Artists speak Garrick Webster asks indie comic artists about the industry and whether they’re able to earn a decent crust…
With artists still expected to paint comics ‘for the love of it’, is it really a viable industry?
With the buzz that surrounds superhero movies continuing unabated, it seems on the surface that there’s never been a better time to draw comics.
Let’s crunch some numbers. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy brought in nearly $1.2 billion for Warner Brothers, owner of DC Comics. The 2012 Avengers film earned $623 million and in May 2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron came out with a tale of $191 million in its first week.
But how much do the films actually help comic sales? According to US sales figures, in the month Age of Ultron came out, the comic Uncanny Avengers Ultron Forever 1 took $201,331, while Uncanny Avengers 4 made $186,736 in sales. The industry was boosted with the launch of Secret Wars, which sold over 500,000 copies in its first week and sales of the top 300 books were
up 20 per cent compared to May 2014. But still, these numbers are dwarfed by the film revenues.
What about the artists – are they seeing much trickledown of funds from these huge films? Not really. A survey on the site SKTCHD.com in mid-June showed that nearly half of comic artists who responded were earning less than $12,000 a year from comics, and that 28 per cent are on less than $100 per page. That’s borderline poverty.
“I’m new to the industry, but it does feel like there’s a lot of work for not a huge return in comics,” says Matt Taylor, who draws Wolf, published by Image. “A common recurring phrase I’ve heard is that you do it ‘for the love of comics’. Which may be true, but at the end of the day you still have to put food on the table.”
The dream of royalties
Like many other artists, England-based Matt takes commissions outside of comics to bolster his income. One half-page illustration for The New Yorker pays as well as 24 comic pages. Because Wolf is published by Image, which allows artists and writers to own their work, Taylor will earn royalties from the book, and if it’s snapped up by a film company then he might make a fortune from it… one day.
The creator-owned indie model seems to be emerging as a favourite among artists – witness the success of Saga, drawn by Fiona Staples for instance (see page 42). The downside is that you can end up waiting three or four months for your royalties to come through. Like Matt, New Zealander Tim Gibson became a comic artist out of sheer love for the genre. He was a 3D and concept artist at Weta, then became a freelance illustrator, but
You do it for ‘the love of comics’, but you still have to put food on the table
always wanted to do comics. A grant in his home country enabled him to take a year off to produce Moth City. Luckily for Tim, it was snapped up by the subscriptionbased web comic publisher Thrillbent, and by comiXology.
The web comic route
As a publisher of a web comic, you have total control of your creation, but you also take all the risk of getting it out there, and making it happen takes a huge effort. “You might control your own destiny a bit more than an artist waiting to be commissioned or assigned to a comic,” says Tim. “But you also can’t succeed without all the associated tasks of running a web-business: regular blogging, site management, social media outreach and store management.”
He adds: “There’s no guarantee that you’ll ever see any money from them, and building a site and audience that will allow eventual income is a dark art of its own.” And like Matt, Tim finds that a comic page earns him between 10 and 20 per cent of what he would normally receive from an illustration commission.
Dennis Calero is an artist who’s seen comics go from page to screen. He helped Platinum Studios to present its property Cowboys & Aliens to the film companies, and saw the fallout when the management and creators wrangled over the royalties. Today he writes and draws The Suit, which he owns and which appears in Dark Horse Presents.
“Publishers are reaching out to foreign markets in order to save a buck,” Dennis says. “Now, there are some incredible European, South American and Asian artists who are kicking a lot of ass. But there are a plethora of mediocre illustrators who just aren’t cutting the mustard and are clearly only getting work because they’re charging 30 cents on the dollar.”
Artists today feel undervalued compared to writers. A writer on a comic is paid roughly the same amount as the artist, even though drawing it takes a lot longer than
A writer is paid roughly the same amount as the artist, even though the drawing takes a lot longer
writing it. A writer can appear in five or six titles a month; an artist only features in one, or maybe two if they’re working all hours. Yet the writer may walk away with many times what the artist has earned.
Disney has owned Marvel Comics for the past five years, and some fear comic artists could soon be like animators: faceless workstation fodder, toiling away, low paid and unknown to the audience.
“I hope eventually the idea that characters are all that matter in this genre will fall by the wayside and publishers will realise it’s the people that make these funny books that count and who are the backbone of any creative company. A resource to be grown and nurtured, not exploited,” says Dennis.”
With all the reboots we’ve seen from Marvel and DC, and with indie comics thriving one minute and diving the next, it’s hard to tell whether comic industry bosses really know what’s going on. Online and print publishing models continue to shift. Yet huge amounts of money are coming in from superhero films at the moment. Hopefully more of it will be wisely invested – in the comic artists who give life to the superheroes in the first place.
Variant artwork by Dennis Calero for Marvel’s X-Men
Noir series. Illustrator Matt Taylor has been drawing Wolf, a fantasy/crime noir comic series published by Image.
In The Woods, drawn by Michael Dialynas, an entire school is ripped from reality and transplanted in some woods, on another planet. Tim Gibson’s web comic Moth City is set during the Chinese civil war during the 1930s.
Moth City by Tim Gibson. “It has bio-weapons, the Chinese Nationalist army, communism and a cowboy,” he says.
A page from Matt Taylor’s self-published graphic novel, The Great Salt Lake.
Wolf features Antoine Wolfe, a paranormal hardboiled detective.
Tim Gibson took a year out of his usual
freelancing to create Moth City, the
online comic. Dennis Calero helped Marvel reinvent the X-Men as a group of sociopaths hunted by
detectives, in X-Men Noir: Mark of Cain. Above and left: Paul Dialynas used shifts in colour palettes to help pace the storytelling in The Woods from Boom! Studios. Below: Dennis Calero drew four chapters of the free online comic Devil Inside, written by actor Todd Stashwick.