It’s long been said by countless people in and around the comic book industry that they should unionize. Finally, in 2021, workers from Image Comics have decided to do just that.
Today, nine Image staffers—Ryan Brewer, Leanna Caunter, Marla Eizik, Drew Fitzgerald, Melissa Gifford, Chloe Ramos, Tricia Ramos, Jon Schlaffman, and Erika Schnatz—announced the creation of Comic Book Workers United, an organizing effort advocating for a number of significant changes geared toward improving the comics industry for the people who actually keep it alive. In a statement posted to the organizing committee’s website, CBWU explained how the past year of workers often having to tough things out on their own, and that quickly becoming the norm, was a big part of the founding members’ decision to organize.
“For years, comics publishing workers have watched our professional efforts support creators and delight readers,” the group wrote. “Sadly, we have also watched that same labor be taken for granted at best and exploited at worst. Keeping our heads above water was the new normal before the pandemic and since its onset we have been expected to take on even larger workloads with fewer resources.”
CBWU’s goals page also lists nine bullet points outlining the major objectives the group is pushing for, ranging from regular performance reviews for employees to the extension of work-at-home provisions for those who do not wish to or cannot come into traditional office spaces. CBWU also spells out how much of a need there is for more standardized and robust marketing for new comic books that often get lost in the release shuffle, while flagship titles are given more attention and care that their easily recognizable characters and creative teams don’t necessarily need.
When Jim Valentino, Erik Larsen, and Rob Liefeld first launched Image as an offshoot of Malibu Comics back in the early 90s, the imprint’s co-founder put a distinct focus on retaining ownership of their creations, which then-editor-in-chief Malibu was sympathetic to. That ethos has continued to be a significant part of Image Comics’ public-facing brand identity as the publisher’s put out award-winning titles like Saga and The Wicked + The Divine. But now CBWU is calling for Image to formalize its practices regarding how that goodwill is consistently extended to all of the company’s creators, and the ask comes at a time when workers across all industries are finding themselves having to demand better compensation from the companies that profit from their labor.
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The work that comic book publishers have been able to continue putting out throughout the ongoing global covid-19 pandemic that brought the industry to a standstill last year would not have been possible were it not for the workers—the artists, writers, letterers, and countless other kinds of creative professionals who labor to turn ideas into the works of art that keep this space vibrant. While the stresses the pandemic put on the comics industry clearly illustrated the degree to which contracted employees are in particularly vulnerable positions due to the lack of basic quality of life protections offered by their employers, that problem is not a recent development. This past year’s seen a renewed focus on comics creators pushing for more equitable working conditions across the board as more people have begun speaking out publicly about how little of the profit they see from the adaptations of their work that the IP’s corporate owners are able to greenlight.
That issue, along with other structural problems plaguing comics—like a profound lack of diversity, a general lack of transparency about viable paths for long-term career growth, and even pay rates—have long since been matters that comics publishers themselves have only done so much to address. Rather than waiting for a sea change to come by the grace of the powers that be, this is why the workers at Image Comics are taking the proactive route by taking the first steps towards unioning.
What’s likely to raise eyebrows at publishing houses throughout the industry is the CBWU desire for “renewed commitment to company values through the addition of 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.” Currently, there’s no real standardized way that comics publishers have responded in instances of employees engaging in racist, sexist, and otherwise discriminatory practices that reflect poorly on the company.
Earlier this year, Image came under fire following news of artist Ben Templesmith and writer Warren Ellis resuming their Fell series at the comics house. Word of Fell’s revival coincided with the one-year anniversary of multiple allegations against Ellis accusing him of sexually predatory behavior that began to emerge in 2020. Image subsequently paused production on Fell and insisted that while it wanted to finish the series “is something we’ve been looking forward to for years, Image Comics will not be working with Warren on anything further until he has made amends to the satisfaction of all involved.”
If Image ultimately decides to recognize the union and agree to its terms, it would be a first for a comics house. After initially declining to comment, an Image spokesperson subsequently reached out to io9 with the following statement: “Image has always believed in the fair and equitable treatment of staff and has always strived to support employees to the best of our company’s ability with regard to their employment.”
Seemingly anticipating that Image might not have anything immediately to say about the union’s formation, CBWU’s statement also noted how Image co-founder Jim Valentino previously expressed support for unions on his Facebook page in a comment that appears to now be deleted or set to stricter privacy settings.
Going forward, only time will tell if Image voluntarily recognizes CBWU, and what that might herald for the rest of the comics space. CBWU is hopeful, though, that Image embraces it as a partner working to make comics stronger. “Despite years of union busting and anti-organization sentiments in the American workforce, we know that Image has, at its heart, a desire to be first when it comes to doing the right thing for comics workers,” CBWU said. “That’s why we know we will win, because our success is the company’s success. Our success is the creators’ success. Our success is the readers’ success.”
Update 11/2/2021, 9:40 a.m. ET: This post has been updated with comment from Image Comics.
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