Over the past few weeks, as the members of Comic Book Workers United at Image Comics took their latest step forward on the path toward organization among industry employees and staff, a group of creators and cartoonists were taking a stab at organization of a different sort. On February 25, a press release announced the formation of the Cartoonist Cooperative, a group of six creators—Sloane Leong, Zach Hazard Vaupen, Nero Villagallos O’Reilly, Reimena Yee, Joan Zahra Dark and Aaron Losty—who are attempting to formalize a group effort for promoting, cataloguing, marketing and exposing one another’s work.
The Cooperative’s mission, jauntily summarized by an anthropomorphic pen and inkpot on the group’s website, consists of three basic components: a collective catalogue of works published by the Cooperative’s members housed on the Cooperative’s website; the opportunity for the sharing of knowledge and expertise among members of the group; and, perhaps most significantly, a “mutual marketing effort of each other’s work based on a communal release schedule.” It was an outline that seemed both ambitious and vaguely indefinite, and to better understand just what the Cooperative aims to achieve, The Comics Journal spoke with its founding sextet about their hopes and intentions for the group.
Sloane Leong, an Oregon-based writer and illustrator (and TCJ contributor) whose work has been published by Image, Dark Horse and TKO among other larger publishers, explained that the group’s origins emerged from a Discord she set up during the quarantine years of COVID-19. “I started a cartoonist Discord in 2021 because, like everyone, I was feeling the dire effects of isolation,” Leong said. “In December of last year, we were chatting about the Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster merger, untenable mainstream publishing practices, and how we were supposed to survive as creative workers. How could we share our skills with each other, pool our collective audiences, and support each other creatively without burning out?”
Echoing Leong’s explanation, Zach Hazard Vaupen elaborated on how corporate consolidation has posed a particular threat to creators’ livelihoods. “Corporate mergers (and the absolute joke of how anti-trust laws are applied) are bad news for anyone who doesn’t control capital,” Vaupen told us. “We see the consequences everywhere from access to medical care, to plummeting wages and rapid inflation, to movies and shows being lost forever in corporate takeovers, the list seems endless. For cartoonists specifically, a lack of publishers means a lack of competition which means we’re begging for whatever scraps the few publishers left standing are willing to offer. They have the power to gatekeep and more often than not, they will. But what is it that publishers actually offer? Funding for print production, some distribution, presence at conventions. Surely, this is something comic creators can (and many already do) do on our own. And with great numbers and solidarity supporting us, we may be able to do it better.”
Their colleague Joan Zahra Dark echoed the point, noting especially several recent cases of smaller comic publishers whose corporate upheavals have left creators in the lurch: “Everybody loses when we lose choices in corporate mergers,” Dark said. “We're seeing it in real time with smaller comic publishers only being able to last a few years at best before shuttering (your PEOW, Youth in Decline and Shortbox, just off the top of my head) or last long enough to be bought out in a corporate merger and gutted like comiXology or Oni-Lion Forge and have both the people working on the comics and people trying to read them upended by the whims of a few people hoarding even more wealth by ‘cutting costs.’”
If the systemic problems that led to the Cooperative’s formation are relatively easy to define, their proposed solution is somewhat more difficult. The Cooperative’s members are clear on the fact that the new organization is not a publisher - all of its members are expected to have already found venues for releasing their work by the time the Cooperative’s efforts are enlisted. Rather, the collective is aiming to fill something of the void in marketing and promotion left by the shrinking capabilities of corporate publishing houses. Asked how a Cooperative campaign for a particular book might look in practice, Vaupen said it would look much the same as a marketing push from Image or Dark Horse - minus, however, any of its more expensive components.
“Starting out, it’s unlikely that we’ll invest much in ads for our campaigns,” Vaupen told the Journal. “But we will be reaching out to vendors, distros, review sites, influencers, whatever, in addition to leveraging our member base’s social media presence - which in some cases is much larger than most publishers. We’re also connecting people who can help with making videos and graphics to help promote each other’s work, crowdfunding veterans, other artists willing to bring other members’ works with them when they table at conventions and festivals. And [there is] no one taking the 50-80%+ cut of revenue most publishers take in. To make this clear, again, we are not a publisher. But we are trying to provide the tools and support a publisher would normally be expected to provide (and many don’t).”
Just as importantly, the Cooperative is hoping to establish its own website as a known platform for announcements, news and links to buy creators’ work, though not an option to buy directly - the organization is sidestepping any role as a storefront. “While we want to utilize what we can of social media, we can’t rely on these degrading platforms or their shifting policies and algorithms,” Leong explained. “We’re utilizing old mainstays of the internet like our active website/blog, forums, and newsletter for the Co-op. Newsletters seem to be the best way to maintain contact with an audience free of algorithm nonsense and have enjoyed a major resurgence thanks to Substack in particular. All our members can submit articles, programming, events, and more to the website and newsletter which, on top of the promotional material we’ll share, will make it not just informative but valuable on multiple fronts. Hopefully we can develop the site in such a way that when a reader is thinking about finding a new comic to read, they’ll immediately think of the Cartoonist Cooperative website.”
All of this suggests a degree of complexity that is likely to pose a challenge for a nascent comics collective. Even among its original six, the Cartoonist Cooperative is a creatively and geographically diverse bunch, and the degree of complexity is only likely to increase as the organization grows - which its members expect it to do in short order, as Vaupen reports 200 applicants already approved for membership. How, then, will the fledgling leadership coordinate such a sprawling collective effort?
“For our first year we’re expecting members to contribute to something every six months,” Ramona Yee told us. “That frequency might change overtime, or may even be discarded, but the essential core of membership is the generous, good faith giving and receiving of contribution - which can take on any form. The loudest would be in the marketing: reaching out to outlets and retailers, making graphics, that sort of thing. However, it is not compulsory for a member to join a marketing effort - there are plenty of other ways to be of assistance. For example, helping a fellow creator proofread, designing a book, offering advice, mentorship, forum moderation, creating and maintaining resources, day-to-day administration, sponsorship, etc. The kinds of mutual aid the Cooperative nurtures are limited only by one’s imagination and ability.”
“I think we’ll be working out the kinks [of the Cooperative’s logistics] over the next year or so,” added Vaupen. “It’s difficult to predict and plan for every problem that could arise–especially with an idea as new as this one–but we plan on having each campaign be more or less self-contained working groups. The number of campaigns we can take on at a time will be limited by the size and engagement level of our member and volunteer base. Disputes will be mitigated by the committee, but for this to work there will need to be a certain amount of self-direction and the ability to work with others in a mature fashion.”
The Cooperative is nevertheless confident that the group’s capacity won’t run into difficulties inserting a growing list of creators into readers’ fractured attention spans. When asked whether the Cooperative was confident in its ability to promote anything while trying to promote everything, Dark was emphatic: “While the Cartoonist Cooperative isn't a publisher, I think the analogy fits here that if you were looking at an upcoming release schedule from a comics publisher, I don't think we'd be having that same conversation of whether audiences have a big enough attention span for all of them, y'know? Even if some of our audience has some artists or works they like over others, it's still reaching more people than you otherwise would be if you're having to do all the marketing and publicity for a self-pub comic yourself, and that's where I think we're going to see the Co-op really shine.”
To an outside observer, there is in all of this the combination of heady possibility and bewildering complexity not uncommon to new ventures and collective action. But if the Cooperative’s approach to alleviating some of the punishing realities of the comic industry remains untested, the needs spurring them on are increasingly urgent. The writer Alex de Campi has spent a decade and a half working with a range of comic publishers, and has increasingly embraced additional platforms in the online space. As de Campi explained to us via email, “There’s really no publisher that seriously backs big genre graphic novels (e.g. gives real advances) - the few that will give advances are essentially IP farms who take a ton of rights but still call it ‘creator owned,’ lol. And [de Campi’s current series] Bad Karma is, like… 300 pages. We can’t do that on just air and vibes and spare time.” Consequently, in order to help fill the absence of monetary and marketing support, creators like de Campi have been availing themselves of web-based platforms such Webtoon, Panel Syndicate, and Kickstarter (de Campi herself has mounted projects on all of them at various points).
Dan Schkade is another cartoonist who has made the same calculation; between 2019 and 2022, his series Lavender Jack appeared as a Webtoon Original, meaning that Schkade was paid a flat fee for each episode produced for the service according to a regular schedule. For Schkade, as for creators like de Campi, the appeal of Webtoon rested largely in its capacity to reach and engage a large audience to a degree that would likely have been unachievable for creators operating on an individual level.
“That’s something that Webtoon is great at,” Schkade told us. “The social media team is very creative and fun, and good at fostering community. They’re like the only comic producer in the game that’s good at TikTok. And even though Lavender Jack is one of the less popular originals, it still has 100,000 subscribers. It’s got five million views on it. It’s got an incredibly engaged audience. The normal internet engagement ratio [a measure of the rate at which viewers actively engage with online content via comments, shares and other means] is about 10%. Lavender Jack, despite its smaller audience, has like a 30% ratio. And I think a big part of that is the way that just being an Original gives you a little bit of exposure, so that while most people bounced off of the strange-looking characters and the complicated Edwardian mystery plots, the people who love it were able to find it. So not only is Webtoon good at putting volumes of eyeballs on your work, it’s good at attracting the right eyeballs.”
But such advantages come with a cost, and it is not a small one. In recent years, both Webtoon and rival web-based publisher Tapas have drawn attention and controversy for the often untenable schedules and low pay rates imposed on creators. De Campi described both web publishers as, “the digital equivalent of the low page rate, IP farming, ‘creator owned’ deals offered by Vault, AWA, Boom, TKO, AfterShock, etc.”
Schkade, too, has felt that crunch. “Lavender Jack came out once a week,” he said. “And the basic understanding was that once the season started, it would be consistently every week for between 48 and 35 episodes. So the understanding was that you'd be producing basically that whole time with holiday breaks. It was punishing, you know? And a lot of people who work with Webtoon will tell you the same thing. Every episode of Lavender Jack has to be at least 40 panels. That's about eight pages of comic book content every week, which is penciled, inked, lettered, colored.
“A lot of prominent creators have been pretty vocal about [burnout on Webtoon]. I paid my bills with Lavender Jack for four years, but it’s not a lot of money. A lot of the creators are younger, right out of college. And it’s a lot to put on a person, especially if they don’t know that they aren’t supposed to have to do that much work.”
Schkade has since taken the lessons and exposure he acquired during his time with Webtoon into his own self-marketing efforts, but for him, the reality facing creators calls for some kind of collective solution. In his case, that came in the form of his time with Helioscope, the Portland-based studio that has increasingly become a center of collaboration and mutual career advancement for comic creators in the city. As Schkade describes it, Helioscope “maintains a very healthy online presence; people are supporting each other, [and] sharing interesting Kickstarters. And that works because we have not just mainstream comic book artists like Steve Lieber, we’ve also got Dylan Meconis, we’ve got Erika Moen, we’ve got Ron Chan - we’ve got people who are doing adult comics, mainstream comics, educational comics. There’s a huge spread of ages…. You know, just being around these people gave me tools I use to this day to make my life easier. So a big appeal of these collectives is a way to give young creators a hand up.”
Even further afield from the confines of corporate publishing, cartoonists are striking much the same tone. Virgil Warren is a member of the Deadcrow Comix Corporation, a deliberately enigmatic New York collective of cartoonists that has been publishing zines like Tinfoil Comix since 2016. Speaking of the role Deadcrow plays in his work, Warren stressed the vital importance of the community the collective offers. “I would say the ethos is centered around a community-based art approach. A lot of the work is collaborative, and is created when we’re literally together. And it kind of has this crowdsourcing vision among all of us, and we all kind of provide whatever we can to make it work.”
Even at the grassroots level on which Deadcrow operates–most of Warren’s work has been distributed through face-to-face contact with the shop owners who stock his zines–the collective has provided a method for building reputation that would likely have been impossible for any member working alone. As Warren told the Journal, “Everyone’s putting forth a lot of resources. A good example would be [that] we do our little art show parties, where it’s really like you can turn an apartment into a gallery. But it also becomes a moment where you’re able to sell your work and get it out there to a lot of people at once.”
Warren is impressed with the possibility presented by the Cartoonist Cooperative, even as he seemed to blanch at some of the complexity and formality involved. “I would love to make that work,” he said. “I think we are doing that to some extent [at Deadcrow] - it’s not so regimented. But it’s been happening for years… I don’t know. I get overwhelmed [with the realities of comic publishing]. There’s so much room to create. You just keep working, and then you fall, and you get hired again. It’s like a roller coaster.”
That so many arms of the cartooning world seem to be convergently evolving to various forms of collectivity is an indicator of a broad and longstanding economic pressure, under which more creators are finding it all but impossible to survive through dint of their own wits and hustle. Indeed, it is a part of the same economic pressure that produced the formal unionization of staffers at Image and Seven Seas over the past year. And if you ask the members of the Cartoonist Cooperative, a union might be the ultimate destination for independent creators as well.
“Our biggest hope with the Cartoonist Cooperative is to form a type of union that gives us some power in changing this industry to be more friendly to the people actually making the comics,” Vaupen told us. “We want to be able to influence the way that publishers interact with their artists and maybe even act like we actually matter in the equation of comics! Regardless, with the Co-op, we’re at least making sure that creators don’t have to look out for themselves for the foreseeable future - we’re looking out for each other.” (As an aside, Vaupen also noted that the Journal’s publisher, Fantagraphics, was “not well regarded when it comes to what they provide their cartoonists,” and expressed hope that the reporter was being paid for this story.)
“I really don't see cartoonists getting treated better by publishers generally without major pushback that threatens their bottom line in some way,” Dark agreed. “The actual value of how much comic artists and illustrators are paid hasn't risen in decades while comics and graphic novels are selling better than they ever have! And we know that publishers are counting on the lack of organization to give predatory contracts that artists who don't know any better can sign and not get paid what they should be. When advances that cartoonists need to survive and make the actual comics they’re supposed to be making are getting cut into thirds or even fourths, it means that something is very wrong with publishing.”
In the end, the question of whether the Cartoonist Cooperative’s model will succeed is secondary to the realities that spurred it on. The steady drumbeat of dissatisfaction among comic creators and industry employees, while not an altogether new phenomenon, has undeniably increased in volume and intensity in the post-shutdown years. Joan Hilty, a longtime cartoonist and editor who now works for Nickelodeon, has experience in activism and creator organizing that extends back to her early involvement in the Friends of Lulu organization dedicated to elevating women in comics. Today, speaking to the Journal, she sums up the creator landscape with the perspective of a veteran observer.
“I think the option [to form a union] should exist, plain and simple,” Hilty said. “It just doesn't make sense to me, personally, that there is room for unions within the stage arts, room for unions within the animation arts, but supposedly no room within comics and cartooning. And 'room' is the key word, right? If workers feel fairly treated and compensated, then maybe they don't need to unionize, but if they don't, then unionizing should be an option.
“I think it's important to look not at the past or even at individual industries, but at the larger shifts in business and the economy that dictate present reality. We are just in a completely different time now. The gig economy is here to stay. Tech-driven media that depends on massive content creation is here to stay. Sequential art as a huge driver of that content is here to stay. Platform-based business models that don't fit our old definitions of competition are here to stay…. None of this is going back into the box. So while I'm not sure what the new approach to collective organizing is going to look like in comics, I don't just think it's feasible. I think it's inevitable.”