Mike Dawson is talented cartoonist, a witty raconteur and a fine podcaster— you can hear his work with Alex Robinson here at Ink Panthers. And as of yesterday he was a Tumblr king with a post calledAdvice to the mid-career cartoonist who has failed to build an audience. It’s honest and in some parts brutal.
My first “graphic novel”, my three hundred page debut memoir Freddie & Me, was published by BloomsburyUSA in 2008. The final sales tally (the book is now technically out of print) was 4,805 gross and 2,748 net. I think that means I sold 2,748 copies. Not great by Bloomsbury’s standards, but by my standards, that’s my bestseller.
My second book, Troop 142 was published in 2011 by Brooklyn based boutique publisher Secret Acres. I serialized the story online as I wrote. It was nominated for four Ignatz awards at the 2010 Small Press Expo, and won for Outstanding Online Comic. The book got nice attention from NPR and the American Library Association. It got another Ignatz nomination in 2012 for Outstanding Graphic Novel. To date, the book has sold 1,435 copies.
My third graphic novel, Angie Bongiolatti, was also published by Secret Acres. It debuted at the MoCCA Festival in NYC this past April. Last week I got my first quarterly sales report.
Holy fucking shit! One hundred and six copies??? How has this happened?
I’ll just send you to Dawson’s post for his conclusions from this, including his ambivalence about social media, his recent switch to shorter comics, and a frank confrontation with the “What am I doing here?” feeling that all of us have at some time.
Dawson’s graphic novel career hits a lot of spots that we have come to call typical of the indie cartoonist’s life. Freddie & Me was part of the early aughts rush to graphic novels by major publishers — a premature rush that resulted in mostly disappointing sales. Troop 142 was serialized on Live Journal and got quite a bit of attention during its run, resulting in the award nominations and notice; it could be considered an “establishing” work. Angie Bongiolatti is a more enigmatic work, from the fact that I have to look up how to spell the title every time, to a plot that defies summarization at all — it’s not an art show like many indie graphic novels, but rather a narrative about people who are confused about their own lives and look to someone who seems to be less confused via politics following 9/11. IT’s also an office drama, intermixed with the work of theorist Arthur Koestler. Like I said, there is no elevator pitch for it—it’s a heart felt, thought through work.
All three maintain a high level of cartooning and narrative skill. Although he’s never been a critics darling, Dawson’s carved a respectable place for himself. He should be just entering a strong period of confident work. Instead, he’s wondering why he’s even here.
Dawson says what a lot of cartoonists are thinking these days. You can slave away at the drawing board every night after the day job ends, but is there even a career here for most people? What am I doing? Where am I going? Will there be a cheese plate when I get there? It’s the greatest time ever for comics but it’s still a mode of self expression not a way to make a living for many folks.
The post got recognition of another kind: a take down by Abhay Khosla:
Uh, if I can add insult to injury: who did you even think your audience was? Your graphic novels had a $20 list price, and you hadn’t really made a name for yourself before trying to charge people $20 to find out if you were any good at making comics. Did you think there were a lot of people who take that kind of risk with their money, and if so, why? Is that how you buy comics— you just see books and then spend $20 on them, regardless of if you’ve never heard of who made them, week after week? What kind of comic-buying budget are you dealing with that allows you to do that?
I think some of Khosla’s point are a bit harsh—Daryl Ayo answers them here—but it’s true that finding an audience isn’t as easy as falling off a log or falling on a table at TCAF. I’m a fan of Dawson’s work, but not for reasons that readily translate to a steady audience.
In a private correspondence with Dawson, I suggested that Angie B. might have done better had it also been serialized online, the way Troop 142 was. It’s true that we have a ton of tools at our disposal to promote and disseminate all kinds of work now. It’s also true, as an agent told Dawson, that building an audience on social media is as necessary as knowing how to spell for authors these days. The rugged “self publisher” of the 80s and 90s has become the “self promoter” of the internet era. Dave Sim was right!
Dawson is a fine cartoonist with a distinctive style. His books aren’t for casual reading—he has a dense style that takes a while to read, just like a “real” novel. I haven’t seen the discussion of his essay beyond the two links above, but I suspect that a lot of cartoonists rolled it around in their heads as the day progressed.
Bonus reading: Tom Spurgeon interviews Dawson interviewed at The Comics Reporter
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.