EXCLUSIVE: Our Interview With Comic Book Attorney Gamal Hennessy Will Make You Rethink Your Business Model
I connected with comic book attorney Gamal Hennessy on Twitter, and immediately asked him for an interview. He’s a well respected attorney who is active both in the major comic book publishing arena and for independent creators as well. His service can help folks who are working for Marvel or DC understand exactly what the contract means before they sign it, and he can help others understand how to break into the industry though one of its many “back doors.” He’s also worked with many independent creators who are doing their own thing outside of the Marvel / DC framework.
I have to say that this might be the most informative article published on Indie Comics Zone to date, as Mr. Hennessy was incredibly generous with his time, and gave numerous examples (with names) of how different people made their way through the comic book industry.
INDIE COMICS ZONE:
Can you tell us how you got started in the business?
I started out… it was 1996. When I graduated from law school, I did not have a job lined up with any kind of firm. And I actually didn’t want to work in a firm. But a colleague of mine, who I graduated law school with, had gotten an offer from a Japanese animation and manga company to be their general counsel when she got out of school. But she didn’t want the job because she already had a job.
So she, because she knew I read comics, knew that I would probably be a good fit for the job. So I went straight from law school into being general counsel for a company called Central Park Media, they were early adopters of bringing anime and manga into the United States. I was their general counsel for about four years until Marvel Comics decided they wanted to get into the Japanese market. Marvel did not have a way to do that, because even though they were a major company, in North America, Europe, and South America, and even in a lot of parts of Asia, it’s much more difficult to kind of break into the Japanese market. The way that [the Japanese] operate their companies and the way they negotiate and things like that [is different].
So they brought me into Marvel, just to help them break into the Japanese market. But as soon as I got in there — as most companies do — they had me doing like eight other jobs in addition to the job that they originally wanted you to do. And the other jobs that I had was negotiating contracts with artists and writers working on books that Marvel was publishing, both on a monthly basis and their like graphic novel and trade paperback kind of business.
The problem that I saw, which is what led me to start my company, was that I saw a lot of artists and writers come in and not understand the contracts that I was giving them. And not actually having anyone to show the contracts to, even though I said when we were talking, I would say, you know, bring this to your lawyer. I knew they didn’t have a lawyer, they knew they didn’t have a lawyer.
What I tried to do when I left Marvel, because I was there for about two years, I started a company primarily just to help people understand what they were signing. When you’re working for a large comic book company, there are a lot of things in terms of the rights and responsibilities that an artist or writer may not realize how much potential intellectual property they are giving away.
I started the business to kind of help people understand that piece. But as the business has grown over the years, and as technology has changed, and people have a lot more opportunities to make their own comics, my business has actually evolved out into addition to giving people like legal advice on the comics they’re making, I also help them with the overall business structure. If they need help with understanding project management, or distribution, or advertising or marketing or any one of those things, I kind of help them with that whole process. The only piece that I don’t help them with is actually writing and drawing a comic because I can’t do that.
INDIE COMICS ZONE:
Wow… that’s so interesting. As I was poking around your Comics Publishing Institute site, I enjoyed that video where the you kind of laid it all out (as seen below). Especially, when you when you said that “the comic industry is not simple or straightforward. It is not taught or explained.” This is so true! Everybody I talk to says something different.
Well, what I’ve actually found is that everyone tries to give advice, and they want to actually help other people. But what they the way they are approaching it is anecdotally. Meaning, that they look at what happened to them. And then they extrapolate that out into what will probably happen to everyone else.
The problem with comics is that it is a very idiosyncratic kind of industry. It’s not like being a lawyer or a doctor, you don’t just go to a school, get a degree, go through a specific process, they give you a piece of paper, and now you are that thing. Every person who is in comics that I know, has snuck through the back door. And it seems like there are so many back doors, that comics does not actually appear, metaphorically speaking to have a front door. Everyone has to find their own way in.
And what I tried to do when I wrote this book, “The Business of Independent Comic Book Publishing,” I tried to actually lay out the entire process of having a comic book publishing company, and all the different aspects of that process, and all the decisions that you need to make in that process.
So that at any point, you actually understand what your options are, the implications of those options and how those decisions you make are going to influence the rest of the process. The book that I wrote does not presuppose or assume that there’s one magic way to make comics, because everyone’s situation is different in terms of their time and their finances. Everyone’s comic is different in terms of what it’s about how it’s made, and all these other things.
The process is there to kind of the pieces are there for you to build your own unique process. And once you build a process, the magic part is you can actually simply add more comics to the process. And that’s how you grow a catalog that has that is basically how every publisher has grown, they develop a process, and then they just add to it. So I believe independent publishers and emerging publishers can do exactly the same thing. As long as someone is there to explain the process to them.
INDIE COMICS ZONE:
Gotcha. Because you’ve been in the business so long and operating an attorney, you’re able to give them not just the cursory ‘Well, this this is the way I did it,’ type of advice, and you can actually give them concrete examples.
Exactly. And when it comes down, it doesn’t just grow especially from the book standpoint, it doesn’t just come from my experience. It has I did like three years of research. There was probably about four dozen interviews. There’s a bibliography in the back of the book that includes 40 different books. There are footnotes in the book that’s like there’s 1,200 footnotes.
I am not the authority of what is actually in that book. I actually take from a wide range of information, both inside and outside of comics, because at the end of the day, when you’re running a comic publishing company, you are running a small business. A lot of the same concepts and ideas and processes apply to comics. The only difference is most people get into business because they want to make money.
Most people that I have met get into comics because they love comics. And therein lies the the irony because the people who get into it because they love comics, worry less about the money and more about the comics. For example, a guy who comes in who wants to open up a shoe store doesn’t want just to sell shoes — he wants money. And he thinks he’s going to get money by selling the shoes. It’s a very different mindset and the people who are trying to make comics because if people trying to make comics are creative people and artists first business people and publishers second, if at all.
INDIE COMICS ZONE:
I have a friend who works in television, and he’s got a side hustle comic book series. And we grouse together, whenever we read that artists or writers created a character in the 80s which is now in the the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Marvel and/or Disney earned $1.5 billion off that movie, but they gave the creator $5,000 to shut up, go away, and be happy about it. How would you help someone nowadays to help them avoid that this kind of scenario if they created a new character?
Well, from a broad perspective, it is less about avoiding a situation and is more about understanding the situation that you are in. Because if you look at take two people, as extreme examples, take an Ed Brubaker or an Alan Moore and then take somebody like Todd McFarlane or Jim Lee.
Following Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane
Now, once on one side, you have people who have created seminal works in the comic book medium, who have created iconic characters in comics. And because of the contracts they signed, and the deals that they made, did not actually profit from the magic they created. On the other side of the equation, you have people who did the exact same thing, maybe even to a lesser degree, but because they did it in a certain way. And they had certain deals in place. They are far more financially secure, and happy with their decisions than the first group.
Todd McFarlane started working at Marvel, and he did “Spider-Man” for years. But he ended at any point when he was doing his Spider-Man run, he could have introduced spawn as a villain through Spider-Man. Because if you look at Spawn, really he’s just Spider-Man and Dr. Strange mushed together. He could have introduced that character, and then it would have been a Marvel character. And that would have been the end of it.
He didn’t do that. He got “Spider-Man” three sell very high numbers. Then when he left, then he created Spawn. And now “Spawn” has a Guinness Book of World Records for the longest running independent comic, Spawn movies, their Spawn toys, and Spawn everything. Todd McFarlane owns it all.
Explaining What Happened to Alan Moore
On the other side, you have somebody like Alan Moore, who created “Watchmen” among other seminal works. But there was a clause in his contract that said, “if the book goes out of prints, then you get the rights to Watchmen back,” not realizing or maybe realizing and not caring at the time, that if this book is a hit, the book will never go out of print. And that you will never get your rights back is a deal that he actually signed.
He may not have understood the implications of that clause, because let’s face it, most comics do not reach the heights of “Watchmen.” But when I talk to my clients about clauses in contracts, the idea is especially if you’re dealing with another publisher, or even if you’re dealing with a collaborator, and you’re working on a deal, you have to look at this comic as if it’s going to be the next big thing.
This is going to be the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Transformers or whatever. 99.9% of the time, that will not be the case. If the comic breaks even, you’ll be happy. But if you treat the comic as if it’s going to be the next big thing, then you will actually look at every sentence in that contract in a different light.
You mentioned the $5,000 thing… that happened specifically to Brubaker, he created Winter Soldier. Brubaker developed a entire story [which] became a billion dollar movie, and he got $5,000. He couldn’t even get into the premiere, until he called a friend of his to actually help him like sneak in the door.
Because the way his contract was written, he didn’t have — what’s known in comics and in film and TV as — “back-end participation.” There are contracts that if you’re a creator, you come in and you make a certain character, and that character gets used in different things, you get a piece of that action. Most of the comic book contracts, especially for Marvel, DC, Valiant, and things like that, you don’t you actually assigning away any new character that you create, or any story that you create with an existing character.
The key is knowing what it is you want to do, and knowing what it is that you’re signing in relation to what you want to do. Because, uh, you could be somebody like, I don’t know, Alex Ross. Alex Ross has never created a character, but has created some of the most iconic images and comics. He’s not worried about a creator own deal. He’s not worried about an independent comic, he just works freelance, and he makes a ton of money. And he has his own art galleries and stuff. And that’s it.
If that’s the business you want to be in the Alex Ross model is perfect. If you want to be have your own character that then make becomes your iconic stamp on the industry. You want to go the Todd McFarlane route, you can go that route.
The Frank Miller Model
If you want to do both, because they’re not mutually exclusive. You could look at what somebody like Frank Miller did, who he started off at Marvel, made like iconic characters that he didn’t own. And he didn’t worry about it, he went over to DC, pretty much did the same thing. But then went off and did something like “Sin City,” or “300,” or any of the other things where he actually owned far more of it, and then bounced back and forth.
Sometimes he’ll go to DC make a new “Dark Knight,” whatever, sometimes he’ll make his own book. Now he has his own publishing company, he at a certain point, you can do whatever it is you want to do, as long as you understand what each contract means in your broader plan, and how you’re going to manage the each individual comic as in relation to your larger business.
INDIE COMICS ZONE:
So you mentioned Alex Ross. Is that what you mean by freelance for your next book — “The Business of Freelance Comic Book Publishing?”
If you look at the way comic books are made in America, and in Japan, if you take out freelancers from all of these comics, most of these comics do not get made. If you’re looking at everything that the big publishers put out, even if you look at people who have Kickstarter comics, or they have independent publishing companies, they are relying on freelancers to get that work done.
Freelancers themselves are often doing freelance comics in addition to something else, because they don’t actually necessarily have their own business models to figure out how they’re going to make all of this work. So my new book, is the follow up to “The Business of Independent Comic Book Publishing” because while they’re both producing the same thing, which is comics, they both they have different economic interests, different business models, and different ways that they actually measure success in terms of how they’re going to go about their business.
So the way I’m writing the book is for any person who actually wants to work in comics in any capacity as a freelancer. That means if you want to be an artist, writer, letter, or colorist, the book is going to address that. It’s also going to address if you want to work freelance in marketing, or in sales, or in print management or in editorial, because there’s a lot of business roles that also need freelance talent. There are so many emerging and independent publishers, who do not have the expertise to do all of those different things.
The concept of the book is: It’ll teach you how to set yourself up as a free freelance comic book creator, how to find work, how to make sure you get paid, and how you make sure that work gets finished, so that you can deliver the deliverables to your client, and then move on to the next job. It is a cyclical process that has four major parts, and we go in depth in each part, in the same way that I did with the first book, layout the process, lay out what all the different options are. [I] help people understand the consequences of each option, so that they can make their own decision and build their own business in a way that makes sense for them.
INDIE COMICS ZONE:
That sounds just great!
Yeah, well, it’s it’s taking a lot longer to write than I thought, but it hopefully it will be out next year.
INDIE COMICS ZONE:
It’s been debated by many, and I wanted to ask your for your thoughts… Is this the new Golden Age of comics, with the success of the MCU? And to a lesser degree, the DC movies?
This debate is industry-wide. And the way I see it is the analogy is to like the real estate market. So let’s say you have their properties for sale and for rental in a particular city like New York, one part of the city might be expect seeing a huge boom, and then prices are going up values are going up and everybody in that sector or in that neighborhood is happy.
Meanwhile, in another neighborhood in the same city, prices are depressed people are moving out people are struggling because they can’t because those the property values there are not the same.
It is exactly the same in comics, because the way I define comics, the comic book industry is any business that is based on the existence of narrative sequential art. So you have direct kind of business models like publishing comics, whether it’s freelance creator owned or independent, but you also have other aspects of the business that have nothing to do with actually making comics, or even owning comics.
And that’s when you talk about film, TV, video games, and merchandise. You talk about stores, retail stores, you talk about digital comics, you talk about translations, there’s this the comic book industry is so varied and complex because comics themselves are responsible for so much economic activity that it is not contradictory to say one aspect of the business movies is seeing this huge boom.
The next MCU movies are expected to make $175 million in three days, which is actually insane, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened. At the same time you have comic shops struggling to keep the doors open, because the models are changing. That’s the other tension that you have in the comic book industry, as one segment of the industry expands, there is a possibility that another segment contracts.
How to Save Local Comic Book Shops
If you look at all they used to be how many, they used to be 10,000 comic book shops in the 90s and early 2000s. Now, I think, there’s around 500, because that model is changing. Both because there’s changes in the comic book industry, because you now have more people going to Kickstarter, you have more people that are reading comics online, you have the growth in comics, book sales, is in markets that do not or cannot actually patronize a comic shop.
If a lot of the growth is with kids comics, or Young Adult comics, those kids can’t go to a comic shop, because the comic shop is out of their reach, like literally, they don’t have a car, they don’t have whatever means of conveyance to get to the comic shop. Because they are growing up in a digital environment, they are much more likely to start reading comics on Webtoons, than they are to go to the comic shop like you and I probably did when we were around the same age, because we didn’t have Webtoons. Right?
So Webtoons is actually catering to a different demographic segment of the market. Because they’re skewing younger, they’re skewing more female, and they’re skewing less “traditional superhero stories.” The Webtoons market is growing, the user generated content market is growing, and the mass media segments are growing. But until the comic shops actually change their business model to actually adapt to what is currently happening in the industry [they will continue to lose ground].
I believe they’re going to continue to struggle, but it’s not going to be across the board because you have some comic shops that there are shops here in New York that have more of an experiential model, rather than a retail model. What that means basically is they have constantly they constantly have events to get people in the door, kind of like having a small Comic Con, every single weekend.
What that does is it brings people in, which is foot traffic, which is key to a brick and mortar operation. And then while the people are there, they happen to buy some comics too. But some of the shops are running on a subscription model. They have a you come in, you buy a membership to the shop, kind of like having a membership to a gym. Then every week, they’ll have someone come in to read age appropriate comics to all the kids.
The moms are looking for someplace to go, we’ll bring the kids and all the kids will hang out and they’ll read comics to the kids. And everybody think it’s great until like the afternoon comes and the moms leave and then the kids come in and they hang out. They talk about comics, they argue about comics and whatever. Then at night, they can have viewing parties of the new shows there’s always some kind of new comic book show happening. And as the shop has the all of these events and people coming in, they also make sure that they change the displays.
So like if the new “Titans” show was coming out this week on HBO, and they have a you know, Titans event, Titans cosplay, Titans trivia, Titans… whatever. There’s Titan stuff all over the store. And they move more stuff. Because that is an experiential model as opposed to, we’ve got a store with long boxes, and we’ve got a rack on the wall with the latest issues. You come and get your pull box you leave.
That model… I do not believe is sustainable in the current environment. It doesn’t mean if there’s not another model that doesn’t that would work. But at this point, a lot of comic creators listen to what I have to say, and retailers don’t, because they don’t know who I am and that’s fine. [laughs]
INDIE COMICS ZONE:
That’s a wonderful plan. I’d never thought about doing that!
You’d have to pull out the long boxes, put them in storage because a retailer can still sell the old comics they wants to sell. They can have people buy that online, which is what they’re probably going to do anyway.
Most of the people who started comic book shops, were not necessarily looking to build long term businesses. First, they wanted to have a way to get valuable and rare comics before other people did. That the way the direct market started was because people who went to comic conventions back when comic conventions were just about buying and selling comics, and they created a system that they can buy direct from the publishers three months early and buy as many copies as they want.
They did not actually think about getting rid of the comics, because in their mind, they wanted to keep the comments because the comments would gain more value over time. The problem with that model is it falls apart when the comics, rare comics are worth a lot of money.
At this stage of the game, no comic is rare. Because you can have if you have 15 printings of the same comic, well, now you have “The Death of Superman” model, right? So many comic book shops failed because of they over bought on Death of Superman. They overbought when the black and white craze came, they overbought on a lot of things because their model is not let me have as many people come in here and buy my comics as possible. It is let me get as many comics as I think will actually be worth something in the future, which they may or may not be that is not a sustainable model.