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Comics won't just break your heart

On the unforgiving economics of making comics—and cartoonists’ efforts to change them—in the wake of #ComicsBrokeMe

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December 1, 2023

In early June, cartoonist Ian McGinty died at age 38. McGinty, an artist who worked on licensed properties like Adventure Time and Invader Zim as well as his own comic Welcome to Showside, was a beloved figure in the comics community. News of his death unleashed a torrent of grief and collective rage on comics Twitter. The remembrances came first, followed by a sprawling conversation about the physical and mental toll of making comics that quickly expanded beyond the circumstances of McGinty’s death. (An obituary attributed his death to natural causes.) Cartoonist and book designer Shivana Sookdeo broke the dam by tweeting out the hashtag #ComicsBrokeMe, asking people to share their experiences, and hundreds responded with stories about inhumane deadlines, predatory contracts, holidays spent working, nonexistent benefits, late pay, low pay, no pay.

Hundreds responded with stories about inhumane deadlines, predatory contracts, holidays spent working, nonexistent benefits, late pay, low pay, no pay.

Comics won't just break your heart, kid. They’ll break your hands and your back and your mental health too. Want to make a living from comics? Be ready for unsustainable hours and appalling pay. If you value your free time, your personal relationships, and anything that isn’t comics, well, you can forget all that. You may love comics—making comics may be the only work you’ve ever wanted—but they sure won’t love you back.

The comics industry has never been kind to its workers. One of the earliest historians of the American comic book, Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer, wrote in his 1965 book The Great Comic Book Heroes about the furious pace of work in the exploitative 1940s “schlock houses,” the only places where unknown artists could hone their craft and dream of a big break:

The work was relentless. Some men worked in bull pens during the day; free-lanced at night—a hard job to quit work at five-thirty, go home and free-lance till four in the morning, get up at eight and go to a job. And the weekends were the worst. A friend would call for help: He had contracted to put together a sixty-four-page package over the weekend—a new book with new titles, new heroes—to be conceived, written, drawn, and delivered to the engraver between six o’clock Friday night and eight-thirty Monday morning. The presses were reserved for nine.

Despite the bullpen image conjured by Feiffer and popularized by Marvel’s Stan Lee, the comics industry in the Anglophone world has mostly depended on a scattered workforce of isolated freelancers, rather than workers on a physical assembly line, which means the term “industry” is perhaps unsuitable. Yet the word’s connotations are fitting: Comics often involve unrelenting labor in unforgiving conditions to create products for mass consumption, human cost be damned. Among contemporary creators, precarity, overwork, and burnout are rampant, while work-related illness and injury, like chronic pain and repetitive stress injuries, are not uncommon.

“I've watched so many—dozens—of my friends and my peers start out so excited about doing comics,” cartoonist Kendra Wells told me. Wells, who has published comics online and in publications like The Nib for over a decade, has watched those same friends and peers be “systematically broken down to a point of physical exhaustion, physical injury, physical disability, mental issues—the whole nine yards.”

This summer #ComicsBrokeMe illuminated a level of exploitation that is hard to quantify, even for a measurable variable like income. This is an industry vast and heterogenous enough to encompass webcomics and webtoons, translated manga, YA and children’s comics, graphic novels from traditional and indie book publishers, self-published zines, and of course floppy comic books from corporate superhero factories like Marvel and DC. Still, in the past decade, surveys and rate-sharing projects have sketched a dismal landscape of stagnant page rates and often paltry book advances: often in the range of $20,000 to $50,000 from major publishers, but sometimes as little as $8,000 for writing, drawing, coloring, and lettering an entire book. Some of the most comprehensive data comes from the UK, where a survey of over 600 creators in 2020 found 87 percent of respondents relied on income from sources outside of comics to survive.

Comics don’t have a monopoly on poor pay and terrible working conditions, and other creative industries certainly exploit their workers too. “There's that whole broken idea of the suffering artist,” Hannah Berry, a graphic novelist and the UK’s former comics laureate, told me. “It needs to fuck off and die.”

But comics is also marginalized by the broader culture, which has never fully accepted it as a legitimate artistic or literary medium. The popularization of the term “graphic novel” has helped garner prestige for particular works, Maus, say, or Fun Home, but that doesn't mean cultural capital—or financial capital—has flowed to comics as a whole. Immensely profitable media companies use characters and stories created by comics workers to produce films and TV shows that rake in billions, but most cartoonists lack even the psychological compensation of being considered “real” artists, suffering or otherwise. (The money itself rarely trickles down to individual creators.) Even companies that literally wouldn't exist without cartoonists can’t help insulting them: Last year, the popular comics site Webtoon ran an advertising campaign that declared, “Comics are literature’s fun side-hustle,” infuriating artists whose work sustains the platform. 

Comics don’t have a monopoly on poor pay and terrible working condition, but they are marginalized by the broader culture.

The company apologized, but it was a revealing slip. After all, if your labor is actually just a marginal hobby, there’s no reason you should be treated like a worker. The executives at Webtoon have real jobs, presumably. Their cartoonists? Not so much.

§

“Comics are the most sublime form of storytelling, and I will never, ever stop making them,” Berry, who has published three graphic novels, wrote in a 2017 essay. In it, she declares her intention to never attempt another graphic novel. The workload of making full-length, literary comics for a publisher wasn’t financially or personally sustainable for her. “To make a graphic novel takes me three years of blinkered, fanatical dedication,” Berry wrote. “I realised while working on Livestock”—her third (and presumably final) graphic novel—“that I just can’t do it again. I’m done. I’m out.”

The act of making comics is a labor of love. But this isn’t a matter of simple infatuation. Respondents to the UK Comics Creator survey expressed “an overwhelming love for comics, and high levels of frustration regarding the comics industry,” according to a report on the survey results. Their complicated feelings, the report observed, “could be summarised as ‘I love comics but…’”

Journalist Sarah Jaffe defines exploitation in her book Work Won’t Love You Back, not as being stuck in a particularly bad job but instead being forcibly separated from the fruits of your own labor by another person who profits. “This is true whether you’re a nanny making $10 an hour, allowing your employer to make much more money at her higher-paid job, or a programmer at Google making $200,000 a year while Google rakes in over $7 billion,” she writes. “The labor of love is just the latest way that this exploitation is masked.”

Since at least the 1960s, comics have been made by a steady supply of fans whose love for the medium predates any conception of a job, the kids “sitting in the Borders aisle and reading a bunch of manga,” as Kendra Wells described themself to me. But the idea of a creative class is not one supported by any guarantee that artists earn the means to live. “We're aspiring to [jobs] that don't necessarily exist,” said Simon Moreton, a zine-maker and professor at the University of the West of England in Bristol who studies the creative economy.

“Every person who knew [McGinty] knew how hard he worked and knew how badly he was being exploited for comparatively very little money,” Wells said. “But he loved what he was doing so much that he kept taking the work.” 

Whatever his feelings about the industry, McGinty cared deeply for the comics community. Cartoonist Katy Farina, a close friend, told me McGinty was always sharing advice and knowledge. His last tweet, posted three days before his death, is a testament to that enthusiasm: “I JUST WANNA MAKE COMICS WITH EVERYONE.”

Though she has worked in comics since 2015, Farina doesn’t know whether she will continue to do so. She’s been lucky enough to work on a bestselling comic that actually pays residuals; she drew graphic adaptations of Scholastic’s Baby-Sitters Little Sister, a spin-off of the popular Baby-Sitters Club series. But the harm to Farina’s body, mind, and personal relationships from working on Scholastic’s grueling schedule, which required her to finish a roughly 140-page manuscript every six months, has been immense.

“I had four surgeries, two on each hand,” she told me, holding them up so I could see her scars. 

Farina emphasized that she doesn’t think publishers like Scholastic are trying to be malicious. The demands of a company’s bottom line just don’t leave room to accommodate the limits of human beings. “There is an inherent conflict between capitalism and comic art,” Farina said. “The actual labor of creating the art is so intense and it costs so much time—so much more time than people think. And we're willing to put that in because we have so much passion for it.” I love comics but…

§

Many of the cartoonists and organizers I spoke to for this story drew connections between the situation in comics and the conditions confronting Hollywood writers and actors, which precipitated this summer’s WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.

But here too, comics distinguishes itself: The long tradition of labor activism in Hollywood has no parallel in comics. In the U.S., most artists and writers working in comics are freelancers and, under the National Labor Relations Act, their right to organize is not legally protected. As such, collective organizing has proved elusive in comics, its history marked instead by the splintered wreckage of failed attempts, or what The Comics Journal, a longstanding magazine of news and criticism, once called “Collective Inaction.” 

Most artists and writers working in comics are freelancers, and their right to organize is not legally protected.

One of the first failed efforts was the short-lived Society of Comic Book Illustrators, an organization founded in the 1950s by artist Bernard Krigstein, whose pioneering comic book story about the Holocaust later influenced a young Art Spiegelman. Krigstein tried to rally freelancers around a set of demands: health benefits, minimum page rates, and the return of creators’ original artwork, which publishers routinely kept as their own property. But the society’s progress was hampered by internal disagreements over how it should function—whether as a militant labor organization or a more demure professional association.

Decades later, cartoonists both in and out of the mainstream mounted separate (but equally doomed) campaigns to gain some semblance of collective power in the industry. In 1970, several members of the underground comix movement started calling themselves the United Cartoon Workers of America and founded the San Francisco-based Cartoonists Co-op Press, which published a few comics with the UCWA’s logo on the cover. But logos, as scholar Jean-Paul Gabilliet has observed in his 2009 book Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books, were about the only tangible product of this short-lived burst of labor radicalism. Cartoonist Trina Robbins, herself a member of the Co-op Press, characterized the group as a way to justify the members’ ego-trips, rather than a true cooperative, according to Mark James Estren’s 1993 A History of Underground Comics. Despite their associations with the 1960s counterculture, underground cartoonists—who valued their iconoclasm above all—were not well-suited to collective action.

In the world of superhero comics, artist Neal Adams began agitating for better working conditions after a 1978 change in U.S. copyright law expanded legal protections for artists. Adams recruited other high-profile comics workers into a new organization, the Comics Creators Guild, to resist new work-for-hire contracts issued by publishers. “The people that do the best jobs get penalized by having their work used over and over again and not being paid for it. Ever,” Adams told the Soho Weekly News, shortly after the guild was incorporated. But as with the Society of Comic Book Illustrators, the guild’s demands for better pay and other concessions were derailed by a combination of legitimate disagreements and internal dysfunction. The organizing also seems to have been hurt by a lack of buy-in from popular creators, whose work was in high demand and, consequently, had less need of a union or guild. Adams later blamed the guild’s failure on this lack of solidarity. He told The Comics Journal in 2004 that:

If you put an artist in a locked room with nothing but drawing materials and paper, he will draw until the pages are filled up and then pass the work out under the door in exchange for more paper. They all want to work on their own art and the hell with everyone else. That's what destroyed the possibility of a guild.

By the 1980s, the Comics Creators Guild was dead, as were any serious attempts, until very recently, at collective action within the industry. That’s not to say no energy was devoted to improving working conditions. But efforts after the guild's demise often resulted in projects that prioritized "creator-ownership" of intellectual property rights. A righteous cause? Perhaps. But the goal wasn’t enough to produce a genuine source of labor power like the WGA or SAG-AFTRA.

One illustrative example: In 1992, several of Marvel's most popular artists split from the company to found Image Comics. Image, they declared, would be a haven for creators, a publishing company that, unlike Marvel or DC, would guarantee cartoonists’ ownership over their creations and grant them full creative autonomy over their work. By many measures, their gamble worked: Image is today the third-largest publisher of traditional comic books and has published megahits like The Walking Dead, Invincible, and Saga. Yet Image is no radical collective venture; it’s more like a gathering of entrepreneurial capitalists, some of whom have leveraged their comics IP into TV and merchandising empires.

Todd McFarlane, one of Image’s founding partners and its current president, famously chafed under the editors at Marvel, who sought to reign in his hyper-violent style of storytelling. To this day, he emphasizes in interviews that he is “free.” As he told Vulture in 2017, “that’s going to be the epitaph when I die. It’s just going to say: Here lies Todd McFarlane. He was free.” But McFarlane, who long ago described himself as “militant” and said he wanted to unionize Marvel, is now a boss who relies on others’ labor to produce his comics and his toys. It’s the kind of freedom that one (though probably not McFarlane) might call a devil’s bargain. For cartoonists who just want to make comics—not toys, not TV shows, not NFTs, but comics—the price of success on these terms may seem too steep. 

§

“What is to be done?” asked writer Shea Hennum in the wake of #ComicsBrokeMe. What would a better comics industry look like, and how might it come into being? What might counter Neal Adams’s pessimistic conclusion that artists would rather sit alone at their desks than organize?

For the first time in a generation, comics workers are trying, seriously, to answer these questions. In November 2021, Image employees—people who are actually protected by U.S. labor law—announced the industry’s first ever union, Comic Book Workers United, under the Communication Workers of America. (It was an interesting test for a company so publicly branded as a maverick, egalitarian comic book publisher, a test Image immediately flunked by not voluntarily recognizing the union.) Since then, the staff of Seven Seas Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based publisher of translated magna, also organized with the CWA.

On the creator side, there is the Cartoonist Cooperative, founded earlier this year to share resources and socialize the effort of promoting its members’ comics, a task which usually falls on individual creators. “#ComicsBrokeMe got us a lot of attention,” said Joan Zahra Dark, a founding member of the co-op. That plus the momentum generated by the strikes in Hollywood has caused a lot of people to ask, "Can we do something like this in comics?"

For now, the co-op’s ability to influence the industry on a mass scale is nascent. After all, it’s a volunteer collective of working cartoonists who’ve been at this for less than a year. “We would love to have lawyers on retainer. We would love to have grievance management teams,” Dark said. “A lot of the work we're doing is to build that collective power to mobilize to eventually have those resources.”

In the UK, cartoonists now have the Comics Creators Network, which was founded in 2020 as part of the Society of Authors, a trade union. Berry, who sits on the network’s steering committee and was instrumental in its creation, describes it as a safeguard against comics publishers who rely on predatory contracts. It’s a way to tell marginalized comics creators that, yes, you actually belong in the publishing world. “You do have rights,” Berry said. “You are allowed to bring your contracts to us, and your contract is allowed to be negotiated when you're with a publisher that is shitting on you from on high.”

There have already been some victories. Berry told me the Comics Creators Network recently confronted comics publisher Nobrow, which has been publicly accused of mistreating creators in the past, and secured retroactive payments for people who’d been underpaid.

Still, even the most well-intentioned publishers will continue to depend on artist enthusiasm to subsidize their industry and effective organizing can’t entirely offset that. In their essay in response to #ComicsBrokeMe, Hennum argues comics need to be decommodified instead. “You can make them for fun. You don't have to sell them, they don't have to be good. You can share them with your friends and family,” they told me in an interview. Hennum stressed that they support organizing efforts by comics workers but they also see unions as one step toward the larger goal of publishing comics collectively—in other words, returning the resources and rewards of comics production back to the people who actually make them. 

Even the most well-intentioned publishers will continue to depend on artist enthusiasm to subsidize their industry. Effective organizing can’t entirely offset that.

This advice runs counter to a long tradition, in comics, of established professionals dispensing advice on how to “break into comics”—landing a gig with Marvel or DC, or a book deal with a traditional publisher.  But framing comics as a walled garden with gatekeepers who need to be impressed imposes cruel limits on cartoonists’ imaginations. It tells aspiring creators that their work is effectively meaningless until they’ve “made it.”

The professionals I spoke to are trying to break down such barriers to entry. Farina said she’s talking to many creators who want to use their own success in comics to help the next generation flourish, an ongoing conversation that started because of Ian McGinty. “He cared so much about this form of storytelling,” she said. “And I really don't want him to be lost in this conversation either. I don't want that attitude to be lost—the attitude of bringing people along with you on this journey.” 

Making comics will probably always be isolating, solitary work, but improving the industry doesn’t have to be. Community and solidarity do exist, and Adams’s portrait of the misanthropic cartoonist who disdains collective action is incomplete. Consider this: When I asked Wells if there’s anything in comics that gives them hope, their response was unequivocal: “My peers. The people who have been in it for so long and continue to fight for better conditions.”

This is the end mark. You have reached the end!

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