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When I was first out of college, I worked primarily as a graphic designer. However good or talented I may have been at the time, I recognized early on that one of the dangers of the field was that, as I got older, it would be increasingly difficult to keep abreast of current design trends and remain professionally relevant. My original intent was move into more of an art director position where I could let the younger designers inform the individual pieces.

A few years later, though, and I wound up sliding more into a technical role. I knew enough about programming and server setups that I could have conversations with developers, but I also had enough business training that I could also talk cogently with business leaders. I was able to get into more middle management roles by acting as something of a translator. I felt (and still feel) it was a smart professional move on my part since I knew enough about design and coding to continue working in the field, but without needing to be 100% up to speed on the latest trends and technologies. As long as I kept nominally up to date, I wouldn't have to worry (much) about young kids coming in and dancing circles around me with whatever the new whiz bang features are.

The past year or two, though, I've started becoming concerned again. I've known many low-skill jobs were becoming increasingly in danger because of automation; from self-serve check-outs to customer support chat bots to driverless cars, there's a lot of disruption happening. But there's another trend of outsourcing. Not necessarily to other countries, as is frequently claimed, but just moving work from internal, full-time employees to contract workers and agencies. The more I look at the future of the American workplace, the more I see larger companies heading towards a model where anyone below a VP level will be either discarded or outsourced. And while the outsourcing can mean continued employment for individuals, it's less advantageous for them since (among other things) they'll be without employer-provided insurance and can have their contract ended pretty much at any time for any reason.

Last week, my boss announced she'll be leaving the company. It's a voluntary move so she can change industries and, superficially, doesn't have any direct relation to the concerns I mentioned above. But when she informed me of her decision, she also confided that our internal graphic design position was being eliminated in about a month. (The designer himself has been told, but they're generally keeping this news under wraps for another couple weeks.) Outsourced to agencies. What's particularly poignant here is that the guy in that position was hired pretty much at the same time I was, and my original job description was the same as his. Meaning that if I hadn't worked my way up into more of a middle management role, my job would be eliminated as well. I'll be honest -- it's a little unnerving.

My wife was... we'll say concerned when I told her what I'd heard that day. There was a fast scramble to make sure my resume was up to date, and longer term discussion about getting some side jobs set up. Plus a large sigh of relief that we put a fair amount of effort last year into establishing a fairly strict budget in order to build up more cash reserves. Let me be clear that I don't think my job is in immediate danger, but it certainly does make one sit up and take notice.

But then I also caught an article this week in which the author talks about how their Agile team's scrum master (basically a project manager, if you're not familiar with the Agile development methodology) is a bot. Their development team is literally being directed by artificial intelligence, using Slack as an interface. I have less concern now about the next generation of kids coming up to take my job, and more about it being taken over by SkyNet! Again, probably not this year or next. But it's certainly something I'll need to concern myself with before I retire.

The day after I heard about our designer, I got a text from my wife around mid-day. She had just found out that two of her peers were getting laid off. The company had moved enough of their work to a self-service model that those positions were no longer necessary. Many of the tasks they performed used to be more laborious and time-consuming thanks to manual paperwork and red tape; now many of those tasks are automated and/or at least streamlined enough that someone doesn't need to specialize in them. My wife has additional duties that have not been automated to that level, so her job is safe. But you have to wonder, for how long?

And you might be thinking by this point, "Sean, what the hell does this have to do with comics?"

Have you heard about that Marvel Create Your Own thing? Where fans can make comics using Marvel characters? It's not the first time something like this has been done, but by utilizing 3D iterations of the characters, fans are no longer limited to a handful of stock images and can change poses, angles, expressions, etc. They basically have full control over how the characters look and, theoretically, can tell stories more effectively than using what basically amounted to a handful of clip art.

My question is: why does that need to be limited to fans? Who's to say Marvel can't turn that product (or an advanced version of it) internally and start pumping out Spider-Man comics... without the aid of an art team? Instead of a penciller, inker, colorist, and letterer, all of that could be handled by a single individual. Yeah, you'd obviously lose out on each independent artists' style but... couldn't that be addressed with some Instagram-style image filters? Make the entire story look like it was done in watercolors or apply some old school Ben-Day dot patterns to it? The likelihood of innovative comic storytelling would certainly drop, but Marvel (and DC) aren't really interested in that. They're interested in churning out stories about Spider-Man.

And that bit I mentioned earlier about the automated project manager? Couldn't they replace a lot of assistant editors and traffic managers? The editor's function would no longer require repeated phone calls about making sure scripts were turned in on time or anything like that -- the types of duties often taken up by assistant editors -- and an editor could work at a more strategic level, ensuring the overall story direction aligns with where the company wants to take the characters more broadly.

If Marvel tried this now, in 2018, it would almost certainly fail. The technology isn't sophisticated enough to make something like this commercially viable. Yet. Will that change in 2019? 2020? I don't know. But I can easily see that happening in my lifetime.

And when that does happen, it doesn't mean comic artists will go away entirely. But it does mean they won't get a job at Marvel, and will only be able to work on their own, independent projects. Artistically fulfilling, perhaps, but sales and distribution will be substantially smaller and it'll be harder to make a living.

In 2015, Wired asked futurist Stowe Boyd: what will corporations look like in 2050? He presented three scenarios; essentially a best case, a worst case, and something in between (which largely amounts to his worst case scenario but with climate change under control). In the couple years since then, his best case looks increasingly less likely, especially in lieu of the current White House administration. Towards the end of his worst case scenario, he writes...
It’s no different from the company you work for today, except longer hours, fewer co-workers, less pay, and much more dust. To increase profits, corporations have cut staff and forced existing workers to work harder.

2050 Is Closer Than You Think.
A lot of people look at the future in terms of the technology. Flying cars, robots, and Jestons-style foodarackacycles. If they think about the implications at all, it's still frequently thought of in terms of the present. Flying cars just mean highways in the sky, robots that sweep and vacuum and take out the trash, meals that look and taste and smell like a homemade meal but just prepared automatically. But technology has social implications as well. It's more than just being able to make a phone call from wherever you are; it's that your boss can now call you on a Sunday afternoon when you're on vacation in Mexico. We can't predict all of the ways that a technology can impact society, but just based on a handful of technologies I've seen lately, I think there's room for everyone to consider how and whether they might be able to keep doing whatever job they have now. It might not be completely replaced by a computer, but it will be almost certainly radically upended thanks to one.
Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Kleefeld on Comics: On Business: Biographies

Kleefeld on Comics: On History: FF #51 Script

Patreon: MTV Geek Classic: Kleefeld on Webcomics #63: Besting Demons

Kleefeld on Comics: Weekly Comics Links

FreakSugar: Webcomics Wednesday: Future Hall of Famers

Kleefeld on Comics: On -isms: This Is How You Do It

Patreon: MTV Geek Classic: Kleefeld on Webcomics #64: Skirting Puttnam's Law

Kleefeld on Comics: On Strips: 1974 Herblock Interview

Here's James Day on his Day at Night program interviewing Herbert "Herblock" Block for a half hour. This originally aired on February 28, 1974. Herblock had already won three of his four Pulitzers by this point, among many other awards.
Johanna Draper Carlson pointed me to these two posts by artist Lea Seidman Hernandez in which she apologizes for the racism in Mangaverse Punisher. I've excerpted a chunk of it here...
It’s racist, and I was uncomfortable when I drew it, but it had been written by Peter [David], a friend, and approved by an editor.

The main characters, Japanese-Caucasian sisters, were named Hashi Brown and Sosumi Brown. (Update: there’s also a female villain named “Skan Kee Ho.”) There was exotification of Asians. I depicted Sosumi, the Punisher, in a sexy kimono alá manga art of “bad” women even as I was careful to dress Hashi in a “schoolgirl” uniform that was mid-thigh length shorts and a jacket, alá Utena. Because I was sick of the sexualization of children, but didn’t grasp that exotification needed to be off the table, too...

I needed the money, we were constantly over a barrel when my kids were little. Punisher paid me $6000. This says a lot about how shitty comics pay most of the time, about how tough it is to keep one’s head above water when there are disabled kids in a family and an inflexible schedule doesn’t allow for crises or disasters.
This isn’t an excuse. This is to show how economic disparity, minimal aid for disability, and wage stagnation forces people to take questionable jobs.

If I’d said, “The names are too much, let’s change them.” I’m not sure how that would’ve gone. I could’ve drawn the Punisher in any number of ways, but I went straight to a kimono. How stupid. I didn’t address all of the things completely in my control.

I can’t walk back what I did almost 20 years ago. It was wrong, I knew it, and I was afraid of career sabotage, and needed the money desperately.

I’m sorry that I had a part in it. I always will be...
She later added...
To anyone who was hurt by the racism in Marvel Mangaverse Punisher, of which I was the artist, I offer my deepest apologies.
I can’t change the circumstances that led me to be afraid of pushing back, but I am changing how I conduct myself going forward.
I also apologize for taking 17 years to fully comprehend an apology and being accountable for the work was in order.
I've quoted nearly all of it because it's worth repeating. She details what she could have pushed back on, what she had express control over, and where her failings were. She owns her mistakes here, and apologizes for them -- unprompted -- twice.

And to cap it all off, she added a third post asking Marvel to stop reprinting it because it's racist, putting her principles now before her bank account since that would forgo her ever earning royalties from the work.

That is how you apologize when you inadvertently make a racist (or sexist or able-ist or homophobic or...) comic. Own your mistake, learn from it, make a sincere apology, and then try find a way to keep those racist images/stories from gaining a wider audience. In Hernandez's cases, she'd like to see them never reprinted; if the offense were a lesser one, however, perhaps correcting the art or the lettering might be sufficient. The point is she fully admits that she put money before her principles before, and is actively choosing do the opposite now.

Many people could stand to take some lessons from Hernandez.
  • This is an older post about an old cartoon, but Thierry Smolderen posits that George Cruikshank's penultimate illustration for Oliver Twist is based off Rodolphe Töpffer's Mr. Vieux Bois.
  • Teddy Jamieson writes about how a new hotel in Glasgow, Scotland commissioned Frank Quietly to design their interior walls.
  • History teacher Tim Smythe has started posting videos about he uses graphic novels in the classroom. His first one is on using Joe Sacco's The Great War in his lesson on World War I.
At the tail end of last year, I pulled out a few old comic book scripts I found sitting in my archives, but I forgot to include this last one.

This is the script for Fantastic Four #51 circa 2002. This one's a little less inherently interesting than the others I presented, in that there's no real backstory behind it. This is the just the original plot treatment by Carlos Pacheco and Rafael Marín, from which artist Mark Bagley drew the story. It was then passed to Karl Kesel to script. It was originally provided to me by Marín and, at the time, he noted, "Carlos and I are amazed at how Mark intepreted [sic] the plot... and how well Karl scripted it!" Fascinating to see work like this, though, and how it progress from an idea to execution.

Fantastic Four volume 3 #51 by Rafael Marín and Carlos Pacheco
Every year on Martin Luther King Day, various comic fans trot out some of the comic biographies about him. I've either talked about or included scans of them myself. And even though we're still a few weeks away from Black History Month (when it would be more "appropriate" to bring this up) I'm wondering why we don't have more comic book biographies of great Black leaders. I started a list of them last year, and even off the top of my head, there's a lot of holes.

As far as I'm aware, no one's ever tired a comic book biography of Huey Newton, James Baldwin, Frederick McKinley Jones, Octavia Butler, Mae Jemison, the Tuskegee Airmen, Pam Grier, George Washington Carver, Serena and/or Venus Williams, or any of a million other notable Black people of importance. Most of the biographies we do have are either from Golden Legacy or Bluewater, neither of which are especially well done. Don't get me wrong; I'm thrilled that someone did a biography of Matthew Henson in comic book form, but it's not exactly a great piece of work.

I get that biographies of all sorts can be a harder sell. Most people don't live a life that's absolutely so amazing all the time that it can be a complete page-turner from start to finish. I'm sure people would get bored with Indiana Jones if we spent any more than a few minutes among all of the movies with him teaching in the classroom.

But at the same time, the biggest on-stage production success in years has been a biography of Alexander Hamilton. Indeed, it's already broken more than a couple sales records. Why can't a comic biography be done the same way?

Well, they can, in fact. My Friend Dahmer by Derf earned more than a few critical accolades and sold very well, eventually being turned into a feature length movie that also did very well. John Lewis' March trilogy likewise earned both critical and financial success. It's not that people are opposed to biographies; it's just that they're opposed to dry, tedious ones that are little more than a regurgitation of facts. Read up on any of those biography-less individuals I mentioned above and see if they don't all have (or have had) interesting lives. You're going to tell me the first Black woman in space is boring?!? One of the founders of the Black Panthers?!? Fighter and bomber pilots from World War II?!? Hell, I think you'd have to work hard to make these people even start to sound boring!

Again, I know that, historically, biographies are a hard sell and most people don't want to touch them because they're not guaranteed to make money. Most of the Kickstarters that I've backed and ultimately failed were biographies. But, despite the stigma, that's not because they don't sell. It still boils down to telling a good narrative; it's weak storytelling that doesn't sell, not biographies.

So, come on, people! Get your work together and put out some good biographies in comic form! There's plenty of fantastic subjects that have never been touched, just waiting for the world to hear about them!