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Comics artists, and writers too, are overworked and frequently underpaid. Is it finally time to unionize?

So you want to create comics. Great, you’re in good company. But be warned: you might starve, even if you’re successful.

It’s no secret that the creative class within the comics industry is long-suffering and, increasingly, in dire straits. Writers and artists can spend years working on a strictly freelance basis with an expectation of high output. No matter how good, most never manage to make the transition to full time (read: benefits) employment, and pay has fallen sharply from highs in the 1990s for all but a few A-list level talent.

This is especially galling in the era in which Comics have become the source for a sizable chunk of American blockbusters over the last decade, generating billions. Unfortunately, that outsized influence hasn’t been a rising ride that lifts all boats. How did we get here?

Last week, David Harper over at Multiversity Comics offered an aggressive take on the topic. He sees artists as having it particularly tough, and suggests that in part it’s because writers are given higher priority than artists. He also identified four major reasons why the contributions and prestige of comics artists have declined in recent years. They are:

1) Marvel Comics’ increasing double shipping (two issues of a title in a month), forcing the use of rotating artists for ongoing titles, diluting the perceived individual worth of each artist;
2) DC Comics’ emphasis on an in-house artistic style that homogenizes publishers’ output and reduces the ability of readers to know and become attached to individual artists via recognition of their work;
3) Relatively stable comic sales that demonstrate to major publishers that switching up artists or reducing their artistic individuality doesn’t negatively impact the company;
4) The impact of Internet culture on the way people discuss comics. Specifically the fact that writers are far more likely to be profiled and interviewed than artists.

Harper also touches on the history of comics as an industry to argue that respect for artists may be at an all time low, the relationship between artists and writers historically uneven, and the past a time of much greater respect for artists generally. He cites the establishment of Image comics in 1992 as the high water mark of respect for artists in the medium, and uses it as an example of “how powerful artists used to be in comics “.

While it’s undeniable Harper is onto something, and the article is worth a full read, artists’ relative power in the past may be exaggerated, and the idea that the success of writers comes at the expense of artists is problematic too. Further, the causes listed above are more symptoms than an actual diagnosis of the disease. A deeper look suggests that what the community needs is organization.

Bob Kane

A Brief History Of Exploitation

It’s certainly true that writers are highly visible in comics. But that isn’t a particularly new development, and it certainly doesn’t represent an uneven state of affairs for artists. The reality is that from the beginning of modern comics, creatives of both stripes have been wildly screwed over by a ruthless publishing environment that has constantly sought to ensure that creatives are either not credited, or not compensated to the extent their financial impact on their publisher – in 2012 alone, comic books sales were $715 million, while films based on comics earned $1.5 billion – should warrant.

The most obvious place to start is with Superman. The whole world knows the first modern super hero was created in the late 1930s by the artist/writer duo Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Siegel and Shuster were also denied credit and royalties for essentially bankrolling DC comics, until 1975, when DC was forced by lawsuit to slap “created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” on all Superman-related products.

Related to this, Batman was actually co-created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Kane was a bit more savvy than Siegel and Shuster and managed to get a “created by Bob Kane” credit on anything bat-related rather early, but he robbed Finger of any credit for his own contributions, which were, to put it mildly, substantial. Kane was also notable for frequent use of ghost artists, whose unheralded work allowed him to essentially goof off for years.

Skip ahead to the 1960s, when Marvel comics became a powerhouse thanks in large part to Jack Kirby, who co-created Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four and many, many other characters. Marvel ended up losing Kirby however, perhaps the greatest artist of his era and the man who designed the original Marvel style, over a dispute with Stan Lee over the amount of credit Lee claimed for the characters they two created together. Kirby was very respected by his peers during his day. But today, Stan Lee is very famous, while Jack Kirby remains largely unknown outside people who tend to be especially knowledgeable about comics.

Skip ahead to the 1980s, when writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller created work for DC and Marvel that did as much to help the comics medium be taken seriously as an art form as underground artists did in the 60s and 70s. Moore’s contract with DC was an almost beautiful example of a legalistic mugging, promising that the rights to Watchmen would revert to him only in the event it ever went out of print.

By the late ’80s and early ’90s, the norm was still largely either contract-only deals, or creative freedom but no ownership, for even major talents. This included Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, as well as the eight artists who would in 1992 found Image, precisely so they could retain ownership of their work and a share of the profits their work generated.

The establishment of Image, far from being the high water mark, was actually the only water mark. The first time creators were prioritized to that degree, the publisher experienced significant success rather rapidly, but that success didn’t end up changing the industry. Rather, as Harper notes, within a decade the industry had settled into what we see now: creatives exploited as though things had never changed at all. Image’s policies affected only people hired at image, or at publishers who enacted similar policies, (which are rare.)

It was (and remains) a situation unlike pre-union movement auto-industry workers employed by Ford: well paid, but only so long as they kept their jobs. But automobiles became essential to the American way of life, making the people who built them essential too. Art, especially comic book art, has not.

The New 52 Pager Clip

So How Bad Is It Now?

For those firmly ensconced in the protective bosom of a major publisher, things aren’t entirely that bad. While specific numbers are hard to pin down, reportedly, DC and Marvel offer very competitive page rates in the $400-$600 range. That said, Marvel’s policies noted above at least seem designed to reduce the power of individual artists. Likewise, since the launch of the New 52, all of DC’s mainstream titles are drawn in the same style, the result being a new continuity in which every single character has the same face and the same anatomically distorted physique. There’s sadly very little to distinguish Rags Morales’ work on the first few issues of Action Comics, from Jim Lee’s work on Justice League.

But far from anonymous, the artists involved in major productions by the big 2 are often as widely promoted as the writers. A review of the promotional emails I’ve received from Marvel in the last week bear this out. Some samples:

* Winter Soldier: The Bitter March #1: “Spinning out of the best-selling Captain America series, blockbuster writer Rick Remender and artist Roland Boschi craft a tale of action, adventure, and espionage that hast to be seen to be believed!”

* Superior Spider-Man #27.NOW: “Dan Slott and Giuseppe Camuncoli blast out of the gate with an explosive issue that sets the stage for the biggest Superior Spider-Man story of them all!”

* Black Widow #4: “[F]rom the critically acclaimed creative team of Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto!”

These blurbs don’t represent a full cross-section of industry marketing, but, while the work is indeed grueling, thankless and undervalued, it’s difficult to agree that it’s being done anonymously. If anything, the promotion of writer and artist duos is integral to selling many titles. Far be it from me to argue that the two biggest publishers are forces for good in comics, however. Both continue to rely fairly heavily on work-for-hire schemes, which means even breaking into the big time doesn’t guarantee a comfortable living for long. And despite the existence of creator-owned imprints like Marvel’s icon, the majority never enjoy ownership of their creations. But they do offer good rates and a chance at real, lasting exposure.

It’s at the indie level where things are truly bad. One artist I spoke to, who preferred to remain anonymous, was forced to stop working on a classic title put out by a medium-sized publisher because the work required an enormous commitment of time for such low pay it didn’t really cover his expenses, much less make up for work he wasn’t able to do elsewhere. This artist’s work was widely lauded and he was enthusiastic about the job, but the publishers were unwilling to consider even a minuscule raise in order to keep his services. This is the kind of story one hears again and again.

Another industry insider I spoke to noted that artists and writers working for smaller publishers are more likely to receive a low flat fee than a page rate. And those that do offer page rates significantly lowball the talent. Boom! Studios was singled out as particularly miserly: according to more than one source, the company pays around $200 for covers, and typically offers page rates between $30-$100, for work on its successful licensed comics such as Adventure Time. Everyone I spoke to preferred to remain anonymous, but artist Scott Shaw went public with complaints about the studio’s rates last year that solidly back up what I was told.

Lacking the actual financial filings of publishers, it’s difficult to know precisely how much money each has to work with. But recent years have seen impressive earnings – in 2012, the comics industry enjoyed its most profitable year since the 90s heyday, with $700-$730 million in sales for the industry as a whole. To be sure, most of that can be split between the big two, but with smaller publishers like Boom! Studios inking lucrative deals with film studios, it’s likely there’s more money to go around than most artists are led to believe.

DC Comics Sweatshop Issue 1

What Can Be Done?

The founding of Image might have been a momentous event, but greater ownership of one’s creations won’t necessarily fix the problems faced by professionals. Image’s Jim Zubkavich revealed in 2012 that he earns, at best, around $32.00 per page for his creator-owned hit comic SKULL-KICKERS. Creator ownership is an objective that is good in and of itself, but it’s not a guaranteed pathway to a self-sustaining life.

One reason the current environment is so bad is that there is no standard of pay. Artists with higher prestige and fame can command higher pay, but because few people know how much a publisher is likely to offer, negotiation can be difficult. This divide and conquer framework benefits publishers immensely, especially when the idea persists that writers and artists are somehow at odds with one another.

Changes certainly need to happen at the publisher level. While publishers are indeed earning healthy profits, they’re doing so mainly by raising single-issue prices rather than bringing in new readers. Even with Marvel’s double-shipping, more earnings brought in with fewer readers means more money made for fewer costs. No doubt it’s creatives bearing the brunt of those savings. Historically, the best way to get management to change policies, barring laws that protect the rights of labor, is collective action.

Right now, comic artists and writers lack any kind of effective advocacy organizations like unions, or something similar to the Hollywood guild system. Unfortunately, there may be problems beyond common business practices preventing that from happening. Comics legend Rob Liefeld weighed in on this issue himself, and he puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of the artists themselves. “It’s a self-inflicted wound. Artists allowed this,” Leifeld said on Twitter. “The majority of “important” artists from 2000-2010 were content to play “who has the best freelance gig at the big 2″ that ended as expected. There was a period where a group of artists almost mustered the courage to break free but in-fighting and demand for upfront $ fractured it.”

Sequential has a detailed look at historic attempts to organize the industry that seems to support what Liefeld says. Repeated attempts to organize comic industry creatives have collapsed, and recent behavior suggests this will continue to be the case. This doesn’t have to determine how things will proceed in the future. Many people I spoke to expressed skepticism about unions as a concept, but there’s evidence this isn’t as big an issue for for creatives just starting out as it is for those in their thirties and older.

However this is solved, it’s going to require more than pitting creatives against one another. At minimum, writers don’t succeed at the expense of artists and the two groups’ interests are linked. In the absence of an immediate solution, the readers aren’t impotent. Just remember that behind every great comic you’re reading, there’s probably a team of overworked and underpaid people who made it happen. If readers care, maybe it’s time they also started asking publishers why that is.

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