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Comics are a medium that are trapped in the past and desperately dreaming of the future. Creators find themselves chained to years, at times decades, of continuity, characterization, and design. Those behind the scenes that create these magnificent works are at the mercy of a fan base that is often sluggish if down right non-responsive to accept the tiniest of changes when it comes to their beloved “funny books”.
How many occasions over the last five years alone have you, dear reader, found yourself or someone you know, commenting on a change in a mainstream superhero title that they didn’t like? How many tweets have you read that decry the change of a character’s dress, personality, gender, or even hairstyle? The fans are critical of change because we care so deeply. Our love for these fictional characters sometimes trumps our love for flesh and blood human beings.
Why else would we dress up and prance around convention halls? Why else would we line up in the middle of the night; in the rain/sleet/hail/snow for a movie premiere? Why else would we shell out dollar after dollar for a staple bound collection of paper from when Nixon was in office? We treat these fictional creations better than we often treat each other; much better than we treat opposing fan boys, whose only sin is to love another company’s stable of characters … and a thousand times better than we treat the very creators of these icons.
Change is often met with backlash. Creators are fired over twitter wars. Editors are shuffled around like playing cards to appease the masses. Think back to just a few of the comic world’s most recent dust-ups…
Frank Cho drew Spider-Woman with a ba-donk-a-donk. Fans were outraged.
Rafael Albuquerque drew Batgirl with the Joker on a variant cover. Fans were outraged.
Wolverine was killed. Fans were outraged.
Thor became a woman. Fans were outraged.
Iceman announced that he was gay. Fans were outraged.
Captain America hailed Hydra. Fans almost started a riot.
The list goes on and on and on and on. There is no end to the complaining and protest. Publishers have pulled covers, comics, artists, writers, editors, off of projects to try a please the fickle fan base. So where do we go from here?
What is the future of our industry now that creators have been stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place? They are chained to their very creations, the fans don’t want anything to shake up the status quo —yet moan that nothing new has caught their attention. Sales depend on creativity -yet that very thing is becoming harder and harder to accomplish.
The independent market is an alternative, but the likelihood that sales and profit would rival that of the big publishers is very, VERY low. Plus there is no guaranteed paycheck when you’re publishing your own work. There’s no dental, no vision, no 401k… no certainty. That’s one of the biggest reasons that creators sign multiple year exclusive contracts with companies like DC and Marvel. It’s not out of undying loyalty to a publisher or brand; it’s the stability to provide for themselves and their loved ones. Yet signing on that dotted line also comes with the aforementioned headaches.
While creators and fans alike have shouted from the rooftops that the industry needs to change, no one is quite sure how those changes need to take place. Creators bemoan the fact that companies like Image will provide limited advertisement, which is automatically built into their marketing with Diamond, yet take a percentage of sales to cover that “cost”. There are also concerns about distribution.
There have been rumors that larger publishers are trying to work their way onto book shelves of large retail outlets like Wal-Mart and Target. While this would certainly bring in a wave of new readership, it would also tighten the death grip that the big two already have on the market. Supporters claim that this would have a trickle down effect that would increase traffic into brick and mortar stores and also bolster online sales for independent titles– but there is no evidence of that being true.
So the $64,000,000 question is this:
How do comics increase their readership industry-wide, while allowing creators more freedom to work, and still provide enough income for physical stores, online outlets, and conventions to all maintain a healthy business?
That’s the conundrum that we are facing.
There have been some questions raised by industry professionals as to why the pay scale for artists is still stuck in a model that hasn’t changed since the 1970s? Publishers hide behind the excuse that their creators are freelance labor that sign an agreement upon entering into the company. The rules are simple; you don’t sign- you don’t work … it doesn’t matter how talented you are as a creator. This is also the same contract that is used to guarantee that anything and everything that a creator makes during their time on that title/project belongs 100% to the publisher.
It’s this Faustian deal with the devil that has led to some of the greatest shames in the history of comics. People like Bill Finger, Jack Kirby, and countless others were/are/will be denied their slice of the profits when it came time to cash in on their creations. That same shady business practice is still alive today. Yet somehow it has been allowed to continue unabated for decades. The idea used to be “Well, where else are you going to go and make comics? We’re the only game in town!”
While the Indy market has led to some creators finding their own way, companies like Image were thought to be the lifeboat to creators needing an alternative. Instead the business model for Image is almost worse. “ You create the entire comic yourself, pay for its creation out of your own pocket, and then in the end if we like it we will be more than happy to market and distribute it for you, but you are going to pay us for the privilege.” It’s not much better elsewhere.
While the total sales in comics have been rising over the last twelve months readership and subscribers are still low when compared to decades past. So what is it that keeps talent coming back? It seems like the industry of comics is one of the harshest to make your livelihood in. The pay scale is archaic, the contracts force you to give over all your creations, the fans hate any changes that are made for the sake of improving sales or shake up the status quo.
So where is the future of comics? Is it in small publishing? Is it digital? Is it a vast sweeping change of corporate policies and practices? How far-reaching do these changes need to be? Some creators have used crowd funding, like Kickstarter, as a viable alternative, but the trend has yet to become the norm for fans. Some creators have begun using online services like Patreon to entice fans to pay them directly for the privilege of watching them create the very books that will appear on shelves, or to get one-on-one face time to ask questions and share stories. Is it the fans that are the long-term solution to leveling the playing field for creators? It doesn’t address the backward business practices that are happening within the mainstream.
Obviously there are no concrete answers; otherwise we would be living in a world where that model of business was being put into practice. Creators would be credited for their work, paid fairly for their labor, and the fans would be more accepting of change within their favorite titles. I haven’t brought up any new issues in this article, but the concern on how to move forward through this quagmire is ever-growing.
There is no way to tell how many talented individuals have chosen to turn away from comics because of these issues. How many successful screen writers, novelists, play wrights has been turned off by their first encounters with the hostile waters of comics? How many amazing visual artists have chosen the fields of gaming, animation, or graphic design because the bar of entry into the industry is just too difficult to maneuver? As comic fans we may be slitting our own throats in the long run.
But there is a flipside to this coin; one that rarely gets s any attention that deserves to be mentioned in an article like this.
First time creators and unaccomplished new comers expect too much from the comic industry. I know! This is me being a total hypocrite against everything I just wrote, but it remains valid. Allow me to explain.
For anyone who has tried to create their own comic the task can be beyond daunting. Assembling a talented team comes with a steep price tag. For every added level of talent you place on your book the cost to your wallet increases. That’s a major reason why most Indy and small press books are published in black and white. It’s cheaper. It’s cheaper than paying for the ink at the printers; cheaper than hiring a colorist. Every step of creation that you can do yourself or avoid altogether is another penny saved.
The outcome when you DIY a comic is that the end result is sub par. (Not in all cases, but this statement can safely cover 95% of first time or small time books out there) You end up with a convoluted mess. Writers who can’t draw try to illustrate. Artists that have never inked blot out their own line work….etc. Every corner that is cut is another step away from successfully launching your dream book.
I understand that the publication process can be extremely expensive when you start factoring in all of the necessary costs. Here is an idiot’s guide to pricing out your own book… Keep in mind that all of these factors cost.
Writer—paid per page rate or flat amount
Artist- Paid per page rate or flat amount
Inker- Paid per page rate or flat amount
Colorist- Paid per page rate or flat amount
Letterer- Paid per page rate or flat amount
Editor- Paid per page rate or flat amount
Printing—-The final price is dictated by the number of pages in your book, the number of total issues you want printed, and factors like do you want you’re comic in color? Will it have alternate covers? Etc.
Marketing—- Now you have to pay to advertise your comic. It cost to have an ad ran in Previews magazine. Are you going to advertise anywhere else? Add more money to the pile for every outlet that you want to advertise with.
Distribution—- Unless you have a publisher handling your stock, you have to package and ship your books. This also means extra charges for shipping and handling, storage, and labor costs.
So how many comics do I need to sell before I’m rich? While there is no set number, over the years I have heard professionals within the industry say around 7,000 copies. And that’s just to break even!
You need to be able to sell 7,000 copies of an issue to see a profit on your title. Think about that. 7,000 comics in this market is a tricky sell. Now it might be easy as pie for established publishers and professionals to hit a number like that, just based off of brand or name recognition alone. But when you’re talking about an unproven creator or team … seven thousand comics is like climbing Mount Everest.
It’s easy to see why going to a publisher and just handing over all of your hard work might be appealing. Let someone else handle the headaches of distribution and marketing. (Which any creator will tell you that you will still need to take on the responsibility of marketing your own title even if you are able to land at a publisher like Image or Dark Horse) While this does reduce the amount of heavy lifting that you have to do yourself, it is charged to you in a contract that you sign. The publisher gets a percentage of your sales. Some places will only take a small piece of the total pie; they recoup their cost and take a miniscule portion of any existing profits. Other publishers will take a substantial sum of the profits.
This is where those deals with the devil are made. The publisher gets paid regardless. They get their money before you see a dime. No exceptions. It doesn’t matter that you paid your creative team out of your own pocket. It doesn’t matter that if you plan on putting out a monthly book that you will have to pay for every month. More than likely creators will have to operate out-of-pocket for an undetermined length of time.
There lies the trouble with self/small publishing. The cost is often too great for a lone creator to undertake, and if you can undertake the costs you have to be able to maintain the cost/loss until hopefully your book catches on.
Now I know that this is a grim picture of the comic book industry, but by no means is this the only business model out there. There are shortcuts and workarounds for every step, but the main idea remains the same—comics are an expensive venture to enter and there is absolutely no guarantee that you will ever see a profit. That’s why trying to figure out how the future of the comics industry is so important to so many. If companies like Marvel and DC stop using the freelance model for employment then it might cause a shift in the industry that will allow creators to have a set pay rate across the board. This would allow first timers to have the knowledge of a price tag up front before investing a single dollar into their story or title.
It would also go a long way towards weeding out so-called “creators” who over-price their services and prey on young new comers. The comic’s field is littered with horror stories of pages never penciled after payment, payment never coming to an artist, lack of payment for work rendered, or lack of work rendered for payment. The behind the scenes of comic creation are as shady as any alleyway in Gotham.
Unless you are dealing with a published professional, or someone with a proven track record you’re rolling the dice on just who you’ve crawled into bed with. Sadly, over the years, I have heard of more than one rip-off artist that will bilk young writers or artists out of their money or their work. The real sad part is that there is no way to stop this practice. It’s the internet! What are you going to do?
Last, but not least, this is more of a personal message to the creative individuals out there that are just beginning their journey into the comic book industry and I hope that they are taking notes.
Know the quality of your work and know your own worth.
Comic book creation is a lot like sex; you don’t want to rush into anything without thinking because you might end up with a mistake that haunts you forever.
As a reviewer you would be shocked at the amount of small press and Indy books I have sent my way every month; most via my editor. Some of these books come from publishers and creators that I am familiar with and have read their work before … but then there are the others. The books that find their way in front of me; those comics that look like they were created in someone’s garage … with the lights off … in the midst of a weeklong bender of cocaine and airplane glue.
I often sit and stare at the covers of books like these and just shake my head. I know it’s going to be bad. It’s not that I’ve already made up my mind before I’ve read the content, but after you’ve experienced enough of these start-up books you kinda know what you’re in for. I grit my teeth, open the cover, and like a kid taking bad medicine; I scrunch up my face until the bad taste has passed.
Sometimes I’m wrong and I’ll end up with a solid book that has real potential. It doesn’t happen often; maybe 1 in 20 reviews. Those are always the best. Like finding out that the bad medicine you were prepared for is actually bubblegum flavored and you actually like it.
But more often than not, you end up taking a big bite out of a dripping, juicy, turd sandwich; lite on the bread.
I want young up-in-comers to understand this. When you produce a book that is going to be placed in the eyes of the public … listen close … you MUST remember that your comic; the one you may have made for twenty dollars at your local Kinko’s is STILL going to be compared by me, every reader, every customer, every comic fan who is not your mother, to mainstream and Indy titles on the comic shop shelves. Unless you are a brilliant, once-in-a-generation prodigy, genius—then guess what? Your comic is going to look and read like shit and I am going to hate it.
I have been shocked over the years at just how often I will have work come across my desk that looks like a high school kid with brain damage wrote/drew it. Like you read earlier … it takes a lot of time and money to create a comic. To get to the finish line and have the final product look anything less than YOUR ABSOLUTE BEST WORK is an insult to you and me. It’s more of an insult to you. You’re the one that has to pay for this flying turd, you’re the one that has to waste your time selling it, marketing it, trying to force it on fans at conventions… I just have to read it once and I get to walk away. You’re stuck with your mistake.
The age-old analogy of “Practice makes perfect” should be the mantra of every budding comic creator out there. If you know that you can’t write; hire a writer. If you can’t draw as well as you would like your book to look, then save your cash and hire a pro. Every weakness in your book needs to become your strength. This is how success in the comic field is built; One page at a time. Forget sprinting to the publisher with your world-changing comic book idea … if it looks subpar, reads subpar, or doesn’t have the chops to stand toe-to-toe with ANY other comic on the shelf…then you are wasting your time and money.
Trust me; I understand that everyone has to start somewhere. It’s not easy, it’s not pleasant, and it sure as hell isn’t lucrative when you’re just getting started. If creating a comic was easy everyone would buy those $20 Kinko books by the boatload and we would all be swimming in cash. But sadly in this dimension it doesn’t work like that. You have to have a level of professionalism and quality to your work in order to be taken seriously.
This brings me to my closing argument. There has been a rise in recent years where newcomers to the field of comics want to charge astounding page rates for what qualifies as beginner-level work. The trend can be seen all over social media, new comers to the industry complaining about not being lauded for their genius work, or not being “paid their worth”. Some artists even scoff at the fact that they are expected to take less money per page!
I know that I said earlier that the pay system of comics needs to change, but I feel that statement applies to veteran or professional talents. Why shouldn’t we take care of our (the comic industries) best and brightest by guaranteeing them a solid lifestyle? In my mind there is a huge difference between creators, like those that appear monthly in the credit box of successful globally released books, and a virtually nameless, faceless artist that you met online, who has never been publish; or published in books you have never heard of, or books that have never sold more than a few dozen copies. One deserves more money than the other.
This is where knowing your worth comes into effect. As a rookie in the industry you, yes! Even you! Will have to pay your dues in this business; at least until the quality of your work dictates a raise; don’t expect to earn too much until you’ve bolstered your resume. Like any other business in the world, the more experience you have, the more you can command for your services.
I know that there are a ton of art school students out there that are screaming their heads off right now. “I’ve got a degree in art! I should make more money! BLAH … BLAH … BLAH.” There is a reason that we as a society have the term, “starving artist”. Being a creator is never easy. A degree might make it easier to get projects offered to you and you may move up the ladder a little faster; but understand this very important detail; A DEGREE DOES NOT EQUAL TALENT.
I have had the good fortune to speak with a wide array of artists over the years. Some have had decades-long careers in the field, others were just starting out. What I can tell you with 100% certainty is that the ones who survive in the comic business all have one common trait. TALENT! Either you have it or you don’t.
I’m not talking about just talent on the page. I’m talking about having a gift to write or draw or ink or whatever their special focus is within the business, but some have the talent to meet deadlines; no matter how tight. Others have a talent for communicating with the fans and fellow professionals. Others have a talent for making you believe the unbelievable. And a rare breed can do all of those things and much more.
There is a reason why comics have become so respected in recent years. There is no other art form out there that demands so much in such a short amount of time, and yields its favor to so few. There will be hundreds; if not thousands of comics that will end up in the quarter bins by the end of this year, some of those creators will never be heard from again. For every Jim Lee there are 100,000 men and women who didn’t make it. For every Stan Lee there are a billion dreamers who never reached their potential. This is not an easy business. It’s not for everyone. That’s why we hold those that have made it in this industry in such high regard. Not only have they climbed the mountain, they have found a way to stay there.
I’d like to see the comic industry flourish in ways it has not in decades. To be big enough to support every talented individual out there that has paid their dues to gain access. I’m not sure if at the end of the day an article like this will make a difference, but maybe—just maybe it might get a few insiders or outsiders talking about what they can do to make their own journey into comic books a better and more lucrative one. It might spark a conversation or two about how we treat our prized resource; talent. It may inspire some young creator to stick it out for a while longer at the drawing table; putting in a few more hours of practice.
In the end I am always humbled that I even get to be a tiny, miniscule part of this industry. I do this because I love the hobby, I have real respect and admiration for the men and women who make up this business, and I share in the secret joy that only other comic fans know when I meet one of you. The thrill of knowing that there is someone out there that loves this thing (hobby, industry, business, art form) as much as I do. I want to see the comic book field get better, I want to help push the boundaries of where we can go from here. Even in my own small way.
Thanks for reading and as always; blessings to you.