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.
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.
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.