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If a Lonely Comics nerd from, say, 1961 were suddenly whisked by Rip Hunter, Time Master to the present day, he'd think comics had taken over the world.
Kids are still reading comics, but they also fill racks in bookstores under the name "graphic novel" (no one is fooled). Comic art hangs on museum walls; there are even museums devoted to them. Go to the cineplex, and at least one screen will likely be showing a comic-book movie.
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?
After pitching and failing with a couple of strips, Feiffer started working for the Voice in 1956. They didn't pay him anything for years.
Even as Feiffer's cartoons were becoming a subject of national discussion, he had to work at art studios like Terrytoons to make ends meet. When Playboy started paying him $500 a month for comics (and the Voice started paying him something), things began to look up. Then he started selling movie scripts, and could relax a little.
"Cartoonists never got paid much," shrugs Feiffer, but back when he was coming up in the 1960s, "nothing cost much, so they could live well. Now they still don't get paid much, and everything's very expensive."
Most comics people have to hustle at the outset of their careers. That's expected. At least it makes for funny stories.
In his salad days, for example, Tony Millionaire (Maakies, Sock Monkey, Drinky Crow) would take the train from New York to towns in Westchester County, and look on a map "to find where the streets were curvy," he says, "because you'd know that's where the hills were." Then he'd walk up to the lavish hillside homes and leave cards in mailboxes or tucked into screen doors, announcing that he would draw the house for a small fee. His success rate was three gigs per hundred cards.
"Yeah, I really outsmarted the world," he laughs, "and got into a job that paid hardly fucking anything."
The New York Press picked him up at $35 a strip and eventually upped it to $100. When Millionaire went to the Voice, they gave him $150. In cartooning, that's a bidding war.
The pathetic pay gets less funny as you get further along in your career.
"As a kid in the '70s, I lived and breathed comic books," says Danny Hellman. He threw himself into cartooning (Last Gasp, Hotwire), but over time accumulated a wife, kid, and domicile, and was obliged to shift toward illustration work. He now considers himself "an illustrator who dabbles in comics."
Illustration hasn't been all wine and roses, either. "I've found that print illo assignments have gotten more scarce and less lucrative in the last decade," says Hellman, "with 2010 being my worst professional year since getting started in the late '80s."
Business has picked up, fortunately. And Hellman is working on a new graphic novel. But he holds no high hopes for the comics racket. "The folks who make their livings doing the kind of comics that I do," he says, "can be counted on two hands, or maybe just one."
It's a grim picture, but not one that ever seems to discourage the newcomers.
"We get dozens of submission packages every day," Eric Stephenson, publisher at Image Comics (Spawn, The Walking Dead, Witchblade). "And I'm not exaggerating at all when I say the vast majority of them are so bad it's almost unimaginable. . . . There are things I've looked at and thought, 'Surely, this is from a young child,' but then I read the cover letter and it's from someone in his thirties or forties, and it's actually kind of heartbreaking."
Suppose you don't suck, though, and get picked? "The unfortunate truth of the matter," says Stephenson, "is some books never make very much at all. The market can be very fickle, and sometimes even great material goes unnoticed."
Jackson Miller, who runs the authoritative stats site Comics Chronicle, last aggregated and estimated figures for direct comics, trade paperbacks, and magazines via Diamond, the industry's virtually sole distributor, for the year 2009. The total came to $428 million—down a bit from 2008, but still seemingly massive. However, last year's top mass-market comic, the Avengers relaunch issue, had estimated orders of 175,100. Go down the list about 30 places, and you're down to five figures. And the earnings pie from each of these titles has to be sliced a lot of ways.
So much for comic books. At least there's a market for comic-book books—graphic novels, compilations, trade paperbacks, and other products through which the "weird comic strips" Hellman was talking about can find larger audiences. There have been massive hits there: Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series, Kick-Ass, Jeff Smith's Bone series, etc.