The Dangerous Idea of a Comics Meritocracy

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on January 12, 2017.

On Wednesday Erik Larsen, the creator of Savage Dragon and co-founder of Image Comics, began a conversation about the comics industry with a series of four tweets. He was responding to a fan’s request for comment on the nature of hiring in comics as a whole and allegations that Image Comics only hires individuals with an existing following.

Larsen ignored the specific argument regarding Image Comics, one which I have neither the research nor the interest to address, and opted to discuss the comics industry as a whole. His perspective on the manner is clear: Comics is a meritocracy.

Essentially, Larsen argues that those who garner work or power within comics do so based primarily on their talent. The talented get work and those left without work do not possess the necessary talent. This concept probably sounds familiar, even if the term meritocracy does not. It’s a foundational argument of the modern Republican Party brought out every time they want to argue against taxes on the wealthy or assistance for the poor. They believe we exist in a society where your status reflects nothing more than your skills and work ethic. Apparently, Larsen believes the same thing about the comics community.

This would not be worth more than a sarcastic tweet, if the idea Larsen is supporting were not actively dangerous. A belief that society is a meritocracy is not an opinion of the sort one might hold about the quality of Savage Dragon; it is part of a larger belief system that either reinforces or alters systems of power. So it is necessary for us to examine how a publisher or creator’s belief in the existence of meritocracy might impact comics.

If meritocracy exists, then the current system actively rewards those who deserve reward and refuses to acknowledge those who do not. While there might be some rare exceptions, as Larsen acknowledges, the current system is close to a steady-state in which almost everyone is close to where they belong. We only need to compare this theory to reality in order to see how dangerous the idea truly is.

The comics direct market lacks diversity. Whether we choose to discuss only the largest direct market publishers (i.e. Marvel, DC, Image) or all of those that comprise the majority of direct market sales, there is a massive gap between the population that reads comics and those that create comics. Race, gender, orientation, disability, and so many other key factors of human existence remain vastly underrepresented by a creative workforce that is predominantly white, male, straight, and abled. Some publishers are making active strides toward rectifying this problem while others are failing miserably. However, a belief in meritocracy insists there simply is no problem. Those who deserve jobs already have jobs. Those who do not have jobs do not deserve them.

It is certainly a reassuring belief for those with power in comics. It insists that they obtained their status entirely based on talent. Furthermore, there is no need for them to be concerned with analyzing or altering the system that made them who they are. Meritocracy insists that those with the most never need to engage in self-reflection or engage in the hard work of social justice. While it is unsurprising that a former publisher of Image Comics would want to hold this belief, it does not make it any more true. Understanding whether a comics meritocracy exists requires a comparison between the ideal and the real.

To combine reality with a belief that comics is currently a meritocracy insists on one of two possible justification: First, there are not many diverse groups of creators attempting to enter the industry. It is a lack of interest that leads to a lack of diversity as increased interest would result in greater diversity amongst creators. Second, diverse groups of creators are inferior and undeserving of the jobs reserved for “OUTSTANDING WORK”. After all, “If you’re GOOD–you WILL get work.”

The briefest scan of webcomics, social media, and other democratic forms of creation and sharing exposes the first justification as an outright lie. Diversity is much easier to find in formats where anyone can create. Therefore a belief in meritocracy must insist on the second conclusion, one best defined as white supremacy.

Let me be exceedingly clear, I am not calling Erik Larsen a racist. What I am saying is that he has propagated a racist idea, even if that was not his intention. Meritocracy is not simply a racist idea in an unjust society though, it is sexist, homophobic, ableist, and many other foul things. It is a message that states, “If you don’t have it, you don’t deserve it.” There are far too few diverse, talented people working in comics today. Insisting the system is a meritocracy tells them they simply do not belong in comics.

If Erik Larsen is seen as a leader at Image Comics, then it cannot be surprising that thousands of creators looking to break in are dispirited about their opportunities. No matter the intent, they are being told that the lack of writers and artists like themselves at publishers like Image Comics will not be altered as those with power do not perceive any problem. The myth of comics as a meritocracy insists that those who are not present are worth less; this is a belief that makes American comics worthless.


About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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