Why is it so hard to think about comics as labour? by Benjamin Woo

09 Dec

Last year, Image Comics ran an in-house advertising campaign featuring simple, candid photographs of comic book writers and artists in their working environments (see Khouri 2012). Emblazoned with inspiring quotations and the slogan, ‘Experience Creativity,’ the ads argued that—unlike competitors?—Image’s comics issue forth from the vision of exceptionally creative individuals.

But cultural work is always exceptional. It doesn’t follow the normal rules of labour under capitalism because of the exceptional character of cultural goods. In the age of mass production, cultural goods are pretty easy to make but still hard to create. As anyone who’s ever stared at a blank page or computer screen can tell you, creativity can’t be engineered. The creative act is contingent, specific and unique, but it can also be tough to tell whether it has produced something valuable or not. For all the efforts of executives at the big culture industry conglomerates and creativity gurus, cultural work remains mercurial.

So, no matter how formulaic the comic book industry’s outputs sometimes appear, comics simply couldn’t exist without substantial, ongoing creative inputs of writers, artists (including inkers, letterers, and colourists) and editors. Yet we seem to find it very difficult to conceptualize making comics as a labour process or an employment relationship. By now, the critique that most academic work in comics studies focuses on texts rather than their social contexts is a familiar one (e.g., Brienza 2010, 107). But even when we talk about the people who make comics, their labour tends to drop out of the picture.

This might be a controversial claim, since comics scholars are typically on the creators’ side when it comes to struggles over the ownership of the characters they have created. In fact, this support often takes the form of repudiating creators’ status as workers in order to establish them as independent rights holders whose creative act is always al-ready in the past. Neither is acknowledging the skill and craftsmanship involved (or asking about what kind of pens and brushes are used) quite the same as understanding the myriad ways that labour relations constitute and determine the texts produced and the quality of life afforded to those who make them.

In any case, it’s undeniable that we academics know very little about what it’s like to work in comics today. What we do know is largely anecdotal and unsystematic. For the past several months, I’ve been preparing a study to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge about the creative workforce in comics. While designing the survey instrument and interview guide, I’ve been spending a lot of time pondering why it’s so hard for us to think about comics in terms of labour. There are, I think, at least three interacting reasons.

At the most general level, powerful ideologies pit art and commerce against one another. Thus, the project of legitimating comics’ aesthetic value has often involved identifying “great comics artists” who rise above mere “hacks” precisely insofar as they transcend their employment relationship with publishers and syndicates—or, at least, win a space of creative autonomy within that relationship. The flip-side of the “comics as art” argument is that making comics is not a job, not a straightforward exchange of labour-power for pay. This serves not only to distinguish the disinterested from the commer-cially motivated creators, but it also separates “artists” from “craftsmen” or “artisans,” leading many to diminish the contributions of workers who do the more routinized and “job-like” tasks in the creative process, such as letterers, colourists, and editors.

The quasi-celebrity status of some comics creators—whether “fan-favourite” artists or, more commonly today, star writers—is closely related. Like many fields of cultural production, comics is a winner-take-all economy where a small minority of workers enjoy the majority of the success. In one view, it is simply the nature of the cultural market-place (aided and abetted by marketing and PR, to be sure) to produce a few hits and many more flops. But insofar as we fall prey to the cult of celebrity around a small class of relatively successful creators, we lose sight of the more typical conditions facing B-, C- and D-list creators, new entrants to the field, and those who never quite manage to break into the industry. And the auteur’s charisma only serves to disguise the fact that stars, too, are workers.

Finally, the understanding amongst corporate publishers—and many comics fans—that the comic book industry is principally about producing and servicing intellectual property mitigates against a fully rounded appreciation of comics as labour. By elevat-ing characters above the discrete works in which they appear, as in the “Before Watchmen” controversy, we also elevate them above the mere mortals who execute those works. As John Thornton Caldwell (2008, 264) writes, the logic of franchises involves the “systematic denial of certain fundamental entities,” including the “workers that make the franchise”:

[…] Franchises shift the focus away from the identity of either the bigger corpo-ration (studio or network) or the workforce (that produces the franchise) in order to cultivate, overproduce, and perform the identity of marquee signature behind the blockbuster (Stan Lee for the Spider-Man and X-Men sequels; J.R.R. Tolkien / Peter Jackson for the Lord of the Rings franchise).

Franchising denies not only co-creators of record like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby but also, for example, John Romita, the Claremont and Byrne team, and many, many others who, in mixing their creative labour with the characters, made them, in a sense, their own.

Marxists have long argued that the productive labour that makes goods is obscured by the capitalist system. This phenomenon is called commodity fetishism or reification, and as Adorno and Horkheimer (2002, 191) assert, “all reification is a forgetting.” Paradoxically, however, efforts to remind us of the people and the labour that make our things—especially when these efforts are components of marketing campaigns—often simply displace that fetishism, intensified, onto another object (Binkley 2008), such as the charismatic celebrity.

In Image’s Experience Creativity campaign, for example, the publisher shines a spotlight on (some of) the workers who make their comics, but this labour is mislabelled and misrecognized as a free act of creativity, divorced from the economic and practical realities in which it is grounded. Even the featured creators explicitly deny the labour character of their work as part of their public self-presentation—or what Lorraine York (2013) refers to as the labour of celebrity. As Brandon Graham, writer of Image’s Prophet, puts it, “I hope this never starts to feel like just a job.” It might not be just a job, but it is nevertheless a job, and one characterized by both precarious conditions and uneven rewards.


Binkley, Sam. 2008. “Liquid Consumption: Anti-consumerism and the Fetishized De-fetishization of Commodities.” Cultural Studies 22, no. 5: 599–623. doi:10.1080/09502380802245845.

Brienza, Casey. 2010. “Producing Comics Culture: A Sociological Approach to the Study of Comics.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 1, no. 2: 105–119. doi:10.1080/21504857.2010.528638.

Caldwell, John Thornton. 2008. Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Khouri, Andy. 2012. “Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson on Photographic ‘Ex-perience Creativity’ Campaign.” Comics Alliance (blog), February 1.

York, Lorraine. 2013. Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Benjamin Woo is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of English at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. His dissertation research examined one city’s “nerd-culture scene,” including comic shops and their customers. He is currently conducting a survey of creative workers in the English-language comic book industry.

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.


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