Free comics for everyone!
I'm a professional comic book writer (graphic novels if you prefer the posh term), with various books published, three of them with New Internationalist (Fight the Power, Goodbye God and Portraits of Violence). Recently I've noticed that there has been a lot of talk in the graphic novel world about creators simply not being able to make ends meet. The debate has included 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. All of these are relevant. But, oddly enough, the main cause of the basic problem is rarely mentioned. Our old adversary, that so far refuses to lie down, capitalism. Among 99 per cent 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 underlying cause.
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. But, 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. Since those words are loaded with negative images, 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 toward creating good societies, toward 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 comics are part of that. Music is part of that. Dance is part of that. So, in a BESS what will matter is not ‘Will this comic make enough profit?’, but the far better questions: ‘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.
As to the nuts and bolts of how that would work. In capitalism a tiny elite of the powerful 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 local democratic council type groups. So, we bring our ideas to the 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. 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.
A study of Facebook found that 24 million Americans have noted comics as an area of interest on their accounts, and a study in the UK found that 5 per cent of adults regularly read comics. That is certainly enough to influence those local arts groups in a BESS that comics are something worth focusing some resources into. If there are, say, just 1,000 people interested to read your comics that’s plenty – that’s 1,000 real, flesh and blood people, all of who matter, all of whom are part of society. In a BESS such comic book creators would receive some kind of credits for ‘useful work done for the community’. The same kind of credits received 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.
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. And, as it’s not a capitalist profit based system, creators would not get money/credits depending on sales. Creators, like everyone, receive their collectively agreed on level of credits via the local council. So, they would not receive 100 times more credits if their book is read by 100,000 people instead of 1,000. 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. And we would be more free to focus on experimenting, flexing our artistic muscles, trying new ideas. Or simply making good films, good music, good comics.
Sean Michael Wilson is an award-winning comic book writer from Scotland, who now lives in Japan. His book with War on Want, Iraq: Operation Corporate Takeover was widely reported on by a variety of mainstream agencies. He is also the editor of the critically acclaimed collection AX:alternative manga (one of Publishers Weekly’s Best ten books of 2010). He was the lead writer for Fight the Power (Seven Stories/New Internationalist) and Goodbye God? (New Internationalist). His website is: seanmichaelwilson.
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