As Comic-Con (and the world) awaited news Saturday of future Marvel films—all but guaranteed to net a billion dollars—a panel of creators gathered to discuss the need for better working conditions for the artists and writers who make actual comics.
In perhaps the most on the nose thing I’ve ever seen at San Diego, the panel took place in a room literally above Hall H, the massive auditorium where the con rolls out its big movie news. The room was, of course, smaller. Anyway, an early order of business was establishing the past and context for the talk.
Working conditions and fair compensation has been an ongoing concern in the industry, perhaps since Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster first sold the rights to their character for $150, subsequently spending decades in court battling as a result. In recent years, though, it’s become a different and more stark conversation, with the rise of comics as mega profitable IP factories for studios.
Properties adapted from comics—ranging from the MCU to The Walking Dead—have pushed billions of dollars into the global economy, created waves of jobs in multiple industries, and influenced the culture of a generation. They are an essential part of the modern zeitgeist, and this all shows little sign of slowing down.
Maggie Thompson, the longtime editor of The Comics Buyer’s Guide, provided some context about recent attempts to organize, donning as she did a cap from the now defunct Comic Book Professionals Association (CBPA). Thompson also had a stack of envelopes with banking information that she used to illustrate that one of the main challenges of organizing in comics is that the folks involved with comics are far too busy to maintain the organization.
This was certainly the case with the CBPA, which also faced communications challenges because it pre-dated readily available Internet.
“It collapsed under the weight of not having someone to run a newsletter because at that point it was the only way to keep a network going,” Thompson said. “If that sort of thing were today it would obviously not be an impediment.”
But the Internet is a thing now, and creators have certainly started to have conversations about the challenges they face as freelance employees, trying to both do creative work they love and make a living. Yet, there has been little momentum toward any sort of official or serious unionization.
There are a few reasons for this. Comics is a diverse industry made up of workers who fulfill disparate roles, including writers, artists, letterers, and others. Comics is also an industry where only two companies control the vast majority of the market share, only one company controls the physical distribution mechanism, and everyone involved is well-aware that there is a seething mass of fans who would practically agree to write their favorite characters for little to no compensation. None of this makes for an ideal level of free market forces.
Then there’s the human factor. Marissa Louise, a colorist who works on books for major publishers like DC and Dark Horse, has been involved with conversations, as well as other efforts to create stronger groups of individuals with shared interests.
“This is a struggle with every human being, no matter who they are: our egos get in the way,” Louise said, “and when you have to do the hard work, do your best to set aside your ego and do what’s best for the community and for yourself.”
Still, the panelists said it was nigh-impossible to pay their bills making these comics. It would take, the writers on the panel said, creating between four and six comics a month to pay the entirety of their living expenses, with writing a single comic for either Marvel or DC not even able to knock out the entirety of one’s mortgage.
In other words, the surge of money generated by comics adaptations is not translating to better pay for the progenitors of the steady stream of source material that continues to flow into the world every Wednesday.
It’s not just about the money though. Mairghread Scott, who most famously just concluded a run on DC Comics Batgirl, writes for both comics and for animation, with a key difference being that her animation work has her represented by a union. Scott had nothing but glowing things to say about being a writer within a union.
“Unionization is infinitely better, not just in terms of rates but in terms of standards of practice,” Scott said.
In terms of standards of practice, freelance comics creators have few, if any to speak of when they accept work. In comics, Scott noted, your contract is your invoice, which means you don’t have a standard contract until the work is complete, severely limiting your ability to negotiate. There’s also no limit to the amount of revisions an employer can request (a problem, as well, in the freelance marketing copywriter game, let me tell you!).
“There’s no such thing as overtime,” Scott said, “or weekends, or hazard pay, or anything like that.”
Amy Chu, who has written for DC and was also the first woman to write a comic book about Green Hornet, agreed, noting that consistency of work is another problem that limits creators earning power.
“If a book gets cancelled there is no safety net,” Chu said. “There are some people who do get exclusive contracts [with big publishers], but that’s very few and far between.”
An easy reaction as a reader is perhaps to wonder whether this has a wider effect on the industry or even the medium, and the panelists all agreed that it did, that many talented people might not try to make comics at all these days (preferring instead to take safer career paths, or to focus their creative ambitions on more profitable and organized mediums like movies of TVs).
“We don’t know what incredible talent we’re losing, because maybe people have sick parents they have to support,” Louise said. “We don’t know who doesn’t have the family support to work for so little money. So, we are probably missing out on incredible talent just because we don’t support the pool of people we need to. So, if we can support these rights, I guarantee you will see a blossoming of incredible stories.”
In terms of what the average reader can do to support workers rights in comics, Thompson said the answer is to buy more comics, while some of the others noted that historically the answer has been to shame publishers with bad publicity. After all, that certainly helped Siegel and Shuster’s case way back when.