Key Concepts in the Study of Comics Work
This book’s chapters are divided into three sections, grouped by theme and providing three core concepts necessary, in our view, for a rigorous comics work-based approach to the study of comics. We will discuss each in turn.
The first section, Locating Labor, looks at the ways in which comics work is embedded in various local and national contexts. It begins with Amy Maynard’s chapter on Australian comics, entitled “For the Love of the Craft.” This revealing title sets the tone with a candid account of the Australian comics industry (or lack thereof), drawn from fieldwork and firsthand accounts of various Australian practitioners. Maynard’s interviews find that the case of Australian comics and its fledgling industry is a uniquely troubled one, being, in the words of one creator, “.. .a part-time, money losing hobby for virtually everyone producing or publishing comics in Australia.” Why, then, would any Australian create comics, and why does there nonetheless exist an Australian comics scene in which there is a distinct culture? Maynard’s chapter understands this paradox by argu?ing for both the cooperation between, and the subjective autonomy of, Australian comics workers.
Following this chapter, Jeremy Stoll presents a similar survey of underground comics in India, the character and culture of which is driven by the same concerns as that of Australian comics. Both Maynard and Stoll’s interviewees assert the importance and centrality of communities to the cultures of their comics work, emphasizing the power and fulfillment of collective, collaborative work, again in opposition to the supposed isolated nature of work for corporate powers in comics, which is often carried out on a for-hire basis with rates per page, workers decentralized and detached from the production. Both chapters, by implication, argue against theories of auteurism, demonstrating the importance of communities, scenes, and collectives; Stoll’s chapter, for example, discusses the Indian Pao Collective, whose anthologies have become a touchstone for independent comics in India.
Chapter 4 moves continents again, to Latin America, where the first of a number of collaborative papers continues the theme of exposing a nation’s mainstream comics industry as nonexistent, or close to nonexistent, while revealing the comics scenes and collectives that fly under the radar. Fernando Suarez and Enrique Uribe-Jongbloed systematically break down the culture of Colombian comics work into events, publishers, artist collectives, and historical landmarks, analyzing each in turn. They argue that, while Colombian comics work moves toward industrial organization, it cannot become a proper industry due to its small scale. They conclude that “Colombia has no comic book industry to speak of, but an adamant group of creators.” Also, they assert that Colombian comics production is largely artisanal, a word that is gaining prominence in comics studies as a new dichotomy, that is, between artisanal and industrial modes of production, as opposed to the mainstream and underground dichotomy (Rogers 2006; Woo 2015a, b).
Elena D. Hristova’s chapter focuses on one specific comic, Nuestro Futuro, locating it in a specific geographic, temporal, and political context of US-Mexican relations. Nuestro Futuro was created for propagandist purposes during the Second World War, and through its political backers was granted significant distribution. As the comic was ultimately made to foster cooperation between the USA and Mexico, political activity becomes comics work carried out by an unlikely collective of politicians, economists, and diplomats. Hristova’s chapter demonstrates that although we have provided an expressly broad and inclusive definition of comics work, it may be further broadened by locating it within historical and political space and time.
Ivan Lima Gomes’s chapter on the Brazilian political context presents a similar narrative, focusing more specifically on publishers and their attempts to lobby for legal changes and better working conditions in the early to mid-twentieth century. Engaging with local governments to protect the status, heritage, and conditions of Brazilian cartoonists in opposition to the more popular, imported, and translated American superhero comics, the Brazilian cartoonists’ collective CETPA acted as a trade union, which here provides a prescient example of comics work being seen as, perhaps, not distinct from any other form of work—at least in terms of the material rewards expected by those who undertake it. Comics work may be a distinct form of work, but it is work nonetheless.
To write about comics work is to acknowledge that there is not necessarily just one comics art world. Instead, there can be many distinct comics art worlds, each characterized by its own norms, culture, and forms of cooperation. Moving from the Brazilian comics art world to the Anglo- American comics art world, Ryan Cadrette’s chapter identifies a specific world within the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, from which came the huge and unprecedented success of the initially self-published Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics (and later, franchise). Also situated in time, the late 1980s, the Pioneer Valley that Cadrette presents becomes a place facilitating collective, autonomous, fulfilling comics work, buoyed by a deliberate opposition to the mainstream comics publishers and their treatment of American creators who worked for hire and signed away any creative rights to their work in a significant number of cases. It was this which led to the writing of the “Creators’ Bill of Rights” by Scott McCloud for comics producers, who was a resident of the Pioneer Valley at the time. This manifesto called for full creative control over all comics. Cadrette’s chapter also reads this location as a broader site of opposition, again presenting comics work as a distinct type of spatially and temporally specific labor, geographically separate and distinct from contemporary corporate and industrial players.