This is another essay for the catalog pictured above (still available at the Mahan Gallery for $5.00 (US)) in which Anne Elizabeth Moore considers the ongoing academic institutionalization of comic making and some of the consequences of it.
"THE PROBLEM OF PROFESSIONALIZING
Just a few short years ago, young adults with the gumption to really stick it to their parents could handily do so by announcing at the dinner table that they wanted to grow up and become comic-book artists. For decades, jaws of fathers the world over would slacken in disbelief, slowly hardening again into expressions of pure fury before sparks flew. Mothers, wanting always to be supportive, dear, but still, perhaps, wondering if that’s quite the best thing for you, considering, you know, the danger, would press their lips together tightly and wait for this rebellious phase to pass. The more traditional housewives were pummeled with visions of endless days at home with little to fret about but daughters trapped in the drawing mills of one, or the other, major comics publisher, or sons toiling away behind tables in convention halls, hassled endlessly by older men in science fiction outfits, giant animal costumes. It is lucky they did not know the truth: that their children would more likely simply not have jobs. Younger siblings would secretly, silently rejoice. More than one premeditated crime spree has been hatched during such conversations. Families rarely recover from such moments. It is no coincidence that underground cartooning and divorce both achieved their heights of popularity at roughly the same time period.
The cartoonists that resulted from these unnurturing environments got plenty of material out of it, and in fact went on to devote about a decade and a half to exploring the intricacies of human interrelationships in autobio comics during the years flanking the 1990s. Some are still recovering, slowly exploring the world beyond their bedrooms; others never will, consigned to rehash their mommies’ rejection or pops’ anger or siblings’ mockery until they have cross-hatched their last panel.
Today, things are different for would-be comicers. Cartooning is a proper profession, and “ink stud” no longer considered foul language. Nowadays, if a young person wants to grow up and become a cartoonist, it’s as welcomed a discussion at the dinner table as plans to take a year off after school and bum around Europe, or get married and settle down. “Oh, that’s nice, honey.” A future comic-booker’s dad might begin. “So which schools are you looking at?”
This is partially due, of course, to the mainstream acceptance the comic-book world has most recently, ahem, suffered. (Some of which, the Best American Comics for example, I admit I have contributed to.) It is also because of the accolades the comic-book world has received in other realms, such as in film (from Batman to Persepolis), art (the Masters of American Comics exhibition, for example, or MoCCA), or literature (Fun Home, Jimmy Corrigan). Finally, comics are popular now because we have reached a critical mass of good, talented people making interesting work for long enough that the world has started to pay attention.
Yet this recent turn of the mainstream’s gaze toward comics is also due to behind-the-scenes forces, things entirely outside of mass culture. (Comic-book people tend to forget that such things matter, too.) It is due, also, to a growing desire to move comics into the ivory tower of academia and set up a front office in the busy hub of professionalism.
Now, I’m neither one to complain about schools or jobs. I have experienced both. The quiet study of subjects is important, and the mounting pile of theses and dissertations in the world on what I would consider matters either transplendent or inane is actually none of my concern. Additionally, I enjoy to eat of the food and wear of the clothes and have taken well to sleeping indoors, which usually requires a certain accepting attitude toward paychecks. It is, though, worth noting that the purpose of academic study is to provide individuals professional training in supposed preparation for an established field.
The question of whether or not comics is an established field may be up for debate: it certainly appears to be one to the average X-Men movie-viewing audience member or Marjane Sartrapi fan, and that must count for something. Also relevant is the finding of one website, which by adding up all the jobs with the term “comic book artist” anywhere in the listing, arrived at an average annual salary of $20,000—which varies, the site explains, based on company, location, experience, and benefits package. Relevant, but not terribly so: I don’t know any comic-book artists with a retirement plan beyond working until the moment of death, because even the comfiest of positions are work-for-hire contracts. (Big money there is about $500 per page, each of which might take ten hours of work, which means a top-earner at a forty-hour workweek and no time away from the desk could earn a health insurance-less $104,000 per year. But I’d be surprised if the industry could sustain more than one of them.) None of this delves into the economics of alternative, underground, or self-published comics, however—from which realms Art Spiegelman, Lynda Barry, and Dan Clowes all emerged. And who wouldn’t rather pattern their careers after them than, uh, what were the names of those Superman guys again?
Certainly, there are publishers of comics, and there are readers of comics, and there are reviewers of comics and stores and websites and T-shirts and any number of potentially lucrative licensing deals to be had. Yet there are not technically jobs in comics. Comics, in this way, are unlike other art forms: There does exist a large art market, with museums to work at, galleries to show in, venues to perform in, alternative spaces to sell pieces in, entire arms of publishing to sustain you, and—coming soon, on Bravo—reality TV programs you can star in devoted to exploring the life of the contemporary artist. In addition to making work, you can restore it, write about it, edit it, sell it, represent it, curate it, sell tickets to it, or lecture about it. In other words, art is a business. A massive one.
But comics? Not so much.
In fact, the acceptance of comics into the academy goes far beyond striking Green Hornet and Mutts fans as a little strange. It was simply not a desired outcome of reading a funny book—that you could pull it out from behind the math book, and read it on its own, in class, forever! For most, comics were a reprieve from math, a vacation from school entirely, a deliberately anti-intellectualist space set in marked contrast to established, prescribed society. This was—is, still—important, protected space. Free space. Space without established parameters, timelines, or measures of success like grades and income. But a space many only visited. (Plenty of people, of course, dropped out of school entirely and read comics all day. But a clear majority—a majority, even, of currently working comic-book artists, didn’t.)
Truly, we stand at a strange moment in comics history, when it is no longer an emergent, underdoggy mish-mash of writing and drawing and publishing, but when, by dint of there needing to be more jobs, and the perception that there could be more money, and the awkward realization that some of the publishers both alternative and mainstream are getting a little, well, old—comics are a legitimated professional career choice, pursued by hundreds, if not thousands of eager youth, all ready to declare majors in comics.
It’s interesting to realize that when journalism went pro—at a rapid pace between 1900 and 1920, by the way, and according to media historian Robert McChesney entirely because news outlets were being accused of harboring various commercial biases—it was under the guise of self-regulation. “If we train folks properly,” the thinking went, “we no longer need to wonder who’s in whose pocket. They’ll all be professional.” No schools for journalism existed before turn of the last century; few schools existed before the turn of the most recent one that didn’t contain a journalism program. More to the point: few reporters were hired thereafter that did not have a journalism degree.
Journalism’s speedy makeover from pursued passion to chosen career did instill a whiff of integrity to the newsroom—or in more drastic cases, a sense of the whiff of integrity. Discussions could now be held, for example, that philosophically presented a means of separating church from state, of advertising from editorial, and reporters, editors, owners, and advertisers could agree with or ignore this notion in an informed manner. The structure of the newsroom, keep in mind, did not change: reporters were still beholden to the whims of the papers’ owners. But now, at least, they felt well informed of their station.
Certainly, one of the points of professionalization is to separate the chaff, so to speak, from the wheat: the learned from the unlearned, the capable from the unable, and the haves from the have nots. Without judgment, of course. Based solely on merit. And the merit-holder’s ability to pay tuition in a timely manner. So also based on income, a little bit, but mostly merit. And then there’s the interview process. So we do consider your appearance when making decisions about professionalism, and also whether or not we like you, and a little bit whether or not you have money, but mostly it’s merit. In other words, as McChesney says in his book The Problem of the Media, “what was lost [in the drive to professionalize journalism] was the elitist and antidemocratic bias built right into the notion of professional regulation.”
The cost of this move to the project of democracy—which it supposedly strove to uphold in the first place, and which holds the point I intend to return to momentarily—was dire. The professionalism of reporters meant that informed public debate must be lessened: the public was henceforth to be less informed than the informers. Their debate, therefore, contingent on the work of the journalists. “All professions are conspiracies against the common folk,” George Bernard Shaw stated famously.
Anyway, how professional could a journalist really ever become? There is no ultimate licensing, like lawyers, doctors, and architects require—measures put in place to protect those using the services of the professional from bodily, or financial, ruin.
Basically, the same question is—should be—applicable to comics. What is the point of the Masters degree in Sequential Art? Is it to further explore (and better!) the medium with institutional resources? Correct the charges of bias levied against—who, the autodidacts? Fully prepare students for that sweet no-benefits $104K position?
Regarding this last, a quick poll of cartoonists gave me a few numbers to work from. Those who graduated with comics-related MFAs this year spent around $50,000-$60,000 for two years of study. Those in established alternative careers—well-known, certainly, but not tapped for big-movie projects—pulled in, on average, around a tenth of that. More than one with fewer than five years of publishing experience (not counting, for our purposes, self-publishing) made less than ten bucks in the last year. Eight, in fact, was the average. Assuming for a moment that’s all profit—that food, shelter, clothing, entertainment, etc. are all, say, covered by their mommies—it’ll still take them 6,875 years at an annual income of $8 to pay off that MFA.
Now, this isn’t a scientific poll. (It’s probably clear that I would urge you to mistrust anything that claimed objective scientific accuracy anyway.) It is, however, relevant. The artists in this show are pulling on monies far closer to the $8 end of that scale than the $104K. Some of them went to art school, but very few hold degrees in sequential art. A couple make full-time livings off of their comics, and live it up, maybe, with an extra six-pack of beer or couple weeks vacation sometimes, but always stateside. Most work elsewhere too, or supplement comicing with illustration, screenprinting, or design. Some have been doing this for several decades and others several years but most would scoff at the notion of being a professional cartoonist.
Professionalism in comics instills a divide between those who have the right to reinvent language and those who do not. Yet for decades, comics have been deliberately, doggedly democratic. These artists are working in the grand but fading tradition of keeping them so. The scrawly characters and effed up speech bubbles of Mickey Zacchilli’s Bullshit Frank and Gorilla Joe reassert your right to create your own narrative. The clean lines of John Porcellino’s TITLE OF WORK HERE and, although constructed differently, Dorothy Gambrell’s Cat and Girl make it seem downright easy to do. Read them closely.
So prepare for a future in which all your comics pros are trained at university, chosen by an elite corps of other comics pros also considered professional. But keep in mind that this doesn’t make them better. And it needn’t keep you from making them yourself."
AUSSI related to the show:
The Columbus Alive's Melissa Starker covered our opening and interviewed Colleen and I as well as Phonzie. ARTSCAPE
And Bust.com's Libby Zay had a few words to say as well. BUST
Finally, catalog contributor J.Caleb Mozzocco has a great review of it on his blog, Every Day is Like Wednesday.