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"I'd shoot myself if I had to do just comics," she says. "It's brutal work, every page, and relatively low-paying compared to the amount of work." Also, "I have tendinitis in my drawing hand from drawing too much, and it would probably flare up quite a bit if I just tried to draw comics."
Harvey Award and Xeric Grant winner Jessica Abel is busy, too. In addition to making graphic novels (La Perdida, Life Sucks, Radio: An Illustrated Guide with Ira Glass), she edits the Best American Comics series, teaches, gives workshops and lectures, does illustration, and blogs.
But busy is good, right? "It is and it isn't," says Abel. "It's not all stuff that pays. Like the website [for her and Matt Madden's Drawing Words and Writing Pictures book] doesn't pay anything. I want to do it, I enjoy doing it, it's valuable in many, many ways. But it doesn't pay me a cent. And I spend a lot of my time doing that."
She feels she has to do it, and a lot of other self-promotional stuff, "because if you don't," she says, "your career is going to suffer." But she's painfully aware that it keeps her from working on comics ideas "that might turn into something great."
So maybe the solution is to circumvent the old-fashioned world of dead trees and put your comics online. Some people have hits with that. Penny Arcade is so big that, BigDownload reports, it has its own charity, gaming expo, and video game series. Plus, computers are the future!
They certainly are, which means that while a few intrepid pioneers have a staked profitable claims, most Web comics are still looking for a waterhole.
Launched in 1999, Cat and Girl is one of the best-known Web comics. (Among its fans: Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout.) Its creator, Dorothy Gambrell, isn't interested in going backward to paper. "Now it's easier to reach people online, so it's easier to make a living that way," she says. "Neither [print nor online] is better than the other, but one is happening now and the other no longer exists."
Gambrell has posted her revenue mix for 2010 as a chart ("People are too skittish about personal finances"), and it is a fascinating document. The chart shows how much of her income came from prints, original art, merchandise, conventions, publication work, the "Donation Derby" feature through which she accepts money from fans and draws cartoons about how she spent it. She reports that in 2010 she made $21,098.54.
Jason Yungbluth used to self-publish a comic called Deep Fried—a big underground hit with the comics cognoscenti 10 years ago. Now at his website he presents installments of his ever-evolving epic Weapon Brown, starring a sort of grown-up, weaponized Charlie Brown, plunked down in a dystopian future.
Along with back catalog, you can buy Weapon Brown books at his site, too. Yungbluth compiles the strips into books and publishes them as needed through a print-on-demand service. "The per-unit cost is pretty high" compared with a regular print run, he says, but "you don't have to lay out $1,200 or $1,400 to print up a thousand copies when you don't think you're going to sell that many."
A third of his income comes from the site; another third comes from freelance assignments (he frequently appears in Mad magazine), and the rest from a one-night-a-week gig teaching cartooning at RIT.
So how's he doing? "I have a roommate," he says. "I drive a good car, but a very old car. I rent, I don't own. Put it this way: I'm on Medicaid."
Yungbluth is devoted; he can talk comics with you all day, and shows no sign of dumping the craft for something more lucrative. His current ambition is to turn out a nice, fat Weapon Brown graphic novel—the product of years of work. He's saving up, and expects to launch it himself in 2012.
"My goal is to be ready to debut at the New York Comic Con," he says. "I still have to get a table for that. Those are expensive tables. I'm trying to find someone who'll split some space with me."
Like Jules Feiffer said, it was never easy for cartoonists. Maybe there's no way for it to be easy. The market is flooded with comics-makers. No one's taking attendance, but go to a couple of comic-book stores like St. Mark's Comics or Jim Hanley's Universe or Desert Island, and take a look around. Along with the superheroes and graphic novels, you'll see racks overflowing with mini-comics, mostly small and self-published. It's the comics equivalent of open-mic night, and the bandstand is always crowded.
Aspirants who are daunted by all of this might be tempted to consider alternative comics-related employment.
Joe Wos got comic-strip assignments in school, but was fired from all of them, including one on the college paper he co-founded. "I think I knew then," he says, "that I just wasn't a good fit for the funny pages."
So Wos started doing what he calls "performance cartooning." He performed at an easel, mostly for kids—making a rabbit out of letters, for example—and booked himself into fairs, schools, and museums. "It was a natural extension of what I do," he says. "All cartoonists are great storytellers."