Worker displacement is an issue laying heavily on our minds in these moments. The stuff of jokes and satire is made flesh in the western world, in no small part because of this. Donald “The short fingered vulgarian” Trump was made the Republican nominee of the GOP for the presidential elections; there is no ambiguity that thanks to the promise to secure the borders against Central American economic immigrants and the assurance he’ll rescue jobs taken over by China. The emotional kernel of the Brexit was the fear of immigrants taking over British jobs, as documentaries like The Romanians are Coming demonstrate. The rich ethically protestant north-west is taken over by the competitive advantage of the uncivilized east and the unvirtuous, lazy south.
But the discourse around this subject is focused on only one pole, ignoring the other. Even in sympathetic reports, the immigrants are faceless, homogeneous masses that simply work cheaper and faster and in poorer conditions. They even see themselves as such, doing what they have to do for a better chance at life, usually not for themselves but for their families. They see themselves as a sacrificed generation. Or fiercely denounce the immigrant identity and embracing by force the local one with an every man for himself mentality.
Looking at the system in its totality is maddening. There are many actors dealing with complex markets and situations of dubious origins. There are many people dealing with grief and pain and diminished hope for a future. When approaching such intricacies it is useful to break the problem into smaller, similar problems. Instead of a whole economy, just one small industry. Instead of the whole world, just a few countries. It might seem crass, but comic books fit the bill.
A blueprint for the displacement of creative jobs
With the interlinked rise of smaller, independent imprints and “creators’ rights” movements among the employees of major US companies (Marvel and DC Comics) the publishers had to find new sources for cheap and cooperant workforce, even before the major cases of industrial worker displacement in the U.S. and Britain of the ‘80s. Starting early with the late ‘60s developing during the ‘70s and reaching a peach at the beginning of the ‘80s the Philippines offered many, sometimes great and under-appreciated, artists such as Tony DeZuniga, Alfredo Alcala, Mar Amongo, Ernie Chan, Alex Nino, Nestor Redondo and Gerry Talaoc who were put to work as plug-and-play fill-in artists, especially risky editorial experiments and unpopular titles.
A sizeable portion of the artistic workforce became composed of immigrants or people working from abroad. But that wasn’t as much the case for writers. The artist is the backbone of the comic book industry. And its muscles. And a sizeable portion of its brains. Yet, the logocentric nature of western society places much more power on writers.
They shape the stories and the characters. They are seen as the creators whose rights must be protected. Artists are interchangeable in this system; a state helped even more by the segregated categories they fall into such as pencilers, inkers, colorists and letterers. They tell the story using pictures, choosing the placing of the figures and endow them with their personal style, decide on the shape of the panels, the design of the page, the logic of the sequence; they commit to an appropriate way of rendering shadow and light and texture, of giving the line weight and modulation; they apply color schemes and tonalities and impress important visual information; they have the task of turning sound into graphic, through expressive typography. But in the end, they have little creative control. In the end they are defined by their tools. The comic book artist does a job fit for the faceless other.
This phenomena continued. Starting with the late ‘80s Spain became a source of talent. Marvel and DC enlisting artists such as Carlos Pacheco, Esteban Maroto, Oscar Jiménez, José Luis García-López, Salvador Larroca and many others. To this day the country is a trustworthy source of pencilers, inkers and colorists for the mainstream comic book industry.
Then the Berlin Wall fell and a whole new market opened. Eastern European peoples were literally starved by their former authoritarian rulers, but also starved for recognition, for validation, for integration, for reform. Independently they prodded a market they believed could bestow all of these.
Beloved Romanian artist Sandu Florea emigrated into the United States wanting to draw comics but found most of Marvel’s cast of characters incompatible with his style honed on historical battles. So he did want most such immigrant artists do and tried his hand at doing Conan. Since then he specialized as an inker.
The late Edvin Biuković is probably one of the most influential and inspiring croatian artists working in that period, even being nominated and winning multiple awards U.S.A. awards. Together with his friend Dark Macan – one of the few non-British immigrant writers at mainstream comic book companies -, he drew two Grendel Tales mini-series for Dark Horse, both of them clearly inspired by the violence of the Yugoslav wars. With other writers he worked on comics from other corporate franchises such as Star Wars and The Human Target, but continued to collaborate with Darko Macan on short stories.
The serb Zoran Janjetov achieved worldwide renown after ”inheriting” the Incal series from Moebius and starting to work on different prequels and spin-offs with guru/superstar/huckster writer and director Alexandro Jodorowsky, himself an immigrant of cosmopolitan origins.
Overshadowed by the characters and properties they were assigned, the other creators they happened to collaborate with, the thankless roles they chose, but mostly were assigned to, without much of a voice in a visual world ironically focused on the word, they were unable to push for their own stories in a cultural climate where identity is currency. Yet, they did pave the way to the mythical West for new artists to follow.
And so many did, especially helped by the global village, by digital communication and artwork. A few like Aleksa Gajić or Stjepan Šejić even managed to leave a mark on the scene, to gain authorship and some margins of control. Most, did not. Igor Kordey, Goran Parlov, Danijel Žeželj, Dalibor Talajić, Esad Ribić, Goran Sudžuka, Tonči Zonjić, Ive Svorcina, Victor Drujiniu, Remus Brezeanu, Alexandru Talambă, Attila Futaki followed on the steps of their colleagues before them, coerced by economic needs to work and the opportunity to do so in places brimming with social and financial capital, even if to do so would mean less recognition, less auctorial control, less rights over the final artistic work produced.
In a sense, they are stealing jobs and might be spoiling the broth for the stateside authors who are in the position to refuse work when their conditions and rights are not met. More than that, they are stealing creative, artistic jobs. Those that aren’t actually the talk of worker displacement. But with U.S. education increasingly getting more expensive, with the social safety net of the EU crumbling, a generation of educated and culturally assimilated South American and Eastern Europeans might have a go even at the kind of work that isn’t at stake right now. It might seem that we are the barbarians at the gates.
In another sense, these artists are leaving the gates open for their own countries.
The self-colonization of Romanian comics
Comics is culture. Culture is a weapon. And now that we’ve gotten at fighting wars against ideas and concepts — against poverty and terrorism and corruption — we need such weapons. Weapons that don’t cut up people, rather that cut among people, weapons that don’t burn, but still inflame.
One such war is against collapse. The economy is predicated on growth. If there is no more room for growth there will be an implosion. There will be collapse. New fronts must be opened to make room for this growth. Growth as the action? Growth as in … cancer? In the world of ideas it can be both. And so, the war against collapse reached a post-communist Eastern European country called Romania. One of the weapons it’s fought with is comics.
By the time I started to read comics very few got published anymore, Romanian or translated, and readers were enclaved in small groups of friends caring on the tradition. Some libraries kept old comic books, especially those associated with foreign cultural institutes. People still had old collections. Some who traveled abroad could have came across them. Only they were not product to be consumed, rather comic books became a conduit to another time and another place. Both to one we just left and to one where we were imagining to arrive. Comics, more than any other piece of pop culture was a reminder that Romania wasn’t western enough, wasn’t civilized enough. At least for a certain generation. In retrospect, they might have been just unexploded bombs, left alone in the fields after the war was over.
The heralds were the importers. Almost overnight both online and brick and mortar shops appeared offering to bring new and old comics to the craving fans. American comics. The shops almost invariably had hero or comic in their name, not BD or bandă desenată. Their marketing material was filled with superhero imagery. Poor management and the fact that comics are so damn expensive meant that many of those failed, at least in some capacity. Even so, I don’t even have to wonder why people started those businesses. It’s linked to geek culture as a whole and, as irrelevant as it might sound, to The Big Bang Theory’s popularity in particular.
Geek culture is safe. In a country that reminds me more and more of Mieville’s The City and City, where people experience their daily life in ways that increasingly don’t intersect, geek culture can be comfortingly apolitical, ahistorical, classless and because of that ultimately unifying.
At least partly because of this they still crept up, still tried to reenact the almost mythical comic book shop, as if guided by some force beyond their control. Talking with people near them, again and again they mentioned the damn show, saying how much they want a building brimming with pamphlets and toys of superheroes. They weren’t concerned to whom they would sell them, they just wanted that feeling. And even if most ended up sacrificing themselves, they did what they had to do. They announced the arrival of the colonizers and prepared the ground by spending money on marketing campaigns, agglutinating small groups of people and setting up small distribution channels.
saw potential in that small market, took a gamble and succeeded with Harap Alb Continuă. It also showed that the path to success is self-colonization. For them it was just aesthetic self-colonization. But it doesn’t matter from what direction the culture weapon is fired if it’s charged with the same ammunition. And Harap Alb Continuă can be seen as the perfect crystallization of the hegemonic mainstream culture, without any of the existing self-censoring impulses or subversive undercurrents. It functions as a dim reflection of U.S. culture, displaying only the brightest points of what’s projected.
The main villain is an Yellow Peril figure. In a storyline that ran through the early 2016 the villains were black-skinned tribal-looking people with bones sticking out of their noses called “The Unclean”. The hero is a blond long-haired muscular man. The sole main female character is his love-interest, a barely dressed red-haired shapely sorceress, portrayed in marketing material in compromising positions. In a way it is perfect. No US publisher could have achieved anything like this. It would have been tainted by some sort of authorial quirks. For somebody it would have registered as something other than just product. In a way it’s manufactured image is a triumph. It still might have been just as offensive.
Around the same time we got our very own Comic Con. Not the București Comic Con or Romania Comic Con, but East European Comic Con. Which focused mostly on offering high-schoolers and college students the opportunity to meet actors from Game of Thrones and Supernatural and to witness live matches of League of Legends and Counter Strike: Go. Comic books were low on the priority list. It was understood that geek-culture is what was truly celebrated. It was a portal for the growth from outside. There, people met and made plans.
In 2014 EAT Comics began to publish The Walking Dead. They made a few bad scheduling decisions and when selling TPBs didn’t work out as well as expected, they took a break. Only to then return stronger, or at least hungrier, bringing a few more translations: Rafael Albuquerque’s Ei8ht, Andrew MacLean’s Apocalyptic Girl and, because there must be a franchize, Dark Horse’s Prometheus: Fire and Stone event.
Afterwards the gameboard publisher/localizer Lex Comics started its stint as Marvel’s translator. In the beginning there were only three series. Marvel NOW’s Thor: The God of Thunder, Iron Man and Deadpool. Subsequently they started to constantly add new titles to their catalog. Now they also have the Amazing Spider-Man series, the Deadpool Killogy trilogy, the Civil War, Daredevil: Man Without Fear and The Death of Captain America graphic novels/TPBs.
Harap Alb Continuă rebranded itself as HAC, started to publish graphic novels by national comics legend Puiu Manu and also launched another serial, TFB, closely aligned aesthetically with their other magazine, only that on the science fiction side of genre. They continued to push ever-strongly new merchandise inspired by their characters or aligned with nationalistic and protochronistic ideologies.
Except for the regressive iconicity, this should have been a good thing. The theory went that strong commercial comics would create new readers, would educate the public and would make room for a vigorous alternative market. We would ignore the fact that readership is a function of economics and comics can only grow as fast as our frail economy allows.
But practice offered a few counterexamples. The first one is in the distribution side of things. Cărturești, a major bookstore chain opened up a small shop called, how else, Fandom, which is probably as close as we’ve gotten to that dream of having an The Big Bang Theory-like comic book store. What’s worth remarking, though is that Cărturești’s main attraction was never books, but rather cheaply made but expensively sold trinkets presented as fancy and chic to upper-middle-class corporate workers who wanted to signal to the world that they were still hip and sensitive, unlike most of their icky and uneducated compatriots. Among these unusual, artsy attractions were comics. Indie imported titles — you were much more likely to find something by Crepax than by Geoff Johns — or self-published Romanian ones. And the irony is that you can still find more Romanian titles in your average Cărturești location, than in Fandom, which is filled with imported volumes of superhero comics, action manga and tables of those translated comics. At prices well above the average Romanian paycheck. Geek culture, pop-culture consumer entertainment culture became chic. It’s once again hip to be square. And it seems it creates a self-reinforcing cycle.
Another example, this time on the creative side, came with Abația, a crowdfunded adaptation of a well regarded science fiction novel. It wasn’t without its faults. Some of which earned it a panning by a SF literature critic in a respected national culture magazine. But the blunt of the criticism came because it wasn’t enough like HAC!BD’s TFB. Already the critical metric has been calibrated towards the colonized forms. Even so, it showed signs of improvement with each issue and could have gone places. Only that the growth doesn’t only occupy space on the newspapers kiosk. It occupies our wallets, our time, our thoughts, our discourse.
It didn’t hit the ground running and every two months it had to pry itself back into people’s lives after they’ve been bombarded with “content” and advertising about the newest issue of HAC!BD’s comics, bimonthly themselves, or the monthly translated comics and graphic novels. Or whatever imported comic Fandom and the few remaining independent shops would bring. And it’s hard to do this when the readership is small, monolithic, not that wealthy and holds memories of being unimpressed. When there is no professional comics press to keep its eyes open and inform the readers. When the consumers aren’t accustomed or willing to read the few existing hobby blogs. For a reader, any of those other comics they could get their hands on was a much safer bet. Especially when they didn’t really want to engage with the comic. They are looking for an escape. An escape from Romania, more than anything. And a Romanian feeling comic defeats the purpose.
So, Abația folded after just four issues. Leaving only the colonizers entrenched in the holes made by fanzines and webcomics and crowdfunded publications. They’ll be taking it from here.
These are the comics that are becoming synonymous with comic books in Romania. And they they grow. And they keep on bringing titles from the outside with only timid efforts to cultivate home-grown creators. For the market it makes sense. Untested writers, artists, subjects, even editors are a risk. Lack of branding is a risk. The publishers cannot take many hits. But the market must grow. With so many risks already taken, with so much already invested, if the growth would stop, everything would collapse.
In a sense, companies like Marvel and DC (and even some fortunate private individuals, like Mark Millar) are practicing two forms of extractive operations in this region of the world (and many others). One is an extraction of intellectual and creative capital. What is called, brain-drain. Well compensated for the region, of course, but a bargain for the stateside market, especially since they don’t need to integrate many of those drained into the social safety net. The other is plain old fiscal extraction, getting out of the region much more than they are putting in.
The worst thing is that aren’t we the readers those who said that we wanted comics? Didn’t we ask for this growth? Can we let them fail now when they’ve done so much for us? They tried to bring us our TV show realities to life and if they fail it is because of us. So now, hand in hand we have to contribute with money and enthusiasm to keep them going. We have to buy them, or at least bow in shame, we have to praise them, or at least bite our lips. We aren’t readers, not even consumers: we must be vectors. It’s our very “westerness” at stake.
Yet already there are frightening signs announcing collapse. Albums unbought resting like a stone on the editor’s necks, others delayed angering the fans. Mismanaged ecumenic attempts to promote local artists that turn the public away from comics even stronger. This could very well be a negative feedback loop.
If they fall, if they stretched themselves more than the market can fit, what other comics will we have? We’ve seen how these shiny, sterile, corporate comics towered over everything and cast a shadow that inhibited growth. The growth won’t care. There is still Brazil, there is still China, there is still India. If they fall there will be only rubble and up to us to pick up the piece.
Escape and find joy
Almost three thousand words about work and globalism. But also three thousand words about comics and nothing said about joy. About the pleasures of reading, of looking at drawings, about the sublime wonders of this medium that allows one to develop time over a piece of paper as if it were a hologram, then edit it all inside the mind. Reading comics you are snorting time. And it’s become joyless. A drudgery. Constant worrying about corporate interests and about those whose livelihoods depend on them and about our place in the world.
I’m sure that most people I’ve talked about take great pride in their work. That they enjoy their work. As well they should. Some of it is exemplary. But it feels that nobody makes comics for themselves. And nobody can just read comics for themselves. Without thinking at all about the process, the clinical machinery that manages to turn a vicious, genocidal war into a forgotten (even if hardly forgettable) four issue miniseries. Without thinking about doing their part as readers, as artists, as “fans”. Without having to compete and keep up.
Joy is almost perverse here.
Anger is perverse. Humanity itself is. Humanity demands to breath and laugh and cry and fuck and touch itself inappropriately and shit its pants. Humanity does not care about rights and franchises and merchandise. Humanity does not care about a tug of war between two parts of the world where no matter who falls, the only one winning is a legal entity with no body, no home and no humanity.
Doing comics that look like no other comics, doing comics that only we like, doing comics that do not follow the structure and formats well fitted to sit in libraries and comic book shops, doing comics that are themselves the object and not the toys and movies, doing comics that are unique intimate objects and not mass printed, doing comics that contain our rage, that talk about our struggles, our fears, doing comics that challenge the norms of our time, this is joyfull. Even seeing such comics being done.
Because only we can make them. Our experiences aren’t fungible, our feelings cannot be displaced and outsourced.
Joy does not pay the bills. And this is why it’s heresy. One of the few forms of it. One of the few ways to poke the established rules in the eye and make the rule-makers blush and worry and even cower. Joy is not captured in spreadsheets and data and sales, so it is invisible, but it animates strongly. We’re not paying our bills with joy, this is the stick they are constantly showing us, that they are pointing towards as if we are shameful children in need to be punished. Only we have a stick of our own: joy doesn’t pay their bills neither.
 Over the year receiving better pay, the right to be credited, the right to have their original art returned, dividends on books sold.
 On the 1st of July 2016 (http://benzidesenateromanesti.blogspot.ro/2016/07/sandu-florea-victor-drujiniu-chowned-in.html), while reading an issue of The Incredible Hulks, Romanian comics critic and historian Dodo Niță sees how both Victor Drujiniu and Sandu Florea met on different parts of the comic, without actually meeting in real life in order to produce the comic.
On the 20th of July 2016 (http://benzidesenateromanesti.blogspot.ro/2016/07/thor-nr-13.html) he remarks how Ive Svorcina colors Ron Garney’s pages from Zagreb and sends them back to New York.
 Keep in mind that at this point TWD isn’t quite the darling of the indie world. It’s a best selling title, part of a large franchise comprised of two TV Shows, video games and books.
Un articol scris în cadrul proiectului ”Marele Libertinaj Est European” co-finanțat de Administrația Fondului Cultural Național.