There will always be exclusive contracts in comic books, but the last decade saw a huge boost in exclusive creator contracts at both Marvel and DC that seems to be dwindling down to a close. This may actually be a good thing as we’re starting to see more creators spread their wings and do creator owned projects like those announced at Image’s Expo this weekend. A few years ago you would never have had a Grant Morrison book not published by DC or one of its off-shoots. The exclusive contracts even changed the way both companies did business by allowing them to have creator owned projects at their companies to basically keep the creator from leaving. This is 100% true of Vertigo’s books, but DC did allow far more creators the ability to work on Vertigo titles with no penalty of breaking their contract. Marvel’s ICON imprint basically became the creator owned division of their print business. Now with some of its biggest selling names such as Mark Millar and Ed Brubaker taking their business to Image you have to wonder how long the imprint will say open. After all the only other creator on the imprint is Bendis.
The true sign that the exclusive contract wars are over is reflected in the creators working at Image. Nick Spencer was the last big signing that Marvel had and he’s already out of his contract. In fact, he has more work for Image this year then probably his entire contract with Marvel. He just never caught fire there like he did at Image, but that was the start of the writing on the wall. Marvel flat-out offered him a contract to stop him from working at DC before really testing the waters. Now Image is working with practically every top talent that’s been locked down on an exclusive contract for the past ten years.
What doesn’t help is the fact that both Marvel and DC are trimming the exclusive contracts to help their bottom line. Nothing helps profits on paper like a layoff and that’s what both are doing. This great for comic fans though because you’re no longer left wondering what else these creators have locked in their brain.
There was a time when exclusives would really piss me off. Grant Morrison has been stuck over there for years and I frankly was not impressed with a majority of his work. I know, begin hating and booing but it’s my opinion. Sure he had some great stuff, but I have to wonder if we were missing out on some great Daredevil or Spawn storylines because he was busy fucking up Batman. Sadly though, that’s what DC wanted. The exclusive contract became the golden ticket for struggling creators looking to buy a home or support their family and it kept them from working for the competition. In a way that’s all it was, “don’t work for those guys.”
Now as I said in the beginning there will always be exclusive contracts like Bendis and Johns and sadly they are probably the two talents I would love to see working for the other teams the most. Maybe one day when new editors are in control and they’re completely sick of them we’ll see them work for the counter parts, but until then Bendis will make his Marvel and Johns will fix DC one character at a time.
The end of the exclusive wars is definitely ushering in a new era in comics. Creator owned books have been huge in the past few years and they seem to only be getting bigger thanks to series from Millar, Kirkman, Hickman and new and up-and-comers. It also says a lot about the “big two” as it truly shows that it matters very little of who is writing or drawing the books, just as long as they show up on time.
Note: I am aware that this article is heavily focused on writers mostly because they've had the most exclusive contracts. Also I did not forget about JMS, Mark Waid, Gail Simone, Warren Ellis and others but this would have been stupid long if I gave an example for each.