01-SEP-2011 Talking about the cost required to make a comic, especially a grassroots independent comic, is like hitting a hot button. The article “Making your own comic book?” at the GeekOut blog of CNN.com may be slightly skewed in favor of artists depending on how you read it. What if you’re the writer? Consider this my manifesto in frustration and doubt about breaking into comics.

If you’re the person with the story idea, it seems the burden is all on you. My issue with this is not that one person becomes a “producer” of the entire vision, but that artists seem to globally complain that they are only pencil monkeys. I’m in a workshop every month live and daily on message boards where we discuss some kind of pot o’ gold at the end of the writing rainbow. This pot o’ gold is called COLLABORATION. This means that no one makes a dime up front and in some cases, the production costs of printing, web hosting, and advertising are split. Writers are told that if an artist, new or seasoned, believes in a project, he’ll put his work into it and ride the wave with you hoping there’s a payday at the end. But is this really true?

I model at the Joe Kubert School and the instructors tell the students they should never work for free. Never. These are students on the tail end of a rigorous three-year program. They are talented and worn out by the end of the term. They need some reality though. It’s rare to come out of graduation from art school with a DC Comics deal. It happens but it’s rare. I know of ONE student in the graduates of 2011 who got such a deal (sidenote: it was a girl! zomg! /sarcasm). Meanwhile what are the rest doing? Are they refusing potential comic work because they’re “too good” to be part of a collaboration?

“Artists deserve to get paid for their hard work,” Dave Wachter, co-creator of “The Guns of Shadow Valley” and “Scar Tissue,” said. “If you want quality, you should be ready to pay for it.”

Aren’t all parties’ talents worth something, including the writer? I snagged the Wachter quote because he’s in my Top Five of favorite comic artists. In fact, he’s number two behind Francesco Francavilla. However, Wachter does NOT get paid for his webcomic because he’s the co-creator and has a passionate vested interest in it. So is it only possible to find an artist to work collaboratively if you’re your own artist?

The CNN article does an okay job of breaking down the process of making a comic at a high level. You have the artist, the letterer and the printing and distribution. What you have to see further is that “the artist” can be three people: the penciller, the inker, the letterer and the color artist. But wait… there’s the graphic designer who you need to make your cover look professional and the inside front cover where all the pertinent information like credits (ie, the names of all the talent) and copyright necessities are printed. Someone has to make that presentable. Now you’re up to a writer plus FIVE artists plus the printing and distribution.

Then we get to the problem of Diamond and the minimum that’s required to get your comic into comic shops. At this point, unless you have a big name attached to your project, it’s a pipe dream to get into Diamond. If you’re very fortunate, you may drive up enough interest to get your first issue in but staying in the game knowing there’s always issue two drop-off is like wishing for all the stars to align.

The answer, I’m told, is take it to the web. Make webcomics! Sure, that’s a piece of cake. Wait… don’t the artists still want to be paid? I’m confused. When does it become possible to make a comic?

My friend Dirk Manning, creator of NIGHTMARE WORLD, insists it is possible. He followed the formula: webcomic + endless PR + tons of money for cons = landing at Image Comics under the Shadowline imprint. Manning says there’s no reason to avoid offering your comic for free online. You can’t expect a consumer to buy something if they can’t look at it first.

For of us “just writers” I guess we’re in this together. I hope so. I think the sandbox has enough room for all of us.

4 comments on “Thoughts on the CNN “Making Comics” article”

  1. This has always been the Catch 22 of trying to do comics. Do artists deserve to be paid? Yes, they do. So do writers. Particularly since while comics are an inherently visual medium, without a competent writer you wind up with the mess that was most of the early Image books.

    The bit that really burns my biscuits, though, is when I’ve seen artists over at places like Digital Webbing talk about how they deserve to get paid, and won’t work on a project unless they are being paid, turn around and insist that a writer do exactly what they’ve been refusing to.

    It takes a lot of work, practice, and knowledge to be a good writer; same as it does to become a good artist. I spent a lot of time reading, studying the structure of narrative and dialogue. Learning how to use the tools of my trade. There’s a reason I won’t write consciousness when I mean conscience (a mistake I caught in a Marvel book), or pours when I mean pores. Just like time an artist spends working on a writer’s project is time she could be making money on another project, every word I put down for someone else’s project is money I’m potentially losing somewhere else.

    I’ve reached the point where I don’t really bother working on comic scripts anymore exactly because of this situation. When I have found artists willing to work on a collaborative basis every one of them has flaked on me. My time and energy are better spent elsewhere.

    As for the web, it is the way to go for a number of reasons. First, the buy in costs are significantly lower; you can generally get a year’s worth of decent hosting for less than what a 100 issue black and white print run will cost. This is doubly important because most comic projects fail financially. Sometimes this is because they are very, very bad. I have frequently had to politely turn down nice guys at conventions because I’m simply not paying $5 for a b&w book that might well be terrible. Yes, I understand how much it cost to produce that book; however, I’m a big believer in not supporting a subpar product simply for the sake of supporting other creators. It’s a bad idea on pretty much every level. Had their work been available on the web I might have decided differently.

    Which brings me to my other point. One of the other big reasons indy/creator-owned comics fail is that it simply isn’t profitable to emulate the big boys. Creators spend countless dollars, and bust their asses trying to get Diamond to carry their book. This is the way Marvel/DC/et, al. does it, eh? As more than a few creators have found out this doesn’t generally work out for the little guy, but folks keep doing it because it’s the way it has always been done. Instead, what people should be doing is leveraging the many, many distribution technologies and methods that are now available to them, so that if a given project is one of the many that don’t make it, at least creators no longer have to send themselves to the poorhouse in the process.

  2. Its a really tricky situation. I fancy myself as someone that would love to write comics, but I haven’t because of this exact situation. I have friends that have tried doing a collaboration several times for different contests and events and every time the artist flakes part way into the project. There is something about an artist that I think naturally makes them flaky.

    I really wish I had skills to do the artwork myself. Maybe as tools get easier and easier to use I might be able to.

  3. This is a recurring debate, but it seems to me, from listening to interviews and speaking with some published creators, that the collaboration model seems the norm. But for an artist, it’s quite a challenge to work without pay, considering the long hours required to produce a comic page.

    So it’s no surprise that for first-time writers, trying to find a quality, professional artist willing to collaborate with no pay is incredibly difficult. For myself, there was no choice but to hire an artist. Luckily for me, it’s worked out just great.

    But as I quickly learned, being a writer hiring an artist is far more than, as you say, being “just” a writer. I’ve been the editor, letterer, designer, and webmaster for my webcomic Zi. Of course, that’s also in addition to being the accounting and marketing departments as well.

    But no one ever said making indie comics would be easy, and I think the high hurdles serve to cut the wheat from chafe, to some extent. In the end, the only people who succeed at making the comics are those who really want it. Whether or not the completed comic is commercially successful is another story.

  4. Hey, I was recently listening to Ifanboy’s recent talksplode podcasts and remembered your article. Talksplode #46 featured 2 writers and their take on getting into comics, and collaborations, and #47 featured 2 artists and their take on it. Very interesting stuff. You might be interested.

    http://ifanboy.com/podcasts/audio/specialedition/

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