SPX, TCJ, OMG: A Hot Take

Brigid Alverson responds to a recent opinion piece on TCJ.com and shares her thoughts on comiXology/Amazon’s presence at this weekend’s Small Press Expo.

I know that contentious commentary is part of the The Comics Journal brand, but maybe it’s time to drop it. Especially because the latest article isn’t just mean-spirited, it’s straight-up wrong.

I am referring, of course, to RJ Casey’s recent post, ominously titled “A Plague Comes to SPX,” in which he warns that Amazon is poised to ruin comics.

I’m at SPX, and I went to the exhibitors’ reception last night, where, like everyone else, I got a copy of Hit Reblog, the book he disparages:

ComiXology Originals and Hit Reblog is doing what the tech industry almost always does — taking something that already exists and making it worse. What are they doing that is so innovative? Printing webcomics on glossy paper.

I read the book last night. It was published by Bedside Press, a small indy publisher, and distributed by ComiXology Originals (it’s really more like a book-packaging deal, I guess), and despite what Casey says, it is not just reprinted webcomics—in fact, I’d say there’s more original material than reprint in it. It has a clever framing tale and two-page comics bios of all the artists. Along the way, Hope Nicholson and Megan Kearney, who collaborated to produce the book, make some good points about the business of comics and being a comics creator. It’s an easy read but a good one. I’m sorry Casey didn’t like it, but it doesn’t deserve the scorn that he heaps on it (some of which was later deleted from the article without a proper editor’s note, which is something I give a hard side-eye to).

Hit Reblog is just collateral damage, though, because Casey is really incensed about Amazon butting into the purity that is SPX. I hold no brief for Amazon’s labor practices. They are terrible. The solution to this has nothing to do with comics, at least directly; they need a good union. You and I are not going to solve that problem by not buying Amazon. Casey already knows this, as do his editors, but in the proud tradition of elites everywhere, they caution the unwashed masses to do as they say, not as they do.

Casey thinks that Amazon has cast its predatory eye on the rich lode of IP to be found in the indy-comics world:

Not happy with the downfall of our country’s entire retail sector, Amazon now wants in on that little zipper bag full of singles you keep under the table at conventions.

That got a good chuckle from several of the people I talked to at the reception; as one said, “Yes, there are hundreds of dollars to be had and Amazon is definitely after them.”

Here’s the crux of Casey’s argument:

Amazon wants to be your printer, distributor, and, most likely, publisher and editor. But consider the repercussions. The erasure of these services will decimate what little industry we even have. This is not to mention the hit on artistic freedom and intent.

Amazon is in business to make money, and there are several ways to do this. One is to gin up business for their POD services. People have been publishing comics via their Createspace service for years, and that hasn’t ruined SPX. Even now that they are marketing directly to creators, I don’t understand how Amazon is anything more than a more convenient version of any other POD service or the copy center at your local Staples. Casey makes an aesthetic argument that is entirely irrelevant, about how Amazon can’t reproduce the fine printing quality of this or that creator’s work, but hand-crafted, artisanal minicomics are a different work for a different market, and those comics are never going to published by a POD service anyway.

The other way Amazon makes money, of course, is by selling stuff, including lots and lots of books. ComiXology Originals pays creators to make original comics, which makes a lot of sense in that context, because some of those young creators will grow up to be wildly successful authors, making lots of books that people will buy on Amazon. That’s the sort of long-term thinking that frankly, we could use more of. I don’t think this is part of Jeff Bezos’ strategy, of course, but I do think the ComiXology folks are strongly motivated by a love of comics as both a medium and a business.

The crucial point here, the one that Casey and the TCJ folks always seem to miss, is that creators need to be paid in order to create, and the better they are paid, the better off we all are. ComiXology Originals is benefiting creators by paying them a decent page rate, and Amazon is providing the means to produce and distribute their work for a wider audience. Casey apparently wants artists to craft their comics by hand and sell them one at a time at conventions, but that only works if you are doing it as a hobby, if you’re independently wealthy, or if you become such a success that people will pay big bucks for your risographed minis. Maybe Chris Ware and Dan Clowes are at a point where they can simply make comics all day long, but most creators have to fit them in between the day job and the side gigs. If they can find a broader platform, and if that platform leads to their eventually making a living wage from their comics, that’s a good thing. The more opportunities they have, the richer we all will be.

In fact, that’s already happening independent of Amazon. We are living in an incredible golden age of comics right now because so many people have found so many ways to publish their works, grow an audience, and make a living as an artist. The gatekeepers are gone.

Except for TCJ, the magazine that loves to tell you that the things you like really suck.

Remember when Dan Nadel attacked Box Brown for doing a Garo-inspired anthology that didn’t measure up to his strict academic standards and—almost as bad!—was crowdfunded on Kickstarter? More recently, Casey ripped on Craig Yoe for publishing reprint books that didn’t meet his high standards for quality. Maybe someone else could have done it better, but you know what? That doesn’t mean Yoe shouldn’t have done it. In fact, by bringing the work of long-forgotten artists back in affordable editions, Yoe isn’t stealing a piece of the pie, he’s making the pie bigger. This sort of elitism ruined comics in the 1980s and it’s still hurting the medium today.

Casey raises the frightening specter of predatory capitalism:

SPX might also want to consider the possible consequences of Amazon’s apparent aspirations to take over small-press publishing. Will artists have to order and pay for their own books to be printed on demand to sell at shows? Would this make smaller conventions obsolete?

The answer is no, of course, because we live in a capitalist society. If Amazon adapts such dickish practices, someone will come up with an alternative. That’s what’s happening right now with the Big Two, who are becoming increasingly irrelevant to comics readers (as opposed to moviegoers) because there’s so much other good stuff out there that doesn’t require purity tests or a high tolerance for bad art. You know what sells rings around anything Marvel or DC does? Dog Man, because Dav Pilkey knows how to satisfy his audience, and no one ever gets harassed for reading his comics (except maybe by parents or teachers).

I seriously doubt that SPX will sell out to Big Media in the way that San Diego and NYCC have, for the simple reason that money isn’t there. In fact, I would argue that ComiXology has done nothing but improve SPX—they sponsor the Ignatz awards and the programming. I’ve run sponsored events in my day job, and I know how much of a difference that money means when you are running on a shoestring. This year, SPX established a fund to defend 11 creators who are involved in a defamation suit. It’s entirely possible that they couldn’t have done that without ComiXology’s sponsorship of other parts of the show. At the bare-bones level, the two receptions with free food are probably making it easier for some of the younger creators to attend.

Part of the joy of SPX every year is standing in the lobby on Friday and watching the new creators come in. You can see the medium being watered at the roots. And then there are the ones who were the “new kids” a few years ago, and now have some solid paying work (like “working on the new She-Ra cartoon,” another disparaging comment that has mysteriously disappeared from Casey’s column)* and are working on a graphic novel.

Comics creators need to be paid for their work in order for the medium to thrive. In fact, right now the medium is thriving because there are more paying outlets, and while no one is getting rich, one could even argue that outfits like ComiXology Originals will exert some upward pressure on page rates and professionalism among the smaller comics publishers. You know what’s a classic predatory-capitalist ploy? Keeping the people who do the actual work fighting over the crumbs. Intentionally or not, that’s what TCJ is doing, and they need to stop. It’s bad, and they are wrong.

Conflict of Interest Statement:This whole thing pains me, because I know and like everyone involved. I have known RJ Casey since his indy-publishing days, I always enjoy talking to him, and his Baby Book Club comics made me laugh out loud. I am a big fan of Fantagraphics (which owns TCJ and employs Casey) and I feel they have an essential place in the world of comics by publishing old and new work that deserves wider attention. I’m a longtime admirer of Hope Nicholson and the work she does at Bedside Press. I have been writing about ComiXology since before the iPad came out, and I have known Chip Mosher and Ivan Salazar since they were at BOOM! Studios. I have interviewed or written about all these people and companies multiple times, and I have shared meals and laughs with them as well. I have also submitted queries to TCJ and while nothing I sent in was a good match for them, I have had cordial conversations with the editors. I think their hearts are in the right place, which is why I’m especially pained by articles like this, because I know they can do so much better.

*I was wrong; that was in the comments.

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