Despite comic book superheroes being some of the biggest moneymakers on screens big and small lately, the creators who brought them to life in the first place rarely get more than a fraction of that financial success coming their way. But as Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier cooks up a storm on Disney+, comics writer Ed Brubaker has opened up about just how big that disparity really is.
Brubaker, alongside artist Steve Epting, colorist Frank D’Armata, and letterer Randy Gentile, formed the team behind the Captain America comics run that saw Bucky Barnes return from seemingly beyond the grave as the former Red Room assassin Winter Soldier in 2005, half a century since Barnes had been an active regular character in Marvel comics. But ever since Sebastian Stan’s iteration of Barnes was transformed into the Winter Soldier for the second Captain America movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and is now co-starring in his own self-titled show with Anthony Mackie’s Falcon on Disney+ — Brubaker and his fellow creatives have been treated… well, less than ideally as their character has shot to pop cultural stardom.
“I remember sitting there in the third movie … and just remembering this Jack Kirby ulcer growing in my stomach going, ‘This is what it felt like, kid, except a hundred times worse, so fuck you,’” Brubaker recalled of seeing Captain America: Civil War during a lengthy, frank appearance on Kevin Smith and Marc Bernardin’s podcast Fatman Beyond (his appearance begins at around 56:45 in the video below) earlier this week.
Brubaker opened up about his strange relationship with the Winter Soldier’s rise to prominence in the MCU, from how it would take weeks after Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s Comic-Con announcement before Marvel Studios reached out to him about the news, to turning down a check for a thank you credit in Civil War that he described as “an insult,” and how the writer makes more money from his brief cameo in Winter Soldier’s flashback sequences than he does in residuals from having brought the Winter Soldier to life in the first place. “As the years went on, I just started to think ‘how come we’re not getting anything for this?’,” Brubaker wondered. “We can get a ‘Thanks to’ or a credit, but these movies are making billions of dollars, and it feels like we just kind of got a bad deal.”
It’s created an animus for the writer that he now feels seeing Bucky rise to even higher prominence in the current moment, co-starring in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+. “I think I might be the only person in America who is not excited about this show,” said Brubaker, who has not watched any of the series so far. “When I see ads for [The Falcon and the Winter Soldier], it kinda makes me feel sick to my stomach.”
He added, “As a company, why would [Marvel] want that to be the way the creators feel? When I work with people I try to give them the best deal possible, and if something ends up being a bigger thing, I’ll try to actually adjust their deal … I want everybody I work with to feel like they got a really good deal, and they were treated well.”
Outside of his recent, brief remarks on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in his newsletter, Brubaker has stayed relatively out of commenting on his feelings on the success of the Marvel movies and his relationship with them. But he went on to explain that after a near-death drowning experience led to him contemplating what would be left behind for his wife, he began to realise the vast disparity between what he sees for his Marvel work — beyond his iconic run on the Captain America comics, still in print today as a definitive run on the modern-day character — and the worldwide success of the movies that have been inspired by his work.
“It’s ridiculous. That, having been a co-creator of the Winter Soldier … I should not have to be worried about providing for my wife if I die right now,” the writer added. “It started to feel like ‘this kinda hurts,’ a little bit, to be overlooked this way.”
There’s a point to be made that Brubaker and Epting did not create Bucky Barnes, the character — Bucky is much older than the Winter Soldier, as old as Captain America himself having first appeared alongside Steve in the pages of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s Captain America Comics #1. But it’s hard to deny that Brubaker and Epting’s transformation of Bucky isn’t fundamental to the version of the character we see played by Sebastian Stan in the Marvel movies and now The Falcon and the Winter Soldier — and that even if they’re not direct creators, their vision of the character is arguably the one being drawn on far more than Kirby and Simon’s earlier iteration.
“I’m not unhappy with my life, or that I wrote this thing,” Brubaker noted. “I am super proud of all the work I did on Daredevil, on Cap, I don’t love my X-Men run but there are people who liked it. I loved working at Marvel, I had a great time there. But at the same time, I also feel like, you know… be a little more generous?”
It makes the already messy deal of comics rights — compounded with the way big publishers like Marvel and DC have dealt with creatives for decades, even before you get to the superhero movie boom — even messier when you start thinking about not just who created these blockbuster heroes, but which version of them is the one that’s making it off of the page and into multimedia empires. But as messy as it is, with superheroes writ large across our pop culture landscape in the way they are, it’s a conversation that needs to be had more publicly, and frank remarks like Brubaker’s are just the start.