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Comics and Capitalism

Sean Michael Wilson

I was interviewed on a radical podcast and we got to discussing the politics of Walking Dead TV series, especially what kind of economy and society they had after the zombies started, noting that it is no longer a capitalist world they inhabit. On the spur of the moment I summarised it with a joke:

“The zombies killed capitalism!”

That interview was considering a subject that has become quite a hot one in the comic book world: about how we can arrange things in terms of readers, money and sales, etc to help struggling comic book creators. I myself am a professional comic book writer (graphic novels if you prefer their posh term), with more than twenty books published, three of them with New Internationalist (Fight the Power, Goodbye God and Portraits of Violence). Recently there has been more talk in the graphic novel world about creators  simply not being able to make ends meet. An announcement this year by the popular creator Hannah Berry, that she will no longer make any long graphic novels, has become something of a symbolic rally point for the issue. Why has she made that decision? Because she simply can’t afford to, it takes too much time for too little money:

“To make a graphic novel takes me three years of blinkered, fanatical dedication, and I realised while working on Livestock that I just can’t do it again. I’m done. I’m out. And from quiet talks with many other graphic novelists, ones whose books you know and love, I can tell you that I’m far from being the only one…This is the problem with making graphic novels in the UK today, and it’s one we need to address: the numbers do not add up.”

Now amongst the debate on such fine comic book places as Broken Frontier has been very detailed consideration of how we increase our readership, market our books better, make books that people want to buy, increase our social media presence, etc. All in order to make the numbers add up to a decent living for creators. Berry mentions that we should perhaps pressurize the government to provide more in the way of arts grants for making comics. There is certainly a case to be made for that, compared with the far higher subsidies received for other art forms.  All of these are relevant. But, oddily enough, the main cause of the basic problem is rarely mentioned. And what is that? Yep, you guessed it – our old adversary that so far refuses to lie down, capitalism. Among 99% of the people talking about this the question of how the basic economic system affects comic book creators hardly raises its head. 

Most of the views and discussions I have seen about the economy of comics are based on the idea that what we need is more READERS. I want to say something quite radical: actually we have enough readers already. What we lack is PROFIT. And by that I do not mean therefore we need to get more profit. What I mean is that the problem is the very idea of profit itself. The need, the compulsion, to make profit within a capitalist style economy. That’s our real problem. At the very least there should be an awareness that this is the underlaying cause.

This is why I say it’s the main problem: because in a capitalist economy the main focus is on making profit. Not on making things people want or need. And it’s a system based on making profit which is controlled by a tiny elite of people who have a huge influence on what gets made. So, in capitalist economy human creative energy – in the arts, sciences, education, everything – is focused on what will make a profit. So, if some good comic does not sell enough then it does not make enough profit and it’s cancelled. Or some good idea never gets made in the first place because the publisher knows that it probably won’t sell enough, it won’t make enough profit. They would like to publish it but they can’t. The ‘economic reality’ stops them. How many of us comic book creators have heard that from publishers? How many of us have therefore had our great ideas wither on the vine? How many editors and publishers have regretted being chained to that situation too?

So, if this profit obsession is such a barrier to our creativity, in many fields, why don’t we get rid of it? Why not set up another, better system? Some think because we can’t. We are not capable of any system other than ‘the Big C’. I don’t have space to go into that now, perhaps in another article. So, for now, let’s presume that we CAN come up with a better, alternative system. Probably one that draws on elements of socialism, anarchism and environmentalism. Let’s just call it a ‘Better Economic and Social System’ (BESS). In a BESS private profit will not be the main focus. Instead we will focus all of our energies towards creating good societies, towards creating a sense of well-being, healthy lifestyles, environmentally friendly policies, a good education etc – all the things that we human beings need for a decent life. And art is part of that. Music is part of that. Dance is part of that. And comics are part of that. So, in a BESS what will matter is not ‘Will this comic make enough profit?’, but the far better questions of: ‘Is this a good comic? Is it interesting? Is it funny? Is it moving?’. When those are the criteria comics will flourish far more than now, when the poison of profit no longer taints our efforts.

There is also the issue of WHO decides. In the Big C that tiny elite of the power get to decide most of what happens in our economy. In a BESS decisions about what gets made and how we make it, and how we use our resources, will be made by people in general – by us all, as equals, working together in some kind of local democratic council type groups.  Again, I’ve no space here to say much more about how they would work. Anyone interested to consider it more can email me. Or check out the various approaches to organising a better society than can be found in books or online, such as the ‘parecon’ system or the ‘anarchism 101’ pages at The Anarchist Library. But, basically, we comic book folk could bring our ideas to the arts council of our area and try to persuade them that the book is interesting. It won’t be some elite group of councillors who decides – that would be little better than things are now when we have to supplicate ourselves to publishers. It’s a council, or collective or community that WE are also equal members of, and that decides things in a truly democratic way with real processes for bringing up complaints and appeals. How much better that would be than now, were creators get ideas rejected mostly on the grounds of low profit potential, and with absolutely no process in place to challenge that decision.  

I said we have enough readers. A study of facebook found that 24 million Americans have noted ‘comics’ as an area of interest on their accounts. According to data on the Statista Portal, around 28% of 8 to 16 year olds in the UK regularly read comics. No one seems to be sure about the figure for adult readers in the UK, but, at a guess, I would say it may be around the same figure as the 4% of the population that regularly attends the opera. What this means is that we already have enough people interested to read comics. Certainly enough to influence those local arts groups in a BESS that comics are something worth focusing some of our limited resources into. If there are, say, just 1000 people interested to read your comics that’s plenty – that’s one thousand real flesh and blood people, all of who matter, all of whom are part of society and get a say in how it’s run. We already have enough people interested in comics to allow for many, many comics to be given the backing of those arts councils up and down the country. And by backing I mean money, yes. In a BESS meaning some kind of credits for ‘useful work done for the community’. Not a grant, but the same kind of credits received for their useful contribution by the teacher, the street sweeper, the brain surgeon. Credits that can be spent on the things we all need for a decent, healthy, happy life. In such a system the numbers WILL add up. Not by magic, but by organising things well, according to what we want, need, value, and are prepared to work for. Which is not what happens under capitalism. 

Lastly, in a BESS, it is highly likely that that amount of readers of comics will go up. Because there will also be less of a barrier of having to buy comics. Many of those council backed comics that we creators would make would be available for free, just like the local play park is free. So, many more readers will check them out. Or readers would ‘pay’ some allotted credit for them, which would probably be small amount, simply deducted from their total credit balance. In the same way they pay for milk or a new pair of shoes. And, as its not a capitalist profit based system, creators would not get that credit, direct from reader to creator, or some % of it via a publisher. Creators, like everyone, receive their collectively agreed on level of credits via the local council (that they are a full and equal member of, remember) for their work. So, they would not receive 100 times more credits if their book is read by 100,000 people instead of 1,000. So, that would free us from the slavery of obsessing with numbers, to the shallow ‘sell, sell, sell,’ mentality of capitalism. And there would be far less of a problem of the silly desire to become ‘rich and famous’ too. We would not need either in order to feel we are doing something worthwhile. The focus would be on something very simple, but rather healthy: on making good comics that people value. Just that. And since the horrible profit issue would be out of the way we would all be more free to focus on experimenting, flexing our artistic muscles, trying new ideas. Or simply making good films, good music, good comics.

So, if brain dead zombies can end capitalism, so can we. And since we lovely humans are not brain dead (most of us, anyway), we should be capable of replacing it with something that works better – for the arts, for the sciences, for education, for the environment, for us all.

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