MIKE GOLD: Belabor Day
As our own Martha Thomases pointed out last Saturday, today is Labor Day. Martha made an interesting comparison between Manhattan and the Bottle City of Kandor without once referencing Rudy Guiliani as Brainiac. Nice self-restraint, Martha!
Like Martha, I, too, come from a city of Big Labor, one that has thus far managed to avoid the menace of Wal-Mart, the worst drug that has invaded American shores. I was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW; the Wobblies) until I became an editor, a.k.a. “management.” So I tend to look at the world from the point of view of the working person, and I’ve got the financial stability to prove it.
So on this, ComicMix’s first Labor Day, I thought I’d make a few comments about the comic book business and its workers.
Creators who work in this medium are, by and large, freelancers. They are, by and large, responsible for their own health care and retirement. This means that most comics people have no health care or retirement. I know people on the Right consider this to be their fault, the result of the fact that they’re not as smart as people on the Right. These are fools who have never had to face the prospect of going without food or lodging. It’s amazing how fast your priorities change when you’ve got nothing on the table and in a few weeks no place to put that table. As a comics editor, I’ve always remembered this: the people upon whom I depend to pay my rent are living tits to the wind.
Not everybody in comics management remembers this. Back in the 1960s a number of important creators at DC Comics tried forming a guild to protect their jobs and provide some security. DC, of course, was (and is) in the heart of Manhattan. These were creators who were important to the company: they were involved in producing some of the company’s more successful features over the course of their tenure. And within about a year, each and every one of them was gone from the company.
In fact, DC’s then-management actually brought in an editor, Dick Giordano, who would bring in his own creative crew from Charlton. Without knowledge of the situation – he was still in Connecticut at the time – Dick found himself replacing many of these creators. When he told me that story (at the same Westport bar where he was hired by DC), it was clear he hated having been cast as something of a patsy. One of the many reasons I respect him.
Another attempt at guild-making came in the late 1970s. Fresh from his successful campaign on behalf of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Neal Adams helped organize a guild that included a wide variety of comics writers and artists, one that, for a while, looked like it might carry some real weight.
At the time there were only three real publishers: Archie, DC and Marvel (in alphabetical order). Charlton, Harvey and Whitman kept on flickering in and out of existence, and the “independents” had yet to organize. So it hardly came as a surprise that, once this guild entered the realm of critical mass, DC and Marvel started canceling titles wholesale. Fewer comics published means less work produced, and those freelancers who remain employed tend to want to keep their jobs. Sure, there were market conditions that justified these cancellations, but they were the same market conditions that existed before this latest labor effort.
The explosion of the “independent” comics movement in the 1980s got some competition going, but it was all too easy for the major publishers to crowd indies off the direct sales stands, and this remains true to this day. Publishing pamphlets for the comics shops is not a great way to make a living as retailers order their books non-returnable. Every commitment to a non-DC/Marvel title is a risk, and each month virtually all retailers are betting their future on the Diamond order form… which, I think, should be published by The Racing Form.
So this Labor Day. As Martha said, a nice day to kick back and forget about the bullshit. But tomorrow, let’s remember that a great many of the men and women who provide us with our four-color entertainment are struggling to make a living.
Mike Gold is editor-in-chief of ComicMix.com.