Saturday, August 13, 2011

Womanthology: Why I Don't Want to Be Paid

As usual, the internet blew up about something comics related. Dealing with the Womanthology questions ate up most of the latter part of last week for me, and I'm pretty tired. And I still have my pages to draw. I'm like the only person behind and I'm an editor! Bad Mariah, bad.

Honestly, backlash isn't really unexpected, although I dearly wish that Internet Outrage TM would read before commenting sometimes. A lot of the questions people had were already answered and readily available information. It's easy from the outside of something to say what people "should" do. However, Womanthology's success is rather unprecedented. Applying older models to it only goes so far. Like it or not, we're all learning as we go on this.

In some ways, I feel like the biggest criticisms of Womanthology really just illustrate the underlying naivete/idealism involved. The project comes from a sincere desire to give back to the industry, to create something for creators of all levels to showcase their work in, to give many people access to professionals and feedback they wouldn't otherwise have, and to use all that experience to then further donate to worthy charities. It's basically a cyclical "giving back" concept, where it's more about what you give than receive. Like I said, it's idealistic.

Asking creators to volunteer their time and work, which includes the editors involved, does come from a rather DIY mentality. It's meant as a way to do this together, because we want to, and because we value the work for what it is and want people to see it. It's the same reason most artists create their own work, at core. It's not that we don't want to be paid...but it's not the only reason we make things. Making money probably shouldn't be the underlying motivation to creation. I'm not saying it's a perk you should be grateful for, it's just that creative endeavors aren't always lucrative. So you have to find value in the work regardless, and want to create for reasons other than that.

When Renae approached me to help edit, I signed on to donate my time, in this specific case, to something I wouldn't get paid to do. I spend most of my days trying to find work to be paid for, because I'm a freelancer. I do that daily grind. And frankly, I was getting tired of feeling frustrated and cynical and constantly thinking about money. I don't think that's a part of freelancing anyone enjoys, and it can start to suck the joy and life out of something you love after awhile. Not because, again, you shouldn't want to be paid. You should. It's just feeling that way isn't very fulfilling and you start to wish you had something else to focus on.

Part of my job as a freelance editor is making sure the creators I work with, on the same projects I get checks for, get paid themselves. I sign those vouchers. I turn them in. I know that people need to pay rent, because I need to. I know that checks often can't get cut fast enough before they're whoosh, gone to bills and feeding kids and making sure you have a place to live for another month. I know that because I get the frantic emails about power getting shut off. I know what living paycheck to paycheck means. Because I have been there. The value of getting paid for one's work can't be emphasized enough. No one pays the rent or eats by good will, or exposure, alone. These things are true and in no way debatable.

That said, I emphatically disagree that there are never circumstances in which one's time, energy, and abilities can or should be donated. Do I think this should be done frivolously or even frequently? No. I absolutely believe that artists should be paid for their work. That they should retain copyright and control over those works, and that we don't place anywhere near enough value in it. At all.

However, I also don't believe that asking people if they would like to donate that time, willingly, is the same as saying you don't value them. I get why people who have been doing this a long time are skeptical, or who have worked on unpaid anthologies before, don't like it or find it uncomfortable. No one could (sensibly) argue that there isn't a serious problem with expecting people to work in comics for the "love" alone. I myself am seriously critical of that attitude. I love comics but that love has never covered my bills. Only work and paychecks have done that. The love I have for the medium makes the work satisfying, but it generally makes the financial side frustrating. In fact, in about another month or so, I'll likely be going back to Nannying and other non-comics related work to keep myself afloat. I'm working to line up more paying jobs, but the reality is, freelancing is often feast or famine. And during the famine, you find other ways to live.

It would be really difficult for anyone on Womanthology to undervalue anyone's work or time, because most of us are underpaid freelancers who are trying, daily, to be valued for ours. Which is, again, why I agreed to do this. So I could give the same editorial feedback I normally get paid for, to people who otherwise wouldn't get it. To pair them up with other artists and creators, people they might not otherwise meet or get to work with. I saw it as a teaching experience and a learning experience, and a way to give a real professional experience with deadlines and feedback to a lot of people just starting out. The same way I have donated my time as an editor to unpaid portfolio review sessions at schools, guest speaking engagements, writer workshops, teachings kids about comics, and even to moderating on forums, which is more time consuming than it sounds. Unless those also have no value, then I don't see how it can be universally true that this type of project has none.

The way I view volunteer work is that it's partially selfish and partially selfless. You do get something positive out of volunteering. Usually you feel good about yourself for spending time doing something that isn't about just you, but about helping others. That's the selfish part. The selfless part is what the other people get out of it, which is hopefully something useful or inspiring or that allows them to further develop themselves. Volunteering for something means sharing a bit of yourself without expecting anything in return.

Ironically, I would normally not advise anyone to do work for "exposure" unless there was something they really valued about the project or the cause. Which I do here, hence why I made my own personal exception to volunteer and work on it. I usually don't, and I've been asked before by other projects.

The only real mistake/error going on here is really a lack of cynicism on the part of Renae and those of us working on it. We thought this was going to be a small project with a small print run. It snowballed. We could spend all day listing out how we "should" have known better, or been better prepared, or whatever. But honestly, it's been a learn-as-we-go thing. So much time was dedicated to making the Kickstarter successful that it's still a shock that it did what it did. So, now we're playing a little bit of catch up. That's the unglamorous truth.

More accurate printing costs are being looked at and will definitely factor into everything from here on out. More copies for contributors are a definite. Sketchbooks for contributors to sell are happening. And we're talking about a lot of other things along those lines, because the whole goal of this project was to give people a unique experience. I know it would be wonderful to have all the accounting figured out and every cent accounted for right now. But the reality is that fees, taxes, printing costs, and other things do have to be estimated. And it takes time. Because everyone working on this has got about a thousand other things they're doing...including also trying to find paid work. No one is trying to hide anything or neglect anyone. I recognize this is like saying "please trust us because we are trustworthy!" That's going to raise some eyebrows. However, we all understand how necessary transparency is.

Incidentally, that lack of hiding anything is partially what opened this up to criticism. Because Renae was free with her ideas, how overwhelming this was/is, and that we all have a certain lack of experience with it. There's no hiding that, and I actually value the advice that's been given. There are obviously things we need to improve on and keep in mind.

Does the sum of money raised change things? For me, yes and no. It doesn't change the reason I volunteered to do this, nor did it somehow make me want to get paid for that time. For me, it was an overwhelming indication of support for the concept, and the conversations alone leading up to all this has led to a great deal of real exposure for the book and contributors. As much as that's often criticized, correctly, it's not really applicable here anymore. This is way too visible. And there's a vital re-examination of assumptions going on right now, and I think that's productive.

Now, the amount of money changes the level of scrutiny considerably. It also changes the level of what we can do with the finished books, how many more outlets we can get it into, and it raises the profile of this from a somewhat obscure vanity project, to something absolutely no one saw coming. This has completely changed how many people can potentially see this book, which was something we all wanted from the beginning.

However, what it doesn't change for me is what the project is for. I came on to volunteer my time, as did everyone else. Volunteer and charity work is something that's very important to me, and I often feel guilty I can't do more of it. This project allows me to fulfill that in a medium and industry I love, and give back because I am very lucky to be here. I don't feel that devalues my work or the work of anyone contributing.

The money raised certainly shocks me, and I want to see it used in positive and productive ways. But there's more than one way to do that, and the person who gets to make that decision is Renae. She's put in an insane amount of work, based on the simple idea that she wanted to give people a book to be published, to give back to the industry, and allow those contributing to give back as well. We donate our time and work, that work is sold and the money goes to various charities. Personally, I'd like to see some of it go to CBLDF and some other comics related charities as well as Global Giving. I don't have any issue with Global Giving, since many of the charities are small and benefit specifically women and children in various ways. That's worthwhile to me, too. And that's been clear since the beginning. It's easy for me, like anyone, to say I would do x or z...but you know, at the end of the day, this is Renae's baby. She made this happen. It's a product of her generosity, enthusiasm, and genuine desire to give. I'm not interested in trying to make it something else.

I absolutely understand anyone who takes a more hard line to "always be paid for your work". Normally, I'm with you. But there are exceptions to everything, and this was an exception for me. It's not some sacred cow, it can be questioned and wondered about. It should be, if you can't stand up to scrutiny then something really is wrong. And I expect more questions and curiosity, that's only natural.

At the end of the day, I can't fault anyone who advocates for creators rights, because that would be going against not only my own ethical convictions, but self-interest as well. It's always a worthwhile conversation. To me, we're all on the same "side" here. We all want to see artists and creators work valued financially and for itself. I would seriously hate to see Womanthology used as a way to either devalue or argue against artists getting paid for their work. That's so far beyond the concept, it would be heartbreaking.

But now I need to get back to work because I've missed my own deadline and, if I don't catch up, I'll be letting a whole lot of people down. And they've worked too hard for me to be okay with that.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Haunted by Stories

Been feeling oddly adrift lately. Some of it is post SDCC settling, some of it is anxiety about being freelance, and some of it is...I don't know. Feeling like I'm on the cusp of something important creatively, but being unable to attain it. I worry I won't, or it'll slip by and I won't notice until it's too late. This has led to the monthly melancholy of dwelling on existential dread.

As usually happens when I'm in this mood, I've watched a lot of really depressing movies. Mostly British ones, about epic and (at the very least) bittersweet love stories. It's a thing.

Fantasy and fiction is this odd creature. I don't really want to have a life like Jane Eyre, or live in a repressive time with corsets. And yet. There is an undeniable magnetism to stories set in such times. Some of it is the way we idealize it, although ironically the stories often don't. But the love stories are so intense, so fraught, so full of meaning and passion and grief. I suppose that, in their intensity, they capture the essence of a lot of what life is...just in a more condensed form, with all the extraneous bits left out. We live out our lives day to day, year by year (hopefully). But in fiction, it is distilled. It makes the mundane more. It is haunting. It is fantastical. It is breathless and sweeping and wondering.

When I read or watch stories of this kind, it taps into some deep well I have. I think it's where my love of stories come from...a place that connects to what I can only imagine other story lovers feel, in a way I don't with anything else. This place is full of joy and terror, grief and love, want and need...and then more than that. It's an actual feeling in my chest and cold at the same time. Sometimes I think it will consume me with its indefinable need. Or it will rocket out of me, screaming, grateful to be released from its cage. It seems to be a part of me and alien at the same time. Something that desperately wants. It wants more, and other, and out.

I don't really have the words to properly express it, and I think that's where every story I have ever told, ever experienced and loved and connected to, has come from or gone to. It needs meaning. It craves expression. And all I have are words, which never quite seem adequate or worthy or enough. But sometimes they come close.

I have no doubt that I am haunted by stories. If such a thing as a soul exists, maybe mine is a story trying desperately to get free.