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The Cartoonist Cooperative is building a brave new world for comics

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The Cartoonist Cooperative is building a brave new world for comics

We spoke with several founders of the intriguing new union/advocacy group.

In recent weeks, the WGA strike has been an ongoing story of interest. For the first time since 2007-2008, the union of TV and film writers have hit the picket line, demanding more comprehensive compensation as studios and executives experience record levels of profitability (thanks in part to streaming). And the plight of these creatives has highlighted an essential but often underlooked aspect of the modern media landscape: if you want good, compelling stories, you have to pay writers/creators in general.

The WGA strike also comes at a time when other creatives are standing up for themselves and fighting for greater wages and other protections. Case in point: the Cartoonist Cooperative, which debuted back in late February in an effort to “make our creative practice more sustainable and successful.” The Cooperative — formed by pro artists Sloane Leong, Zach Hazard Vaupen, Nero Villagallos O’Reilly, Reimena Yee, Joan Zahra Dark, and Aaron Losty — employs a multifaceted approach in supporting both individual creators and comics-making at large.

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That approach includes, among other avenues, promoting new comics from creators; addressing issues and other conflicts; generating new funding for creators, including grants; and, perhaps biggest of all, working to define an “industry standard for livable pay rates.” (The Cooperative has other projects, too, all geared around engaging this larger, ever-crowded modern ecosphere.) But it’s more than just business; the Cooperative is just as much about uplifting one another creatively, and working to support and empower up-and-coming and veteran cartoonists alike. It may be early, but the work of this group is already doing some compelling things in the name of protecting and shaping the visual arts.

You can read more about the Cooperative’s ongoing work at their official site. But we wanted to take a little time to explore this group’s practices and ideals, and so we gathered several of the founders for an extended online conversation. Among other topics, we touched on their work with publishers and other stakeholders; having important conversations about finances; how the WGA strike has impacted their work; and recruiting new artists and any future plans/campaigns.

Cartoonist Cooperative

An introductory comic from Sloane Leong and Anna Bow. Courtesy of Cartoonist Cooperative.

AIPT: You talk about trying to “make our creative practice more sustainable and successful.” Can you, however briefly, maybe provide some insights to readers? Namely, what are the economical challenges faced by cartoonists/those who create comics? Just what sort of challenges or issues do cartoonists face that need rectifying?

Joan Zahra Dark: Oh wow, there’s a lot of issues but I think ultimately, the two biggest challenges to me are the undervaluing of art and by extension the artist in how we talk about comics. We know for a fact that page rates for comic artists (illustration in general) haven’t improved in decades and if anything, have actually gotten worse given that we haven’t adjusted for inflation at all! It’s a huge problem.

Zach Hazard Vaupen: The greatest economic challenge cartoonists face is frankly that no publishers are offering anything resembling a living wage. Even calling what is received in most cases a “wage” is kind of a joke. The pay is more often than not more akin to an honorarium. Obviously by extension that means absolutely no benefits like health insurance, sick/vacation days, or a pension. Financial support that actually pays for labor hours during the creation of a comic is exceedingly rare. The vast majority of cartoonists, even at the highest levels, work other jobs/in other professions to support themselves, or have the support of their spouse or family. Interestingly, publishers can hire full-time employees to deal with the day to day operations of a publisher, yet they can’t extend such employment to the cartoonists who actually are the reason for the entire industry to exist.

Nero Villagallos O’Reilly: I recently learned the phrase “serialization pauper”– it’s what Japanese cartoonists call authors who can make a living through continual work, but don’t make enough money to actually be successful. The fact that there’s a phrase for that should give people an insight into how dire things can be for even the most famous of us.

AIPT: Perhaps building on the last question, what was the specific genesis of this cooperative? Who started the convo, what does the initial organization look like, etc.?

JZD: We all came into a Discord server Sloane was running, Sloane was the big push in getting this off the ground as we were all lamenting the fracturing of Twitter and it being even harder for folks to get their comics out there without falling into traps with predatory comics publishers. As soon as I saw the rumblings of a comics cooperative, I was extremely excited as, at least in my opinion, seeing the worker coop structure as one of the best stop-gaps we have available against capitalism right now. And the six of us who currently make up the co-op’s steering committee really naturally came out of who kept showing up as this idea kept building and I’m really glad to be part of such an amazing group of folks with Sloane, Zach, Reimena, Aaron, and Nero!

We currently have just the one committee along with some members who’ve stepped up for more involved roles in social media and editing some articles for our website but I fully expect more committees to arise as work gets more divided and we have more members passionate about taking ownership of different parts of the Co-op.

Cartoonist Cooperative

Featured comic Oh, Radiant Devil! Oh, Whispering Angel! by Kimberly Wang.

AIPT: What goes into the conversations about creating a pay rate? And is that complicated at all given the sometimes anxiety-ridden nature of discussing finances?

JZD: Well, I think that anxiety around how we talk about finances is largely driven by an anxiety that’s pushed by bosses and employers, right? They don’t want us discussing finances and sharing pay rates because that then tells you if you’re getting underpaid or not valued enough for your work. So rate sharing plays a huge part in creating standards that cartoonists can afford to live off of.

ZHV: Building on what Joan said, there are additional worries some face in the independent contractor market of art workers that they will be undercut by other bidders if they reveal their rates to colleagues. This is because we lack collective structures. Rate sharing through a collective like our Co-op ensures a feeling of solidarity. Anyone caught undercutting the rates of other Co-op members will certainly face consequences, so members can feel free to discuss rates and wages openly with each other.

NVO: Right! Collective rate sharing is also important in international discussions — big companies often let their current artists go and then start courting artists from “poorer” countries. They take advantage of those artists’ unfamiliarity with the industry, desire to get experience, or just the need to get work. When we create an international conversation, we can see who’s being targeted and warn them about predatory business practices.

AIPT: What’s been the initial reaction among publishers, retailers, and/or other groups that the Cooperative has worked with? Has it been all sunshine and promises, or have there been some awkward conversations and the like?

Sloane Leong: So far the reaction from publishers has been silence — with the exception of some smaller presses, like Silver Sprocket and Bulgilhan Press, who have been incredibly supportive! The Co-op launched at the end of February so in these few months of existence, our main goal has been to build up our membership. Until we have enough workers to exert pressure on publishers, I imagine they won’t pay much attention to us.

JZD: The general reaction from folks who have wanted to engage with us like smaller publishers and some convention organizers has been great but I think it’s understandable that folks in publishing and even other cartoonists don’t immediately know how to react to a project like this. I’m really hopeful as we keep building up our member base and showing the co-op as a resource that more people will find their way over to join or work with us.

AIPT: I’m just as much interested in the Cooperative for the way it seems you work and support each other artistically. Can you talk about why that’s so important, and what does it mean to have a resource like that? Especially when I assume being a pro artist can often feel so isolating.

NVO: It can be very isolating- you’re working long hours for weeks upon weeks, sometimes years, on something that someone will sit down and read in a few hours (if you’re lucky). You rarely get feedback from your audience, and even if you get feedback in online spaces you’re still fighting to have your work seen in the first place.

A big personal concern of mine is lost knowledge — I’ve seen TikToks from newer authors with 50,000 followers who only this year discover things like the Ames lettering guide! Not their fault, obviously, but the Co-op is able to help mitigate similar situations like this because of the sheer spread of generations of creators involved. We can chat about everything from what rubber grips fit older iPad pencils, how big margins need to be on a zine, and even how to get out of bad agent situations. The less artists have to reinvent the wheel the better.

The Cartoonist Cooperative is building a brave new world for comics

Featured comic: Rusalka by Kamila Krol

AIPT: What have been some of the challenges personally or collectively in piecing the Cooperative together? Is it a tad more complicated given that you’re all creative types, or has that maybe afforded some novel opportunities?

SL: I’m the semi-useless ideas guy/hype man so when I was thinking about making the Co-op, it did seem dauntingly complicated…and then my wonderful co-founders jumped in and made it easy! Nero handled designing our beautiful website and Reimena did so much work building an exhaustive backend database to handle all the info we’re working with. We also have our wonderful co-founder Joan who has lots of experience with organizing and helped guide us through best practices around communication and overseeing our community. Oh, and Aaron and Zach are the muscle.

ZHV: *cracks knuckles*

Aaron Losty: *flexing* *wheezing*

Reimena Yee: Hm, I’d question the thinking that just because we are all creative types means we don’t have organizational skills, or even transferable skills we learned from our other jobs and interests. All our committee, staff and volunteers have vital skills and attitudes that fulfill the needs of the Co-op. If there is a challenge at all, it’s the difficulty of coordinating such a large, international membership… Plus, the Co-op is still new, so I figure we’ll sort out our growing pains eventually.

NVO: Honestly being a creative type is what helped me gain skills in website building in the first place- webcomics have to go somewhere!

AIPT: What about the reactions of other artists/cartoonists/etc.? How big has the group gotten so far (numbers wise), and how open are professionals thus far to taking advantage of the support and resources? Has their reaction been surprising at all?

SL: We currently have 400 members and they’re incredibly friendly and generous. I think a lot of us cartoonists are pretty isolated either because of our personalities or our craft and we’ve all been craving for a little virtual space to connect that isn’t a public social media platform. I also think the fact that we ask for members to exchange labor instead of dues to gain membership means our members are already joining with a giving, open spirit.

NVO: Outside of the Cooperative, I’ve gotten reactions from other artists that boil down to “why?”– usually older creators who are very aligned with the big publishers! I think if they saw the way members very willingly share resources, information, and even just comradery they’d think twice.

AIPT: It’s still early in this process, but have you learned anything thus far? Has this whole process altered your perceptions or cartooning and comics or being a professional artist in general?

SL: It’s definitely changed my attitude around cartoonists and labor in the comics industry, as in it’s gone from existential dread to actually hopeful. I know a lot of members who join are like ‘I don’t even know why I’m in this industry’ and I was too. But once you start hanging around people who love the medium like you do, are willing to help you develop yourself as a cartoonist, are there to help you make smart career choices, and will even go so far as to promote your work…it’s hard not to feel encouraged!

ZHV: Frankly, I’ve learned a ton. Both about organizing people and career development, which is awesome because I already had experience with both before, but there’s always more to learn! With so many members constantly sharing insights and resources, it’s difficult not to absorb quite a lot if you’re engaging with the community. I’ve gotten better at writing contracts. I have access to tons of marketing data and advice. My drawings are better thanks to feedback that I’ve received and given (even critiquing another artist’s work can give you new insight into your own). There’s a lot on offer.

The Cartoonist Cooperative is building a brave new world for comics

Featured comic: The Last Band On Earth by Elaine M. Will

RY: The Co-op is very much in line with my practice. In the past, I co-founded a similar collective for the Southeast Asian comics ecosystem [Editor’s Note: they’ve been intentionally unnamed], and over the years, I produced resources for peers and facilitated workshops, panels and my day job for the professional development of cartoonists at varying stages of their career. Other than becoming more familiar with the complexities of international organization, the Co-op has reinforced and vindicated my opinion that strong solidarity and conversations between cartoonists is vital to the health and growth of the medium I love.

AIPT: The Cooperative seems to come out strongly (enough) against AI. Why is that such a vital issue? Is it perhaps the way it sort of ties together ideas about pay/compensation and transparency about the actual efforts of your average artist?

ZHV: It’s vital for a large variety of reasons. The tech world is no longer interested in ushering us into a technologically advanced future, but more of a technologically drained future. Silicon Valley wants nothing more than to create a box where ideas go in and deregulation comes out. They tried it with cryptocurrency and NFTs, and now they’re trying it with (what they inaccurately call) AI. Theoretically, they can stop hiring artists for design work and illustrations, they can stop hiring copywriters and screenwriters, they can control and commodify creativity. Of course, just like AI’s aren’t actually intelligent (artificial or not), creativity itself cannot be commodified the way tech folks (or laypeople) expect. In practice, AI generated writing and imagery are spam factories. They will make it harder for people online to find what they’re actually looking for–whether that’s real art or accurate information.

It’s also a plagiarism factory that obscures the plagiarism in a way that makes it difficult to trace the source. The way it’s marketed also gives significant leverage to companies hiring artists to depress wages by either making the artist compete with the AI or by making it “revise” the work of the AI for a lower wage. We already see this in other industries like translation. AI prompt generators are an existential problem for everyone, not just artists. But in a world where people making comics for the largest comics publishers in the world don’t even own the rights to their own work, this can lead to a major crisis.

JZD: At the end of the day, unless you’re basing it off of your own work, generative AI (which, as Zach points out, is about as intelligent as a few Google searches) for any kind of creative output is always pulling from someone else’s labor without paying for it. We can’t sweep under the rug that someone’s scripts, someone’s art, someone’s time and effort is what’s being plugged into datasets that generative AI are trained on. And the tech companies who are trying to treat this as a huge innovation are conveniently ignoring or outright disregarding that labor in an effort to market the “future” to anyone who’s willing to believe that lie. Cartoonists are putting in hundreds, sometimes thousands of hours into making beautiful comics and to not see that as skilled labor is cruel and despicable.

RY: The unethical, hype-based appropriation of generative ML is not just problematic for artists – it is problematic for all workers, and every person who has had their photographs, words or data (personal or private) on the internet. The internet is so central to our lives and our infrastructure that it is inevitable that many parts of our minds and bodies are online. To have corporations disregard a person’s right to privacy, consent and ownership, and be entitled to weaponize our output against the originator of the output is not only ghoulish, but completely out of touch with reality. This malignant usage of generative ML doesn’t “sort of” tie together with issues of pay and transparency – they are all symptoms of the same systemic and political rot that is happening in business, where infinite profit is king and thus, all expressions of humanity must be violently flattened and exploited to fit the “numbers go up” model.

The Cartoonist Cooperative is building a brave new world for comics

Featured comic: The World Ends With A Poot! by Sarah Maloney.

AIPT: What do you want fans to know about the work the Cooperative does and why a group like yours is so important?

AL: I think first and foremost the Coop is open to anyone who is making comics. We have a very active community discord and forum of over 400 members. Participation in the discord or forum isn’t mandatory but they are thriving with resources and feedback. Being an artist is very time consuming and often introspective meaning you most likely spend a large portion of time alone. The discord and forum are a fantastic place to chat with like minded people and ask for help. We encourage labour exchange where it’s viable. You can flat pages and you need someone to set up a print document for you? Put it on the noticeboard. The strongest power I think the Coop has is its strength in numbers and skill sharing.

If a publisher is taking all your rights, paying a meager page rate and expecting you to use your own social media presence to promote your book, then why not do it yourself with the help of the Coop? These predatory publishers simply cannot exist without artists.

AIPT: I don’t think there’s a way to talk about the Cooperative without mentioning the WGA strike. What does that process/”event” do in terms of inspiring or motivating the Cooperative’s work? Does it also perhaps intimidate or complicate your efforts at all?

SL: It’s been really inspiring! Our members are standing in solidarity with the WGA by rejecting any offers from agencies attempting to buy our material to adapt. It’s been great to see audiences and other creative workers in other industries realize we need to follow suit, even if as freelancers our ability to organize is hamstrung by labor laws. If those in power aren’t going to help us, we need to help ourselves.

JZD: We’ve been seeing a lot of folks joining the cooperative and boosting our profile in social media conversations about comics organizing which has been really awesome to see. And it’s really highlighted for a lot of people that the kind of solidarity happening with the WGA is what we need in comics right now for better working conditions! I do think we’re seeing a better understanding, slowly by surely, of why we need to fight for any progress to be made in that regard.

RY: No, it doesn’t intimidate or complicate our efforts at all since WGA is a different entity. It does give us a model to somewhat emulate, with the understanding that as freelancers based in different states and countries we are presented with other challenges.

AIPT: I’m curious how you think this whole group might impact actual comics making as a craft? I keep thinking “more pay + ample support = innovative, extra thoughtful comics.”

SL: I would like to think that equation is true! I think being around cartoonists who all have a variety of styles, storytelling techniques, and come from different narrative traditions will also contribute to our members developing their own artistic tastes and craft. I also have designs on future initiatives like comics classes, longform comic workshops, 1×1 mentoring, and establishing regular critique groups within the Co-op.

ZHV: I think just putting lots of cartoonists in touch with each other they way we’ve been able to with the Co-op is already a way to make more innovative work. Community support is huge for an artist. More financial support also means more comics, so that means more innovative comics are out in the world.

The Cartoonist Cooperative is building a brave new world for comics

Featured comic: Made in Heaven by Kruttika Susarla.

RY: Salons are a thing, historically and today, in philosophy, arts and the sciences. Salons and salon-type organisations have been known to produce groundbreaking creative work and ideas that fuel momentum within a field. All of those movements in art and literature: the Impressionists, the Modernists, the Latin American magical realists – they are the products of a temporal or spatial gathering of like-minded creatives. In my mind, for comics,I am thinking of the French salon SOCERLID and their work on the Angouleme International Comics Festival that led to comics becoming part of cultural policy in France. So, yes, I do believe the Co-op will impact the development of our craft in this way. Still, since we are one of the pioneers in our field, our role will be more of a foundational, nurturing one: we don’t necessarily produce movements, but we till the soil to encourage future movements.

AIPT: There’s obviously been artists’ cooperatives in the best, but I’m curious about why there hasn’t been something like this already? Does your work here really feel novel or groundbreaking somehow?

SL: I’ll risk sounding egotistical and say it does feel groundbreaking in the sense that it’s happening at all. Especially considering the broader landscape of gig work, hostile social media platforms, and publishers preying on freelancers. We are in a race to the bottom and we need to do something to stop this spiral which is what we intend to do, even if it’s just taking little steps at a time.

ZHV: The isolating nature of the current mode of making comics makes it difficult for cartoonists to connect with each other. Personally, I don’t really know how we got to the point that the typical comic has become either a one or two person endeavor. It doesn’t have to be that way. But I believe that it explains the lack of a collective like this in the past. Isolation fosters a competitive industry and publishers prey on that competition forcing cartoonists into a race to the bottom. However the stakes have become so low that being blackballed by a publisher that’s likely to go out of business in a few years doesn’t seem as daunting an entity to take on. I think we’re all just at the point where we feel we have to do something or else.

RY: Managing an artist-run effort is not easy. It requires time, commitment, brain space, and investment; what we give to an effort like this, we take away from arts-making. However, at some point, something has to be done to break the cycle.

Additionally, I believe in comics, we have not had opportunities to build up habits, ideas and practices already extant in the visual arts, literature and film. To support my co-founders’ point, comics are an isolated field within itself and outside of itself. There is rarely any cross-interaction between comics and its sibling art forms, so there are very few cartoonists who possess an awareness that these resources already exist and can be adapted. Even fewer with the time, commitment, and motivation.

Personally, I don’t think the Co-op is that groundbreaking — it’s a piece of infrastructure that is long overdue, like a house that’s needed a roof for ages, and thank goodness it’s finally here.

The Cartoonist Cooperative is building a brave new world for comics

Featured comic: Brick House by Adam Green

AIPT: Building off that last question, do you think, at all, that something like the Cooperative can help further push the importance and value of comics as a medium? Is there a problem with perception among readers or the general public?

SL: Totally. There’s definitely still the (publisher-reinforced) perception that comics are for kids and the kid-adjacent. Comics in the U.S. that get big advances and marketing pushes from publishers are primarily either MG, YA or superhero fare with little else getting any support. One of our goals is to feature quality comics across genres and age ranges in our catalog to counter this perception. We also want spotlight work from authors from underrepresented communities who are often self-taught and making unique, fringe work that a publisher would never think to pick up but are amazing nonetheless.

RY: I think just having the recognition that comics are products of human labour and artistry can go a long way — many tend to take for granted that a piece of art manifests into existence for their pleasure, and so don’t treat it with a base amount of respect, regardless if that piece of art is good or poorly-done. Anyway, I believe the issue of a narrow public perception occurs because, as mentioned earlier, comics have been an isolated, scattered field for too long, which means we don’t have a strong ecosystem of mentorship, collective wisdom, criticism, or even consensus when it comes to the language we use to talk about comics.

Unlike other forms such as music, film, theatre, etc., cartoonists rarely write critical essays and theories about our craft — they don’t always have the time or energy to do so, or worse, don’t feel the sense of community that compels them to write for their peers or future generations. This intracultural desert has left cartoonists bereft of evidence and convincing arguments that our medium is mature and worth spotlighting alongside others in arts outlets and cultural policy. Hopefully with the Co-op, the sense of community it fosters among cartoonists of various stages and expertise will produce an intellectual, creative, educational well of knowledge.

AIPT: What are some of the long-term plans for the Cooperative? How big do you hope this whole thing grows? Could you add additional resources and support, or tackle any other goals/objectives as things progress?

SL: A few goals we have is establishing what we consider professional pay rates from comics in all its stages, funding a Grievance Team our members can turn to for legal counsel, and eventually offering grants that would cover the production of a full comic project.

The Cartoonist Cooperative is building a brave new world for comics

Featured comic: Vespers by Desolina Fletcher

RY:We’re currently developing a suite of talks, classes and written materials (interviews, criticism, and articles) produced by our staff and members, which should hopefully grow to be premier centre for anyone interested in comics as a craft.

NVO: It’s a very far-in-the-future idea, but I’d love to be able to offer free (or at least reduced in price) website hosting for members through a service that we build explicitly for this purpose. The internet is an important tool, and too often do I see artists stuck posting their comics on social media because they can’t afford or spend time on curating a little home on the web.

AIPT: What would you say to any artists who might be uncertain or hesitant about the Cooperative and if they actually need this level of engagement or involvement?

ZHV: The risks are so low, but the potential rewards are so great! Join up and give it a shot!

JZD:  If you want making comics to be more sustainable and equitable for everyone while making some friends in the process, we’d love for you to join the Cartoonist Cooperative!

RY: It’s my belief that to have passion for the medium is to have passion, too, for the people who comprise its ecosystem; afterall, art can’t exist without its artists. Your peers are your greatest teachers and sources of inspiration, and all this interaction is essential not just for the improvement of your craft, but also for morale.

AL: The Cooperative has ignited a fire in my belly. The highs and lows are shared with one another. Emotions we’ve all been through. It’s a gorgeous feeling knowing you’re not alone in your struggle. The coop could be this for you, too.

NVO: Even if you don’t think you need it — there are cartoonists who do that you could be helping. Don’t think only about what you can get out of it — think about what you can give, too!

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