Editorial: Making Comics Via The Post-Apocalyptic Landscape Of E-Mail

by Hannah Means Shannon

Like my previous article on politeness in the comics industry, this is a subject that easily falls into the category of a nearly unworkable situation in the field of comics that nevertheless has no immediate solution that’s a cure-all.

What exactly is the problem? Let me see if I can define it accurately. Difficulty in creating definitions is part of the problem, pinning it down. Whether you are a comic creator, staff at a comic publisher, or even someone who works in a field like comics journalism, the likelihood is that at some point in your career, the e-mail systems by which you operate and complete your work will become so overloaded as to endanger your ability to do your job.

And yet e-mail the only real avenue for carrying out your work. The problems with e-mail overload are, of course, well documented in many fields of work. It seems like the problems that the e-mail format would cause were largely unforeseen when it was gradually introduced as the prime mode of communication in the workplace over the past couple of decades. Now you’ll easily find articles online offering weary or driven employees advice ranging from turning off all electronic devices during personal time at home to avoid e-mails from your boss, to staying on top of those e-mails as a way to show your commitment to your job and make sure you receive advancement.

E-Mail And Comic Publishing

Those are the base-line issues that underlay working in comics, too. Like in every field, e-mails can come in at all hours of the day and night asking for immediate attention, robbing you of time with family, friends, or simply with yourself in self-care routines. Not to mention cutting into exercise time, eating time, or career development of other kinds, like reading books relevant to your field.

However, the generally disorganized nature of the somewhat ad hoc comics industry seems to offer a virtual playing field for these tendencies to run wild. By that I don’t mean to heavily disparage comics publishing, but it’s well known that the history of comics publishing has been free-wheeling, built on adaptation and borrowing traits from other fields of publishing and distribution in magpie-like fashion. In a very substantial way, the workflow methods and internal organization of comics publishers will differ between companies, each with their own idiosyncratic methods, so much so that this even makes it difficult for staff to move between companies and be adequately prepared for their new workplace.

In a publishing world where companies are so different and communication may not always be great in the service of high-pressure deadlines, particularly for monthly release of comics (see my previous essay as an additional factor), then add the demands of e-mail correspondence. To start with, imagine the dozens of e-mails that might form part of the normal editing process on a comic. Whether you’re an editor or a member of a creative team, there’s feedback at every stage of the process on a comic, from outline to script, covers, layouts, pencils, inks, and to colors. Bring several people into that conversation, particularly on a creator-owned book, and that’s a massive number of e-mails. Even more when you consider that one error or one major change after a stage in the process of making comics might result in upwards of 10-20 e-mails to correct.

[My actual phone screen lists 29,278 e-mails in one account, 6,488 in another, two accounts aren’t even on my phone, and my social media notifications have been turned off due to all the red.]

That’s par for the course for publishing staff and creators, and things can get even more extreme if a product is licensed, requiring feedback from groups owners on a license, and wave after wave of changes or corrections on the visual design of characters and the like.

That’s the norm of working in comics—if you’re very active with lots of projects, you could easily get anywhere from 30 to 50 e-mails a day to start with, perhaps many more, all of which require responses. To handle that, a human being might well hope to reply to several e-mails on a thread at once, or try to “rank” the e-mails in terms of immediate need for response, and spread the drafting of responses out over a week or two just to get through them. And each day brings a new weight of e-mails. This alone is a major organizational task and can get mentally and emotionally overwhelming.

E-Mail And Comic Creators

The results aren’t great, either. Many of the stories I hear from creators recount how they have pitched a project to a publisher, received a positive response of interest in a project, and then have heard nothing more for months, and perhaps never again, despite multiple attempts to communicate further. The weight of e-mails simply became too impractical for an editor to respond, or the multiple attempts to reach out might have been visually buried in a sea of new e-mails to the point that they were never seen or read.

But surely a new project should have been a priority? Or an editor has a kind of moral responsibility to follow up, having encouraged a pitch previously? Confronted with the reality of the e-mail tsunami arriving each day, these lesser concerns don’t have much bite. If an editor has to choose between working on a project that’s already underway and one that hasn’t come under contract yet, the current project’s demands win out. To follow this argument further, shouldn’t the editor somehow find time—just a moment—to craft a response? E-mails don’t take long to write. But they do take mental energy and focus, and if all of the e-mails in a certain category were to receive their replies, the small increments of time added together would comprise hours added to any work week. Hours that might mean no time with spouses, children, or making sure to get enough exercise. Should that really be required of an employee of a comics publisher?

To flip this equation and look at the way e-mail affects the lives of comic creators who work at home, or off-site in their own studios, they, too, are often the focus of a bewildering amount of e-mailing. Their e-mails can also come in during the evening and night hours, demand immediate attention, and not just responses, but creative work completed and sent in as reply. Fixing a lettering issue that was overlooked before going to print THAT DAY, correcting a continuity error in the script before the artist makes the mistake more permanent, re-designing a character along new specifications while not causing the tight schedule on the project to go off the rails.

Even on a good day, there’s a lot of communication going on. Hopping on the phone may seem like a welcome solution, but then there’s no documentation for the actionable conclusions to the discussion and someone has to write them down and, you guessed it, e-mail them to the group. But it is a more humane thing to do, often, to simply talk on the phone.

E-Mail And Complicating Factors

Up to this point, I’ve been describing fairly “normal” or average challenges that arise at a publisher or for creative team members making comics, but two other factors have a major effect on the state of someone’s inbox that are a much bigger problem.

They are 1) The situation that arises when someone has too many projects happening at the same time and 2) The weight of unsolicited communication coming in.

To start with “too many projects”, the person in question, whether an employee of a publisher, or a creator, rarely has total control over this development. An editor will have projects assigned by their superiors, and while they may agree to accept the projects, or feel that they have to agree, bad timing can mean that projects pounce on an editor at the same time, making their normal e-mail workflow double or more what it “usually” is. At these times, overtime work often kicks in simply to stay on top of things. An editor or other employee convinces themselves that this period of intensity will only last a limited time, and life will go back to normal following, so they buckle down and overwork for a period of time. As comics publishers tighten their belts, more projects pile up on their staff, and staff are encouraged to show their ingenuity by taking on more than should be required of them. Huge e-mail backlogs accumulate despite employees’ best intentions. The condition of the publisher affects the state of communication.

For creators, some of the same factors are at work, but more specifically they will often find the schedules for different projects that they’ve agreed to overlap despite efforts to prevent that. Add to that the immense need of the freelancer to make sure their schedule is full in order to pay the bills. Perhaps that leads to taking on a massive project they are less committed to personally in order to reach financial stability while trying to pursue smaller projects, like creator-owned works, at the same time.

All the projects suffer from a lack of clear communication because the creator is living in a private hell of attempting a balancing act. For a writer, for instance, who has made a deal with an artist to work together on a creator-owned project, this might look, from the outside, like an artist who is dodging their communications, failing to reply to e-mail after e-mail, and lead to grumbling about someone “taking on outside work” that’s interfering with established plans.  And maybe even jeopardizing whether a project will get published. If the first issue of a creator-owned project isn’t being handed into the publisher on time due to a team member falling behind, the publisher could lose confidence in the team and cancel the project, for instance.

Communication can get heated, members of the team might be judged as less committed, and things break down further. When in reality, the likelihood is that this comic creator is just trying to keep their head above water and keep their career moving.

To put this in context, it’s not that wildly uncommon for creators to complain that dozens of e-mails to other team members are going unanswered. On a project that’s already underway and has a publisher, even. That kind of lapse in communication can definitely get a book cancelled. And yet, it happens despite the danger. Why? There are simply not enough minutes in the day to answer the number of e-mails coming in for most people working in comics. Struggling to find some way to address this, people may pull all-nighters just to get through the most essential items in their inbox from time to time. And they probably still feel guilty and like failures for not finding the time to do more. This is the kind of anxiety-driven thinking that keeps people up at night even when they are desperately trying to get some sleep.

But the last subject mentioned above is also a massive factor, and that is “unsolicited e-mails”. By that I mean any e-mail that comes from a complete stranger or a friend of a friend, or an acquaintance of a friend, or the like. Asking for opportunities to work, introductions, or even asking to hire someone, usually. They can range from “Could you introduce my nephew to your publisher” to “I’m looking for a letterer who can complete this project by the end of the week” to any point in between. The scary thing is that unsolicited e-mails might contain hidden gems of opportunity.

For those working for comics publishers, these e-mails could be sent by the next really big name in comics on the verge of becoming well-known, someone whose projects could really benefit the publisher. But in the sea of unsolicited e-mails, just going through them to find those gems is impractical, if not impossible. The horrible irony is that if publishers don’t answer these e-mails, they are maligned for it, considered aloof and disregarding. “They could have at least replied to turn me down”, a creator might say. But this is not a willful, dismissive choice on the part of an employee of a publisher. This is part of the e-mail gridlock that governs their lives. Not only do they not have time to read unsolicited e-mails, they really don’t have time to reply to them.

For creators who get unsolicited e-mails, if they have any degree of real experience in making comics, they might find many of these e-mails awkward and even laughable. Someone wants an artist to draw their comic for free “for exposure”. Someone wants to pitch to the Big Two and wants to know how to do that, when they have never yet written or drawn a comic. Someone wants to be taught, step by step, how to make comics by e-mail, and they are asking this of a stranger. Asking the creator to take hours, if not days, to teach them how to make comics, out of the blue. It’s patently ridiculous what many unsolicited e-mails contain. Even the polite and hopeful ones create an impossible situation. A comic creator needs to work long hours just to support themselves and perhaps their families. They might be willing to take part in portfolio reviews or panels at a convention to try to help aspiring creators who are currently fans, but asking for their personal and professional time otherwise is unworkable.

But just like publisher, if creators don’t respond to these unsolicited e-mails, they get maligned, insulted, called stuck up, called gatekeepers, and the like.

E-Mail’s Post-Apocalyptic Landscape

Much of this comes down to the nature of electronic communication. It can be sent and received at all hours from anywhere in the world, by co-workers, by future co-workers, by total strangers. There’s no distinction. Anyone with your e-mail address can access your life and attempt to pressure you to reply.

Navigating this sea is becoming less possible with each passing month and year. Strategies to cope with this are patchy at best. You might shut down one e-mail address and open another if the first address has been shared too widely to the public. You might keep a separate e-mail address specifically to be used by strangers, for instance if you’re an artist putting an e-mail contact address on your website. You might choose to answer different e-mail addresses on different days of the week to try to keep a system in place.

But all of this comes with the assumption that getting any project completed in comics will take longer than expected and require far more e-mailing than it actually should due to e-mail gridlock in our inboxes. Even though we’re all suffering from it in comics, we will still find it hard not to get angry and frustrated, to the point of blow ups, when we don’t get the responses we need in time for time-sensitive work. We will still fail to be empathetic about what others are dealing with in trying to use this broken medium of e-mailing to run their professional lives. We will still come to believe that e-mail silence is a “choice” and that our specific e-mail was in some way more important than others.

Perhaps we have to feel this way because the alternative is to acknowledge that this system doesn’t work for business purposes anymore. It’s like a freeway in a post-apocalyptic landscape a la The Walking Dead littered with abandoned vehicles blocking through traffic and making a zig-zag route the only possibility, meaning progress is slow at best. We don’t give up, because we want to make comics, and for many, it really does feel like a matter of life and death to pursue their dreams. But the situation is outrageously challenging even on the level of basic communication. Welcome to the Mad Max era of electronic communication.

This extremely long essay hasn’t even considered the role that instant messaging and social media play in contributing to the general chaos of trying to make comics. Maybe that’s a lament for another day.

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