Comics Need a Union

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Posted January 23, 2018 by Jean-Luc Botbyl in Comic Books

2017 served as a wake-up call for many enfranchised individuals with the luxury of being content with the status quo. Admittedly, this included myself, as I watched in terror as our government strove to strip away piece after piece of the social safety net. In part, the realization that the system is so broken for so many people came from following creators on social media, including from the comic book community. A lot of these people, particularly in the United States, live in tenuous situations.

It led me to the conclusion that comic book creators need to unionize.

First and foremost, some context. Most, if not all, comic book writers and artists are freelancers, especially at the big two. This means that, in most cases, there are no benefits. In November of last year, Time published an article detailing wages in the comic book industry. Put simply, they’re atrocious–comic book artists make an average of $36,500 a year. Writers have it a little better, but not by much. For what it’s worth, that wage is technically livable, in some parts of the country. But it isn’t good.

Meanwhile, executives make a killing. Isaac Perlmutter is worth nearly $4 billion dollars, with a yearly salary that dwarfs anything writers and artists make. I’m unable to figure out exactly what it is, but Perlmutter was able to donate a staggering $1 million to the Trump campaign and remains an ally of the administration. Even if this is new information to you, it should not come as a surprise. A wealthy CEO running a company that underpays its employees rubbing shoulders with an administration and political party demonstrating clear disdain for poor people? Seems intuitive to me.

Of course, wages alone don’t tell the whole story. Freelance contracts often do not include benefits like healthcare, resulting in creators often having to purchase it for themselves. It is far from uncommon to see a comic book creator fundraising to cover their medical bills, including Steve Niles and Usagi Yojimbo creator Stan Sakai. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) helped alleviate pressure in some ways, but is not a solution. Attempts to repeal the ACA throughout 2017 would have only worsened the situation, considering the alternative of no government-subsidized health care.

Additionally, freelance work for the big two tends to offer very little creative freedom. Even worse, there is already a set precedent of publishers taking advantage of creators by retaining rights to properties that should be creator-owned.

2017 was also a reminder of this, being the year with the dubious honor of debuting Doomsday Clock–a comic that has no right to exist. Unfortunately, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were left to their own devices when negotiating their contract with DC in the ‘80’s, which resulted in the rights to the Watchmen characters never reverting to their creators and rightful owners. Another Alan Moore comic, V for Vendetta, suffered a similar fate. Moore is not the only victim of this either. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is not owned by Neil Gaiman, but by DC.

There also happens to be a culture of discrimination, disenfranchisement, and harassment at the big two, and even at smaller publishers. It was only last year that DC finally fired Eddie Berganza, despite years of sexual harassment allegations. And Marvel is no better, hiring noted harasser Ron Richards (who was let go by Image in 2015) in November of 2017.

Essentially, this pushes many women and people of color out of the big two. Of course, independent publishers do exist. However, Image’s structure almost requires creators with built-in followings, which often come from working for Marvel and DC. Dark Horse has similar problems to the big two, and most other publishers are too small to even meet the low living standards of the rest of the industry. At this point, many creators are better off running a Patreon while they release their comics digitally.

For any astute reader, this should dispel the notion that the comic book industry is a meritocracy. If it has not, let me lay it out for you: Comics are not a meritocracy. And every argument I can envision against unionizing requires buying into the idea that, if you are a good enough writer or artist, you will be discovered and fairly compensated for your work. Often, this is a fallacy. Sure, maybe household names like Scott Snyder can negotiate contracts, and someone like Greg Rucka can include a rider in his contract that keeps him and his creative team as far away as possible from the likes of Berganza while he writes Wonder Woman. But this is not the case for many individuals.

Personally, I feel that all of this information makes the case for unionizing well enough. I’ll lay it out in plain terms anyway.

For those unfamiliar with unions, they operate on collective bargaining. The Merriam-Webster definition of collective bargaining lays out the concept quite well: negotiation between an employer and a labor union, usually on wages, hours, and working conditions. In addition to collective bargaining, unions often have a political apparatus, often lobbying and fundraising to ensure beneficial legislation, or to block harmful legislation.

Practically, the political wing could lobby for better health care, perhaps a single-payer system, which would benefit comic creators. Additionally, they could seek legislation that would support freelancers, a move that could protect vast swaths of people even outside of comics. While not supporting candidates and beneficial legislation, the union could make strides to prevent the government from picking apart what remains of the social safety net in the Untied States, which many creators rely on heavily.

However, political activism would likely only become a component of the union down the line, after they have had time to establish themselves. In order to do so, the union could make strides by negotiating better contracts for creators, including higher wages and essential benefits like healthcare. This would be an important step towards comic creators developing a sense of security and would make the industry a more interesting prospect for emerging creators.

Additionally, unions can play a role in holding companies accountable when it comes to equal opportunity. Strides forward here can come in multiple forms. Contract negotiations ensure everyone is treated equitably, regardless of race, gender, and/or age. Unions also offer a unified front to pressure employers–for instance, an effective union likely would have resulted in Berganza losing his job when allegations began coming out years ago.

These kinds of protections are necessary if comics are going to continue to grow. The readership is expanding, in particular the bookstore market, outside of white, cis men. With the expanding audience comes an expanding demand for creators who have different lived experiences and perspectives than the dudes who have been writing comics for decades.

Ultimately, diversity in voices and perspectives in the comic book market could make for its own piece, so I won’t go too deep into it here. But unionizing seems like a significant step in the right direction.

And then there’s the issue of creators’ rights, which again could be solved by collective bargaining. Of course, no one is advocating for complete creator ownership of their work on licensed properties. However, a union would act as a stop gap to ensure creators, especially those new to the industry, are not being taken advantage of by publishers. It may be too late for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons to get the rights to Watchmen, but it’s not too late to ensure similar situations don’t occur in the future.

In fact, a union would act as a stop gap for many of the comic book industry’s systemic issues. Does it solve the direct market’s problems? Probably not, but creators being treated better goes a long way towards improving the quality of books, and keeping the industry open to new talent. As it stands, entering the comic book industry seems incredibly unappealing. I say that as someone who dreamed of writing comics just three or four years ago.

Like many others, I would probably still do it, if given the chance. But I’m no longer particularly interested in seeking out a job in the industry until there is major systemic change. I highly doubt I’m alone in this assessment. But with a union ensuring better conditions for writers and artists? I’m sure there would be an influx of interest and talent, which mainstream comics are in desperate need of.


About the Author

Jean-Luc Botbyl

Jean-Luc is a grizzled veteran of We the Nerdy. Most days, he just wonders why he hasn't been formally fired. Follow him on Twitter at @J_LFett to make him feel validated.