Making Comics as Media Work

Developing from various trends in media industries research, creative labor has become a significant area of inquiry in communication, media studies, and cultural studies. This “labor turn” responds to a central irony about contemporary media practices:

As people engage with media in an increasingly immersive, always-on, almost instantaneous, and interconnected way, the very people whose livelihood and sense of professional identity depend on delivering media content and experiences seem to be at a loss on how to come up with survival strategies—in terms of business models, effective regulatory practices (for example regarding copyrights and universal access provisions), and perhaps, most specifically, the organization of entrepreneurial working conditions that would support and sustain the creative process needed to meet the demands of a global market saturated with media. (Deuze 2014, 1)

The broad sweep of this literature has been neatly encapsulated by Andrew Ross (2006): “Nice work if you can get it.” That is, as creativity ascends to the position of cultural dominance, creative jobs have become the ideal for many workers, especially young ones (Campbell 2013). However, these jobs are rare and provide only a precarious living, if that. The arts and culture sectors have long constituted winner-takes-all economies of a few stars, some modest successes, and many disappointed wannabes and could-have-beens. However, rising education costs, changing markets for cultural goods, and the dismantling of social safety nets make it a particularly difficult time to enter the cultural workforce—even as governments and consultants promote the creative industries as panacea for virtually any social ill in de-industrializing economies.

This picture should sound familiar to any comics aficionado. However, the study of creative labor is still relatively marginal to comics studies, where political-economic or industrial analysis typically plays second fiddle to interpretations of comics texts. When creators do show up, it is usually as the authorizing figure behind an oeuvre, more Foucault’s (1977) author-function than Benjamin’s (1978) “author as producer.” Hence, the field focuses on a relatively small number of “great comics artists,” while the majority of workers, including those who aspire to careers in comics but never “make it,” are absent. Hence, the picture of the comics world constructed by scholars is biased by fannish notions of celebrity and importance and provides little guidance for understanding comics as a market, industry, or labor process. Norcliffe and Rendace (2003), Rogers (2006), Farmer (2006), Brienza (2010), Murray (2013), and Priego

(2014) have drawn attention to important features of the organization of comics production, but these have been largely programmatic statements. For an industry of its age, relatively little empirical research on labor in comics has been published in English. (Lefevre and di Salvia’s (2011) survey of artists in the Franco-Belgian comics and illustration field is a notable exception.) In this near vacuum, critics and reporters in the comics blogosphere have recently undertaken several initiatives to collect information about work in comics: the Ladydrawers collective published a series of nonfiction webcomics on gender in the comic book industry on Bitch Magazine’s website; Janelle Asselin (2014) conducted a survey of sexual harassment in comics; and The Beat and Devastator Magazine surveyed exhibitors to estimate economic activity at various comics conventions (MacDonald 2015).

My research in this area has tried to construct a systematic picture of the creative workforce in Anglophone comics publishing.1 Due to a lack of probability sampling, one must be cautious about generalizing from these results, but they are suggestive of working conditions in the field. Most strikingly, when asked to estimate the proportion of their income derived directly from creative work in comics, the median response was 10 %. That is, half of respondents make one-tenth or less of their income directly from making comics (derivative income sources, such as royalties and original art sales, were counted separately). Given the freelance or entrepreneurial nature of most comics production, it came as a pleasant surprise that 73 % of respondents reported having at least basic health coverage, whether from insurance or a single-payer health system.2 Finally, only 31 % of respondents agreed with the statement, “I have a plan for retirement,” while 67 % were “anxious” when they thought about the future. These figures suggest that making comics is, for many, a “bad job” characterized by low and/or unpredictable remuneration, uneven provision of benefits, and a lack of old-age security (Kalleberg, Reskin, and Hudson 2000).

However, work is more than working conditions. What is making comics like from a subjective point of view? A cultural perspective on comics work analyzes the discourses through which people—chiefly, but not exclusively, creators themselves—make sense of their careers in comics. Individual statements are motivated by contextual factors, but taken together they constitute what Barley (1989, 53) calls a career script:

Careers can be thought of as temporally extended scripts that mediate between institutions and interactions. Like all scripts, careers should therefore offer actors interpretive schemes, resources, and norms for fashioning a course through some social world.

Comic creators routinely call upon scripts like these to interpret and evaluate the world around them (“Is this a good job or a bad one?”) and to guide action (“What opportunities should I pursue next?”). As “lay theories,” career scripts do not look like scholars’ formal theorizing, though they share some of its functions (Morris, Ames, and Knowles 2001). They are a form of practical consciousness responding to practical demands. These beliefs, theories, and ways of speaking constitute a horizon of experience, a specifically occupational social imaginary through which people “imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations” (Taylor 2004, 23).

Perhaps the most obvious place to look for comics’s occupational imaginary is statements made by creators themselves. However, as John Thornton Caldwell (2008) suggests, self-theorizing discourses are embedded in a range of artifacts produced by and around media industries. For example, a comic’s credits page embodies an industrial theory of the creative process—of who is a creator deserving of name recognition and who is merely a hired hand. Publishers’ promotional communication, such as the house advertising that built up the “Myth of the Marvel Bullpen” (Hatfield 2011, 78-79) or Image Comics’s “Experience Creativity” campaign (Woo 2013), also construct images of comics work. My point here is that there are “facts” of production as revealed in political-economic analyses and creator surveys, and there is the cultural working-up of those facts. Fans and scholars have many sources from which glean information about the situation of creative professionals in comics. These sources will have varying relationships to the lived experiences of individual creators, but their “content” matters less than how they discursively produce the meaning of making comics. They are not pictures of comics work but pictures about comics work—and, like all creative acts, they include a mix of intentionality and (un)happy accidents.

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