Comics…it was the worst of times

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2013 04 14 WaP4SRB 1 Comics...it was the worst of times

In the Brian Hibbs column I quoted in my previous post, he also wrote this:

We also live in an industry where a significant number of comics being published today are probably not making a living wage for anyone involved — comics that sell just five thousand copies into a national market are probably netting the creators something less than $50/page — but I generally think that economic Darwinism really does work well in the comics industry, and that most of those poor-selling titles are a result of market rejection of the work itself, not a symptom of dysfunction of market as a whole.


And on his blog, Steve Bissette gets into this a lot more. This is also a period where creators’ rights at many publishers have been chipped away at to a remarkable degree. Again I’ll offer a longer quote than usual to get to the salient points:

The DC/Vertigo contracts which followed in the early 1990s were actually worse than the 1988 “creator friendly” contracts we saw, introducing a creative “options” clause (in which the creators would have to buy out the option, whether the accepted/paid for work was published or not, rather than benefit from traditional book publishing rights reversion clauses) that I have since seen more mainstream book publishers adopt, much to my chagrin. [snip]

But seriously, the so-called “comics industry” is otherwise in a new dark age. The major players are in Hollywood-la-la-land, and locking down anything that movies—uh, moves, for as little as possible: Silver Age terms for Post-Millennial Media Golden Age non-shares in the bountiful riches.

Page rates are in the toilet; “independent publishers” (i.e., not Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, etc., which is stretching the definition of mainstream, but there you go) are offering rates for work-for-hire gigs that are less than freelancers were earning work-for-hire in the late 1960s-1980s.

What’s worse than the low page rates are the contracts offered (“take it or leave it,” most often) at those rates—I’m now seeing retro-retroactive contracts (don’t get me going). I’ve turned down cover gigs that offered less than I was paid for covers in the 1980s (and those were for “lucrative, prestige” licensed character gigs—you bet your ass the licensor earns more than the freelancers ever will).

The gaming industry has had a further negative impact on these matters; I’d be hard-pressed to cite the worst work-for-hire contracts I’ve laid eyes on, and I’m not in a position to share the many stories I’ve encountered (usually from freelancers terrified to tell those stories, their experiences, for fear of retribution or black-balling—how little times have changed).

With precious few exceptions (and there are, thankfully, exceptions): Self-publishing and creator-ownership is the only way to go, unless servitude and impoverishment is the goal.


This is accompanied by the above cartoon from 1988 that’s every bit as relevant today.

Despite the sales and creative boom for the industry, making a living at making comics is a precarious matter. The top gigs that guarantee a mortgage payment are as highly competed for as ever, but offer less and less creative freedom. At a talk the other night, former DC and Archaia editor Joe Illidge put it quite succinctly: Batman isn’t a character, he’s an intellectual property. That goes for all the top characters and brands. Page rates at the majors that I hear quoted are about the same as when I was editing comics over a decade ago. And below that, at smaller publishers, the rates are as low as Bissette quotes.

And that’s not even counting the vast, vast market of great work that’s being done for free on the internet with some hope of monetization down the road.

Now, the good part of where we’re at is that there are more options than ever and gatekeepers are fairly powerless. I disagree with Hibbs in that not everything selling 5000 copies “deserves” a low payout due to low quality. We’re also at the “1000 true fans” moment and some of those comics are among the best being published.

It’s also true that comics often serve as a “portfolio” piece for creators to get a more lucrative job in animation or illustration or film or design where there is a higher economy. But those industries are also seeing a decline, not an increase in wages, and making a living as an art director or designer isn’t any easier than it was 10 years ago, either.

What does it all mean?

I have no idea.

We’re at a point where no one knows anything. Every creative industry is in total flux right now. Ten years ago, creators figured out how to promote themselves on the web to build an audience but everyone does that now. The new tools are crowdfunding and merchandising and prints. In the era of self publishing, you always had to know how to run a business and do marketing to be successful, and now the elements of publishing and marketing to be mastered are more complicated and time consuming.

A lot of people are going to have bigger dreams than they can ever live up to. Not everyone is a Kirkman or Mignola or Ware or even a Noelle Stevenson.

I would suggest, however, that the crappy contracts being offered will become more of a conscious choice and less the only game in town. That’s already happening, to some degree. But it’s an important thing to point out, and as more creators become aware of what their rights can and should be, maybe the pendulum will swing back a little here and there.

In the end, I still remain optimistic. For the people with true talent, there are more tools than ever available to find an audience. And that’s the path we all need to keep searching for.

Comments

  1. jaroslav hasek says:

    are there ONLY shitty contracts being offered? or is the problem that a shitty contract is offered at all? i’m sure plenty of people are being offered quite generous and “fair” contracts, no? if you aren’t offered a more “fair” contract, either you aren’t worth a “fair” contract, or you can take your talents elsewhere (like the world wide web) and prove whoever offered you the shit contract wrong.

    and wouldn’t image be an ideal model for bissette? he doesn’t mention it at all, except to lump it on with marvel, dc and dark horse. it sounds like hes just pissed that SOME people get shit contracts from SOME IP focused companies. i can’t imagine a real world scenario where that doesn’t ever happen. theyre for profit corporations, if they can acquire goods and services for less money, they will.

    there are too numerous to mention examples of people going outside the mainstream comics industry and finding success. and im sure there are still very talented people who are unable to breakthrough no matter what happens. i feel like that’s just life, not an indication that we’re in a new dark age of comics.

    i dunno, i am not in the industry so take my opinion for what its worth. this just seems like a very pessimistic view of the state of things.

  2. jacob lyon goddard says:

    How can we, the fans, help?

  3. normal says:

    maybe no one wants to buy shitty comics

  4. Nothing to offer except props to Jaroslav; I loved “The Good Soldier Svejk”.

  5. retailers, distributors and publishers get the biggest piece of the pie from every comic sold. The creators get the scraps left over after everyone else takes a piece. Is that a sustainable thing?

    The current generation of indie creators are starting to see the advantages of avoiding the direct market and going to kickstarter and direct to consumer. Its still a challenge, but creators are starting to realize that maybe they shouldn’t be satisfied with the crumbs that are left over.

    The direct market is an important part of selling comics, but as we see more niche books on the creator owned side, the current system isn’t working for everyone. Something’s gotta give.

  6. however i do agree, that sometimes your book doesn’t sell because its just not very good. That’s a reality too many of us fail to recognize in this “everything is amazing” climate.

  7. Doctor Timebomb says:

    “We’re at a point where no one knows anything”

    Now? William Goldman said “nobody knows anything” in his 1983 book Adventures in the Screen Trade. He was talking about Hollywood, but it applies to comics as well. Hibbs and Bissette are wise and worth listening to, but have their biases (as does everyone). Also, I think Bissette claims to be more in tune with current matters than he truly is. The guy’s been out of the game for a while, and is making a lot of hay out of being approached for a few cover gigs over the years.

  8. larrymarder says:

    I’ve never sold huge numbers with BEANWORLD and no one has ever suggested it wasn’t a good comic. A most peculiar comic, sure, but in my near 30 years in the market place I was only told its crap in a review once and that was by someone who thought I needed to locked up in a mental hospital.
    No one knows better than me what BEANWORLD’s shortcomings in the comi s markert are. The top of the list is infrequent publishing. (I can see Brian Hibbs nodding his head on that one). The awful truth is I just can’t work any faster. I work ALL the time but my work methods are slow and take time to percolate properly. My industry day jobs on the business end of things have always helped keep BEANWORLD afloat. Still do. I spent the winter dreaming up & facilitating KOMACON ANTHOLOGY to be published by Image Comics. That’s in the can & I’m back to all BEANWORLD all the time.
    If ANYONE in any aspect of comics doesn’t know the Batman isn’t a character but an intellectual property then all I can say is where did we, the veterans of the creators’ rights movement fail? If fail is to harsh a word, then when did we slip backwards? Maybe it was when we shifted our emphasis from Creator’s Rights to Self Publishing. A lot of Self Publishers ended up as Studios doing offering crappy deals (and as Steve B said) even retroactive work made for hire.
    I witnessed first hand enough multi-media dazzle dazzle in my Image Comics & McFarlane Toys to understand that BEANWORLD was probably never going to get much traction outside of comics–if for no other reason it’s the only creative endeavor in my life I don’t make compromises for. It is wha it is, when it is. I have a small but incredibly loyal group of fans that seems to get younger as the years go by. In addition to leguminously enlightened comics retailers i also attribute a good portion of that growth to libraries and librarians.
    So what’s my point? Hell if I know, I make comics because I HAVE to make comics. If they make money , yay for me. A few years ago Bob Wayne of DC Comics asked me what it’s like being in the current market as opposed to the ’80s. I said “It’s the same. The ups-and-downs of the marketplace rarely have anything to do with me.” We both laughed pretty hard.

  9. First, it’s patently false that all low-selling books sell that low because they deserve to. Publishers and creators can make fantastic books that are poorly marketed, shipped late, and under-ordered because they’re unknown (this is true in every publishing retail environment, mind you, not at all limited to the Direct Market). And once they are on-shelf, customers are predisposed to buy more of what they like (again, not limited to the Direct Market) rather than trying something that might be brilliant and unfamiliar. I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game between “the books are terrible” and “the market is terrible.” In almost every instance of a non-blockbuster title it’s a combination of both, plus, I would add, “the customer is overwhelmed and poor.”

    Everything Mr. Bissette points out is right on. An industry with lower pay rates than we had 40 years ago is in need of repair. Publishing P&Ls (again, not limited to comics) are built on the premise of paying everyone else first, and the creator compensation is the part that’s negotiated down if the P&L is in the red. Some publishers will opt not to publish a book if they can’t afford to pay everyone fairly, while others will try to get away with as little as they can, expecting a few lucky bestsellers to financially carry the rest of the line, which is how the industry has functioned for 200 years.

    The choice, I suppose, is then on the creator, but the choice is often “publish your book this way or pick another line of work,” not, “publish your book with me or someone else who pays better.” Those who choose to not publish reduce the amount of inspiring, brilliant books/comics in the world by one. And we’ll never be able to fully account for the lost brilliance an economically frustrated publishing apparatus is responsible for.

  10. george says:

    ” … comics that sell just five thousand copies into a national market are probably netting the creators something less than $50/page ,,,”

    I’ve decided comic books are like jazz music — a once popular form that had a mass audience, but is now an object of cultish devotion, kept alive by fans and collectors.

    Publishers today would kill for the “bad sales” that got Green Lantern/Green Arrow, or Kirby’s Fourth World books, cancelled in the early ’70s.

  11. Len Strazewski says:

    When I left comics to become a college professor, it wasn’t because I no longer had good comic ideas. I was fed up with the pattern of verbal and economic bullying built into the industry. It has jut gotten worse. For me, the upside is that I now have tenure and a paid sabbatical coming soon and can afford to self-publish or work with publishers that offer me a good creator-owned contract. And I work from a supportive community of academic colleagues who like that I can take a break from teaching journalism to tell comic stories. So, in a couple of months, I will be doing what I love without the hassle.

  12. See — we lost every amazing book Len Strazewski might have given us for the last 15 years. At least now we might get some of them back.

  13. Dr. Timebomb, I’m pretty sure Mr. Bissette teaches at the Center For Cartoon Studies, so I think he might have first hand knowledge of current contracts (he might even teach that topic??) as they are being offered to current and newly graduated students who communicate with him. He might not be publishing for the Big Two, but I’m confident he knows of what he speaks.

  14. I like George’s comparison of comics to jazz, seems almost spot on. Comics in it’s most base form has been with us since the beginning, it will survive. The money will peak and abate a few more times I’m sure. Remember after the Golden Age, lots of comics were cut, and lots of creators found something else to do.

  15. Orphan says:

    The Brian Hibbs commemt that begins the economical Darwinism portion of his argument is just monumentally stupid in every respect.

  16. johnrobiethecat says:

    Somehow visual artists go for broke and never operate as a group much. This is the end effect. Form a union and have them negotiate page rates and contracts?

    Royalties, standards, conduct, time on books, teams on books. This would take a giant leap from everybody in the profession high and low to cooperate but conceivable in the age of social media and pull with fans.You’ll be better off in the end. Actors unions are super strong and movie studios respect them. You get health insurance and someone to enforce the rules…Those not in unions, not so much and ruthlessly exploited. All these studios can bank anymore on is comic movies, they’ll work out something. They need talent and he good publicity to make it work, otherwise they get Green Lanterns. They say they can outsource and everything but no so sure, Might hurt the comic industry in the interim but its pretty clear where their priorities are… Maybe everybody posts to Thrillbent & Kickstarter for support in meantime, These studios need comics bad and stories that work , Its all they got now.Star Wars and Star Trek films take a while to make. And Tom Cruise isn’t a go-to for the stuff in-between anymore. With the treatment of Kirby & Siegel, Shuster, There is likely public support. And there’s always Comic Con. Gotta fight for your rights,

  17. george says:

    “Comics in it’s most base form has been with us since the beginning, it will survive. ”

    Yes, the true fans will stick with comics — in whatever form they mutate into — until the end. Just as jazz (and bluegrass and Delta blues, for that matter) is kept alive by the dedication of its fans, comics will be nurtured by the same sort of devotees.

    I don’t expect a return to the huge sales of the ’50s or ’60s — at least not in print. But I do expect comics to survive in some form. People have been telling stories with pictures since the “dawn of man” (as Kubrick called it). That’s not going to end.

  18. “I’ve never sold huge numbers with BEANWORLD and no one has ever suggested it wasn’t a good comic.”

    There’s a certain amount of bristling at my quote, but I want to stress that it doesn’t say anything about whether a comic is any GOOD or not. That’s sort of irrelevant to my contention that there’s (by and large) sufficient market ACCESS for most works that want to gain wide market access.

    Larry is a great example. For multiple decades BEANWORLD has been on and in the market, and I would suggest that there’s no real shortage of publishers that would be willing to publish it, and a significant percentage of stores stock it — but it still doesn’t sell all that well.

    Not because of “good” or “bad”, but because it’s a niche product in a niche market.

    In an “unhealthy” market BEANWORLD would never make it on the racks in the first place, but I know that stores like mine continue to stock it, despite its relatively low velocity, because it is an important part of the comics ecosystem, and the market IS strong and diverse enough to welcome ALL kinds of comics.

    Not everything (REGARDLESS OF CRAFT!) is commercial. That should be blindingly self-obvious. And I, for one, think that the continued publication of BEANWORLD over the last 3 decades should that the market isn’t especially dysfunctional. (or that Larry is a model of kingly perseverance!)

    -B

  19. >> Somehow visual artists go for broke and never operate as a group much. This is the end effect. Form a union and have them negotiate page rates and contracts?>>

    Can’t. Union law precludes collective bargaining by independent contractors.

    >> Actors unions are super strong and movie studios respect them.>>

    SAG, like the WGA and other Hollywood unions, are grandfathered into the law, but couldn’t be formed if people were trying to were create them now.

    >> Gotta fight for your rights,>>

    This is true. But whenever this comes up, someone always suggests unionizing, as if no one has ever thought of it or comics pros are simply stupid and unwilling to do the obvious.

    But it’s not actually legal to form such a union under current labor law, and hasn’t been for longer than most in the comics industry have been alive, so that particular suggestion is, sadly, a nonstarter.

    kdb

  20. johnrobiethecat says:

    @kb yeah, see what you mean.Kinda had a nagging feeling the laws weren’t friendly to that anymore. Thanks for clearing that up.

    Seems timing is everything…Hope digital opens up better options & a solid livelihood one day.

  21. M.E. Baz says:

    I think it’s really great that you’re shining a light on this subject. However, you reference Dickens’ opening line from A Tale of Two Cities regarding economic extremes between rich and poor, and then you say you have no idea why creator contracts are worse now than in the 1990s?

    Hint: one of the central themes in most of Dickens’ works was greed.

    We should be careful all of us to remember that the line between optimism and denial is a very, very thin one.

  22. Jon Q. Citizen says:

    As an avid Comic Book fan & collector, I still find it humorous that anyone is surprised this is going on. It’s a corporate “market” in our suffering economy, meaning that the employer has the advantage over the employee….I would guess that the majority of people reading this column work at jobs that pay less than they should, and are maybe even making less money now than 10-15 years ago (…I am).

    With our economy suffering, the rich-poor gap growing everyday, and close to 10% of Americans out of work…..why would creators in a market based on affluence (i.e. not necessary items, but rather something to spend excess $$$ on) be at all surprised that they have to work for less?

    If anything, this will heighten the quality and passion of comic books being published, and “inde” titles will be done for love more than money. I work in a career field that I love, so it’s not as big an issue to make a little less now than before…..I’m sure in the end, creators of comic books feel the same.

  23. @ Jon Q. — I wish we could forever banish the idea of working for love instead of money. We should, of course, do everything we do in life because we love it (taking walks, petting dogs, making art, eating sandwiches), but what we do for employment is done in exchange for money, which we then use to help us do the things we love. Somewhere along the way we started confusing the sound advice to “love your work” with the bad advice to “work for love.” This bad advice has resulted in persistent downward pressure on compensation in the creative industries that is severely worsening the quality of our cultural output, while compensation for non-creative endeavors continues to rise, or at least keep pace with inflation.

    I, for one, am earning significantly more than I was 10 years ago — shocking orders of magnitude more — because I’ve negotiated, strategized, and followed growth areas within the industry that I love (the publishing industry, comics in particular). I don’t think it’s humorous that people are worried that many others within the same industry are experiencing the opposite. I think it’s a positive reaction to a deeply unsettling situation that no one should passively accept the way you suggest.

  24. >> If anything, this will heighten the quality and passion of comic books being published…>>

    Because paying people less results in better work! Everyone knows that!

    Bring back garrets and consumption, while we’re at it.

    kdb

  25. Saipman says:

    Aren’t today’s creators paid far more, even on an inflation adjusted basis, than creators in prior years? If that’s true, why are comics worse now if all it takes is money to get good ones?

  26. >> Aren’t today’s creators paid far more, even on an inflation adjusted basis, than creators in prior years?>>

    Not at all sure that’s true; certainly not industry-wide.

    Definitely not, if you’re only going back 20 years or so. But I suppose it depends on what “prior years” you have in mind.

    >> If that’s true, why are comics worse now if all it takes is money to get good ones? >>

    I think you’d find a wide range of opinion on whether comics are worse now — maybe you don’t like Marvel & DC superhero comics as much, but comics as a whole worse? Not sure you’d get widespread agreement that SAGA, FATALE, HELLBOY, FABLES, RELISH, DRAMA and THE NAO OF BROWN can’t compete with, say, Silver Age superhero comics.

    But I didn’t see anyone say that all it takes is money to get good comics made; I saw someone say that working for less would produce better comics. So the argument made was that all it takes is poverty to produce quality, not that all it takes is money.

    I think making a good living helps attract good people to the field, and support them doing good work. I don’t think you can pay the mailman top rates and get Gaiman-quality scripts. Then again, I don’t think cutting rates will get more Gaiman-written comics, either…

    kdb

  27. Jon Q. Citizen says:

    @Kurt Busiek…..if Creators are making less, then the ones with the most talent will survive, and the rest will go find other means of supporting themselves and their families. While that’s not a “pretty” opinion, it’s reality in a “free-market” economy. (Don’t get me wrong, I wish it weren’t so)

    @Jesse Post (& Kurt Busiek)…. I work in the Hotel Industry. Anyone who has ever stayed at a Hotel (and I’m sure Mr. Busiek has many times), can probably tell the difference quite quickly between the Hotel Employee who enjoys and loves their job, and the employee who’s just there for a paycheck.

    Although I could probably work somewhere else and make a little more $$$, I stay because I sincerely love my job and enjoy doing my best to help others enjoy themselves while on their travels. Because of this, my quality of service is always better than those who are just there for a paycheck.

    The Comic Book Industry is much the same! Creators serve the various needs of the Reader…..those who do it well will survive, and those who don’t will fade away in time.

  28. >> if Creators are making less, then the ones with the most talent will survive, and the rest will go find other means of supporting themselves and their families.>>

    I don’t think that’s true at all. Has anyone noticed, in any industry ever, that when the workers are worse off financially, the results are better?

    >> Anyone who has ever stayed at a Hotel (and I’m sure Mr. Busiek has many times), can probably tell the difference quite quickly between the Hotel Employee who enjoys and loves their job, and the employee who’s just there for a paycheck.>>

    I think the mistake you’re making is extrapolating from that that if you pay less, it’s the ones who are just there for a paycheck who’ll quit. From what I’ve seen, in various industries, is, it’s the ones who can get better work elsewhere who’ll quit — the smart, capable ones whose skills are valuable in other contexts — and a lot of the people who stay will be no-hopers who don’t have another reasonable choice.

    The idea that poverty breeds quality just doesn’t make sense. Paying people less can make them work faster (if it’s piecework) or longer (if it’s an hourly wage), or at least try to. But neither of those guarantee “better.”

    >> Creators serve the various needs of the Reader…..those who do it well will survive, and those who don’t will fade away in time.>>

    That’s a statement that has nothing to do with paying creators less causing an increase in quality. To whatever extent it’s true, it’s true in boom times as well as in hard times — those who attract a loyal audience will manage better than those who don’t. The benefits of popularity don’t vanish if people are being paid decent wages.

    kdb

  29. Steve D says:

    KDB – “From what I’ve seen, in various industries, is, it’s the ones who can get better work elsewhere who’ll quit — the smart, capable ones whose skills are valuable in other contexts.”

    EXACTLY. And that’s why we’ve lost YEARS of great work from some of the finest talents in the business, who got disgusted by low rates and creator’s rights situations and found employment elsewhere. For years, the comics industry lost Mike Ploog to storyboarding, Howard Chaykin to TV development, Steve Gerber and Jack Kirby to animation. Neil Gaiman has made it abundantly clear that he’d be doing more comics work except the contracts and creative control incentives aren’t sufficient to draw him away from his novels and screenwriting gigs. Some of the greatest talents this industry produced bailed on it at the heights of their creative powers because it just wasn’t worth it.

  30. several comments here i live in 4th largest city in USA and never see comics for sale. Anywhere. When i was a kid news stands, bookstores, even grocery stores stocked them. We used to hit different stores in anticipation of the new issues. Now in 2013 I have to drive to specialty stores across Houston to find a comic. My kids did’nt even know what comic books were until I whipped out some of my vintage ones. Too bad, missed opportunity for millions of potential new fans with todays kids. No Walmart, no Barnes & Nobles, Crown, Hobby Lobby, Michaels, no comics in malls. Sure Man Of Steel new Superman and recent Iron Man & Avengers do well at box office but what afterward? If no one has been looking math, science and READING all not best in our schools now. Maybe put on kindles or something, but to me, nothing like having book in hand, not ereader. Good luck with the ‘big two’ almost like having to choose between to evils Comcast or Uverse. And real good luck with contracts, reminds me of all those great 1960s-1970s musical recording artists who have died penniless.

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