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


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?

“Cartooning never made me a living,” says Jules Feiffer, Pulitzer Prize winner and comics god. “It was as a screenwriter that I made a living.”

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.

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.

“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.”

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.

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.