Sunday, June 2, 2013

So You Wanna' Be a Comic Book Artist, Part Three...

I saw a report a few months back about the Screen Actors Guild which mentioned the average yearly income their members made from acting, which was $5,000. Now, I've never been particularly good with math, but if that's the average, that means for every multi-millionaire actor, there are far, far more actors making far, far less.

I've also been fortunate to know a lot of working, published novelists. And while some of them have made quite a bit of money writing, the vast majority of them have made far, far less.

A few years ago, a fairly well-known comic book writer who had several movies made from his books took to Twitter to raise money to help pay for a beloved pet's medical expenses. The writer was flooded with responses of support and donations of money and art that could be sold on ebay to raise funds, but there were also a few responses that struck a less positive note...

"You're a big comic creator, why do YOU need money?"

"Maybe you should have saved all that Hollywood money."

Reading those responses made clear the disconnect between the realities of being a comic book creator and the fantasy of it that many readers and aspiring creators have in their heads, particularly in the wake of the incredible success of people like the Image founders and the creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

But the days of getting rich writing or drawing a comic were over. They ended with the collapse of the collectors market in the '90s. There were (and still are) elite creators making large amounts of money with their work in comics, but like the Brad Pitts of the acting world or the Stephen Kings of the writing world, they were the exception, not the rule.

The first check I ever got from making a comic was for about $10. The check I'm currently waiting on for my most recent work is a little more than $1,000. The most I've ever been paid for a comic book, including royalties, is around $6,000, and that was something I got to pencil and ink myself, which is fairly uncommon.

$10 for a comic book, not so good. $6,000 for a comic, a lot better. But I'm still not driving around town in a Porsche. In fact, most of the time, I'm pretty lucky to just have enough money after paying my bills to buy coffee and art supplies.

(And don't get me going on health insurance, but I'll talk about that one in a later installment.)

It's tempting to plan life around the idea of making $6,000 a month drawing comics, but it would be a horrible, horrible mistake. For one thing, those jobs don't come along too often for C-level creators like me, and when they do, they don't last long.

The days of long runs on titles at DC and Marvel are getting to be a thing of the past. Some creators still can, but most of us are assigned to a book for a few issues and then the next team is brought in, and then replaced themselves a few issues later. It's the nature of an monthly periodical industry dealing with long production times, shrinking audiences, and the need to raise a book's profile high enough to launch it into other media in order to make significant profits.

Even if you are lucky enough to get an extended run on something, you're still not making $6,000 a month. Remember those extended production times? Yeah... these days, most comic book artists need more than a month to pencil a book, much less pencil AND ink a book. Some creators can, of course, but again, they're the exception. And to come in even CLOSE to the deadlines you have to work under in comics means a lot of long hours at the art table, 8-12 hours a day, depending on how fast you can draw.

So... 3 or 4 issues of a book, even at my top rate, then several months of a handful of other things at lower rates (or worse, no work at all), and you're looking at a year where at best I'm still just keeping my head above water.

No Porsches. No mansion. No $1,000-a-day Swedish Fish habit.

And that's the life of a lot of working comic book creators. Living from paycheck to paycheck, always hustling to line up more work, any work that will help pay the bills. Some creators handle it better than others, and the really smart ones have a dayjob that covers life expenses and do comics on the side for fun and extra money, while others are in a relationship with someone who has a dayjob that takes care of the expenses or at least enough of them that the sporadic nature of freelancing isn't going to leave them on the street.

And comics burns through a lot of talent. Some people come in, work for a while and burn out, some move on to other related things like storyboards or production design, and others just stop getting offered jobs as new talent cycle into the business.

I don't know the average lifespan of a career in comics, just as I don't know the actual average income of a comic book artist, but I've noticed over time that unless someone works on a standout project -- either a well-regarded run on an established title or a creator-owned book that is considered a hit -- they tend to cycle back out of the industry within 10 years or so. Just an educated guess, and I'm sure there are lots of exceptions to that, myself included.

So... have I scared you, yet? That's not really my intention, but freelancing of any kind really can be an extremely difficult path to walk, and it's not for everyone. Having done this for almost 20 years now, I've come to some conclusions about how to survive it...

Next Time: Less Gloom, More Hope


Biram Ba said...

Well, hard to disagree with anything you wrote here. I'm not really in the comic book industry, but have been trying to work as a freelancer for long enough to see how much survival skills it requires.
Right now I think the best idea for a young artist is to work on creator-owned material, publish online, build some audience and then maybe try crowdfunding.
But that requires time, and time without income.

matthew dow smith said...

I'll get into it more in the next part, but the conclusions I've come to are very similar. And I'll be taking about some of the specific survival skills a freelancer needs, as well.


Anonymous said...

yeah, the freelance lifestyle just was never to my liking...I opted for the corporate design gig-steady income, benefits etc etc.(the minuses are far too many to mention - loss of soul being one) While early in my college career back in the late 80s/early Nineties a bunch of illustrators came to our school and after hearing their horror stories of the world of freelance(and this was THEN...I can't imagine what it's like nowadays) I went to graphic design and illustration took a back seat. Now I just doodle away in meetings and at my desk whenever I get a chance.