On Thursday Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon, spouses and creators of the digital-to-monthly The Legend of Wonder Woman from DC Comics, made it publicly known their series would not see an already-greenlit second volume. De Liz and Dillon were working on the second set of issues when they abruptly received word that DC Comics would not publish the work, cancelling the project, and—as De Liz wrote—removing a financial source in the midst of the holiday season.
The news comes backed by reports from Nick Hanover of Loser City and Rich Johnston of Bleeding Cool, which indicate the story was canned due to the creative team’s public criticism of aspects related to The Legend of Wonder Woman, including disappointment that the Amazons origin story would be told by a male writer after they pitched a similar story. Dillon has since refuted his tweets being the reason for cancelation but the reports remain.
This is yet another example of the comics industry’s exploitation of freelance contractors and the abuse of what those arrangements allow. It’s not uncommon for companies to punish or even terminate employees who publicly badmouth them, but labor laws enable the workers to collect unemployment if such drastic measures are actually taken. Freelancers working for comic publishers are not subject to these laws, enabling the companies to behave unethically, and leaving freelancers at the mercy of the work-for-hire system without protections in place.
It’s not uncommon for publishers to cancel solicited comics for low sales before they are even released to the direct market. Retailers order based on promotion and demand, and a comic with minuscule pre-orders might not see the shelves. Yet the Legend of Wonder Woman didn’t suffer from lack of sales.
Comichron’s reports show the comic’s sales were at times doubling the figures of same-numbered issues of low selling series such as Prez and The Omega Men. This could be considered impressive for multiple reasons, one being that Legend of Wonder Woman was a bi-weekly digital comic that released weeks before the printed issues made it to stores, and another being that the series did not benefit from the DC You marketing initiative that launched The Omega Men. DC does not provide figures for digital sales, so we can’t factor those in here.
Sales were not De Liz and Dillon’s problem. The series, by many accounts, was successful. The Legend of Wonder Woman’s cancellation came in the wake of success, just as the first hardcover collection reached stores. This was due to conflicts with the creative team specifically, as independently verified by Hanover and Johnston, issues stemming from De Liz and Dillon’s vocal criticisms of their relationship with DC Comics.
De Liz and Dillon both expressed frustration after DC announced a new series last Saturday: The Odyssey of the Amazons by the all-male creative team of Kevin Grievoux and Ryan Benjamin, with a concept similar to what they’ve pitched “for years,” according to De Liz. They also expressed disappointment that DC was retelling the character’s origin in her new Rebirth ongoing comic while they were only just finishing their first volume of the Legend of Wonder Woman. And they criticized storytelling choices in Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette’s Wonder Woman: Earth One graphic novel.
Whether their criticisms are considered valid or petty is open to interpretation, but the issue does not lie with questionable comments employees make about an employer, it’s whether fair punishments are levied in an environment where billion-dollar corporations are not held accountable.
Last week De Liz announced DC Comics terminated the project and left her and Dillon without a paycheck they were expecting to receive. They have since established a GoFundMe page for what De Liz stated was the amount they were expecting to receive in an effort to recoup some of their losses from this project.
This essentially amounts to DC punishing freelancers for criticizing their product and business practices, or, in other words, ‘not using the proper channels to air grievances.’ DC Comics’ reaction is indicative of the types of offenses they take seriously and which they do not.
Let’s establish the nature of the comics industry, how small it is, and how working professionals aren’t quick to speak out against their employers regarding shady business practices.
The issue isn’t with DC reneging on their commitment; DC is a subsidiary of a corporate entity and expected to act in its own self interest. The problem is the exploitation of industry standards and the duplicity with which DC and its competitors approach such issues. DC appears to employ a “zero tolerance” policy when facing justified criticism from its freelance employees, while continuing to employ alleged harasser Eddie Berganza, whom former employees have reported for sexual harassment.
DC Comics has also severed relationships with freelancers like Joshua Hale Fialkov and Chris Roberson in the past due to similar instances of public criticism. After a critically acclaimed-but-cancelled run on I, Vampire for DC, Fialkov was announced to be taking over the Green Lantern Corps and Red Lanterns comics until he expressed disappointment with an editorial mandate to kill off the former book’s main character John Stewart.
Roberson announced displeasure with how the company treats creators. While he stated he had no desire to continue working with the company after his Vertigo comic iZombie was cancelled, he was still due to script issues of the then just-launched series Fairest, until DC cancelled his involvement in the wake of his comments.
Neither Roberson or Fialkov have produced new work for DC Comics since these incidents.
These examples illustrate just a few times freelancers have spoke out against DC, and what the company’s reaction to criticism entails. And because there are so many freelancers willing and eager to take on any work publishers like DC may offer them, it discourages people from speaking out. This power dynamic enables publishers to exploit volatile contracts in the same way they cancelled De Liz and Dillon’s project. Creators are encouraged to keep quiet, lest they and their comics be tossed aside at the whims of public perception.
In a world where prominent creators engage in arguments and confrontations with fans and press in public forums, it makes it clear that criticism reflects negatively on the company, but the harboring of sexual predators does not. And these abusive business practices allow companies to crush freelancers who do not toe the company line.
The move is indicative of a greater problem within the industry: the abuse of freelancers and their contracts to suit corporate needs. These are subsidiaries of multi-billion dollar companies, exploiting a labor force devoid of a union or organized efforts to establish rights, paid to churn out additional chapters to their extensive and lucrative intellectual properties. Creators often contribute stories that are the basis of what go on to become multi-million dollar film franchises, and often the companies are obliged to provide little more than acknowledgement in the credits (see: Ed Brubaker).
Big publishers proffer exclusive contracts to only the most lucrative names, leaving many freelancers without health insurance and other benefits of working for a company. It creates an environment where freelancers trying to get consistent gigs are vulnerable despite working for billion-dollar corporations, unless they have an additional job that provides insurance.
De Liz and Dillon’s biggest crime was being critical of their employer in a public channel. They didn’t suppress their disappointment when they felt they were ignored. In essence, they were honest—too honest for DC Comics—resulting in the termination of the project. Was it justified? Were De Liz and Dillon insulting to the creative teams of Wonder Woman: Rebirth or Earth One: Wonder Woman? Your mileage may vary, especially if your ego is easily bruised.
But such is the world of comics, where those who are “in” are only encouraged to promote and engage with positive coverage. It is too small to be introspective and honest, let alone critical and outspoken.
And it’s so much more than that. As today’s political climate all across the globe has painfully illustrated, we all must enact the change we want to see and speak out against harmful business practices. This is just a symptom of the problem at hand and until we identify and correct the structural issues of the freelance market in the industry, companies will continue to abuse their freelancers.
There is no easy answer. Unionization or changes in contract protections may be the start of these conversations, but they will not be the end so long as malignant corporate cultural norms pervade. These norms allow DC Comics to take disproportionate action against freelancers who speak out for the sake of corporate interests. But the fact remains the protection of corporate interests does not necessarily come at the cost of ethical praxis.
In some other elseworld, DC Comics heard De Liz and Dillon’s complaints and took steps to ensure, for example, that female writers are not passed over for male writers with similar ideas (especially not on female characters). In another world, none of this came to pass as DC Comics had already established a culture in which freelancers felt their complaints would be taken seriously in private, rather than leaving them with no recourse other than public statement. Unfortunately for us, we live in this world, one where a company that profits from narratives about justice consistently acts as though the term doesn’t exist.