Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
When I lived in Toronto, I would often hear it described as a hub of comics culture. I understood why. The city hosts an abundance of comic shops, including landmark locations for both alternative comics (The Beguiling) and nerd culture (The Silver Snail). There are also numerous expos and conventions to attend: Fan Expo, Anime North, and the Toronto Comics Arts Festival (TCAF), which has grown into one of the most diverse, well-reputed North American festivals.
However, a lot of what makes Toronto an important city for comics folks is less obvious to your average isolated comics fan. It is exciting to know that the city is home to a large community of writers and artists, that there is a long history of that community, built up and supported by figures like Darwyn Cooke and Ty Templeton. But, other than occasionally spotting Chip Zdarsky in the park, that aspect of the city remained largely invisible to me during my years there. My curiosity was provoked by the prospect of a city of artists hiding in plain sight: sharing apartments, working in studios, hanging out, supporting one another.
That curiosity is what initially led me to research communal studios. Artist-run studio spaces have a long history in the comics industry as a method for creators to share resources, mitigate costs, and learn from one another. In the 1970s and 80s, some of the most critically-acclaimed superhero comics were produced out of Upstart Associates in Manhattan, a space shared by Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, Jim Starlin, and Frank Miller. Not all studios have catchy names and famous members. Rather, they vary widely in terms of size and formality, and in their simplest form can simply consist of artists splitting rent on a work space. It is only recently that some of them have become public facing organizations, offering formal mentorship programs and community engagement.
I began the project with a simple goal of learning more about how communal studios functioned and why some artists joined them. In 2019, as part of my research, I conducted interviews with members of three studios: Helioscope in Portland, World Monster HQ in Minneapolis, and RAID in Toronto. Numerous themes emerged across the different interviews, but the one I would like to focus on in this blog post is the role studios can play in offsetting the precarious work conditions of the comics industry.
One way that communal studios combat precarity is by acting as a source of collective knowledge and experience for its members. This is especially useful for younger members at the outset of their career. Lucy Bellwood from Helioscope describes this as a kind of switchboard:
The diversity of perspective in a single place and having the studio act as a sort of switchboard for resources and discussion. That can range from anything from getting offered a freelance contract and polling the room saying, ‘Hey, this guy wants to pay me $70 an hour. Is that reasonable?’ (Bellwood)
Access to this knowledge can protect inexperienced artists from entering into exploitive contacts with publishers. Over the past decades, the comics industry has increasingly transitioned to a decentralized model of labour, with production spread out over a network of subcontractors (Norcliffe and Rendace 252). A survey of comic creators conducted in 2019 found that 82.9% of respondents work from home (Bassett). This isolation prevents workers from taking part in collective organization, which in turn leaves them vulnerable to wage suppression. The potential for “self-exploitation” is especially true for young, passionate artists eager to break into the industry (Woo 62). Communal studios serve as both a support network and a pool of industry experience, providing new artists with the knowledge and confidence to negotiate equitable wages.
Another way the communal studios combat precarity is by facilitating access and mobility within the industry. This can take a number of forms, perhaps most importantly making it easier to table at conventions. Applying to conventions as a group not only increases the odds of securing a table at a discounted rate, it also increases the artists’ visibility on the floor (Bellwood). Studio members may also split the cost of travel and accommodations, allowing them to attend more conferences (Wartman). The networking opportunities that come from these conventions can be essential in creating a toehold in the industry (Norcliffe and Rendace 260). Other forms of access can include receiving job opportunities passed down from veteran studio members, gaining credibility with publishers through one’s studio affiliation, and making connections in entirely new fields, such as illustration or animation (Perez). In this way, the studio can mitigate prohibitive expenses and remove barriers to entry for upcoming artists.
While communal studios offer many potential benefits to empower creators, their long-term sustainability and impact may be limited. As the cost of rent continues to rise in urban centres, studios come under increasing financial pressure. Multiple interview subjects predict that young artists will increasingly choose to live in more affordable, remote locations and operate online (Lieber; Perez). Initial investigations into providing members with job benefits through the studios themselves have proven unproductive (Bellwood; Perez). Finally, the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on these studios is not yet known. Nonetheless, as calls for labour organization in the comics industry continue, I believe that studios could play a critical role as sites for consolidation.
Bassett, Sasha. Comics Workforce Study 2019. Portland State University, 2019, https://sites.google.com/view/cws2019. Accessed 20 Aug. 2020.
Bellwood, Lucy. Personal interview. 21 May 2019.
Lieber, Steve. Personal interview. 12 May 2019.
Norcliffe, Glen and Olivero Rendace. “New Geographies of Comic Book Production in North America: The New Artisan, Distancing, and the Periodic Social Economy.” Economic Geography, vol. 79, no. 3, 2003, pp. 241-263
Perez, Ramon. Personal Interview. 15 May 2019.
Wartman, Peter. Personal interview. 23 May 2019.
Woo, Benjamin. “Erasing the Lines between Leisure and Labor: Creative Work in the Comics World.” Spectator, vol.35 , no. 3, 2015, pp. 57-64.
Dr. Keith Friedlander is a communications instructor at Olds College in Alberta, Canada. He is currently the president of the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics. His research focuses on production cultures in the modern comic book industry, as well as representations of sexuality and gender in superhero comics. His work has appeared in the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics and The Middle Spaces, as well as the recently released anthology Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero.
Due to the ongoing pandemic crisis, ICAF was forced to cancel its events at the 2020 Small Press Expo. Over the next 16 weeks (give or take), we will be publishing