Hannah Berry is a UK cartoonist whose 2010 gn Britten & Brülightly was a well-received mystery tale (and an Angoulême prize nominee when it came out) Her new book, Livestock, just out from Jonathan Cape, looks like a sharp satire on celebrity, social media and politics. Sounds like a strong career, right? Jonathan Cape is one of the UK’s most respected publishers so what could go wrong?
Well, in an interview with the comics newsletter Ink , Berry reveals, plenty, mostly due to the Spartan lifestyle her meagre advances led to:
That’s not cheery hyperbole – the idea of stopping because it’s the evening or the weekend is absurd. Bank holidays are just that: holidays for the bank. I work on my birthday. On Christmas day I’ll sneak away from my family to get a couple of hours in. If I’m prised from my desk to go on holiday I’ll bring a script and a pad and get some planning done. When meeting up with friends I’m notoriously late because I’m trying to finish off a page/panel/whatever. I actually lost a really close friend though my inattentiveness, and I’m amazed anyone else still hangs around with me. I’m even more amazed that my partner is still at my side. When the sun is shining and everyone else in Brighton is on the beach, I’ll be at my desk with the window open. It’s a punishing way to live, but I don’t see any alternative. I’ve just become used to it.
Berry gives some grueling personal details on this, and even the numbers: Her advance for Livestock was £10,000 (about $13,000 depending on the exchange rate.) Of that she got £5000 in advance, and she also applied for an Arts Council grant and got another £10,000. Throw in about £9000 in additional freelance income, and it comes to £24,000 over a three year period, or living on about $10,000 a year for three years.
How does she survive? Berry has to rely on what so many other cartoonists do: a partner with a job:
Now, I’m a simple girl with simple needs, and part of my puritanical mania manifests itself in living as cheaply as possible: I’ll wear clothes until they literally fall apart; I brought a hip flask to my BFF’s wedding; my wildest extravagance is being alive in Brighton. But despite all of my best efforts, £8,000 a year is not enough to live on.
The only way I’ve been able to survive as a graphic novelist is by being supported by my wonderful, long-suffering, devilishly handsome partner. As a fine, upstanding feminist, this does not make me feel good about myself. It’s actually pretty embarrassing to admit, in fact, but here we are.
To make a graphic novel takes me three years of blinkered, fanatical dedication, and I realised while working on Livestock that I just can’t do it again. I’m done. I’m out. And from quiet talks with many other graphic novelists, ones whose books you know and love, I can tell you that I’m far from being the only one.
Berry is not the first cartoonist to reveal the numbers, and they’re usually in this same grim ballpark. Marrying and/or partnering with someone with a steady job seems to be the key to a successful comics career, at least in the indie/literary world. Or else getting some well paying Big Two gig as a step to a profitable Image Comics career.
It was ever thus, but as graphic novels become the format of choice for comics, the low advances and anemic royalties are more of a problem than ever, at least for those who aren’t Kickstarter whizzes (A whole other skill set.) Which is not to say that nice book deals at a First Second or Scholastic aren’t a bit more livable. But if you take too long to make a book, the hourly rate shrinks to Invisible Man size. Hence the laughter when you mention “vacation” to a lot of cartoonists.
Oh yeah one other thing. Ink is an excellent newsletter of comics news – you can sign up at their website here. A mice professional package. I noticed that they have a Patreon campaign and I checked it out. The number of pledges they have?
Have a nice day!
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.