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

Drawn and nickled and dimed

This got Wos in good with the museum circuit. Eventually, he became the cartoonist-in-residence for the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. A few years ago, he founded the ToonSeum in Pittsburgh—a growing, endowed museum of the craft—where he continues to perform.

Many comics people will do something like that, or open comics shops, or become comics studies professors, or just ditch the whole frustrating business altogether and get, at last, a real job. Which would be rational choices, of the sort traditionally made by would-be guerrilla filmmakers, gonzo journalists, punk rockers, and other artsy folk who got swept up by cultural waves and eventually wiped out.

And some won't. For true believers, comics just gets down in the blood.

ARTIST: John Kovaleski A cartoonist/illustrator, he is the creator of the comic strip Bo Nanas and frequently contributes to Mad magazine. (kovaleski.com, infantfred.com, daddingbadly.com)
John Kovaleski
ARTIST: John Kovaleski A cartoonist/illustrator, he is the creator of the comic strip Bo Nanas and frequently contributes to Mad magazine. (kovaleski.com, infantfred.com, daddingbadly.com)
ARTIST: George Bates has been illustrating for 21 years now (ergh!). The subway-station art he recently created for the MTA will be permanently installed this spring. (georgebatesstudio.blogspot.com, georgebatesstudio.com)
George Bates
ARTIST: George Bates has been illustrating for 21 years now (ergh!). The subway-station art he recently created for the MTA will be permanently installed this spring. (georgebatesstudio.blogspot.com, georgebatesstudio.com)

Though Mark Newgarden (We All Die Alone) "learned fast that making comics wasn't ever going to be about making money," and has relied for sustenance on trading-cards work, animation, and his current big earner, children's books, he still makes comics. "The gamble," he says, "is that one's comics work—which, at best, you pour your heart and soul into—might manage to become a few microseconds less ephemeral than one's illustrations."

Kaz, who's done all right writing and storyboarding for the hit cartoons SpongeBob SquarePants and Phineas and Ferb, still does the bizarre Underworld comic he started at the New York Press years ago. "I still get such a kick out of coming up with some crazy idea and making it come alive in four panels," he says. "No editors, no producers, just ink, paper, and me."

And the kids keep coming up the gangplank. Chris Hunt hasn't been at comics long, but he wanted to get a book out, lack of funds notwithstanding. So he went on the Internet funding site Kickstarter and appealed for backing, offering premiums like original drawings and a credit in his proposed book Volume One.

Hunt raised about $1,800—enough to print up a small batch of Volume One. As traditional distribution wasn't really an option, "so far I've been cold-calling shops and sending them out about 10 at a time." He says he's concentrating on book and records stores rather than comics shops—"I'm in it to find people who don't normally read comics," he claims. But he has also "hand-delivered Volume One to editors, artists, writers, and publishers whenever I can." Fingers crossed, options open.

Until pretty recently, Barry Deutsch "never earned a living as a cartoonist or an illustrator," he says. "It was more of a low-paying hobby. I rarely made more than $1,000 a year on either."

But he haunted comics conventions like other aspirants, and caught a break at the 2008 Stumptown Comics Fest in Portland. An agent named Judy Hansen happened to overhear him pitching his proposed graphic novel Hereville to conventioneers; she asked comics guy Scott McCloud if it was worth a look, got an affirmative answer, scanned Deutsch's spec copy, and took him on as a client. She brought him to Abrams, who gave him a contract with a nice advance and a publicist, and released Hereville on its Amulet Books imprint.

The last time Deutsch checked, Hereville had sold about 8,000 copies. With a few breaks, Deutsch could have a big seller. Or Hereville could flame out. Whatever. That's tomorrow. All Deutsch knows now is that the book is out, it looks great, and "when I make small talk at book conferences and I say 'Abrams,' they go 'Oh,' and you can see them become more interested." He's happy.

Hope springs eternal, especially when it's goosed.

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