Comics: Sean Michael Wilson on an anarchic approach
Sean Michael Wilson is no stranger to the blog; a Scottish comics writer living and working in Japan where he doubtless scandalises the locals with his barbarian ways, has been musing on an alternative model for creating comics – or indeed any artworks really – which takes place within a radically different socio-economic system from the currently dominant capitalist model, inspired by the title of the British Library’s recent “Art and Anarchy” comics exhibition. It’s an intriguing opinion piece and naturally comment is invited (please do keep it sensible and constructive though, these are, like most such ideas, for generating discussion and debate, not flamers); over to Sean:
Comic Books Need A Revolution!
As the British Library comics exhibition is titled ‘Art and Anarchy’ I thought that I would write an article about how anarchy would really benefit us comic book creators, about how comics would flourish in an anarchist system FAR more than they do under the current capitalist one. To make it plain: it seems that comic books need a revolution!
In an interview I did in Scotland last year, we got onto discussing how to revive sales of comic books in the UK. To which I made these points: “How to do that is a complicated thing, no? I’ve heard that the main problem might be reluctance on the part of retailers and publishers to give the necessary investment of money and space. However, if there were enough customers they would do it. You know what capitalism is like – it will sell any old crap that makes money: cigarettes, booze, pills, even comics! The hard economic fact is that comics in UK just don’t sell as much as they used to. So companies that need to make money can’t afford to give them much time.
So, on the wider level its really an economic problem inherent in the capitalist system. In a different social system comics would flourish far more, I think. Since their artistic and entertainment value is recognised by enough people – just not enough to make much profit! – that they WOULD be given more attention if the profit aspect was not such a dominating thing. By saying ‘different social system’ I’m specifically thinking of an anarchist social system. Anarchist of the type that Alan Moore has favoured for many years and which I also do. Let me say more soon about how that would work.
So, the key problem besetting comics in the UK and USA, etc is not lack of ideas, lack of desire to create them, lack of respectability, or even a lack of interest amongst consumers. The key problem is: dear old capitalism. Specifically, the artificial need to make a profit which ‘allows’ the art to exist. Since the artistic aspect is respected, enjoyed and desired by enough people then why should it not be allowed to flourish? Why should the profit aspect get in the way? It just acts to distort those artistic efforts (by the need to make stories that will sell enough) and deprive us of good comic books (those that don’t sell enough and get cancelled).
And what is the point of that profit? Who does it benefit? In the short term us as creators via our royalty percentages and the publishers via their share of the sales price. But mainly for some hugely rich group or person who already has a lot of money already. The theory is that it then filters down, as if by ‘an invisible hand’ to paraphrase my fellow Scot Adam Smith, to benefit society in general. But, let’s cut to the chase: it doesn’t work, not well enough anyway. It’s not a system aiming at given us a fair and decent standard of living via our efforts, of sharing out resources well. Its BASED on exploitation of our efforts and an unequal distribution of the rewards. The basic point of an anarchist system is that we aim to organise ourselves in a more fair and decent way, a way that benefits all of us. And to do so on the basis of the voluntary working together of equals.
The capitalists system also affects many publishers badly. Recently a few of them have had to do crowd funding type appeals in order to clear their debts or just to stay ‘in business’. Again, the profit element in capitalism causes them trouble. Which means that the central aspect of the need to make profit gets in the way of their supposed main purpose – to make good comics, to make art, to make stories. In gets in the way so much that many of these great publishers are struggling to exist. Which means that in the short term, they have to turn down MANY good ideas, based not on the artistic merit of the books, but based almost entirely on the ‘profit problem’ – those books will probably not make enough profit to ‘justify’ their existence in a capitalist market. Again, the result is – we lose lots of good comic books, lots of good ideas, lots of human creativity left to wither on the vine. Why do we allow the capitalist profit system to do that to us?
To look at it another way – comics are simply not popular enough anymore. That’s the real problem, no? Yes, the popularity of comics has gone down since the height in the 60’s and 70’s. Other forms of entertainment have taken a lot of the attention away from comics. That is an issue of wider social development and technological change which is not, per se, the ‘fault’ of the capitalist system. No art form deserves to survive just because it was good/useful in the past – it has to continue to be socially relevant and valued. But its easy to see that, despite this decline in popularity, comics ARE still very highly valued. In fact they are loved, deeply loved. And in terms of social relevance they have, it may be argued, never been more vibrant than at present. Certainly in terms of the maturity of the content, width of stories being made, and in the degree of reflection of the world around them.
So, I think if it we had a different social system, an anarchist system, then comics would flourish a LOT more. In an anarchist system based on resources being used to create things valued by society (not a system based on the creation of profit and the maintenance of power by a wealthy few), then comics would do much better. Let’s say that at a conservative guess there are around 100,000 people in the UK and about 500,000 in the USA who very much enjoy comic books on a regular basis. Well, that’s more than enough to justify the channelling of some resources towards creating those comic books. And with the creators free of the distorting need to produce money making comics they would be far more free to experiment, to produce more individualistic work, indeed, to simply make better comics. Comic books need a revolution!
I asked long term US radical activist, Michael Albert, to help us out here. He is connected with the Parecon (participatory economics) anarchist type approach and a close colleague of probably the world’s most renowned anarchist, Noam Chomsky. I did a book about Michael, with Chomsky’s involvement too (his first connection to a comic book), called PARECOMIC. I asked him to clarify how comic book creators may benefit if living in an anarchistic style participatory economy. I noted to him:
“As a professional comic book writer involved in making some books critical of capitalism I am sometimes asked by people: “But don’t YOU benefit from the present system via the sales of your comic books? You enjoy that creative freedom don’t you? Would you like to be controlled by some soviet style council telling you what art to do?
I normally reply that I think the opposite is true. That the present system curtails my artistic freedom because of the NEED to make profit on my books and the rejection of ideas that are unlikely to make profit. It also seems to me that within a parecon system I would have MORE creative freedom, not less.”
His reply tells us something about how being a comic book creator may work in an anarchist society:
“What we know is [In a parecon] you get remunerated for doing socially valuable labour – for duration, intensity, and onerousness of the work – as long as you have a balanced job complex *… whether you are in part a doctor, a chemist, a musician, an – anything … we have to meet standards to get remunerated.
So, you apply for work to a workers council – in your case, perhaps in some society it is literally the comic workers council – but in another smaller society, perhaps it is just the writers/artists council. You get a job, with a balanced job complex, if the workers in the industry – by the means they have established, hire you into their council. Of course there can actually be many such councils, in different cities, etc. etc. You keep the job, as long as you contribute socially valued labour – and that can have more than one meaning. Valued now, by consumers, is one meaning. Or valued by your fellow workers and society on grounds that it opens paths forward by innovations – rather like one values an investment. This is true whether you are an engineer, dancer, or comic book writer.”
“The difference…between capitalism and a parecon for all these, is in parecon you have to convince other people in your (artistic) industry – not a patron or capitalist owner wanting to sell your product. And your income won’t depend on how many people like your work, but on effort and sacrifice expended as long as your work is valued. And you have a balanced job complex. But also, you will collectively self-manage your industry. Your work will not be alienated by the profit motive – nor by vastly unequal distribution of wealth among those who will enjoy it, and so on.
Your guess [about having more creative freedom in a parecon compared to a capitalist system] is right, I think. Both for those working artistically for an income, and those just doing it because they like it in their spare time. It will be far more an outgrowth of unfettered personal desires and inclinations than in a class divided system.”
So, what would happen for us lovely comic book creators in that type of anarchists society is that we would present our ideas not to a publisher who is plagued by capitalist profit, but to a council or collective (of which we are also an equal member) who’s key concern is how to use the resources of our area in a good way. The process of submitting the ideas might be almost the same – we come up with sample script and art, etc, and try to persuade the decision makers. But there are a few BIG differences. Firstly, the KEY aspects that we would need to persuade the decision makers about is the ARTISTIC value of our new comic book idea, not how much profit it will make. That already makes the situation hugely better for us comic book creators.
Secondly, the power situation would be very different – creators and publishers are in a very unequal situation. Creators submit and publishers decide (mostly anyway). Actually, that is not good for anyone, creators or publishers. As it puts the creators in a subservient position of having to ‘submit’ to the more powerful publishers; and the publishers, being just people themselves, are often not best served, psychologically, by being in that position of power. By contrast, in the anarchist collective we are all EQUAL members. In that case we ‘suggest’ rather than submit, to a group of our peers. A group that we are members of and have as much power and say over as anyone else. That would be a far better position for us, no?
Note that this does NOT mean all of ours ideas would be given the groups’ backing. They may decide that the new playground is higher up the list of priorities. But if so then I think that would be a lot easier to take that the present reasons given by the PPP (profit plagued publishers) of “Sorry, it’s a nice idea but it would not sell enough to make it viable for us to publish in the current state of the industry”. That really is an annoying and unacceptable reason. But the local councils ‘no’ being for this reason is far more reasonable: ”Sorry, its a nice idea but we can’t back it officially now because the collective decision is that we should focus on making that new playground for the kids. Maybe in the next round of decisions”. A much more reasonable situation.
And if we don’t agree we can ‘appeal’ that decision, as an equal member of the group, and get it reconsidered maybe. What can do at present? Just shrug our shoulders and say ‘Okay, I understand the economic realities.’ and throw our idea in the corner, to be forgotten. Like 100,000s of good ideas that get side-lined in capitalism, in all areas (not just the arts but also science and medicine and education, etc) by this artificial need to make a profit. But, since the artistic and entertainment value of comic books is widely recognised by enough people, then in an anarchist system FAR MORE of our comic book ideas would be given the go ahead. So, in conclusion, dear creative comrades: comic books need a revolution! We’ll all be better off.
Sean has recently started writing a comics column for the Scottish newspaper The Herald.