Peanuts minus Schulz: Distributed Labor as a Compositional Practice / Le travail distribué comme pratique organisationnelle

Peanuts minus Schulz: Distributed Labor as a Compositional Practice / Le travail distribué comme pratique organisationnelle
Ilan Manouach

JBE/Jean Boîte éditions, “Uncreative Writings” series, Paris, France, 2021
Bilingual edition: English/French
700 pp. Paper, €29.00
ISBN: 978-2-36568-030-1.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
March 2021

As any other field of cultural production, comics is a medium that has been dramatically transformed by digital culture. Virtually all aspects of the making, publishing, marketing, distributing, and (increasingly) reading of comics have now become digital, while more and more new forms of comics can be said digital-born (and not just “transferred to a digital format”), yet net always in the forms predicted in the 1990s, when e-comics started to emerge.

At the same time, however, there also exists a strong resistance to digitalization in comics, mainly due to two reasons. First, there is the very conservative approach of digitalization in the traditional comics industry that merely considers digitization a useful instrument of cost-efficiency and maximization of profit, hence missing all creative opportunities offered by the new digital environment and confusing its consumers with online copies of originals in paper that simply don’t work on screen (newer e-comics have discovered that the best solution was to avoid complex layouts and to go for a kind of slide show presentation one can scroll through). Second is the exceptional attachment of the graphic novel movement, which caters to a different (allegedly more sophisticated, but definitely wealthier) audience, to the magic of ink and paper, that is the touch and feel and small of works in print. In the graphic novel, classic publishing formats are not only preserved and cared for, they also remain commercially successful. In quite some cases, the graphic novel comes even close to the coffee table book circuit and, just like comics as well, they have now entered the gallery and museum circuit, where they may soon competing with the all-times classics such as Superman and Tintin vintage material.

Whatever one thinks of these changes, none of them radically changes the old-fashioned pillars of comics as art, such as, among others, the creative genius of the individual artist, the commercial value of original and copyrighted material, or the autonomy of the artistic sphere in regard to the publishing industry. Yet these are exactly the elements that have been shattered by the digital revolution, with its emphasis on mechanical copying and distribution, anonymous subcontracted labor by new masses of cottage industry workers, or the ubiquity of technical operations such as web-scrapping, tagging, archiving, crowdsourcing, or reviewing, which have proved vital to the business but which are rarely seen as a substantial part of creative dimension of the cultural or creative industries. [1]

Peanuts minus Schultz is a book published in the “Uncreative Writings” series, a collection of conceptual creative works––that is, works relying on a strong programmatic claim within a global framework of remix and appropriation. Like the other volumes of the series, it explores the new directions of book art not after but in light of and thanks to the digital turn. The author, comics artist, and theoretician Ilan Manouach (1980), is one of the most innovative and politically committed authors in this sphere of post-digital comics. A practice-based researcher, Manouach questions the fundamental issues of originality, innovation, ownership, participatory culture, or skilling and deskilling, form an artistic as well as economic perspective (actually, both dimensions can never be distinguished in his work). In the new type of “conceptual comics” or “CoCos” that he has launched (see his website: https://ilanmanouach.com/), he both creates and gathers comics that thematize these issues in the era of “playbor”, the portmanteau word that conflates “play” and “labor” and refers to the new forms of economic organization blurring the boundaries between labor and play, thus abolishing all kind of distances in time and space. “Playbor” represents post-industrial alienation: everybody must work all the time and in all places, yet without ever seeing the result of her or his labor –and of course without receiving serious payment, work being seen as “fun”, even by some workers, at least in certain circumstances (self-exploitation is looming large in the work-as-fun economy)

A conceptual comics, Peanuts minus Schultz is a project based on the practice of the online labor market. AMT or Amazon Mechanic Turk is the best known example of such an online service where in exchange of a small fee mainly precarious participants from all over the world accept to perform at home and with no further management control small, outsourced tasks for a minimal payment (not a salary or an hourly wage but a per task payment). Manouach’s book is the result of a specific commission for an unauthorized remake of Schultz’s Peanuts on such an online platform. Peanuts minus Schultz is the edited result of this commission (the initial list of relatively vague and open instructions is given near the end of the book, on page 663): a 700 pages horizontal publication with “new” Peanuts strips, freely copied, transformed or (re)invented by micro-workers from all over the global village. The materials submitted are amazing, to say the least, some of them looking more real than the real stuff, others strangely deviant (but it is impossible to know whether the distance with the original should be explained a lack of a skill or on the contrary by a cunning parody). Yet after having read the nearly 1000 strips in the beautifully printed book, our vision of Schulz’s work is no longer the same: This is not Peanuts as it is shaped by the hand of its maker; it is Peanuts as it becomes in the hands of its readers who actually do with the Schulz comics what the merchandising has done with it in a different and definitely less interesting way. Peanuts minus Schultz does, therefore, not only disclose what actually happens in the world of micro-work, if not the world “out there” –a strange mix of plagiarism and originality, all produced in huge quantities and in almost no time (it took four months during a residency to collect and edit the submissions), it also contains a powerful criticism of what Schulz himself and the company or estate behind his work have always categorically denied, namely the progressive incorporation of a work of art (Peanuts, the comics) in an economic supra-structure (Peanuts, the merchandising) that eventually has taken over power. In the Schulz universe the comic work has been downgraded to as tiny detail of the larger merchandising empire and this shift is clearly a creative disaster: It kills all kind of freedom and innovation the “illegal” or unauthorized copies and variations showcase on almost every pages.

These objectives and outcomes are light years away from what is generally discussed in the context of digital comics. It is the tremendous merit of Ilan Manoauch to help focus on the real stakes of the digital turn in comics (and art in general), which are not technological but cultural, that is artistic, social, economic, and political.

Notes

[1] For some details on these “nonartistic” operations of the work of art, see my review of Franck Leibovici: https://www.leonardo.info/review/2020/12/des-operations-decriture-qui-ne-disent-pas-leur-nom.