Disclaimer: this is not a review of TCJ #304, since I'm a contributor. It's just... long and personal.
In April of last year, I wrote this piece for Loser City about the "Funhouse" comic event and the fact that creators were not paid for the work they did to run the event. It was a significant piece of writing for me because, until that point, I had only managed frustrated Twitter threads about the state of comics labor, particularly with respect to the state of comic festivals. The "Funhouse" piece was the first time I focused on composing a single piece of writing about comics labor to put somewhere I respected rather than dumping my brain in a disorganzied fashion into the midst of Jack Dorsey's pit of nazis and Biden voters.
I've since deleted my Twitter.
"It’s worth pointing out that the very mention of the table fee is not actually subversive, and the idea that it’s being waived is in fact a sobering—frankly, alarming—shot across the bow: it’s a benefit to cartoonists to simply not be charged to stand somewhere and not make money."
Shortly after, RJ Casey reached out, with whom I was acquainted from overlapping time spent writing for Loser City earlier on. In his initial e-mail to me, Casey pitched the idea of contributing to a print issue of The Comics Journal (which, if I recall correctly, had not yet been announced) with "a piece on The Comics Guild and Neal Adams's attempt at getting a comics union off the ground and [...] what it might take to happen today." I remember being thrilled at the chance: I've never been published. Newly holed up in a West Hollywood sublet, fresh off the plane from New York, I excitedly read old TCJ issues, anything I could about the Guild, and anything about other defunct psuedo-labor orgs in comics over the years.
Going only based on how it was initially pitched to me, I get the impression that RJ planned on taking the piece in a direction that was more excavatory of the thoughts and feelings of people who were in the Guild's orbit. Even I had initially planned on interviewing whoever was still around that had something to say about the Guild years on.
But if you read anything that anybody had to say during or immediately after the inception (loosely speaking) of the Guild, it's safe to assume almost nobody gives it much thought anymore (Giordano's take was especially salient in this respect). I expect this to be probably the biggest criticism of the piece. I do think, however, that a piece focused in such a way would be fundamentally different in character.
Instead, my attention became focused on the fact that while some people involved were calling either explicitly for a union or implicitly for the benefits of organized employment as such, by-and-large, the narrative being pushed by Adams was one of independent contracting and retaining rights as creators.
It is hard for me to overstate the issues with this approach to rectifying the comic creators' situation; but, to say more here in addition to what I say in my piece would certainly test the boundaries of overstatement. So, I leave it to the piece. Go grab a copy, just please don't buy it (or any other books) from Amazon.
When I started writing about comics, I did it because I wanted to break into comics. I do not think that everyone who does this is disingenuous, but I certainly was, and many others certainly are as well. I think that you can call my outlook cynical, and I would counter that if it is cynical, it is only so in order to combat the greater cynicism of the people trying to get in the industry – or already in the industry – who use (in a literal sense) the artists and their work to try and make a dollar or a name for themselves.
I have to first thank Adam Buttrick for helping to wake me from my dogmatic slumber first with his Twitter rants and then with our correspondence. I was struggling greatly with trying to write about comics and did not feel like writing about the work of artists was doing anything to actually support them. I was moving no needles except my own and when I tried to tell myself I was helping, I knew that I was lying. That's not something Buttrick ever said to me – it's very much among my own set of worries – but his refusal to accept (let alone stay quiet about) much of the status quo in comics is a north star for those of us who give a shit. His piece at the beginning of the magazine is a must-read and might as well be a manifesto for everybody paying attention who wants an independent comics culture that is resistant to the pariahs that currently run the show(s).
Second thanks goes to RJ and Kristy Valenti who co-edited my piece and did a great job. RJ was present throughout the process, helping connect me to a lot of resources for this piece, and Kristy asked some important clarifying questions as things coalesced. Both of them did a great job laying out the piece, for which I provided no images or cues for images, and while I didn't want to look at Chaykin, at least one other image's inclusion audibly delighted me as I nauseously re-read my piece for the first time since sending it off.
Final thanks goes to Laura Lannes for the piece she contributed to this issue because I got emotional when I saw that it immediately followed my piece (I am a big fan; I have had a really personal, go-for-broke essay about her comic John, Dear languishing in a notebook in a drawer for almost a year (I'm afraid to touch it)) and even more overwhelmed when I actually saw the piece: it is honest in ways we do not deserve and sarcastic in ways that betray a real enthusiasm that rides sidecar with her thick, visceral pessimism.
I did not have the obligation (or pleasure) of writing about the state of labor for independent comics artists who aren't working on a for-hire contract basis for major publishers. In many ways, I think the situation of independent comic artists is both more complicated and more pressing. While unionization will not be easy (or likely, from what I can tell from people to whom I've spoken) for people working for major comic publishers, it is a well-worn path among fraught roads; and, notably, a path unavailable to those who self-publish or publish on a contract basis.
Navigating a hail of small publishers and comic festivals is a path that is both more fraught and more nebulous. Independent comic artists exist in a material vaccuum between animation, book publishing, and fine art.
What can we do as critics with this in mind?
Shouts out to everyone else who worked on and contributed to this issue, especially Kim Jooha whose piece I'm looking very much forward to reading. I've only read the labor-y bits to this point because picking up the book still makes me feel nauseous: like I said, I've never been published!
Four years ago, I fled an extra free-ride (plus stipend) year of grad school to come home and get a job doing editorial work in NYC. Eventually, I started looking for anything – even interviewing for a job at a Chinese restaurant chain – just to try and get some money and get more writing creds or cash for classes. In over a year of searching, I instead ended up getting a job locally (upstate) pressing children's artwork onto wall tiles in a woman's basement.
She still owes me 200 dollars.