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Garth Ennis is one of the most respected and in-demand writers in the comics world. The biggest and brightest companies are constantly knocking on his door, begging him to write the storylines of their characters. Here’s why he opens his door to some, but not others, and the value he holds for creator-controlled work and his own storylines and characters.
When I got into the comics business in ’89, the phrase on everyone’s lips was own what you create. Among the first people I met were Alan Moore, John Wagner, Pat Mills and Alan Grant, all writers whose work I admired hugely, and they all gave me the same advice. These guys had been mistreated by the companies they’d worked for pretty much throughout their careers, seeing multiple reprints of their work published all over the world, not to mention endless reams of merchandising based on their stories pumped out the same way. They’d received precious little compensation, if any, and they’d seen previous generations of writers and artists go to their graves as paupers. They were determined that that wouldn’t happen to them.
With independent outfits like Dark Horse and Eclipse responding by offering better contracts than the usual work-for-hire, the majors (Marvel, DC and Britain’s Fleetway) were forced to compete. Eventually, DC formed its Vertigo imprint, where creator-owned deals became the norm – for a while. I think my generation hit the sweet spot there; we were able to make a decent living while retaining ownership of the stories we wrote and drew, reaping the benefits both in terms of royalty payments and control of IP when Hollywood came calling. Gradually more independents came along – Image, Dynamite, Avatar, and many more – and with the even better contracts on offer, we were soon able to pick and choose the best homes for our projects. People like Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis and myself have all done quite nicely as a result.
I say the sweet spot because this state of affairs did not last: Marvel’s creator-owned contract is barely offered at all anymore, and DC’s has shrunk to the point that only the desperate would take a new property there. Similarly, the contracts offered by a lot of the current independent companies are not good, with control (if not quite ownership) of IP being reserved by them, not the writers and artists. Page rates have also been reduced, and the younger generation can now find it quite hard to make a living in the business. My suspicion here is that the various parent companies said to their comics people: why the hell are you giving these nobodies control of their properties? Do you know how much we’re having to pay them to turn their stuff into movies and TV shows? Knock it off…
Today I write a mixture of creator-owned and work-for-hire stories, probably in the ratio of three or four to one. There are still a few company-owned characters I enjoy writing, and so long as there are good people at Marvel and DC who I can rely on to shepherd my work through the process, I’m happy to do so. It’s mutually beneficial; my line on that has always been that they use us, so we use them. But whenever I come up with something new, I go straight to the independents and start shopping around for the most advantageous contract available (to be absolutely precise, my agent does the shopping). Essentially, my aim is to do what I love, for the most money, under the best deal, and working with the most competent people I can find. Own what you create is a lesson I learned well.
Garth Ennis is a Northern Irish/American comics writer best known for his groundbreaking series Preacher and The Boys, both adapted for Amazon Prime and both hugely popular on screen and in print. Other notable work includes influential writing on Punisher, Judge Dredd, Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor and Ghost Rider for the major houses, as well as the Battlefields series and the remarkable Sara, among others, for independent publishers.