Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

December 15, 2013

Five Things I'll Be Thinking Over As 2013 Becomes 2014

On a coffee-fueled Sunday morning, here are some of my broader thoughts on the shape of comics near the end of 2013, what underlying issues are of significant importance.

1. People And Their Contributions Matter

This sounds platitudinous, I know. I'm talking about something slightly more specific than the important way in which we all matter. I wonder sometimes that because so much of the money in the various comics industries is settled around those things where a property and its facilitators matter more than any single person working on that property or for that company, that we don't sometimes downplay the unique contribution of individuals across the board. This may be assisted by the fact that all of the industries that serve comics are quick to repeat success on all levels, so that what is one person's unique contribution one day is a corporate practice or artistic legacy the next. This is even further assisted by the self-lacerating mindset that everyone's contributions are of equal value. This last one I find fascinating because you can see it infecting a lot of how we grapple with institutions as well. If all achievement in comics does is simply to get you into the club through the same rope line as everyone else, if all anything you do grants you is an invitation to the party, then the nature and shape of your achievement hardly matters, and, besides, someone will pick up the slack if you want to take off. Hey, maybe they'll be hiring.

We should never shrug our shoulders when someone passes away, or reduce them by minimizing the collective loss to art form, community and industry. We should stop making facile connections between publishers and artists and entities as if what connects them -- usually phrased as what connects us to them -- is easily achieved. There is no new Kim Thompson or new PictureBox Inc. or new Stan Lynde. There are those inspired by them and those working in their spirit, and maybe even those that surpass what they've done; that's not the same thing. It never is. We are diminished by those things we lose just as we are strengthened by their existence. We can value the House That Jack Built but realize and appreciate that Jack doesn't live there anymore. And if we choose to grapple with what losing people and precious institutions really means, it may be that we can better appreciate those that are still around.

2. We Still Have A Lot Of Work To Do On The Industry End Of Things

For as much as the bulk of the rewards seem to flow in their direction, I'm not sure we have anything close in terms of the collective non-creatives in comics to match the creative talent on hand right now. I include myself in that criticism. I think we could be a lot harder on that end of things, on our way to doing a lot better. I think we can improve even as we already have.

Why might this afflict non-creatives? I suspect that unlike the low threshold of participation that benefits the art form by helping us find voices and talents that we might never find otherwise, there isn't the same ruthless element of making comics in comics-related roles that serves to winnow out the undeserving and slack in the same way as a blank page, a bottle of ink and pens and brushes might. I think non-creatives have a greater opportunity to settle in, and the same way this has never been healthy for the art form on those rarer occasions it happens for creatives the fact that our specific arts culture doesn't regularly challenge its non-creatives may be causing damage now, or at the very least allowing for things to settle far below where they should be. I also think that a lot of the defeatist horseshit that gets passed around about comics being really hard and hey, what are you going to do is something in which non-creatives as a collective whole maybe shouldn't get to traffic in because, with very few exceptions, they simply haven't accomplished enough to merit that cynicism.

3. Industry Is Desirable

I mean industry in the broadest sense here, so while I know that term can be manipulated to make a funny wisecrack or dismissive put-down and suspect that might be done in response to this point, what I really mean by industry is a connection that isn't based on everyone being friends but on a shared value of work and accomplishment. If you must: a community served by businesses and institutions in addition to being the place where your friends live.

I value my friendships in comics as much as anyone does; they are a great treasure of my life. Still, there are satisfactions and rewards and wonderful moments of actualization in having relationships other than those defined by being pals, just as one gets different things in one's everyday, physical life from businesspeople and elected officials and neighbors way different than we are, and from fellow citizens with whom our interest to interact is minimal. I think that may be true for comics as well. To put it another way: most people could not ask for better friends through comics, but they could probably use a few more customers, a few more generous patrons, a few more life-changing resources, a few more people to call and reasons to call them that aren't restricted to a personal support system.

A first step may be to value someone outside of our personal narratives, whose story is like our own but in whose index we might never appear, and go from there. A second step may be to act in ways and on behalf of people through the connection of comics rather than through the connections that comics facilitates.

4. Exploitation Is Everywhere

The three scariest things about the recent coverage of classic instances of industry exploitation are 1) the idea that what is legally permissible is the best outcome, 2) the idea that this doesn't happen anymore even if it's less likely to happen the exact same way, 3) the idea that this is only something that happens with million dollar properties and big-time corporations.

Comics is soaked in exploitation, and a person providing free content for someone else's glory and/or pocketbook is a shame no matter the number of zeroes involved. Ditto disproportional reward. Conversely, it's a victory whenever these policies and practices change. If we could come out of 2013 with the simple idea that if anyone gets paid for something, the maker should be paid, we would be significantly better off as an arts community. That's not enough, but it would be a start, and it would be moving the line of acceptable behavior from an embarrassing place to a less mortifying one. It's okay to judge a project by the reward it brings to its creators; that should matter, too. It's heartbreaking that even as our form's great artists have created work that shapes the world, we do so very little to shape a world that benefits those artists. We should look back on conversations like this ten years from now amazed that they ever happened. And because all of it matters, so does any progress made.

5. We Need To Take Better Care Of Ourselves

Too many artists have no idea what happens to their work when they die, no plan for retirement even for those who see that as an option, and no idea how they might participate in best securing their legacy when they're gone. I sympathize; I have work to do here, too.

I think all of us that make art or that work near the making of art can at some time in the next year confront the twin possibilities of what happens if we die before we hope to and what happens if we continue to live for a much longer time than our ability to see to our grandest plans allows. If your ability to work depends on willful denial, I get it, but that doesn't mean we're any less worried about you. That also doesn't mean there probably isn't something you can do in some area of this kind of thing. If your art is so important to you right now that you're not going to think about the financial sacrifices you feel you have to make to see that through, then maybe you can figure out who controls that art if you get hit by a train. There are institutions that would love your comics and oh my goodness your personal papers -- this isn't true of all of us, but it's true for some. It might be worth reaching out. It's definitely worth mulling over.

One great thing about comics right now is that there's so much that can still happen but we can see the shape of it, and we can certainly engage with a lot of the realities as we ourselves move from one place to another. I'm encouraged that so many people want to spend a lifetime making comics or a lifetime in service of those that do. Next year might be the time to sort out what that really means, and to expand our definitions of taking care of things to something beyond going to the gym.


This site will host some everyday blogging over the next few days, and then move into the Holiday Interview Series with full blogging on down the page in terms of any breaking news, a model that will end with us on the other side of the New Year. Hopefully in 2014 I can write about some of the above issues on this site in more straight-forward, detailed fashion. An even greater hope is that we might progress on these and other issues that matter.

posted 5:50 am PST | Permalink

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