ELAYNE RIGGS: Money changes everything
One of my biggest regrets in my years of involvement in the comics industry is the way I would refer to myself as an "industry professional" during my "early Usenet years," when I’d never been paid a cent for any of my comic book storytelling nor hired by any company. The impetus, though wrongheaded, was easy to understand. It hadn’t been that long since I’d discovered comics and online fandom, and I wanted to be a part of the excitement, but — having developed very definite ideas about fannish behavior from briefly hanging out with science fiction fans in my 20’s — I didn’t want to be "just" a fan. I craved credibility and legitimacy; after all, I wrote about comics and corresponded with lots of people who got paid to create them, so didn’t that sort of make me a pro as well?
Well, no, it didn’t. And by the time I decided to run for a board position in Friends of Lulu, I ‘d decided to stick to both the letter and spirit of the unwritten law. FoL’s charter specified that only a working industry professional could hold certain positions like national president, so I knew that was one I’d never hold. And when I started maintaining the Women Doing Comics list, I made up for past foolishness by leaving my name off of it (even though I’d had work published and my rule for the list was that it should include all current created and published work done by women, not only the work for which the woman got paid). I couldn’t, and still don’t, consider my efforts for charity books to be in the same league as people who did this sort of thing for a living.
We live in a hyper-capitalist society where status and success is measured primarily by one’s ability to make money. This has nothing to do with value or worth — that’s earned by deeds and conferred by friends, and none of us should ever have any doubt as to our individual value or worth no matter what we do to make money (or how much or little take-home pay we see). Professional status is a very serious matter, particularly in the entertainment industry where so many wannabes decide, as I once did, that there’s no difference between "aspiring" and "actual."
But there is. I didn’t realize just how much until I married a freelancer.
A couple weeks ago we did our 2006 taxes. My half was easy, my employer’s W2 and a money market account and that was about it. With Robin we have 1099s from both Marvel and DC, plus the Schedule C for all our deductibles. Sure it’s nice to be able to deduct our comics purchases, but that means remembering to ask for receipts at conventions and keeping it all in one place and double-checking credit card statements and itemizing, itemizing, itemizing. And when we’re not doing the annual taxes we’re saving for the quarterly payments (1099s don’t deduct automatically) and making sure I always have health insurance to cover us both and juggling cash flow.
Because a freelancer doesn’t get a regular paycheck. I’ve seen fans try to figure out a freelancer’s annual income by asking their page rate then multiplying that by 22 (pages per typical comics issue) and then again by 12 (months in the year). Not only does that not take quarterly tax payments into account, but it’s chock full of erroneous assumptions to begin with. Nowadays it’s the rare artist who pencils or inks 12 full books per year. Inkers often have pages taken from them due to schedule changes and other unforeseen circumstances. Only one example from the past half year: out of all the pages in Manhunter #s 26 through 30 (which did not arrive at Robin’s drawing board within a regular 5-month period the way they hit the stands), 19 pages — almost a full issue — ended up being inked by others. That’s 20% of the expected income gone through no fault of his. So it pays to remember that old saying about assumptions.
My point is, this kind of constant stress, added onto the stress of sitting at a drawing board and holding your head steady for hours on end every day because any day you take off is a day you are not paid — well, it’s earned and therefore commands respect from me. Not that I don’t respect writers as well, but as a writer myself I know darn well it’s not as time consuming, and you can hold down a day job outside of the industry and still be a writer. An artist, not so much. I know people who’ve done it (Alan Davis had a full-time job at the time he was drawing Captain Britain), but they’re the exceptions — by and large, once you’ve achieved the level of craft where you’re regularly drawing for the Big Two, that’s your day job because there just aren’t enough hours in the day for anything else.
Add to that the fact that, as talented as many comics creators may be, and as hard as they work, they may not be deriving their primary income from comics. Many industry folks (comic convention organizers, admiring fans, etc.) recognize that the dividing line between aspiring and working pro is often more nebulous than that in other professions. The professional state of mind can be seen as much more of a continuum than a hard and fast line.
Some of this factors in determining "pro-dom" include how professionally you present yourself, how marketable you are and how regularly you work in related industries, how much of a portfolio of work and goodwill you’ve built up over the years, and even the promise you show of turning your ideas into income in the near future. And of course, it’s not the breaking in that counts as much as continuing to get work; one job does not necessarily a pro make. Even so, part of the lure of comics is that the dream is still within reach to many folks who persevere and practice — now more than ever, intermingling between fans and pros is the norm rather than the exception. But until then, most folks will probably still need to "show me the money" if they’re going to fill in that space in their passports or tax returns with the occupation of "writer" or "artist."
While Elayne Riggs is news editor for ComicMix, and has blogged here for over four years, her passport and tax returns still show her occupation as "secretary." As it should be.