Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Not-For-Profit Comics

Subtitle A--Income Taxes
Subchapter F--Exempt Organizations
Sec. 501. Exemption from tax on corporations, certain trusts, etc.

(a) Exemption from taxation
An organization described in subsection (c) or (d) or section 401(a) shall be exempt from taxation under this subtitle unless such exemption is denied under section 502 or 503.

(c) List of exempt organizations

(3) Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition (but only if no part of its activities involve the provision of athletic facilities or equipment), or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals, no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.

Here's the very special episode of "Focused Totality" where the guy with no experience publishing comics tries to single-handedly save the industry. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and maybe you'll learn a little.

Or maybe I'll piss away what little goodwill I have.

I am finding myself wondering if comics is relying on an economic model which may not suit it anymore. Comics was born as a mass medium, as part of the magazine industry ... but it seems to have become obvious that its status as a mass medium is not longer the case. That that's fine. Fine art is not a mass medium. Poetry is not a mass medium. Opera is not a mass medium. Jazz is not a mass medium. Theatre is not a mass medium.

My artistic background is in live theatre. I was a professional actor, director and producer in Chicago and San Francisco for years. I have worked up and down the line: from Tony Award winning regional theatres to shows in the basement of a vegetarian restaurant. The challenges of theatre and comics aren't all that different: a small, insular, aging audience that has more and more choices spread before it, and complete disconnect from the mainstream of popular culture. There is little press available, and even the best of the best are largely ignored by the world at large. There is some profitability available on Broadway (and that's your equivalent to Marvel/DC), but anything outside of Cats and Phantom Of The Opera is a damn hard sell. It's about the spectacle and the money and not much else, and it's what most people immediately think of when (if) they think about the artform at all.

But spread across the country are many, many theatres where people are making a living doing what they love. They just aren't making a profit. The backbone of the American regional theatre is the 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that exists primarily on charitable contributions, not ticket sales. Fundraising becomes a primary focus, and those tax-deductible contributions and fundraising events are the war chest that is used to offset any lack of sales.

Is there a comic publisher that is operating under 501(c)(3)? That lets artists maintain rights, pays a flat fee or salary to creators and production staff, and uses charitable donations to offset costs? Is there a reason that a comics publisher modeled after the economics of the American not-for-profit theatre can't work?

Obviously, fundraising is a hurdle. Traditional fundraising is largely driven by community, of people looking to take care of projects in their backyard. Donating to a local charitable organization is good advertising and generates community goodwill. There are successful national charitable comics organizations such as ACTOR and the CBLDF, however, so it seems like the donator base is there. Why couldn't a publishing organization dedicated to nuturing the future of the artform succeed?

Another hurdle is the question of "who goes first". Changing the economic model of an industry is no easy task, and it will be a hard swim against the prevailing current. You would need a firebrand at the helm who could galvanize the potential donators into opening up their checkbooks and trusting that he would execute his mandate to make good art. It's hard to imagine this being initially popular with other publishers, but it if worked they would all hurry to get in line.

Note that I'm not saying it would succeed ... but could it? Setting out to not make a profit probably seems strange ... but is anyone making a profit anyways?

Maybe by accepting that fact that it's an artform, and no longer a commercial proposition, comics could save itself?


Shane Bailey said...

I wrote something a while ago comparing Comics to Theater and the similarities in audiences here. You bring up a lot of points I didn't even think of. I remember it sparking a bit of discussion on other sites but can't seem to find them now.

Jog said...

The Monday Morning Foundation, which produced a bunch of recent Ganzfeld productions (the excellent book "Paper Rad, B.J., and da Dogs" and a recent fleed of newsprint minicomics), is indeed a 501(c)(3) corporation - it's the non-profit wing of Dan Nadel's publishing house/visual design studio, PictureBox, Inc. A grant from The National Endowment for the Arts also helped with the recent books.

Mark Fossen said...

Thanks, Jog. I knew someone must have tried it.

Extending the theatre comparision, though ... your average American regional theatre isn't doing avant-garde. They are about as edgy as Dark Horse - i.e. not all that edgy. It needn't be restricted to the bleeding artistic edge.

Mark Fossen said...

From your post, Shane:
I would think the audience and the sales would be comparible even though I'm sure broadway rakes in a ton more money.
I would guess - just off licensing - DC/Marvel makes more.

I thing you're spot on in the comparision, though. Broadway isn't about art, it's about a comforting, predictable experience. So's Marvel/DC.