The Comics Issue: If Cartoons Are So Big, Why Don't They Pay?

Drawn and nickled and dimed

But graphic novelists have this in common with novelists of any sort: The overwhelming majority of them make very little money. "Philip Roth can make a living," says Gary Groth, co-founder of Fantagraphics Books, "but I think 90 percent of published novelists have to work in academia or at Baskin-Robbins to make ends meet."

Jim Woodring is one of the best-regarded graphic novelists in the business, and Fantagraphics, his publisher, is probably the top indie comics press. Woodring has been with Fantagraphics since the mid-'80s, and "we've been promoting him full-bore long enough to have established a substantial and sustainable readership for his work," says Groth.

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.

Still, maybe you're certain you have what it takes to launch a comic strip. Good luck with that. "It is extremely rare for a submission to come along by a very talented cartoonist we weren't already aware of," says comics editor Brendan Burford of King Features Syndicate, one of the largest. "We see work from wonderfully talented cartoonists all the time, and unfortunately we have to turn many of them away."

Even if you get in, the per-paper rate for syndicated artists is usually low. Our friends in the business tell us a big paper might pay $100, a small one $5. Great for Beetle Bailey, not so great for most others. Plus the syndicate gets half.

Also: Newspapers are dying. Editorial cartoonist Ted Rall has been syndicated since 1991. "At the peak of my print exposure, I was in 140 print pubs," he says. "Now it's in the 90s." (Rall's per-paper rate hovers between $15 and $20.) As papers cut back on comics, some cartoonists have seen their livelihoods disappear.

"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. Update: we're paying them.]

Rall and Perkins are still doing pretty well, but like most people in the business, they've diversified: Perkins does books and in 2009 designed the cover of the Pearl Jam album Backspacer; Rall does books, too, and also writes syndicated columns. "Writing prose started out as a purely cynical cash grab," says Rall. "Only in the world of cartooning could freelance writing be considered a cash grab."

Even longtime comics pros with the most impeccable credentials find themselves obliged to do non-comics work.

Barbara Slate, who says her "passion is writing and drawing comics/graphic novels," had a pretty fast start in the profession: As a young woman in the 1980s, she had her own DC comic, Angel Love. It didn't last, but she stayed on the scene and got a Marvel comic, Yuppies From Hell. She's done Barbie comics, New Kids on the Block comics, Disney comics—plum gigs in that business. Now she teaches people how to make their own graphic novels.

Still, "there were many times when the industry was not doing comics for girls," she says. So she took other kinds of commercial work. For instance: "36 Furby cartoon jokes for Hi-C drink containers and a book on Furby's friend Shelby for Scholastic."

Dave Dorman has done covers for DC, Marvel, Heavy Metal, and plenty of others. But he also does ad work, packaging, toy design, etc. The rocket of his career was getting involved with the movies—storyboards, pre-production designs, and art for film-related books. (George Lucas owns more than 90 of Dorman's oil paintings.) Currently, he makes about one-fifth of his money from comics work.

"Though my goal was to establish myself in comics and science fiction," he says, "I was realistic. Any art I could get commercially and make money at was good art."

These pros evolved their strategies over time; up-and-coming comics pros seem to know from the start that they have to diversify to keep the ball rolling.

Molly Crabapple says she makes a middle-class living drawing pictures—stipulating that by "middle-class" she means "basically have a life where not every dime you have is devoted to the bare necessities of rent and ramen."

Crabapple is now working on her next graphic novel for First Second, Strawhouse, with collaborator John Leavitt. But she relies on income from several other sources: designs for T-shirts, illustrations, and mural commissions. One of her bigger scores has been Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School, the popular series of downtown drawing-and-drinking events with live performer/models that she founded in 2005, which has affiliates in more than 100 cities, from which Crabapple collects monthly dues.

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