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.
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:
Comic book careers are like musical ones. A vanishingly small number of us can fill arenas, a lucky few get a hit or two and can tour our whole careers, most are gigging at local venues, some just jamming in the garage.Phil Hester
The thing about the people gigging at local venues and jamming in 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
This has been going on for years 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 exposure and 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…
Be an artist, not a “comic book artist.” Specialize in design or illustration or animation. Don’t specialize in comic books.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Another Perspective (26 March 2021)
All the discussions on NFTs lately brought up this tweet thread, which is well worth reading and covers many of the same points I just made, coincidentally enough.
Been gainfully employed outside comics publishing for almost five years now, and fwiw, I think the NFT outrage misses one key systemic problem: Comics, as an industry, will kill you.— Wear a mask. (@thejimgibbons) March 22, 2021
The header image on this article comes from National Archives and Records Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons