What Happens When You Ask a Cartoonist for Free Work?

You might not get the comic you were hoping for

[Update 1/7/2016] The MIT Museum. held an art contest.

[Update] Michael Halpern over at the Union of Concerned Scientists reached out to me and we had a good chat. He was really cool despite how hard I was on his organization in my post. From talking, it’s clear that he really does respect artists and understands the error in how the UCS handled their contest.

The way creative work is perceived by employers and artists alike is indicative of a system with really deep roots. It’s entirely possible for people and organizations to be well-meaning in every way, but still mess up. Which is why, other than the snarky parody tweet in the first panel, my goal wasn’t to single out the UCS in the comic. I like to try to make sure the comics stay relevant regardless of whoever is throwing the latest contest or which Nobel Prize winner is making a bad joke.

[Note: All the stuff below has been cleared up, but kept here for transparency]

I don’t get many chances to talk about being an artist on a science blog, but as somebody who only recently was able to make comics a full-time profession, I am a huge proponent of fair wages and practices for creative professionals.

Particularly when it comes to being paid. In my early years, I did a lot of unpaid work. After graduating college, it was 100% normal to pencil and entire comic book on the promises of “money after publishing.” It was a rotten system, and I quit drawing comics for years until I started my old science comic. So when I was asked by a science organization to submit a comic for their annual calendar, the timing couldn’t have been better. I was already ramped up about creative contests.

It all started with a tweet1.


It came from an employee at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy organization. No doubt they reached out to me because they figured I could help spread the word about their contest. I mean, they wouldn’t ask a professional cartoonist to work for free, right?

The details of the contest are as follows: The UCS commissioned six comics to go in their yearly calendar, the other six would be decided by the contest in the aforementioned tweet. I had to wonder: Why not just commission 6 more comics? It’s not like money was an issue. The problem with contests is that, unless you win, you’ve done work for no pay. Depending on the amount of entries, a company can basically “commission” thousands of pieces of work, but only pay for what they want. As a non-winner, If you’re lucky and read the contract2, you might end up keeping the rights to your work. Maybe you can publish it someplace else. But more than likely, the piece was created with the contest in mind, and you just wasted your time chasing a carrot on stick. With all that in mind, I retweeted the contest proposal and posed my query.


The same UCS employee responded predictably3. This was a fun thing they were doing and that they wanted to find fresh voices for the other comics rather than just commission all twelve. They shored up their defense by adding that they had been doing this contest for years. I’ll let the dismay of hearing a science organization appeal to tradition when confronted about exploitative practices sink in. I told them there was never a better time than the present to change. I think respecting creative professionals is a pretty solid moral standpoint. But, maybe that’s just me.

Curious for more, I looked at their timeline to see who else they reached out to, I was met with this internet atrocity.

Pictured: It’s spam all the way down. I’m starting to reconsider scrubbing the name.

The ham-fisted method in which they made people aware of their contest should be embarrassing enough, but then I noticed the tweet addressed to The Nib, a publication known for how fairly it compensates its contributors. A publication I have eagerly contributed to in the past. The lack of awareness presented is staggering. Seriously, that screenshot probably isn’t even a tenth of the tweets that went out. It was downright spam. Glancing at the names, which include folks like Erika Moen and Bill Nye, it was clear that they had just done a twitter search for “science” and “comics” and stopped there.

If I have only one piece of advice for young creatives looking to “break in”, “make it”, or get “discovered”, it’s this:


I want to take this time to stress that in all likelihood, the employee was just following orders. Organizations tend to be pretty clueless on social media etiquette.

I’m being hard on the UCS, which is probably a great organization. But as of the writing of this post, their contest is still on, they deleted their conversation with me, and pretty much left with a chuckle and an “Okay, suuuure.” They got their spam blast out, the deadline is right around the corner, the damage is done, and they can move on, having got what they wanted. Hooray for the status quo. Science already has a reputation for being woefully out of touch, and blind spamming comic professionals to ask for free work is not helping.

Thus, I’d like to spend the next part of this post outlining all the measures your organization can take in order to be better to artists:

As for the contest? In the end, against better judgment, I did end up submitting a comic. Because, why not?

I submitted this one.

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1 While the author of the tweet would be easy to find, I’ve scrubbed their name because any criticism should be directed at the organization, not the author.

2 I could draw a whole comic on contracts, and probably will in the near future.

3 Unfortunately, they deleted their responses sometime after our conversation, so I don’t have them anymore. I’ll know better to screenshot early next time. My end of the conversation is still there if you need at least some contextual proof.