Comics are great….except when they aren’t

It’s a brand new year, and everyone is looking back on all the great comics that came out and all the great things coming up, and sales are up and things are going great. But there are some clouds on the horizon. On New Year’s Eve everyone on Facebook and elsewhere was posting their year end thoughts, and…well there was a lot of struggle.

I actually noticed this a few months ago with a few big picture, where am I going posts from folks. Dustin Harbin, a fellow who had worn many hats in comics, responded to a question on Tumblr asking about his larger aspirations as a cartoonist, his three year dream plan. I hope he doesn’t mind my posting much of his answer because I’m sure most creative people, hell most PEOPLE, have pondered these very things:

…I’ve spent a lot of time hopping from project to project, paycheck to paycheck, and was surprised to realize I don’t have a long-distance plan for my comics or drawing or whatever. Or at least, not one that’s in any way coherent or.. actionable?

A lot of what I have done and continue to do—for instance those diary comics—is based around a continuing process of.. maybe therapy? Thinking? Whatever it is, it’s a continuing process, and so I’ve focused more on that process than in any end result. I admit, it feels a lot like flailing around in the dark. 

I think what I’d prefer most of all, as a goal, is to work for someone again, say for a show, or a book publisher, or something where a fussy guy who’s good at figuring things out could excel. Something with health insurance and that pays enough that I can afford to stop worrying about money, maybe get on anti-depressants, etc. I’d like very much to return to think about “art” or whatever, at least in terms of making art that is important to me, as something entirely separate from earning an income. I’m not saying it’s bad to think of art and income at the same time—in fact, in some cases it can be the force that drives an artist to excel, push themselves, etc. But for me, and the way I’m constructed, I feel like I’m best and most comfortable earning a paycheck as opposed to chasing one.

Around the same time, Evan Dorkin, certainly a creator who has achieved much in his career, pondered completing his final Eltingville story (the cover is at the top of this post.)

This is why it feels so weird to me to finally — after 20 years or so —  be finishing up The Eltingville Club. After making comics professionally for about 27 years or so, this is the first project of my own that I’m finishing up on my own terms, something most creators do much earlier in their career, something many creators have done many times over by my age. It was never the way I worked, or the way things worked out, until now, so, this is a new experience for me, heaped on top of the mixed feelings I get finishing up any extended gig of importance (to me). I’m not trying to make more of it than it is, I’m not hating on myself but I’d be the first to say (and here I go) that this isn’t the end of a big deal comic from a big deal creator, and these aren’t big deal characters making big-deal money that most folks want around forever (certainly not me, brother). But they’ve had a run, better than most small press things, and they had a solid shot at a cartoon series, and they made some folks laugh, and some other folks angry, my little monster children. Who I’m going to put out of their miserableness. So, yeah, it’s a strange feeling.

But, ever a pragmatist, only a few days later, Dorkin wrote about finally getting on the platform du jour, Tumblr, after someone else posting one of his pieces gave him a reach he hadn’t considered himself:

What made me decide to do the Tumblr thing was that someone posted a Beasts of Burden short story on there a few weeks ago and it ran up almost 60,000 notes, which even if you halve that number to account for people both liking and reblogging the post, means almost thirty thousand people read it. And it’s still getting tossed around and read. A small percentage of these folks ordered the book and a lot of people commented on the material and gave the series some very positive word-of-mouth. This is the biggest burst of activity generated by the book since, well…maybe ever. It got more readers than anything we’ve published, and at a time when the series is in hibernation, to boot, so we can certainly use the attention. Anyway, I figured it couldn’t hurt to post my stuff to Tumblr and see if anything happens. Even a few folks seeing it is better than nothing. There’s only so much you can do, especially when you don’t have time to do much, and every little thing helps. So, yeah, I’m on Tumblr. Big news, I know.

Moving forward, making plans, joining Tumblr.

Elsewhere, as the year closed, a lot of people noted that 2013 had “kicked their ass”, as Liz Prince did. While confronting a lot of personal problems, Prince managed to dig in and complete a full graphic novel, something we have to look forward to this year. But it wasn’t easy.

Kevin Colden was even more blunt in a piece called – Yes, 2013, That Is My Foot Your Ass As You Walk Away, and that wonderful thing called money comes up again:

In the interest of perspective, I’m going to break taboo on talking about money (if I haven’t already, and fuck taboos anyway) and say that I gross a little less than the median income for where I live. My wife grosses half that. We live pretty nicely, but we are nowhere near what would be considered middle class in NYC. Like I said, we usually manage really well, but while my financials were back on track, circumstances left my wife with her income being halved in the last half of the year. We’re still not entirely back in track yet, but things are looking okay going into 2014. We chose this lifestyle, and know what the risks are. The real frustration comes from having too many actual adult responsibilities to be able to draw comics as a side gig or hobby – if it don’t pay, it don’t play. I’m pretty damn fast, but when you’re the primary caregiver for a 3yo and working 15 hour days at the same time just to not go bankrupt, drawing a personal project isn’t super feasible. In fact, mixing a cocktail and firing up Netflix is usually even stretching the mental capacity at the end of the day. There was much serious talk of retirement this time – putting down the pens and going on sabbatical at the very least.

The comics life is a hard one. Throw in a kid and it’s brutal.

There was more—my notes for this post got lost in my computer meltdown, and I’m reconstructing it as I remember. One multi-award winning cartoonist announced he was giving up on comics in a friends-locked FB post. You’d have to throw in the end of PictureBox as part of the whole process.

A lot of these people aren’t household names, even in households with rooms full of comics shelf porn, but they love comics and have followings.

And a lot of it comes down to the fact that comics STILL isn’t an industry with a lot of money trickling down. Most cartoonists—and even many publishers—still run things on a basis the IRS would view as a hobby. It’s bootstrings and shoestraps and late nights and a monastic lifestyle for many people in this business.

It’s no secret that we’re becoming a feudal society, where peasants live down in the valley, in their cozy, tiny cottages toiling away for some new putty to regrout the tub, wearing the sigils of their liege lords Nike and CitiBank. Comics are strictly a 99% business, and too many cartoonists (and comics support staff) are living the life Jamie McKelvie once wrote of, “a constant low level money anxiety.” It saps one’s enthusiasm.

A few months ago Molly Crabapple wrote a piece on Vice called

Filthy Lucre where she confronted income inequality and the money myths of the artist

Meritocracy is America’s foundational myth. If you work hard, society tells us, you’ll earn your place in the middle class. But any strawberry picker knows hard work alone is a fast road to nowhere. Similarly, we place our faith in education. Study, and the upper-middle class will be yours. Except the average student graduates $35,000 in debt.

Artists too have their myths. The lies told to artists mirror the lies told to women. Be good enough, be pretty enough, and that guy or gallery will sweep you off your feet, to the picket-fenced land of generous collectors and two and a half kids. But, make the first move, seize your destiny, and you’re a whore.

But neither hard work nor talent nor education are passports to success. At best, they’re small bits of the puzzle.

A lot of people in comics having been living marginally for a while. My Facebook feed has also been filled of late with people proudly announcing taht thanks to Obamacare, after sometimes a decade or more, they have health insurance. These post are inevitably greatly liked. This is a world where people cheer when someone gets health insurance.

As I said, I’d been putting together my notes for this post for a while, and now I’ve been slammed by a computer crash and what will be a costly and temporary fix. I’m typing this on an eight year old computer that won’t support the software to run any of the programs we take for granted. (Twitter and Gmail won’t even load.) I invested in a top of the line Mac Book Pro two years ago thinking this was a great investment and trusting Apple. Now it’s a hunk of junk and making the repairs is going to postpone all the other plans I had for the beginning of the year. (Don’t even talk about getting a new computer.)

This isn’t a doom and gloom post. The comics industry has gotten to a great place and everyone has big plans. The paychecks don’t often support those plans however. And not everyone goes the distance. There are always going to be people who drop out for good reasons. But I think the fretting and worrying is going to become a lot more public in the coming months, partly as a reflection of the general economic situation, and partly because while the comics pie got bigger so did every other one. And you can do what you love for a long time without the money ever following.

It’s as easy as ever to get into comics, but the paychecks are getting smaller and smaller at the bottom of the pyhramid. The balloon has been rising and rising and getting bigger and bigger, but there aren’t any more atoms inside than there ever were. And people are beginning to notice.

No one every said this would be easy.

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