Following yesterday’s much quoted post on wanting to be hired, artist Jerry Ordway responded to the outpouring of support with more on the perils of exclusives and the freelancer’s life:

DC chose 52 artists over me, and let me twiddle my thumbs for a full 3 months while they tried to find inventory work for me. I knew I wasn’t currently in anyone’s “top ten” artists, but to find that I wasn’t in the top 52 was a shock:). If any of you are ever asked to be exclusive to any company, make sure they will incur penalties if they can’t keep you busy:)  I had that clause when I first signed, but the renewals did away with it because “it wasn’t really needed.” D’oh!

[snip] So anyhow, don’t feel sorry for me–I don’t want that. Don’t use this as an excuse to bash DC over their new books, but DO use this to understand the life of a freelance creator. We pay for our own healthcare, we pay an extra tax known as the self employment tax, and we all work strange long hours trying to make sure your comics ship on time. Support comics by the creators you like! Every sale helps. Support the independent publishers, and the small press comics, because they are putting their hearts and souls into their creations without any advance payments or page rates.

For whatever reason, the “exclusives wars” of the mid ’00s seem to be over, and given out to only the most top creators at a company. For a mid-level creator, it isn’t really a career advantage any more.

Mark Evanier also had thougths on the subject of ageism and comics evolution:

Over the years, I became friendly with — or at least interviewed — most of the comic book writers and artists whose careers predated or coincided with mine. Some managed to remain “in demand” as long as they were able to write or draw or wanted to work. Others hit a wall they’d never expected — one they’d once been more-or-less promised would never be there. A number of very fine, experienced creators in the last decade or two have been told things like, “I’d love to give you work but they tell me here I have to look for the new, young ‘hot’ artist.”

Usually, it isn’t that nakedly admitted but sometimes it is. Not that long ago, a veteran artist came to me and asked if I could help him get work…which he needed the way anyone might need work. I knew of a comic that a major company was about to launch and phoned up its editor to suggest the older guy would be perfect for it. The editor replied, “You’re right. He would be. I wish I could use him.” I swear: “I wish I could use him” is a verbatim quote.

Normally I wouldn’t quote a post at such length but there is much truth in it so I’ll add this bit:

I’m not too worried about Jerry. He’s very good and some smart editor (there are such people) will snap him up one of these days. I am worried when the industry seems too quick to dispose of talented folks and it becomes impossible or even just difficult to make a long-term living in comics. I think that would be very bad for the business. When good people come along, you don’t want them to think of their time writing or drawing comics as temp work that will only last until someone younger comes along with impressive samples and no grey hair. If today I was considering a career in comics, I don’t think I’d expect it to be a very long, stable one.

The other night I spoke with Calvin Reid at an SVA course on the business of cartooning taught by Dan Nadel. Calvin and I have been doing this every six months or so for four or five years, and every time I bring along a slideshow on different career outlets in comics. I find that I have to substantially update it every six months—and the current one has no relation to the one I started with. Syndicated comic strips aren’t even discussed, and even the “creator participation” model of comics seems to be dwindling away as companies like IDW and BOOM! turn more and more to licensed books and creators choose more to participate with themselves at Image, Kickstarter, or their own company. This was a large class—maybe 20 students—and when I asked who wanted to draw Thor not a single hand went up. When I asked who was on Tumblr, probably half the class raised their hands. That’s a huge switch from even 5 years ago.

At the end of the day, comics, like most industries, is still a meritocracy. A talented hard worker like Jerry Ordway still has job skills that a kid on Tumblr won’t develop for years and years. But I get the feeling that the career path of just wanting to grow up and draw superheroes is going to get more and more specialized.


  1. While the analogy isn’t very accurate, this reminds me a bit of professional athletes. Every year there is a new crop of young fresh talent, and every year, able bodied veterans get released to make way for the rookies.

  2. I might be wrong about this, but shouldn’t Jerry Ordway be fairly well off financially thanks to the large royalties/incentives that Big Two creators on top books got back in the 80s and 90s up until the speculator bubble burst?

  3. i agree that it seems like a pro athlete career. Most don’t make it past their rookie contracts, (2-3 yrs) the decent every day players can fetch 6-10 years. The stars can push it to 12-15 and the Legends will get ya 15-20. Not too dissimilar from what i see in the comics biz. (except for the money and the uniforms)

  4. Jerry’s original post on this yesterday made it sound like the royalties were not as much as one would assume, unfortunately.

    Isn’t Jerry’s story a microcosm of the economy in general? It isn’t enough to be the most talented anymore. Service and experience isn’t as valued as companies rather go on the cheap and young. Workers left out in the cold during an economical downturn are left retraining their skill set while the 40-70 year olds are wondering how they will find work?

    And while this isn’t a tech-based industry as such, I would hope the ability to draw well, tell a story well, and be quick and hit those deadlines is something people would still value.

  5. By my estimations (just going off what I know) there are about 50 artists and writers making pretty good money in comics, another 100 making just enough, but about 15,000 trying really hard to make anything. Comic books are an extremely competitive field, but so is the entire art, music and entertainment industry. You’ve either got to be super good, or re-invent your self or style every so often to keep making a living. It’s a hard fact of this kind of life.

  6. I dunno
    I feel bad for the guy but he’s the right age to have seen the golden age guys die poor while the bosses got rich. I’m sure following his dream gave him rose tinted glasses, but this couldn’t have come as a surprise.
    Especially when so many of his peers jumped ship to companies like Dark House to foster their fanbases.

    What makes me sadder is that there are countless kids who are ignoring this cautionary tale and still dream of a life of drawing Batman or Wolverine.

  7. I think my first stab at this was eaten by a spam filter, so here goes:

    I’m really glad that the Beat is contributing to a broader conversation about diminishing opportunities faced by comics veterans (especially those who primarily work in superhero comics). Its a debate that we should be having more frequently.

    That said, I think it’s a mistake to describe comics as meritocracy. I understand why one would be tempted to describe the industry in those terms, as independent publishers grow in strength and opportunities for self-publishing proliferate, but I don’t think the industry’s completely escaped its troubled past. The comics marketplace is still distorted by the outsize influence of Marvel and DC Comics, the problems in the ‘direct market’, Diamond’s near monopoly in distribution to that market and the legacy (and continued reality) of racial, ethnic, religious and gender based discrimination. Creators succeed because of their talent, hard work and entrepreneurial spirit, but there are many who have those qualities and are less successful because of market distortions.

    I also think that it’s important to recognize that the fans aren’t being given the opportunity to make a decision re: Ordway, the choice is being made for us by the editors and other decision makers at Marvel and DC (who may be lovely people but seem to have very firm ideas about the shelf lives of their artists).

    We should have a broader conversation about what a meritocracy in this industry would look like and how we can get there, but it’s premature to say that we’ve already achieved that goal.

  8. —that’s the most hilarious sentence i’ve read all week.
    it’s the KIDS, dammit, THE KIDS!! WE have to SAVE them!!
    get over yourself, savior….

    I think you may have responded to the wrong post because what you wrote doesn’t make any sense.

  9. “we pay an extra tax known as the self employment tax”

    This is a huge part of the problem right here. I constantly feel like I’m being punished by our government for wanting to work for myself. It’s killing the little guys. We keep having to work longer and crazier hours, just so we can make less, and get taxed more. It’s just crazy. It was up to around 50% in LA county before I moved to Texas. Running a business isn’t any easier, so there are major problems on both sides of the fence.

  10. Just wait until the higher ups at Marvel and DC figure out they can outsource the entire comic to a country where $9000/year is a huge salary. I know in engineering and law, it’s almost impossible to find a job because everyone’s outsourcing.

    I’m starting to think comics aren’t really an industry in the sense someone can enter it looking for lifelong employment. On the other hand, I don’t know why anyone would want to draw superheroes. Nothing against the people who enjoy reading those type of books, but if you’re a talented artist, why waste it drawing stuff that’s been drawn a million times before?

  11. I don’t think the sports analogy is a good one — professional athletes at least have union and talent representation to protect them and their rights, as well as pension and other benefits. I’m sure this was partly created because the shelf life of athletes is relatively short.

  12. My question is whether it is a decision by the publisher’s based on Ordway’s recent sales history or whether it is something else. What are the sales numbers on his recent books?

  13. What usually happens is the older creator tends to get put on lower profile books. If the creators don’t catch (sales) fire on the lower profile book, a downward cycle starts and you start getting worse and worse assignments that are harder to turn around. Nobody did themselves any sales history favors by working on DCU Presents, y’know? You put Ordway back on Superman, he probably sells just fine. You put Ordway back on Superman with a hot writer like Synder and you’ll see strong numbers (just not Jim Lee numbers). You put Ordway on Challengers of the Unknown with Dan DiDio in DCU Presents… the cards are stacked against it. The problem with exclusives is that you can get iced out, not just of better assignments, but of any assignments. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it’s an old story. It tends to happen over a period of years, too.

  14. Please, stop the victim mentality, Jerry Ordway, the “DC chose 52 artists over poor me” whining pap. Instead, diversify yourself as an artist, reach out to other (non-comic) arenas, use your contacts; surely you have those. Make sure of social media to reach out to other artistic avenues.

    Sadly, in the world of (any) freelancing, no company will ever be loyal to you. That’s how it is.

    You obviously still love what you do, so why not go somewhere where your artwork is appreciated, instead of bitching about where it is not. Times have changed. DC has just moved on as a company, so stop take it personally.

  15. I have seen Ordway’s career of work and find it sad that a firm like DC can’t find work for him while emphasizing stuff from younger artists whose work isn’t ready for prime time. While I see an earlier posts focus on different and exciting approaches with newer artists, the level of quality on many of them just isn’t there. Anatomy, perspective, composition, and just readable page designs seem to be a thing of the past in many cases. Ordway, while pretty much drawing in a mainstream mode, has all of these qualities and more. Maybe they pay these new artists a pittance compared to what a talented experienced artist would want? Maybe you get what you pay for?

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