In the debut issue of Sktchd.com’s Off Panel podcast interview series, David Harper sat down with Sean Gordon Murphy, prolific illustrator of titles including The Wake and Hellblazer: City of Angels. Recently, he collaborated with Mark Millar on Chrononauts, a time-hopping action miniseries that was optioned for a movie deal before the release of its first issue. While Murphy is known as one of the most talented artists in comics, he’s also one of the most brutally honest, and this podcast is full of truth bombs about the harsh realities of working in comics.
With his star on the rise and the reputation of the comics industry as a small place where you try to avoid biting the hand that feeds you, it’s surprising and refreshing to see Murphy being as candid as he was. He and Harper go into detail on several hot-button issues, including the recent fall of Vertigo, the reluctance of progressively perceived publishers like Image to actively pursue unproven routes of change, and the inability of many artists to stand up and take charge of their fates in the face of failure or success. And speaking of Vertigo…
Vertigo’s Fallen Star
Over the past few years, DC Comics’ creator-owned imprint, Vertigo, has put out fewer and fewer books. Gone is the Karen Berger heyday that began with The Sandman and ended sometime around Y: The Last Man. The conclusion of Bill Willingham’s fifteen year run on Fables will release on July 22nd, leaving 2010’s American Vampire as the oldest kid in the clubhouse of seven ongoing titles, one of which is The Sandman: Overture mini-series which is also set to conclude this year. Vertigo has shrunk dramatically, and a large part of that is probably thanks to Image Comics.
As recently as the mid-to-late 2000s, Image was only a blip on the industry radar. Creator-owned work wasn’t really a thing in the direct market unless you were working with Dark Horse or Vertigo. Even there, sales of books like Y: the Last Man couldn’t dream of competing with the latest issue of Batman. However, at some point around the time in 2010 when Robert Kirkman’s and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead became a hit TV Show and Brian K. Vaughan’s and Fiona Staples’ space odyssey Saga blew up, Image suddenly became the place to be. New series without pre-established characters suddenly could and did outsell titles featuring industry workhorses like Superman, Captain America, and aforementioned Dark Knight. By 2012, when Punk Rock Jesus was wrapping its run, Image’s creator-owned deal sounded like a much better option than Vertigo’s suddenly outdated model.
According to Murphy:
“even if I had released [Punk Rock Jesus] as a C level book at Image, I probably would’ve made more money…I had to basically accept the fact that I lost money at Vertigo.”
In late 2014, DC co-publisher Jim Lee said that the company planned to re-brand and revitalize the Vertigo war machine to take on the new generation, but it doesn’t seem like much has changed. The only new titles they’ve released this year is Lee Bermejo’s post-apocolyptic Suciders and the Mad Max movie tie-in comics. The latter title has taken on a lot of flack for undoing the film’s progressive portrayal of women, and the very existence of the comic under the Vertigo imprint muddles the publisher’s reputation as a place for original ideas and experimentation.
In my mind, DC and Vertigo are notorious for strange collected edition scheduling. Most Image creators release trades of an arc the month following its conclusion, which makes sense because it creates a perfect entry point for new readers coming into the series just as a new arc is about to begin. Meanwhile, Harper and Murphy note that DC takes around 7 months to collect a set of issues and put out a trade. While I’m sure there was a sound business reason for this time table at some point, the market has changed dramatically within the short five year span I’ve been reading comics seriously. There’s no reason for Batman trade readers to be lagging a full half year behind the floppy readers.
Does Image Have a Vision?
At one point during the podcast, Harper brought up Brian K. Vaughan’s and Marcos Martin’s pay-what-you-want webcomic, The Private Eye. According to the creative team, The Private Eye made more money than their page rates from Vertigo would’ve allowed had they chosen to work with the creator-owned imprint. Murphy heralded Vaughan as a champion of change, someone with the smarts and the influence to create real industry change. According to Murphy, “Big change is proven by the Brian K. Vaughans” while Marvel and DC are “reactionary” companies. They jump on board a new idea once it’s been proven by someone else.
That said, although both Murphy and Vaughan have found success with the freedom provided to them at Image Comics, Murphy remained critical of certain revealing decisions the company has made, including timing of new books announcements to SDCC even if it leads to retailer confusion. This sort of reactionary marketing practice, Murphy argues, damages the integral trust between creators and retailers, the latter of whom relies on the former to produce product on a steady schedule in order to maximize profits for both parties. (See also Chris Butcher’s discussion of this topic which came out after this podcast was posted.)
Murphy mentioned the timing of the first Image Expo as a great marketing decision because it was held in the dead of January after the end of the mainstream convention season. Instead of competing with other companies for attention, they got to have all eyes on their books for a full day. However, this year the Image Expo will be held on July 2nd, right as the San Diego Comic Con pre-show news cycle reaches a fevered pitch.
On the one hand, maybe Image will get more attention from comics readers by working within the con season instead of outside of it. Readers would expect the publisher to be announcing books at that time, making them more attentive to news sites than they might be in the winter. On the other hand, how many non-California based people can afford to make two trips to the state in a month or take two weeks off of work to go to two major west coast conventions?
There’s no doubt that Image has created a new landscape for comics as a commercially and creatively viable medium. However, the longer their golden age lasts, the more they seem to fall in line with industry expectations. Murphy makes another harsh statement:
“Comics doesn’t generate the capital to hire people who know what they’re talking about…we don’t have the capital in this industry to hire the PR people who really get it.”
State of the Art in 2015
In Harper’s first annual survey of comics artists, the data supported Murphy’s postulation that about 50% of creators work at or below the poverty line, which is currently $11,770. 66% of Artists in Comics make Less than $50,000. Throughout the podcast, Murphy made several arguments that could explain the destitute state that most comics artists currently live in:
“I went to SCAD Savannah. I did not love it…they didn’t have a class about reading contracts. They didn’t have a class about investing or doing your taxes or saving money. They didn’t tell you to go to shows. Savannah is not too far from Orlando Comic Con. Why wasn’t there a bus put together? Is it insurance or is it the professors working there, many of whom had not had much experience working in the world? I think it’s probably the latter.
They teach you art and that’s great and that’s probably the height of most artists’ careers…their collegiate careers. You really do get to feel like a real artist because you’re doing it all the time. Once you graduate, a huge percent of you never ever work in that field again…
Creative intelligence and practical business intelligence are very different parts of the the brain, and it’s rare to see them mixed in one person.
Art is a business. There’s no doubt about that. While I was an undergrad, I lived in a building with an art professor, and when I saw him on the way to his studio, he’d tell me he wasn’t going to paint. He was going to “hustle.” Entrepreneurship is a skill that’s taught to students in business school and those students do exceedingly well. They go on to put their creative minds to work, forming thriving startups and going on to represent major corporations. Every fine arts major is an independent startup in the making, so why aren’t they learning how to manage themselves as a business?
If you look at the curriculum for fine arts B.As in major schools such as Parsons, Cooper Union, Rhode Island School of Design, and the aforementioned SCAD Savannah, you’ll find that none of them require degree pursuers to take a single business course. To be fair, this is a problem endemic to liberal arts curricula in general, but it’s an especially important topic for fine artists, who, as the data suggests, find themselves living out the “starving artist” stereotype.
Artists often graduate naive to the ways of the world. They’re book smart, but not street smart. Thus, according to Murphy, they often fall prey to predatory negotiating tactics:
Marvel and DC benefit by artists thinking they should be grateful. At Marvel, I’ve heard stories where there’s…there’s sort of subtle psychological work there…like “oh, we’ll give you the book that you want. What do you mean you want more money? We just gave you Deadpool.”
They sling you that. They absolutely sling you that.
This is a pretty damning statement. Marvel and DC, being the “big two,” set the standards for the industry. They have the furthest reach and the biggest collective sources of capital in comics. It’s hard to find a self-sustaining comics professional who hasn’t passed through one or both of their doors at some point. If they’re trying to undercut artists and prevent them from receiving a fair wage, how can they expect to make a living working for anyone else? However, let’s go back to the data to see if page rate averages support Murphy’s statement.
From Harper’s survey:
The scale works like this: 1 is less than $25 per page, 2 is $25 to $50, 3 is $50 to $100, 4 is $100 to $200, and 5 is more than $200. Anywhere in-between those numbers falls between the two spectrums.
To be clear, Harper’s survey isn’t representative of the industry as a whole, but his samples are capable of representing industry trends, and what they represent here indicates that no publisher (or in the case of Image, creative team), on average, pays its artists more than $200 per page. Obviously, some prolific artists like Murphy and Fiona Staples are likely making upwards of $200 per page on their projects, but they’re exceptions rather than examples of the rule. Recently, Heidi looked at a table of current common artist and writer pay rates compiled by No Mercy writer Alex De Campi, and noted that those rates are disturbingly similar to those she noted during her tenure as a comics editor fifteen years ago.
Over the last fifteen years, the collective inflation rate of US currency equates to 38.1%. If line art at a mainstream Big Two publisher averaged $200-$300 in 2000, the pay rate should look more like $276-$414. According to Heidi, lettering has actually been devalued over the past fifteen years, and although that might be somewhat understandable given the strides made in digital technology, it’s still deeply regrettable to see. The average page rate data collected by Harper doesn’t even reach the uninflated “common rates” that De Campi put together. This could be a fault of Harper’s sampling if he received many responses from the lower end of professional artists and few from the average or higher end, but even then, the fact that the lower rung of professionals might not be pulling $200 per page at DC is problematic, to say the least.
Ultimately, Murphy’s anecdote about the tactics the Big Two uses to keep costs down cannot be disproved. However, given their penchant for trying to get creators to sign away basic fundamental rights, I’m not shocked to hear him make such a statement.
Then again, when Murphy and Harper’s conversation reached the topic of truly successful artists, Murphy had this to say:
It’s heartbreaking when I see artists I admire fall off of it because of too much success.
Apparently, many artists who get deals from DC or Vertigo just stop producing at a professional pace. Murphy broke his wrist while meeting deadlines for his work with Scott Snyder on The Wake. Meanwhile, he laments the fact that he got flack while drawing the Mark Millar scripted Chrononauts because other Millarworld titles had been delayed due to late art. It’s true that Murphy has developed a stalwart reputation as a timely illustrator, but I have no interest in bashing artists who don’t meet their deadlines. Illustrator Nate Bellegarde holds himself responsible for what seemed like an interminable delay of Nowhere Men, but he had long been suffering from depression, as he detailed in a candid letter. Yes, artists should be held responsible for meeting deadlines. Comics are a business and it’s hard to expect companies to treat creators fairly when they aren’t putting out product. However, a good business takes care of its employees in ways other than salary.
Why aren’t publishers providing creatives with mental health benefits or any health benefits at all?
How can they entertain us when they can’t even take care of themselves?
It’s an incredibly interesting time to be in comics. In the 1990s, Vertigo challenged the notion that comics had to be face-bashing superheroic epics. Series like The Sandman and The Invisibles opened new horizons for the medium– horizons which Image capitalized upon as they entered their golden age in 2012.
However, the more things change, the more things stay the same. Although the comics industry is healthier than it has been in a long time, the audience of comics readers is still relatively small compared to that of film watchers or video game players. The value of the dollar cannot be understated, as it affects every aspect of the industry. It’s the reason why companies did and still do cheat creators out of money and rights. It’s the reason why page rates have fallen out of step with inflation so dramatically. According to Murphy, the lack of capital incentive prevents comic book publishers from hiring marketing teams that could bring in more money. The dearth of money is the reason why Murphy suggests that, beneath its shining veneer, Image occasionally appears to be as aimless as Vertigo.
Obviously, the solution is to find more money. The big question we have to ask ourselves is where that cash is going to come from. The solution obviously isn’t going to come from the Big Two undercutting creatives while raising cover prices on books, as that exploits the current readership instead of appealing to new readers. The solution may not come from large creator-owned companies who now have much more to lose by taking risks. It’s ultimately going to come down to us– the unknown readers, thinkers, creatives, and innovators who aren’t afraid to try new things and take risks.
At one point during the podcast, Murphy wonders why we don’t yet have a Netflix of comics. I’ve been wondering why we still publish floppy books in a world where most comics aren’t episodic and make much more sense when read in collected editions.
Wonder. That’s the key.