Artists: Money Matters
There’s a lot of this blog dedicated to advice for creators. It seems to fill some kind of pathological need on my part to keep everyone out there from making the same career mistakes I did. If I could take each one of you by the hand and lead you around the minefield of this business, I would. Many of the worst mistakes are easy to avoid, and no amount of warning seems to keep some people from going right on ahead and making them anyway.
The uncertainty of the freelance life means roller coaster income, if you manage to make any income at all.
I know I come across as cynical in these posts sometimes. I don’t want to discourage anyone from pursuing their goals. By all means, be an artist. By all means, follow your muse. But there is no reason you can’t do it forearmed with a little knowledge that may not make you rich, but it may keep you from being poor.
It’s been years since I had to struggle for jobs. I complain about money like everyone else does, not because I make low income anymore (I don’t) but because I am acutely aware of the fact that for at least 1/3 of my career, I made very low income. If you are making low income for a protracted period, you have to make up for years of not being able to save and invest, and that isn’t easy.
If you have $10,000 of debt, it costs you about $16,000 to get out of that debt. Not only are you paying the interest on the debt, but you also have to pay taxes on the income you have to earn to pay off the debt. So if you have $20,000 of debt, you actually have to earn $32,000. And if you have $30,000 of debt, you have to earn $48,000. At that rate, even someone making $50,000 a year is, effectively, bankrupt. Only serious financial self discipline can eliminate that kind of debt and most people just don’t seem to have that ability. Or maybe they just don’t want to take the trouble.
I know so many creators who have gone into self publishing, or decided to take a few months off work to create their dream project. They fool themselves into believing that their project has paid for itself because they went to a convention and paid for their table space with their sales.
But you are ALWAYS losing money if your project has not earned enough to not just pay the print bill and the convention table space, but for the time you put into it as well. Every minute you are living in your home, your project is costing you in rent, food, electricity and other overhead expenses. If you are not willing to look at your project as a hobby that you are willing to pay for because it amuses you, then you must look at is a business expense that has overhead costs every moment you take to produce that work. If you can’t face that set of facts, you are not a professional.
There is nothing wrong with doing art just because you enjoy it. But it is delusional to ignore the cost of the work. Either you’re a hobbyist or you’re not.
Since there is no steady income to be had in this profession, your income is going to go up and down like a roller coaster. My income can vary by as much as $50,000 in a single year.
Some years ago, I was having one of those Bad Years. It was a year that should not have been a bummer but it was, because a project that I was keeping a window open for was dragging months (and then years) behind schedule, and I could not go seek new work to fill in the gap until I knew what the status on the behind-schedule project was.
So, I was at the San Diego Comic Con having a chat with a well known pro who is on the inside track of the comics bizz and considered a major guru.
His advice? The comics industry is going down, it will never recover, and it is time to get out of comics. There’s a new, young generation of creators and there is no room for folks like us. A woman in her 30’s like me was over the hill. This was coming from a man pushing 60, but there you go.
I stood there stunned. I guess I was expecting a pep talk, but I sure didn’t get one.
I repeated what I was told by the guru to Jim Valentino who was not stunned at all. He theorized the guru was going through a bad patch of his own. Jim advised me to stick it out, and I’d get over the low period. No reason to ditch comics just because you don’t get carded anymore.
Besides, my income that year was actually OK. The only reason I had worries was because I had debt. With some discipline and hard work, that debt would be gone. Ignore the guru, and get on with making comics.
Which is what I did. I made an agreement with the publisher of the Book That Would Not Get On Schedule, and moved on to other projects until the script for the laggard finally came in (which it did).
Obviously, I did not listen to the guru about getting out of comics, or about anything else for that matter, such as being told I was done with comics because I was 30-something. That year was the last time I had a (comparatively) low income year. In fact, this year I should make 2 1/2 times the amount I made that sad year.
The moral of the story is, even though I am sitting here giving you advice, you still need to exercise your own judgment. Consider the bias or agenda of the person giving you that advice. You don’t have to go gonzo on them if they say something you don’t like. You can just walk away and get on with your life.
Gurus aren’t infallible, and if I had followed the advice of some of the most notable names in comics (and a few nobodies who had a lot to say, too!), I’d be working at Safeway right now.
Take what you can use, discard the rest, and follow your own wisdom.
It’s your life and art, after all.
PS: And what happened to the guru?
Fast forward about 6 years. Guru and I caught up. He was in a very good mood. I was showing guru some of my latest work. Guru raved about it. Curious, I decided to ask if guru remembered telling me comics were going down in flames.
Now, of course, comics are the healthiest arena of publishing, and the guru is out of the corporate scene and doing comics again himself.
I am very happy to see it. He really is a lovely man, and his new work makes me very happy. I’m glad he came through his dark patch and we are friends again.
Original comments thread here: This post has been updated and moved from an older, now-defunct blog.
Kneon: What sage advice! Let me tattoo it on my forehead!
Hey, this isn’t cuz I was singin’ your praises as an “expert” in another thread was it? blushes
Just saying’¦ any time, any advice given from someone who is successful (?) at doing what you’d like to do is definitely worth listening to. There’s no magic formula, true, but it certainly gives insight and gives a person food for thought.
Even if you absolutely hate and disagree with what they say, you should always, always thank them for their time. It’s professional courtesy and just good manners. Time is money after all.
Comics is a weird industry to me. I’ve done “pro” work for about four years now, and held a monthly gig for two years. But, it’s always been something I did in addition to other higher-paying illustration and design work, web development and editing.
You’d think with a background like that, I’d understand the biz, but I honestly doN’t. It’s so unlike any other area of publishing in some ways, while being very similar in others.
So I dip a toe in, but never really dive in. I do not yet consider myself a “professional comic book creator”, and will not unless I can actually make a living in the industry and am honest-to-Pete good at my craft. Until then, I consider myself more of paid hobbyist?
My fear has always been financial disaster. For every Colleen Doran success story, there’s a Bill Messner-Loebs to counter it. So my feelings about where comics are at and are going, and whether or not I’m willing to put my family’s lives on the line for “funny books” fluctuates from day to day.
So, I certainly didn’t mean to put anyone on a pedastal, Colleen. Please forgive me if I gushed a little.
I’m just not used to comics pros being this forthcoming with financial information and being, well, professionals. I come from a corporate background and you speak in business-ese. I guess it’s kind of like singling out the one person who speaks fluent English in a Japanese airport. (The fact that your work rocks is gravy!)
One thing to be said for Safeway. They do have health insurance!
Colleen: LOL! That they do!
No, Kneon, this isn’t in response to your previous comments. It was just something I thought needed to be said.
In the past, I put a lot of stock in the advice of some people that turned out to be very wrong about a lot of things. I gave their word greater value than my own judgment because they were older and claimed they had more experience.
In some cases, I was lucky enough to have listened to the right people. In other cases, I placed my trust in the wrong people, and that cost me dearly.
The only thing that counts is if the information being conveyed is valid. Don’t just take someone’s word. Follow up with research of your own.
Being older and more experienced doesn’t make you infallible.
Of course, being a young go-getter doesn’t mean a darn, either. For every cranky old pro, there are 20 obnoxious, loud-mouthed know-it-alls with two credits and endless opinions backed up by virtually no experience whatsoever.
I am seeing a few who had some big opinions having to backtrack a bit lately. After having signed a bad contract or two, and consigned to the sad reality that life as a comic pro with lots of web attention means a meagre income of $15,000 a year (or less), the loud voices are getting less loud.
It’s easy to get an audience. This can be accomplished by any exhibitionist.
It’s hard to make comics an avocation that earns.
Allan: I well remember John Buscema appearing on stage at a show here. He said, basically, that he was unhappy with everything he’d ever done in comics, and that it had all been done for the money, not the art. He thought of all his stuff as hack work. When asked what he’d really love to do, he replied that he had a dream of being able to spend a year crafting a Conan graphic novel, poring his heart and soul into every page.
Some people in the audience piped up why didn’t he do that then, and produce a book he was proud of. He replied, purely and simply, “What do I live on? I spend a year drawing, I don’t eat.”
Similarly, Jack Kirby, while loving the job he did, was always absolutely clear that comics was a business first and foremost, and that putting food on the table for his family was what was most important.
Somewhere along the way, the idea of comics as Art (capital “A”) has taken precedence over the reality of it being a job much like any other.
At the time I was bitterly disappointed with Buscema. A legend like that, you really want him to be what you imagine him to be, and he wasn’t. To be told that all the work you’d loved was considered rubbish by the guy that drew it was disconcerting to say the least.
I appreciate what he was saying far more these days, and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot.
I think Buscema apprecated that people liked his work, and was grateful for that, but it wasn’t sufficient to overcome the feeling inherent within him that he’d not achieved what he’d wanted to do. An artistic life that had, perhaps, ultimately, been a disappointment to him.
Colleen: Allan, I know just how you feel. I once read an interview with Hal Foster that reduced me to tears. He was my hero and he just didn’t think he was all that great.
So many of the best artists are also often quite humble. They know what they are capable of, but in the illustration and comics fields, they are rarely given the opportunity to do their best because they are hamstrung by tight deadlines.
That said, never giving yourself the opportunity to test just how good you can be can also become a crutch.
If you never test the limit, you never know whether or not you were as good as you dreamed you might be.
It’s yet another reason to watch the bottom line: with prudent planning, you may be able to take that six months or year off to do the dream project. Without planning, it’s a sure bet you have a grim future spending your checks from the Social Security Administration.
Money buys freedom.
However, I also have to say that everyone I know who GOT the windfall and took the time off to do the dream project never did the dream project, either. They sat around, talked about their novella and never wrote it.
Then again, JK Rowling wrote quite a tome in HER free time!
Kneon: “Similarly, Jack Kirby, while loving the job he did, was always absolutely clear that comics was a business first and foremost, and that putting food on the table for his family was what was most important.
Somewhere along the way, the idea of comics as Art (capital “A”) has taken precedence over the reality of it being a job much like any other.”
When I was a kid, I didn’t know most creators’ names. It didn’t matter. I picked up a funny book for the sheer entertainment value. And, collecting be damned, I read, read, and re-read the books I liked the most until the covers practically fell off. I definitely made sure I got my 60 cents worth! I wanted so badly to someday make comics for other kids like me to read.
Then it seemed at some point, older readers decided that some creators were making more important work than others. The creators themselves didn’t decide this. the readers did.
So now, these kids who want to draw comics, who would have just been happy to do something they loved, now seemed to think it was all about making important comics themselves.
So rather than setting out to just make a decent living in comics, they now had to make a living AND a statement.
Ah, but now those important comics had creators who were now becoming important themselves.
So now it wasn’t enough to just make a living in comics, you now had to make important comics and make a name for yourself. That was the new goal.
Fast forward even a few more years, and becoming an important creator takes precedence over simply making a living producing comics, or producing truly good material.
But wait! being a CREATOR means you actually make comics, huh? And it’s hard work. So, now you cut that out as well and you’re left with the goal of just being perceived as important.
Unfortunately, the internet has allowed many people to skip past all that hard work and go straight to important. Or at least, perceived importance. Who actually draws the best? Nah, it’s who Googles the best!
Why can’t it be enough to humbly do your job and let the work speak for yourself? Some of these people really need to take a step back and realize how lucky they are to be able to do this in the first place!
The greats had it right, I think. Truly great people seldom think they’re as great as they really are. Which makes them even more great, I think.
When you start believing your own hype, I think you run the risk of stagnation. Because if being important was your goal all along, once you’ve gotten there, you have no motivation to move beyond that point.
The humble are usually never happy with their work. So they keep working at and working at it throughout their careers, getting better and better and eventually outpacing their peers who thought they already knew it all and gave up on improving themselves years before. This is true in any industry, not just comics.
But that’s just been my observation, anyway. And, admittedly, I’m playing armchair quarterback here. However, most of the creators I’ve admired over the years seemed to be truly humble in person, whatever that says.
Allan: Why can’t it be enough to humbly do your job and let the work speak for yourself?
Which is also known as “Ditko’s Law”.
In his introduction to the recent Captain Britain collection, Herb Trimpe fondly recalls the time when Cap was created. It was a time when penciling was “just another step in the process”.
Comics were a production line, and the deadline was king, hence the need for pencils and inks to be done by different people. If the interior of a comic wasn’t finished by deadline day, the publisher put a reprint out instead. Just take a look at any run of Marvel comics from 1974-77, you’ll see reprints and fill-ins all over the place. That was the moment that the fans took over comics.
Prior to 1968 or so, the vast majority of comics creators were not fans of comics. They read pulps and newspaper strips when they were kids. Saturday morning serials had been their escape to a world of excitement. Most were toiling away hoping they could break free from comic books and do what they really wished to do: comic strips. Fame, fortune and respect. Comic books had none of those, and was seen as the lowest of the low.
Then, from the late-60s, youngsters began to come into the industry (there was very little new talent in comics from 1947 – 1967). These were people who had grown up with comics. They were fans. To them comics were important in and of themselves. They set out to make more serious comics that tackled important issues, most of these new guys were college students, politically aware and spoiling to hit the establishment where it hurt.
In the writing, a gradual shift began to occur taking comics away from the hero-hits-villain model to a new hero-tries-to-understand-villain-and-comes-away-learning-about-himself model. As for art, Kirby Kartooning was replaced by an adherence to Neal Adams’s photo-realist style. Comics became “serious”. Comics could “say something”.
Comics became Art.
Now, there’s no reason at all why comics shouldn’t be seen as Art. But do they ALL have to be? Where are the Bob Browns, the Don Perlins, the Jim Mooneys, the Herb Trimpes today? Not the best artists to be sure, but good solid draftsmen who could tell a story brilliantly and economically. People who didn’t see themselves as stars, but just as commercial artists doing a job.
Today, everyone working in comics is a fan, and almost every fan wants to be a creator. It’s ridiculously incestuous. That can’t be healthy, can it?
Jamie: I don’t think being a fan of the medium you work in is a bad thing. I’m sure most singers are fans of music and actors/directors of film & theatre.
But most people who buy music don’t want to be singers, most people who go to movies don’t want to be directors. Most people who buy comics, on the other hand, do want to be comics creators. It’s that that I think is perhaps not healthy. Comic fans producing comics for other comic fans leads to an ever smaller, and ever more isolated, medium.
I was going by the CBR survey that was done a while ago. A massive 87% of respondents had at least thought about making comics. While that’s hardly a scientifically accurate survey, I do think it’s quite interesting.
My main concern, really, is that comics seems to have no mainstream audience. People, say, who might read the occasional issue of Wolverine and then throw it away. Not collectors, not fans, just folks who enjoy the odd rollicking bit of escapism. Where have they all gone?