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The comics industry is breaking its workers, but is it finally time to change that?

Could comics creators finally be ready to come together to demand better working conditions?

"How to Be A Comic Book Artist"
Image credit: Marie Severin/Marvel

The system is broken. That much is obvious, almost regardless of which system we’re talking about; the fact that we’re seeing simultaneous strikes from the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild — at the same time that two separate groups of visual effects workers at Disney have filed to unionize — makes it clear that more and more people are realizing that the entertainment industry is not working the way it should, for example. (That two thirds of Americans are supporting WGA and SAG-AFTRA action is another sign that something is happening.)

To an extent, the same is true in comics; many of the issues behind the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes are also issues for comic book professionals. For example: reduced residual or royalty payments because of digital delivery systems, concerns over career stability, a lack of appropriate affordable healthcare, or the use of A.I. and the possibility it might be used to replace human creators. A WGA picket attended by comic creators a month or so back made the crossover between groups particularly clear. (Joseph Illidge's recent column about working as a comics creator underscored the failures of that system worryingly well.)

Although the solution is necessarily different between industries, due to the differing power structure — there’s no central body for comics publishers like the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, for one thing — it should be noted that comics aren’t immune from the collective organizing movement: workers at both Image Comics and Seven Seas Publishing have bucked decades of tradition to unionize and work towards better working conditions at their respective publishers.

Note: All images in this story are from Marie Severin's 'How to Be A Comic Book Artist!' from Marvel's Not Brand Ecch #11, published in 1968, one of the earliest, and most visible, complaints about life as a comic book creator (albeit presented as a comedy strip).

#ComicsBrokeMe and the broken system behind it

"How to Be A Comic Book Artist"
Image credit: Marie Severin/Marvel

It feels safe to say that, no matter what concessions are won by Comic Book Workers United and the United Workers of Seven Seas, it won’t be enough. We’re just a few months out from the hashtag #comicsbrokeme trending on the social media platform that was still called Twitter at the time; it was a hashtag that was created in the wake of the death of cartoonist Ian McGinty, and unleashed a wave of creators talking about the ways in which the comic industry had failed them.

The stories were overwhelmingly bleak — “I remember staying up for 37 hours straight to finish [a] 22-page issue,” tweeted one creator, noting that they only made $25 per page. Another shared that he was fired after falling into a coma through overwork, even though he still managed to hand in his work ahead of deadline — and underscored just how unregulated and unfair the comic industry was to its creative talent. (And to editorial talent, as well; Heather Antos shared a story about working at Marvel, saying, “At one point, a law got updated which made it illegal how low assistants were getting paid. Marvel was now being forced to pay us overtime. Marvel's response? They eliminated one week of paid vacation from our benefits.”)

None of this can be fixed by either CBWU or UW7S; it’s literally outside of the scope of anything either group is capable of. The problems are not just deep-rooted, they're systemic across the entire comic book industry, and even if staffers at either Image of Seven Seas were able to change the business practices of either publisher with regards to how they treat freelancers — which they almost certainly can’t — the rest of the industry would still be working in the same fields that have caused so much damage.

Part of that comes from the fact that CBWU and UW7S are limited, through their very nature, to impacting only their own employers. Comics lacks not only a guild to protect creators - freelancers cannot form a union under US labor law, and instead have to form a guild, which has fewer legal protections - but also a central body to negotiate with; the movie industry has the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or AMPTP for short, which speaks on behalf of all major studios and producers. No such collective body exists for the comic book industry.

So, what’s the solution?

How the comic industry's secrecy hurts it

"How to Be A Comic Book Artist"
Image credit: Marie Severin/Marvel

There are, ultimately, two real options. The first has been the basic operating theory of the industry for decades: complain privately, occasionally leak damaging information in the hope that public outrage will embarrass bad actors into changing their ways and improving the system in small ways, and otherwise work towards slow, incremental change. If it sounds like I’m being sarcastic, that might be because I am — not least of all because this has demonstrably not significantly improved anything across the past… what, three decades? Longer…?

The alternative is… well, trying to do something about it. Realistically, that means organizing and following in the footsteps of the WGA, SAG-AFTRA, and, yes, the CBWU and UW7S, as well: working together as a collective to demand that things change. This isn’t a new idea; there have been numerous attempts to organize and facilitate collective bargaining by creators throughout the history of the comic book industry, and every single one has collapsed through mismanagement, disinterest, or a combination of the two, as the impetus behind getting together was faced with structural problems, publisher pushback, and individual self-interest.

None of this is helped by the fact that comics is a particularly secretive industry; one that today even lacks a reliable sales chart to establish how titles are selling even in comparison to each other, never mind through actual sales figures. Actual pay scales and benefit packages are, of course, private, which means that anything that goes public does so at the discretion of individual creators, making it difficult to establish a complete picture of who is actually being paid what, and by whom, just as it’s difficult to establish a clear idea of how much revenue is generated by their work for publishers.

Again, comics being the industry that it is, even publishers don't necessarily have an accurate idea of pay scales or sales for their competitors; everything relies on gossip, heresay, and the few willing to share information with others firsthand. Ironically, it's another way in which the establishment of a comics industry version of the AMPTP might be helpful to all parties.

Sure; we knew that the system is broken, but it turns out that the comics system is actually so broken that no-one can figure out just how broken it actually is.

Unions, guilds, whatever it takes

"How to Be A Comic Book Artist"
Image credit: Marie Severin/Marvel

As difficult as all of this is — and it is difficult, especially given that it is all additional effort required of creators on top of, you know, actually doing their jobs, which can be a stressful undertaking at the best of times — it might finally be time for comic book creators to accept en masse that things will only change when action is taken, and that the kind of widespread structural change that is being asked for, that is visibly necessary, needs action taken on a scale and in a form that hasn’t been accomplished before.

Perhaps the efforts of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA can act as a touchstone for creators, just as the CBWU and UW7S unions can demonstrate that things don’t have to stay the same in the industry on the publisher level. Maybe, with the seeming wave of support for collective bargaining and systemic shift growing across the U.S. right now, things have the potential to actually be different this time.

What that looks like is, honestly, impossible to predict, and there isn't a quick fix or single move that will change everything in the manner we like to imagine thanks to the stories we've all grown up with. (Sorry, Bill Willingham.) These are complicated problems, and the solutions are likely to be just as complicated if not more so. That doesn't mean that change can't happen, or that things will never improve, simply that it's almost guaranteed to take time, effort, and a patience on all sides. There's no easy solution to how broken the comic industry is for almost everyone involved, but that doesn't mean that there is necessarily no solution.

No one will ever know if they don’t try.

Learn more about CBWU’s complaints against Image Comics.