Pushing comics forward — with money!

This week, Ross Richie of BOOM! Studios wrote an editorial, and Matt Gagnon gave a thoughtful interview, on the topic of diversity in comics, and they followed it up with a Twitter hashtag, #comicsforward. It certainly got people talking, although perhaps not always in the way Gagnon and Richie intended.

The first thing that happened was exactly what they had in mind, which was a bunch of folks jumping onto Twitter to celebrate their favorite comics and creators or just applaud the idea. It's definitely worth checking that hashtag to see some great recommendations.

Others pushed back, saying that plenty of people have been pushing comics forward all along:

Plz push #comicsforward by reading & supporting the scores of PoC, queer, & women artists that already exist outside a marketing campaign.

— Iron Spike (@Iron_Spike) January 30, 2015

if you really want to push #comicsforward, considering supporting diverse indie cartoonists who are already here, not just a company's brand

— Emily Carroll (@emilyterrible) January 30, 2015

These are good points. Comics have been moving forward for some time, in part because of the efforts of people like Spike, who not only makes comics but also publishes them. But adding more voices, especially voices from established publishers, is important too, because the key word—which got left off the hashtag—is PUSH. Publishers need to push themselves to build a more diverse staff, and they need to be pushed support a range of comics by paying the creators who make them. Ales Kot gets it:

Hiring significantly more creators in their teens and early twenties and nurturing their creativity and general well-being #comicsforward

— Ales Kot (@ales_kot) January 31, 2015

Some creators are happy to have a day job and make comics on the side. Some are able to make a living by self-publishing, selling merch, Patreon, Kickstarter, or some combination of those things. Some work on other people's properties to pay the rent or hone their skills. Some do creator-owned work but work with a publisher who takes care of the business side of things. The first two paths are open to everyone with every kind of story; the other two, not so much. That's what needs to change. BOOM! Studios has been doing its bit, by publishing indy comics through its Boom Box imprint and hiring a lot of independent creators to work on their licensed titles—although Ryan Sohmer commented

You don't get to preach about the future of comics when your company offers the lowest page rates in the industry. #comicsforward

— sohmer (@sohmer) January 30, 2015

Pushing comics forward isn't just about creators and their stories, though. Comics publishers also need to hire more diverse staff, or those creators won't be hired and their stories won't be told. Amber Love was on this a week before the #comicsforward movement was announced:

Within the past week, I received two announcements from one of the smaller but well-known comic book publishers welcoming three new hires to their ranks and all of them were white men. A publisher that’s been around for 25 years, despite having undergone some sweeping corporate changes, has shown they have stamina in this industry and bounced back strong after tough economic times. During the time when this particular company was founded, comics creators were having their rebirths as creator-owners and several jumped ship from the big corporations to launch their own businesses and follow their dreams with their friends. That’s laudable when you start out. But after 25 years, if you fail at diversity, you have a problem.

We’ve heard all the arguments: Women don’t apply. We need to hire the best candidate. The male applicants came with great recommendations.

How do you expect women to ever develop those professional relationships which would earn personal recommendations if you never extend yourself to network and hire them?

Again, this requires a push. It means working harder and looking around more, but it's really important.

Finally, Sohmer himself just pledged to pay all his employees a living wage—even interns:

  • Minimum Wage for hourly/part time employees at Blind Ferret is $12.00 per hour.
  • Starting salary for a salaried employee will be no less than $32,000 per year.
  • Blind Ferret will not employ unpaid interns. Interns receive minimum wage, and should the school that placed them not allow that, we will no longer work with that school.

This is also important. Working in comics should be a good job, and it should be open to all. Internships often make it easier for a person to get a job in their field, because they provide both experience and contacts, but unpaid internships guarantee that only those who can afford to work for free will benefit. Low entry-level wages do the same thing: They set up a class barrier. Sohmer has challenged other publishes to follow his lead, and doing so is another way to push comics forward. But again, it's hard—it requires a push, not just doing things the way they always have. Paying staff a living wage and paying interns at all may require some publishers to radically change their priorities and their way of doing things.

It's also important to acknowledge that "comics" means a lot of different things. It means Homestuck and manga and graphic novels that are sold in bookstores, a channel in which the top selling creator last year was a black woman. (I'll save you some reading: It's Rachel Renee Russell, author of the Dork Diaries books, which are a Wimpy Kid-type hybrid—but if Brian Hibbs says it's a graphic novel, that's good enough for me.)

Despite the cynicism some have expressed, I think Gagnon and Richie are on the right track here. They have taken the conversation everyone has been having over the past few years and given it a focus. Not only that, they have added an imperative verb. It's easy enough for publishers to keep catering to their existing audience, and there's a group who don't want that to change. There's no reason to take that away—diversity includes straight white males, after all—but adding to it, making more types of stories available, bringing in more readers, and nourishing more creators and editors—that won't necessarily happen organically. That will take a push.

[Editor’s note: Each Sunday, Robot 6 contributors discuss the best in comics from the last seven days — from news and announcements to a great comic that came out to something cool creators or fans have done.]

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