Leslie T. is graduating from high school in the spring and wants to know if going to college to be a cartoonist is a good career path. I am not printing her entire letter here because a lot of it is kind of personal.

Can you make a living in comics? I blogged that earlier, and the answer is YES, if you have something people want to buy.

But I can’t tell you at this point that you will or that you won’t or that comics is a good career path. I also can’t tell you if being a doctor is right for you, or being a plumber, or being an IT tech is right for you, either. Only you can know that. You have to do what is right for you, and you will find that out as you go. Just because I seemed to come out of the womb knowing that I wanted to make comics doesn’t mean everyone has to, and it doesn’t mean people can’t change their minds later.

How much money do cartoonists make? The truth is, most people who work in comics do not make a full time living as professional cartoonists.

I do.

In a good year, I make six figures. In a bad year. I make only about $30,000. It’s that much of a roller coaster, that uncertain. A lot of my ability to make money is dependent on health issues these days. As my health improves, my income goes up. Shocker. If I only make $30,000 per year, as I did about ten years ago when I was pretty ill, I had to have savings set aside or go into debt because my health care ran $10,000 per year. My mortgage ran $10,000 per year. That left me $10,000 for taxes and business expenses. And nothing else.

If I make $130,000 I pay down bills and save for a rainy day. (And I buy a nice outfit or two, because I’m crazy that way.)

I was on a panel at a show this year and one of the questions was “Do you do comics full time?” and I was the only one who did. I was kind of surprised, but not surprised.

There is nothing wrong with making comics a part time pursuit. Many people create great work in their time away from their other job. No one thinks a part time job isn’t a real job if they are working at the grocery on Saturdays, do they? Neither should you.

People tout tales of high flying manga artists as examples of just how great it can be making money doing comics. But of the roughly 5,000 working manga artists, the top 100 earn about $1 million per year, while the average income for the rank-and-file is about $35,000 per year. That is very low income for the cost of living in Japan, and the work is extremely difficult. (EDIT: That article is about royalty income, which is not the same as page rate, which may or may not be separate sources of income, depending. Regardless, if you’re a manga artist getting a page rate, a fat chunk of that page rate is going right back out the door for assistants and other business costs.) It’s the same here, with a few big name creators making serious moolah, and the rest unable to afford their New York City studios anymore.

As I wrote before, common thinking about art and money is binary and limiting. It isn’t either/or. I can’t tell you if your future education expense is or is not a good investment, because I don’t know your circumstances, and I don’t know your abilities. And you may simply decide what you want now is not what you want later.

It’s a rough world we live in that expects kids who aren’t even old enough to legally drink alcohol to make tough and hugely expensive financial decisions that can affect the rest of their lives!

Art school is very expensive. I did not go to art school right out of high school no matter what it says on my Wikipedia page. I studied business. I didn’t attend art school until I’d been a pro cartoonist for well over two decades, and I only took a few classes. They were not worth the investment, in my opinion.

I never got better training than I got from simply sitting my butt down in a chair, drawing, reading books, and talking to creators. I apprenticed to Frank Kelly Freas. This workshop at Wizard World New Orleans with comics vet Howard Chaykin looks amazing. I’d go to that even now.

Can you make a living in comics? Yes. Will you? I don’t know. Can you make good money in comics? Yes. Will you? I don’t know. Is art school a good investment? It depends.

I have a house with no mortgage now, and the car is paid off. But I still have health care-related and business debts. On balance, I do pretty well at this gig, and I get to do exactly what I want to do.

But it is unstable. There are no benefits you would get if you were an employee. You pay double social security tax, all your own health care, you have no disability, and you pay all your own business expenses. If you can get an exclusive contract with a major company, they can cover these things for you, but those contracts sometimes cost more than they are worth.

I do not write this to discourage you, but to remind you that this is a business, and you have to look at it that way.

Even so, you have not created your work yet. Art comes first.

Your life is your own. I want you to be happy and to do the things you want to do. Most importantly, I want you to understand that there is a difference between being an artist and wanting to have been an artist. You have to want to do the work and you have to have something to say. And then people who want to hear it. And pay for it.

If you can do that, then more power to you.

I’ll be the first in line cheering when your book comes out.

But you have to make the book. Art first. Money later.

Good luck.