The American comic book industry has existed in something like its current form for almost a century, and for all the ways it’s changed, there are more in which it’s stayed the same. Most creative work is still done in a way that owes something to the factory line; most of it involves power fantasies of one sort or another; and the industry is mostly untouched by the labor movement.
Even so, it can be startling to realize that Comic Book Workers United, or CBWU, is, as far as anyone can tell, the industry’s very first union.
As members of the CBWU said in response to questions from Motherboard—the union asked for questions to be put in writing, and responded as a collective—their story is both very much of the present moment and deeply rooted in the comics industry’s past. And as they look forward, many of the questions to be answered are specifically about their working conditions and their relationship with management, but many are about the industry of which they’re a part—what it has been, what it is, and what it might become.
“This situation is not unique to Image, it’s not even unique to comics.”
That the first union in comics was formed at Image Comics—the publisher of The Walking Dead, Saga, and Spawn, among others—is no accident.
Image was founded in 1992 as a response to the predatory relationship between publishers and creators. Superstar artists working for the traditional publishing duopoly of Marvel and DC, inspired in part by the creators’ rights and self-publishing movements of the two immediately preceding generations—which included, at one point, a union drive led by legendary artist Neal Adams—wanted more control over their working conditions and intellectual property. When they didn’t get it, they left and founded Image. All the comics it publishes were, and still are, owned by their creators, and Image works in concert with several artists’ studios that are autonomous companies. Essentially, rather than having creators work for it, Image works for creators, providing the services necessary to take a comic from an artists’ desk to a store shelf.
“Image owns no IP, and creators own 100% of the work they publish,” a spokesperson said. “They are the legal trademark and copyright owners of their work. While Image can make suggestions and provide guidance, ultimately final decisions cannot be made by Image without the creators' permission.”
Nearly 30 years later, Image is now an established part of the comics-publishing infrastructure—more mainstream, in some ways, than the companies its founders broke away from. And as will happen, the institutions built by the revolutionaries have recapitulated some of the structures against which they were rebelling. Before workers handling editing, marketing, and payroll at the company formed a union, conversations about doing so had been in the ether for a long time. And after four employees in an already small office were fired during the pandemic and their roles not replaced, it showed the workers at Image how necessary a union was, and how universal the struggle for better working conditions really is.
“This situation is not unique to Image, it’s not even unique to comics,” CBWU told Motherboard “An overwhelming number of people struggling through Covid, assuming they were lucky enough to remain employed, were suddenly expected to do much more with much less. This placed an undue burden on us during an already chaotic time and we believe our creators suffered the effects of this as well.”
David Brothers, an editor for comics publisher Viz who worked at Image Comics from 2013 through 2017, told Motherboard that many of the issues that CBWU has brought up now have been brought up before. The company, he said, hasn’t grown with the times.
“I always described it as a big business that used to be a small business that never made the step up,” he said. “Image is independent but not indie, which is one of those weird online divides that’s hard to describe sometimes. So it has that scrappy underdog feel. I think the most people who worked there while I was there were like, 30.”
“When I first started production, working until after dark on a Friday to get books to print was, you know, normal.”
Part of the problem has to do with the visibility of the work that it takes to make a comic book—the work these unionizing workers do. The people who are responsible for all the work it takes to get a comic book in your hands—like the editors, workers in marketing, and people who cut checks—do things that are largely invisible to readers, but vital to creators. Burdening these workers with additional duties on top of what they were already doing was having an impact on the whole workplace.
“We work directly with creators to make their books ready for print,” CBWU said. “We help to make sure creators are paid on time. We assist in the marketing for the books. We work directly with distributors and retailers to put these books on the shelves. We work behind the scenes to give our creators the best possible success on their creator-owned stories.”
“I think sometimes creators get a little bit too much credit,” Dave Scheidt, a comic book writer from Chicago, told Motherboard. “Because yeah, we write the books and people draw it and all that, but behind the scenes someone's editing it, someone's color correcting it, somebody is designing it, somebody is organizing a print schedule, somebody's sending it to the printer, there's all these million things I never could do. I would have no idea how to do any of that stuff.”
According to Dan Jurgens, an industry veteran who wrote DC’s Death of Superman, a good editor is indispensable in comics. Jurgens said that although the writers and artists might get the most credit, every other person who works on a book serves a vital function towards getting it to the reader. Although comic books are creative works, they’re also collaborative endeavors that require coordination between many different workers.
“Your job as an editor, in some ways, is to manage the workload of all the freelancers who are working for you,” he told Motherboard. “Let's say you're editing four titles. You might have four issues of each of those titles in various stages of production on any given day. Some of them at the end of the chain are heading right for the printer, and you're trying to get it out. Managing that in this age of email, and changes and everything else that occurs, it's really a remarkable amount of work.”
Brothers said that during his time at the company, editors would frequently work into the weekend.
“When I first started production, working until after dark on a Friday to get books to print was, you know, normal,” he said. Brothers said that the team was able to come up with strategies to mitigate that issue, but also that if his former colleagues are organizing, he assumes it still persists.
“We found our accommodation,” he said. “But I think there could have been a formal accommodation, well ahead of that.”
(“This has not been the case since 2019 when the printers' deadlines were adjusted on the production schedule so that they no longer land on Friday,” the Image spokesperson said. “Now they land on Tuesday with room for Production to address late files during weekday work hours.”)
Scheidt and Jurgens both said that Image Comics already represented the potential for change within the industry because of how it was founded. Scheidt said that for creators, it’s still the best deal in comics.
“The founders understood that individual workers have a right to benefit from their labor and that self-determination should be available to everyone, not just a powerful few.”
“What I appreciated about the statement put out by the Image workers is that they did reference the founders of Image, who went out and capitalized on this idea that we can own our own material,” Jurgens said. “They built that company, and that's what they are very much about. I think that's fantastic.”
“They kind of had this whole cutting edge thing,” Scheidt said. “You know, the whole revolution of them being founded by Marvel and DC people who were just fed up with drawing other people's characters and writing other people's stories and, you know, being stuck in archaic publishing contracts and stuff like that.”
“As with many great union stories,” CBWU said, “the founding of Image Comics started with a group of people who knew the value of their work and had strong convictions about what they deserved to get out of the industry they loved and helped make possible.
“The founders understood that individual workers have a right to benefit from their labor and that self-determination should be available to everyone, not just a powerful few. That philosophy is something we are carrying forward with this union.”
Although some of the initial difficulties of working during the pandemic have been worked through, and two of the fired employees have since been rehired, the destabilizing effect of the pandemic demonstrated how little control the workers at Image have over their own workplace. When Brothers was at the company, he said, Image workers did meet to try to resolve some of the ongoing problems, to mixed success.
When one of the covers to the acclaimed but controversial Howard Chaykin’s series Divided States of Hysteria depicted a brown man being lynched with his genitals torn off, Brothers said, staffers at Image had a meeting with management to discuss the hot water that Image had suddenly found itself in. But it went poorly.
“We were like please, if we're gonna do this kind of work, it has artistic value, give us a heads up. Like, we're affected by this,” he said. “We don't want you to not do this. Like, there's all kinds of crime novels, and I grew up on rap music so I have no space to argue.
“But I do think there's a level of appropriateness and respect you can approach these issues with, and maybe like the lynching cover’s not it. Maybe there's another route. The thrust of our argument was, ‘Just keep us in the loop.’ The answer was basically, ‘You're not the one who picks the books, so you don't necessarily get a say.’”
Brothers said that in response to this meeting, Image Comics employees received a diversity training.
(“After concerns about DIVIDED STATES were brought to our attention by the public,” the Image spokesperson said, “the concerns were addressed with the cover being replaced before going to print, and then having all staff complete diversity training. There was not an all-staff meeting prior to that where employees voiced their concerns to Image.”)
“We love our jobs and the work we do, but we also know that we deserve to be fairly represented. Everyone does.”
In a message on its website, CBWU lays out nine asks, most related to job retention, mobility, and continuance of remote work—something that workers all across the country have begun to reevaluate during the pandemic. Comic book industry workers who spoke to Motherboard said they seemed reasonable. Scheidt and Jurgens both said that editors in comics in particular take on more than they can handle just because of how books are scheduled to be released.
“For me, the biggest thing I would want would be a reasonable workload,” Jurgens said. “That would allow me to manage my books and projects to their best possible conclusion. It seems like common sense, but it can be hard to find because some systems are so overloaded.”
“I think that'll help the industry in general, just being conscious of the amount of work that people put into all this behind the scenes stuff,” Scheidt said. “It's very thankless work, nobody really shouts them out.”
“The uncertainty and lack of control in our workplace has persisted,” said CBWU. “This, along with an overall wave of labor organizing, and civic action in general, has given us a renewed sense of resolve. People everywhere are advocating for themselves, and it’s as good a time as any for us to do so as well. We love our jobs and the work we do, but we also know that we deserve to be fairly represented. Everyone does.”
Although CBWU told Motherboard that it has a supermajority of members who are eligible to join the union, Image Comics has refused to voluntarily recognize the union. This has not deterred CBWU, which asks supporters to tell Image Comics to recognize the union.
“The oft-repeated sentiment of ‘Well, suffering is worth it if you get great art out of it’ is a harmful way to think about creative endeavors,” CBWU said. “Job security, more time off, better hours, solid living wages—all of these things relieve mental strain and allow for creativity to flourish.”
“It's like, ‘We don't want to work with creeps.’”
The most controversial ask CBWU has made of management is for “a collective voting option to immediately cancel publication of any title whose creator(s) have been found to have engaged in abuse, sexual assault, racism and xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, ableism, etc.”
This has been read as a demand for a censorious panel to ensure that upcoming comics adhere to diktats of political correctness. It is perhaps more properly read as a response to past incidents including the Chaykin cover and the disastrous Warren Ellis situation, in which the company was caught in a bind after the well-respected writer was called out for predatory behavior. Image workers are not so much demanding that books and creators be put before a star chamber as putting on the table for negotiation a defined process for dealing with creators doing or saying objectionable things—a process that might, if laid out properly, do as much to protect creators who find themselves in the middle of a shitstorm as anything else, and which would in all simply meet publishing industry standards.
“I think on paper I think a lot of people see that kind of, like, freak out,” Scheidt told Motherboard.
“The last book deal I signed, this was in there. It's more or less, ‘Hey, if you fuck up, they're gonna investigate it and see what happens.’ So I really don't think this is anything new,” he said. “It’s just about having the transparency of, you know, ‘Here's what would happen.’”
“Image was formed,” the company spokesperson said, “because the founders wanted to build a company where they and other creators could own and control their work without interference from their publisher.”
“This is in no way an effort to dictate the content that creators publish. This is a question of our right to a safe and comfortable working environment,” CBWU said. “There is no way to know what this process would look like at this time, given that this list of goals is just that, and union negotiations and collective bargaining exist for a reason. This is simply a statement of intent to reclaim power over situations in which we feel helpless, which is pretty much what unionizing is all about.”
“What they're saying is that it's not about the content of the comics, right? It's about what the creators have done,” Brothers said. “It's about abuse, essentially. I think people are reading it as they want oversight on what goes into the books. Really, it's like, ‘We don't want to work with creeps.’”
CBWU said that its organizing effort was inspired by recent efforts by IATSE, a union of crew workers in the entertainment industry, and the AWU, the union of Google workers, as well as organizers working in warehouse fulfillment centers. It was also inspired by workers at the tabletop role playing game publisher Paizo, who have similarly organized with the Communications Workers of America. CBWU said it hopes it’s part of a wave of labor action in the United States.
“We have seen an outpouring of support from the comics community and are so appreciative of all the kind words. To be honest, it’s a bit overwhelming. It’s easy to feel invisible, doing the jobs we do,” CWBU said. “We would like to take this opportunity to reiterate that what we are working towards is a democratic workspace where, ultimately, every person has a say in what their labor brings into this world. Make no mistake, Image has made great strides in the industry when it comes to diversity and representation, and we are proud of that.”
One thing that has been odd, given the ways in which the CBWU effort has been a direct outgrowth of others in the comics industry, has been the relative silence of some of the most powerful people in the field. Image chief operating officer Robert Kirkman, who has been immeasurably enriched by the company’s lack of ownership over properties like The Walking Dead, declined comment. So did Image founders. A spokesperson for Jim Lee, current chief creative officer of DC Comics, declined comment; founders like Whilce Portacio and Rob Liefeld did not reply to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Neil Gaiman, an early participant in the Image crusade who ended up embroiled in a long lawsuit with founder Todd MacFarlane over ownership of a character, said he would not be available for comment.
Perhaps most oddly, a spokesperson for Neal Adams, the legendary artist who attempted to unionize the field and secure royalties and rights to original art for men like Captain America creator Jack Kirby and Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, denied that he had ever been involved in labor issues at all while turning down an interview request. “Those were creator’s rights issues,” the spokesperson said, and declined to elaborate on the distinction.
“I’ve seen the work the Image team does, and If they did jettison everybody, I feel like the books would take such a huge hit.”
This aside, the Image union exists in a specific historical context. Scheidt and Brothers both mentioned that none of this would be possible without Gawker organizing with the Writer’s Guild of America East in 2015. (VICE’s editorial teams are organized with the WGAE.) Both Brothers and Scheidt hope that just as Gawker affected the digital-media industry, the CBWU being recognized and successfully negotiating a contract could start to be a domino effect of other comics publishers unionizing as well.
“I think if it works at Image, it would definitely lead to a wave of other publishers unionizing,” Brothers said, adding that Dark Horse and Oni are also in Portland, where Image Comics is located.
“I think it’s opening this conversation up and it's not this like hush, hush thing, like we're not supposed to talk about it,” Scheidt said.
“It’s like, comic creators, we all talk to each other. We all complain and air our dirty laundry to each other. But I think it's weird because it is like this little insular world and I think people are very protective of it,” Scheidt said. “I think just the industry is very protective of itself, which is good. But it's also detrimental to people on the outside trying to get in.”
Brothers also said that not recognizing the union would be a professional hit that Image can’t afford to take.
“I’ve seen the work the Image team does, and If they did jettison everybody, I feel like the books would take such a huge hit. The company would never recover, reputation or quality wise,” Brothers said. “I think not recognizing the union is actually another huge reputation hit for Image.”
CBWU said that the creators that they work with at Image Comics are all in support of them. Julio Anta, whose Image series Home released this week, said on Twitter that “every single person involved in this Union has been absolutely critical to the production of your favorite Image comic books, including Home.”
“I can personally attest to the hard work and extreme care everyone at Image from production, design, marketing, etc. have for these comics and their creators,” he continued.
“Our creators support us. Even if the general public doesn’t know exactly what we do, they know how hard we work to serve their vision, and they appreciate that,” CBWU told Motherboard. “And they’ve been especially vocal about that appreciation this last week.”
“We hope this is just the beginning of a tidal wave of unionization in this country,” the union said. “It’s long overdue.”
Update: After publication, a spokesperson from Image Comics reached out to clarify their production schedules.