When I shared some process images from my voting rights comic for Oregon Humanities over the weekend, Katie left a comment saying "I really want to get into comics as activism, because it's kind of the only skill I have to offer, but I'm not sure where to start". I'm sure this is a common concern, especially among folks who are part of Patreon because Patrons tend to be oriented toward both creative practices and social good, which is why you're some of my favorite people.
SO! Here's some thoughts about that, and a couple resources, and hopefully it'll help you set goals for any future projects you might want to tackle.
First things first: programmer and artist Omayeli Arenyeka wrote a very helpful guide (based on a talk from XOXO!) full of questions to ask yourself as a creative person wanting to "use your skills for good". I highly recommend reading it before launching into any of this and getting clear about what your objectives are and what you're willing to give.
(I should point out that educating yourself on a particular issue—and maybe documenting that process along the way—is a totally valid objective! Sometimes I need to use a creative project as a framework for pursuing some area of research interest or practice. Other people can learn from your learning process.)
Here are some of Katie's specific questions:
How do you get involved with a project like this? Do you submit a pitch to a local nonprofit out of the blue?
In this instance, Ben Waterhouse (editor of the magazine) reached out to my agent with a timeline and budget for the piece, along with a list of potential topics, and asked if it was something I was interested in or had room for. The query came at a time when I wasn't technically accepting new clients, but it really aligned with my interests and values, so I said yes!
This is a pretty dreamy way to get a gig, and is obviously tangled up in the fact that I have a certain amount of visibility, and I've been doing what I do now for a decade. People in Portland know that I make comics, but also that I've specifically done non-fiction, journalistic, or just educational work in the past. If you're earlier into your career and interested in doing this stuff, make it clear (on your website, social media, wherever) that this is work you are actively practicing and excited about doing more of.
Establishing relationships and being a known and trusted entity within a community or activist group goes a long way. Christina Tran made a wonderful collaborative comic with APANO (Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon) a few years ago, and she was generous enough to share some details about it came to be:
APANO reached out to me to commission a collaboration around a zine on the topic of increasing AAPI representation in politics. But of course -- as with many of these kinds of stories -- it was rooted in relationship. Previously, I had met Candace, their Cultural Work Manager through a USDAC workshop, and then we reconnected when she picked up one my zines at a zine fest. It was because of the stories in that zine (Things I Cannot Say), that she reached out about a potential paid collaboration. The Becoming Political comic and zine came out of working with their field team over the course of a few months to co-write and co-create the final thing.
When my friend Tessa Hulls dropped everything and went to go spend a couple weeks making comics about the CHOP in Seattle, she was very mindful about her approach. Take a look through her Instagram to get a sense of how she tackled making and sharing work during that very chaotic time. I particularly admire the ways she makes room for complexity and nuance in her coverage of subjects that have no easy answers—especially on social media, a space where we often feel pressured to oversimplify.
Do you ask for pay or do you wait to see if they offer it?
The intersection of money/creative work/activism can be complicated. As with money in any job, it's important to be clear with yourself and your client about what you're willing to do. It may be that you feel being paid for your work is important to your integrity as a creator, but you're willing to work for less for the right cause. It may be that you feel most comfortable donating your creative skills and leaving money off the table entirely. There's room for a wide range of approaches!
Is the person/organization you're working with well-resourced? If so, I'd submit something more like a traditional pitch to an editor and negotiate a fee as you would with a freelance client (this is obviously a bigger topic, but not as relevant to the subject so I'll leave it for now). You can also keep an eye out on alternative weekly newspapers, local news websites, neighborhood flyers, and other spaces that might benefit from some comics action. If they have open calls for pitches, hit them up and ask about their rates while you do.
If you're thinking "Hey, there's a local activist collective who might be in need of my services..." then make it very clear in your opening email what you're offering and at what cost. Consider how donating your time as a creator feels weighed against donating your time as a pair of helping hands in some other capacity. Sometimes it's nice to do volunteer work that has nothing to do with your career! Other times it can be very meaningful to use your specific skills in this way.
Here's a sample draft of an intro email, assuming I'm donating my time:
My name's Lucy. I'm a cartoonist looking to get more plugged in with local activism. [Perhaps some details here about how you're currently engaging with the issues or work they do.] I care very deeply about the work you're doing with [org] and was wondering if you had any need for visual assets, illustration, or more in-depth zines/comics/etc. that might help further your goals. Here are some some things I've made that might help give an idea of how I can help: [link, link, link] I'm particularly excited about [type of project, subject matter].
I'm able to donate about 20 hours of free labor per month. (For reference, this would get you about [x] pages of explainer comics or [x] illustrations.) If you have something on deck I could help with right now, I'm at your disposal. I'd also be happy to sit down for a brief meeting to help brainstorm ways I can be of use.
Thanks so much for your time, and for the work that you do.
For transparency's sake: I received $1250 for my six-page Oregon Humanities comic. This gives a page rate of about $208. They approached me in early December and I turned the finished comic in at the end of March. (I'm not an obsessive time tracker, so unfortunately I can't lay out exactly how many hours I spent on it across research, interviews, feedback rounds, and actual drawing time, but this is data I'd love to have the next time I do a job like this.)
Did you do all the research and writing yourself, or did you work with a writer?
I was really intimidated to tackle this as a writer and artist. I've worked as an artist on comics written by Sarah Mirk in the past, and having her experience in the mix for tackling challenging subjects like sexual assault at Guantanamo Bay always felt like a safety net.
But! I had to remind myself that I'm a very curious and resourceful person who's willing to chase down contacts and ask people a lot of questions about what they do and read a lot of Wikipedia articles and dig dig dig and if I get stuck I also know that I can ask questions. (Ben was very clear that he could help fact check or follow up on stuff if I needed any help, and in fact Sarah was on board to edit, even if she wasn't writing, which ended up making the comic miles better in the end.)
I did a lot of reading on Wikipedia, various Library of Congress pages, and advocacy organization websites. I stuck all the links, quotes, sources, and ideas I found into one big document as I went. It was kind of a mess, but it ended up being a good place to draft from. Here's a sample (written in Bear):
The biggest thing (as you'll know from Omayeli's talk) is making sure you're talking to the people who are most involved. For me, this meant finding folks from local organizations who were actively working on these issues and emailing them to request interviews. The cool thing about people working in policy is that a lot of what they do already revolves around sharing information. It meant that I didn't feel I was wasting anyone's time. I recorded the interviews on Zoom so I could focus entirely on the conversation and go back for direct quotes if I needed them down the line.
A closing piece of advice I wish I could go back and give to myself:
Let people explain what they're doing in their own words. Rewatching the interviews, I saw myself eagerly jumping in to demonstrate that I'd done my research and knew what the interviewees were talking about, which accomplished nothing useful aside from stroking my own ego. It's easy to get overexcited about having learned a lot of new information in a short period of time, but asking open questions and letting people share what's most important and meaningful to them and their organization is far more important.
Okay! That's enough advice!
I want to keep my door open about stuff like this, so if any of you find yourself stuck working on something in this vein, I would love to help if I can. Thanks, Katie, for asking good questions, and I hope you find this useful!