Substack Comics Creators Criticised Over Site's Offensive Content

Hamish McKenzie posted regarding his newly announced Substack comic book creator/publishing deals. Which, courtesy of Nick Spencer, has seen millions of dollars dropped on attracting some of the biggest names in comic books to publish their creator-owned titles first on the Substack newsletter subscription service. So far, Jonathan Hickman, James Tynion IV, Scott Snyder, Skottie Young, Molly Ostertag, Saladin Ahmed, and Chip Zdarsky have gone public, as well as engaging in a number of other monetising and merchandising opportunities. It is clearly one of the biggest stories to hit the comic book industry this year in a year of big stories. And it is, of course, not without controversy.

Hamish McKenzie stated, "There are few industries where we feel the Substack model could be more game-changing than in comics, where the gap in power and earning potential between publishers and for-hire creators is enormous, and where the creator of a story can spawn a nine-figure franchise and yet take home little more than a standard paycheck. On Substack, comics creators are their own publishers, and they are guaranteed full ownership of their intellectual property, content, and mailing lists, like any other publisher on the platform… These creators are supported by Substack Pro packages designed to kickstart going independent and remove the risks of starting a publishing enterprise. We do that by providing a financial guarantee combined with access to services, support, and community. These packages include upfront grants, design and editing services of the creators' choosing that Substack subsidizes, and monthly stipends to help out with the costs of health insurance. The freedom and independence that the deals offer are lasting. The grants give these creators the best possible runway to build their own audiences. At the end of the Pro program, creators are free to leave and take those audiences with them if they want to (it's up to us to build an ecosystem good enough that they won't)."

Substack Comics Creators Criticised Over Site's Offensive Content
Substack logo

I have noted that a number of people have talked about the creators taking away books that would have been published at the likes of Image Comics and Boom to Substack. That is not what is happening. Substack is a digital publisher with venture capital money that will enable the easier creation and monetisation of comic books digitally, with advances paid against expected revenue. The comics will then, in all likelihood, be published in print and probably at Image or Boom. It's a cross between Patreon and Kickstarter that pays certain people in advance. Of course, who those certain people are, is an issue for some, as Substack funds a number of blatantly offensive newsletters and writers, some of whom have been kicked off other platforms for their writing.

In one Twitter thread, comics journalist Cheryl Lynn Eaton posted, "What has horrified so many about Substack is that the platform has gone to the next level beyond plausible deniability. Curation. Bringing in abusers and separatists and paying them. Platforming them so that their hate speech can drive those who they've deemed undesirable away. That is a difference that is completely demoralizing. Because it's one thing to refuse to excise hatemongers yet treat them as an unpleasant bit of refuse that you are unable to get rid of– though Twitter CAN get rid of them–and another to directly invite them in and PAY them. The bitter truth is that far-right artists do not make money through their art. Their art is simply side-merch. The work is the abuse. The trolling. The antagonizing of the marginalized for their inherent traits. THAT'S what keeps the audience. Selling hatred and disruption."

Cartoonist Alex Schumacher writes, "I'm neither impressed nor excited by the Substack announcements. They're just another company exploiting and catering only to established names while neglecting up-and-coming/independent creators. Cream your jeans if you'd like, but this does nothing for the industry as a whole. A minimal amount of research also reveals Substack's complicity in providing a platform for transphobic and alt-right bigots. It would appear some creators are perfectly content to turn a blind eye in exchange for a quick payday."

I Walk With Monsters, The Modern Frankenstein comics, and Doctor Who/Elementary TV writer Paul Cornell wrote, "I don't think it's possible to be a neutral publisher anymore. In the 1980s, sure, publish books from right and left. But back then, 'right' didn't include what it does now. I won't support a platform that funds hate. I don't judge those who took that work. But no. No. No… I want to shout out to @afwassel
and @DamianWassel and the company they've built @thevaultcomics, who put ethics first and make great art too. They've made a good place to make comics."

As previously mentioned, new Substack comics publisher Chip Zdarsky has chosen to donate a percentage of subscription monies to the Rainbow Road LGBTQ organisation, which works to help LGBTQI+ people who face persecution globally find safety. Will others follow suit with something similar? Will that salve anyone's objections?

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About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.
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