Demythify: Comic Book Dreams & A Sober Reality (Peter David, John Ostrander, Gail Simone & More)

Thanks for popping by and checking out my weekly Monday Demythify column.

In the last few weeks the life of a comic book freelancer has become the subject of discussion on social media networks again. This happens almost on a cyclical basis whenever the adverse health status of a freelancer becomes known.

This kind of social media chatter happened in 2009 with comic writer John Ostrander’s eye surgery appeal. In early 2012 we saw a similar appeal concerning artist Tony DeZuniga after his stroke; sadly, he passed away shortly afterwards. Also, artist Gene Colan in the last years of his life got assistance from the Hero Initiative to deal with medical bills. And today, writer Peter David is rehabilitating from a stroke.

In these cases there is almost always an appeal by a creator and their families for monetary assistance which many creators and comic bloggers – including me – champion. In addition, a parallel discussion also happens among fans and creators on the precarious life of a freelancer.

The current Peter Andrew David’s (a.k.a. PAD) appeal is a bit different. Unlike many of his peers, he has diversified his career by going between comics, prose fiction and TV writing. He is part of a publishing collective called Crazy 8 Press where his creator-owned prose is published by and distributed from. The appeal has been for fans to purchase PAD’s work through Crazy 8. It is the fastest way to get monies to him. In addition, unlike many of his peers PAD has health insurance, but his medical bills are still mounting. His wife indicated that there will eventually be a direct donation appeal option on Peter David’s website, but that has yet to materialize.

There are several other creators other than PAD and the ones I referenced that have fallen on hard times in the last several years. Many, not all though, have been supported through the Hero Initiative who lists a few of its success stories online. The Hero Initiative describes itself as “the first-ever federally chartered not-for-profit corporation dedicated strictly to helping comic book creators in need. Hero creates a financial safety net for yesterdays’ creators who may need emergency medical aid, financial support for essentials of life, and an avenue back into paying work. It’s a chance for all of us to give back something to the people who have given us so much enjoyment.”

What does that tell you? Well, that it is very difficult to break into comics and once you do, it is difficult to make a living and stay in comics.

In the same vein, artist Scott Shaw also got some attention recently on his diatribe on freelancer treatment at Boom Comics for his work on Adventure Time, a comic based on a popular TV kids cartoon. The industry reaction was mixed. While there were a lot of grievances listed, the one that stuck out for me was Boom’s page rate: $100 a page for finished artwork and $200 for covers. For one comic book for Boom then, before applicable tax or other deductions, for a 24 page comic book the most an artist would get for interior art is $2400. However, in reality it may be closer to half of that or around $1600 due to taxes and/or miscellaneous deductions. Assuming you can get a steady job as a regular artist with a monthly gig at Boom, you may make anywhere between $18,000 to $28,000 for one book. That type of income straddles the poverty line. There may or may not be a royalty plan on top of that. If the artist is lucky, they can keep their original art which many artists sell for further revenue.

Boom’s page rates are naturally on the lower end compared to the larger companies, but even at the larger companies most creators don’t get the top dollar rates.

Artists more than writers may have more difficulty because most artists can only produce one typical sized comic book in 3 to 4 weeks. Writers can probably put out 2 to 3 or more books if they’re lucky to have a publisher give them that many monthly books.

Certainly Kickstarter has provided another stream to allow creators to do the work they want to do based on online donations from fans and potential readers. The creator can sell the books on top of that when ready.

Image Comics while a haven for independent creators does have some risk for creators too as evidenced with the recent blowback from their decision on their firm cut-off order dates and no reprints policy. Based on retailer backlash they reversed their new decision, but we also learned more about what creators there deal with. As much as there are generous overprints on many books, any books that aren’t ordered sit with the creator at their cost. So retailers with a conservative wait-and-see approach on orders or reorders eat significantly into that overprint. Image was having a lot of sell-outs and going back to second and third prints on books. Clearly if you print the right amount the first time, even factoring in overprint, the economies of scale are better and the costs more advantageous for the creator.

Writers Geoff Johns and Brian Michael Bendis are the comic book industry exceptions and do not reflect the majority experience of comic book creators. However, even Geoff has a degree to fall back on and another career in film making. He was able to turn that safety net into an asset and became DC Entertainment’s young Chief Creative Officer. In addition, BMB started comic work back in 1990 with Caliber Comics. He earned his stripes to get to where he is. It wasn’t an over-night success. It took him a decade to get to Marvel. Even before that he worked at the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper and did/does some teaching at Portland University on writing. Like Johns, BMB also does some work in video games, TV, and film. Their lives aren’t sustained solely on their comic book writing.

Again, they are the exception and not the rule. Most creators may have put the same amount of time and effort as Johns or BMB and still have not “made it”. Even being lucky enough to have critical buzz around an indy book doesn’t necessarily translate into financial security for a creator.

In fact, I know quite a few creators, particularly artists, who spend most of their time on animation or toy design because it’s more lucrative and stable. They keep their toes in comics, but do not rely on it as their primary source of income.

I’m not chronicling all this because I think a career in comic books is not a laudable goal. However, I do want to note that comic creators generally are not millionaires. If they’re lucky they can live a comfortable middle class life. And there will be a few that do better than that. However, it takes an extraordinary sacrifice by these creators to keep at it. So, as fans, while we may not share a consensus on what constitutes amazing writing or amazing art, there is one thing that there should be a consensus on: that all comic book creators deserve our respect. Period. It is not an easy road, but we should appreciate their sacrifice so that we may be entertained and hopefully they can earn a decent dollar for it.

In my youth I had dreamed about being a comic book writer. However, I didn’t have the courage to make the sacrifices needed to pursue that dream. I did however find a career almost 20 years ago that would allow me to use my writing skills and creativity. I have what many comic book creators who have spent that same 20 years or longer in and out of the comic book industry do not: a stable income and some benefits. I’m firmly in the middle class and happy in a career that gives my family stability. I wish that those creators who have spent their life providing me/us entertainment in comic books would have as much. However, the majority do not.

I do have a tether to the comics industry as I am fortunate enough to blog about the medium I love “on the side”. I’ve been doing this for about a decade and I’ve been able to actually use my abundance of potentially useless pop culture knowledge from over 30 years of comic reading.

For all the young and aspiring comic book creators, do what Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, and others in the industry have done. Get a diploma or a degree in some kind of skill or profession that you can fall back on if your comic book career doesn’t pan out. Have a safety net.

There are also two recent blogs from comic book lumaries that you should also read. The first is writer John Ostrander’s recent blog posting called Freelancers live without a net and writer Gail Simone’s recent blog piece Brutal Tips on Breaking into Comics.

Lastly, to fandom, read what you want to read. While blogs like this one provide you opinions on the industry and comics, we are fans just like you. My tastes may not be your tastes and that’s ok. When I first started reading comics, there was no internet. I picked up books whose covers were cool, whose creators I wanted to follow, and/or which comic book character I recognized. Support which creators and which books you wish to support. And ALWAYS respect the creators for the sacrifices they have made and do make to entertain us.

If you wish to donate to the Hero Initiative, to help those creators when they are truly in need, you can do so here.

Thanks for reading. All feedback welcome. 🙂

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