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CARTOONIST COOPERATIVE : CHANGING COMICS CULTURE

By : Adrian Alvarez

7 min read




Comics is a beautiful medium. Comics as a career takes a great deal of commitment. Your workflow may be well-tempered and your online presence polished, but your success can still be undermined by a predatory contract or pitiful page rates that exploit the very enthusiasm that drew you to pursue comics. Comics is a medium and can be your career, but they’re also an industry. An industry that has been around for almost a century without consistent organizations looking out for the worker. 


The Cartoonist Cooperative wants us to change that together.  


“A primary goal of the Cartoonist Cooperative has been to change the culture around comics from one of individualism to a more community-focused industry,” said Zach Hazard Vaupen, a member of the Cooperative’s Steering Committee. 


“It’s hard, especially since many of us are isolated, not necessarily by choice,” said Nero Villagallos O’Reilly, another committee member. As professional cartoonists, the members are aware of the challenges in assembling creative workers, often overworked to the point of sacrificing social lives and self care. 


To bridge that difficulty, the Cooperative invests in their online spaces. A highly organized Discord server offers many opportunities to teach, learn, and socialize with an international hive of creators while participating in work for the organization. If Discord is not for you, a forum page offers the same content at a less active pace. A monthly newsletter condenses the latest happenings, directing members to priorities. It reinforces, as third Committee Member Reimena Yee said, “the idea that solidarity, organizing and resource-building are not background services that arise from the ether, but are active mutual, conscious acts of community that require participation, no matter how small.” 


That last point acknowledges another reality: “cartoonists are all broke.” In lieu of union dues, members are required to help another member at least once every six months to maintain their membership status, according to Vaupen. That help can be a promotional graphic (such as the one featured on the first page), critical feedback, or advertising a project.


The community has responded. “The amount of engagement we’ve seen from members (nearly 1000 in our first year!) has been incredibly encouraging and motivating. The impact we’ve made with our e-Sims for Gaza campaign alone has been big for the Co-op too … we’ve seen a lot of artists come out of their shell and show up to support their fellow colleagues,” said Vaupen.


So now this activated community can undo all of the unfair business practices of the industry, right? 


Due to many cartoonists being contractors, it is difficult for them to organize legally in the same way as the Directors Guild of America, Writers Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild, etc. However, Vaupen said that “their recent successes are softening the laws that are currently preventing us from organizing a traditional union while also contributing to a more widely held view of artists as workers.”


Steady gains are the value, which is not to say they don’t have big plans for the immediate future.


“Establishing a legal status for the Co-op is our top priority this year…we’re hoping to have at least a nonprofit status by the end of 2024,” said Vaupen. This status will expand the Cooperative’s offered resources, fundraising opportunities, and options for legal representation. They are also working on an industry best practices guideline in collaboration with the Freelance Solidarity Project, a union of digital media workers.


It’s part of a longview that the Cooperative maintains about their work. “A lot of efforts fail because there is no preparation for what happens when the organization matures and leadership has to be passed down to the next generation,” said Yee. To achieve their overall mission, O’Reilly said, “Even if something takes years and years, it’s important to not let that fall by the wayside. We’re here for the long haul.”


If you’d like to join the movement for comics workers, visit www.cartoonist.coop and learn how to join as a member or volunteer.


—Adrian Alvarez





Originally published in-print in Boston Compass Newspaper #169 May 2024


 

 Check out all the art and columns of May’s Boston Compass at www.issuu.com/bostoncccompass


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