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Category Archives: Comics and Cultural Work

Comics and Cultural Work: Conclusion by Casey Brienza

As I wrote in my introduction to this Comics Forum Special Theme Month on Comics and Cultural Work:

[R]esearch 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.

(Brienza 2013)

You have now, I would hope, read and reflected upon these scholars’ three contributions and noted for yourself how each piece does indeed grapple with these two questions. Benjamin Woo has contemplated the ways in which both capitalist modes of production and ideologies of creativity and artistic integrity obscure a nuanced and systematic understanding of comics as labor. Paddy Johnston has provided a close reading of Conversation #2 by James Kochalka and Jeffrey Brown and analyzed the artists’ particular strategies for both creating comics and paying the bills. Last but not least, Tom Miller rounds off the month with an impassioned—and deeply personal—autobiographical account of working as an independent comics retailer in Ontario, Canada.

Well then, how exactly have they intervened in the debates around cultural work? There seem to be three particularly important issues at play here. Firstly, the boundary between “cultural” and “non-cultural” work is clearly in need of much better delineation. The working definition provided by Hesmondhalgh and Baker (2011) I quote previously is indicative but not all-inclusive. Is it possible, as Miller (2013) contends, that comics retail is also a form of cultural work? Certainly, his invocation of love for comics before his love for money is a well-known, even stereotyped, position-taking in the cultural field. Indeed, retailers purveying so-called cultural goods exist in ambivalently at between business and artistic values; as sociologist Laura Miller (2006, 6) writes in her study of American bookselling, ‘[R]etailing is more than just a competitive field in which the economically powerful and agile survive, it is also the site of conflicting visions of how both individual and collective life benefit from the circulation of material goods.’

Yet when considered alongside Johnston’s account of Brown’s day job at a Barnes & Noble, it’s hard to see book retailing as only a site of “conflicting visions.” As Brown notes, ‘I kind of like my job. I get to work with books and music, and it gives me [health] insurance. And I still have time to draw comics a lot’ (quoted in Johnston 2013). It would be wrong, in my view, to separate comics creation and “the day job” into separate categories of professional life. Instead, I would argue that we need to think more inclusively about cultural work and the way in which certain forms of arguably “non-cultural” work—as well as circumstances and life-chances which have nothing directly to do with comics, such as whether or not you happen to live in a country with a robust social safety net—both enable and/or constrain comics production. Brown would not even be worrying about his health insurance in the first place if he lived, say, in Britain with its socialized National Health Service, instead of the United States.

This leads me to the second issue that emerges strongly from this Theme Month. What counts as “exploitative” and what does not is never straightforward and depends both upon how exploitation is understood, either through the critical lens or the researcher or the cultural worker’s own subjective experience. Some researchers would square the circle by calling cultural work a form of “self-exploitation”—to wit, a situation where workers labor ever harder, eventually driving themselves into the ground, in order to succeed and advance. Miller might well appreciate this terminology. However, it does imply a sort of victim-blaming and ignores individual autonomy even in the face of structural forces, and, more importantly, it over-generalizes cultural work as an analytical category and ignores the real power imbalances between different roles, such as between a comics writer and a comics letterer. In fact, Woo (2013) himself over-generalizes when he discusses comics characters as publishers’ intellectual property; while this is certainly the case in American superhero comics publishing, it is not, for instance, the case for mostany manga titles in Japan, where copyright and associated intellectual property is normally assigned to the creator.

This reference to national difference leads me to my third and final issue. The Comics and Cultural Work Special Theme month is the self-selected result of an open call for contributions. Although I did reject some submissions outright as wholly out-of-touch with the theme, I could not include anything I did not receive, and what has actually resulted is a series of contributions from three men writing almost exclusively about comics created by other men, all from an Anglo-American perspective. If the field of comics studies is to take work seriously, this is not a bad start, but it also only a start. If we are to have a richly imagined and sociologically informed understanding of comics and cultural work, we must be absolutely clear about which comics and whose comics are at stake, and in the future, I hope to see a more diverse range of academic voices. If you are a woman, or writing about women, or from somewhere besides the US, Canada, or Britain, please join us! As I’ve said, these debates have only just begun—you’ll get in on the proverbial ground floor.

Works Cited:

Brienza, Casey. 2013. “Comics and Cultural Work: Introduction.” Comics Forum, December 2. https://comicsforum.org/2013/12/02/comics-and-cultural-work-introduction-by-casey-brienza.

Hesmondhalgh, David and Sarah Baker. 2011. Creative Labour: Media Work in Three Cultural Industries. London: Routledge.

Johnston, Paddy. 2013. “Comics and the Day Job: Cartooning and Work in Jeffrey Brown and James Kochalka’s Conversation #2.” Comics Forum, December 16. https://comicsforum.org/2013/12/17/comics-and-the-day-job-cartooning-and-work-in-jeffrey-brown-and-james-kochalkas-conversation-2-by-paddy-johnston/.

Miller, Laura J. 2006. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Miller, Tom. 2013. “My Brief Adventure in Comic Book Retail.” Comics Forum, December 23. https://comicsforum.org/2013/12/23/my-brief-adventure-in-comic-book-retail-by-tom-miller/

Woo, Benjamin. 2013. “Why Is It So Hard to Think about Comics as Labour?” Comics Forum, December 9. https://comicsforum.org/2013/12/09/why-is-it-so-hard-to-think-about-comics-as-labour-by-benjamin-woo/

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.

 
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Posted by on 2013/12/30 in Comics and Cultural Work

 

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My Brief Adventure in Comic Book Retail by Tom Miller

I distinctly remember, on September 11th 2001, driving to the empty store in Oakville, Ontario that would be my comics and used book shop, and hearing a report on a Buffalo radio station about the World Trade Center towers falling. I was convinced, for the majority of my very short commute, that it was a joke. But when I reached the shop and went in, there had been no punch line. I turned on the radio in the store and listened, as I laid tile and patched holes, to the horrific tale unfolding many hundreds of kilometers south of me. I stopped work early that day, gathered with friends and family, and we watched, on television, the disaster unfold.

I really should have known, right then, what to expect.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not calling it an omen. I’m not ascribing some overwhelming power to fate. The sad fact of the matter is that, for a long while after the events we have dubbed “9-11,” being a small business owner was remarkably difficult. The world in which we lived, we in the overly-privileged West, had changed. And so I really should have known, right then, that the path I had chosen would not be an easy one. It certainly wasn’t, I should note, the only reason for the difficult path, but it was certainly a contributing factor. If I’m to be honest, it’s likely that I’m one of the worst business people you’re ever likely to encounter. That may have had something to do with it too.

About a year earlier, the campground my wife and I were running had been put up for sale, and we knew that we were going to have to find a new way of living. I had, over the winter season, worked in a used book shop, and the idea had come to me that a used book and comics store would be a lovely way to spend my time. My employer at the book shop warned me never to get into the business of selling something I loved. I ignored this advice flat out, drafted a business plan, and somehow convinced a bank to finance my endeavour.

I almost typed “folly” there. But I will try to maintain some optimism.

The shop opened the following October. I had spent weeks buying up used book stock and old comics collections. I had placed my orders with Diamond Distributors, and received some new stock with which to line my shelves. The expensive comics were, as expensive comics are wont to be, displayed proudly up on the wall. The back issues were priced and organized. The book shelves were not quite full, but full enough that the anticipated customers could spend a good few minutes, at least, on each section. I prided myself on quality of selection, as opposed to quantity.

Fig. 1 The shop, photo used with permission.

Fig. 1 The shop, photo used with permission.

I think I had one customer the first day. He came in, introduced himself as a fellow used book dealer, and then proceeded to haggle with me over the price of a book. He, of course, knew full well that I had just opened, as I had told him this myself moments earlier, so I felt that the haggling was, in the vernacular, “a dick move.”

The store lasted about 10 months, shutting down in August or September of 2002. I don’t know exactly when it was. It capped what had undoubtedly been the most traumatic and stressful year of my, and my family’s, life. I say this as a second year Ph.D. student, having experienced the stress and trauma of both undergraduate and graduate school. They are nothing compared to trying to sustain a small business in what is becoming a smaller and smaller niche market. And I was doing so at a time when comics were beginning to boom on the big screen. I was privileged to be a part of the first “Free Comic Book Day,” celebrated the weekend that the first Spider-Man film opened. The first X-Men film was only 2 years old. The Ultimate Marvel universe was reinvigorating a company that had teetered at the edge of bankruptcy for so many years. Marvel had taken the bold step of doing away with the Comics Code Authority, and were rating their comics themselves. At that end of the industry, on the production side, there seemed to be optimism. I wish that I could say the same for the distribution side.

I don’t think I would be out of line to say that running a comic book store has always been a dodgy enterprise. Even before the advent of the digital comic book, and whatever that may mean for the print version, comics were a small market. Couple this with the fact that comic book readers have a diverse range of tastes, a range that, in a small start-up business, is virtually impossible to meet, and the eventual demise of my shop would not have been that difficult to predict. Sales were never high, I was constantly behind on rent, and my personal life suffered as a result. I would say, with all sincerity, that it was one of the worst experiences of my life.

But (and there’s always a “but”), it was also one of the greatest. Forget that advice that you should never go into a business selling something you love. That’s ridiculous. I love comics. And I was privileged enough to be able to spend my every waking hour engaged in an enterprise that was part of the distribution of my beloved medium to the public. Of course, not so much of that public as I had hoped came through my doors, but some did. Some were rookies, some were old hands, but all were interested enough to spend the time, to talk, and, occasionally, to buy. On the days when he was not in daycare, my young son would spend the day in the shop with me. He remembers only a little now, a decade later, but he does remember some. He remembers a little of the time he spent with his Dad while his Dad owned a comic store.

After the store folded, I moved everything into storage. It is only in the last few years that I finally parted with the books that had filled the front of my store. The comics, of course, are now my personal collection, though they are also still a reminder of that brief, tumultuous time.

What, then, is my point?

How about this: It’s not easy being a comic shop owner. Financially, you get it from both sides. You’re stuck with Diamond Distributors and their monopoly on the industry. But you’re also stuck with a customer base that is constantly aware of the price increases and is happy to complain to you about them. The secondary market in back issues is a place where customers feel they have a right to dispute your prices, and, though it’s an utter lie, the old adage is that “The customer is always right.” You are expected to be aware of all significant announcements within the industry, and if you miss one, you are judged to be unworthy of the position of authority you have, perhaps unwillingly, been cast in. You can’t simply sell comics, of course. You must indulge in all the ancillary merchandise, in the hopes that some of the big ticket statues or reprint volumes will bolster the periodical sales each month. I can’t even imagine how comics shop owners are dealing with the distribution of digital editions of comics and graphic novels now.

Here’s what we need to remember about the owners of comics shops: They are the front line. Everyone in the industry owes them an unimaginable debt. There are, at least in my neck of the woods, no massive national chains of comic book shops. There are independently owned and run shops, often, but not always, begun through a desire to share a beloved medium, and the stories therein, with the public. This was always, always, my intention. I have loved comics for as long as I can remember reading. Before we moved to Canada, it was Doctor Who Weekly, or Star Wars Weekly. Once here, it was the various Archie titles, and Richie Rich’s oeuvre. I dove headlong in to the superhero realm with Crisis on Infinite Earths and have never looked back. In my current endeavour, pursuing a doctorate in English, my desire is still the same. I want to bring comics to the public. I want others to understand the love I have for them. That’s all I ever wanted while I ran my store, too.

I know that there are arguments for the move to digital comics. I know that piracy of comics is rampant. I also know that these things will not go away. But if the comics shop does, then the industry as a whole will have lost an important, and unique, champion of the medium. And that would be sad.

Tom Miller is a Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary in Alberta. As well as superhero comics, his research interests include psychedelic literature, H.P. Lovecraft, popular physics books, and modernist American poetry. His comic book store, “The Magic Mirror,” was a brief fixture in north Oakville from 2001 – 2002.

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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Posted by on 2013/12/23 in Comics and Cultural Work

 

Comics and the Day Job: Cartooning and Work in Jeffrey Brown and James Kochalka’s Conversation #2 by Paddy Johnston

James Kochalka is a prolific cartoonist known largely for his autobiographical comic American Elf (1998-2012), which ran daily for almost eleven years before he called time on it last year. The early years of American Elf chronicle his transition from working as a waiter to becoming a full-time cartoonist, with candid portrayals of the trials this career choice brought with it. Kochalka has also written some short and pithy essays about his own philosophy of comics and cartooning in prose and comic form, which are collected in a short book called The Cute Manifesto (2005) and have titles such as ‘The Horrible Truth About Comics.’ He has a clear vision of what comics, art and cartooning should be, with an aversion to craft and technical skill.

Conversation #2 (2005) is a minicomic that Kochalka collaborated on with fellow autobiographical cartoonist and Top Shelf contemporary Jeffrey Brown. They share the drawing equally and democratically, each cartoonist drawing himself and lettering his own speech, with the background being a conflation of both their uniquely concise black-and-white styles. Both cartoonists share their philosophies of comics and art, and extend these to life and work, fighting and eventually agreeing not to ‘spend too much time thinking’ (50) while, we infer, they agree to disagree on other points.

Most significantly, however, they discuss the economics of cartooning in relation to their own work towards the end of the comic. At the time, Kochalka had quit his job to become a full-time cartoonist but Brown hadn’t, and was still working full-time at a Barnes & Noble bookshop, though he is now making a comfortable living from his comics, largely as a result of the popularity of his Star Wars titles. In his typical hyperbolic style Kochalka, a Lilliputian figure in the comforting, stable hand of a giant Jeffrey Brown, whines that having a job was killing him (Brown and Kochalka, 34). A few pages later, Brown tells us that ‘Actually, I kind of like my job. I get to work with books and music, and it gives me insurance. And I still have time to draw comics a lot’ (43), which Kochalka follows up by whacking him with a vomit-soaked mop and telling him off for “rationalizing” his life and his art, when he should just be living and creating art, two things which are inseparable for Kochalka.

The dialogue between the two cartoonists touches upon a conundrum familiar to all artists, but to cartoonists in particular: a day job is necessary to provide stability and insurance, but it eats into the time needed to create comics and is a source of worry and discordance which is apparent in the work of many cartoonists today. Brown and Kochalka are some of the more prominent examples, but Chris Ware has also touched upon this in one of his oversized ACME Novelty Library pages which invites the reader to ruin their life by drawing cartoons with the sharing of thirteen supposed professional secrets. The fourth of these is a reminder that ‘You will not be compensated,’ (25) which expands this to tell us, ‘It is assumed you hold down at least two jobs in addition to your little cartooning hobby,’ (25) denigrating comics as a trivial undertaking – certainly not an art form.

The use of the word ‘hobby,’ laced with Ware’s cutting irony or not, would likely offend Jeffrey Brown and cause James Kochalka to vomit all over the page were it included in Conversation #2, but it is not a concept they engage with. For Kochalka, drawing is a way of life, while Brown is more realistic – he uses comics as a way to ‘feel like [his] life has a sense of purpose’ (15). Either way, comics are more than a hobby for both of them, and despite his playful mockery of this attitude, nobody would assume from any of Chris Ware’s works that comics are a hobby for him either. It is, of course, the co-workers in Ware’s scenario who perceive comics to be a hobby; for Ware’s cartoonist figure, a crumpled, despondent man hunched painfully over a drawing board, comics are all-consuming, just as they are for Kochalka, who calls them ‘the pounding of the human heart’ (10).

It might seem, therefore, that having a day job is not compatible with being a cartoonist, or at least with producing great comics. However, Brown’s comments make clear his satisfaction with his job’s provision of stability – he still has time to draw comics. And despite his melodramatic aversion to his previous day job, Kochalka’s oeuvre also betrays him in this instance: he managed to draw an entertaining and engaging daily comic strip for several years before quitting his day job, and it is of no discernibly poorer quality than any of his later work, which we would assume should be better (at least in his own terms) as he is now free to make his art as he wants to make it. Whilst Kochalka is clearly happier for having quit his day job, Brown managed to strike a balance between his comics and his job.

The cartoonists’ concern with their day jobs here is echoed in other art forms. Re-reading this comic recently I was struck by its similarity to a short book on the philosophy of creativity by writer, artist and blogger Austin Kleon, entitled Steal Like An Artist. The book is Kleon’s manifesto for making great art in any given art form, and his philosophy is similar to Kochalka’s – both are advocates of not waiting around or overthinking, and of making your art by diving into it and creating. The similarity between the two is in fact no coincidence. In a recent blog post, Kleon revealed that he chose the square format of Steal Like An Artist because this is the format of The Cute Manifesto. Seen side by side, both books are almost the same, but with different covers. Kleon and Kochalka come from different artistic backgrounds but share creative ideals that help to contextualize comics and work within popular culture.

Significantly, one of the mini-chapters in Steal Like An Artist is entitled ‘Keep Your Day Job.’ It consists of a few short paragraphs which remind us of the benefits of having a day job: money, ‘connection to the world’ (123), routine, human interaction. Kleon also posits that ‘freedom from financial stress also means freedom in your art,’ (123) a view which would certainly be shared by the Jeffrey Brown we see in Conversation #2, though he concludes by stating that freedom should be balanced with control and discipline (49). Where Brown and Kochalka don’t reach a definitive conclusion, Kleon does:

The trick is to find a day job that pays decently, doesn’t make you want to vomit, and leaves you with enough energy to make things in your spare time. Good day jobs aren’t necessarily easy to find, but they’re out there. (125)

If this is the trick, then both Brown and Kochalka have accomplished it in Conversation #2, despite the copious amount of vomit that appears throughout the comic. Kochalka’s day job is comics, which suits him because he lives and breathes comics and can’t find another job that doesn’t make him want to vomit; Brown’s day job is at Barnes & Noble, which suits him because it is not demanding or time-consuming and is of sufficient interest to him to keep the vomit down.

Cartooning, at least for creators of alternative comics such as Jeffrey Brown and James Kochalka, is therefore an art which must be examined in the context of the cultural work that surrounds it and the practical considerations surrounding the labour of cartooning. I have here discussed comics in relation to day jobs and financial imperative, and I conclude that day jobs and cartooning are more than compatible, in light of the context offered by Steal Like An Artist. There is much to be said, too, about Kochalka’s almost bizarre aversion to craft. In Douglas Wolk’s words, this is ‘a raspberry in the face of…fine-art tradition,’ (205) – but why would a cartoonist want to make such a raspberry? This too is a discussion for a longer article and one which could be contextualized in comics studies by Bart Beaty’s Comics Versus Art, among other recent texts. Kochalka’s raspberry is a telling example of the numerous questions which arise from considerations of comics and cultural work, and one which has been discussed at length amongst cartoonists in the pages of The Comics Journal. I hope this article it makes a contribution to moving comics studies towards more analyses of the context of work and political economy, distinct from the previous prominence of formalist analysis.

References:

Beaty, Bart. Comics Versus Art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.

Brown, Jeffrey and Kochalka, James. Conversation #2. Marietta: Top Shelf, 2005.

Hodler, Timothy and Nadel, Dan. ‘Blood and Thunder: Craft is The Enemy.’ The Comics Journal. 5th June, 2013. [Accessed 28th October, 2013] URL http://www.tcj.com/blood-and-thunder-craft-is-the-enemy

Kleon, Austin. Steal Like An Artist. New York: Workman Publishing, 2012.

Kleon, Austin. ‘Craft is the Enemy.’ austinkleon.com. 2nd June, 2012. [Accessed 28th October, 2013] URL <http://tumblr.austinkleon.com/post/24261617931&gt;

Kochalka, James. American Elf. Online archive of daily comics. [Accessed 28th October, 2013] URL <http://americanelf.com&gt;

Kochalka, James. The Cute Manifesto. Gainesville: Alternative Comics, 2005.

Ware, Chris. The Acme Novelty Library Annual Report to Shareholders. New York: Pantheon, 2005.

Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2007.

Paddy Johnston is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex, currently working towards his PhD in English. His thesis is entitled ‘Working With Comics’ and will examine what it means to work as a cartoonist, with attention to art pedagogy, materiality and the influence of literary modernism. He has recently given papers at the Transitions 4 symposium in London and the Comics and the Multimodal World conference in Vancouver and has been published in The Comics Grid journal and is a contributor to the comics blog Graphixia. He is also a cartoonist, singer/songwriter and writer of fiction for the One Hour Stories podcast.

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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Posted by on 2013/12/17 in Comics and Cultural Work

 

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

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.

References:

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. http://comicsalliance.com/image-experience-creativity-portraits-eric-stephenson/.

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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Posted by on 2013/12/09 in Comics and Cultural Work

 

Comics and Cultural Work: Introduction by Casey Brienza

‘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.

Works Cited:

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.

 
 

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