“You know what, fuck it time to trend #ComicsBrokeMe.”
Following the death of 38-year-old cartoonist Ian McGinty (Adventure Time, Bee and Puppycat) on June 8, graphic novelist and designer Shivana Sookdeo took to Twitter to join the chorus of comics industry professionals eulogizing their beloved colleague. As indicated by her tweet, however, the conversation soon took on a life of its own as industry novices and veterans alike began commiserating over the labor conditions that colleagues have speculated contributed to McGinty’s passing. Their stories of long hours, frequent burnout, and chronic illness were filed under the hashtag #ComicsBrokeMe, illuminating for the wider public how dangerous the comics industry has become.
Indeed, when I asked Sookdeo why she created the hashtag, she told me she did so in an effort to reveal the personal stories of labor exploitation from people in the industry. This isn’t a new conversation, though. For those not privy to the inside baseball of the comics industry, every few years a hashtag or major story of exploitation will emerge from the various whisper networks and backchannels among creators. In 2020, for instance, writer L.L. McKinney created the tag #PublishingPaidMe to expose racial disparities in pay in the publishing industry. Sookdeo knew that the next conversation had to be about the people themselves.
“Unlike #PublishingPaidMe, the focus was not only on the monetary cost of creating comic books and graphic novels, but also the physical cost to our health,” she says. “The act of creating hundreds of well-illustrated pages takes serious time, significant strain on the body, and mental stamina. So many of us have sustained significant damage to our health trying to make ends meet.”
Cartoonists have to be hard workers out of pure necessity. Projects rarely pay enough to sustain their needs unless they take on several at a time, which has become an industry norm. Even discounting the rare instance of untimely death, countless others have sustained conditions like permanent nerve damage, tendonitis, intense sleep deprivation, and back injury to deliver their books on time, according to Sookdeo.
“It was no secret that Ian was constantly overworked. He was always on a deadline, [and] was under tremendous pressure in order to make ends meet,” says illustrator Katy Farina (Baby-Sitters Little Sister). “The sheer output from his hand was nearly unconscionable. I believe his senseless loss is the intended result of an industry built on the constant devaluation of its labor and complete disregard for its workers.”
Farina has drawn nine 150-plus-page books since 2018, and sees haunting similarities between her workload and the late McGinty’s. She says she’s done a full career’s worth of work in the span of half a decade—while holding a full-time job—at the cost of her body, mind, and personal relationships. The grind has left her disabled; Farina has had to stop working altogether for the foreseeable future, in order to recover from surgeries to treat the nerve damage in both of her arms.
“I knew from the beginning it would be hard, physically, but the stability of having long-term work and an increasingly rare chance at making back-end residuals tilted the scale,” she says. “I thought I was choosing to trade my time and labor, but I ended up losing my personhood for it.”
Why accept working through such pressure and under such ruthless conditions? The answer is that there’s usually no choice. Several of the professionals I spoke with noted that the industry leverages youth and passion to block negotiations for better pay or accommodating timelines. There is no room for compromise when arguing a corporation’s bottom line, and the well-being of creators isn’t considered in book publishers’ content plans. Sookdeo noted that exploitation is baked into the comics business on an international scale, historically weaponizing the love artists have for the medium, in order to coerce them into accepting starvation wages against breakneck schedules. With high worker turnover rates and machine-like conditions as an industry standard, a culture of quiet suffering emerges.
“You get it in your head that you’re lucky to be here, but don’t be too difficult or you’ll lose your spot,” writer Dave Scheidt (Mayor Good Boy, Star Wars Adventures) explains. He contributed to the #ComicsBrokeMe tag to boost other creators’ stories, he says, and to help others against the fear of being blacklisted for speaking up.
The culture of exploitation doesn’t start with middle-managers within publishing companies, however. The unrealistic working standards are often passed down from the C-suite, using editorial staff as the messengers. In a Twitter thread from June 11, former DC editor-turned-author Kwanza Osajyefo recounted having to lie to creators to get them to work for less-than-average page rates, while boosting the rates of high-profile writers for up to $10,000 per issue. When asked about it, Osajyefo explained that, because editorial salaries also remained stagnant, he felt he had no choice.
“I once was told to lie to a freelancer of reputation, saying another well-known freelancer on the book took a lower rate when it was false,” he tweeted. “That creator walked midway, and I don’t blame them, but I did get blamed.” He also confirmed that the practice of lowballing artists and writers comes from the top, and that exorbitant rates for famous creators are seized from the pay of lesser-known ones. However, even those lucky enough to receive favorable pay and work from a “Big Two” (Marvel and DC Comics) publisher still end up working below minimum wage, without health care, benefits, royalties, or rights to merchandise, film, or TV adaptations.
“Put generously, we’re experiencing a misunderstanding from publishers to know what is physically possible from their artists, as well as a desperation to jump on a trend. This has created a time crunch, mixed with a desire to keep costs low, as businesses tend to want to do, and publishers have not been paying artists enough to compensate for the demands of the work,” says Cathy G. Johnson, a graphic novelist, educator, and host of the comics-focused podcast Drawing a Dialogue. She acknowledges that the current moment in the industry, #ComicsBrokeMe included, marks a special moment in time, as people are breaking under the pay disparities and comics workers are beginning to understand their power as a collective.
One such collective gaining momentum is the Cartoonist Cooperative. Comprising more than 600 core members, the cooperative is researching methods to address the structural problems within the comics industry, from the lack of a living wage and health-care benefits to defending cartoonists from exploitative contracts and neglected marketing campaigns. Their largest challenge, though, is the difficulty around forming a labor union. When comic writers and artists are considered independent contractors, they’re rendered unable to join unions, according to the National Labor Relations Act in the U.S. The inability to organize plays a large part in the industry’s existing disparity and inequalities.
“Unions are more popular than they’ve ever been, but you have a huge swath of workers in comics who are prohibited from forming them,” explains Joan Zahra Dark, an organizer within the co-op.
The Cartoonist Cooperative is only one organization, but it’s part of a growing movement to enact change across an industry that’s cracking under a culture of exploitation, devaluation, chronic illness, and injury. It shouldn’t have to take the death of a colleague to legitimize the fair treatment of all workers, who put their physical and emotional well-being at stake to tell stories. Comics should not cost this much to make.