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How the New Cartoonist Cooperative Plans to ‘Disrupt’ the Comics Industry—and Why It Matters

Cartoonist Cooperative

Although sales are at an all-time high in the comics industry, many creators are not seeing the returns of those profits. For years, there have been attempts to unionize the comics industry, which is difficult because of how many people within it work solely on contracts. Now, a group of comics artists and writers have united to form the Cartoonist Cooperative, and their goal is to “disrupt” the industry and create a more sustainable future.

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The Cartoonist Cooperative committee includes Reimena Yee, Sloane Leong, Nero Villagallos O’Reilly, Joan Zahra Dark, Zach Hazard Vaupen, and Aaron Losty. According to a press release, “The intent behind the cooperative is to make the creative practice more sustainable and successful. The cooperative will be both a curated comics aggregator and a community where members will contribute to a mutual marketing effort of each other’s work.”

Citing inspiration from Shortbox Comics Fair, Panel Syndicate, and other comics collectives, the committee says the Cartoonist Cooperative website will “promote new comics on a shared schedule with other members, thereby allowing all to contribute to its promotion.” The Cooperative will share industry information, pool resources, and share skills to support members throughout the creative process. In addition to the website, which will also host “educational writing on craft and career,” it will offer a Discord server and forum where members can connect with each other and ask questions.

These goals and practices are outlined in a two-page comic written by Sloane Leong and drawn by Anna Bow, seen here:

How the Cartoonist Cooperative is ‘disrupting’ the comics industry

There are already a handful of aggregate sites for comics creators, including MariNaomi’s Cartoonists of Color Database, Queer Cartoonists Database, and Disabled Cartoonists Database, which provide contact information and samples for marginalized creators to get hired, and Stephanie Cooke’s Creator Resource, which aims to make pay rates, editorial processes, and other parts of the comics industry more transparent.

The Cartoonist Cooperative aims to build upon current and past resources to create a fuller support system for creators.

“Despite the growing number of tutorials, advice, resources, and warnings, knowledge has been scattered and poorly archived across individual social media accounts, particularly Twitter which never has a good way at all to find past tweets about a particular topic,” committee member Remeina Yee tells The Mary Sue via e-mail.

“The sense of feeling lost this creates—especially for newer creators with little experience and intergenerational community—enables room for exploitation and predation to occur. The Cooperative is taking cues from initiatives like Litebox and Paper Cat Press, and offering an alternative environment where intergenerational, international sharing of knowledge, time, and labor are key to the community.”

Committee member Nero Villagallos O’Reilly adds, “There was something similar in the US, very briefly in the 1970’s—the Cartoonist’s Co-op Press. They were also founded to combat and protect cartoonists from the predatory practices of publishers but only were in operation for about a year. I think with the power of the Internet and with such a big group of people interested we can make something that lasts much longer and is more effective! We’re also not a publisher, so our only bottom line, technically, is operating costs.”

As for immediate goals, Leong tells us that the Cooperative wants to “establish an organization that allows for an exchange of skills, industry information, and other resources between cartoonists and comics-makers. We’re doing this by providing a private social platform on Discord and our own members-only forums.” To join these spaces, creators will have to apply, and they will then be vetted to the best of the committee’s ability for professionality and past behavior in order to prevent potential predators or bad actors from taking advantage.

“Of course, a platform alone doesn’t make a community,” Leong adds. “That only exists when we have stakes in each other’s well-being. By joining the Cooperative, you’ll be agreeing to help at least one other member every six months. This activity requirement is minimal and could be anything from making a promo graphic for someone or sending an email on someone’s behalf. By everyone contributing a little to someone else, the burden of things like marketing your comics, finding reliable creative feedback, or vetting a client will be lessened greatly.”

Committee member Zach Hazard Vaupen notes the importance of such a community for new creators, especially in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Conventions are often the easiest and most concentrated way for creators to connect and form support networks, but these events can be prohibitive to folks who can’t afford to attend, can’t risk their health, or are otherwise unable to go.

Why the Cartoonist Cooperative is launching now

Similar to Vaupen’s points, Cartoonist Cooperative committee member Joan Zahra Dark cites the slow collapse of social media, which is making it harder for creators to find engagement with their work, and the “narrowing landscape of where people can actually put their comics on the Internet,” now that Amazon has shuttered ComiXology and webcomics creators, in particular, are seeking fairer monetization models for their work.

“It’s getting even harder to actually put yourself out there as a cartoonist, let alone be able to make a living making comics,” Dark says. “The Cartoonist Cooperative’s aim is to not only centralize all of our member comics into one place for ease of access but to also centralize resources for cartoonists and create a larger network where folks can feel secure in having their peers work in solidarity with them.”

“It was difficult pre-pandemic to get a book but now you just can’t rely on the slim chance of scoring a livable advance in the mainstream publishing world,” Leong adds. “If you do get a livable advance that’s not quartered across years, then it’s a toss-up as to whether your publisher will even market your book, which, if it fails to reach specific metrics, can mean smaller future advances or no deals at all.

“The other option is self-publishing alone but the amount of work that goes into not just creating your comics but then funding, printing, distribution, and marketing them can be incredibly taxing,” Leong continues. “The whole structure is unsustainable and we desperately need something to replace it which is what I hope the Cooperative will do.”

How creators can join the Cartoonist Cooperative

At the time of launch, the Cartoonist Cooperative committee consists of the six founders named above, who’ve been working behind the scenes to get the organization off the ground. Dark explains that anyone making comics can apply to be a member and be at the same level as everyone else in the Cooperative, since the idea is to create an equal and accessible organization where everyone helps each other out.

“The only real difference is how much work each person wants to put into the co-op’s development and campaigns, which will reflect how much ownership each member has over the project!” Dark tells us. “Folks who aren’t making comics but want to support the co-op can pitch in as volunteers as well, but keeping membership strictly to people who are making comics in some form is very much by design to keep the community feeling as safe as possible for artists.”

Vaupen adds, “We also hope to grow our committee and welcome more of our members directly into our steering committee over time as things continue to scale up. This is an effort of shared labor
and volunteerism, so the more hands on deck the better!”

Creators interested in checking out the Cartoonist Cooperative or applying to join can visit the website. Those looking to support the group’s efforts can apply as volunteers, and the committee encourages folks to share the website on social media and, if possible, donate to its Ko-fi page to help with maintenance fees and labor.

(featured image: Cartoonist Cooperative)

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Samantha Puc
Samantha Puc (she/they) is a fat, disabled, lesbian writer and editor who has been working in digital and print media since 2010. Their work focuses primarily on LGBTQ+ and fat representation in pop culture and their writing has been featured on Refinery29, Bitch Media, them., and elsewhere. Samantha is the co-creator of Fatventure Mag and she contributed to the award-winning Fat and Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives. They are an original cast member of Death2Divinity, and they are currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative nonfiction at The New School. When Samantha is not working or writing, she loves spending time with her cats, reading, and perfecting her grilled cheese recipe.

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