Original Art Stories: Mr T And Working For Free!

This one is a doozy! Before we go any further it's probably a good idea to read this post, albeit over ten years old, from Mark Evanier. Once you're done pop back and we'll discuss some parts of it in detail and look at a very disturbing series of claims that are currently floating around the internet.

Back already? Good.

Recently a number of artists and would be artists received this email in their inbox from an on-line publisher named Mohawk Media. Mohawk, whose domain name was registered by one Christopher Bunting, claim to be publishing comics, merchandise and concepts based upon Mr T. Here's the text of the email, which wasn't signed by Bunting:

Hi everyone!

Hope you don't mind us jumping out at you like this, but it is with the potential offer for work!

We need a bunch of artists to create concept and design work for us. For free.

However - it is only for free initially. As and when any revenue is generated, you will get a nice royalty payment.

Added to that, if, when we pitch this work, it is accepted, you also stand to become creatively involved on a much larger basis.

Any potential revenue that is generated is likely to be beyond what comic books often generate.

Basically we want concept and design work for all manner of merchandising based on our official Mr. T graphic novel series.

This includes:
Action figures;
An animated series;
Front covers for novels & interior illustrations;
Motion picture and movie concepts;
Trading cards;
Toys, games, multi-media, apparel;
and well, pretty much anything else too all based on our official Mr. T graphic novel, its universe, the characters etc.

Which of the above you choose is up to you; or you might want to do concept work for all of them!

If you feel this is of interest, or you have queries, please let us know ASAP.

If you cant do this, but have some talented artist friends who can, please feel free to pass us their details.

As we say, this opportunity has every chance of leading to further work, royalty payments, getting your name in lights, and much more beyond!

Stuart Buckley
Mohawk Media

Now you might be sitting there wondering what the problem is. The problem is a simple one - the publisher, in this case a web-based publisher, wants people to work for free. Gratis. With the promise that if the work can generate some revenue then perhaps the artist can share in a percentage. I expect that the percentages will be determined at some point, but that's something I'd like to know upfront. But the email does state that the work will be used for merchandising and the like, which means that you'll be signing away the rights. Not good.

Where this got nasty is when Al Bigley warned people about the practice of working for free on line. Al's message in the ComicArt mailing list read, "Never work for later promises. It devalues your work, work ethic, and profession. If any project is the sure thing the promoters think it is, they can take out money on credit to pay you now, then, later, when that sure thing makes the big money they're so sure it will, they'll be covered." Al then followed it up with an email to the publisher, which also read, "No artist should do 'free' work or be asked to do such..You should be wiling to pay up front or not make such an offer. You're preying on young or inexperienced artists with the promise that there MAY be payment down the line. If you're so sure of your sure thing, pay a decent wage NOW, by taking out a loan to do so. When your sure thing hits, as you're so certain it will, you'll be covered, right? Al Bigley."

In this case Al knows what he's talking about. He's worked for DC's licensing department, creating art for toy boxes, style guides and more, for the better part of a decade. For someone to question his knowledge on how the art world works, and indeed how it works for merchandising, is a tad odd to me.

The editor of the publishing company immediately contacted Al, questioned his professionalism and threatened to sue him for slandering his company - all for a mere warning and for offering some words of advice. Here's a copy of the email, "Al, if you have posted your potentially slanderous email - in addition to our original email with a confidential disclaimer - in an online public forum we request that you have it REMOVED IMMEDIATELY. Please confirm when removed." They've since followed it up with a letter from a person claiming to represent the company in a legal capacity threatening further action if Al doesn't remove his comments from the ComicArt mailing list. Anyone with half a brain will know it's near impossible to remove comments from a mailing list, but this doesn't appear to deter them. Incredibly they can't find money to pay any artist up front for the work they want, but seemingly can afford legal representation in order to threaten to sue Al Bigley. Priorities!

It all reeks to me of using a hammer to crack a walnut. Before I get into why people shouldn't work for free I decided to contact a few artists and ask for their opinions. All of the artists I contacted are long standing artists, as you'll see, and all have important lessons to share. Steven Bove, who draws the excellent Rock Opera, commented, "I will tell you what a DC Comics Editor once said to a group of us in The Production Department, 'If you don't have sales of 100,000 copies a month then you don't have an opinion.' It comes down to professionalism and it just doesn't exist in many smaller publishing group, on or off line. In business a publisher (or anyone connected with said publisher) would NEVER openly criticize an outside source of material. What they would do is simply stop issuing work to the source."

Legendary artist Trevor Von Eeden also chipped in, "Unless it's for charity, or as a personal favor to a friend, or fan--no professional artist should EVER work for free! Ever. I'd NEVER work for free for a publisher--and yes, it IS highly unprofessional (i.e unethical) to even ask. Would you ask a plumber, electrician, or architect to do work on your house for free? No--that's their job, and it's what you'd HIRE them to do.

"The very definition of "professional" is: one who gets PAID for doing a job!

"Especially if the artist is doing work for a publisher who intends to profit from said artist's efforts. In which case, the artist would be considered either a sucker--or a slave.

"Or, eventually-- dead from starvation."

On the other hand Big Bang artist, Gerry Acerno, freely admits to working for free, albeit with an ulterior motive in mind. Gerry says, "I have worked for a publisher for free. That would be Image Comics ten years ago. It was to have my creation SHADOW LADY published in Big Bang comics. Nobody made any $ off of this book. I did it to secure copyright of which I am sole owner. The editor also gave me cart blanch as to what I wanted to do. I also demanded lead and cover feature for the three issue story arc. Those were my terms and they were met with no resistance. During the course of my career, I've been asked to work on other peoples' concepts for free with the 'promise' of some residuals down the road. I don't have time for that. I'm not a kid looking for his first break, living in my parents' basement. I have a family to support, mortgage, etc. I do think that it is unprofessional to ask a pro artist to work for free; it's a downright insult. Yeah, we all know that there are enough non-working professionals scraping around for work these days and this is what 'publishers' are preying on. When (would be) publishers go around with 'high profile' concepts and have enough funds to promote it, then they damn well better have enough $ to pay for an artist's time.

"This online publisher sounds like a joke. If he wants someone to work for free, the he can solicit the local High Schools and Colleges."

One of the best inkers in the business and all round damn nice guy Dan Panosian comments, "I think it's a bad policy to work for free or to do spec work.

"These things only rarely pan out with any sort of back end money. Personally, I've never seen it happen. I've also, foolishly, participated in a number of these 'opportunities'.

"It's my feeling, that if the artist can find the time to work for free - they may as well create pages of their own creation instead.

"Unfortunately, many artists do work for free. Eventually they learn not to.

"If you knew and acquaintance that was a waiter would you ask him to come to your house at 8PM and serve you and your girlfriend/wife dinner [ for free ]? A waiter serves food to earn a living. An artist draws for a living. Of course he/she should be paid to something they earn a living for. Some compensation is in order. You don't tell the waiter that if you like the meal you just ate you'll give him a back payment for it. But if you don't like it he'll have to tell the restaurant to forgo the cost of the meal..."

Hulk artist Herb Trimpe, "The request you refer to is one I have received--and my response to this particular project is no thanks. However, I think it's okay to do work on speculation--depending on the situation. I have done professional work (once) without getting paid, but that's because I didn't have sense enough to ask in the beginning what the deal was. That was because it was a "reputable" company. It only became clear after finishing the work. The work has not been published yet, even though it was finished a year or so ago, so any return on sales I might get is still a matter of conjecture. On the other hand, freebees are sometimes the most enjoyable kind of work, but the client is usually local, and it was understood from the beginning there would be no money. For instance, I have done quite extensive volunteer artwork for local agencies of which I know personally. But, basically, when asking a professional for free work with the idea that they MAY be paid somewhere down the road, is unethical. Exposure does have a certain value, but the important thing is, SHOW ME THE MONEY!"

Norm Breyfogle, who, ironically, worked on the first Mr T comic published in the 1990s, along with an acclaimed run on Batman and a man who has worked on almost every character DC has to offer and a handful of Marvel guys as well, has this to say, "Both asking to work for free and asking others to work for free are highly unprofessional!

"I'd never work for free. (When I was attempting to break into comics back in the early 80's I was unprofessional enough to tell DC Comics editors that I'd do that, but they very professionally declined my offer.)

"The only conditions close to 'working for free' that I would consider would include a legally binding contract which paid me on the back end, if certain conditions were met (e.g., if sales were over a certain mark, as with the Image Comics contracts). No verbal promises would do, and anyone accepting verbal promises under those circumstances needs to wise up."

Alan Kupperberg has worked everywhere from Marvel to DC to Archie to National Lampoon and beyond. He's been involved with the comic book industry since the early 1970s and has this advice to offer, "Working For Free...Don't do it!

"I think the best iteration of this policy was written by Mark Evanier in his POV columns, "Unfinanced Entrepreneurs," Part 1, 2 and 3, available online.

"Because any person that asks you to work on a commercial enterprise without compensation has no respect for you. And this person either has no understanding or knowledge of how or what the creator does what the creator does. And that is always a prescription for grief.

"You can work on your own speculative projects all you want. I have. But for strangers -- insist on what you're worth!

"If you want more than five tiny paragraphs, you're going to have to pay for it."

Dick Ayers goes back even further than that, with a career reaching back to the Golden Age of comics. Dick says, "Only time I remember doing a freebie cover and a
short story was when I volunteered and did a Haunted Horseman story and cover for Bill Black to see if that would help circulation. Bill reported the distributor didn't circulate the issue as he was supposed to...alas. I always get paid 'up front' these days by small publishers."

Brian Postman, another artist who's done a lot of work, both for Marvel and in the field of storyboarding and animation. "When I was in my 20's," says Brian, "I worked cheaply or close to free to 'get in' to the business. Now I wouldn't even consider it. I just turned down a 2000 frame storyboard job on a Hollywood movie called 'After Life' with Christina Ricci and Liam Neeson because they wanted to pay $1000 for 2000 frames, that's 50 cents a drawing!!! That's the same as wanting it for FREE in my book. I deal with this constantly, and it makes staying in this business really difficult, because its getting to the point where I could make more working at McDonalds. Anyway, that's my view on it. These people are really just taking advantage of young artists."

Current Phantom newspaper artist Paul Ryan has this to say, "When I was trying to break into the industry I produced a story for Charlton Comics Bullseye title. It was stated up front that there would be no payment for the work produced. The artist would receive, in compensation, fifty copies of the printed piece. This work, then, could be used as a display piece when the aspiring comics artist approached the Big Two for work.

"Other than that the only time I created any piece of work without compensation was for a charity. It is insulting for a publisher to asked a professional artist to work for free. Especially when the publisher stands to make a profit from that artist's work."

Tim Townsend has this to say, "Totally outrageous. Instead of writing something, I thought Id let Harlan Ellison do it for me. He echoes my sentiments EXACTLY! Though he's speaking as a writer, the point stands across the board. I highly suggest this "publisher" listen to it and get a clue." Harlan's points are very valid indeed, and even though, as Tim points out, Harlan is coming from a writers POV the concept is very much the same - never work for free. There are exceptions to every rule and everyone has someone that they'll happily do work for and not charge. It comes down to personal choice, but frankly you should be in a position to make that choice, not have it made for you. The major publishing companies, Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image and the like will not ask you to work for free, either as a writer or artist. It's just unprofessional. If you decide that a project is worth doing and want to work, for free, then most companies won't consider you, that's how unprofessional the practice is. People often do work for free on small press projects, no-one I know has done it and been happy with it. I can clearly recall the late Dave Simons telling me that, after being ripped off back in the day by a small press publisher, he then ensured that he was paid for every job he did. If the publisher couldn't pay then they'd not get any art from him. If there was a hint of a publisher not paying then he'd not do the work. Dave would always do his homework, which is great advice, if you're not sure look the publisher up, check out the names and see how it looks. If it smells like carp then it's probably carp.

After all, why work for free if the publisher is going to charge for the end product? The comics and merchandise aren't free, so why should your work be free? Think about it in those terms.

As for the practice of legal threats. In the situation that Al has found himself in I doubt he has anything to worry about - he's merely voiced a general opinion, not directed at the publisher. The emails he's received have all come from the same domain name, both from the editor and the 'legal' representation. I can't think of too many small press organisations who retain legal representation 'on site', so to speak, ready to attack at the first sign of dissent. If you attack Marvel or DC you might get an email asking for an explanation, but they won't wade in with legal threats. Defame them in some way, suggest that they're a front for kiddie porn, and you might well get that email, but you won't get one merely for suggesting that it's not a good idea to work for free. A quick search for the 'lawyer' in question, one Scott L. Sammons, brings up a total blank. As the emails all originate from a .co.uk domain, it'd be safe to assume that all correspondence has originated from the UK, where laws relating defamation and slander are different to those in the USA (and, indeed, different again to those in Australia). Oddly enough the emails from the publisher, one Stuart Buckely (that's the spelling in the 'legal' email, different to the one in the previous email - typo? Possibly, but then if I were sending a legal document I'd be checking all spelling very carefully), and the 'lawyer' are very similar in tone. Read into that what you will.

The legal letter reads as such, "Dear Mr Bigley

"I represent media publisher Mohawk Media.

"My client recently approached you, in your capacity as a creative artist, in good faith and with a brief outline of what is part of a legitimate business venture.

"Potentially defamatory and libellous allegations, apparently made subsequently by you, including on an online 'forum' and/or 'public email chain' have been brought to my attention. It appears that my client’s repeated attempts to resolve the situation amicably have failed.

"This is to serve as notification to cease and desist immediately and remove any and all such allegations forthwith, including any of my client’s email correspondence containing a confidentiality disclaimer notice, as published online or in any public domain, online or elsewhere, no later than Friday July 3 2009, providing me with written confirmation by email upon completion.

"This will resolve this matter to the full and complete satisfaction of my


"Scott L. Sammons"

In short, Mohawk approached Al, he said no, issued a general warning and now Mohawk want to sue him. Go figure that one out - sued for rejection? Al hasn't said don't work for them, neither have I, what has been said is that it's unprofessional and not a good idea to work for free.

Something else to consider - earlier today Tony Isabella issued this warning: "Beware of Mohawk Media or anything else from that neck of the woods. For more information on this creature, go to: http://unscrewedcomic.com/"

Having said all of that, if you do knowingly and willingly work for free then you can't complain if you get ripped off. There's more than enough outlets to get your art shown, web-sites, on-line galleries and more. There's no need, in this day and age, to work for free. Now the publisher in question can go right ahead and threaten me with legal action instead of Al Bigley. After all I'd love a free trip to the UK. I wonder if Mr T know anything about this...

More as it comes to hand.


Jimmy T said…
Danny check unscrewed website. I have a posted judgement for them and also a letter on how to work with publishers posted their and on the Pulse.

Jimmy T
Tim said…
This Rick Olney is some kind of scum bag. He won't pay and then threatens to sue you for exposing him as a rip off artist, not a "creator". What a joke he is. Alright Rick, I hereby dare you in front of everybody to sue me for slandering you. I bet my REAL lawyer has more juice than your made up threats. Come and get me and I'll countersue you and remove you from comics forever.
Steve Mitchell said…
I would only work for "free" if there was an ownership deal of some kind concretely in place. Comics have become major intellectual property since I came into the biz a century ago, and the value of material has so many posssible lucrative outlets that the idea of partnering is valid. If the material clicks then everyone wins in theory.

BUT...if the publisher in question is not giving or allowing for any sharing of rights/ownership, then it seems, to me, to be work for hire. In that case a creator/artist should presume payment. Rates have always fluctuated, and some times they stink, but everyone knows the score going in. That is the way it has always worked.

There are always a few decisions a creator needs to make when he starts working in comics. Will I have fun? Is this regular work? Do I have passion for it. Do I like who I'm working for, etc.Those are some of the variables I have asked myself over the years, but a professional ultimately wants to know how much he is getting paid? Pure and simple. It is the bottom line. Even though making comics is a fun way to live and work, it is, ultimately...work. Everyone gets paid to work.

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