Creative Labour is Still Labour

Yesterday I attended a book launch at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco for the new graphic novel King of RPGs Vol. 2, written by Jason Thompson and illustrated by Victor Hao. The launch was a raucous, ad hoc affair in the middle of the exhibit space, plenty of greasy food and alcohol, a roleplaying game in the back room. I became acquainted with Jason several years ago and thought I ought to celebrate the start of my stay in the Bay Area by showing support. Yet what struck me most during the authors’ presentation was this time-lapsed video of Victor at work:

Naturally, I can only speak for myself here, but for me even watching this video from start to finish is exhausting. Victor claims that each page represents between two to three hours worth of work. The entire book weighs in at over 270 pages. You do the math. Victor has a day job, and during some of his busiest months he recalled desperately cranking out five pages over the course of weekend. And this does not even begin to take into account the time it takes to come up with over a dozen unique character designs, or the time that Jason spent writing, plotting, and sketching preliminary panel layouts for the story.

I would challenge anyone who dares suggest that what is documented in that YouTube video is not labour—highly-skilled, time-intensive labour. What is most saddening about spending time with creative labourers like Jason and Victor is how insecure the work is and poorly remunerated they are relative to the value of the work they do. This is a phenomenon has been noted by many researchers in the field of Media and Communication Studies, such as Mark Andrejevic and David Hesmondalgh, though there is still debate over how dire a problem this sort of precarious creative labour is.

In my view, the degree of the problem of precarity in the creative industries is not dependent first and foremost upon the individual’s subjectivity—i.e. ‘I don’t feel exploited!’—but rather upon the wider socio-political system in which this labour is embedded. In the United States, for example, with its gossamer social safety net, it is nearly impossible for all but the most successful creators to be self-employed full time. Otherwise, you need a trust fund or support of a high-earning spouse. Meanwhile, just across the border in Canada, where health insurance is an entitlement and not a privilege, the bar is lower. In the course of my field research, I have come across American companies relying upon underpaid Canadian freelancers.

Regardless, I think Sennett (2006) is dead-on in his analysis in The Culture of the New Capitalism about branding and new forms of labour. Although King of RPGs is published by Random House, the largest trade book publisher in the world, it goes without saying that Jason and Victor must do lots of heavy lifting when it comes to promoting their published books. That YouTube video, and others like it, is their own creation, and they also spearheaded the production of promotional tee-shirts and jewelry also for sale at the book launch. I certainly think that comic book creators contribute more to society than, say, hedge fund managers, so I hope we will make sure that beneath a slickly branded surface, highly-qualified people like Jason and Victor are not just treading water.

Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge and Sociological Imagination’s Mediated Matters columnist.

Categories: Mediated Matters, Visual Sociology

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