A Period of Decline

Read in terms of field and autonomy, the comix movement provides a very telling parallel to the history of comic book production in the Pioneer Valley. Artists like Eastman and Laird invested a great deal into reworking and redistributing the capital of the comics form but continued to rely on extant systems of distribution, selling their comics in the same shops that carried superhero titles by Marvel and DC. As a result, when the health of the mainstream industry began to falter, the Pioneer Valley comics scene felt the effects in very noticeable ways.

Tundra closed in 1993 after three short years. Given Tundra’s commitment to the Creator’s Bill of Rights, it is perhaps not surprising that Eastman turned to renowned underground comix publisher Denis Kitchen when the company began to falter, allowing Tundra to be folded into Kitchen Sink Press. This brought still more comics activity to the area, including the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, an organization dedicated to protecting comic creators’ first amendment rights against charges of indecency. But a larger trend of decline was already in motion, and by 1999, following several unsuccessful rounds of outside investment, Kitchen Sink Press also ceased operation.

The Words and Pictures Museum closed its doors on July 16 of that same year. In their coverage of the closing, the Hampshire Gazette (1999) described the institution’s health in terms of the comics industry more generally:

The museum has been largely dependent on industry donations rather than admissions or membership, according to [museum director Fiona] Russell. The museum opened in 1992, when cartoon artists were riding a crest of booming interest in sequential artwork; the year before the museum opened, the creators of the teen-age turtles each pulled in $10 million from the turtle’s merchandising empire.

But the business that boomed in the 1980s and early 1990s - spawning several local businesses in the process - contracted sharply beginning in the mid 1990s, squeezing off the philanthropic dollars that had been keeping the museum alive, according to Russell.

“The industry is in a slump. It’s been in decline for quite a while,” said Russell. “Consequently, philanthropic dollars aren’t there. Sales are down, and so are the dollars available for donating.”

The museum moved its operations online for a short period of time, promising to regularly update its site with new digital exhibitions of its collection, but no new content has been posted since 2002—the same year that the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund relocated its headquarters from Northampton to New York City.

After maintaining at least some portion of control over their characters for over 20 years, Eastman and Laird sold their remaining rights to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Nickelodeon/Viacom in 2009. Mirage still maintains its Northampton offices but no longer produces any new material. Several of the original artists use the offices for studio space, but Mirage as such exists only to sell back issues of old comics online.

The history of the culture of comic book production in the Pioneer Valley can be read as a struggle for autonomy at virtually every level of the field. The tremendous financial success of the Turtles, first as an independent comic and then as a licensed franchise, marked a shift in the control of the means of production (both symbolic and material) from publishers to artists. This shift was accompanied most immediately by a dramatic influx of capital to creative rather than corporate hands. Economic autonomy meant new systems of cultural capital among comics producers, evidenced most readily in the drafting of the Creator’s Bill of Rights. But the autonomy of a field is not determined solely by the values of its artists, as the viability of their practice remains contingent upon the valuation of the art produced. In Bourdieu’s terms, “the work of art is an object which exists as such only by virtue of the (collective) belief which knows and acknowledges it as a work of art” (Bourdieu 1993, 36). Northampton thus witnessed a host of activity dedicated to preaching the virtues of such a belief, seeking to improve the status of comics as a viable and vibrant art form. The Words and Pictures Museum was perhaps the most visible articulation of these efforts, seeking, as it did, to promote the evaluation of comics as art through familiar logics of curation and education. Despite these many efforts, however, the sale of the products produced by Northampton comics creators continued to rely largely on extant systems of distribution. For this reason, the timelines for institutions like Tundra, Mirage, Kitchen Sink Press, and the Words and Pictures Museum map neatly on to the boom and bust cycles of the comics industry more generally.

Thus, while most accounts of comic book culture in and around the Pioneer Valley seem to start with some description of Eastman and Laird’s immense success, they also tend to end with the same conclusion about the current state of the local comics industry: things aren’t what they once were. “Those comics happened during a time when there were a lot more resources in indie comics,” Panetta explains. “A lot of the people who were doing them back then are doing different things now. In terms of indie comics that are being produced in this area that have any sort of stature, I can’t even really think of any” (Panetta 2014).

Historically, the grants awarded by the Xeric Foundation had been one of the most substantial and highly sought-after of these resources for independent comics publishers. However, even though Xeric is still a functioning organization, the foundation stopped awarding money to aspiring comics artists in May of 2012. All grants are now being awarded to charities and non-profits, most of which are located within the Pioneer Valley. Peter Laird explained the decision in a letter posted on Xeric’s website:

When I began the Xeric Foundation back in 1992, things were very different. The Internet—and web-based publishing—was in its infancy. This has changed, radically, and the Xeric Foundation needs to change accordingly. The advent of essentially free web publishing has forever altered the way aspiring comic book creators can get their work out into the public eye. With this in mind, I have decided that it makes sense that the Xeric Foundation will no longer provide grants to self-publishing comic book creators, and instead devote all of its available grants funds to charitable organizations. (Laird 2011)

Although Xeric did not simply fold as a result of the declining health of the mainstream comics industry, Laird’s language still signals a historic shift in the practice of comics publishing more generally, and in indie comics publishing in particular. There is a sense that the sort of support provided by the foundation’s grants has been rendered unnecessary by the mythic level of autonomy afforded by the internet.

However, it would be a mistake to suggest that this shift is simply a continuation of a steady process of decline. Comics are still alive and well in this pocket of Western Massachusetts. Northampton boasts three different comics shops, an impressive number for a town with a population of under 30,000 people. Neighboring Easthampton is likewise home to a dense collection of comics-related work, with the Eastworks building alone housing a number of different active sites of sequential art production. Kevin Eastman still maintains studio space there, and Gary Dolgoff operates an immense warehouse of back issues, holding over 800,000 comics ranging from the 1930s to current series, which are sold online over eBay.

It may be tempting to read these sites of traditional comics publishing as mere vestiges of a once thriving cultural scene. But it is perhaps more appropriate to view them as indicators of an ongoing reconfiguration of cultural production practices, as a continuation of many of the same impulses once nurtured by institutions like Xeric and Tundra. These new practices are readily evidenced by the immense amount of new comics work being produced in the area by a new wave of web comics artists. R. Stevens of Diesel Sweeties is one of these, Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content is another, KC Green of Gunshow and Back another still. Topatoco, a company that organizes the sale and distribution of merchandise for a cooperative network of independent web cartoonists, is also located there, run by Jeff Rowland, himself the artist behind the online strip Overcompensating. Even though these artists have not published their own formal Bill of Rights, their practice still demonstrates a strong commitment to autonomy. They maintain full control over their work and any related merchandise and often choose to self-publish their work rather than going through traditional print houses. These values are clearly articulated on the website for Topatoco, the centralized distribution hub that these cartoonists use to sell their merchandise:

Some of your favorite internet artists have been approached by publishers who said, “Your work is so amazing that we would like to publish it for you, and pay you pennies on the dollar for the privilege of selling to your existing audience.” The artists, being clever, said “No thanks I’d rather make a living.” TopatoCo Books are just as nice as any book you can find anywhere, except the person who made it—not Amazon, not Barnes & Noble, not Diamond Distributors, not anyone else who did not make the book—actually earns money from the sale. We know! What a concept.

When you buy from TopatoCo, you’re patronizing independent creators who are using the internet to build sustainable careers from their creative work! (Topato Corporation 2014)

Much of this language is very familiar. There is an obvious anxiety toward traditional publishers and a clear sense that many distributors do not provide adequate compensation to creators. Independence and sustainability are similarly emphasized, tying the viability of the medium to a system of production practices that privileges creators’ rights. There are echoes of the Bill of Rights here, a reverberating call for autonomy as a necessary step toward the “survival and health” of comics.

Of course, Easthampton is by no means the only site where this kind of production occurs. The internet has indeed provided (at least to some extent) what Peter Laird (2011) referred to as “essentially free web publishing,” which has allowed webcomics production to become even less centralized than its print predecessors. Topatoco alone represents artists from all over the USA, as well as a handful from Canada and the UK. But why, then, do so many still choose to call the Pioneer Valley their home? Why would a place like Easthampton be chosen as the site of the Webcomics Weekend, a convention held in 2009 and 2010 dedicated to the fans and creators of this sort of online work?

 
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