The Cover to Nonplayer #2 and how to make money as an artist

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Some rambling thoughts on various aspects of making comics and making money.

I alluded earlier to the sudden announcement that Nonplayer #2 by Nate Simpson was finished and would be presumably be coming out later this year. Simpson has written a much longer piece complete with a FAQ confirming that the issue will be in the May solicitations from Image; he’s contacted Image about reprinting issue #1 but no response yet, and Warners—which had optioned the comic—has let their rights lapse, so it’s there for the taking. And then he gets to why it took 3 1/2 years to draw the comic. It’s a long answer but I’ll lift a graph:

When Nonplayer #1 was released, a few things happened. As I have detailed here in the past, there was quite a bit of distracting hoopla (at least by my standards). Between promoting the book, fulfilling poster and comic orders, Googling myself, hanging out with all my new comics friends, talking to Hollywood big shot types, and trying to answer every comment on DeviantArt in a meaningful way (man, that was cray), the amount of time left in a day turned out to be quite small. So regret #1 is not having made more hay while the sun was out, because I had a finite window of full-time access to the comic, and a lot of that time was spent on things other than drawing.

Then came other things—the declining health of his mother was a particularly severe impediment, followed by a shoulder injury, a soul sucking job, a baby, and the other things that life throws at you in a three year period. In my earlier report I joked that he was “staying up every night until 4 am drawing one precious line a night” but it turns out I was pretty close:

Progress was excruciatingly slow for me. An hour or two every morning, just adding a few more lines, a little bit of color, and then off to work. With time at such a premium, my blogging stopped almost completely. Every once in a while, folks would poke at me or wonder where Nonplayer had gone, and there wasn’t really anything I could show or tell them. I was half-done with the book and was literally getting a face drawn one day, a hand the next day, a telephone the day after that. It was like crossing a desert on all fours with no oasis in sight.

Simpson’s guilt and discomfort over not being able to work on his passion project led to him crossing the street when he walked by his comic shop and other distressed behavior. Luckily, the issue is finished now—twitter tells is it looks good, no surprise given his obvious talent.

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I don’t mean to make Simpson feel any worse than he did, or to rain on his issue #2 parade, but perhaps there is no shame in admitting that, perhaps, maybe, possibly, a monthly comic is not for you. Or even a bi-monthly comic. Some artists are slow. Most procrastinate (myself included, though I am hardly an “artist”) and a deadline or a bill is often the surest encouragement to work. But some people just don’t have the ability to generate regular work—and that’s okay. They can be amazing talents and nice people. Discipline is another ability entirely. After all, Rafael Grampa is the total bomb, and I interviewed him in 2009 about Furry Water…and it still hasn’t come out.

And you know, just being the bomb doesn’t pay the bills. Although this is the true golden age of comics, TV and Cadbury Highlights, just being awesome is not enough. This link has been going around about how there are way too many comics being published in France and cartoonists are giving up and doing whatever people do in France to make a living. I was told about the French comics glut when I was there earlier in the year for Angouleme, and there was fretting and lip biting about it, but the subtleties of the situation weren’t able to penetrate my amazement at being in a place with so may glorious comics.

Zainab Akhtar has a longer think piece here spinning out of a recent Lizz Hickey comic (since removed but the internet is an elephant) that was expressing frustration over “give me money” campaigns people have for shoes, plane tickets and other stuff. Obviously this is a sore spot for many people, but crowdfunding for creative endeavors is well established by now. Akhtar shares a fundamental mistrust of asking for money but also pooh poohs the idea that art is a sacred calling and people don’t need to be practical:

At the same time,online funding has been freeing for many artists, allowing them to give up the jobs they had and make art full-time, untethered; I’d guess the majority of artists are making a little bit extra from donations that eases their living costs somewhat, or pays for printing and so forth. To return to Hickey, artists are making art in the first instance- there is no petulant, throwing toys out of the pram exercises -‘I’m going to stop making things if you don’t support me financially!’ but that is a reality that many artists are faced with- at some point making art in the spare time you find around jobs and commitments is simply no longer financially sustainable. How many artists has comics in particular lost to that road? If crowd-funding and donations is a way to temporarily supplant that, then why not? There shouldn’t be any shame in that choice. Wanting to be supported and paid for what you do is perfectly valid, and it’s kind of sad that we still have to justify that. Money isn’t required to make art, or even for validation, but as a tool for food and shelter and time and living, it works just fine. 

Obviously, I’m no stranger to crowdfunding. A year ago I had a (incredibly generous) donation campaign that helped pay off a lot of debts involving this website, and I launched a Patreon over the summer. The result has been more than I expected, and has absolutely helped keep this site going. At the same time, it’s more than the money raised by a lot of cartoonists who have more talent in their little finger than I have in my whole limbic system. I find that distressing.

And yet, as a mentioned when I launched my Patreon, I consider it analogous to subscribing to a magazine. If you would pay $4 for a magazine about comics every month, then maybe you can pay $1 a month for a barely passable, typo-riddled website about comics. Crowdfunding is the latest iteration of crowdsourcing in a world where we get everything for free that we used to pay for, entertainment wise. You can spend an hour un tumblr and be showered with more majestic art and comics than you would get in a MONTH before the internet. That access, unfortunately, also devalues the worth of all that majestic creativity, yadda yadda. Responsible people with consciences know, deep down, that it isn’t free, and that if you truly love a work of art, throwing a dollar into a hat is a small way to show your appreciation. And despite what we’d all like to think, that is kinda the way things work now.

All that access is also devaluing work that should be paid for. I’ve been seeing some grumbling on FB about artists being asked to work for nothing on spec or for development, and I’ve heard several recent examples of one of the most alarming business models of all: work for hire for a backend only. Even when there are page rates, unless it’s Marvel or DC, they aren’t what anyone in a metropolitan area could live on, or anyone with anything but an extremely spartan living style in a remote forest cabin. It was suggested that artists don’t dare speak out because they fear not getting work from publishers paying the low rates. As one artist told me “It’s SOP for established publishers who realize artists will keep taking worse and worse deals.” It’s also part of the general decline of artists at the Big Two—a decline which is useful for keeping art rates at “salary cap” levels. But, it’s also undeniable that there is a glut of excellent comics artists and and surpluses drive down prices.

I don’t think that publishers that pay low rates are socking away giant Scrooge McDuck like piles of money—in fact, I know they aren’t. Sales are up but it’s still a low margin business for most sectors.

Image Comics is obviously the biggest beneficiary of the current system—and when I say Image Comics I mean the creators at Image and the readers of Image. Image is a seine net for every other business model; it’s a perfect mix of salt-mine hardened veterans and first flush of inspiration newcomers. And readers seem to like it. But, in order to buy in, you still need to save up enough money for that three or four months of waiting for cash to flow in. And that takes a day job, or some big two work or a working spouse. Or a tiny cabin and a patch of kale to live on.

And with Image we circle around once more to Nate Simpson. Obviously, Image isn’t a good model for him. Neither is crowdfunding, whether Kickstarter or Patreon. there is really no model that supports a Nate Simpson, because his work habits are not geared to a self-starting model. Luckily he is a very talented artist (and a nice guy) and he has other work options. His passion project will remain that—and something that others can enjoy when it comes out. For many creators, comics will never be a full time job—but as an industry we need to make sure that there’s still a business model that makes it possible for those who CAN work full time to be able to get a job that pays a living wage,

17 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for making me think about this topic. I sometimes get frustrated with slow artists, but their stuff should come out when it comes out; now, it’s on mainstream publishers to not promise stores/readers that stuff when they know an arist can’t possibly meet said deadline.

    As it is, cartooning is a devalued form of artwork. I remember the Noah van Sciver comic about the glorious 19th century (I believe 19th?) cartoonist.

  2. If Nate Simpson were able to deliver in a more timely manner, his talent would make him in high demand, thus eliminating his need for a day job and general money woes. While many people are going broke in comics, transcendent talents like Simpson will always find work and money. Only if he can work in a somewhat fastidious manner. Which he can’t and thus, his woes and ours as readers. This reader thought Nonplayer #1 was one of the most amazing comic books to ever come into being.

  3. I enjoy the range of interconnected matters discussed in this article.

    I have one note that piggybacks off of your closing remarks about what Nate Simpson. This isn’t anything that he can possibly fix but more of an open statement or request to any other Nate Simpsons out there:

    Why don’t artists do what they *can*?

    For instance, an artist who creates elaborate and rich art yet takes a very long time to complete this work…perhaps such an artist should focus on self-contained, non-serialized projects. Similar to a French graphic album, it could just be an impressive hardback, deluxe/prestige project. It isn’t only Nate Simpson, there are other comic artists who are in similar positions: talented, but incompatible with the serialized comic magazine format that the direct market is familiar with.

    Anyway, that’s a thought.

  4. As an aspiring comics artist who had a kid last year, I can tell you that having a kid throws MUCH more of a wrench into the works than anyone realizes. It’s not just a pile of laundry with a face that you have to keep the dog from eating. It’s a human person who becomes the center of your life.

    I thought I’d be able to work on a couple pages a week and still move along more slowly but I learned quickly (much to my writer/friend’s chagrin) that this plan wasn’t going to work. I still fit in some work and some drawing here and there but to the outside world I’m pretty much at a stand-still. I don’t really care, though, because I’d rather hang out with my boy than be a comics superstar most days.

  5. “If Nate Simpson were able to deliver in a more timely manner, his talent would make him in high demand, thus eliminating his need for a day job and general money woes. While many people are going broke in comics, transcendent talents like Simpson will always find work and money. Only if he can work in a somewhat fastidious manner.”

    What a lot of assumptions here. There are many artists who deliver, deliver every month, and produce good work, who can’t make ends meet because the issue is not what people produce, the issue is what people pay for. Have you looked at comic sales? Most titles selling well under 10,000 copies. No money there.

  6. At the end of the day no one will ever care how long it took you to make your art or if you met your deadlines. There are no Eisner awards for delivering a book on schedule. The art speaks for itself and lives on. Some of the greatest artists in the history of the world averaged one painting per year and produced maybe 30 images in their entire life. Comic Fanboys would have called them lazy.

    Comic book fans are a little ridiculous. They’d rather have forgettable, mediocre junk on a monthly schedule (that they can complain about on the internet) than something of quality that took longer to make. It seems by Simpson’s own admission he wasted a ton of time, and that’s a large part of it, and maybe Image should have been better about judging the publishing schedule and not released the book until more of the series was complete. Maybe this should have been a graphic novel? But fanboys/retailers are also incredibly entitled with their expectations and armchair quarterbacking of how creators are supposed to work. Our reliance on the direct market, monthly shipping schedule also is to blame. It emphasizes scheduling logistics over quality and doesn’t allow for slower artists like Simpson and others to have a solid place.

    Lets give the guy a break. There’s like maybe 20 people in the world making a “quit your day job” living solely from creator owned comics. Unless you’re on an A-list, big two book or enjoy living in poverty, comics is a professional side hobby for a lot of talented creators. As a parent I also remember that its something you can never fully prepare for. Dominates all your time and energy in a good way. Can’t wait to see issue #2!

  7. ” were able to deliver in a more timely manner”

    LOL
    Even if Nate delivered faster he’ll still have to wait for months til the Image royalty check arrives. What’s he gonna do while waiting? Feed his baby ramen?

    His talent is acknowledged, he’s the lead artist of game studio that pays his monthly bills. And… Warners optioned his IP. If they greenlight production, depending on his deal with them, he’ll get potentially over $100K just for one comic issue.

  8. Hi guys! Nate here.

    The internet’s weird, isn’t it?

    I thought this was a really well-reasoned piece. I’d like to add a little to what’s already been said.

    A lot of times, I hear people referring to me as a “slow” creator for whom there is no sustainable business model in comics. Crazy as it may seem, I am actually capable of working quickly. In games, we have to turn around artwork at a breakneck pace. What limits Nonplayer’s release schedule are the ground rules for the book, itself. This is a zero-compromise project. I work on every panel until I can manage no further improvements. That’s what the book is, for better or for worse. Which means it’s also slow.

    Would I like to try drawing a fast comic? Absolutely. Had I debuted as a monthly artist, would I have achieved any success in comics? I’m not so sure about that. The way things went, I got noticed due to the polish of this particular project. So that’s the project that’s moving forward.

    To those who say that Image erred by not holding the first few issues until several were complete. I would just say that I never would have gotten through the second issue without already having the first one out in the wild. There’s only so long you can toil in a vacuum without input from the public. I am naturally self-critical, and I assume by default that everything I make is terrible. The positive feedback I received after the release of issue 1 was extremely helpful during the long years it took to draw #2.

    The problem here is this: how do I make enough money to work on Nonplayer full-time? That’s the big unanswered question, the dimensions of which are well-described in this article. I’ve kicked around ideas ranging from Kickstarter to old-style patronage to illustrating comic covers. And of course, there’s always been the potential deus ex machina of something getting greenlit in Hollywood. There’s also the Brandon Graham method, where you write and art-direct a book like Prophet, and use your take from the monthly book to fund your other project. I am working on a similar project right now, in the hope that diversification will make it easier to move into comics full-time.

    I have another idea that MAY work, but that announcement is still a little way off. I hope that it adds a new dimension to this conversation, and if it does succeed, I hope it offers a new avenue for other practitioners of slow-cooked art. This medium could use a few more Kubricks and George R.R. Martins, I think. Fast comics are awesome, but slow ones are too. We should have a big tent.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion, guys!

    -Nate

  9. Looking up Nonplayer on the sales charts, I found that #1 had first month sales of 8,869. A second printing brought that number up to 14,825, so that Image royalty check was certainly not in the “quit your day job” realm.

  10. I could understand the complaints if Simpson promised any sort of schedule, or solicited issues that didn’t come out. But he didn’t. The text page in #1 says that the first issue took a year to do, and the second will be out when it’s done. And he’s even being overly cautious not even getting the solicitations engine moving on #2 until it was done (this week we’re getting a new SANDMAN OVERTURE, two months late even from the revised schedule after earlier issues shipped late).

    Would anyone’s life be better now if Simpson hadn’t released #1 three years ago? You’d have an extra $3 in your pocket.

  11. Nate Simpson: Thanks for coming here and expanding on your comments and taking it all in stride. I met you after Nonplayer #1 came out at…ECCC maybe? Anyway, you struck me as a nice guy, and the book was and is beautiful.

    Just to throw in something I was thinking about, there are “slow” artists who work at a normal rate but just wait until five seconds until the doomsday clock strikes to finish their work. And then are there actually SLOW artists such as Nate Simpson, Travis Charest, Jaime Hernandez and David Mazzucchelli who are slow in the sense that they really do take a long time to get things to their satisfaction and tear up lots of pages and constantly rework things. Given the results, there is nothing “wrong” with this except that you leave a very slim shelf of comics behind. And as Nate pointed out…you have to figure out how to make a living with this pace, which isn’t easy.

  12. I’ll say 2 things that are maybe going to shock some people:

    If any artist spend a year (or more) on 24 pages of comic he/she’ll have something that looks amazing. But most pro artists produce one finished page EACH day, 20 or 24 a MONTH. Comics are about telling stories and that requires a lot of pages so you need to produce those pages FAST.

    And that leads us to the obvious answer about making a living out of comics: produce more pages and you can make more money. It’s not about the page rate it’s about how long it takes you to draw that page. You can make a living out of low page rates if you are smart/tricky/professional/organized and manage to produce faster AND better than the next guy. One idea: go digital. I do everything digitally and I improved my speed by at least 50%. There are a lot of other tricks and methods too.

    Be creative and BE FAST.

  13. Heh, “be good, cheap and fast.” That’s certainly the golden trifecta, isn’t it, JM?
    Your comment obviously just goes back to what Joey said above. “Comic book fans are a little ridiculous. They’d rather have forgettable, mediocre junk on a monthly schedule (that they can complain about on the internet) than something of quality that took longer to make.”
    Honestly, with guys like Nate Simpson, although his art takes a long time to produce, I wouldn’t necessarily call it slow. It’s just super detailed, and super clean. Both those things take MUCH longer to produce than something simple and sketchy. If he drew it faster, you just wouldn’t be getting the same thing.
    I’d echo the sentiment that a comic that takes the form of a monthly pamphlet might not be the best publishing format for this type of approach to a story, but be that as it may, as think the art form is better off for having more work of this quality.

  14. I can relate to a lot of what is being said here on many levels. The money. The time. The effort. The waiting. The hope of just making a dent in the sea of titles that comes out *every* week. It’s not easy. It never was. It’s just harder now. Some artists are having trouble with conventions, too. At this time, many comic creators are hunkering down against the cold winter chill of an industry stuck in an unforgiving mode. And we’re all waiting for the next big thing to come along and help us out.

    As for Nate and his work. He’s a good guy, and he does good work. Leave him alone and let him work out how he juggles life, family and career — all of which are insanely hard on their own merits.

  15. As an artist, I’m slow by most standards, I can’t pull a Kim Jung-Gi and start in on a page with inks, not many people can, some people are mutants and some are just trying to keep up. Artists that I admire are always learning and trying to get better. Whether they are working on the visuals or story telling, the point remains they aren’t satisfied drawing the same thing over and over just to meet deadlines. While lots of the issues I have with time management are mental, self doubt, etc… It’s also that if you have personal standards that exceed what editors would be happy with, then you’re in a strange place. If you know no matter how much work you put into a page you will get paid the same, it changes the kind of work you are willing to put into the page.

    The problem I think at least partially is that too many artists are fans of the characters, so they don’t mind getting paid less than they should to draw a character they grew up on, or working with a writer they admire, or whatever else is used to get the most out of them for less. Basically you’re always coming at the situation at a disadvantage and if you’re not willing to constantly compromise and do nothing but draw comics 10 hours a day, 7 days a week then you’re going to live a box with me and work in retail. Even though printing costs have gone down and obviously with digital comics there is no stock to run out of or store in large warehouses, page rates haven’t gone up. Perhaps the industry is still blaming the 90’s speculator market, however the amount of movies, Tv-Shows, cartoons based on comics has never been higher, the money just isn’t trickling down.

    Personally I’m a connoisseur, which means that I’m willing to wait for quality and I’m willing to pay more for it, but I don’t think there are enough of us to support all the people that would like to actually treat comics like a finer form of art.

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