CRISIS ON ENVIRONMENTAL EARTH
Published: Mon, 01-Jan-2007 at Comic Foundry
By Laura Hudson
Maxeem Konrady loved comic books. He loved them so much, in fact, he decided
to become an artist, and began pursuing Fine Arts in Comics degree at the Minneapolis
College of Art and Design. During his junior year, he took a class on sustainability
called Graphic Design for the 21st Century: As If Life Matters. He found what
he learned about comics, and the publishing industry generally, to be "devastating."
The problem is paper. Comic books, like all periodicals, are printed on it,
and the papermaking process is an ecologically ugly one. An enormous consumer
of energy and resources, the paper industry is the number one industrial process
water user in the country , and according to the EPA’s 2004 Toxic Release
Inventory, the third-worst contributor of air emissions among all industries,
and the fourth worst in discharges to streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Its production of greenhouse gases, though, is perhaps the most disturbing.
The paper industry is the fourth-largest producer of carbon dioxide, contributing
to global warming as it depletes the very trees that stave it off.
"The paper industry is one of the single most serious threats to our clean
air, our habitat and our water because it's so stubbornly ingrained," Konrady
Although disheartened by the paper use of the publishing industry, Konrady remained
committed to his dream of becoming a comic book artist. Later, when he decided
to self-publish his first graphic novel, he knew he had to do things differently.
"I knew I could make a book that eliminat[ed] the waste and the dangerous
chemical production that goes into a typical book. I decided that I wanted to
see how hard it was."
The answer: Not that hard. He located a printer who offered more ecologically
friendly alternatives, and produced a comic with vegetable-based inks on 100
percent post-consumer recycled paper, bleached with oxygen instead of chlorine.
The impact of using alternative materials is significant: using recycled paper
not only saves trees, it also conserves energy and natural resources, using
only 60 percent as much energy, reducing water pollution by 35 percent, and
air pollution by 74 percent . Not to mention keeping paper products out of landfills,
where they account for almost 40 percent of all municipal solid waste .
"The sad, surprising thing is that anybody can do it," Konrady said.
"I wanted to show [comic book publishers] that if a kid can do it right
out of college, they can too… Once I had the money, it was as easy as
printing any other book."
But ay, there's the rub.
Konrady's printing standards ended up costing him significantly more than typical
printing methods, and although his small print run operated on a different scale
than large publishers, he admits the biggest challenge is money. It's difficult
to convince publishers to make any change that increases costs, particularly
if the benefits are not obvious. For a business trying to stay afloat, the right
thing to do is the most lucrative thing, especially when profit margins are
tight. After all, if comic book companies can't stay profitable, they can't
keep printing comics.
Still, Konrady believes comic book publishers can make the switch in a practical
way, particularly if they find a way to market the change to consumers.
"If they can make people want to buy four foil editions of the same pamphlet,
I'm sure they can figure out a way to show the value in this really important
WOULD SWAMP THING DO?
There is the old and famous axiom from Amazing Fantasy #15: With great power
comes great responsibility. It is the noblesse oblige of the superhero class--the
ability to help means the duty to do so. Like a doctor with a scalpel or a policeman
with a gun, every action or inaction can save people or cost them dearly; every
choice has consequences.
It was a moral that weighed upon Adam Weissman of Wetlands Preserve, an environmental
advocacy group, as he considered the paper use of comic book publishers. On
one hand, he said, comic books advocate heroic ideals of sacrifice and responsibility,
and on the other, "the comic book industry uses its financial power to
subsidize environmental destruction."
Sure, expecting comic book publishers to live up to the heroic standards of
their characters is unrealistic, but one can at least appreciate the irony of
indicting Marvel with the words of Spider-Man. The publishers have an obligation
first and foremost to survive, else there will be no one to print the comics.
But so far as they have the power, perhaps it is not unfair to expect that they
exercise it with as much accountability as they reasonably can. Weissman said
he believes it is possible to balance the two concerns, and allow businesses
to make both practical and ecologically responsible choices.
He is betting on the consciences of the other powerful people in the comic book
industry: fans. The comic book community was one of the major reasons that Weissman
and his organization originally turned their attention to the medium.
"Comic book fans are people that talk to each other, that have strong feelings
about their comics books [and] intense interest in all aspects of the product."
Unlike catalogs, for example, which engender little lasting interest or attachment,
comic books have a base of dedicated fans capable of applying pressure for issues
that concern them.
So, are fans concerned? To find out, Weissman and other volunteers began surveying
both fans and creators at comic book conventions in New York to gauge their
interest in the issue. Overall, he says, he was pleased with what he learned.
"A very impressive percentage" of the 1000+ people he interviewed
expressed concern over the ecological impact of their hobby. "No one is
happy to have to pay more money, but the majority of comic book buyers would
be willing to pay more." Although, he is quick to add, raising costs may
not be necessary.
"Lots of options now exist," said Erin Johnson of the Green Press
Initiative, a non-profit organization devoted to increasing the use of recycled
paper in publishing. Not only is the quality of recycled paper now on a par
with virgin paper, but there is "some price parity also."
The small scale of comic book publishing may even afford more options than those
available to larger book publishers, Weissman said.
"Where a larger paper user might be able to say they have trouble finding
adequate supplies, with a smaller industry like comics, there are plenty of
opportunities to find alternative paper sources."
And with the use of recycled fibers growing twice as fast as the use of virgin
fiber at U.S. paper mills , those opportunities seem like they are only going
PAPER: SECRET FILES & ORIGINS
While that may be the reality, opportunity is not always practice, and the perceptions
within individual comic publishers are far from consistent. Five different comic
publishers had five very perceptions of recycled paper, ranging from dismissive
Marvel declined to discuss the issue entirely, calling their paper use a "trade
secret." But if paper is truly so classified in the comic book industry,
Marvel appears to be the only one who feels that way.
DC Comics, in contrast, seemed happy to discuss their printing materials. Although
they use only virgin paper (which they describe as "recyclable"),
they have made the switch to soy-based inks on all domestic books, 90-95 percent
of their line.
"Soy-based ink is more environmentally friendly," said Alison Gill,
DC's Vice President of Manufacturing, "and as individual areas toughen
up on laws, [our ink] meets and beats any guidelines that any state is passing."
Archie Comics was once the poster child for recycled paper in comics; they broke
ground in the early ‘90s when they made a bold move 100 percent recycled
paper and soy-based inks in all their comics. Although the switch was highly
praised, even garnering an invitation to the White House to recognize their
efforts, they reversed their paper policy in the late ‘90s after their
printer shut down and they selected a new one that offered no such environmentally
Today, Archie prints on virgin paper, as does Dark Horse (with a few notable
exceptions, such as the Concrete series). Darlene Vogel, Director of Purchasing
at Dark Horse, said that she believes recycled paper is simply too expensive.
"I've never even considered recycled paper because of that."
But Jim Demonakos, former Marketing Coordinator at Image Comics, had a different
story to tell. About a year ago, Image chose a new printer for their comics,
and made a surprising discovery in the process. "We ended up switching
to the printer because of their quality. But it just so happened that they [were]
also pretty committed to using recycled paper, so it was a bit of a bonus,"
In the equivalent of a blind taste test, Image chose recycled paper entirely
on its merits, and 85-90 percent of their paper
now contains at least 20-30 percent post-consumer content. It seems odd, then,
that some people call recycled paper impractical and unrealistic, if a large
comic book company can make the switch without even trying.There is still reason
every to hope, though, that more companies will come around. Despite some initial
resistance or ambivalence towards recycled materials, all of the companies (excepting
Marvel, who would not discuss it) said they would still be willing to consider
switching to recycled content, assuming the cost and quality were equivalent
to their current paper.
IN YOUR THREE CENTS
If there is still any question whether the quality, availability and pricing
of recycled paper can be practical in the competitive publishing world, the
fact remains that Archie did it, Image is doing it, and Random House just completely
reset the bar for everyone in publishing.
The nation's largest book publisher, Random House shocked the industry earlier
this year by announcing it would increase its use of recycled paper ten-fold
over the next four years, accounting for 30 percent of all its paper by 2010.
Admittedly, Random House is a publishing behemoth, capable of absorbing the
estimated three cents per book that the switch will cost them, but when weighed
against the estimated 550,000 trees and 88 million pounds of carbon dioxide
it will spare, three cents doesn't seem like very much.
Tyson Miller of the Green Press Initiative, which helped Random House to draft
its new policy, cited a survey that echoed Weissmann's results, where 80 percent
of readers indicated that they would be willing to pay more for books printed
on recycled paper. "Publishers can do the right thing without it affecting
their profits," Miller said.
Nobody expects the comic book companies to be heroes, to sacrifice or even to
especially inconvenience themselves. Businesses have to weigh bottom lines against
ideals, costs against benefits, and so do the consumers who may end up paying
for it. In the end, we all need to decide what is important to us, and what
we are willing to sacrifice for it.
Companies are always going to prioritize the bottom line over idealism, while
idealists do the opposite, but if faced with the choice between minimal sacrifices
versus clear-cut forests, polluted water, and global warming, perhaps we can
expect them to at least consider doing what they can, especially when the cost
of indifference seems so much higher than the cost of responsibility.More information,
including resources and guides for high-volume purchasers, is available at http://greenpressinitiative.org,
environmentalpaper.org, conservatree.org and fscus.org.