The fine print with which Marvel avoids paying comic book authors more to use their characters in the UCM

Last November ‘Eye of the Hawk’ arrived at Disney +. From its promotional material and colorful credit titles it was clear that the series had leaned heavily on the acclaimed comic by Matt Fraction and David Aja, which years ago had reinvented the character of Clint Barton giving rise to one of the defining series of the modern era of Marvel Comics. Seeing the signs of identity of its authors so clearly and explicitly in the series starring Jeremy Renner and Hailee Steinfeld, many assumed that both would have received substantial financial compensation from Marvel Studios. Nothing could be further from the truth.

hawk eye

Aja, the Spanish artist behind the ‘Hawkeye’ comics, revealed on Twitter that Marvel had not paid him fairly for using his work in the series, giving rise to the hashtag #PayDavidAja. Fraction, the screenwriter, did appear in the credits as “consulting producer,” but he was relegated to a mention in the acknowledgments. When fans took to social media to demand a series credit for Aja, he responded: “Better yet: stop giving credit and start paying, haha”.

Aja’s case is just one in a long line of Marvel Comics authors and illustrators getting ridiculous pay for using their creations in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, despite being the most successful saga of cinema. In a new report, The Hollywood Reporter has delved into this situation based on another similar case, that of Devin Grayson and JG Jonesthe creators of Yelena Belova, the character played by Florence Pugh who made her UCM debut alongside Scarlett Johansson in ‘Black Widow’.

After the film’s release in July 2021, Grayson and Jones got into a battle with Marvel Studios to get paid what they had been promised to use the character they conceived in 1999. Now, the two have wanted to reveal the ins and outs of a negotiation in which Marvel clung tooth and nail to the small print of its contract with the creators of comics to pay them less than stipulated. When Grayson and Jones signed their agreement, they believed they would be paid $25,000 to sign Yelena over to Marvel Studios for on-screen appearances, video games, and merchandising, however, they ended up receiving only 5,000, without any explanation.

From there, Grayson began a process to discover why Marvel had lowered the payment he was promised, which shed light on the ins and outs of a “labyrinthine” contract designed to confuse artists. This contract, which bears the name Special Character Agreement (Special Character Agreement) and that Grayson signed in 2007, specified that the artist would receive 25,000 dollars for an appearance of the character in the cinema, 2,000 for an episode of more than 30 minutes and 1,000 for one of 30 minutes or less. For one action figure, Grayson would charge $5,000, rising to $10,000 for two and $25,000 for three or more. For using the character in a video game, $30,000 would be shared among its creators.

Yelena Belova

Nevertheless, the small print of the document basically allowed Marvel to lower those payments at will, which Grayson points out to THR is confusing because the $25,000 amount is highlighted throughout the contract. After receiving $20,000 less than promised, Grayson turned to a lawyer, who helped him “translate” the contract and figure out exactly how Marvel Studios is cutting payments to creators.

For starters, Marvel actually splits the pay between writer and artist. In other words, in any case, Grayson would not have received more than $12,500, since he would have had to share it with Jones. But here’s the kicker: If a movie includes more than one character covered by the Special Character Agreement, the amount is split between all the creators. In the case of ‘Black Widow’, that same amount would have to be divided with the creators of Red Guardian (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz). Jones describes this method as a “deceitful bait”: “They show you a high figure and then, little by little, they cut your real payment”.

A few months after ‘Black Widow’, Florence Pugh made her second appearance in the Marvel Universe in ‘Hawkeye’, establishing herself as one of the audience’s favorite new signings. Under her contract, Grayson was to receive $1,000 for each episode featuring her character ($2,000 split between her and Jones). But when the writer contacted the company in July, they informed him that their calculations were different and they were going to pay him a ridiculous 300 dollars per chapter.

Sadly better off without a contract

But that is not all. The company would have other even more cunning strategies to reduce payments. For example, there is allegedly a clause that specifies that, if the screen time of a character does not exceed 15%, that participation is officially considered a cameo, and for cameos, of course, less is charged. That is, as THR points out in his report, the appearance of Sebastian Stan in ‘Captain America: Civil War’ or Chris Evans in ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ would technically be cameos, as absurd as it sounds.

America Chavez

In the world of video games, Marvel also manages to “save” with special conditions, for example, the studio supposedly pays only for character appearances in video game consoles, not in mobile games, a sector on the rise. For all this, some creators have discovered that it is better not to sign the famous Special Character Agreementwith which Marvel basically covers their backs to pay what they want, also including a confidentiality clause to prevent everything from coming to light.

According to a THR source who represents the creators of several of Marvel’s biggest characters, one in particular never got to sign that deal and is better off than the ones that did. However, not everyone has that privilege. For example Joe Casey, the artist behind America Chavez, a character who recently made his UCM debut, played by Xochitl Gomez in ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’. Casey claims that he contacted Marvel Studios to negotiate payment for using the Young Avenger and what they offered him was so ridiculous that he turned it down. In his case, the artist preferred to give up the money and by not signing a confidentiality agreement, to be able to use his experience to publicly denounce the situation and ask that the original creators be respected and compensated as they deserve.

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