What had begun as a low rumbling around AfterShock Comics resolved, in the week before Christmas, with a dull thud.
Late in the afternoon on Monday, December 19, AfterShock announced that it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the Central District of California. A simultaneous announcement came from AfterShock’s sister company, Rive Gauche Television, which had merged with the comic publisher in 2020 as it expanded its presence in packaging and producing adaptations of AfterShock's comic properties (both companies share the same owners, Jon and Lee Kramer). Listed on the bankruptcy filing1 were $10-50 million in assets, an equal amount in liabilities, and some 200+ creditors - a list that included several dozen named comic creators, all of them awaiting a now deeply uncertain remuneration.
Those creators had, in fact, been the source of the rumbling earlier in the month, which had begun (as so much in comics does) with a Twitter thread. The inciting action came from artist and writer Will Robson who, on December 9, posted a string of comments lamenting in broad terms what he sees as the broken payment system for freelancers in comics. The thread began:
Has it become industry standard to pay creators ridiculously late for their work? I’ve struggled ALL year with ALL the large companies I work for to get paid on the agreed time. I’m talking MONTHS late… it’s sad how nervous I am to even talk about this publicly in fear of being blacklisted for future work. But I’ve heard so many horror stories from other freelance creators recently about fighting for their paycheque and I need to vent this all out and hopefully raise some awareness to make serious change.
Robson’s tweets sparked a string of responses from the likes of creators Alex de Campi, Joe Quinones and Christopher Cantwell, several of whom named AfterShock specifically as a publisher guilty of late or missing payments. “[AfterShock] owe[s] friends of mine tens of thousands and I’ve been doling out contact details of California Lawyers for the Arts like it was Xmas candy. This is shameful behavior & people need to know. Also their rights deal SUCKS,” De Campi (who is not herself an AfterShock creator) tweeted.
“Late payments to the artist effectively killed / paused indeterminately an original 4-issue I co-created with Aftershock… I have been taken care of across the board by every imprint I’ve worked for, including Aftershock, where I’m paid out on the series after delivering all contracted work. But it rankles when colleagues suffer, taken advantage of for choosing to pursue a vocation they love,” echoed writer Christopher Cantwell.
When the news of AfterShock’s bankruptcy broke, The Comics Journal was in the process of speaking with creators about their experiences with the company. Colorist Dee Cunniffe is one such freelancer, who began with AfterShock in 2020, and has frequently worked on projects for the company over the past two years. To Cunniffe’s mind, the past few months have exhibited a marked change in AfterShock’s reliability when it comes to issuing payments owed to their creators.
“I’ve done about five or six books with AfterShock, and there’s never been a problem with payment,” Cunniffe told the Journal. “About six months ago, they basically just stopped paying. I’d done two issues of a new book that hasn’t been announced yet, and I’m about three or four months since I finished issue two, and the payments still haven’t come. And the artist contacted me about six weeks ago saying, ‘listen, man, I have to leave the book and go and get paid work, because I just haven’t been paid for it.’”
Even more dramatically, Cunniffe detected a more recent shift coinciding with the departure of editor Mike Marts, who announced he was leaving AfterShock on September 30 after seven years with the company. That timing is notable, because, as Graeme McMillan at Popverse observed, a certificate authorizing AfterShock’s Chapter 11 filing, though entered by the Bankruptcy Court on December 19, is dated September 11 - placing Marts’ exit more than two weeks after the company had authorized Jon Kramer, as AfterShock's Chief Executive Officer, to begin bankruptcy proceedings. “I know that at [New York] Comic Con Mike Marts announced his departure, which I thought was really weird because Mike was basically the guy who set AfterShock up,” Cunniffe said.
While the circumstances of Marts’ departure are obscure, most of the creators we spoke to described the editor as a source of dependability and stability during his time at the company, and found his departure a worrying sign. Lonnie Nadler, who has published work through AfterShock since 2018 and had two books in production when news of the bankruptcy broke, spoke in glowing terms about his working relationship with both Marts and another editor, Christina Harrington. (On December 20, one day following the bankruptcy announcement, it was announced that Harrington had left AfterShock as well. However, multiple sources connected to the company informed us that she had in fact departed some time earlier in November.)
“Mike Marts was my editor until his departure and he is a wonderful person and a tremendous editor who knew when to give freedom and when to give guidance,” Nadler said. “I also worked closely with Christina Harrington who also is a joy to work with, and her passion for comics is sincerely infectious. I need to make it absolutely clear that my editors at AfterShock have never been anything short of incredible. They should bear none of this blame. I would actually go as far as to say they are victims too.”
Even so, creators frequently reported struggling to receive payment from AfterShock, even in better, earlier periods. Although AfterShock contracts ostensibly guaranteed payment after no later than 30 days (a fact confirmed by documents provided to the Journal), several of those we spoke to recalled difficulty in getting the company to meet this timeline. Artist Eoin Marron, who worked with AfterShock on both work-for-hire and creator co-owned projects, recalled his own experience:
“I was inquiring about payment, because it had been 30 days since I invoiced,” Marron said, referencing an early project with the company. “This was shy of three days, four years ago. I inquired about it on 18th December, because that week it was going to be net 30 (days since the work was turned in). And then Mike [Marts] replied that payment was going to go out after New Year’s. So straight out of the gate, they were not going to observe net 30.” In the end, the string of delays was left unresolved for so long that Marron was eventually forced to put a subsequent creator-owned series on hold.
Even so, the period dating from Marts’ replacement by editor Brian Cunningham, a longtime veteran of comic and magazine publishing announced by AfterShock in October 2022, is generally perceived by those we interviewed to coincide with a decline in the reliability of both payments and general communication with the publisher. Artist Rodrigo Zayas had worked with writer Cullen Bunn on a one-shot comic A Foulness in the Walls; he delivered his final batch of pages and filled out paperwork to invoice for payment in late September 2022.
“Just a week after I finished the book and sent all the necessary paperwork, Mike Marts left AfterShock and editors told me to be in touch with Brian Cunningham in order to get paid and sort everything out,” Zayas told the Journal. “Brian has been very polite and has always answered my mails, but has never given me a clear answer about when am I gonna be paid for my work. On his latest mail he told me they are waiting to close a deal with new investors in order to sort this out. I understand from this that AfterShock as a company right now doesn't have the money to pay me for my work as well as other artists in the same situation and that is really bad news. It has been over 3 months since I finished the book and this has taken a big toll on me economically and mentally. I am now seeking for legal advice to see what are my options as the contract I signed clearly says they had 30 days to pay me after finishing the book. The book was going to be out on November the 16th but they told me they had some problems with the printer and had to delay it. My personal theory is that selling the book without having paid its authors (Cullen hasn´t been paid either as he told me last week) could get them in more serious legal issues as I have been told.”
Bunn declined to comment when contacted for this article, but confirmed that he had not been paid for the project as of press time.
“[Cunningham] came on board, and my interaction was very minimal,” Eoin Marron recalled. “Given the short period of time between his hiring and all this happening, you know, I understand he was put into a very hairy situation. I actually don’t blame him for being in the position he was in, and having to relate all this to so many people whose livelihoods are on the line. You know, there’s always going to be a messenger who takes the fall for this kind of stuff.”
One creator, who asked to remain anonymous, remarked on the substantial difficulties this situation poses for those faced with the prospect of missing income: “Late or no payment significantly affects how we live our lives. Many of us have full time jobs, however, some of us are full time freelancers, so the lack of income means bills don't get paid. This applies to late royalty payments, as well, not just payments for stories that we've already worked on. It's very frustrating, and publishers rely on our silence and fear of being labeled as ‘difficult’ to keep us quiet about the situation. Meanwhile, their social media feeds continue as if nothing is wrong.”
“I understand that they need to maintain a certain level of privacy in terms of how their finances are, but there's no transparency with the freelancers,” the AfterShock creator continued. “If you're having financial problems and can't pay your creatives, then send out a company-wide email saying, ‘Pencils down.’ But that doesn't happen. You have to hound the editors who have no more power than you do. They're just trying to do their job under impossible circumstances.”
There is also a perception, among some creators at least, that AfterShock habitually adopted a system by which bigger-name and recognizable creators were prioritized in terms of payment and general treatment:
“If they can get somebody like Christopher Cantwell onto their roster, they know kind of with a certain amount of certainty that they can sell his IP because it's Christopher Cantwell,” one creator told the Journal. “They don’t care about the people down the line: the colorists, the letterers. A colorist tends to be, like, 20% of the cost of a book. And they reckon they can quite easily hold that back and not get any stick for it.”
Creator and graphic designer Jared Fletcher had the same opinion. “It’s like they pay the big writers, or the Hollywood tourist writers, first, and they pay them their full rate,” Fletcher said. “And then everyone else down the line is getting paid less than you were getting paid… the further along you are down the trough, I think, the less concerned they are about paying you on time.”
Such opinions, however, are belied by what we heard from at least one recognizable creator, who spoke to the Journal on condition of anonymity: “I've experienced absent payments during that time, and AfterShock has eventually become fairly transparent about the cause of it. At first things were murky, but lately they've been more open. They're at least projecting the feeling that they want to get those payments out, as opposed to dealings I've had in other industries where companies have made it clear they don't have any intention of paying what they owe. But it's still frustrating to be owed payment for work that was finished quite a while ago.”
Regardless of stature or prominence, communication with freelancers regarding the bankruptcy filing appears to have been altogether nonexistent. None of those we spoke to had heard from the company before learning about the bankruptcy from news reports or social media. “I learned about the bankruptcy because Zac [Thompson] sent me the link to the filing,” Lonnie Nadler remarked. “Nobody from AfterShock reached out to let me know anything, which doesn't surprise me at all. We had a call with them about a month ago and it was heated, since it was in regards to payment issues and contract stuff. Truly, it boiled my blood. But they assured us that they were trying to find a way forward. I guess this is what they meant.”
Where this leaves creators now, as AfterShock enters bankruptcy proceedings, is murky at best. According to a subsequent filing on December 21, AfterShock credits its financial circumstances to more than $13 million in defaulted loans due to a group called Access Road Capital. If this is indeed the case, it could be among the better scenarios for unpaid freelancers and other contractors, since it would potentially allow the company to restructure its debt in order to move on.
AfterShock, for their part, states that their intention is to continue paying creators and others still owed by the company, even in the midst of these proceedings. In a statement provided to the Journal, as well as other publications, the company said:
After much deliberation, AfterShock Comics LLC has voluntarily filed a petition for protection under Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code to enable the Company to restructure its senior secured facility as well as being in a position to secure additional financing to continue to operate its business.
The intent of this decisive action, among other considerations, is to allow the Company to maintain operations in the ordinary course including, but not limited to, paying employees and continuing existing benefits programs, upholding and following through on commitments to contracted creators, as well as vendors who supply goods and services related to marketing, merchandising and advertising. AfterShock will continue to operate, publish and market comic books and graphic novels to supply to direct market retailers and mass accounts through its distributors in accordance with all federal, state and local guidelines.
We regret the inconvenience this has caused to those we work with and may cause in the near future. However, we believe that going forward this will allow us to best position the Company for long-term success.
Nevertheless, the creators we spoke to tend to regard their chances of seeing money still owed with a combination of stoicism and grim pessimism. Asked how much confidence he has that he’ll receive money down the line, Dee Cunniffe simply replied, “None whatsoever - small beans in another country.”
“Very little. Very little,” Eoin Marron said in response to the same question. “Just based on not really having much belief in what they say, given how they’ve treated me and other collaborators. I had no reason to really trust this, you know?”
The situation is even more complex for creators who worked on 'co-owned' projects published through the company. According to information provided to us by several creators, AfterShock typically takes 50% ownership in creator-shared circumstances, with the remaining half divided between the stakeholding creators themselves. In the view of some, at least, this arrangement was already far less than fair. In the words of Cunniffe: “they’re an IP farm, they’re not a comic publisher. They’re buying a pair of people’s comics in order to hopefully ship them out to Hollywood. They don’t care about comics. They only care about IP.”
Another creator, speaking anonymously, told us that one of their creator-shared properties had been optioned to a studio by AfterShock for a considerable sum, but that none of the creators involved had seen any payment. The reason, they were informed, was that their contract allowed AfterShock to charge a fee for overhead against payments due to the creators for option deals, but did not require AfterShock to disclose the rationale or details for the fee they charged. (The Journal was able to examine the contract and earning statement in question, and will confirm that AfterShock was permitted to subtract overhead, creative fees, and printing costs from their calculation of net profits, and that further details were not provided in the earning statement.)
With AfterShock’s stake in these series now subject to the outcome of the bankruptcy, the fate of these projects, and their ultimate ownership, is unclear. More than a few creators voiced serious concern over where this leaves them. “It just sucks to have comics I love that are now in a state of limbo,” Lonnie Nadler said. “That speaks to a larger problem in the industry of ‘creator owned’ publishers which are not actually creator owned at all. Sure, it's my fault for signing the contracts to begin with, but when you're bright eyed and bushy tailed and all you want to do is make some good comic books, you never think you'll get fucked over, or you don't care. The stories were always what mattered, and it's a shame when people weaponize your own creations against you.”
For now, at least, both stakeholding creators and those awaiting payment for work-for-hire jobs are left to observe a bewildering legal process, and pick up their own financial pieces as best they can. For many, it’s been a disillusioning few days. For Rodrigo Zayas, the experience may have been the last straw.
“My dream has always been to be a comic book artist,” Zayas said. “But after this and several other bad experiences, and years of sending samples requested by editors and then being ghosted even after telling me which project they wanted me to be in (happened twice this year with DC comics for example), I have decided to work only in creator-owned personal projects in my spare time, and focus my career elsewhere, even if that means I only do a book every once in a while or not at all.”
Another creator, speaking anonymously, put it more bluntly: “This whole situation is fucked.”
The Comics Journal will continue to update this story as we speak to more people in and outside of the AfterShock bankruptcy. Anyone wishing to speak is invited to contact the author at [email protected].