The Adventure Zone Comic Publishers Come Under Fire for Predatory Artist Contracts [Updated]

The cover for Here There Be Gerblins, the first, record-breaking entry in the Adventure Zone graphic novel series.
The cover for Here There Be Gerblins, the first, record-breaking entry in the Adventure Zone graphic novel series.
Image: Carey Pietsch/First Second Books

The McElroy family host one of the biggest tabletop RPG podcasts in the world, The Adventure Zone—and in recent years their content creation empire has expanded to best-selling comic book adaptations. But those adaptations came at the expense of guest artists who were required to work under terrible contracts.

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Earlier today, artists Ioana Muresan and Jonah Baumann commented on social media revealing contract details given to guest artists on Macmillan and First Second’s graphic novel adaptations of The Adventure Zone podcast. Baumann—who provided guest art for the first in First Second’s series, The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins—did not initially name First Second as the publisher mentioned in his tweets, but reshared Muresan’s own comments about the situation at the publisher:

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According to Baumann, freelance artists providing guest pieces for the graphic novels (which are written by the McElroy family and written/illustrated by Carey Pietsch) were paid just $100 for their work to be included. But perhaps even more crucially, artists would not be able to share their work outside of the comic’s publishing for up to three years after its release.

A hundred bucks for professionally commissioned art on a major licensed IP like The Adventure Zone series—the podcast has been downloaded over 180 million times since it first began in 2014, and regularly sold out live sessions when, global pandemic be damned, those were things that were allowed to happen—is already pretty low from a significant publisher like Macmillan. But to deny artists the ability to include these pieces of art as samples on their websites or in their portfolio of work for so long is particularly heinous.

Here Be Gerblins, the first Adventure Zone adaptation, topped the New York Times bestseller list for trade fiction upon its release in 2018, the first ever graphic novel to do so. Its follow-ups, Murder on the Rockport Limited and Petals to the Metal, also topped the list upon release. The reach of the series, as a podcast and now as a graphic novel series, is massive—so denying artists the ability to share artwork that is part of these best-selling OGNs as professional samples for such an extended period of time prevents them from using it to acquire more work and commissions.

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At least in this particular scenario, things might change. Baumann and Muresan’s tweets went viral among Adventure Zone fans, prompting a statement released by the McElroy family through the Adventure Zone social media accounts. They declared their intent to ask Macmillan to change guest artists’ contracts going forward to remove the exclusivity clause, as well as offering lump sums to artists who have been featured in all three Adventure Zone graphic novels so far an extra $500 each—out of their own pockets, rather than First Second’s.

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“We were recently made aware of the terms of contracts between artists who have been featured in The Adventure Zone graphic novels and our publisher, First Second,” the statement reads in part. “These artists were not adequately paid for their work, and their art was put under excessively long exclusivity clauses.”

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“We apologize for not being aware of this situation earlier,” the statement concluded, “and we are urging First Second to implement these changes as soon as possible.”

Neither First Second or its parent company Macmillan have commented on either the situation or the McElroys’ statement. io9 has reached out to ask for insight on how the publisher intends to incorporate the family’s request going forward, as well as for wider clarity on the contracts it offered to freelance artists. We’ll update this post when and if we get a response.

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Update 9/1 2.45PM: In response to requests from the McElroys, First Second has released a statement apologizing for their previous contracts—described, worryingly, as “consistent with those used in the past for similar projects”—promising to both update future contracts and the contracts of artists who were already commissioned for the Adventure Zone series.

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“The last thing we wanted was for anyone to feel that their work was undervalued—our intention was the opposite of that,” the statement reads in part. “We’ll be modifying the terms of the contract for all artists who have contributed to the series...we’ll also be matching the increase the authors have committed to pay past artists for artists whose work is featured in future books.”

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James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!

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DISCUSSION

Usually, I’d be on the side of artists or creators in most situations, but these people signed a contract, right? In exchange for a small bit of guest art, they are paid a small sum, but will receive massive exposure that they wouldn’t otherwise get? Then they can later share the art after the contract expires. How is it any different from a writer submitting a short story to a compilation or magazine, getting $100, and they aren’t allowed to publish it for several years? Were they forced to sign the contract?