With economic inequality such a vital, prominent topic for individuals and families these days, it makes sense that talk of community building with your peers for the sake of support and further bargaining power cycles throughout the comic book industry.
However, the discussion is actually nothing new for professionals. From Neil Adams and the Comic Book Creators Guild in the 1970s to Scott Shaw’s criticism of Boom!’s practices in 2013, the topic of creator compensation and how it relates to living wages has been an ongoing concern. Fair Page Rates, an anonymously-run online survey hoping to collect information on the page rates earned by working comic book professionals, is the newest voice raising concern over whether or not current contracts provide enough to ensure creators make enough money to support themselves and, when applicable, their families. The proprietor of the site spoke with Dork Shelf about the process of gathering, interpreting, and presenting more detailed data on the subject.
Dork Shelf: I’d like to start off by giving you an opportunity to address why you choose to be anonymous.
Fair Page Rates: While the most obvious answer would be to prevent professional repercussions, it’s actually to make sure that the question of fair page rates isn’t connected to any particular artist, and the problems that need fixing don’t get distracted by the question of egos or motives.
Whether you like an artist or not, whether you think they are a good person or a bad person, are all immaterial to the fact that the creators in this industry have to start working together towards equalizing the relationship between themselves and publishers.
This isn’t to disregard the possibility of threats to our livelihood, as the people who help run this site are all professionals working in the industry. Although I believe this would make a better industry for everyone, publishers included, I don’t believe many publishers or employers in any field would welcome this level of inspection on their business deals.
Many publishers may believe they are truly allies with the creators they employ, but it is still an employer/employee relationship and, as any business relationship can be, there is an antagonistic power dynamic that can’t be denied. To keep all parties honest, anonymity protects relationships and allows the hard conversations to be had.
DS: It’s no secret that it’s extremely difficult to make a living as an artist, especially one who works primarily in the comic book industry. That being said, why do you feel that now is the right time to approach this conversation?
FPR: Its always the right time to have this conversation, and we’ve been having this conversation for too long. Creators have been exploited in comics since the very beginning of [the industry], and I think with the constant overwhelming analysis of what is wrong with comics, its high time to stop talking and start seeking solutions.
The comics field is ALL about collaboration, there’s nothing stopping us from collaborating towards an end that improves conditions for us all. In fact, it’s a failure of our imagination and our expectations that we haven’t done this already. Thinkpieces and essays about the problematic people and conditions in this industry are necessary, but only if they lead us to seeking real solutions to these problems.
DS: Once you have the number of responses you are after, what do you plan to do with the information you have gathered?
FPR: Presenting the data clearly and without bias over the years, so that creators have a resource for publishers in real time. We are not anti-publisher, or seek to humiliate or shame any groups or individuals, but creators have to be able to exert pressure on their employers to be treated more equitably. Having an annual resource of what publishers are actually paying means publishers would have to respond. That doesn’t mean that publishers can magically pay their creators more, but hopefully it can lead to conversations where they can negotiate a different arrangement that works for all parties.
DS: With the gender wage gap a reality that many female artists face, do you plan to address that issue when looking at pay disparities between companies?
FPR: Absolutely, which is why the survey asks about race, gender and sexual identity. It is up to the creator whether they’d like to contribute that info, but it is something we think is necessary for any conversation about fair page rates. As anyone knows, what is ‘fair’ for one group is often determined by their inclusion or exclusion from the dominant group in the industry, that group being white straight males.
Eventually, we’d like to focus on questions of representations in a more focused manner, separate from page rates altogether.
DS: For many who love comics but do not work in the industry, the fact that many artists aren’t able to at least live off their work is shocking. Do you feel the comic book readers care abut this topic like those in the industry do? Can reader and fan input have any effect on negotiations?
FPR: We don’t believe comic book readers care about this topic, but consumers very often prefer not to care. Often, labor organizing seeks to disrupt how business owners conduct business, and to that extent, consumers are often inconvenienced or halted from purchasing products or services.
Comic readers can share the survey, or ask why their favourite successful creators remain silent on these issues, only voicing sympathy when a formerly famed artist or writer comes down with a medical condition and has no way to pay their bills. Many successful creators have nothing to say about these problems, and so I’d ask what input they could have on negotiations.
DS: Whenever finances come up in the comic book industry, many publishing companies are quick to point out that margins are razor thin for both publishers and creators.
FPR: The solution for every problem in a working relationship in comics is not necessarily paying them more. It’s true, that the margins are razor thin for major companies, but that doesn’t mean that the conversation stops there regarding what they can do different or what they can offer. We believe a simple foundation to having these conversations is fair page rates, but not all creators want to or can work full time, so there is a space for those who’d be okay taking a lower page rate.
But regardless, creators need to come together and discover what do they want, and also be able to feel safe discussing these terms with publishers. Whether that is royalties or something as simple as transportation to conventions where they are having signings, there are many ways to work together with publishers so that the relationship isn’t one of fear and exploitation.
DS: Do you believe this to be true? If not, why has that narrative stayed part of the discussion for so long?
FPR: As the situation exists right now, the employer holds all the cards. There are not many safe spaces for creators to voice concerns, and not many spaces for creators to learn about risks to avoid. But with both parties remaining silent on this issue for fear of professional and social shaming, it means no one is having difficult conversations that would really benefit both parties.
Publishers don’t need to always feel like they have to justify themselves, and creators shouldn’t fear losing work because they ask to be paid more. Getting past the hard conversations means we can move towards making the work that defines our lives.
Make sure to check out the Fair Page Rates survey, and share it to ensure the most accurate possible data.