Comics: Matt Pizzolo on Occupy Comics: Art & Stories Inspired by Occupy Wall Street

Get Up, Stand Up

By , Columnist

Perhaps the most significant fledgling political trend of the new millennium, the Occupy movement has managed to fire the imaginations and spirit of a growing number of increasingly dissatisfied citizens not only here, in these United States, but also amongst their counterparts across the globe.

Taking its cue from both the decentralized nature of the Arab Spring protests and the nonviolent tactics pioneered by Gandhi and MLK, the Occupy movement has proven to be a perplexing problem for government as well as most news media. After all, how do you report on, much less negotiate with, a group that adamantly refuses to adopt a cohesive platform or appoint a specific figure as a spokesperson?

As with all such political events, this has proven to be a polarizing subject for all manner of people, including those who work in the comics industry. Some, like Frank Miller, have been dismissive or even outright hostile towards the protesters. Others, including Alan Moore and David Lloyd—who inadvertently created the central image of the movement in the pages of their V for Vendetta graphic novel several decades back—are adamant and vocal supporters.

Recently, a group of comics professionals decided to put their time and effort in service of those protesters by donating their time and work to a project designed to lend immediate aid and support to those on the front line. That effort, appropriately dubbed Occupy Comics: Art & Stories Inspired by Occupy Wall Street, has already proven itself wildly successful. Still, as author and filmmaker Matt Pizzolo, one of the driving forces behind the Occupy Comics project, explained via email, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t the need for further support of Occupy Comics, and the larger movement, as well.

Molly Crabapple Can You See the New World Through Tear Gas.jpg

Why don’t we start with the basics and move on from there? What is Occupy Comics, who is involved in this project behind the scenes, and perhaps most importantly, what do you all hope to accomplish?

Occupy Comics is a collection of comics and art inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement. It is intended to be a time capsule of the passions and emotions driving the movement, as well as a fundraising method to support the protesters. The content is created by a coalition of over 50 comics pros who are donating their efforts so all the money generated (beyond absolute hard costs) will be donated directly to the protesters. The Occupy movement was launched by art, and we believe art is the best way to articulate its themes and goals. We also think a model of arts-based grassroots fundraising could potentially help protect the movement from establishment money that seeks to co-opt it.

There's not really anybody behind the scenes—there's a list of contributors on the website and that's pretty much everybody involved. There's probably a half dozen writers and artists who've been involved since its inception and have helped navigate it. Everyone is super busy with work and families, so we all just do what we can to keep it growing and steered in the right direction.

Peoples Library by Molly Crabapple & John Leavitt.jpg

Okay. Now, just so we’re clear on this vital point from the start, how will all this money that you folks are raising be dispensed and spent? And how much, exactly, of that money goes towards administrative costs, salaries, office rentals, etc.?

None of the money goes to administrative costs, salaries, or office rentals (sadly). We decided early on that we wanted to do it with absolute transparency, so it's not really a matter of "profits" going to the protesters as it is "all revenues beyond absolute hard costs" go to the protesters. Hard costs means printing books, shipping, manufacturing the various Kickstarter rewards (t-shirts, DVDs etc), etc. We're doing our best to keep those costs as low as possible, but it's a balancing act because we want to create high quality, collectible products that supporters will be proud to own. So the costs are balanced between the two goals of an art time capsule and a means of fundraising.

The way the money is allocated is actually through the individual contributors. The artists and writers are all paid a proportional share of the revenue based on the number of pages they provide versus the total number of pages in the book, but all of the artists and writers are agreeing to donate that money to the protesters. Most contributors want to donate as a group to get the most bang for their buck, but they don't have to—anyone can just take their share and hand it to the protesters at their local park if they want.

There are a couple of reasons for that structure. One reason is because Kickstarter doesn't allow you to raise money for charity, so raising money to produce a book wherein everyone is paid and in turn donates that money was a clever way to use Kickstarter to simultaneously create art and donate funds. But the other reason is that this is a coalition, not necessarily a collective. We don't all need to agree on the best use for the money… it's totally reasonable for some contributors to want to make an impact locally and others to want to act on a broader level. The movement is so diverse that there are tons of ways to make great use of even fairly small portions of money.

Construction worker at Zuccoti Park by Molly Crabapple.jpg

Why do it through Kickstarter, and why not find a small, independent, or even mainstream publisher, who’ll underwrite and oversee everything? Is there an advantage to using Kickstarter and doing it all yourselves in this particular case, or was it just the easiest way of doing it?

The original goal was to fundraise for amenities to help the occupiers through winter (heaters, thermal underwear, honey wagons, etc), but making a comic book anthology takes a long time and in order to include so many popular and busy creators we couldn't possibly have a book until spring or summer at the earliest… plus if we were donating revenue from book sales, that money wouldn't really be trickling back through the supply chain until 2013 (and comics aren't very profitable to begin with). So doing it that way made no sense, we really felt that we needed to get money to the protesters as soon as possible.

With Kickstarter, we can essentially pre-sell the book so the money comes in advance and payments/donations are allocated before we even produce the book. Making a book and donating the profits is slow and speculative. Raising money to make a book, paying all the contributors page rates, and then donating those page rates is a slam dunk.

I think marrying art and technology to inspire and organize in this way is reflective of the movement overall.

Well, put, Matt. I really can see that being the best way of doing it for all concerned. So, who are some of the creative contributors, and what can you tell us about what they’ll be doing for the book?

The coalition of contributors now numbers over 50 and it's a really eclectic bunch whose portfolios range from mainstream superheroes to indie/underground comix to fine arts and political cartoons; some have been working in comics since the '70s and some are just hitting the scene. Obviously the 800-pound gorillas are Alan Moore and David Lloyd, both of whom are amazing to have on the team not just because of their incredible talent and influence but specifically because of the impact V for Vendetta had on partly inspiring the movement. But the team didn't start with them; it started small and then just snowballed to the point where it snagged a couple of abominable snowmen.

Vendetta cover from DC website.jpg

The works being contributed range from slice-of-life documentary to the fantastical, some are specifically about the movement and others only echo the movement's themes. For example, Molly Crabapple is an artist who lives a few blocks from Zuccotti Park and visited the occupation each day drawing portraits of the protesters, so hers is a very specific point of view. Comic book veteran JM DeMatteis, on the other hand, is writing a piece on the need for compassion in any social protest movement and the importance of not vilifying either side. Horror writers Brea Grant and Zane Grant are mixing slice-of-life with charts and graphs to draw correlations between social science numbers and actual human lives. Comics are such a personal medium with so many different styles that we can bring together dozens of really unique points of view into an ensemble that, in its own way, mirrors the chorus of individual voices making up the Occupy movement itself.

How did you end up with your current position in the project, and why did you get involved?

I was inspired by Occupy Wall Street as soon as it started, and it was the most inspired I'd been since the globalization protests of the late '90s. The globalization protests were attempts at preventing many of the events Occupy and the Tea Party are now reacting to (at least, the early Tea Party before it became a bloc within the Republican Party). We Americans are much better at reacting to crises than averting them, so this is a unique historical moment. I honestly never thought I'd turn on a mainstream TV news channel and see a serious discussion of class division, so in that way Occupy has already won a significant battle in the American mindspace.

It's almost hard to remember now, but in the beginning there was zero serious news coverage of Occupy Wall Street, it was a total media blackout. At that time, I was prepping for the New York Comic Con and it seemed like that would be a good place to spread the word about Occupy… after all, you have about 100,000 idealistic people who care about truth and justice right across town from the protests. So I reached out to a few of my comics friends about putting together a little comic to spread the word about Occupy at NYCC—but before we got very far the first pepper-spray incident went viral and the coverage went from media blackout to media circus. So exposure was no longer the issue.

We Are All In This Together by Molly Crabapple & John Leavitt.jpg

We all still wanted to support the protests however we could, so we brainstormed on what would be a relevant way to contribute and that's how we settled on the dual goals of creating an arts-based time capsule that would also fundraise for the movement. So my taking on this position in the project was pretty organic. I don't know what my position is really… I consider myself an organizer in this context and everybody refers to me as the spearhead, whatever that means. The only reason my name and face are on the Kickstarter is because Kickstarter requires someone take responsibility, I'd rather not be the face of the project.

I was curious if there’s something you’d like to see come about, personally, as a result of all of these efforts?

Personally, I'd love if the project managed to express the goals of the movement in a unique way that transcends rhetoric or over-intellectualization or lists of demands. I believe this is more a social change movement than a political movement, people are coalescing around an idea, not an ideology… all that makes it poorly suited to discuss in a 24 hour news cycle… I think it's better conveyed through art.

I also have longer term hopes that this could be an early model of using art and technology to build a sustainable, independent system of grassroots fundraising. Establishment money will always try to co-opt a social change movement, so if movements can grow sustainably with grassroots funding they'll be better protected against entrenched interests. 

Laurie Penny at Zuccotti Park by Molly Crabapple.jpg

So, what does your position as the spearhead of Occupy Comics require of you? What is a typical day in the life of a charity comics project organizer like?

I try really, really hard not to be a full time charity comics organizer. I run a small business and work freelance as well and I'm raising a family… I was working 20 hours a day before I took this on. I had to reconcile early on that if I did an imperfect job of organizing this then that's still better than not doing anything, so I'm not trying to launch the perfect fundraising comic book anthology because that's just not something I can sustain. Luckily other people join the team as it grows and tasks get delegated and I'm not doing it all myself, but that's my name and face on the Kickstarter accepting people's money, so I have a certain level of accountability that can't be delegated. It's scary, too, because when you do something like this you're putting yourself out there for a lot of scrutiny and criticism and in the end you're not getting anything out of it personally, at least nothing tangible.

Occupy Comics owes a lot to the Womanthology project that pioneered this model by raising over $100k on Kickstarter; that was a huge project about supporting women in comics and the organizer (Rena De Liz — Ed.) of that wound up taking a beating afterward over the logistics. And that was for a book about women making comics, far less polarizing than Occupy. So we're really going out of our way to make everything as simple and transparent as possible and building public checks and balances into the whole process.

Molly Crabapple's Starve the Squid.jpg

I wound up distributing a film a few years back that drew the ire of a top Washington lobbyist and I learned the hard way that a lot of these firms have people on staff whose sole job it is to spread rumors and misinformation all day just to create drama and waste the time of people working on things they don't like. It's fairly brilliant in its own way and it's not a conspiracy—it’s just a simple, super effective way of shutting people up.

So I know I'm putting myself at risk of a lot of stress with no tangible benefit, and the only way I can manage that is by pushing the snowball down the hill and checking in on it regularly to make sure it’s headed in the right direction. We probably could've raised a lot more money if we'd been working on it full-time, but just like everybody else we're struggling to make ends meet, so we can only do so much. I think it's more important that we build a model that's sustainable in the long-term rather than diving head-first into something we potentially couldn't see through.

To be continued…

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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