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February 27, 2014

Go, Read: Matt Wilson Calls For Extended Dialogue About Health Care Coverage In The Comics Industry

Matt D. Wilson has a nice article up here about the recent crises facing comics professionals like Stan Sakai, Peter David and Bill Mantlo and the fact that in each case a public plea was made on their behalf to help them raise money for a shortcoming in their healthcare needs. He makes the point that you can't count on charity forever, and he's right: you can't. You shouldn't even have to count on it as much as we do, and there are limits as to what can be done by passing the hat.

I might have a slightly different take on some of this stuff, though. Some thoughts, not very well organized:

* I'm pretty much wholly unfamiliar with Peter David's situation, but from what little I know about what's facing Bill Mantlo and Stan Sakai it seems to me that one reason we're hearing about them is because these are extreme events, things that happened that would put a strain on anyone in any profession, and events where considerable effort and preparation and family investment have already taken place and therefore the invitation to help is more supplemental than primary. As is the case with the kind of safety net work the Hero Initiative does, catastrophic and unexpected events are going to happen even with the best reforms and changes of strategy possible. I don't think we mix the two as often as it's asserted we might. I know plenty of crises in comics that did not result in a crowd-funding campaign.

image* I also think what's broken about cases like the ones mentioned and the ones like it is something that's broken about our society more than may be broken about comics specifically or freelancing generally. That doesn't mean there aren't unique challenges to people that want to do comics work, but I think it should inform the scale on which we can work to improve things, where our energies might focus -- especially since comics people at times embrace a weird ethos of "if it can't be fixed 100 percent the way I think it should be fixed, Not Worth Doing." I don't even mean there are challenges in a dramatic way, the heave and swell of the political table-thumping, as much as there are practicalities that face everyone, both in related arts fields and beyond. I have a friend right now that's leaving a very good job to take up with a great business opportunity and the health care coverage issues in transition are just as daunting and discouraging for him as they are for the average SPXer. I've had friends be pushed from full-time to contract work just so the company for which they work can slip out of healthcare coverage. So let's realize the scope of what we're talking about here so as to better focus our energies and to keep in mind that work is necessary in a broader sense, too, as voters and as agitators for public policy.

* I still think there's a ton that can be done, and that within comics there's a lot of broader thinking that could be engaged.

* we don't make a positive value out of people securing healthcare by whatever means they need to, and we should. We shouldn't necessarily romanticize people putting themselves at risk. We should maybe be less patient with people that not only choose to go without coverage -- which is understandable at times -- but do so for years on end, and don't even know what their options are if they do get sick, like how much an emergency room trip really costs or if there's a doctor in town that lets you pay 40 percent of cost if you pay cash or what prescription drug programs they qualify for or if there are indigent programs in their area. (Seriously, if this is you, go find this stuff out.) There's making a choice and there's willfull denial, and we should maybe do more to discourage the latter.

* we don't make a positive value out of comics entities providing health care, and we should. We should very much do this. I worked at Fantagraphics during a time of distribution havoc caused by fighting giants half a world away, for a boss that at the time did not make twice what I made, and I always had health insurance there. Always. I don't know if that's still the case there or how that works or for what companies that is the case or isn't, but I think that should inform how we think about these companies and how they operate and what they add to the overall fabric of comics. If a company comes to the community needing advance orders to make it through to next year, I think how they spend that money comes into question, and providing health care options for their workers is a great way to spend some of that money.

* a big part of what hampers our discussion of health care coverage is that parts of it demand a wider discussion of how the community engages with money, period, and we have a fucked-up, stunted way of dealing with money in comics. I think I can say that because it seems so obvious; I'm certainly not saying this in a judgmental way because I am horrible with money. I am better at verb agreement than I am with money. But I do think a first step in dealing with the issue of health care coverage for freelancers across the board might be a lot more honesty about what people make and how they make it in comics, a step away from the big bluff that we're all doing well. Let's be honest about what lying to young people about the money in comics really is: selfishness that harms people's lives because we don't want to admit the truth about our own situations. We're getting a little better about this, but there's a lot of work yet to do. If we're all bluffing each other that there's money to be made doing exaclty what we're doing, people are going to follow our example and be dismayed that they're not making money they think others are making, and may avoid a situation that may provide them access to healthcare because they think they just need to do what they're doing more effectively. A lot of sick people die from avoiding the kind of maintenance care or doctor check-in because they've gone without health insurance thinking that's what you need to do. And if you're chasing phantoms from age 25 to 45, and, for instance, don't own a house coming out the other side the way some people do, that puts more strain on you on securing proper health care later on.

* I do only see that kind of honesty as a start, though. An even more uncomfortable subject down the line is that while systemic changes may be necessary, and a calculating realism based on bracing honesty may be the best survival technique to get us from here to there with the least damage possible, there are still going to be extraordinary circumstances. One thing that might be helpful is to not see access to community goodwill as an entitlement, that we should really save our efforts for people like the Sakais or someone made homeless and maybe not for such folks and whatever person that's not sick that's asking for money because of whatever temporary setback they suffered. Isn't it awful to write that out? I hate me a little bit right now. But I think we've all made that face. This kind of thing is super-tough because making these judgments for other people is seen as aggressively crass and people get angry when you see their need as maybe not on the same level as the last person that asked. Comics people are hyper status conscious because the actual rewards are so intermittent and people rallying behind a peer to get them a new something-or-other can be a crushing, dismaying thing on an individual level, not just as a curious community expenditure. Also, a lot of people really do believe in a market of goodwill, that people will either pay or they won't and there's no harm in asking. I'm not so sure. People have different standards for need, too. I get a lot of requests for people asking me to help them raise money. One time I had a person for whom several thousand dollars were raised six months earlier ask me to do another round of fundraising. They made a point of telling me they were calling me on their cell phone, in their car, on their way to their massage appointment. At the time, I didn't have the money for any of those things and my back was such I really regretted canceling those appointments. It's complicated, I know, but I think we also all know of people that we're willing to meet at their point of need where later on we wish that maybe they re-thought their point of need. Maybe a dialogue about health care needs to take place in the context of a dialogue about money and a really hard self-analysis as to how we do business, what we prioritize and how we might avoid putting our hands next to the hands that really need to be raised.

* I also think that a more aggressive dialogue about health care and need can also bring with it a rigorous discussion of how business is done in comics, and if we have the businesses we need that ethically and honorably reward the creators that work with them -- not just in terms of percentages and exploitation, but in terms of overall effectiveness and bottom line. That's an ugly discussion, too, compounded immensely if you suggest that we have an obligation to others to conduct business with certain standards.

* so let's please talk about health care, let's talk about it all the time. And people do, really, via e-mail and texting and phone calls and at conventions; it's possible to have an industry dialogue that's not in front of everyone. But let's talk more. And maybe let's have all these other discussions, too. It's a fascinating time for comics in part because there are certain opportunities there but the nature of a lot of them is limited in ways we dare not admit. Any way we can increase coverage I think is an idea worth engaging, from systemic change to community activitism to maybe seriously questioning how doing better business at certain levels might lead to less charity work being done later on, and to maybe change certain values the community traditionally holds. The good thing is that there's so much work to be done here that just about any step taken is bound to be an improvement. Until then, I hope we continue to meet people at the point at which their needs can be met, because that's the human thing to do.
posted 2:15 am PST | Permalink

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