Cartoonist Ian McGinty died on June 8th, 2023: killed, according to his friends and family members, by the comics industry, which exploited his passion and extracted his creativity, demanding too much from him and paying him too little to live. It was the kind of industrial murder common to meatpacking and coal mining but overlooked in white-collar work. It was the kind of slow, premature death, which inevitably results from long-term, repetitive manual labor that grinds joints, spines, hips, necks, wrists, ankles, hearts, and lungs into dust.
In the wake of Ian’s death, fellow cartoonist Shivana Sookdeo began tweeting about her own experiences in and around the comics industry. She tagged her tweets with #ComicsBrokeMe–an appellation that quickly caught fire. On June 10th, 11th, and 12th, the hashtag was used repeatedly by hundreds of cartoonists echoing Shivana and (we can speculate) Ian. Using this tag, writers, pencilers, inkers, colorists, and editors recounted experiences of callous and non-communicative editors, impossible deadlines, impossible workloads, low page rates, a lack of royalties, delays in being paid, a loss of multimedia rights, lack of job security, lack of health insurance, lack of sick days, lack of parental leave. The problem was not limited to any individual. It was the whole system that was sick.
This massive outpouring of collective discontent suggests something important: Ian McGinty was not the comics industry’s first victim and he would not be its last. The comics industry is a serial killer. Where it goes, a trail of blood and guts and viscera follow. What, then, is to be done? How might we staunch the rivers of blood lubricating this industrial machinery? How might people work under more tolerable conditions? How might the making and sharing of comics be more accessible to more people? How might comics, as a cultural form, fit into our lives so as to enrich rather than impoverish them? These are the most pressing questions in the world of comics today, but they do not yield easy answers. They are, in fact, the most pressing precisely because they are the most challenging to answer. They require the most from us; they are the most urgent; and they are most radical. Resolving these problems requires us to change everything, and to do so together.
If changing the comics industry requires us to change everything, it is precisely because the comics industry is woven into the fabric of a broader political and economic order, which it sustains and, in turn, is sustained by. In fact, the “comics industry” might be better understood as a “comics industrial complex.” Rather than the more limited “comics industry,” which ordinarily refers to a handful of publishers, professional writers and illustrators, and the direct market, “comics industrial complex” refers to the vast and uneven array of institutions and individuals that connects universities to blogs, critics to editors, professionals to hobbyists, mainstream comics to ‘zines: and everyone and everything in between. From this perspective, we can recognize how Marvel Comics – through its commercial relationships with Lockheed Martin and the US Air Force – mediates and links the manufacturing of bombs to your local comic shop employee’s paychecks. While this may seem like a radical notion, it is simply a way of thinking about the ways in which the comics industry (in its narrow sense) is embedded in the broader political-economic formation of capitalism.
Like most sectors of the culture industry, mass comic book publishing often represents itself as something above, beyond, or somehow other than a job. Something beholden to capitalism but also something greater than it. We are told that it’s a calling, a passion, an emotionally rewarding activity: it is art as opposed to work. However, the mass production of comic books has always borne a striking resemblance to a Ford assembly line. Labor is highly specialized and distributed, for instance. It is repetitive and routinized. We have pencilers, inkers, letterers, colorists, flatters, editors, assistant editors, line editors, editors-in-chief, and publishers: each individual person is given a single task, which they perform repetitively, in order to streamline production and degrade the individual laborer. The script arrives and the penciler draws, the pencils arrive and the inker inks, and so on and so forth. It is the exact same division of labor as an assembly line, with one person screwing in the same bolt on every Ford Fusion and the person to their left and right screwing on another. Each person carries out a single part of the production process again and again and again and again. As a result, it is as ridiculous to the publishers at DC for an inker to claim ownership or authorship over a comic as it would be for an assembly line worker to claim ownership over this or that Ford Fusion. Labor is divided precisely in order to foreclose claims of authorship from anyone but the publisher. It is this concession of ownership that the capitalist purchases when it buys degraded labor, and it is the degradation of their labor power that workers consent to when they agree to these terms. This just is what it means to be a professional. In comics publishing, this has been the case since at least the 1930s, and it remains the case today because a highly-developed division of labor remains the easiest way to profitably scale production. It remains the most effective way of regularly and reliably churning out huge numbers of products for a mass audience that demands ever more commodities and expects them with accelerating haste. In this way, professionalized comic book publishing represents a modern industrial formation in its classic sense.
In fact, we might be best served by thinking about mass comic book publishing as one of the most modern industrial formations. Indeed, a mature capitalist system (sometimes called “late” capitalism, but more commonly called “neoliberalism”) is characterized by intense market concentration, financialization, and the flexibilization of labor, which refers to a process of outsourcing the cost of work onto the worker. People are no longer employees, for example, they are “1099 contractors,” they are freelancers. This is sold to them as freedom: they are “free” to pick their clients, “free” to set their rates, “free” to set their schedules, “free” to buy their own supplies and find their own workspace, “free” to provide their own health care costs, “free” to pay their own payroll tax, “free” to find their own retirement plan, “free” to do their own marketing, “free” to find their own lawyer. The employer can produce a profit on paper by offloading the cost of all these things, but those costs are borne by someone. Namely, the worker, whose take-home income drops even as the cost of living rises. While our minds might go first to Uber drivers, this freelance (“gig”) economy that trades on individuals’ “passion” as a form of compensation is long familiar to comic book professionals. Indeed, comic book producers’ status as “work-for-hire” with no guarantees of work, employment benefits, or ownership over their products has been contested for the last century, and the recurrent disputes over these things (battled out in court, corporate policy, reader demands, public opinion, demands from workers, individuals leaving the industry) have long served as the engine of comics history. Nearly every aesthetic breakthrough in the history of the art, for instance, has been the symbol and consequence of challenges to this division of labor and model of corporate IP ownership. In this way, comic book publishing is an intensely postmodern, deindustrialized formation, which has served as the avant-garde of neoliberalism: a testing ground for the degradation of labor, financialization, and the corporate hoarding of intellectual property. We should, then, read the comics industry as a microcosm of the broader economy and, at the same time, think of the economy as a macrocosm of the comics industry.
By taking this broader view of the comics industrial complex, we can begin to recognize how many of the problems highlighted by #ComicsBrokeMe are symptomatic of a larger crisis in our shared social order: the cascading crises of capitalism, which are experienced as unbreathable air, poison water, heat waves, ice storms, viral pandemics, rising rents, rising energy costs, falling wages, crumbling infrastructure, student debt, medical debt, higher grocery bills, insecure work, and impossible quantities of work. As in traditional book publishing, news media, social media, banking, and real estate, the last sixty years of comic book publishing have seen market concentration and the vertical integration of smaller firms into larger firms and hedge funds. The result has been a shrinking of the labor market, a shrinking of paychecks, a narrowing of aesthetic range, and a narrowing of critical discourse – even as the industry has continued to demonstrate increasing economic growth! Comics publishing (along with intellectual property derived from comics) is making more money than ever before, but it asymmetrically flows to an ever-shrinking group of people. This is true of comics precisely because it is true of capitalist society in general. As the cost of housing, healthcare, and education have skyrocketed and the social safety net has been withdrawn, those comics professionals fortunate enough to find themselves with regular work and health insurance (like most working people today) find themselves compelled to accept these conditions. After all, a refusal of them might mean death.
We might therefore understand the precarity and vulnerability endemic to comic book publishing as flowing downstream from capitalist exploitation, extraction, and depredation. Because they produce vulnerability and thereby make possible the exploitation endemic to the comics industry, these conditions must, at some point, be altered. There is no world in which the making and sharing of comics is freely accessible to everyone that does not include free housing, free healthcare, free education, and an increase in leisure time for everyone. Not having to worry about losing your healthcare, how you’re going to pay back your debts, how you’re going to make rent, and having to toil less would make everyone eminently more free to determine how they spend their time. Accordingly, securing these freedoms would provide cartoonists more time to work (and the freedom to determine how they work) and more time for readers to engage, experience, discuss, revisit, sit with, and share that work. These things form the basis and the very possibility of artistic, critical, literate culture. The task of securing them is a political one and requires us to fight for a universal basic income, rent freezes, social housing, eviction moratoriums, socialized healthcare, and tuition-free universities.
That said, those who make comics professionally do have more immediate options for redress. They have available those tactics that have always belonged to those who toil under the venal thumb of a boss: the union, the strike, and direct action. While these options are only (legally) available to those who work as “employees,” they remain powerful tools through which workers can exert pressure on employers. A sufficiently organized collective of the bureaucrats who administrate the production of comics (but who are themselves workers) could, if they wanted, secure higher page rates, longer deadlines, royalty payments, profit sharing, and a more equitable distribution of the production’s budget. It would also give workers an opportunity to address those conditions of work that, at first glance, do not appear to be about work at all: transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, and racism; issues that continue to structure the comics industrial complex despite the repeated, rhetorical self-flagellation of liberal-minded professionals. Although expressions of these structuring forces are often reduced to individual behaviors, to “bad actors,” we can step back to recognize them as behaviors encouraged, cultivated, and protected by employers. In germinating these behaviors, employers create hostile conditions of work, which can be addressed as conditions of work. We can step ever farther back to recognize that the more general, and mundane, examples of predatory behavior (taking advantage of a cartoonist’s youth, inexperience, and passion, for example) are conditioned by a vulnerability that the more reputable publishers produce precisely because they exploit it too, which means they need it too. Organizing themselves in order to democratically address their needs, these editorial and administrative workers could cultivate and practice freedom for themselves in one of the most ordinarily tyrannical places in our society: the workplace. Any such effort, however, must begin with these workers organizing themselves and struggling among themselves about their needs, goals, and values. Not only will no one do it for them: no one can do it for them. They have to determine these for themselves, and that determination will be a protracted struggle and a monumental challenge.
Some publishers offer themselves as better targets of direct action and organizing than others. Marvel and DC would be particularly good targets. After all, they still enjoy an oligopoly over the direct market, they have the most editorial staff, and (because of their position as subsidiaries of two of the largest corporations on the planet) they have the most money to spend. What’s more, these publishers still employ cartooning labor contracted to “exclusive” deals. These employees also have the grounds to organize, to strike, to demand more for themselves, for their friends, for their coworkers. The comics wings of the traditional publishers (Scholastic, Macmillan subsidiary First Second) are also good targets. Though they operate on a more traditional book-publishing model (less guaranteed pay with the potential for massive royalty payments, or slightly higher pay with no potential for royalties), Scholastic sales dwarf Marvel and DC’s. They can afford to adjust royalty rates in favor of the author (or offer them for licensed books in the first place, which is not the common practice), and more equitably distribute the marketing budget among young authors, working-class authors, queer authors, and authors of color. Editors and administrative staff could extract these concessions if they so choose. But they are going to have to fight for it. “Name” authors such as Raina Telgemeir and Dave Pilkey – the ones really accumulating the vast sums of money circulating in comics publishing – could throw their weight around here, but likely won’t. Because they continue to benefit from this barbell-shaped economy, their interests do not lie in changing it. Demands must be made of them too. They must be challenged, rebuked, and held accountable too.
Other publishers offer important sites of action, but they cannot respond to the same kinds of demands as the larger publishers. At least, not in the same way. Their sales are lower, their margins are thinner, their editorial staff is smaller, and they are often not backed by larger corporations (Embracer Group subsidiary Dark Horse is an exception). They often cannot increase their rates and stay in business (in the case of some publishers, however, this is merely a matter of paying their CEO a little less). If this is the case, and it very well might be, the publisher does not deserve your sympathy. They deserve your scorn for the way they subsist vulture-like on the backs and the brow of the vulnerable, the dying, and the dead. If they cannot pay a worker what that worker’s labor, time, or energy is worth, they are not entitled to it simply because little kids really, really, really love Adventure Time. New publishing models, with new forms of compensation, may have to be developed. In fact, any such innovation will be necessary, and what it looks like will have to be worked out by cartoonists. We will need people brave enough to take risks, work hard, and experiment, though such experiments already exist from which people can learn: Youth in Decline, Koyama Press, Shortbox, and Silver Sprocket. While it is important to note that all of these publishing ventures are or have already sunset, their existence can teach us a lot–including how and why publishers cease production. Perhaps more importantly, their temporary existence forces us to accept a model of comics publishing that is stable but impermanent, that requires us to remain unfixed in our reading habits, that requires us to keep experimenting. It is the task of academics, critics, bloggers, podcasters, and journalists to ask these questions and elaborate on these lessons.
It is important to note, however, that those freelancers who hop from gig to gig, or those artists selling a project on spec, make up the majority of the comics-making labor force, and they are made to stand on shakier ground. They need to take the work they can get in order to eat, and their desperation compels them to consent to devastating conditions of work. Or, they have dreams of making comics professionally, and so feel they must accept under-compensation and predatory contracts in order to “get their foot in the door” (this is to say nothing about those who accept these conditions out of inexperience or ignorance, which is preyed upon). They are geographically dispersed across the planet and physically isolated from one another, and they are themselves subject to highly uneven conditions of work – another way in which the sphere of comics publishing represents highly deindustrialized territory. As is the case with workers in other deindustrialized sectors – Uber, Postmates, Instacart – these disparate workers are the most difficult people in/around the comics industry to organize, but they are the group that most desperately needs to organize themselves. This is precisely because they are the most intensely exploited: the very condition that prevents efforts at organization. In and against this contradiction, these comic makers – operating at varying levels of professionalization – will have to struggle among themselves to define the future. They will have to work hard, and they will have to steel themselves for many defeats before they achieve victory, and they will have to ask themselves the difficult question: what does direct action look like in a materially decentralized industry? What new forms of comics making might be possible outside of and beyond that industry? Only people who make comics can answer these questions; they can only answer them in concert with one another; and they can only do so by trying things. Fortunately, everyone can try things, and everyone can (by picking up a pencil and some paper right now) make comics.
There has recently been some exciting movement on this front, but efforts will need to go further. The Cartoonists Co-Op, for example, offers cartoonists some transparency about pay and thereby gives individuals a better position to negotiate their wages. It is also fostering a sense of community, a sense among cartoonists of themselves as workers. It can provide feedback on work, educational resources, peer mentorship, mutual promotion, and more. To be sure, these things are good and important and, indeed, necessary. But the Cartoonists Co-Op is not a publishing cooperative. It is not an entity that can provide work for people; it does not socialize the resources needed to make comics, nor does it socialize the financial gain from comics. If comics are to be liberated and made free to everyone, comics publishing will, at some point, need to see something closer to Spain’s Mondragon Corporation or the coffee cooperatives of Chiapas, Mexico. As valuable as they may be, we cannot be content with a book club, or a social circle, or skill sharing, or a time bank, or a socialization of marketing.
More radical and necessary still is the need to decommodify comics: the need to return them to the place they had in our childhood or adolescents, to again find in their making and sharing that feeling they provided before they were something one does for a living, something one buys, something one collects, or grades, or “flips,” or even critiques. When we first encountered them, they were something that brought excitement to our lives. They were something novel, something exciting, or scary, or otherwise captivating; something around which we gathered with friends and family; something we made because we had something to say. It is here that their value lies (as it always has): in their circulation, in the act of sharing, the act of discussing them, the act of reading them, the act of drawing them. It is these acts, which comics serve as a pretense to, that enrich our lives and provide them with value. It is this social value that is privatized and extracted from us by the comics industrial complex. To contest that extraction, we must learn to value these acts in and of themselves, to carve out and cultivate opportunities to practice them. We must learn again to make comics for our own sakes, on our own schedules, in our own styles, for and with our friends. That process will require us to struggle, to strain, to try things and experiment and fail, to be patient, and to fight for the opportunities and resources we need to do so. This will require us to embrace new models of production, new styles, new materials to work with, new avenues to share our work. In the same way that we must adapt our comics making practices to the realities of our lives, so too must we adapt reality to these new practices.
What these new forms of production and association will produce is up to the future, and only cartoonists, editors, critics, and readers (struggling among themselves and between one another) will determine what that future looks like. In part, this struggle will require that people accept holding a day job and making comics in their free time (though, this does not preclude us from struggling at our workplace in order to abolish the concept of “free” and, implicitly, “unfree” time). After all, most “working” cartoonists have to hold a day job anyways. You might as well make the comics you want at a pace you set. After all, it is only by folding comics into our lives rather than subordinating our lives to comics that we can begin to be free to really live.