Do cartoonists deserve to be paid for their labor?
It’s a yes or no question. And, frankly, it doesn’t seem to be a very hard question.
But I’ll give you a minute.
A week before my writing this, Brooklyn comic book store Desert Island and the SoHo based Drawing Center put on an event called Funhouse: An Interactive Bookfair. On paper, the idea is cute enough: visitors pay 10 dollars to enter and get various pages of original art drawn by various artists, which are then compiled into a quick book. Each person’s experience is personal, with each artist adding their own carnival-esque flair to both the page itself and—more importantly—their booth and method of interacting with each visitor.
That the art was original is important. On top of the fact that artists had to man their tables for the time allotted and be on the clock for the benefit of these visitors, artists had to put a lot of time and effort into how they were going to present themselves, their booth, and their work for the duration of Funhouse. Though presumably many made it easy for themselves with some degree of pre-fab artwork, all of that effort, all of that thoughftulness, required real time and real effort, and was delivered uniquely and completely by each artist that was present. And again, all of this says nothing about the fact that they each had to captain their brand, so to speak, for the duration of the event. On the part of every artist this was a committed and curated original experience.
Regarding this original artwork (which I consider to extend to the totality of the artist’s time at the event and then some), in his report for Broken Frontier, Robin Enrico had this to say:
“Original artwork carries with it significantly raised prices commensurate with the time and energy it takes to produce, making it a trickier sale in the flea market atmosphere of an indie comic con. Funhouse neatly sidestepped this issue by having the exhibitors producing original work entirely for free. Their income for the weekend supplanted by a waived table fee and an on-site general store run by Desert Island staff selling the artist’s comics for them.”
There is… a lot happening here. Let’s break it down.
“Original artwork carries with it significantly raised prices commensurate with the time and energy it takes to produce”
Here, Enrico acknowledges that original artwork is a valuable commodity, while also pointing out the reasons it is so valuable. In other words, we have a direct acknowledgment that what these artists were doing was worth quite a lot. So, a question comes to mind:
What were these artists paid for doing this?
Instead of asking this question, Enrico quickly qualifies his statement.
“making it a trickier sale in the flea market atmosphere of an indie comic con.”
Notice what’s being admitted here: nobody actually wants to pay artists for the things that cost them the most time and effort at an indie comic con. That… actually sounds about right. But again, the question must be asked:
How is Funhouse solving this issue that artists are not paid fairly for their hard work “in the flea market atmosphere of an indie comic con?”
“Funhouse neatly sidestepped this issue by having the exhibitors producing original work entirely for free.”
Let’s… take a step back.
Here’s Enrico’s rundown of Funhouse in the quoted paragraph: artists are undervalued by traditional indie conventions. They produce laborious original artwork worth a lot of money, and it has trouble selling in the “flea market” context. There are two ways to address this problem: either remove the lack of compensation (by compensating them) or remove the selling (i.e. make the artist work for free so they don’t even have to worry about being compensated!).
Funhouse “neatly” opted for the latter.
Presented with the dilemma of artists not being fairly compensated for their hard work, Funhouse’s response is to simply not even allow for compensation. For Enrico to characterize this as a “neat sidestep” is woefully irresponsible at best.
But hold on, I’m not giving you the whole story.
“Their income for the weekend supplanted by a waived table fee and an on-site general store run by Desert Island staff selling the artist’s comics for them.”
First, “Waived table fee.”
“WAIVED [FUCKING] TABLE FEE.” [emphasis (and caps, and rage) mine]
The mention of waiving a table fee is a reference to the fact that the indie comic convention (and large comic convention) asks exhibitors to pay to rent their table space. Funhouse, being a subversive event that’s subverting the norm oh so subversively, * waives * the table fee, * allowing * artists to exhibit in a space where they don’t fucking get paid.
It’s worth pointing out that the very mention of the table fee is not actually subversive, and the idea that it’s being waived is in fact a sobering—frankly, alarming—shot across the bow: it’s a benefit to cartoonists to simply not be charged to stand somewhere and not make money. They should be grateful according to the very idea that there is a table fee being waived on their behalf.
Second, “on-site general store run by Desert Island staff” [emphasis mine]. Here’s a whopper:
Were Desert Island staff paid for their time staffing this on-site shop?
If the answer is yes:
Then employees of a comic book store run by one of the organizers were paid money to sell the books of the artists inside, working for free, who were inarguably more responsible for the entire event’s existence. There are no books to sell without the artists inside. There is no event at which to sell them without the artists inside. That event does not go on without their labor both on-site and prior to arrival.
Here’s another question: were the books sold at retail?
If the answer is yes:
This one is more complicated, but still leads to many uncomfortable questions Enrico did not bother to ask or even entertain. If these were books that Desert Island already had on hand, or purchased in order to sell at retail at whatever point, then Desert Island used free artist labor in order to generate foot traffic and sell books off-site.
If the answer is no:
If instead the books were provided at cost by the artists themselves, there are still many questions, the answers to which don’t benefit anybody involved, except the parties who sold the most books. If artists were making full retail profit off of their books, there’s still no guarantee that all of their books sold, and some artists very likely barely sold anything at all. That means that the time of some artists was more valuable than others.
Ultimately, even if one artist sold all their books, they’d still be undervalued: the books were already worth what they were worth. Apparently, however, the artist’s time, effort, and creativity beyond what Desert Island can sell to a handful of people off-site, are worth nothing.
Well, nothing but a ten dollars per head that not one single artist sees a dime of.
So, what do you think? Do cartoonists deserve to be paid for their labor?
While I still don’t think the correct answer is hard (“yes”), events like Funhouse are only innovative in the way in which they choose to answer the question: “no, but at least we don’t charge them to rent a folding table at 200 bucks per table in a public building staffed by volunteers!” If Funhouse smells like roses at all it’s because of pathologically shallow reporting and a slate of shittier smelling festivals coming up behind it.