Comics, Contracts, and Covid: Inside the Scandal at Terrific Production

Comics, Contracts, and Covid: Inside the Scandal at Terrific Production

The novel coronavirus pandemic has devastated the comic book industry. So it seemed too good to be true that one publisher was not only hiring en masse, it was recruiting new talent. But it could come at a price: the company would keep half of their pay until 90% of Americans were vaccinated against covid-19.

“He’s a scam artist,” comic book creator Samal McNealy said. “The way everything is written is just to benefit Andrew Rev and Terrific Production, and screw over writers and artists financially the best way he can.”

Terrific Production LLC, founded by owner Andrew Rev, popped onto the scene at San Diego Comic-Con 2019 and touts itself as “America’s fastest growing comics publisher,” although it’s yet to publish an issue. It’s only been around a year but has already faced issues — like being dissolved for two weeks in April 2020 by South Dakota’s Secretary of State (where Terrific Production is registered) over failing to submit its annual report on time. The company’s website is nonexistent, with no record of the domain ever having hosted a site. The publisher’s main presence is a Twitter account that has shared hundreds of gif-filled messages about how it’s “the next revolution in comics.”

The publisher, which for months slid along relatively unnoticed, got some attention recently after a series of clauses purportedly from its contracts started making the rounds on social media. They included: prohibiting creators from accepting new work if payments from Terrific Production weren’t overly late, requiring artists to turn over original art or signed pages in exchange for a share of a comic book’s net royalties, and a now-infamous covid-19 clause that meant the publisher could hold half a creator’s total page rate during the ongoing pandemic. Gizmodo has viewed several of the contracts in question and can verify the clauses.

Gizmodo spoke with 12 writers and artists who’ve either worked this past year with Terrific Production or entered talks to do so. Many of those who worked for the publisher confirmed they’ve yet to be fully compensated, leading to thousands of dollars in missing wages. They place the blame squarely on Rev, who some claim used deceitful tactics to try to swap their initial contracts with new ones that would impact their pay and rob them of their rights as creators.

“I think his company, and all that Terrific represents — he’s a hustler,” artist Daniel Mainé told Gizmodo. “I’d rather quit drawing before working with them again. It has been a real nightmare.”

Rev burst onto the comics scene in 1990 when he bought Comico, an independent publisher that was poised to rival DC and Marvel with series like Bill Willingham’s The Elementals and Matt Wagner’s Grendel. Unfortunately, a string of bad financial decisions led Comico to file for bankruptcy, leading Rev to come in from the outside and take it over. Rev refused to say how much he paid for Comico, but in a series of long (and often hard-to-understand) emails, he shared how he came into the industry eager but inexperienced only to wind up being taken advantage of.

[Note: Many of Rev’s responses, conducted over email, contained spelling and grammatical errors. We’ve chosen to present them as-is.]

“I was I’ll equipped to take on the revival of Comico- I had no staff. Imagine how I felt having paid their salary and then they treated me as a sucker!” Rev wrote. “With only love of comics and an A in art appreciation in college I went ahead to figure out without youtube or Wikipedia how comics were made. My original goal before I arrived was for us to be passive investors with 1/3 rd of Comico. But the president after he saw he had no obligation personally for his staff salary went and handed me the keys and said he was ‘going fishing’ this is how my book on the comic industry will Possibly start.” Gizmodo was unable to contact the former owners of Comico for comment.

Reports on the sale from the Comics Journal described Rev as a Chicago businessman and native of Hungary who worked in the direct mail business and had done consulting for Citibank. A 2017 court case involving his ex-wife’s property showed he also tried to start a software business in Vietnam around a decade prior but that he made no money from it. Otherwise, Rev is an enigma. He’s believed to be 68 years old and living in California, has a small digital footprint, and his life between Comico and Terrific Production is largely unknown. Rev refused to provide or confirm with Gizmodo any details on himself and noted that he expects “nothing personal in this article.”

After talking with the writers and artists, Gizmodo reached out to Rev for an interview. His initial response was to send us a lengthy email suggesting what our article should cover, writing, “I hope you and your editor can see we have a very positive story covid story about overcoming adversity that Gizmodo readers could potentially identify with.” Rev echoed this suggestion in his final emails to us before publishing, writing, “you could always change the story into a story of the company that wants to save the comic industry.” On the morning this piece was set to publish he wrote, “I would appreciate you scrap your article or modify it.”

Rev repeatedly asked to speak off the record — meaning nothing he said to us could be used in our article — we declined, asking him several more times if he’d comment on the specific allegations made against him (which he ultimately did). Rev claimed on Twitter he wanted to speak off the record to “tell our story on the record without revealing sources and methods.” On Twitter, he called the article a “hit piece,” despite it not having been published yet; in emails, he went on to mention the 2016 Hulk Hogan lawsuit against our former sister site Gawker, which bankrupted Gawker Media, and took to Twitter several more times to discuss details about Gizmodo’s editorial unit, GMG Union.

Some of the creators we spoke with submitted pitches after seeing Terrific Production was promoting itself and soliciting creators on Facebook or Twitter. Others say they were recruited by writer Robert Shepard, who largely declined to comment (Gizmodo has viewed text messages and emails showing Shepard setting up work and contracts with some of the creators). They saw that Rev holds the rights to Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood, originally published by Image Comics then Awesome Entertainment (Liefeld declined to comment for this story, but has been vocal on social media disavowing Rev and future iterations of Youngblood). Rev refused to share how he came about the rights to the series, which were arranged through Cowboys & Aliens co-creator Scott Rosenberg, calling it an “Inappropriate question under CONFIDENTIALITY.”

Youngblood was a series many of the creators we spoke to had grown up with, so they were interested in the prospect of helping a legacy property they loved come back to life. In addition, many of them were either new to the comics scene or trying to break into the American market — they saw it as an opportunity to grow their brand, especially since many of them were being asked to do multi-issue series. Gabriel Santos, a newer artist commissioned by Terrific to work on Supreme (a standalone series for a Youngblood character), said he thought it was going to be his big break.

“I was super excited for a nobody to get a chance to work on Youngblood characters, popular characters in the ‘90s. It was a great chance to get started,” Santos said. “Really, what got me excited was a lot of promises these guys had. ‘If all goes well I can get you some more covers for these books,’ or ‘If this book does really well I can up your page rate for the second book.’ Little promises like that.”

Looking back, the writers and artists we spoke to said they should’ve seen the warning signs. At least three creators, including artist Fritz Casas, said Shepard agreed to their starting rates with little attempt to negotiate. Penciler and inker Emiliano Urdinola, along with at least three others, said the initial contract was sent without Rev’s signature — only Mainé said he managed to get his signed. The contracts reviewed by Gizmodo stipulated that Terrific Production would own artists’ original art (the comic industry’s version of an original painting). It’s a practice that’s considered uncommon and uncouth nowadays, as artists often sell their original pages on their own websites or through services. It also doesn’t apply to digital artists since they don’t make physical pieces — something Mainé said Shepard told him wouldn’t be a problem. It later turned out to be a problem.

The creators also said Terrific Production was set to pay them after completion of each issue, which took the creators we spoke to 1-3 months on average. Rev defended the practice, telling Gizmodo, “Some new artists like all people can’t be trusted without having a security deposit to remind them to do 5 issues. That’s smart.” But it’s something lawyer Gamal Hennessy, who specialises in work within the comic book industry, said should’ve been a red flag. Instead, Hennessy said, writers and artists should always ensure there’s a tiered payment system in place before getting to work.

“One payment could be made on signing the contract. One payment could be made on delivering the thumbnails, or the rough sketches. One payment could be made for the 22-page book, then let’s say every four pages another payment comes through,” he said. “That way, if there’s any dispute about what’s going on…then you actually understand what the problem is up front. So these artists are not out weeks and maybe months of work and not getting paid.”

About half the creators we spoke to got suspicious of Rev and walked away, either during negotiations or before completing their first issues. They were the lucky ones because the moment the first issues were turned in and a writer or artist asked for payment, chances are Rev would ask to speak with them over the phone or text and give reasons why they couldn’t be paid, like banking issues or problems with their work (Rev admitted that Terrific Production has refused to pay some creators for their work, claiming it’s for “if an artist over bills, did not have approval to increase rate.. Refused to redraw bad art”). Santos told Gizmodo one of the excuses Rev gave him was because the inking wasn’t done, even though Santos had been hired as a penciler. Rev still texted Santos to ask how issue two was coming along. In the end, Santos said he was only paid for a cover before quitting.

For three of the creators we spoke to — Mainé, Urdinola, and Casas — the dispute was because of the contract. Rev would claim that the first contracts they’d signed were invalid for things like general mistakes, Shepard sending it without his approval, Rev never signing it, or it not coming from a Terrific Production email address. Mainé, whose contract had Rev’s signature, said Rev accused him of “forgery.” Rev repeated this accusation to Gizmodo (though he didn’t mention Mainé by name), and Shepard backed it up in his only response to our questions. Shepard, identifying the person as Mainé, claimed Mainé “tried to pull a con on us. A wrong page rate and Euros vs USD,” but emails obtained by Gizmodo show Shepard agreeing to Mainé’s rate and preferred currency, and sending him the contract with Rev’s signature. We asked Shepard to provide documentation to support his account, but he didn’t reply. Rev suggested we “get an expert to compare signatures,” so we asked him to provide examples. He didn’t reply to our request.

According to Mainé, Urdinola, and Casas, Rev insisted on sending them a new contract and wouldn’t pay them until they’d signed it (Rev chose not to “confirm or deny” most of the contract details, citing confidentiality). No matter how questionable the first deal was, this new deal was a whole lot worse.

There was the “Special Covid-19 Terms” clause, which Casas and one other artist confirmed was included in their proposed contracts. The clause stipulated that Terrific Production would hold onto half of their page rates until either 90% of people in the United States and Canada were vaccinated against the coronavirus, or 2,500 comic book shops in those countries were fully open again. (According to Publishers Weekly and the Joe Shuster Awards, there are about 2,000 comic book shops in the U.S. and approximately 300 in Canada.) This is something Hennessy called one of the most egregious parts of these already questionable deals.

“What they are doing is they are attempting to tie payments to circumstances beyond the control of anyone that is a party to this agreement — and anyone in the comic book industry in general,” Hennessy said. “You don’t have to be a lawyer to understand this: This is the kind of clause that you delete the contract and you go work for somebody else. Because what’s the justification for someone saying, ‘I’m not going to pay you the page rate for the work you did, based on a piece of public health information that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about’?”

“This is just stupid. This is an attempt to not pay someone based on something that has nothing to do with the contract,” he added.

That’s not all. Mainé and Urdinola said their new contracts slashed their page rates and shared royalties (after 10,000 copies sold), with Mainé saying his was cut by almost 50%. Rev confirmed the page rates Mainé and Urdinola shared with us, telling Gizmodo each of them had “earned” the lower one he was offering. A portion of the new page rate, as well as royalties, were contingent upon the creator representing the comic and company “in a positive and supportive way.” Non-disparagement clauses are common in the industry, but Hennessy noted it was unusual that the contract stated Terrific Production could demand the writer or artist refund a portion of their payment if they failed to adequately show their support — and since it was unclearly defined, this meant it could be whatever Rev decided was insufficient. Some of the contracts also included a clause that required writers and artists to do convention appearances on behalf of Terrific Production, with no word as to whether the company would pay for travel expenses.

In addition to the covid-19 clause, Casas’ new contract included stipulations that put it a few steps short of an exclusive contract. Casas confirmed it banned him from accepting new work from other publishers so long as payments from Terrific Production weren’t over 45 days late, and he would have a three-year ban on working for any companies creating similar characters to ones he’d made for Terrific Production. While that might not apply to Casas, since he was making Supreme, Terrific Production has been working on a public domain version of Thor and is currently soliciting new artists for it. It’s unclear what the comic entails, but inker Matthew Seaborne said his involved a love triangle between Thor, Hercules, and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

Exclusive contracts aren’t an unusual concept on their face, as Marvel, DC, and other reputable publishers sign creators to exclusive contracts, but Hennessy said they typically come with lucrative financial benefits that make it worth the person’s while. In Casas’ case, he said it actually lowered his overall expected earnings — and if he quit anytime before finishing the series, the contract required him to refund “the deliverable payments paid in anticipation of [Casas] completing the series.” According to Casas, who’s from the Philippines, Rev told him he should feel grateful for the opportunity (in response to this, Rev said “any artist working for TP is lucky” and called Casas “not a gentle man”).

“Andrew Rev told me that, with the covid-19 pandemic, I’m lucky that I am working with them — and [with] the DC layoffs a lot of artists will be looking for work, pros will accept a lower page rate and I will be competing with them,” Casas said. “While it is true that overseas creators, especially in a third-world country like ours, are cheaper than our American counterparts, it is not a reasonable and acceptable excuse to exploit creators.”

Several writers and artists we spoke to said Rev told them he preferred international creators because they can be paid less than ones based in the United States, though Rev told Gizmodo it’s “because major vip artists interfered win so went outside ofb USA.” Mainé, who’s based in Spain, shared that after Rev’s attempted contract swap fell through, Rev tried to pressure him over email to accept an even lower rate, $US50 ($70) per page, and that half of that payment would be held hostage until Mainé turned over original artwork so Rev could sell it at auction — something, as previously mentioned, Mainé didn’t have and was told he wouldn’t need to provide since he works digitally. In his email, one of Rev’s defences of this page rate, less than one-third of Mainé’s initial one, was because Mainé’s from a country where it’s still “very good compensation.”

Not everybody has shared this experience. Writer Leon McKenzie has been working with Terrific Production since 2019. He said he’s only signed one contract with the publisher (along with a separate NDA) and he’s been paid for every comic book he’s completed so far. That said, he declined to share his page rate, and when asked if he feels he’s being fairly compensated for his work, he veered into how it’s a step forward for his career before eventually saying yes. McKenzie said his time with Terrific Production has been positive — although he expressed irritation that none of the comic books he or anyone else has worked on have been published yet.

“I’m frustrated that it’s taken this long to get this far. I want a book on the shelf. And this makes me sound really selfish — because, once I’ve done that, then Little McKenzie has written an issue of Youngblood and that’s there forever,” he said.

Seaborne said he and Rev also shared a positive working relationship at the beginning — he said he was even paid for his comics work, albeit only half of what he was owed. According to Seaborne, Rev considered them to be friends and would call him regularly, keeping him on the phone for hours at a time (extended phone conversations are a common trait with Rev, according to every person we talked to). At one point, he said, Rev got the idea to start a record label called Terrific Records, part of his ambition to expand Terrific Production with children’s books, video games, clothing lines, and a cinematic universe. He asked Seaborne’s band to write a song that would be included in every copy of Youngblood — only instead of paying them, Rev sent the band a multi-year record deal. Seaborne called the contract “terrible” and refused to sign it. In response, he said Rev became rude and hostile to the point where Seaborne blocked his number.

“I’ve been offered some really, really terrible music contracts over the past 10 years, but this is hands-down the worst,” he said. “He tried to put everything in there to take every right away from us that we could possibly have. He wanted to change the band name. We had to write 40 songs a year. He would own pretty much everything to do with our likeness, the band itself. It was just the most crazy contract I’ve ever received.”

Rev told a different version of events, claiming he rewrote part of Seaborne’s song “with a witness” (whom he never named) and was simply trying to give the band an opportunity: “I asked Seaborne whose band making under $US300 ($419) a song to write a song We are Legion, I told the of band to emulate. After first song I said I did not like all the lyrics it was violent = so I asked permission and I wrote changes with a witness. I said let me rep and I gave him a great deal better than unknown indie band gets plus cash. He turned to a ghost. Ask why? Maybe he had hit.”

Before Terrific Production and Youngblood, Rev’s crowning achievement in comics was Comico. At the time, writers and artists like Wagner spoke out to the Comics Journal about Rev’s unusual contracts and lack of payment for services rendered, but Willingham said that didn’t stop him from selling The Elementals. He told Gizmodo that the deal with Rev came with stipulations like appearing at conventions to “talk up the handover.” Comico paid for his travel, along with several other writers and artists, only to find out Rev was putting them “in the outside room of his suite, in a barracks with nine or 10 beds shoved into a single area” (Rev confirmed that he took Comico staffers to cons but couldn’t recall any details).

Willingham also claimed Rev tried to cancel his final paycheck so he drove from Seattle to Chicago, where Comico was located, to demand it in person. He said he was either going to leave with the money he was promised or break enough of Rev’s stuff that it would make up the difference, but he ultimately got paid. Rev denied that Willingham’s final paycheck was ever cancelled, but that he doesn’t remember whether the writer came to see him at his office in Chicago. “Willingham final payment was never cancelled for rights or writing! To bring up such nonsense 30 years later is meaningless if Willingham was paid,” he said.

Comico quietly stopped producing comics in 1997 — following years of inconsistent releases and series that never went past a few issues — ending on an issue of The Elementals Sex Specials Vol. 2. The first issue of the short-lived X-rated series lists Willingham as its writer, but he told Gizmodo he’d actually turned in an issue of The Elementals (as part of his contractual obligations) only for Rev to rename it without his knowledge or consent and slap on a salacious cover of a woman having sex with a dolphin. Rev confirmed that Willingham’s final issue was turned into an 18+ sex special, and told us “it’s was my opinion that it was wrong to force under 18 years olds to not have an issue because I was a prude and thought in 1990’s that any sexWas too much for kids. they were under age which is why it was made into its own title.” But when asked to explain why the publisher put bestiality on the cover, he didn’t answer.

The publisher, now going by “Comico Entertainment LLC,” still exists and is registered in South Dakota — although it’s under the name of his brother, Steven Rev, and Andrew Rev said he doesn’t own shares of the company. It debuted at San Diego Comic-Con in 2019 but has yet to publish anything since.

Terrific Production has grown in notoriety in recent weeks as more folks in the industry have been sharing the most bewildering parts of Rev’s contracts and creators who feel they’ve been burned are warning others to stay away. Despite the backlash, Terrific Production is still trying to recruit writers and artists — going so far as to ask people on Twitter to submit full-issue comics with its characters “at their own risk!” and that if the company likes them they might buy them. Rev told Gizmodo they “no longer want freelancers,” and the publisher is now focused on signing people to exclusive contracts. He wouldn’t share any details — although on Twitter the publisher mentioned providing “stipends & Royalties” — but some of the people we spoke to worry the contracts are no better than before. Rev said five creators (whom he hasn’t identified) have signed exclusive contracts so far and that Terrific Production is expected to announce its first titles on November 10.

“We reject the reason for industry norms in a failing industry. Innovate or die. Ownership depends if the artists choses an Image comic type artists deal where they take the risk on paying for our imprint and printing and marketing – they then can own the art than we have a rep fee. Or chose a TP acquired character than we share income because we are an IP development platform for the global market,” Rev said. “We recognise artists fought for rights which we say chose that. I believe others will follow because comics are dying.”

Terrific Production might swear it’s innovating, that it’s “the next revolution in comics,” but it’s running on an outdated playbook. One that has tried to take advantage of comic book writers and artists even though it’s left the company and Rev himself without anything to show for it. Unlike his time at Comico — where the experiences of Willingham, Wagner, and others were lost to history — social media has made it so all of these comics creators can share their stories. It seems Andrew Rev’s old tricks don’t work in the new digital age.

“The man is a crook, I think he’s an idiot, and I think he’s insane. I think in this business of ours, you might be able to get away with any two of the three and still find your niche. But all three, you can’t be all three and make a go of it,” Willingham said. “This enterprise, the current one, is going to fail — just as every other attempt has.”

Additional reporting by Bryan Menegus.