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Village Voice wonders why cartoonists don't make more money — while not paying cartoonists


As mentioned in a previous item, this week’s Village Voice is the Cartoon Issue, and the centerpiece is a longish article called If Cartoons Are So Big, Why Don’t They Pay?; it’s one of several recent prominent articles — like the recent Marvel profile in the NY Times — that focus on the rather frugal level of profits one can expect from publishing comic books in America.

If our bedazzled nerd friend found his way to the MoCCA Fest in New York this weekend, he’d see hundreds of comics artists giving classes, selling comics, and signing autographs, just like movie stars. Truly, he would think, this is the Golden Age.

But after a while, a different kind of thought might cross his mind:

If comics are so big, how come so few of these people are making a living at it?

The piece interviews a colorful swath of comics types from Jules Feiffer to Ted Rall to Jason Yungbluth to Dorothy Gambrell. The findings are all pretty similar: it’s hard to make money making comics. Along the way we learn things like the fact that Fantagraphics does $6 million in sales a year, which Gary Groth helpfully puts into a grim perspective:

By “substantial and sustainable readership,” Groth means “the first printing of [a Woodring] book will sell 10,000 copies.” And that’s after more than 20 years of nurturing. It works for Woodring and Fantagraphics because, says Groth, “we’re a private company, we don’t need to satisfy investors, and we keep our overhead relatively low.” (Fantagraphics does about $6 million in sales a year.) But it’s no get-rich-quick scheme, nor even a get-solvent-quick scheme.

There’s also this jaw-dropper:

“I’m not sure how much you’ll be allowed to write about this,” says Dan Perkins (Tom Tomorrow), “but of course the Village Voice Media chain is one of the major culprits in this—their decision to ‘suspend’ cartoons [in 15 papers in 2009] dealt a serious blow to the struggling subgenre of alt-weekly cartoons.” [Tom Tomorrow returned to the pages of the Voice within a few months. Also, many of the artists in this issue aren’t getting paid, but have contributed work for the exposure.]

Do you year that? Because they get “exposure” in the Village Voice, artists are asked to draw for free. Wow, so generous! Seriously, does this make any sense for ANYONE?

Above illo by Mitch O’Connell.

Despite all the hassles and ramen, cartoonists continue to flood the streets and we’ll see them all at MoCCA and decide that comics is the best industry ever once again.

UPDATE: As we wrote in the comments, the real news here is that the Village Voice USED to pay cartoonists and other contributors. The fact that now it’s all for “exposure” is the real comment on our times. While it’s obvious that doing anything creative for pay has always been a tenuous move money-wise, the continuing erosion of paying outlets is even more problematic.

Other features in the Comics package at the Voice:The gossip column La Dolce Musto is rendered to comic by Dominic Bugatto

A cartoon review of V-Nam Café, as illustrated by Adam Kidder.

  1. I think there is only one time at which comic artists got rich off their work, during the 1990’s Image years. Newspaper comic artists got rich from the very beginning but that is a very different ballgame. The newspaper guys always owned their properties. Outcault was a millionaire, as was Schultz and probably Bill Watterson.

    For an artist of any sort to get rich, they need to won their intellectual property. Neil Gaiman established himself in comics and then moved onto books to make real money.

    If you look at illustrators of the 1950’s (not comic guys but the magazine guys), a tiny percentage made huge money, like Norman Rockwell, but the rest of the guys just made middle class incomes.

    I think for every Chris Ware, whose work will be in print forever, there are hundreds of comic artist who will sell a few thousand books and be forgotten. That is just the way it is.

    It is the same way in the fine arts, hundreds of painters but only one Picasso.

    And there is not path to millions through mini comics, as cool as they are.

  2. there is something so boneheadedly stupid about the fact that they would run an article like this, and not see the value in cartoonists work enough to pay for the use of their work. Its an outrage! Do their reporters and writers work for ‘exposure’? I think not!

  3. Dan Zettwoch & Kevin Huizenga’s “Amazing Facts & Beyond” strip has been in the Village Voice-owned Riverfront Times for eons (other than the “suspension” period Tom Tomorrow mentions, of course). I really hope they’re getting paid for it.

  4. Why do cartoonists not get paid? Because some will work for free.

    The arts is very, very competitive. Writing is the same as comics. Film: same. People will work for nothing to get ahead, to get noticed. Intern for nothing, maybe get hired. It’s supply and demand.

    The problem is that there are no standards, no licensing body, it is a free-market free-for-all.

    How can you charge what you think your work is worth, when your competitors are giving it away for nothing?

  5. I agree, it’s a boneheaded idea for the Voice to run this.

    The reason publications get away with getting comics/cartoons for free is because there are so many cartoonists willing to let them. If everyone were to just stop being so willing, publications would realize that there is a fee involved in running a cartoon from a professional cartoonist, just as there is a printer’s fee, and an accountant’s fee, and a lawyer’s fee, etc… I could list all the professions. Why don’t they refuse to pay their printer? Because printers don’t stand for it.

  6. unfortunately, from my experience, most anthology work and other times you might have a strip or a couple pages printed in something it’s usually for free and for exposure. i do however find it despicable that a major publication like the village voice wouldn’t pay cartoonists though, i mean come on! they must pay illustrators right?

    anyway, the real cartoonists are the one who stay in the game anyway.

  7. Every time I read a story like this and people talking about working for free for ‘exposure’, this youtube video always springs to mind:

    NSFW due to language.

  8. Dan Goodsell wrote: “Newspaper comic artists got rich from the very beginning but that is a very different ballgame. The newspaper guys always owned their properties. Outcault was a millionaire, as was Schultz and probably Bill Watterson. ”

    This is simply not true. Syndicates usually owned the strips. Successful, popular cartoonists occasionally were able to renegotiate for ownership or for more generous royalty arrangements. In some cases, popular cartoonists left the strip that made them famous (but which they didn’t own) and started a new strip that they did own (for example, Milton Caniff leaving Terry & the Pirates to start up Steve Canyon.)

    Popular newspaper strip cartoonists were pretty well-paid and often retained various rights (up to and including copyright) with regards to their strips. Less popular cartoonists didn’t have such good deals.

    All that said, the comic strip business during the 20th century seems like it was much less exploitative than the comic book business.

  9. In a lot of ways, that’s just sort of way of the arts, right? I mean, it’s not like you get paid for getting published in THE MISSOURI REVIEW and for most of its history the mighty McSweeney’s hasn’t even really paid (at least, that’s what their submission guidelines used to say).

    I feel like on a lot of levels this story amounts to the same old “holy shit! comics aren’t just for super geeks” etc, etc, etc. But… the arts have always been this way. basically no remuneration for most of the people involved. Some people make a little. Some people make enough to live. A few make a ton.

    Hell, at least it’s not like Film where you have to, for example, max out a bunch of credit cards even to make something, like Kevin Smith did with clerks.

    I’m not defending the system and the VV is certainly being kinda hypocritical, but… it just doesn’t seem to be that different of a situation from … well, anything.

  10. The issue isn’t that artists work for free because of there being no standards, it’s that the comics-buying public supports work of lower quality and does not take an active interest in work that is “art”.

    Please note that I use the term “art” (kind of poorly, I admit) in this case to mean self-generated, self-expressive, even if it is a zombie comic.

    Marvel and DC pay well because they CAN–they make a lot of money on their properties and they want to sell more, so they pay competitive rates. Those rates are what draw artists and writers away from their own more personal projects–projects on which they’re paid little or literally nothing.

    But we do these “personal” projects–“personal” means because we think it’s good or important, and not because there’s someone saying “we gotta have another issue of IRON FIST this month, no matter what!”–we do them because they are valuable in and of themselves. So there’s no pay but there’s meaning in the creation of it.

    If you think cartoonists should be paid, buy something personal today at the comic store. There’s highly-idiosyncratic, non-mainstream work like the Norwegian cartoonist Jason (who will write werewolf stories that make you cry) and my favorite, Chris Ware–the two most recent Acme Novelty Library books are truly incredible pieces of writing. There’s more straightforward personal work put out by Image, like WHO IS JAKE ELLIS (comes out today, I believe) and BUTCHER BAKER, both of which I highly, highly recommend.

    Comics are like music–buy what you like and don’t listen to what you hate. When you buy it, YOU are paying the creator…

    And just to make clear, I think the situation SUCKS, too. But I’ve bitched about it enough to know it doesn’t change, so I buy those books.

  11. And to expand on Robert Boyd’s excellent point, back in those days, most if not all decent-sized cities had two (or more) competing newspapers and it was not unheard of for one paper to overpay the syndicate for a popular comic strip to keep it from the competition.

  12. I think the Golden Age for cartoonists, pay-wise, was actually from the late 1880s through the 1950s.

    During that period, cartoonists had a myriad of outlets with which to make money, and the best cartoonists did very, very well.

    Almost every periodical during that period featured gag cartoons, and cartoon-related advertisements were not just a common form of advertising, they were a major, and, judging by the ad clientele, a well-respected form of advertising. During the 1930s, for example, it was not unusual for a magazine to have a half-dozen or more cartoon-related ads inside each issue.

    On the newspaper side of things, the best editorial cartoonists were paid extremely well, and were wooed by powerful newspapers nationwide. Their cartoons were such important circulation draws that they were often featured on the front page of newspaper from that era. For details, see my essay on editorial cartoonist John T. McCutcheon here: http://open.salon.com/blog/r_maheras/2009/07/31/when_the_editorial_cartoonist_was_king

    Newspaper comic strips were also huge draws for newspapers back then, and the best syndicated cartoonists were paid very, very well — so much so that when Milton Caniff left “Terry and the Pirates” for a more lucrative deal with Field Enterprises (along with full ownership of his new character, Steve Canyon), it was huge news nationwide — so much so that Caniff was featured on the cover of “Time” magazine. The Chicago Sun, Marshall Fields’ flagship newspaper, even featured Caniff’s new comic strip on the front page, ABOVE THE MASTHEAD, for the first few days of its run.

    And while the early comics business is often critized by folks today because of creator issues, it was a huge new market for cartoonists of that era looking for work, despite its drawbacks. If not for comic books, “Superman” may never have seen the light of day, because the newspaper syndicates just did not want the strip. Depending on the publisher, page rates could be quite lucrative for faster cartoonists, and many creators did quite well during the 1930s-1940s boom.

    This 1925 cartoon ad by B. “Tack” Knight may seem a bit unbelievable to today’s more cynical and jaded cartoonist, but during the Roaring ’20s, it really did seem like one could get rich drawing cartoons: http://open.salon.com/blog/r_maheras/2010/08/21/rolling_home_the_money_circa_1925

  13. Its always depressing with excellent artists do work and don’t get paid, whether those artists are comics artists, writers, musicians or photographers or what have you. The WSJ did a story a little while ago about some young fiction writer who suddenly discovered that trying to write literary fiction for a living was, well, a fiction.

    All these artists deserve better but making great or even good art has never been a good way to make a living, even if you’re looking for commercial work. Not sure what any of us can do about it. Making art to make a living is a crap shoot. That said, let’s hope folks continue to put their economic lives on the line to do so.

  14. Yep, one of my friends mentioned they were working on a illustration for this issue of the Voice sans compensation.

    It’s nice they(the Voice) want an issue full of comic art, but they should plan ahead and come up with larger budget, not have assistant art directors beg for favors.

  15. The real news here is that the Village Voice USED to pay cartoonsits and other contributors. The fact that now it’s all for exposure is the real comment on our times.

  16. Free work for “exposure” is something that all commercial artists must do from time to time, especially when their careers are just getting underway. That said, I’m appalled that the Voice, a venue that can and should pay for professional illustration, opted to pad out their big comics issue with a pile of weak, unpaid illustration.

  17. Bradydale wrote “In a lot of ways, that’s just sort of way of the arts, right? I mean, it’s not like you get paid for getting published in THE MISSOURI REVIEW…”

    I think there is a big difference. A literary magazine usually is a low-budget non-profit dependent on grants to survive. The Village Voice is a large commercial enterprise. I will write free for my blog or a friend’s blog when I know that no one is getting paid. No way would I ever write for free for the VV or any other commercial publisher. To me, The Missouri Review or Gulf Coast or Glimmertrain are fundamentally different than the VV (or the New Yorker or the Huffington Post, for that matter).

  18. “If you look at illustrators of the 1950’s (not comic guys but the magazine guys), a tiny percentage made huge money, like Norman Rockwell, but the rest of the guys just made middle class incomes.”

    Of course, we could draw this same comparison to every profession. I’ve met lawyers who make six figures — six HUGE figures — and I’ve met some lawyers you make under 100K per year — five smaller figures.

    Since we know their work — making them somewhat famous — we probably just assume that riches follows the writers and artists.

  19. I am a big fan of cartoonists doing comics for free and not showing them to people.

    I’m a big fan of cartoonists doing comics for free on their own terms (ie, webcomics, a business model which DOES yield some profits)

    I’ve never understood how magazines and newspapers get away with paying artists nothing or next-to-nothing and paying their writers and editors actual money. That shit is garbage.

    I work for exposure. You expose me to some money and we can talk.

  20. I was one of the cartoonists shitcanned by the Voice a couple years ago. It should be noted this expulsion of comix wasn’t just at the Village Voice. The parent company, based in Phoenix, cut ALL syndicated comix from ALL its papers, then numbering 14 or 15 of the biggest weeklies in the country. I lost the bulk of my income with one stroke of a beancounter’s pen.

    The papers got complaints. They were ignored. No explanation was given why this puzzling move was made. It just was.

    I believe their longterm plan is to go all in on the Intertube and eventually shut down the print operation. And, as we all know, no one reads comix online. Except, of course, the millions who read comix online.

    I’ve grown weary of trying to save newspapers from themselves.

  21. I wonder how many of those cartoonists actually thought to ask for money for their work. It’s been my experience that rookie cartoonists don’t know to ask for money when they are asked to do work.

  22. The problem is the artists willing to work for free.

    The only way I can see doing this is if you’ve had little to no work published, and you want to be able to say “I was published by a major media outlet.”

    That’s it.

  23. It makes no sense to give work away for the sake of exposure when print is dead and digital self-publishing costs nothing. The only way to ease the plight of skilled artists even a little is to get the word out that this kind of activity is as unethical as strikebreaking. People in all media would be smart to adopt a simple code: don’t give work away to for-profit entities. If you’re really desperate to build a portfolio and you’re not confident in your ability to go viral (something thoroughly untalented people somehow manage to do every day on YouTube), find a charitable/nonprofit organization to work with, or do something for a worthy, underfunded government agency, or pool resources with other struggling artists and start your own publication to drain talent away from the exploitative ones. If all those options are too unrealistic, then the war is already lost and there’s no point in ever hoping to make art for a living.

  24. There’s an old saying that goes something like, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

    Publishers aren’t stupid. If a non-altruistic publisher has a never-ending supply of young cartoonists eager to build a resume/published portfolio who will do the work for free, they are going to take advantage of it.

    One of the reasons I opted out of the cartooning-for-a-living business is because while it was easy to get published, it was difficult to get a gig that paid anything nearly worth my time expended on a given project. In addition, having a union “day job” for four years spoiled me into expecting additional perks like paid vacation, health and dental benefits, seniority, overtime, etc.

    So, in 1978, I quit fooling myself and relegated my cartooning to a hobby status. I continued to draw and get published so I could get various creative ideas out of my system, but the angst about not getting paid for it didn’t matter anymore.

    A few times over the years afterwards when I did a “paying gig” the results weren’t any more encouraging than they were when I was “young and dumb.” In one case, it took me two-and-a-half-years to get paid. In another, despite a contract, there (ahem) was apparently no profit after all was said and done, so my payment was copies of the publication — which is generally what I got for most of my fanzine work back in the day. In a third case, I refused payment to avoid a conflict of interest situation.

    In all fairness, I also had a couple of paying gigs that went smoothly, but, in my case at least, they are far too infrequent to even consider drawing for a living.

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