‘All artistic work, like all human activity, involves the joint activity of a number, often a large number, of people. Through their cooperation, the art work we eventually see or hear comes to be and continues to be. The work always shows signs of that cooperation,’ wrote sociologist Howard Becker (1982, 1) in his seminal monograph on cultural production Art Worlds. Comic art is no exception to Becker’s basic insight. Writers, illustrators, graphic designers, letterers, editors, printers, typesetters, publicists, publishers, distributors, retailers, and countless others are both directly and indirectly involved in the creative production of what is commonly thought of as the comic book.
Yet comics scholars all too often advance a narrow, auteurist vision of production in their research. Names such as Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Osamu Tezuka continue loom large in the intellectual firmament, while, despite recent calls for sociological approaches to comics scholarship (Brienza 2010; Lopes 2009), the large numbers of people without whom no comic would exist in the first place are routinely overlooked. This happens because comics scholarship is, despite being nominally interdisciplinary, in fact dominated by humanists, and in particular dominated by those with backgrounds in literature. While these individuals are probably not still wholeheartedly riding the waves of New Criticism that swept literary studies in the mid-twentieth century, its ideological effects remain palatable in their training, and they find themselves without the necessary theoretical or methodological tools to escape the supremacy of the text—even if that is their desire.
I made the transition to sociology early in my academic career for precisely this reason (Brienza 2012), and given my primary interests in cultural production and the comics publishing industry, I am grateful to have become embedded in a discipline which traces is deepest roots to classical theoretical debates by Marx, Weber, and Durkheim about capitalism, industry, production, rationalization, work, the division of labor in modern societies, etc. Sociology does not just take products of human effort at face value to be analyzed as texts or assemblages of signs; it is keenly interested instead in who made it and why, worries about whether or not anyone was exploited in the process of its manufacture, and wonders what its effects—if any—upon society will be. So, for example, when sociologists see an iPhone, they are less likely to see it as an object of media ‘convergence’ (Jenkins 2006) and much more likely to ask what’s going on at the Foxconn factory in China and how the labor conditions are there.
It’s no big leap, therefore, to turn the same sociological lens upon other forms of industry, such as cultural production. And sure enough, a focus on cultural, or creative, labor/work has become especially trendy in the academy in recent years (e.g. Banks, et al. 2013; Deuze 2008; Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2011; Taylor and Littleton 2012). The precise definition of cultural work can be controversial—who does, or does not, count as a cultural worker, anyway??—but for my purposes in this special theme month of Comics Forum I assume the definition of ‘creative labour’ provided by Hesmondhalgh and Baker (2010, 9): ‘[T]hose jobs, centred on the activity of symbol-making, which are to be found in large numbers in the cultural industries. [These jobs include, but are not limited to,] primary creative personnel such as writers, actors, directors, musicians; craft and technical workers such as camera operators, film editors and sound engineers; creative managers such as television producers, magazine editors and A&R personnel; administrators; executives; and unskilled labour.’
As my example of Foxconn and the iPhone might suggest, research into cultural work has thus far been broadly concerned with the following two questions: 1) Is cultural work distinctive from other forms of work? and 2) Is it exploitative? I will not rehearse the debates around these two questions as they have been performed in the study of other cultural sectors, from Hollywood to handicrafts, at this time. Instead, I ask you to watch this space and commend you to the thought-provoking contributions of Benjamin Woo, Paddy Johnston, and Tom Miller, which will be posted in the coming weeks. Each of these scholars has, each in his own way as researcher, reader, or cultural worker, begun to grapple with precisely these two questions. Indeed, it is my not-so-secret hope that soon comics scholars will not merely be appropriating and reacting to sociological debates but will begin to participate actively in them. Comics scholars definitely have something to learn from sociologists; what might sociologists learn from comics scholars?
Alas, we’re probably still a bit of a ways away from fulfilling that particular ambition of mine. Nevertheless, a clear focus upon cultural work in comics and the contributions of the labor of these people is, in my view, long overdue and absolutely necessary to advance the boundaries of the theoretical and methodological study of comics. After all, do we truly understand any work of comic art if we know nothing about the myriad varieties of cultural work that went into its creation? There should be no doubt by now that my answer to that question is a resounding no.
Banks, Mark, Rosalind Gill, and Stephanie Taylor, eds. 2013. Theorizing Cultural Work: Labour, Continuity and Change in the Cultural and Creative Industries. London: Routledge.
Becker, Howard. 1982. Art Worlds. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Brienza, Casey. 2010. ‘Producing Comics Culture: A Sociological Approach to the Study of Comics.’ Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 1 (2): 105-119.
Brienza, Casey. 2012. ‘A Reply to Simon Locke.’ Comics Forum, January 20. https://comicsforum.org/2012/01/20/a-reply-to-simon-locke-by-casey-brienza.
Deuze, Mark. 2008. Media Work. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Hesmondhalgh, David and Sarah Baker. 2011. Creative Labour: Media Work in Three Cultural Industries. London: Routledge.
Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press.
Lopes, Paul. 2009. Demanding Respect: The Evolution of the American Comic Book. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Taylor, Stephanie and Karen Littleton. 2012. Contemporary Identities of Creativity and Creative Work. Farnham: Ashgate.
Casey Brienza is a sociologist and Lecturer in Publishing and Digital Media at City University London’s Department of Culture and Creative Industries. She holds a first degree from Mount Holyoke College, an MA in Media, Culture, and Communication from New York University, and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Cambridge. Her doctoral thesis, titled ‘Domesticating Manga: Japanese Comics, American Publishing, and the Transnational Production of Culture,’ and is currently being revised into a book manuscript. Casey also has refereed articles in print or forthcoming in International Journal of Cultural Policy, Journal of Popular Culture, Studies in Comics, Publishing Research Quarterly, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Logos, and International Journal of the Book. She may be reached through her website.
This article is part of a series on comics and cultural work, guest edited by Casey Brienza. To read the other articles in this series click here.