Old picture of a man at a drawing board

Seriously, Don’t Be a Comic Book Artist. Just Don’t.

So, you say you want to draw “Spider-Man” for a living?  I have some thoughts on that.

This article isn’t ideological.  It’s practical.

It may not be fun to hear, but I see all the misery and desperation in the comics industry and I think sometimes it’s good to be reminded of some of this stuff.
 

Career Suicide

The worst decision you can make as a creative is to pursue a career as a “comic book artist.”

There’s very little upside in it.  There’s no money in comics.  The only money is in licensing.  Is that how you wish to pursue your creative agenda?  Dealing with lawyers?

For a select few, there’s superstar status in the comics community and bidding wars over your services that might kick off once you’re a full time employee at Marvel or DC.  That will only last for a few years, at best.

You want that Marvel/DC exclusive contract so you can get health care coverage and whatever other guarantees one of those has.  (Do contracted creatives get a 401(k) or anything like that?  I don’t know.  People usually stop talking about it after health care.)

It still won’t guarantee you credit in a DC television series, though, or a dime from overseas sales. And that’s your best case scenario.

As the artist, you can only work on one book at a time. That limits your opportunities and your chances for success.

So you say you want to be a comic book artist?

No. Don’t. Save yourself a world of trouble here.

 

Timing is Everything

Just before I published this essay, Phil Hester tweeted:

The thing about the people gigging at local venues and jamming their garages is that they have day jobs or incredibly supportive and understanding families.

Or rich parents.

 

The Health Care Thing

Side note:  The reality is, if you’re in America, it is your responsibility to take care of your health care.  This isn’t the place to debate the politics of that.  I’m just talking about reality here.

To each his or her own, but I don’t understand how you can feel comfortable making a living in a career that makes health care unaffordable, and doesn’t offer insurance as part of your employment.

I get it, you can take the afternoon off to go catch a movie.  You can also catch the flu and go bankrupt and/or die.  But, hey, time freedom, am I right?

But the gig economy will be the new norm. Maybe, but nobody’s getting rich doing TaskRabbit chores and Uber rides.  (Uber is a house of cards that’s wildly overvalued and due for a massive collapse someday.  That’s another story for another day, though…)

I’m a diabetic.  This gig economy/freelance lifestyle has never been an option for me. I’ve always made sure I had a job with that as part of the agreement.  When I was between jobs, I paid into COBRA and found a new job ASAP with health care coverage.

This is also the reason I’ve never pursued “comics journalism” as a career.  There’s no package to go along with the minimum wage or so that would pay to cover a matching 401(k) or health care or any of the rest.

I’d be sacrificing my future to have “fun” today.  That’s not worth it. It’s not responsible, even if you don’t have a family to take care of.

 

Career Suicide, Part 2

What’s the end game with being a freelance comic book artist?  You work until the day you die, if you’re lucky.  If not, you’re hoping for help from ACTOR.

Most likely, you fall out of style, editors stop returning your phone calls or the editors who hire you get shuffled around or leave the industry, your nostalgic fans stop commissioning you after a few years, and you teach local art classes, if you’re lucky.

It’s a never ending treadmill that, if you’re lucky, doesn’t kill you early.

There are certain ways to make this better. I think there are some artists who are beginning to realize that they are actually entrepreneurs and are running their creative life more like a business.  In the long run, those people stand a chance. It involves creator-ownership and building a library and being your own best marketer and several other things (a spouse with a corporate job is always valuable), but it’s do-able.

Very few people can afford to go this way, though.

Far too many young creatives are fanboys or fangirls just happy to get work to get on the treadmill and feel lucky not to fall off.

But everyone falls off.  It’s only a matter of time.  This career path rarely ends well.

 

The Excuses Are Off the Table

It’s 2018 now.  You can’t say you don’t know the deal you’re getting into when you cash a paycheck from Marvel or DC.  This isn’t the 60s or 70s anymore.  We know more now.

Know upfront that the work you do will only get you paid once and that they owe you nothing past that.  It’s in your contract, even if it isn’t rubber stamped on the back of your paycheck anymore.  Don’t expect anything in royalties when the vast majority of comics aren’t selling in any serious numbers.

Don’t be upset when your name isn’t in the credits and you don’t get a royalty from the latest TV show or movie based on your work.  If you’re lucky, they’ll wine and dine you with some movie tickets and maybe an hors d’oeuvre at the opening of the movie. It it helps their marketing, you can get a selfie with their starlet.

And when they cast you aside in favor of the younger, hot up-and-comer who might even be working for a lower page rate (What?  Page rates can get even lower?!?), realize that that’s how you likely made your door into the industry.

Don’t tell me it’s not fair.

 

If You Insist…

Don’t make comic book production your sole source of income. Whatever you do, don’t make that mistake.  Yes, at the beginning, you might need to be heads down drawing to build up a library to capitalize off of in the long term.  That might be in residual sales or just in the reputation that you can do the work.

Have you seen the mess Marvel and DC are in these days?  Do you want to rely on them to pay your mortgage or rent every month?  They can’t responsibly schedule a series to give creatives the time to get the work done. They can’t start a new shiny imprint without backing off it as soon as possible. Their editorial decisions are subject to the whim of their corporate overlords.

You need to be prepared to do other work. It might be “comics adjacent,” like covers for other publishers, commissions for fans, or the design side of things for action figures or statues or something.

But it would also be a good idea to dip your toes into the animation world or the video game world.  See what that’s like.  I’m not saying either of those is very stable, either, (video games are a friggin’ disaster) but at least the animation folks have a union that can help you with health care and other benefits, if you do enough work there.

Drawing comic books and only comic books is a fool’s game.

 

Backup Plan

Now, if you insist on not listening to my wise advice, there are things you can do to help your cause.

First, make sure losing your biggest client won’t bankrupt you.  Don’t rely on a single source of income.  Build up others.

Second, become your own brand.  Your style, your outreach, your personality…  All of that adds up to a “brand” that you can profit from in multiple ways.

Third, this is a business and not a hobby.  Read your contracts.

Fourth, own your work.  It’s the only long-term play.  If you give it away for the quick paycheck, you’re devaluing your work and hurting your future self.

Fifth, read “The Only Person Who Can Pop a Comic Book Artist.”  I wrote that article last year.  It goes into more depth on this whole subject.

Good luck.  You’re going to need it.

 

Tough Love

In the end, I can’t tell you what to do.  Maybe you use this article to fire yourself up to prove me wrong and go on to take on the world and win!

Maybe.

Or maybe you pursue a career in animation, movies (storyboarding!), graphic design, commercials/advertising, or one of those venues where there are employment opportunities with full benefits.  I’m not saying those are going to be easy, either.  There are always more people who think of themselves as artists than there are positions to be filled.  But at least the upside is greater once you’re in.

Just don’t act surprised when your life of comic art leads down some dark roads that might have been avoided with another career.  At this point, there are far too many stories out there that back me up.

Nobody wants to have to start an Indie-Go-Go campaign to get through life.

 

Photo Credit

The header image on this article comes from National Archives and Records Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

11 Comments

  • George Tramountanas October 19, 2018 at 2:15 pm

    Nice editorial, Augie. Reading about how the Titans creators got snubbed made me think of this too (although I was thinking of it with regards to writers as well). I was just thinking how no industry has had their salaries go backwards as much as comics. Page rates have stagnated (you could even argue they’ve gone backwards if you look at comics heydey in the 90s).

    And what other industry hires folks for a bottom-barrel wage and uses their ideas in perpetuity without the possibility of any residuals? The film industry is now at least a third comic book-based, but are any of the creators actually seeing money?

    I was even thinking more about this after reading this piece on unions and the comic book industry at Bleeding Cool – https://www.bleedingcool.com/2018/10/18/chelsea-cain-chuck-wendig-comic-creators-unionize/

    Why isn’t there some kind of union for comic book creators? I mean, I do know the history of the efforts to unionize and why it hasn’t been successful. I also understand the thin margins that the small publishers work on, but the big two? Aren’t they just using comics as an IP farm? And if so, shouldn’t they have to pay accordingly? Something should be done.

    Couldn’t comic book writers just sign with the WGA? Then the WGA could help them demand fair wages and royalties for use of their ideas. (I know it wouldn’t help artists, unless the WGA wanted to consider pictures as story-telling too.)

    I think about Robert Kirkman’s screed from a while back. The one where he argued that the “big name” creators should only be working for themselves. The ones that listened – Remender, Fraction, Brubaker, Vaughan – are really doing well now. And I’m glad about that. But I also wished they’d have used their influence in a way that could’ve changed the industry. Like when the Image founders left Marvel to form their own shop and stole sales. What if the most popular artists and writers told one another that no one works for Marvel or DC until they agree to union-type conditions?

    Yes, I know the big two would use the thousands of fanboys and wannabes in their books, but if these known artists and writers were using their talents to put out Image books at the same time? It might steal enough of the big two’s sales to warrant some action. After all, the start of Image did cause Marvel and DC to reevaluate their treatment of talent.

    I also think about Neil Gaiman and a time he was considering coming back to Sandman. He looked at DC’s offer and couldn’t bring himself to do it. The terms were so backwards and unfair, he decided to just write a book instead because it paid exponentially more than anything comics had to offer (although I believe he decided to come back Overture after they reworked some points).

    I know I’m just rambling at this point. It’s hard to throw all my ideas and notions in a comment box, and I’m not here to debate anyone. But, like you, I’d love to see change come to an industry that I love so much.

    Reply
  • Augie October 20, 2018 at 1:15 pm

    Hi George – I was keeping notes for a future piece on the union issue, though I’m not sure it’s ever going to go anywhere, so I’ll do my hand-waving best here. 😉

    That second BleedingCool piece best describes some of the issues involved. For starters, I’m not sure how possible it is to organize a freelance community. Usually, it’s employees who become a union. Gawker writers unionized through the WGA, but they were employees. Gothamist employees unionized, and then the whole site got shut down.

    I’m not sure what the process is for unionizing a disparate group of freelancers, and what the difference is between collusion and collective bargaining.

    And, yeah, it would be WAY too easy for a Marvel or a DC to find non-union writers willing to work for them. These aren’t serious writers; they’re fanboys. It’s tough to explain long term economics to them. That’s why they all want to write for Marvel/DC to begin with….

    The best thing for comics creators to do isn’t to unionize, but to not work at Marvel and DC. Own their own works. If the best talent is not at Marvel/DC and they’re making money and owning their work and so keeping their future interests viable, then the market will change for the better for creators.

    A lot of it is still in convincing comics readers that they want more than just the Big Two superhero stuff. So show them more of that good stuff. Suffocate the superheroes out of them…

    This is where I have to point out that the publishers don’t own the books published in France. The creators do. It’s much closer to the novel market in France than the American comics market, as far as rights goes. Now, some of that might be dictated by French law, I don’t know. But they’re all complaining over there, too, that they’re underpaid.

    There’s one other possibility: Comics just isn’t a big enough market to afford generous creator rates. Nobody reads anymore, and all kids today want to grow up to be YouTubers or professional FortNite players.

    If Marvel or DC suddenly had to start providing 401(k)s and health care plans and Social Security and unemployment money for every creator they hired for books that barely break even as it is, where would that money be coming from? Hollywood? Hell, no, they already have 80 years of back issues to draw stories from.

    The Direct Market would need a radical shift to make those economics possible for the publisher, as much as the retailer.

    And, also, the best place, financially, to write superhero material these days is already in Hollywood, where it’s all unionized already. (Except animation, which is another silly thing…) I think it was Remender or maybe Antony Johnston who pointed out that there are more superhero writers working in Hollywood these days for various TV shows and movies, than there are in comics working at Marvel/DC. And I bet they all have better benefits, too.

    This would be a good time for another Image-like defection from the Big Two, but I’m not sure the creators are there. The Image situation is likely a once in a lifetime event. There’s not a similar class of creators today who so overpower the market. There’s no McFarlane/Lee/Liefeld tri-fecta… The economy of comics has already changed. Those kinds of creators already wander off to creator-owned works here and there, and then come back. Only Kirkman has been strong enough to plant his flag in the sand and stick with it. I backed him them, and continue to back that decision now. It’s worked out pretty well for him, I’d say…

    OK, now I’m the one who’s rambling. There’s about six articles seeded in what I just wrote there, each one of which would likely get me in a world of flames. 😉

    Reply
    • Montana Kane October 22, 2018 at 3:51 am

      Union, perhaps mot, but guild, yes. There are actors’ guilds, writers’ guilds (TV and film), directors’ guilds, etc.

      Reply
  • George Tramountanas October 20, 2018 at 2:09 pm

    Thanks for taking the time for such a thorough response! I agree with everything you said. I sure wish we lived on the same coast where we could just discuss this all over a coffee (or beer)!

    Also, there must be something in the air. Neal Adams just made this comment about royalties – https://www.bleedingcool.com/2018/10/20/neal-adams-rumoured-comics-royalty-changes/

    Cheers!

    Reply
  • JC LEBOURDAIS October 21, 2018 at 10:47 am

    Not a month goes by that an article laments how hard it is to make a living in the European publishing industry now that the book is dying, nobody reads anymore blah blah blah.
    It’s been going on for decades, it’s mostly whining and moping and nothing positive ever comes of it. Cursing the nanny state is one thing, taking action is another. The posture of victim is so comfortable, people take sympathy on you and for a little while you’re the center of attention. Lawyers have unions/associations, Doctors, plumbers, electricians too; heck, even actors do, so… About a month ago I had a heated discussion on one of those French sites and some called me an odious capitalist when I said that any activity that doesn’t feed you is not a job, it’s a hobby. Considering that here authors retain intellectual property for their creations, what more is there to complain about?

    Reply
  • WilCan (@thefuzzdaddy) October 23, 2018 at 8:00 pm

    I enjoy your insights into the art and business of comics, but this article almost borders on clickbait to me. It’s all good and fine to offer some considerable cautions into attempting a comic book artist career (i.e. healthcare, job security, working hours), but it’s a bit absurd to say don’t even think about it. You never address the fact that original artwork provides an extra source of income, especially from Big 2 comics. If you sell all your 20 pages at an average of $150 a piece, that comes out to $3,000 which is nothing to sneeze at. That does not even include covers. Also, many new artists are eschewing traditional pencil and inks divisions in favor of inking–perhaps digitally–their own work. It seems to me that this arrangement would increase page rates. I am sure many artists in comics survive on modest salaries, but let’s scale back the doom and gloom, Augie!

    Reply
    • Augie October 24, 2018 at 12:04 am

      Yup, there are definitely ways to make it work. And I do outline some ideas in the article. But I look at the number of people who are lamenting at how tough their lives are because they chose this path and– well, someone needs to give them the tough love.

      Original art sales are a huge boon, but more and more artists don’t have them anymore. Many find it impossible to meet their deadlines without doing things digitally, in which case you have nothing to sell. (And many digital artists have started drawing their splash pages traditionally so that they have something to sell.) None of this matters, of course, unless they can land a monthly book, anyway…

      But, in the end, yes, I’m more realistic than idealistic. I just hate seeing so many very talented people flailing around and not doing the work they could like that still make them a somewhat comfortable living.

      Reply
  • Bram October 25, 2018 at 11:37 pm

    Was waiting, hoping to see someone in the comics industry weigh in on this. From where I sit, it’s tough to argue with any of your points, but need to hear from someone who’s lived it.

    Freelance is the only option — for reasons spiritual or practical — for many of us; it’s wise to offer cautionary advice, but as you note, this is the way it’s going, and we need to learn.

    Reply
    • Augie October 30, 2018 at 5:16 pm

      The other thing that needs to change eventually are governmental policies, all of which are directed at the average job from 50 years ago — expecting a person to work full time for one company for their whole lives before retiring with a full pension and dying ten years later. That’s not the way the economy works anymore, but (as usual) governments are way behind on changing to match it.

      Still, like I said above, you have to play the hand you’re dealt. when things do change, my advice might change accordingly…

      Reply
  • Artnonymous November 5, 2018 at 5:46 pm

    All due respect to Augie (and I don’t mean that flippantly; I have much respect for Augie) this reads to me like less a list of reasons to not be a comic book artist and more self-justifications for why he never pursued the profession. It’s evident he has a love of drawing, but chose to never give making it his living a go. I can’t imagine someone who never considered it could write such a thorough treatise on why art’s not a dream worth pursuing.

    I also don’t understand why the comics industry continues to distance the medium/industry from the other creative arts, especially in the greater cultural context. The truth is, sure, most artists (whether it’s comics, fine art, sign-making, etc.) and writers (whether it’s comics, prose, poetry, screenwriting, technical writing, etc.) don’t make much money, if they do at all. Most fail by the capitalist standard of success.

    And yes, successful people often have privileges, advantages, and certainly blind luck. JK Rowling was on welfare until she received grant money enabling her to write the book she pitched over a dozen times until it was picked up. Kafka had a desk job. Ursula K LeGuin spun many plates. F. Scott Fitzgerald never saw success in his lifetime. Hemingway and Picasso had benefactors. Most actors aren’t stars. Best-selling books end up in the remainder pile. In comics, the most financially successful creator of the modern age, Robert Kirkman, took out tens of thousands of dollars of loans/credit to make his early attempts at self-publishing work.

    You’re also right that most people in the arts have supplemental income – if not primary income outside of their pursuit – than don’t. But wealth’s not the point. The point is a desire and bravery to pursue the impractical, because the pursuit is the end goal.

    However, the truth is you get one pass at this life and the stability of a day job is a complete fallacy. People of all professions are laid off every day. People age out of most businesses as much as they do the comic book business. Even professions with tenure, like high school teachers, run the risk of a loss of funding and cutbacks. There is no truth to “stability,” not by any means, whether judged by financial renumeration or even healthcare (there’s a good chance the requirements for businesses to provide the latter for full-time employees will be rolled back in the next few years).

    I feel the only truth your argument reflects is when you don’t act on your creative passions, you achieve as much as if you tried and failed.

    Reply

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