Holding panels in the wood-panelled bowels of the Armory this year at MoCCA Fest did bring a certain gravitas to the proceedings even if the location was a little difficult to locate for the unfamiliar. When I arrived at the “Art as Profession: Creating, Promoting, and Making Money in Comics” panel at 11:30 on Sunday the 7th of April, the room was already packed and couldn’t have squeezed in more than a couple more inquisitive souls. Judy Hansen (of Hansen Literary), Micah Spivak (of the Scott Eder Gallery), George Rohac (of Oni Press and Benign Kingdom), and Boulet (Gilles Roussel) appeared in a discussion moderated by The Beat’s own Heidi MacDonald.
Early on in the panel, Hansen predicted an “indie comics boom” when iPad and tablet resolution improves and pointed out that we’re currently in a “glitch period” where there’s a gray area and “lack of demarcation” between film, TV, and webisodes that’s blurring with the indie comics market. McDonald agreed, commenting upon this “period when nobody knows where it’s going”. Rohac reframed the situation from his perspective, stating a “steady climb” to “big success” for Oni Press in web comics, citing a commitment during Oni’s “switch over” with presenting digital comics to “putting everything out on time” which have driven sales up to a “really solid position”. His perspective suggested that orderliness is a way toward success during this ambiguous time.
Boulet clarified that the “general situation of comics in France is very different”. Though the “work is fantastic”, he said, for himself, he’s like the “winner of a lottery” with his successes in webcomics, and therefore “not a good example” of the standard experience of indie artists. He described a “deeper and deeper crisis last year in comics because of the big boom” of webcomics in the early 2000’s, a period which produced “too much production”, and caused the pay for artists to fall. “It’s never been easier to publish a book”, he said, since there are “20 or 30” publishers to appeal to, but the pay, now, unfortunately, is “scandalous”. The figures for pay that he cited suggested a drop of more than 60% from pay at the beginning of the millennium. McDonald, thinking over the numbers, confirmed that the pay in France right now is similar to the lowest rates for comic artwork in the USA.
Boulet, considering the “digital future” in France for self-publication, said that though there are “lots of new things” continually produced, the prevailing sense for French artists is “We are stuck”. Transitioning comics to mobile devices, in Boulet’s experience, resulted in “shitty PDF files to read”, of such low quality that “nobody would buy it”. Some of Boulet’s responses to the situation in France led him to try to form groups of cartoonists able to take on “powerful publishers”, but he feels this has not been entirely successful. MacDonald followed up Boulet’s observations by asking if “banding together in this market” is the best move, Rohac ventured that dealing with “passionate creators” making “print on demand books” led him to try to pin down the numbers on their expenditure and profit, and found that “an individual person” attempting to self-publish faced a lot of obstacles, but “pooling everyone’s fan-bases” produced a “win for everyone”.
“Everything is free now on the internet”, McDonald pointed out as the “elephant in the room”, posing the greatest challenge to making money in comics. So what is the “path” to becoming a professional cartoonist these days, she asked. Hansen provided a number of significant points of advice to the audience. The “right attitude”, she said, is paramount, as well as “meeting deadlines, whatever they are”, as well as “producing and submitting” on time “even if 5 years away”, so that “publishers can plan”. She clarified that if you’re simply self-publishing on your own, you have more leeway, but if you want “channels of distribution”, you have to commit to firmer schedules in order to succeed. As an agent, she has witnessed a successful pitch become a “disaster” when the creators tried to expand and complete the project because they “hadn’t thought it through” in terms of story, arc, or character, wasting a prime opportunity for success.
MacDonald asked Spivac if, based on his experience, the rise of digital comics means there’s now less original art to sell in the gallery setting, when sale of original comics art has traditionally been a strong income-generator for cartoonists. He confirmed that some artists still sell artwork to a gallery even before a book is fully created “so they can live” in a tough economic climate, but the books are rarely “kept together” as a comics whole, unfortunately, since the price of “separated” work is higher. Another issue he’s faced is that comics artists often try to sell their work to galleries too early in their career when it’s “not yet really saleable” and can only garner a low price when it would be wiser to hold onto the work until they are more established and there is “more interest”. At this point, their profits could be significantly higher.
The conversation amongst panellists then shifted to Kickstarters and how they have impacted the success of webcomics. Rohac’s experience overseeing many successful Kickstarters made him an ideal voice for the subject. He has assisted in 24 Kickstarters, he said, and helped raise 3.6 million dollars in 1 ½ years time. His advice working on Kickstarters is to “be professional” when working with publishers, and develop “professional techniques” by observing others and asking for help when needed. Boulet said that Kickstarters in France are moderately successful but they are still “not as important” in France as in the USA. His general advice when dealing with publishers is to avoid being “desperate to accept anything” as he has seen many young cartoonists accept denigrating deals on their work in the interest of simply getting published.
Rohac confirmed this tendency from his observations, saying that young cartoonists trying to “get started” in the business seek “exposure” and too often work for free, which is against his best advice. Speaking of digital publishers, particularly, he said “They make money and it’s wrong if you don’t”. McDonald, in her experience running her own website, realized that “revenue share” by bringing in more partners turned out to be unnecessary and unhelpful, unless another partner is “bringing something to the table” specifically.
Before the Q and A started, Rohac, Boulet, and Hansen all rallied around a final piece of good advice: to seek legal counsel as a creator of comics, enabling you to properly read any contracts before signing them. Boulet added, from his own experience, “never accept to be paid later” since that’s in breach of contract, too, no matter what financial troubles a company may encounter.
Hansen was asked, during the Q and A, what she thinks about the role of adaptation right now in the comics market, and she replied with two examples from her observations as an agent. A WRINKLE IN TIME, she said, was very successful because it tapped into a classic children’s literature market with a fan-base, whereas the graphic novel of THE HOBBIT hasn’t done so well because it was produced before the opportunity for a movie tie-in and faced a lot of competition in other formats. Rohac and Hansen commented on methods for finding a good agent to work with and advised against “cold calling” agents since “finding someone to work with takes time”. Hansen explained that many agents are interested not simply in a single work’s success, but in “career building” for their clients and are looking for “match making” between a client and a publisher, and so getting to know the comics artists is very important to this process rather than rushing things.
Boulet was questioned about what he thought of working in an artistic collective, such as the ones he’s founded in the past, and his experiences, he said, have been favorable when other creators share a similar passion for the medium. Again, looking for “matching” between like-minded people is important to a collective’s success, he said. Boulet, when asked, in closing, if the internet is really the best way to become a successful comics professional these days, pointed out some of the pitfalls generated by internet success versus financial success. Having several thousand Internet followers does not guarantee the interest of book publishers, who may not find an artist’s style appealing. There is a “difference between fame and quality” sometimes, he said, and fame on the Internet may give creators a false sense of immediate publication success when it comes to books.
The “Art as Profession” panel was replete with words from the wise, many of them pretty hard-hitting, but good advice can be hard to come by, especially in this state of digital flux for comics, and so the panel itself was not only a useful, but a lively focus for many of the problems and questions artists are facing right now.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.