Unionizing Comics

I probably stopped reading comic books in the middle of my teens (although I love comic strips in newspapers), so my knowledge of the comics industry is pretty outdated. However, I’m always interested in unionizing campaigns for any type of worker, so I was intrigued when I came across the Twitter account Let’s Unionize Comics. Sasha Bassett runs that account; she is a Ph.D student at Portland State University and a self-declared “all-around pop culture junkie”. She has also conducted a survey of workers in the comics industry about their working conditions and their workplace concerns. Sasha graciously agreed to be interviewed via email about the comics industry and her vision of how it could become unionized.

Fiona: For readers who may not be familiar with how the comics industry works, can you describe its structure? For example, is it dominated by major companies, or is there a significant number of independent firms? Do comics artists work on their own and then try to sell their work, or are they usually commissioned to do specific projects?

Sasha: The structure of the comics industry is complex and fairly non-standardized. The market is absolutely dominated by the “Big Two” companies (DC and Marvel). According to recent estimates, Marvel is currently the biggest comics publisher due to the 51% share of the market it controls, with DC composing around 26% of the market.

Among small-press publishers, Image Comics, IDW Publishing, Dark Horse Comics, BOOM! Studios, and Dynamite Entertainment are popular frontrunners – each accounting for 1-8% of the comics market. Every other publisher combined amounts to roughly the same share of the market that Image Comics holds by itself (around 8%).

In addition to the formalized comic book industry, independent creators often produce comics using crowdfunding platforms (Kickstarter, Patreon, Gumroad, etc.), and many others produce webcomics, illustrations, or animations in addition to their more “traditional” comics work. While there are MANY ways to create comics, it’s fairly typical for independent comics creators to have some sort of digital marketplace where they make their work available to the public. This is often supplemented by a robust social media presence and/or personal branding that’s maintained by the creator themselves, or a small team of assistants.

As such, work within the comics industry is  a combination of work that is commissioned and work that is the result of creator interest. This is true of both formal comics work (e.g. creating a comic for sale) and informal comics work (creating prints, shirts, zines, etc.). When it comes to the “Big Two” publishers, formal work tends to be commissioned by the company, while informal work is often done with or without the consent of the publishers. Small press publishers tend to have more room for creators to submit their original work/ideas for publication, but there isn’t a consistent policy or approach that is shared between companies. Each publisher has their own version of submission guidelines – some do not accept unsolicited story proposals at all.

In the broadest strokes, a “typical” comics publisher provides executive leadership, a marketing and sales department, and editorial oversight over the books they publish (Image Comics in a notable exception here, as they do not have in-house editors). In most cases, the creative team (e.g. artists, writers, letterers) is contracted by the publisher to work with a specific editor or set of editors for a certain book, or an arc of a book’s storyline. These are typically not long-term contracts, and most do not offer benefits like health insurance. While the majority of work at the “Big Two” is work-for-hire (freelance, commission-based work), smaller presses often print “creator-owned” books – where the creative team that developed the intellectual property continue to hold the majority of the rights to the book post-production. Indie comics is generally the domain of workers who produce works using crowdfunding or digital platforms, but it can also include those who contribute primarily to anthologies or magazines (RAW, MAD, etc.)

Fiona: Are you involved in the comics industry yourself?

Sasha: No, I’m a sociologist and comics scholar. While I love the medium, and served as an intern for Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, Inc. in the spring of 2016, I do not have plans to work in comics.

Fiona: What are the problems in the comic industry that you think a union could help solve? And why would a union be the way to address these problems?

Sasha: My recent survey of comics workers identified four clear issues that unions are known to advocate for:

1. fair compensation

2. job security

3. workload management

4. benefits like health insurance.

All of these issues can be understood as the result of an atomized, outsourced labor force with no collective bargaining unit. In comics, there is very little room to advocate for yourself without marking yourself as an issue for publishers. It’s generally more common for folks who strive for the betterment of their working conditions to be blacklisted than it is for their conditions to change.

As such, there seems to be significant downward pressure on the wages presented by contracts, and an increased workload within said contracts – to the point of being excessive or burdensome. The result is often a race to the bottom for creators, who often accept sparse contracts with ridiculously low page rates in exchange for the simple ability to work as legitimate comics creators.

In this sense, the simple fact that there’s often no meaningful HR department present in the structure of many comics publishers complicates dynamics presented by the lack of a collective bargaining unit, because there is no clear protocol for addressing workers’ grievances. Creation of a union for comics workers would be a great step in putting such protocols in place, as well as a decent step towards ensuring that those policies remain consistent regardless of which publisher the worker is contracted with.

Fiona: You conducted an online survey of workers in the comics industry. What are the major findings of the survey results so far? Were there any results that particularly stood out to you, or that you didn’t expect to see?

Sasha: I received around 750 responses to the survey I posted, and I’ve been posting the major findings here.

Points of data that concern me most:

  • Their overall work status was really interesting to me; 68% of participants were primarily freelance, working without an exclusive contract with a publisher.
  • The stability of their income was shocking; less than 35% reported a stable income from their work in comics. That being said, it’s unclear from these data whether “stability” is due to consistently low (or no) income from said work.
  • Rights and royalties were similarly shocking; while most participants owned *some* share of the rights to their work, over half had not earned any royalties for it.
  • Most respondents reported experiencing health issues due to their work in comics.
  • Work/life balance is a major issue; working in comics comes at the cost of restful sleep, time off for holidays or personal care, and involvement with their friends and families.
  • When considering their overall satisfaction with their situation, creators are satisfied with their lives, but unsatisfied with their work.
  • Despite recent pushes for diversification, comics is still VERY White.

Fiona: Do you think that workers in the comics industry should form their own union, or do you think they should affiliate with an existing union? And if so, which one?

Sasha: I think both of those options are viable, should folks commit to them. I think that if comics were to form something new, it would likely be in the form of smaller organizations tailored for certain professions within the industry, e.g. color artists, letterers, rather than one large union for all of comics. This is because a number of the writers and artists who took my survey reported being part of existing unions for their work (Writers Guild of America being the most popular job-specific organization named), and may not necessarily be inclined to advocate for positions they do not occupy within the industry.

That being said, if a “comics freelancer union” were to pop up with the intentions of organizing on behalf of all freelance comics workers, I think it would be the option that is best suited to create a more stable industry and advocate for/assist the most vulnerable comics creators. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) seems like a great organization to approach for support, regardless of which route we choose to go.

Fiona: Have you had any response to your survey, or to the idea of unionizing the comics industry, from managers or owners in the industry? How do you think they would react to having a unionized workforce?

Sasha: No, but I am curious what their thoughts are. I’d love to be part of the conversation about improving working conditions so that comics publishing companies can continue to have positive working relationships with their creative workers.

I DID notice, however, that my interview with The Beat took roughly six weeks to post and was edited in a way which heavily implied that comics unions are illegal. They happen to be owned by Polarity, the media syndicate that also owns Oni Press and Lion Forge – companies whose merger inspired the most recent push for a comics union – so I’m not really surprised by this.

This is entirely speculative, but I think publishers would ultimately benefit from a unionized workforce, as it would expedite and streamline contract negotiations across the board for the workforce, as well as providing direct access to relatively untapped talent. The union pool would enable employers find marginalized candidates in ways which mirror the access provided by social media hashtag campaigns (e.g. #DrawingWhileBlack, #VisibleWomen, etc.), without losing access to its “traditional” workforce. Talent scouts from larger companies can establish guidelines and goals within unions for their potential workers that could result in increased training and skillbuilding for the workforce. That’s a benefit for everyone involved.

Fiona: After the survey is completed, what’s the next step in the campaign to unionize comics workers?

Sasha: As far as useful next steps, I’m currently looking into the various legal obstacles that the organizing effort will be facing. Once I get a fuller picture of the legislative barriers that exist, I’ll be making some concrete recommendations about how folks could potentially move forward – this is likely where I’ll take a firmer stance what shape the organizing effort should take. At this point, the survey is finished and results are mostly tabulated. I’ll be looking into some more complex data analyses as my time permits, but this is an unpaid project and the cost of living in Portland is fairly high, so I don’t see that happening on a timeline that will be particularly useful for folks who want to make moves on unionizing.

 

Anecdotally, there seems to be a great deal of support for some form of union or workers’ organization among the folks that I’ve talked to. The biggest barrier in this moment seems to be the fact that the average worker in comics doesn’t really know where to start.

 

Consequently, the most significant thing that folks who want to see this come to fruition can do it to continue talking about it. Keep discussing your working conditions honestly. Talk to your colleagues and peers about what they face. Build connections with others who work in the industry. Keep the momentum going. If any unionization effort is going to succeed, folks need to communicate and work together to make it happen. That process can (and should) begin now

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