Editorial: Why Is Polite And Professional Behavior So Hard To Come By In Comics?

by Hannah Means Shannon

The discussion which follows is by no means an exhaustive answer to the question being posed, but an attempt to make a few basic points about a difficult feature of the comics industry that can even extend to comics journalism and has negative impact on the climate of both.
So, why exactly is polite and professional behavior so hard to come by in the comics industry? Whether you’re a comic professional working full-time or as a freelancer in a comics-related field, a comics journalist, blogger, or just a fan, you almost certainly have witnessed some very unprofessional behavior either in personal interaction or in the no-holds-barred fields of social media. We know pretty clearly that social media is the worst offender, but that’s a significant enough problem that it really forms its own discussion. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m narrowing down “unprofessional behavior” and “impolite” behavior to outbursts of anger, use of profanity, intimidation, insulting language, and the like.
There’s a bigger picture approach I’d like to take here. For those who work in comics or hope to work in comics, I hope I can generate some discussion that is inclusive, and for those who are simply fans, I hope to offer a more accurate view of what goes on in comics and why your favorite creators might sometimes seem overly stressed on social media or in person.
The World of Publishing Professionals:
The work climate of the comics industry has been improving, but in comparison with other fields of work, it’s still surprisingly behind the times. A standard of polite and professional communication within comics publishers, among a publisher’s employees, is rarely rigidly maintained. In a high-pressure field where publication deadlines are often down to the wire to get books in shops timed to PR pushes, that pressure is often released through explosive behavior, taking out personal stress on other staff members, or through a kind of “shut down” behavior where employees are constantly in emergency mode, so don’t communicate clearly with each other. When they do, communication is often clipped and limited to the point that it could be misconstrued as rudeness.
The problem with this behavior is that it is classified as inevitable and accepted as part of comics. “If you don’t like comics, get out!”, someone might say, “This is just how it is. It’s a high-pressure job.” But since when did a high pressure job excuse lapses in professional behavior? Probably more important to publishers is the question, “Does this really promote productivity and result in greater profits?” The answer is a definitive “no” on that front. The short-term result may seem good, or good enough, when books go to market on time, but the long-term result is a decline in the health and productivity of staff, physically and mentally, and many people who abandon comics for some other field with a more professional climate.
Unsurprisingly, the most common lapses of polite and professional behavior occur between senior staff members and more junior staff, and the junior members are encouraged to be understanding and justify this behavior in a similar way to family members being pressured to overlook explosive behavior from parents or other senior members of the group in the interests of family solidarity.
This all affects the actual production of comics because staff members at comics publishers are the ones who interact with comic creators in various roles, whether it be writers, line artists, colorists, letterers, designers, and more. If an editor, for instance, operates in a work environment where it’s considered acceptable to be rude to a junior staff member, it’s much more likely that they will extend that behavior to someone else they are working with on the creative side. It’s quite likely that an editor will know that they should avoid this, but habitual behavior may eventually slip through and affect relationships between a publisher and a creative team because of this.
I’m sure psychology books have been written about this, but there’s also a “knock on” effect to think of, where a junior staff member who frequently fields unprofessional behavior from a senior member will, despite their dislike of this behavior, come to exhibit it towards others who are, in turn, more junior to themselves.
“Modelling” becomes an incredibly important concept here. As higher staff members fail to model, exhibit, and represent politeness and professionalism in their place of work, the climate degenerates to an unpredictable and more combative atmosphere, affecting everyone else.
In the case of every publisher, no doubt, there are individuals who grasp all of this simply from observation and experience, and fight the good fight to maintain professional standards. Those people are often beloved within their companies, by creators who work with them, and occasionally even by fans who interact with them at conventions and see their respectful attitude toward others.
The World of Comic Creators:
This whole question can also be approached by an entirely reverse angle, looking at the world that comic creators inhabit, and the ways in which their expectations of polite and professional behavior are met, or not, or whether they themselves exhibit professionalism.
The background to this question, for comic creators, is the history of mistreatment of comic creators by publishers, often failing to credit work or endowing creators with the rights to their creations. It’s relevant to mention that here because, however far comics has come in granting rights and giving credit where it’s due, it has a long, long way to go still. And creators are more aware of that than they have ever been before. This creates a justifiable degree of wariness on the part of creators that can, occasionally, backfire and create problems for the creation of comics.
First up, creating comics is a team effort, and if any single member of the creative team decides that it’s not necessary to take a polite and professional tone, it often affects the experience of the entire team. Professional behavior might include honoring commitments, keeping rigorously to schedules, and delivering clear communication, but it also extends to language usage in e-mails, in person, or on the phone, avoiding overly-personal conflicts, and many other areas as well.
Creators who work as a team on creator-owned projects often have to nominate someone as a team lead to help avoid conflicts and promote clear communication, keeping things positive. If a team lead sees that professionalism is degenerating, it’s quite a conundrum, particularly if they are only partially through a project and need to see it to completion. Often other team members find ways to “work around” a person who is behaving less professionally, and it puts stress on others to do so.
So, why might a creator think it’s okay to behave unprofessionally in the first place? There’s a possibility that they’ve picked up that trait from working with publishers. They have been the target of unprofessional and impolite behavior, developed the idea that comics is a war-zone where everyone must defend their turf, and are extending that to creator-owned projects. They may have failed to witness “modelling” of polite and professional behavior in comics up to this point. But ultimately, on a creator-owned project being run by equal owners, there should be little excuse for this. Politeness and professionalism becomes even more important on communally-owned projects, not less so just because the project might be self-published or not yet placed at a publisher.
Lastly, the behavior of creators toward publishers can also become impolite and unprofessional. If you stop to think about it, you’ve probably all heard stories of very successful comic creators who are at the top of their field, and yet are extremely temperamental to interact with. Setting aside the impact that working for many years in the often maddening field of comics might have on a creator, it’s a very clear phenomenon that some comic creators don’t feel the need to be polite and professional toward their publishers’ staff when they interact on creating a book. The stories here would no doubt be numerous, and perhaps even quite entertaining, but in the end, it’s a sad thing, and not a funny thing, that in what is supposedly a professional field, people resort to using all caps, profanity, and extreme punctuation in e-mails when they are unhappy with something. Surely there are other ways to solve problems and negotiate conflicts?
No? Well, I’d disagree, personally. And allowing creators to behave in this way may even be adding fuel to the fire for some of the explosive behavior we see on social media. If it’s acceptable in one format, won’t it eventually migrate to another, more public forum, too?
But not all comic creators who exhibit unprofessional behavior are superstars of the medium. It can happen on any level. And the more it’s simply overlooked or allowed to continue, the more prevalent it becomes. One thing comic creators definitely need to consider is how to avoid conflicts that lead to emotional meltdowns which might affect their careers, but certainly affect their projects and other members of their teams.
The biggest way to avoid conflict and keep things professional while working with a publisher is for creators to read their contracts thoroughly and negotiate them fully before signing anything. This seems like such an obvious point, but sometimes creating a comics project is like a long-haul journey where, over time, you tend to lose focus on exactly where you started and what the terms of that journey were supposed to be. If reading your contract once a month is necessary, do it in order to keep the peace for yourself and for others.
Conflicts can also arise if creators and editorial, or publisher, disagree on the interpretation of certain aspects of a contract. Despite the use of legal language, which may at times seem baffling, fully discussing the meaning of each clause in the contract before a project starts is essential. If you don’t understand a contract, how can you fulfill it?
This is all basic stuff, but it is often the spark that sets off emotional conflicts that lure creators into losing their calm. If creators want to maintain polite and professional behavior, start clear communication early at the contract stage.
The Human Factor:
For both publishers and creators, breakdowns in polite and professional behavior are often exacerbated by what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “the human factor”. This means elements from the personal lives of any human being working on a comics project, from editor to letterer, interfering with a project. The alarming illness of a loved one. The loss of a beloved pet. The lingering personal illness that is proving hard to get rid of despite multiple doctor visits. The car accident on the way to work where a random stranger was an asshole. These are the things that we all face in life, and sometimes they have short duration, and sometimes they are long and wear down our sense of morale and personal standards of behavior.
Should we take these into account when someone displays unprofessional behavior? Absolutely. Should we allow it to become a pattern of behavior for that person or others? We should not. Cutting someone slack is different from supporting and approving of unprofessional behavior. Maintaining silence if impolite behavior continues over time is, unfortunately, contributing to the problem that an awful lot of people who work in comics are facing. Employees may feel immense pressure not to speak out, and even if they do speak to HR representatives or the like, it may have negative impact on their careers. On creative teams, confronting another team member about impolite behavior may seem to further fracture the team.
The problem may seem insurmountable. How do you approach something that’s fairly endemic in comics? The first answer, of course, is by doing better. Every day. Many publishers seem to have gotten the gist of this idea and are striving to do better. Those companies bringing employees in from other fields often catch on sooner as they realize that polite and professional behavior is the norm, and impolite or unprofessional behavior is not acceptable, in other fields.
Comics needs to catch up. This is a problem that affects the lives of publishing professionals, creators, and the quality and publishing success of the comics we love. If anyone is tempted to feel that this is not a big deal, I’m sure that anyone who has ever had to deal with consistently impolite communication or unprofessional outbursts, whether in their workplace or on a creative team, would disagree. It’s about quality of life and about the quality of the comics industry.

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