You got to have a J-O-B if you wanna be with me
Friday, February 18, 2011
Jay Oh Bee. Job. Get a job. I can hear my girlfriend say the words. When are you gonna get a job? But, honey, I have a job – I’m a cartoonist. I mean a steady job, Frank.
Yah. Sigh. Time to make the donuts. How the hell am I supposed to be a cartoonist if I’m too tired from my real job?
Has this feeling ever visited you, friend? (Use ’50s TV commercial voice.) Well, you aren’t alone. Here at Comics Comics, we feel your pain. How to manage a career in cartooning and pay the bills? This feeling has baffled generation upon generation of working cartoonists throughout the years. And not just working cartoonists, either. The question has perturbed a vast sea of “Sunday painters” as well. These quasi-professionals know what it means to be consumed by comics. The fire burns long and hot to pursue a career of some kind in the field – but unfortunately the electricity has been turned off in the house. Bills pile up. The dream begins to fade. Young inkstuds slouch their way towards heartache. An unfinished graphic novel gathers dust.
Last week I wrote about comics & jobs, comics job – because I was writing about John Pham. Or, I mean, I was using John Pham as an example of someone who has built up this incredible skill set that is specific to comics and not much else. Like, I mean to be a good cartoonist you have to really work, and even if you become good, or great – you might not make any money at all. The market is so small. There is a limited amount of money going around in comics – meaning who buys what and when. So, fine: John makes awesome comics but not enough to pay the bills. What does he do? He works in animation.
John said this about the comics skill set: “I actually think comics gives us a pretty real-world workable skill set that can sort of translate into other fields, strangely enough. As opposed to, say, a poet. Or a professional poker player. Being able to draw or paint gives peeps like you or me opportunities to do gallery, illustration, or even animation work. All of which could supplement any income generated from comics. I think I know what you mean though; the very specific skill of making comics, telling a story through a sequence of pictures, may not translate to much else. Except maybe storyboarding!”
John also said, “I wonder if this is essentially every non-mainstream cartoonist’s (not named Ware, Clowes, etc) way of keeping afloat. We do our comics, but also do the other shit that pays the bills. Sometimes it’s the comics work that brings in the other work. And there are the cartoonists who have real day jobs, a whole ‘nother discussion!”
I am aware that a mainstream comic book is very different than an alternative art comic. I mean like how it is produced. What economic factors shaped its production and presentation. But I fear that there is a strange blindness in the reading public to this difference. To them it’s just another comic. The independents are put on the same field with the pros. Especially on blogs about comics, the dreaded link-blogging kind – there will be an item about an obscure mini-comic published by a guy in Cleveland then a post about a mega-crossover event comic book published by a corporation with offices on both coasts. It’s all just comics, right? Wrong. There are very specific class lines. There are those who get paid and those who do not.
But to the reader, consumer, blogger, these differences seem to be noticed in passing. I’m so tired of hearing speculation as to why indy titles are published so sporadically – it’s because there’s no fucking money around you dumbasses! The market is small. That guy who buys all the marquee indy titles doesn’t have enough money to buy all the obscure mini-comics. He’s choosing whom to support. See, if you work for a big comics publisher that pays a page rate, this guy not buying your comic makes no difference to you. You get paid. But the self-published artist and even the artist who works for a small company – that artist doesn’t get paid. So what that reader/consumer does buy does make a difference to you. It’s all connected, duh. The stores are only going to order so many inexpensive hand-made mini-comic editions. And only so many expensive hand-made editions. Better to stick with books that have shelf life like comics with spines that look like books. The old serial sporadically published comic book or even mini-comic is at least an affordable way to publishing comics (especially when you aren’t getting paid). Oh, but guess what? small press comics are shut out of the market that serves comic books stores. So small press alternative comics adhere to their own system of production and distribution. Wednesday comics day or the direct market at large is a different class system entirely.
Obviously. But what irks me is reading blogs that jumble it all together and really never address this wide chasm between the two. Rarely ever do I get a sense that the guy drawing this here comic for a big corporation got paid – where as this gal drawing this comic over here worked a day job for two years, drew this comic on the side, and then gave it to an indy publishers for free, on spec, and once the printing costs were recouped a few years later there was a profit of twenty-five dollars which was split between the publisher and the maker. It’s all comics, sure. To you, the reader, fan, blogger – it’s all about the comics – they all wind up in the discount bin eventually – but it’s not all about the comics to the independent makers. It’s all about the money. It’s about realizing that the making of comics is often divorced from working. Because that word – working – is reserved for having a real job that pays. How many “working cartoonists” do you know? Folks that actually make a living drawing comics?
I know a few guys who draw for page rates but most cartoonists I know generally draw “on spec” and maaaaybe get drawing gigs that pay here and there. The guys who can get page rates are mostly working for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and a few other “mainstream” publishers. Those guys can “get work” in comics because they have the specific skill set for drawing mainstream comics. There’s plenty of art in what they do but, really, it’s mostly commerce. It’s getting paid to draw advertisements for corporations, period. There’s money in advertising I hear. And hey! that’s fine. I wish I could do it but I can’t. I really don’t have the skill set to be a working mainstream cartoonist. I’m the kind of cartoonist who doesn’t use a computer. So I’m like a musician who plays a horn instead of a keyboard and a sampler. And because of it I get different gigs, different work because of how I play. But its a different reality. It’s like pop music and classical music (jazz is classical music at this point). Different audiences.
Most independent comics makers “get work” in different places than mainstream comics makers. It’s a different system. I admire Jim Rugg because he “gets work,” paying work, as a cartoonist. He can hone his craft at his lousy day job. He might hate it at times but he doesn’t have to leave the mindset of being an “in the zone” cartoonist when he goes to work. Jim’s not going to flip burgers and leaving “the zone” of drawing. Comics makers all know how long it takes to get in the zone and staying there is often harder than getting there. It’s a TIME thing. We spend so much time just getting good at the craft that the real world becomes a distant point on the horizon. The real world of rent and bills becomes bigger and more menacing than ever. No wonder cartoonists suffer from depression. This shit is depressing!
The silver lining of it all is that comics can be a passport into other jobs – to making a living. It sucks not to be a working cartoonist sometimes but it’s cool to be hired for an animation project. So I’m not complaining. I have a job. But I’m jealous of cartoonists who work in the real world. I guess I mean like commercial comics – but I’m thinking more of someone like Gil Kane or even Patrick McConnell.
It’s hard knowing that your chosen profession is an art form that will someday be supported by foundations and grants – like opera or something. Like jazz. Think about all the specialized schools that teach opera or jazz. D’ja ever think about how many out-of-work opera singers and jazz musicians there are in the world?
We want to hear from you! (Use ’50s TV commercial voice again.) What’s the weirdest job you’ve had to endure while you secretly burned inside to just go home and draw comics?
Frank: “Okay, I’ll go first. I was the worst bike messenger of all time – flat tires, lost packages, head on collisions with pedestrians – and then I would try to go home and work on my comic. I was exhausted and pretty banged up. My roommate – who was a really good messenger – took pity on me and said that if I did the dishes for a month he would reduce my rent. I had enough money to pay for a month’s rent at the reduced rate and quit my messenger job. I spent the month finishing my comic. I sent that comic to Spin magazine and got a job doing spot illustrations for Michael O’Donoghue’s column. I was fired after three months and replaced by Gary Panter. True story.”
Postscript: I think Tom Scioli drew Godland for a few years whole working a full-time job at the library.
As John Pham said, “That’s a whole ‘nother discussion!”