A candid and personal examination of the Philippine comics scene from a social, cultural, economic and business point of view.

Sunday, October 14, 2007



So you ask yourselves, will a royalty incentive program today for comics creators help create bestselling mass-market komiks? This has never been done before during the more than 50 year Roces/National Bookstore komiks monopoly. During all this time, the industry practice was akin to a sweatshop system. That is, everything that a freelance contributor submits, including the copyright, is owned by the publishing company. On top of this, the freelance comics contributor is only paid a measly page rate; a ‘work-made-for-hire’ system. Its a situation similar, nay, IDENTICAL, to the informal business arrangement between Sterling/Caparas and the tribe of veteran komiks contributors who weekly visit Sterling’s office in Pasig City for their measly page rate payments.

There are exceptions of some local comics creators (mostly writers) like Francisco Coching, Pablo S. Gomez, Carlo J. Caparas, Mars Ravelo, Jim Fernandez, Vic J. Poblete,Elena Patron, Gilda Olvidado and Nerissa Cabral, being allowed by the Roceses to retain their copyright and profit from them through adaptations in television and film media, but it stops right there and they are the favored few. What about the rest?

It cannot be denied that the longstanding general practice is for local comics publishing companies to retain copyright on the comics creator’s work and pocket the corresponding profits from the use and exploitation of that copyright. If the contrary is claimed, where are the written contracts between publisher and freelance comics creator that prove otherwise?

It is also undeniable that during its more than 50 year sweatshop practice, the Roces family unduly monopolized the local comics industry causing its eventual collapse in the 1990s with National Bookstore acting as undertaker, shoveling the dirt on its grave in the first half of the 21st century until the industry was dead and buried in 2006; that is, the year when Atlas Publications, the last of the Roces dummy komiks corporations previously sold off in 1996 to National Bookstore, stopped operating.

So, royalties were never introduced in the local industry. Is that any reason to deny its applicability today, no matter how late it is? Could the introduction of such a scheme, interrupt and forestall the decline of the local komiks industry in the 1990s? Has there even been a similar situation wherein the decline of a mainstream comics industry was halted and saved by the introduction of royalties by sweatshop comics publishing companies?

The unqualified answer is yes. And the precedent for that is the mainstream comics industry of the United States.

To recall, in the early 1970s mainstream comicbooks in the U.S. were still sold mainly in the newsstand market at very cheap prices when compared to most publications also seen in the newsstands at the time. The newsstands, which are not unlike the newsstand kiosks and banketas of today where Sterling/Caparas’ komiks are sold, were the only mode of distribution for printed mainstream comicbooks in North America.

Despite the 1950s public lynching of U.S. comicbooks significantly reducing the number of newsstand distributors, the few that remained sauntered on carrying comics that followed a strict, self-imposed and industry-wide ‘Comics Code’ by the mainstream comics companies who were still standing (i.e., Dell, Gold Key, Charlton, Timely/Atlas, National/DC, Harvey, Archie and others).

With a reduced newsstand distribution service aggravated by a generally negative public view of the comics medium, the American mainstream comics companies still managed to barely survive the 1960s. That is, until two of its superhero-oriented comics publishers, Marvel and National/DC started flooding the market in the early 1970s with more than 50 titles on either side dealing with practically the same repetitive superhero-fantasy-sci-fi-horror genre, competing for precious magazine display space.

Magazine newsstand distributors and dealers naturally had limited space for such unreasonable volumes of supply. Not all the Marvel and DC titles were displayed. Only a few were, thus resulting in huge volumes of unreturned unsold copies. The titles from other comics companies who weren’t flooding the market suffered the same fate as well. Pretty soon, the remaining mainstream comics companies started to incur huge debts and financial losses. Some, like Dell, Gold Key, Harvey and Charlton closed down.

The mainstream comics reading public, realizing the repetitiveness of subject matter in the newsstands aggravated by an increase in comics prices, left in droves. Many newsstands devoted to comics distribution either stopped or limited carrying mainstream comics titles or closed down altogether.

By 1974, the big two: Marvel and DC were seriously losing money. Around 1978 and 1979, they pared down their number of titles, increased their prices, and were still getting huge returns for unsold comics from the newsstands. The new owners of Marvel and DC, Cadence Industries and Warner Communications, were seriously thinking of either selling them off or closing them down.

Comics creators from cash-strapped Marvel and DC were not earning much either and were still being paid measly page rates on top of their creations being owned by the big two. It was a sweatshop system where the comics creators were terribly exploited. They weren’t employees and had no benefits as employees yet they were treated LOWER than an employee under a work-for-hire system. They were freelancers who created original stories and art for Marvel and DC’s comics but retained no copyright over their storylines, revamps of established characters and introduction of new characters.

Soon, many left the industry and no new creators were coming in. Marvel and DC kept losing money and were recycling old material performed by old reliable creators faithful to the work-for-hire system. What kept them afloat were the licensing of their characters to other media. Mainstream comics publishing was at an all-time low. The late, great Jack Kirby in his 1981 interview with Howard Zimmerman for Starlog’s Comics Scene magazine, describes the sweatshop business arrangement between creatives and the mainstream U.S. comics companies at the time:

Only a fool can function under the old comics structure. Why should a man draw a good picture if they are going to give it to three other guys? Why should a man write a good story if the company keeps it? Why should a man even ink, when he’s not sure whether the company will take care of him or not?”

Kirby views the overgrounds as “ads for toys. They don’t get sales, but they make awfully good looking ads for toys. They aren’t comics—they’re just an approach to a toy franchise.”

“We need a lot more innovation,” he says. “Under new structures, guys will get the incentive to do new things.” Xxx

“I feel that if people cooperated with people instead of hindering them in some way, I think they would get the chance to develop into whatever they want to be, and there would never be any conflict. My religion is cooperation, not power. That’s why I’m so adamantly against the rigid structure of comics.”

“I cooperate with Pacific Comics and Pacific cooperates with me. It’s a good relationship, without conflict. It’s living proof that if you give the next guy a fair break, or cooperate with him, he’s going to help you. And it’s certainly not going to hurt the world.” Xxx

Until now Kirby has spoken in even tones. His voice quiet, firm. Now emotion breaks through. There is an anguished look in his eyes and a touch of bitterness in his voice as he says, “I see it as a serpent’s nest. And in a serpent’s nest, nothing can survive. Eventually all the snakes kill each other. Eventually they’ll also kill whatever generated them. When I said that Marvel and DC were really ads for toys, I meant it. They’ll give the staff the chance to develop, but not the men who create, who participate, who are in the arena. It’s the guy who is in the arena who counts. He’s selling your book. And not only that: he’s creating a silent movie. I mean, IT’S A VISUAL ART.”

“So you need standards,” Kirby continues, his voice clam once again. “You need certain standards and discipline and professionalism. Any sort of pettiness and vindictiveness, any sort of toughness, is harmful to a good enterprise. A good enterprise needs all the cooperation it can get. I’m sure that, today, they’ll have a conference at any one of the publishers and they’ll sit down and say, “Come up with ideas” And there are men who will come up with ideas, but they’ll all be second-rate. They are all capable of first-rate ideas, every one of them, but not within that structure.”

All of the work done today for the regular overground mainstream comics is contracted for on the basis of “work-for-hire”, a sore point with many of the creative people who feel that they should own what they create. (After all, there is nothing harder to come up with than a good idea, and there is nothing harder to protect.) Kirby’s definition of work-for-hire is simple and direct: “It means that everything that comes out of you, they own
.” (Source: Howard Zimmerman, “Kirby takes on the Comics”, Starlog Presents Comics Scene, No. 2, Comics World Corp., March, 1982 issue)

Amidst the travails being encountered by the big two of mainstream American comics, an alternative comics scene was developing that would eventually impel Marvel and DC to introduce the concept of royalties. As recounted by Robert Greenberger in his 1982 article from the now defunct Comics Scene magazine:

In the 1960s a generation of dissatisfied comic readers began writing and drawing heir own brand of comics, cruder in appearance than Marvels or DCs but much broader in scope. These ‘Underground” comics became a symbol of the hippie era.

The 1970s gave another generation of dissatisfied comic readers a chance to publish their own stories. This time, however, the result was more of a cross between the freedom of the underground comix and the style of the superhero “above ground” comics. These books have been called either “ground level” or “alternative press” comics.

Many such attempts at alternative press publications have met with only limited success. Mike Friedrich’s STAR REACH Magazines, for example, were loved by the fans and professionals but Friedrich couldn’t keep them profitable or on schedule. Today (1982) there are over a dozen different ground-level publications including the recently released FANTASY ILLUSTRATED and ADVENTURE ILLUSTRATED, and the long-running CEREBUS THE AARDVARK. These magazines use the talents of many comic professionals and serve as a testing ground for new fan talent
.” (Source: Robert Greenberger, “Eclipse Rising: a look at an alternative form of comic publishing and the man who made it happen”, Starlog Presents Comics Scene, World Comics Corp., March, 1982 issue)

The alternative press or ground level comics in the U.S. served as a venue for upcoming comics talents and dissatisfied work-for-hire comics professionals to engage in self-publishing where they own the copyright and profits to their work, or otherwise work for ground-level comics publishers such as Aardvark-Vanaheim, Americomics, Comico, Eclipse, Fantagraphics, Fantaco, Fictioneer, First, New Media Publishing, Pacific, Red Beard, Red Circle, and others, where they were offered royalty payments in addition to payment for their artistic and literary services. In short, the creatives were paid better, or were, through a system of royalty payment, given the opportunity to earn more money for their best quality work by the ground-level alternative comics publications.

Aware that the ground-level alternative comics publications were steadily growing, attracting new talent and forming a devoted, albeit limited, “fan” audience at the time, the big two mainstream sweatshop comics publishers started to take notice. How could they get some of that talent and money on their side of the fence?

Recognizing a change in the comic book business, DC announced on November 17 (1981) a royalty payment program for the regular newsstand comics. Immediate industry reaction was positive: creators say this legitimizes the entire business.

The program involves paying four percent of the cover price to the writer, penciller and inker for comics selling in excess of 100,000 copies in the United States and Canada. People creating comics since July, 1981 will receive a one percent royalty in addition to the standard royalty.

Paul Levitz, manager of business affairs for DC, told COMICS SCENE, “As our business has grown, we have seen a clearer and clearer correspondence between the efforts of our creative people and the sales of the comics. We feel it is stronger in our interests, therefore, to make their compensation based upon the sales of the work to motivate them to do things that will make the comics sell better.”

The program is being made retroactive to last July (1981) when all DC comics went from 50 cents to 60 cents. This was done as a psychological move, Levitz claimed. “Comic books operate on such long lead times—if I started under the royalty plan and wrote a story today (November, 1981) that story wouldn’t be published until May of 1982 and I wouldn’t get a check until May of 1983. Any plan under a system like that is going to take a long time before people are really going to feel excited about it. We chose to backdate the system to be able to make payments fairly soon. We chose to start with the 60 cents books because that’s when our economics could afford it. “ xxx

Levitz felt the readers will benefit from better quality work in exchange for shorter stories. “We’ve seen in the four days the plan has been in effect that some of the writers and artists who have previously never tried to get together for plot conferences are coming in to work on them, getting more intensely involved in the books,” he observed. Xxx

Levitz admitted that in a given month, about half the DC titles fail to sell in excess of 100,000 but he feels with the incentive of royalties, the quality of the entire line will improve, and in due time, all the books should be able to produce royalties.

In any given situation, he pointed out, there may be jockeying among the creators for a position on a top-selling book. “Once you change how people are being paid, you change what they want to do to some degree.” Levitz said.

The plan came to mind in late September (1981) and was put together rather quickly. Levitz said the idea was far from an original one since just about every other form of publishing has some kind of royalty system but now the economics finally made it feasible in the comic book industry.” Xxx

The royalty program indicates an improvement in the life of freelancers who can now work towards making more money while also improving the quality of their books. Fans may expect better stories in the long-run while the companies combat rising costs that have already made the standard 32-page comics almost obsolete.

One comics professional commented that this may spell the end to many small press publishers, such as New Media Publishing or Pacific Comics, who will no longer be able to woo away many of the top talents to work for them. “It’s a shame they will be the ones hurt by all this,” he said
. (Source: “DC Rocks Industry with Royalty Program” news article from Comics Reporter column, Starlog Presents Comics Scene no. 2, Comics World Corp., March, 1982 issue)

Initially, Marvel introduced in the late 1970s, the grant of copyright ownership to comics creators when it put out its answer to “Heavy Metal” magazine: “Epic Illustrated”, in the hopes of gaining greater access to creators currently working outside the comics field. In this arrangement, comics creators contributing to Epic were made to sign actual publishing contracts whereby Marvel as publishing company only bought first printing rights, and allowed the creators to retain their copyrights.

Later however, perceiving much needed income from the expensive creator-owned graphic novel format in the direct market, and to initially match DC’s royalty program, Marvel lost no time in introducing new contracts for Marvel creator-owned graphic novels. And the only way to get high sales on the proposed graphic novels was to get fan favorite comics creators who had a devoted following in the direct market. To get these fan favorite creators interested, the new contracts for graphic novels had to be put out.

The contract, as written, is similar to standard publishing agreements. It grants the creator an advance against future royalties from the books. Shooter said Marvel recognizes that the creators must live while working on the novels; he called the advance high. If a writer or artist receives a larger advance because artists need more time to complete their work.

Starlin, who has been contracted to produce two graphic novels before June (1982), explained that he first dealt with Marvel on “an ego basis”, meaning he thought of himself as a ‘hot talent” and made demands upon the company. After leaving comics for a while to do commercial art, he learned something about the business world. “I learned how to treat art as a business,” Starlin said. ‘Most freelancers don’t treat this as a business. They use ultimatums. If they learned how to treat this as a business, they’d be making much more than they are now. They’re an ignorant bunch of dummies.”

Starlin has already signed the contracts for his two novels, the first being THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL, due out this month (March, 1982). Since the novel involves an already established Marvel character, the percentages and royalties remain the same but the work is being done under “work-made-for-hire” terms which allow Marvel to retain the copyright. His second novel, due in May (1982), is DREADSTAR, the third book in his METAMORPHOSIS ODYSSEY series. The first story was serialized in EPIC and the second story, a graphic novel for Eclipse Enterprises, was THE PRICE.

In an interesting development, Marvel is, in essence, licensing Starlin’s characters for a sequel to DREADSTAR to be serialized in Marvel’s black and white magazine, BIZARRE ADVENTURES.

“I took a four day seminar on copyrights,” Shooter said. “And I now have a pretty firm foundation on why the copyright law does the things the way it does. We are a full publishing company and we ant to publish a lot of things. There are a lot of advantages available with this type of contract and as long as the artists are willing to share the risk, they can also share in the profits
.” (Source: Robert Greenberger, “Marvel Introduces New Contracts”, Starlog Presents Comics Scene No. 2, March, 1982 issue).

Soon, Marvel too, matched DC’s royalty program for its line of newsstand and direct market comics titles. Thereafter, quality and income of DC and Marvel books of the 1980s gradually improved. Both companies began to slowly channel most of their distribution into the direct market where most of the alternative comics were selling. Of the two, Marvel was the most aggressive.

Comics sold in the direct market were usually bought by dealers who were mostly devoted comics fans. Dealers or comic shops in the direct market, bought comics from the big two at a discounted price on a non-returnable basis. This means that after selling the comics at cover price and earning a profit, unsold copies were never returned and remained with the comic shops.

Unlike the slowly dwindling DC/Marvel mainstream comics sold in the newsstands, the alternative comics publications of the 1980s were oftimes sold in the direct market at expensive prices beyond $1 and sometimes had high quality art and printing. It was this kind of market that enabled Marvel and DC to likewise sell comics beyond the cheap newsstand prices and improve the quality overall. Naturally, the income of the comics creators also improved through the royalty incentive scheme.

During the 1980s, comics boomed in the United States thanks to the direct market and its making possible the introduction of royalties and creator’s rights. Milestones such as Concrete, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, A Distant Soil, Love and Rockets, American Flagg, Sable, Mr. X, Elfquest, Miracleman, The Dark knight Returns, Watchmen, and others came to the fore during the 1980s. It all peaked in 1986:

"1986 seemed to be the year that everybody with a couple thousand dollars in the bank and a line of credit decided that they too wanted to be a comic book publisher. With the recent phenomenal success of a couple of well-known, small print-run black and white titles, comics publishing seemed to be an easy way to become an instant millionaire. By summer, this became known as "the great black and white glut," as over 100 new small press publishers disrupted the entire wholesale and retail market-place with product that, for the most part, did not meet even minimal standards of competency." (Source: Bob Hughes, "Enlarging the Penumbra: Ten Years of Creators' Rights at Eclipse", Amazing Heroes No. 147, Fantagraphics Books, Inc., June 1, 1988 issue.)

As the 1980s came to a close, the volume of Marvel and DC comics soon dominated the direct market edging out the original alternative publishers of the late 1970s and early 1980s. But new independent and alternative comics publishing houses took their place in the 1990s: Dark Horse, Malibu, Image, and others.

Pretty soon, almost all mainstream comics titles in the United States from the 1990s up to the present, were sold in the expensive direct market comics shops. Comics distributed in the newsstands became minimal. And, most importantly, there was an improvement in the U.S. mainstream comics industry. The main cause: the introduction and existence of a business arrangment system which allowed comics creators copyright ownership over their work and to fairly profit from their efforts through a royalty incentive scheme. Sadly, this has yet to take shape in our present local comics scene here in the Philippines.


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