around those worlds. Do the ends justify the means in this system? Are the limitations of it negligible when compared to the top quality stories they ensure? As a journalist, I don’t have the means to answer that, but the next time you hear your favorite writer exclusively signs with a company, take a second to realize what you’ll get out of that as a fan and what you’ll never see as a result.