Last week, Big Trouble in Little China artist Brian Churilla made a post on his Tumblr regarding the financial realities of making comics. He writes:
So you want to be a comic book artist..? Here’s some sobering information.
One year. 12 issues. 264 pages. 4 covers.
This was a strictly work-for-hire job on a licensed book. That usually means no royalties. The page rate on this project was $125. This is considered an okay page rate by today’s standards. Advances on creator-owned projects are a different matter and subject to different criteria, so are jobs at Marvel and DC. That being said, this is a middle-of-the-road page rate. Not great, not terrible.
Gross pay over the year in addition to those four covers was $33,625. After taxes? $24, 210. That’s $2,017.50 a month (again, I do a lot of work on the side to make ends meet).
Churilla then goes on to describe the schedule he keeps to ensure that he’s able to keep him, his wife, and his children afloat in Portland, Oregon, the most unnerving revelation being that he only sleeps 4-hours a day, which leads him to “…feel like absolute garbage all the time.” And he suffers from: “Depression, anxiety, nausea, fatigue, weight gain, compromised cognitive abilities, even hallucinations…”
While Churilla isn’t necessarily the highest-profile cartoonist—people like Frank Quitely and Jim Lee, name guys, in other words, are no doubt eating off comics with a little more ease—he’s not some obscure pissant that no one’s ever heard of. He’s worked for Oni, Boom, Dark Horse, Image, which isn’t something to scoff at.
But what’s really interesting is the reaction—publicly and professionally—that’s arisen out of the original post. Fellow creators have openly agreed with Churilla, conceding that “That’s just the way things are” and that the closest thing comics has to journalists have been making some bold claims regarding the state of the industry.
Three arguments spring out of both Churilla’s post and this reaction to it:
1) In all honesty, the post isn’t that surprising. Julian Lytle has interviewed cartoonists like Ron Wimberly and Ulises Farinas and they’ve said basically the same thing (maybe without the numerical specificity, though). It’s hard to eat off comics—full stop. No disagreeing with Churilla there. But the way this argument is made and the way it’s accepted frames the conversation in a not-necessarily-accurate way. It’s hard to eat off art—any art. It’s not a problem that’s limited to comics. Illustrators, fine artists, filmmakers, musicians—most people involved in those professions are doing something else on the side. Most authors have day jobs.
I don’t say that to invalidate Churilla’s experiences or to somehow privilege my limited, secondhand perspective, but that’s the truth. Historically, it’s been a minority of people who can fully support themselves in the arts. Victor A. Ginsburgh and David Throsby wrote in The Handbook of the Economics of Art and Culture vol. 2: “It is an empirical regularity that winner-take-all payoff distributions are often observed, where the most successful competitors seem to reap rewards that are orders of magnitude greater than the others.” Labor economist Sherwin Rosen even coined the term “star system” to describe how a minority of artists earn the majority of wealth at any given time.
Last year, Mathew Thurber essayed his thoughts on comics’ relationship with the internet and he framed it much the same way that Churilla did. Thurber recognized the lack of money in comics, which isn’t inaccurate, but he ascribed a causal relationship with the internet—websites were exploiting cartoonists and anyone who puts their comics on Tumblr is a fool, more or less. I had a problem with that then, much like I have a problem with this broader conversation, because it’s a fundamentally ahoristical and discrete argument. For example, Bowker reports that 304,912 books were published in 2013 (the most recent numbers I could find); Bookscan reports that 501,658,000 units were sold that year. If author and editor Heather Maclean is to be believed, “only 10 percent [of books] will ever sell more than 500 copies.” That’s a very, very small number of titles moving a very, very large number of units. According to Maclean, publishers only make a profit on one book out of every seven. She assures us that the profit on that one is massive enough to cover the losses on the others, but those profits don’t come back to those other authors. The point is this: a lot of books are sold every year, but it really only profits a few individuals. While some may skate by, most can’t live off it. You’ll find similar figures in music, film, and comics. Not everyone can be Raina Telgemeier.
However, this isn’t simply the way comics works but the way the world works as a whole. There is a finite amount of money floating around, and the returns you can expect to see for your work are tied to a dozen different things, including: the overhead of the publisher you’re working for, the quality of your work (which is subjective), the quality of your or your publishers marketing team, the simple marketability of your product, not to mention whatever larger economic strain might be being placed on the consumer (price shifts on inelastic goods, tax season, overall inflation outpacing real income). I want to be very clear: I am not telling anyone to figure it out or leave, or in any way implying that maybe some people just can’t hack it. But the financial realities are the financial realities, and capitalism’s overriding effect seems to be widening the gap in income inequality, which obviously has compounding effects. So don’t be scared off or think comics is somehow inaccessible because of its unique economic hierarchy, because it’s not that unique. However, do educate yourself and try to understand cultural economics as best as you can so that your expectations aren’t dashed on some rocky shores.
2) Part of the difficulty in talking about the specific economics of comics is that there is a total and complete lack of transparency. Sales figures are a total mystery to everyone besides the publisher and the creators. ICv2’s numbers are the closest we can get, and even those are little more than estimates based on reports from Diamond, which don’t account for trades, bookstore and newsstand sales, and digital sales. Specifics of financial deals are private (not unreasonably), except for Image, but theirs is literally “We leave it up to the creators,” so it’s going to vary.
The unusual direct market model for comics makes navigating these figures and making sense of them even more byzantine. You have to account for the number of units sold by Diamond to retailers, account for the price they’re sold to retailers for, the reorder and multi-printing numbers, account for Diamond’s overhead, account for publisher overhead (which is going to vary from company to company (and vary on titles, as some titles are offered to Diamond at discounted prices)). Then you have to figure out those numbers but for the trade. Then you have to know how those royalties (if there are any) breakdown between the creators. But wait: that’s only a fragment of overall sales, and a fragment of the determinants in the fiscal viability of a comic. You also have to account for direct sales and bookstore and newsstand sales, which requires having access to other numbers that remain cloaked in mystery. And don’t forget Comixology, who hasn’t, at this point, released any sales figures, which means determining how much creators see from that outlet is impossible without being the creators themselves or the publisher. Skullkickers writer Jim Zub has a pretty general breakdown that does a good job of broaching the complexity of the issue.
What this basically means is that any and all commentary on the financials of comics that doesn’t come from a creator or a publisher is made in ignorance and is necessarily incomplete. And even commentary from a creator isn’t applicable to the sales of anything except their comics. This complicates the discussion of the feasibility of comics: we don’t have a great idea of where the money is; we don’t even how much money is there; we can’t have a serious discussion of how post-scarcity economics should effect the pricing of digital comics; etc. The Wicked + The Divine writer Kieron Gillen made several of these points in his post rebutting a commentator’s fear that Wicked + Divine could be canceled with monthly sales of approximately 20,000 units. But what Kieron brings up is that the commentator fails to account for trade paperback sales (direct market and bookstore), digital sales, and the differences in overhead between Image and places like Marvel and DC. Antony Johnston echoed similar sentiments, though different figures, in his follow-up Tumblr post.
Lastly, any and all studies regarding the monies in comics are pitiful. The only kind of real statistical analysis is the CBR Mayo Report, but that only touches upon gross sales, sales rankings, and how much money publishers made before overhead, and it’s more enumerative regurgitation than interpretation. The closest we’ve come to analyzing the money on the creator side is self-reporting surveys, the most recent of which is making some waves. David Harper, formerly of Multiversity, launched his own site Sktchd, and he just came out with the results of a survey that he asked cartoonists to take. The results more or less confirm what Brian Churilla said in his post, but there are problems with what data was collected and how the data was collected that nobody is really talking about. Harper himself admits that only 186 cartoonists responded which makes the findings statistically insignificant, and he’s not wrong about that (not to mention the problems that arise when you rely on self-reporting). While the findings might very well be indicative of the overall state of the industry, we can’t say that with any certainty because of how few people actually responded. It’s also geared solely to artists, which means that it ignores the numbers of what writers make. Additionally, the survey appears to separate “trans,” “cis,” “male,” and “female” into four distinct categories for no discernible reason, as if “trans” or “cis” are simply equivalent terms to “male” and “female.” The study fails to address how sexism can compound or intersect with transphobia, and it completely fails to take into account sexual orientation to examine how homophobia may affect an artist’s earnings (hint: it probably effects it). Harper does speculate that the relative youth of the respondents may have something to do with their answers, but because they’re not a good representation of young and old cartoonists, the data is still skewed, so it can’t account for how the length of time spent in the industry may or may not effect your page rates or royalties. Similarly, Harper just kind of glances over the importance of royalties. But the most egregious piece of information missing in Harper’s study, something that commentators like Heidi MacDonald completely failed to call him on, was that not once is the race or ethnicity of cartoonists reported. According to Misty Stone, “…black women in porn are consistently paid substantially less than white women,” and the same is true of mainstream film and television. So why aren’t we asking what the pay gap is like in comics and how race effects a cartoonists earning power? Ignoring all the facile graphs (some of which don’t even make sense), Harper’s survey failed to produce any really useful data and it certainly failed to meaningfully interrogate aspects of the financials of comics that need to be addressed.
Solving this problem is incumbent on comics journalists (or whatever we’ve got) asking about money in interviews, doing well-researched features on the subject, trying to figure out for themselves how this works by going to the people who actually know the score; it depends on comics analysts (or whatever we’ve got) asking better questions, asking tougher questions, asking smarter questions. At the same time, none of that works without cartoonists who are willing to talk whatever business they legally can when they’re asked about it. Recently at The New Statesman, Stoya wrote about how it can benefit creatives to know what’s up with other creatives:
Much more frequently the lack of transparency regarding pay leads to newer performers undervaluing themselves and their work. This can make it difficult for an individual performer eventually to raise their rates to the standard range, and also often upsets the whole pay scale. If Susie Starr is just as subjectively attractive and objectively popular as Whitney Luv and does it for $400, Whitney’s standard $800 rate starts to seem less reasonable.
3) Churilla’s original post and Harper’s study do raise a few interesting points that comics does need to reckon with. The page rates that are being offered and accepted by cartoonists paired with the schedules they’re expected to keep by some companies means that some are killing themselves for less than minimum wage. Publisher’s need to do a better job of cultivating a healthy work environment, certainly. But it’s not as simple as just making it so.
For instance, Janelle Asselin points out what the proposed rates for a comics union in 1978 would look now:
Adjusted for inflation, those rates today would be:
Wow! What big numbers you have! Unfortunately, and Asselin is careful to note this in her analysis, those numbers are basically untenable for most companies with their current sales figures. But, principally, those numbers are worth noting. Top-tier creators were advocating $300 per page back in 1978, an amount that most creators might maybe get around 1/3rd of (according to Harper) today if they happen to work for a publisher that offers page rates. This complicates the issue a little because it would be ignorant and specious of me to demand that publishers pay page rates and pay them at anything resembling these figures, because it ignores how their ability to allocate page rates is deeply related to their sales figures. The smaller publishers aren’t able to offer rates of $300; it’s just not possible. Marvel and DC might not even be able to offer those rates, I don’t know. Now, if you want to talk about Capital in the Twenty-First Century, we can do that; we can talk about how exploitation and income inequality are logical extension of capitalist doctrine. But at the same time, talking about the micro-economics of comics is contingent on its existence within a larger macro-economic system, which is capitalism. So I think we should all strive to ensure that employees (not just cartoonists or artists) are getting paid a living wage without having to destroy their bodies, but we also need to keep in mind that the budgets of the smaller publishers are limiting, and for projects to even be publishable they need to come in at a certain price. On the most recent More To Come, Top Cow president/COO Matt Hawkins talks about his time working at Extreme and Awesome Studios under Rob Liefeld, specifically discussing how they had to cut page rates and lay people off because they were being paid too much—their profit margins were just too slim and the artists priced themselves out of a job. “Live Nation’s $120 Million Bet…” at Business Insider, which is poured over in David Byrne’s How Music Works (which similarly includes a thorough breakdown of licensing, mechanicals, studios fees; where album advances go and what kind of margins musicians have depending on their deal), eviscerates expectations of what operating costs can do to profits (in Spring/Summer 2007, Live Nation grossed $1 billion but only netted $36 million). Stoya again, in the subsequent paragraph to the one quoted above:
Capitalism, near as I can tell, involves a lot of companies trying to get as much out of a worker as they can for as little pay as possible. In these relationships, the worker should aim for the most pay they can get for the least work. There’s a very important emphasis on “can get”, though, because a luxuriously high rate does absolutely no good if no one is able or willing to pay it.
Does that mean everyone is paying out the best page rates they possibly can? No. Does it mean that everyone paying a low page rate is doing it to be exploitative? No. What it does mean is that the conversation surrounding page rates is more complicated than simply “This sucks, make it more.” It does suck, and it would be great if companies did pay artists more. But making that happen is going to require a healthier, more diverse (in terms of content, publishers, creators) direct market with a broader, larger overall readership. That’s not to absolve publishers of responsibility—not at all—and I would love to see them paying artists more than some of these bottom-rung page rates, but it’s not tenable to demand that without also contending with the economic realities of the comics marketplace.
However, it would also be ignorant to pretend like page rates are the only reason that creators take on projects. Some consider creative freedom, royalties, and things like that when accepting jobs, and smaller publishers are able to do that. If publishers don’t offer royalties for licensed projects, maybe compensatory page rates should be part of the conversation (I know cartoonists who prefer working at Dark Horse to Image because they’re guaranteed a page rate/income). If page rates are low, consider the royalties—maybe you know this book sells well as a collection or digitally, so it will be worth your time on the back-end (I know cartoonists who prefer working at Image because the potential remuneration is so much greater). If page rates are low and the publisher can’t promise sales, consider how much creative latitude they’re willing to provide. For example, Yeti Press publisher RJ Casey told me via email that the company can’t offer its cartoonists up-front pay, so it compensates with 20% royalties, and they roll any profits back into the company to offset the publishing of less profitable books. A diverse line-up and strong online sales allows them to stay afloat without distribution through Diamond while publishing an eclectic mix of cartoonists who they can offer a fair deal to. And that’s to say nothing of the importance of foreign rights and licensing, which, for some creators, can often be the difference between living comfortably and having to hustle (which is why it’s a shame that so, so, so few people ever talk about that).
I’m not here to dictate terms to cartoonists or to offer them unsolicited advice. But these are the kinds of conversations that we should be cultivating so as to minimize the space for exploitation.
So what does this all mean? Well, first and foremost, we need to stop letting the conversation around the economics of comics be dictated by people who unequivocally do not know what they’re doing. Certain figures are only going to be available to certain people, and it’s paramount that we stop buying into arguments that are being made without access to those crucial, crucial figures. Second, we need to stop pretending like comics is some weird aberration and “Oh, if you wanna be rich and famous go work in X, Y, Z,” because the arts are notoriously difficult to make a living in. That’s not to say that I don’t lament the current state of affairs, but there is a reason that Ronald Reagan cutting federal arts funding was a devastating blow to the country. (Georgia Webber of Dumb, for example, was able to continue her work because of a $12,000 grant from the Ontario Arts Council). And lastly, we do need to expect more from the people who employ cartoonists, but we also need to keep in mind their financial situation. We need to openly discuss predatory deals, and it’s vital to the minimization of exploitation that cartoonists learn to navigate those things better—whether that means hiring a lawyer or teaching themselves enough to recognize a suspect deal—and this includes keeping an eye on fellow creators as well as publishers. We need to advocate for better pay and better schedules and better back-end deals, but at the same time we can’t demand those things while ignoring the hurdles that need jumping if we’re going to make those things happen. This isn’t McDonald’s or Chick-fil-A being able to sustain a minimum-wage increase. The profits and profit margins are a lot thinner.
The conversation of the economics of comics is an infinitely complicated one that is deeply tied to overall economic health, market health, distribution models, sales numbers, price points, overhead costs, fairness or unfairness of publishing deals, number of creators involved, and then how gender identity, racial identity, sexual orientation all intersect to effect any of the above aspects. And obviously the personal situation of creators needs to be accounted for—Do they have student debt? Where do they live? Are they single? Do they have kids?; those kinds of things. Problems, inaccuracies, and the like inevitably arise when the public only gets a narrative that’s necessarily shaped by ignorance. So what we need are better studies—more rigorous and complex than what David Harper’s done—better investigative journalists who will actually go and seek out that information, cartoonists who are willing to dish, and we need to ask more questions about the data when we get it (What does this mean? What does this mean in this context?). At the same time, we need to accept that making a living is hard when a lot of people are fighting over a little business (most small business close within their first year, after all) and stop pretending like comics is any different from any other business. Until then, we can’t have a real conversation about the economics of comics—plain and simple.
Shea Hennum is a Texas-based writer whose work has been featured at Paste, The Comics Alternative, This Is Infamous, eFantasy, The Fringe Magazine, and Schlock. Essays of his will be included as backmatter in upcoming issues of Shutter from Image Comics, and he can be found as sheahisself on both Twitter and Tumblr.