Marc Alan Fishman: Making Comics Make Cents

Wally Wood 3D

What’s the Life of a Comic Artist Like is an interesting read should you have the time. It’s a fantastic bit of analytics built to depress even the most chipper amongst the Internet. After surveying 186 anonymous artists, the folks at SKTCHD assembled their results to share with all of us nerf-herders. They were clear to note that not every artist surveyed answered every question, and that 186 surveys does not equate to statistical significance given the amount of folks in and around the comic-making-universe. That being said, I think their results pretty much capture the essence of the industry – as I personally view it from my little suburban basement studio.

The first stand-out factoid: 48% of the responders earn less than $12,000 a year making comic book art. This is doubled down by the fact that 59.3% said they don’t earn enough making comics to have it be their sole occupation. Now, is this really that big a surprise, given that I myself have been making books during my nights, weekends, and holidays for the better part of seven years and barely have a dime to my name made in the name of comics? No, it’s not a surprise. As it stands today, only the cream of the crop are really afforded the luxury of working 16 hours a day for a living wage in comics. Does anyone here remember in the long-long ago when Brian Bendis wrote five books a month? I doubt he did it because he was making five small fortunes.

If we dive into those numbers, many respondents themselves are young, new to making comics, and/or work on the web. And unless you’re one of very few web comic creators with enough oomph to earn a decent wage solely from their web-based work, you’re very much in the same boat as those of us just chasing windmills in hopes for a life spent creating. This pairs well with the respondents’ fees per page. With an average that spikes roughly between $50 to $200, you can do the math with ease. At the top end of that rate, an average 24-page comic book story will net the artist a sizeable $4,800. Now, factor in that over half of respondents worked well over 40 hours per week – with 26.3% over 60 hours – and they are essentially making $20-$30 an hour to draw. This is all of course pre-tax and with no benefits.

Beyond the basic dollars and cents though, comes the colder, harder facts. I am a graphic designer during the day. I earn a good wage doing what I do. But when I come home and random freelance requests fill my inbox I’m less than elated to receive $25 an hour to continue my day job at home. In short, after 8-10 hours doing something, I’m less inclined to want to continue to do it after that allotted time. As a friend of mine recently told me “Working on a book 16 hours a day all month long, and then have to do it all over again the next month burnt me out. Even if I loved the material, it’s still a job, and there’s parts of it I don’t like.”

That fact shines through the data as well: 40% of respondents take no days off. It’s something I myself admit to you fine folks. About three years ago I downloaded a “to-do” list program. In it, I can schedule tasks monthly (pay bills!), weekly (write this column!), or daily. The only thing I list out as a daily task: work on the book. Even if it’s drawing a face on a figure in one panel out of nine on a page? I work seven days a week. And I work slow. I know I work slow. How do I know? Unshaven Comics releases one single 36-page comic each year. Of which I’m only responsible for 18 pages of interior art and writing. I’m a busy boy, and I’m only an outsider. Someone in the industry, deeper? Is doing much the same, for not much more than lunch money.

The last bit of data that hit close to home? 82.5% of respondents said that artists do not get fair and equal representation in comics today. What does that mean? To the surveyed at SKTCHD, it was a matter of how the industry treats the pencil-pushers. Many commented on feeling like “cogs in the machine,” and who can blame them? DC and Marvel are on a schedule. If you meet their house style, and can meet a deadline, they’ll load you up and put you on the rack. But if their schedule is rushed (I’ve rarely heard from an artist they had loads of time to do their best work), and they fall behind or get burned out – well, the line is still around the block to step in and take their place. It’s a snake eating it’s own tail. And in the day and age of crowdfunding, there will never be another massive walk-out-ala-Image. There will only be shooting stars riding their wave of fame (small as it may be) to an embittered end.

The data was sobering. As a creator myself, I’ve long given-way to the notion that what I do, I do for the love of the medium and not the paycheck. Seven years into it and that mantra remains unscathed. The best I can muster in terms of hope – is hard to determine. I draw and write to see the smiling face of a stranger light up when they see my work. I yearn for a day where I’ll have made enough output to perhaps see even the slightest payday wherein I could pay myself for the hundreds (if not thousands) of hours I’ve put in to build those wares. Perhaps our industry is simply built on the yearning and the hope… while the ones with the money just let those feelings do the work for them.