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February 21, 2014

Go, Read: Lengthy Article By Ross Lincoln At The Escapist On The Ethics Of Comics Creation

It's difficult to dig into an article like this one from Ross Lincoln on the ethic of comics creation. I'm grateful the article exists. I think it's a subject worth debating endlessly and one of the most exciting things about comics over the last two decades is the rise of different models and permutations of existing models that force us to constantly question and re-question how business works and how it should work under the best possible circumstance and less-than-perfect realities. I'm also encouraged to see Lincoln engage the potentially ugly issue that performance by non-artists on behalf of artists has an ethical component to it, too: the suggestion that someone simply acting in honorable fashion in a context of mega-predatory creeps isn't necessarily the end of the discussion. If an underlying value for how we look at comics businesses is how the maker of the art is treated in accordance to the value of their art, one may argue that an artist may be better off with one kind of publishing relationship over another -- particularly in a marketplace where this doesn't necessarily mean exploitation in other ways, where there's a variety of options from which to choose.

So I urge you to read it and consider the issues involved and points made. I think we'll be seeing a lot more of this kind of conversation in a broad sense over the next decade as comics lurches out of a period of near self-inflicted extinction and the perception of its artistic value as a novelty and into a more settled, accepted place in the way we engage with art, what meaning that has to us.

I do have some objections, or at least some notes on things that hit me while reading it.

The first is that I think Lincoln assumes a limited perspective at times when a broader one might be more informative. You can make the argument that the Image approach to creator vs. company is important because of the kinds of comics that company has made and the success it has enjoyed, but if I never again see the assertion that Image was some sort of lone agent for creators rights I'll be a much happier person. Not only did the small press, underground, indy, alt and self-publishing movement inform how Image set things up, they are important both of themselves and for the effect they've had in providing a continuity for honorable, profitable work for a number of cartoonists that continue to work with those publishers, that work with them for the first time, and that work for imprints of large book publishers. Are they the most profitable comics creators? Maybe not as a class. But there are creators that enjoy professional agency that aren't in the mainstream comics world. Two other groups of this type are newspaper strip cartoonists and the successful group of webcomics-oriented cartoonists that have been able to fashion a living with an on-line comics effort of some sort at the base of what they do. I'm not saying the article was wrong in restricting itself this way, you can write any article you want, as I admit, there are times when something is notable not for its pure novelty but for its novelty within a context. Still, I think a wider discussion, or at least an admission that there are other contexts, would have been more informative and a better snapshot of the greater landscape.

The second is that I was a bit dismayed he made a direct criticism of BOOM! based on a few things he was hearing and on past writing rather than simply 1) digging into the matter of whether or not BOOM! exploits creators that work on their licensed comics directly, 2) allow for BOOM! to at least respond to the general thrust of those allegations, or 3) restricting himself to the general point that exploitation is possible when millions of dollars aren't on the table, which I think is a way stronger point anyway. I actually didn't find that argument convicing when Scott Shaw! was making it, nor do I find it convincing here. The margins on licensed comics aren't great, successful comics in that world doesn't mean millions are rolling in, the creators I know that do those gigs seem inordinately satisfied with everything about those gigs. In other words, I don't think it's a bad question to ask, but I think it might be a bad one for which to assume an answer.

Anyway, I wanted to do one of those three things just by sending people to that piece, so I contacted Ross Richie and directed him to that article and asked for his response. It's as follows. He's referring to a characterization I made to him in e-mailed conversations about that section of the piece, along the lines of what I presented to you in the above graph. Here's Richie.
"As you pointed out, the op-ed isn't particularly well thought out and anyone who has an understanding of the industry can see it's riddled with broad assumptions and factual errors.

"That being said, I know that here at BOOM! we pay our talent competitive rates commiserate with other publishers our size and based on our sales. We've worked with thousands of creators from writers to artists to colorists to letterers over the eight year history of the company and the fact that many of them continue to work with us over the course of many projects and years should speak for itself.

"The simple fact of the matter is that if we were undervaluing talent, they would find work elsewhere. We wish the market supported even higher page rates.

"One of the things I pride my team on is that every day we work towards expanding the audience for comic books beyond the superhero genre, whether getting the next generation of readers via KaBOOM! or tackling Mouse Guards and A Tale Of Sands with Archaia or reaching out to a more broad audience via the new BOOM! Box.

"Hopefully one day the audience for independent work outside of Marvel and DC will grow large enough to support a much bigger, more thriving business."
I'm appreciative that he took the time to write that. Thank you, Ross.

The third thing that struck me about Lincoln's piece as something on which I wanted to comment is that while I appreciate the discussion of a union and/or guild because of the help-the-creator emphasis of those discussions, I'm never quite sure what we're supposed to do with such talks. The two ideas that get tossed out there are 1) some sort of organization that would help people score better pay rates, and 2) some sort of trade organization or guild that would help creators more generally. The first one seems untenable to me, even if younger creators somehow aren't completely disinterested in such an organization as the article asserts. There was a time when the industry functioned in a way that was much less complicated and where a union that helped establish credit priorities and page rates would have been immensely helpful and practical, a time where you could identify and place your hands on 80 percent of the people that would be important to get to join in a single afternoon with a taxicab at your disposal, and it didn't happen then.

The guild idea seems to me to have immense practical problems. I'm not sure you could convince enough people of the practical value of paying to join something comprehensive and ambitious, and finding a way to consolidate issues so that they hit all of these different camps in comics and their very different concerns would seem tricky even if all the rich people in comics wrote $150,000 checks in seed money and created an administrator in a laboratory. It's difficult to get 10 comics people to agree on a place to eat dinner, let alone 2000 on the course of the dozen or so comics industries. It's also unclear whether any organization would facilitate what makes people more successful, or at least there's a high degree of difficulty involved in putting such programs into place. At that point, an organization becomes an avenue for exploitation rather than a hedge against it. It's tough. I bet we'll see periodic attempt to include a sub-group of comics-makers in a group, like this new one e-mailed to me a bunch this morning. My hunch is that there's still room for market-driven improvements, in the way that people at a certain level are drifting to the Image deal if maintaining certain rights and having a kind of comic book that might do well in comics shops is important to how they perceive what it is they want to do, the way that some writers and artists that could probably write a ticket of some sort at a bigger company have settled into mid-sized publishers, the way that alt- and arts-cartoonists go through a process of sorting out which smaller company does what well in order to figure out how they want their work to get out there and potentially be seen and bring them money and attention, the way that people in yet another part of comics are going directly to their fans to ask for funding that in turn facilitates a business structure, just solely as a means to getting that specific comic out there. And so on.

If it's important to enough people, progress will be made. It's good to talk about these things; it's good to ask questions and not assume that exploitation is something that happens over there or to other people in the professional community or only to the people with millions as stake. It will be good if we start holding non comics maker to a higher standard than simply being there, if their niceness is the subject of sentence eight rather than sentence one. There is probably a comic within 10 feet of you or a site in your recent browser history that involved someone profiting in some way at the expense of someone else. It's not just readers that need to ask these questions. It's everybody.
posted 2:05 am PST | Permalink

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