The comics industry has left creators to drown, so some are building lifeboats

In a landscape where movies based on comic books rake in billions of dollars, there’s an assumption that anyone in the comic book business is making tons of money. The reality is an entirely different matter: Since its earliest days, the American comics industry has been built on the exploitation of workers.

Some of those stories have become well known. DC Comics bought the rights to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman for $130 in 1938, leading to decades of legal battles. Legends like Jack Kirby and Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko struggled until their deaths for credit and appropriate payment for their creations, which built Marvel’s multimedia empire.

In 2023, those fights continue, and not just in superhero comics. The entire industry is undergoing a reckoning, from mainstream publishing to creator-owned spaces. This spring, a conversation that had previously existed only in whisper networks leaped out into the open, after the tragic death of comics creator Ian McGinty at the age of 38. In an obituary soon afterward, McGinty’s family said he died “of natural causes,” but his passing had already sparked a discussion of overwork. Cartoonist Shivana Sookdeo created the #ComicsBrokeMe tag, and thousands of people used it to share their heartbreaking experiences within the industry, such as poor treatment and poverty wages.

As a member of the comics and publishing community, Sookdeo told Polygon that the volume of responses didn’t surprise her. “I knew it was kind of just under the water like an iceberg. I don’t think anyone can be prepared for something to go that far, but I suspected.”

Struggling creators, however, are very aware that they can’t rely on the industry to fix itself. “At the end of the day, we’re dealing with corporations who only care about maximizing profits,” cartoonist Sloane Leong told Polygon over email. “Human dignity isn’t a factor for them.”

For many of the comics creators Polygon spoke to for this article, the only answer is to take matters into their own hands.

“From the outside, I imagine that comics appears to be a lucrative field to be in,” cartoonist Zach Hazard Vaupen tells Polygon. “It’s become the basis for a lot of our media. They’re everywhere! But the reality is that it’s one of the most difficult creative fields to make a living in.”

Polygon’s research bears that out, in some informal polling of fans standing in comic book signing lines at San Diego Comic-Con 2023. Most fans we spoke to assumed that comics creators were on salaries with full benefits. When asked how much they thought those creators might make in a year, the average answer was between $75,000 and $100,000. And those fans even thought that “wasn’t very much” for Big Two creators who write and draw characters like Batman and Superman.

The disparity between industry success and creator pay is usually chalked up to notoriously bad contracts; many creators signed away their intellectual property rights for minimal fees years before a Marvel- or DC-based film ever smashed the box office. But Hollywood corporations — Marvel has been a part of Disney since 2009, and DC has been affiliated with Warner Bros. since 1969 — have made it possible to expand on the advantages of those contracts by orders of magnitude greater than what was possible for Marvel or DC alone.

The clash of corporations and comics creator titans over comic book rights contracts is often traced to 1978, when the release of Richard Donner’s film Superman motivated creators like Jerry Robinson and Neal Adams to publicly fight for writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster to get fairly compensated for creating the Man of Steel. Both Adams and Robinson would become integral in the ongoing fight for creators, with Adams becoming the driving force behind an early attempt to unionize comics in the late 1970s with the Comics Creators Guild.

The effort was inspired by a change in U.S. copyright law that altered the nature of work for hire, which motivated Marvel Comics to create new and more specific contracts asking creators to sign away their rights. Adams was horrified, and organized a meeting in which some of comics’ biggest names — including himself, Steve Ditko, Jim Starlin, Archie Goodwin, Chris Claremont, Walt Simonson, Frank Miller, and Paul Levitz — came together to work out a way forward, leading them to suggest minimum page rates and guidelines for the industry.

The Justice League, including the Flash, Aquaman, Green Lantern, the Atom, Wonder Woman, and Superman, picket outside of the United Nations on the cover of Justice League of America #28.

Image: Mike Sekowsky/DC Comics

The Comics Creators Guild was never fully formed, let alone recognized as a union, for many reasons. The biggest creators at Marvel and DC refused to join until the guild was an established organization, while other figures, like Stan Lee, refused to join at all due to the larger aims of the group. Despite that, comics creators still share the guild’s proposed rates today as proof of what people should be making — and in many cases still aren’t, even in 2023.

“Pay is the most pressing issue,” Leong says. “The average advance for a graphic novel [around $30,000] needs to vastly improve. Publishers currently offer advances against royalties, the same as prose books. The difference is that prose authors bring a finished manuscript to the publisher whereas graphic novels are sold on proposal and need to be taken from concept to completion, a process that on average takes 2 years. 30k over 2 years is 15k a year which is the federal poverty level.”

Unionizing comics as a way to get fair pay and treatment has long been a conversation in the industry, but has been hard to bring to fruition for one key reason, as artist Joan Zahra Dark explains. “When comic writers and artists are considered independent contractors, they’re also considered ineligible to join unions, at least according to the National Labor Relations Act here in the US,” they say. “And those challenges to organizing, in no small part, lead to further issues of pay disparity, racial and gender inequality, and lack of benefits that are crucial to a better industry for everyone in it.”

There have still been attempts to bring comics workers together. In recent years, full-time production workers — such as editors, office workers, and graphic designers — at both Image Comics and Seven Seas Entertainment have organized to form unions within their companies. But, as Dark points out, “they’re opposed at every step.”

Pay is not simply a matter of financial stability, but of compensation for the real physical cost of making comics at the standard monthly pace. “We’re seeing cartoonists dropping dead or getting very ill from overwork,” Dark says.

Zach Hazard Vaupen’s answer to this urgency, as it was for Jerry Robinson and Neal Adams decades earlier, is solidarity. Vaupen, along with Nero Villagallos O’Reilly, Reimena Yee, Joan Zahra Dark, and Aaron Losty, founded the Cartoonists Cooperative in 2023. The organization’s aim is “to form a type of union that gives us some power in changing this industry to be more friendly to the people actually making the comics,” Vaupen says. “We want to be able to influence the way that publishers interact with their artists and maybe even act like we actually matter in the equation of comics! With the co-op, we’re at least making sure that creators don’t have to look out for themselves for the foreseeable future — we’re looking out for each other.”

The Cartoonist Cooperative’s long-term goals include “establishing industry-wide rates that meet the costs-of-living for all comics workers, having a team that handles grievances on behalf of our members, and regularly supporting our marginalized cartoonists,” according to Vaupen.

He adds, “We also want to establish an organization that allows for an exchange of skills, industry information, and other resources between cartoonists and comics-makers.” The group’s leaders have begun doing just that via a private Discord and invite-only forums, where they have 700 members. “Of course, a platform alone doesn’t make a community,” Leong says. “That only exists when we have stakes in each other’s well-being.”

Investing in other creators is something that Jim McLauchlin has been doing since he co-founded the Hero Initiative in 2000. McLauchlin was inspired by Major League Baseball’s Baseball Assistance Team, a program that supports people involved with the sport. After McLauchlin made the move from baseball journalism into the comics industry, he wondered aloud on the lack of unions in the industry before someone finally told him, “You fucking do it!” So he did, creating the Hero Initiative, which offers financial assistance to comic book creators both active and retired, for anything from car repairs to medical bills.

The Hero Initiative’s existence is directly connected to the industry’s lack of a safety net. As comic book writers and artists are freelance contract workers, they don’t get benefits such as health insurance or pension plans. So when Bill Mantlo — the co-creator of Rocket Racoon, star of the billion-dollar Guardians of the Galaxy franchise — was severely injured in a hit-and-run accident in 1992, his family and later the Hero Initiative worked to pay for his care. In 2017, public outcry finally forced Marvel Studios to pay a settlement to support Mantlo and cover many of his living costs. That reality is relatively unknown to the fans who watch the films, but it’s a day-to-day truth for people within the industry, making surviving an illness or injury as a comics creator incredibly challenging.

To McLauchlin, though, the Hero Initiative isn’t just representative of problems in the comics industry, but instead is a symptom of the wider issues that our society creates. “People need people. People need to help people,” McLauchlin tells Polygon. “Life can be nasty. In short, capitalism is a sharp, edgy instrument and it doesn’t come with many guard rails. So I guess the Hero Initiative is needed because this is society. This is humanity. This is what we do. This is what we should do.”

That people-first mentality is also behind a move away from traditional publishers and toward a model that pays creators fairly and respects time and craft. Jamila Rowser founded the award-winning Black Josei Press in 2018 to create a space centered on celebrating comics by and for people of color from marginalized genders and sexualities. In just five years, the company has become a beacon for what publishing comics could be, with inclusive titles, fair pay, and reasonable deadlines that have reframed the way people are making comics.

“My goal with Black Josei Press was to keep it out of the red and make it sustainable and pay for the next comic,” Rowser says. But that meant she had to use her own funds to pay advances. She says that she was “lucky enough” to have a well-paying job at the time that allowed her to do just that. Rowser paid Robyn Smith an advance for the pair’s award-winning minicomic, Wash Day, which would go on to be expanded into a graphic novel, Wash Day Diaries, that won a 2023 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and an Ignatz Award. Rowser has a simple yet radical rule for the artists that she hires: “Don’t put your pen to anything until you have money in your account.”

This is exceptionally rare for publishers, let alone an independent one. For comparison’s sake, the most well-known American publisher that allows creators to keep ownership of their stories and IP, Image Comics, generally doesn’t give advances. Instead, creators earn money after a comic has broken even — meaning that they are essentially making the comic and doing the labor for free. Even with licensed comics, the writers and artists often work without pay until they deliver the first draft of their scripts or their layouts/pencils, depending on the arrangement that they negotiate with the publisher.

Rowser wanted to upend those outdated and exploitative traditions. “One of the beauties of owning your own press is you can run it however you want,” she says. “So I’m very anti-capitalist. I want to make sure that these people are paid their fair rate and if I can’t afford it then I work with somebody else.”

Looking outside the norms of a comics industry that takes full advantage of a capitalist system is something that all the creators we spoke to are aiming for. McLauchlin has been inspired by guaranteed income programs in Stockton, California, and St. Paul, Minnesota, which changed the way he was supporting certain creators. Tom Zuko, a prominent DC colorist in the 1980s and ’90s who “has literally colored everything from Scooby-Doo to Hellblazer,” says McLauchlin, was one person greatly affected by this new approach.

“Tom has some blood and circulatory issues, and they can be very hard on him and knock him flat on his ass for 30 or 60 or 90 days at a time,” McLauchlin says. “Every now and then something would pop up with Tom and there would be an emergency, and we’d effectively have to put a $5,000 bandaid on Tom.”

After thinking about the success of Stockton’s program and how he could introduce that idea into the Hero Initiative, McLauchlin worked out that Zuko needed, on average, around $800 a month to take care of himself. So McLauchlin went to the group’s disbursement committee and put forward a radical idea: putting Tom on a monthly stipend, rather than waiting for his life to implode.

McLauchlin immediately saw the power of what a guaranteed income could provide. “It removed so much stress from [Tom’s] life,” he says. “That made him happier, that made him more productive, that led to other benefits in his life. I wish I could tell you his health is 100%, but it is better. It removes daily stress from his life and once you start addressing some of those concerns, be they mental well-being, be they financial — and those two can be very closely related — it really had legitimate physical wellness benefits for him.”

Rowser agrees that a universal basic income would be life changing for those making comics. When we spoke to her earlier this year, she was about to lose her health care and preparing to navigate the Medicare system as a queer Black disabled woman. “I’m concerned because I have medication that I can’t just not take, I have to taper off of it or I get seizures and scary symptoms. So there’s that fear of like, Okay, I have to make sure I transition to this new insurance in a way that won’t affect my health and the medication I take, let alone the doctors. Can I get these prescriptions? Can I afford them if I don’t have insurance? No, I’m sure I can’t.”

There are new existential threats for comics creators, too. “We’re seeing in real time how companies will take every chance they can get to replace their creative talent with AI,” Dark says, referencing the recent WGA and SAG-AFTRA contract negotiations that, among many things, have focused on regulating the use of artificial intelligence in the creation of new works. Leong agrees, saying, “We need to protect ourselves from Large Language Model transformers like ChatGPT and other image generators which is just another way to underpay workers.”

So how can creators protect themselves from the myriad of exploitative practices old and new? “I believe the only way to change this is by collectively pressuring publishers by withholding our labor to raise their rates on both the creative and editorial side and force them to be transparent in their business practices,” Leong says.

In the face of almost a century of mistreatment and exploitation, comics creators are still fighting to make art that they love in a way that’s sustainable and maybe even one day equitable. Whether reimagining publishing, creating a safety net from nothing, or building a community that will serve artists both new and old, there’s hope for the industry. But it doesn’t come from the work-for-hire system, intellectual property rights, or the corporations that uphold them; it comes from the creators themselves.

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