Even as the economy shows fitful signs of flickering back to life, the comics economy, which was
“too small to fail” to really take much of a hit during the Great Recession, is still puddling along, under-capitalized, under-recognized, and with even the greatest cartoonists prone to spells of belt tightening. Comics have been traditionally immune to the effects of a recession—”cheap entertainment does well in bad times!” we’ve heard time and again—but the corollary is also true: Economic boom times rarely touch comics.
During the late ’90s and the first dot.com boom, one of the greatest eras of general prosperity in American history, comics were going through their WORST slump since the end of newsstand distribution, with sales numbers so low executives were crying over them. And then, paradoxically, comics began to do better even during the mini-recession following 9/11 and the end of the dot.com bubble.
During the recent real estate bubble/stock market boom, quite a few cartoonists bought homes that would never have been available before—and some have lost them, sadly—but most comickers we know were sticking with comics instead of going into hedge funds and condo flipping. A lot of money flooded into comics in the end of the last boom, but the tide has been slowly going out.
But now it’s gone out. And people are wondering when it will come in again.
Yesterday Tom Spurgeonwrote:
there’s a bunch of stuff out there right now on creative teams fighting and/or dissolving. It’s not something I care to link to, but you can find it pretty easily if you look around. The thing that I wanted to note is that this kind of public griping always seems to happen when comics is in a real emotionally stressful period; I think the mini-era we’re in qualifies, for sure. I think we’re past the point where people are just starting to realize that all the exciting things happening around them may not happen to them, and into a phase where people are beginning to worry that comics may have a detrimental effect on their lives.
This prompted contemplation from Johanna Draper Carlson:
As someone who chose to leave the comic field and pursue primary-job employment elsewhere, I look around at acquaintances my age who stayed in and see the things they don’t have: Health care coverage. A home (instead of a rental). A retirement account. Any kind of job security. (Not that anyone has that these days.)
I value their work and am glad they could pursue an artistic career, but I worry what might happen to them as they reach the tail end of middle age and beyond. The U.S. is not a friendly country for those who don’t have enough. Maybe my definition of “enough” is bigger than theirs, and they’re happy with it, I don’t know.
That doesn’t even consider the various mental challenges of working in an industry that often attracts … well, there’s no polite word that comes to mind. I’m fond of saying that most people in comics are broken in some way. We’re all drawn to this wacky field because it gives us something we couldn’t get elsewhere, whether escapism or validation or a feeling of community or a business where the usual rules don’t apply or room for extreme individualism or sheep to be fleeced. The flip side of that is how much comics can bring bad feelings or fallings-out or mental scars.
Both Spurgeon and Carlson are floating variations of the “Comics people are damaged people” line that you still see used here and there. This is a view of the industry that very much seems to be focused on the “bronze age” of comics that so many internet commenters view as the baseline. It’s a notion I reject: people are nutty, creators more so, but while comics for a long time definitely drew a certain kind of personality, that was more a function of the ascent of fans into the industry than a peculiarity of the words and pictures medium. When you hang around a random room of today’s young cartoonists, they aren’t any nuttier or needier than a random group of indie musicians or writers or any creative types.
Which isn’t to say that hard economic times don’t bring out everyone’s anxiety tics. There have been a few particularly harrowing comics stories of late—the death of Steve Perry, Steve Rude’s ongoing legal battles—that make everyone think “Maybe that WAS the best of times.”
Comics are an industry with no obvious safety net and dubious rewards, and that exacerbates insecurities, for sure. And right now, as a new year begins, everyone is wondering where the big payoff is coming from—or if it will never come and it’s already too late. In just the last few days, several creators have spoken out about piracy, which it’s hard not to see as one of the grinning death monkeys holding an axe to the neck of the average freelancer.
The other day Joshua Hale Fialkov spoke for many. Fialkov is the author of I, VAMPIRE for the DC reboot, TUMOR, the first graphic novel serialized on Amazon, and his ELK’S RUN was one of the first graphic novels to get picked up by a major publisher (Random House.) And he’s had it with piracy:
Well, sorry, folks, but, that’s over. SOPA or PIPA or arresting website developers is not going to change the world that we now live in. There’s no amount of threats, either legal or brow-beaterly that will change the fact that many more people are unwilling to pay for the intellectual property than those who are happy to plunk down the cash.
And, of course, the economy is horrible! And you’re un (or under) employed! And you have to see/read/listen or else. I’m sorry. That sucks. But you’re being an asshole. Stop it.
We’re all spoiled brats, myself included, but, we can’t do that anymore. We have to get over our greediness (just like we keep bitching about the bank executives doing) and put something ahead of our own (incredibly trivial) needs.
This prompted David Brothers, one of the most vigorous proponents of the digital revolution, to point out that piracy does not exist in a vacuum of competition for the one fan-one transaction ideal:
To put forth the idea that piracy on the part of consumers is “singly responsible” for anything, especially when piracy by its very nature is impossible to nail down in terms of concrete numbers and cause & effect is dishonest. Bootlegs have always existed, whether in barbershops or art galleries. They’ve been here, and they aren’t going away. Do they cause harm? Any idiot knows the answer to that question is “yes.”
But for my money, the thing that killed comic books is “everything else.” We’re living in an all-new status quo, and I keep seeing people, especially comics people, acting like piracy is the sole cause of all their ills. When no, that isn’t true, and a half glance at the world will tell you so.
I don’t even have to leave my house to be flooded with things to do. I can have food delivered, songs and movies I buy (or download, whatever) appear on my hard drive or PlayStation like magic, video games can be bought and played without ever touching a physical disc… we’re living in the future, and that’s without even going outside. Outside, I can go to the movies, check out stand-up open mics, hang out with friends, drink Starbucks, eat donuts, play board games, go to bars…
Fialkov’s helplessness in the face of piracy is widely shared among creators. Just yesterday Steve Niles and Neil Gaiman were also going at it on Twitter, kicked off by Gaiman’s retweet of indie musician Jonathon Coulton:
“Make good stuff, then make it easy for people to buy it. There’s your anti-piracy plan.”
which prompted a conversation, part of which you can see below:
Niles’ original anti-piracy piece went up last October and sparked much chatter at the time.
This time out, it’s a little hard not to see Gaiman and Coulton as among the 1%ers of creators— both are in a place where they are making a far more than decent living from their creativity. Gaiman did it the old fashioned, pre internet way—writing marvelous books that touched readers and reaping lots of royalties from the results. Coulton is the avatar of the internet creator—he wrote songs and put them where people could find them until he gained his own loyal, passionate following. And a 1% income—he makes over $500,000 a year from his music.
Like most things in life, this whole discussion goes back to money. Fialkov makes a living from his writing: for over six years he’s been a full-time comics writer with a few side gigs here and there. Brothers—a voracious consumer of culture according to his blog posts—has a day job in the video game industry. I doubt either of them is in 1% territory, but they are looking at the piracy phenomenon from opposite ends of the telescope. It’s Johanna’s safety net. And it’s part of the general anxiety about making a living from your creations that seems to be sweeping the industry.
Annnnnnd along comes Faith Erin Hicks just today with a long blog post that hits all of these topics. After talking about how happy she is to be making a living from comics, she lays out the numbers—bear in mind, she’s from Canada and thus doesn’t have to worry about health insurance. Also, these are (presumably) Canadian dollars:
My income fluxes like crazy, and has since I stopped working fulltime in animation. For example, in 2010 I had my best year ever, actually making a really good income, above $30,000! I was pretty blown away. But in 2010 I also got an $8,000 grant from the Nova Scotia government to write and draw Friends With Boys. So in reality I only made about $22,000. But that was still a ton of money! I had a lot of unexpected freelance jobs in 2010, like Girl Comics for Marvel and an illustration job for the Girl Scouts of America which paid very well. These were one time only jobs and I have not had repeat work from these clients.
In 2011 I made about half what I made in 2010.
How do I survive?
Hicks’ post should be read in full. But it also skirts another issue that many people have been mostly in denial about…until now.
Hicks is a published author with FOUR books to her name, all of them delightful. She’s hardly a wanna-be. But…maybe she isn’t Neil Gaiman or Jonathan Coulton, either. Maybe a lot of people aren’t. Maybe a lot of people are never going to be.
Superstars like Gaiman and Coulton are the shining stars on the hill of content production paying off. But they are also the rare exceptions. Like Jeff Smith, Marjane Satrapi,, and Peter Laird.
We’re more than 30 years into the “creator era” of comics, and the question isn’t where is Scott Snyder now. It’s where is Don McGregor now. What is the career path? Where is the security? Is the answer really a spouse with a day job?
I don’t have any answers. I’m anxious; all my friends are anxious. Everyone would like to just sit at home and write or draw; instead we have to figure out the future right now in order to be a part of it.
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.