Cultural Contradictions of Comics Work

But the script has some loose ends. TNG’s portrayal of comics work exposes several significant contradictions that it never resolves, and these tensions trouble its implicit models of success. Mark Banks (2007) argues that cultural work must be understood in terms of the relationship between “art” and “commerce,” which are typically construed as opposites. The RAID artists are engaged in a commercial art practice that leaves little room for “art for art’s sake.” But the documentary always insists that this is the art they want to be producing. In TNG, the problem is not commerce as such but the demands made by a “tight business” (Christy) on a labor process still based in small-scale craft production. Comics books can be mass produced, but there are limits to how quickly their content can be produced. For all the glamour TNG associates with making comics, it also acknowledges that it can be a punishing grind. Christy describes the pressure on artists to keep up with publishers’ schedules. The following sequence focuses on the long hours worked to meet deadlines as artists push themselves well beyond full-time hours. In Manapul’s words, making comics “really does take a lot out of you physically, mentally, emotionally.” The dilemma of creative work is that it is so often constructed as not work—as fun or leisure—and yet is constrained by very work-like demands.

There’s a joke about how popular characters like Batman and Wolverine are portrayed as loners but, because of their popularity, are members of virtually every superhero team their publishers can put them in. A similar contradiction is seen in comics work, which TNG represents as simultaneously isolating and sociable, solitary and highly collaborative. This comes off in three distinct ways.

At several points, the artists joke that they spend more time together than with their families. As De Santo describes the ideal hideout-cumstudio, it is “a place where they work, it’s a place where they can feel comfortable, where they can take off their masks.” The studio (both physical space and social entity) gradually becomes a world in itself. Indeed, it serves as surrogate family: coming to the studio “is like coming home” (Manapul). This heightened version of the preexisting cultural division between the sphere of work and the domestic sphere is highly gendered. All of the RAID artists interviewed are men, and studio members are collectively referred to as “guys” throughout; the only woman who speaks during the entirety of the documentary is the actress Alyssa Milano. When the filmmakers want to highlight the toll of long hours on the artists’ personal lives, they focus on Manapul and his partner Rachel Richey, but they never give any insight into her perspective as she silently watches him packing for a convention. Although she is not identified in the documentary, it is worth noting that Richey has published two collections of 1940s Canadian comics, for which she (along with sometime collaborator Hope Nicholson) was recently named among FLARE magazine’s 30 Canadian women under 30 (McKeon 2015). The fact that she, too, has a career in comics is erased, leaving the audience with the mistaken impression that the comics world is a masculine sphere opposed to the femininity of home life.

The homosocial character of the studio (as TNG portrays it) is registered not only in the silence of women but also in how the artists talk about their professional relationships with one another. The motivation the artists receive from working alongside peers is a repeated theme. Their craft has a dimension of friendly rivalry, leading them to put in longer hours and work harder. The artists explicitly discuss their relationships in terms of intangibles like inspiration, friendship, and mentorship. But they talk about their artistic development with physical metaphors like “pushing,” and the competition to put in the most hours is colored with macho masochism.

Finally, the film gives little insight into the artists’ relationships with collaborators outside the studio. For instance, Marcus To previously worked with writers Collin Kelly and Jackson Lanzing on Hacktivist, and they appear as co-writers of Joyride in the pitch sequence, but TNG does not show their working relationship at all. And this to say nothing of those performing “below the line” work—art assistants, inkers, colorists, letter- ers, and other production staff. Andrasofszky acknowledges them in an offhand comment, but it is never unpacked. Indeed, studio members are shown inking and coloring their own work, erasing the existence of these other roles. In taking the writer/artist as the ideal-typical comics pro and obscuring their place in the labor process, TNG re-entrenches auteurism at the heart of its discourse of comics work, even as it seemingly exposes the production process to scrutiny.

 
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