Saturday, December 1, 2012

Independent Comics and Money (or lack thereof)

Lots of recent buzz regarding a blog from a creator who posted how little money there is in producing independent comics.  I’m not specifying who it is because it doesn’t matter…it’s the same situation for almost all of the creators working in independent comics.

My first reaction in reading his post was surprise that this was a revelation to anyone.  That’s the way it’s been for practically forever in the comics market.  But I have remember that there are a lot of creators (both published and unpublished) that grew up with independent comics always there, found on the shelf with creators making names for themselves.  Some of us older folks recall when the idea of independent comics was a “new” thing.  It’s a cyclical trend and the realities for some people are disheartening.

But comics are no different than film, music, or writing prose stories and books.  Just about all of those are also unsuccessful financially and the sheer number of entries into those areas dwarfs comic creators by a considerable amount.  Yet, of all those, comics still has the easiest time getting into the “system” than the others but being part of the system doesn’t guarantee anything.

I thought the key point in the blog and with many respondents was that the money aspect wasn’t the most important thing and is not what drove the creators.  This a realistic view necessary for those creators because the odds are that you’re not going to make a living doing comics…very few people do.  I do notice that trend of acceptance over the last few years---a lot of creators just want to create and they know it is not going to be their primary career.  You’ll find the same thing in film, books, and music.  For others, however, the passion that drives them to create comics isn’t complete unless they can make a living doing so.

Outside of being driven purely by passion, most creators have other goals in mind.  For some, it’s to show the “big guys” such as Marvel and DC what they can do and their ultimate plan is to move to superhero worlds they likely grew up on.  Others utilize the comics to build up an intellectual property for possible exploitation and others yet, work within the restrictions of today’s market with an eye on exploration into other markets.  The hope is that their style, genre, themes, etc. will resonant with those outside of the traditional comics market.  But the majority just want to create with no illusions of their labor of love spinning off into a life changing revenue process.

For whatever reasons, it’s all good.  First and foremost, creators should create the best they can and that should be the tangible goal…anything else is an exception, and when you’re modeling your plan, you always have to ignore the exceptions because you can’t build a strategy around that.  Sure, it happens and in a few rare cases, someone can plot out their exception place but it doesn’t occur too often.  When Jimmy Gownley published his Shades of Grey through Caliber, his only goal was to get his book out.  He had to tell the story and although sales weren’t great, it was enough to get the material in print.  Then he shifted to a new passion and Amelia Rules! was born.  He had no idea at the time that it would be picked up by a major book publisher for eight volumes and hit the NY Times best selling list and be signed for a film.  You can’t plan that.

At Caliber we had a lot of creators who knew that they wanted to do comics and so they did.  A lot of them got their project done and they were satisfied and went onto the rest of their lives.  Many honed their skills and eventually found themselves making a career of doing comics.  There are a couple of dozen creators in comics today who used the early days at Caliber to develop their craft and found themselves producing comics for the Big Two.  There were a few creators who found success in other avenues because their property got made into a movie and they continue to feed off of that.  

For me personally, I’ve always looked at the creative side as just that, a creative outlet.  Of course, I’d like for the comics to sell better and it would be sweet to devote my full time to writing although I wonder if I would really enjoy it as writing is a hard and lonely task dependent on motivation and diligence. But I think I’ve always been pragmatic in my approach.  Even when the first comic I wrote was nominated for a Harvey Award, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make a living on just writing comics.  I’ve done some work for hire here and there but for the most part, I write what I want to and I know the limitations in terms of appeal within the comics market.  Regardless of all the awards, acclaim, and buzz that certain non-superhero titles get, the sales still primarily go to the spandex crowd.  I enjoy doing what I do and my primary frustration is the time factor, I just don’t have enough time to get to everything I want to do.

I had a friend that said I was lucky that I had a real job to fall back on (I teach college biology) but luck had nothing to do with it.  I earned that position as I went to school at night while toiling at dead end jobs and even after I opened my comic shops, I continued to go to school eventually earning my Masters.  Granted, I left the academic world and concentrated on the stores, the publishing, and other ventures such as McFarlane Toys, but at the time, that was the path that was there.  When I closed Caliber, I moved into teaching part time in more of “let’s check this out” and found I enjoyed it.  I teach a full time schedule yet still spend considerable amount of time writing and currently am involved in a few different companies.  I like the balance and certainly feel more secure knowing that the teaching not only provides me with a good income (dependent on how much I choose to work) but also a benefit package and a retirement plan.  

Although I’m certainly not a big name in comics, and I doubt if anyone who rarely ventures outside of Marvel and DC would even be remotely familiar with my name, I feel successful in the biz even though to many, I remain an unknown.   I’ve been able to write some 30 graphic novels (some are collections of comics), I’ve had some of my work used in teaching college classes, been sold outside of comic shops in book stores, Wal-Marts, and had many deals signed for exploitation whether games, films, CDs, card sets, etc.  I have a number of books that continue to sell primarily on Amazon that provides a small but steady stipend each month.   I seem to have a pretty strong base in the foreign markets as I quite often get large orders from countries that look outside of superheroes.

Simply put, I ain’t got no complaints. Would I like a best seller?  Sure, of course.  But that doesn’t motivate me.  I will likely never appeal to the market that determines “success” stories in the comics market---I don’t see myself ever writing  Marvel or DC superheroes---so I am relegated to that “independent” creator and I’m fine with that.

I think that the creators out there who adopt the same approach in understanding that the separation of the creative endeavors with the realities of the market are likely to have more long term success.  They may have less of a resume but it’s better to create out of desire and satisfaction than out of desperation.  You also have to take a long range goal…existing from project to project, especially when you accumulate nothing in terms of ownership, is likely to land you in a murky situation when you get older.  We’re seeing that now with a number of well known creators who have been discarded, for whatever reason, and have had to go to charity organizations for help.  I know of quite a few creators who had their time at the Big Two and now rely on government assistance.  Some have gone to have minimum wage jobs and living on subsistence incomes.  I think fans would be shocked at just how many of them are out there.

Going back to the blog, outside of the surprise part, what I found intriguing was the attitude that the “creators” were being short changed because of the amount of money going towards the distributor and retailers.  Well, that’s the system and anyone that deals with it understands that those are necessary components.  When creators make little money on doing comics, they aren’t getting screwed by the system as a lot of the comments indicate.  Sure, they do all the work and often times for minimal money and believe me, I know how discouraging that is, but it isn’t because they’re being taken advantage of in any way.  They just don’t have enough sales for whatever reason.

Sure, you can bypass the system and keep a much higher percentage but your sales likely will be a fraction of what they could be.  But, and this is a big but, you have to evaluate whether more sales will equal more profit.  I have always been someone that looked at profit over sales figures.  I do a number of titles that do not go into the system and obviously, they sell considerably less…but they are more profitable.  I do understand though, that sometimes going through the system has other benefits such as exposure.

There are a lot of creators who are upset that they can’t make a living doing what they so passionately want to do.  Well, passion is not enough.  Just think of all those hopefuls on shows like American Idol who feel that they deserve their shot because they “want” it so bad.  Frankly, the “want” is irrelevant except in terms of how much it motivates you.  Your passion doesn’t entitle you to anything.

I will agree that it’s a shame because even though I’m not a big comic reader myself, the few books I do pick up and the ones I browse indicates to me that there’s probably more good books out there than ever before.  It would be great if the sales reflected that.  I’m glad that for some, their passion continues them to producing comics.  It’s what continues to drive me.


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