The cartoonist, the marketing agent, and the terrific male graphic novelist
Now, before you ask, I’m not going to tell you who sent this, either to me, or to whoever sent it to me. I don’t think it matters and on condition of publishing it I agreed to keep all names out of it. (I have taken the liberty of keeping Twitter, You Tube and Facebook logos intact just for visual pizazz. Also because those logos are now so bland that they may actually counteract the notion that a single entity may be behind a note like this one, when in fact, it’s a bigger phenomenon than that—just try finding someone interested in “male graphic novelists” on Facebook!)
What I will tell you is that this happened fairly recently. And that the person who received it identifies as female, and as a cartoonist, although has a gender-ambiguous name (kind of), which I’m not exactly certain the marketing agent, who is also female, understands. I won’t here go into the full range of implied differences between calling someone a “cartoonist” and calling someone a “graphic novelist”, but the bottom line is that the latter was a term invented to try to sell more expensive books inside bookstores—as opposed to comics shops—which makes it a marketing term, and kind of a useless distinction. Unless you’re a marketing agent, I suppose, when marketing terms are what matters. And in this case, a “graphic novelist” was seen as necessary to the project.
A male one.
The cartoonist’s response was thoughtful and far more engaged than mine would have been, considering that the cartoonist had no hope of being compensated for either the friendly suggestion of the graphic novelist—or of landing the gig herself. In other words, by even responding, she was donating her labor, to the cause of terrific male graphic novelists.
To which the marketing agent responded, quite hurriedly:
Now, as I said, the specifics of this project don’t matter to you: it’s dumb, you can trust me on that. And the brand I’ve hidden from your view—the reason “it has to be a guy”—is equally unremarkable (although you can apparently find them on Facebook, if you’ve ever seen that site). To put this plainly: the individuals involved in this particular exchange don’t matter. What matters, and I think it matters a lot, is this logistics of this exchange:
CARTOONIST: Hm, I can try to do some free labor for you if you tell me a little bit more about what’s involved and also why you are specifying a gender for the laborer?
MARKETING AGENT: Now you must sign a NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT.
So I write about gender, and labor, and IP issues, and marketing. You all know that. And when the cartoonist first asked me about this situation, I thought it sounded bad, the perfect conflation of friendly-seeming but coercive marketing and the standard-issue gender-based discrimination that we’ve come to expect in comics. But I didn’t think it was illegal. Now I’m not so sure.
Here’s what the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says about such things [emphasis mine]:
Sex discrimination involves treating someone (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of that person’s sex. … The law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment. … Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted). The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.
Still, the marketer persisted …
… utilizing the “we’re all in this together!” theory of marketing (forgetting that, in fact, she wasn’t actually helping out this particular cartoonist, but using her to find one she could ”help out”), with a heavy helping of “I used to be just like you!” BARF.
The cartoonist, sympathetic, understandably responded with an email agreeing not to mention her name, or her employer’s, or the client’s, to anyone. I respect that. As I said: this type of exchange happens often enough that it’s not actually just about this one bad marketing agent, or this dumb firm or lame brand. It’s about who believes who owes who what, and who owns what is said in the course of negotiating it. In an email I won’t reproduce, the cartoonist again refused to sign the NDA, and refused to recommend anyone for the project, but she did agree not to make a big stink about it.
I agreed to no such thing. From this moment on, with full respect (and admiration) for the cartoonist who sent me this exchange in the first place, I’d like to request this: If you’re asked to sign an NDA during an informal exchange, don’t do it. If you’re a female identified creator in the comics industry asked to work for free on anything, don’t do that either. And if someone uses gendered, raced, or classed language—even if we’re just talking about art, or comics—get a lawyer, file a complaint, go public, or do whatever else you have to do to shut them down.
Why? Because these are bigger issues than any individual can see. We’ll soon be releasing Ladydrawers stats that talk about average earnings by gender, average submission rates by gender, and average publication acceptance rate by gender, and they. Are. Bad. I won’t ruin the surprise for you. What I will tell you now is this: male-identified creators are earning over three and a half times as much as female-identified creators, at the same average level of experience and doing the same amount of labor in the industry, in a divide that just barely straddles the poverty line (favoring, of course, the higher earners). Those who don’t identify along a gender binary in comics? That’s where it gets really rough: We’re seeing numbers that indicate they pull in about a seventh of what female creators do. Not enough to cover a single month’s rent in any city I know of.
In other words, for people who work in comics that don’t identify as male (or, for that matter, as “graphic novelists”), biased hiring practices and our widespread willingness to remain silent about them are an issue of survival.