Owning your own content: what the comic book industry can teach us

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Illustration by Greg Storey

Over the past several months, a number of prominent comic book writers announced their respective departures from Marvel and DC in order to create comics on Substack—a rapidly growing digital newsletter publishing platform that emulates some of the best parts of blogging.

But what is it about Substack that would motivate these writers to leave behind the industry leaders? Many of them say it’s so they can focus on their creator-owned work.

Among them is James Tynion IV. Not only has he been at the helm of the main Batman comic for over a year now, but he just recently won an Eisner Award—the comic industry’s equivalent of an Oscar—for best writer.

Tynion spent the last year simultaneously writing for DC and working on his own creator-owned comics—both to great commercial and critical success.

In his first post to Substack, he recounts being confronted with a difficult choice:

Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019 quote-left

DC had presented me with a three-year renewal of my exclusive contract, with the intent of me working on Batman for the bulk of that time. I was grateful of the offer, but I couldn’t help but look at the success of my original, creator owned titles and wonder if it was the right choice.

And then I received another contract. The best I’ve ever been given in a decade as a professional comic book writer. A grant from Substack to create a new slate of original comic book properties directly on their platform, that my co-creators and I would own completely, with Substack taking none of the intellectual property rights, or even the publishing rights.

Tynion emphasizes this last point about ownership, so let’s backtrack a bit to explain why ownership is such a big deal in the comic book industry.

Why ownership matters

Writers and artists that work for publishers do not own any of the characters or ideas they write about while there. For example, you may get to write a Batman comic, but he will never be your character. Publishers also have editorial control, so even if you are writing a Batman story, your ideas can always be vetoed or changed.

These factors have left some creatives in the industry dissatisfied over the years. This has been especially true since superhero movies have become multi-billion dollar affairs, yet many of the creatives behind these beloved characters and stories don’t see a dime. Other writers simply want the creative freedom to write the stories they want, without the constraints of a publisher.

Creator-owned comics simply don’t have these issues since they cut out the publisher or replace it with a platform like Substack. Independent comics have been around since the advent of the medium and Substack is simply a new—and perhaps better way—to deliver them to readers. Only time will tell.

Lessons for bloggers

In an episode of This Week in Legal Blogging, attorney and blogger Francis Pileggi recounted a story from when he was a couple of years into starting his Delaware Corporate & Commercial Litigation Blog.

He owned and paid for his blog, but the firm he worked at made him an offer: they would pay his blog upkeep fees, but in exchange, they would have editorial control over the blog and put their firm’s logo on it.

Pileggi declined and retained full control of his blog which has since seen a great deal of success. Because of his decision, he still has full control of his blog, even after moving to a different firm.

There is nothing inherently wrong with writing for a firm blog rather than your own, but the comics industry provides a good reminder to consider where you put your writing.

As Kevin O’Keefe puts it, “If a blogging lawyer leaves the law firm, the appropriate thing for a law firm to do is to let the blogging lawyer take their law blog.”

But this is not always how it plays out. Lawyers should at least ponder these questions as they make decisions about their own blogging habits.

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