Straight Dope from M’Oak!
Mark Oakley, Colleen Doran, Bissette Talk More About How To Make It In the Real World…
* The final production work on my brand-new book Teen Angels & New Mutants: Rick Veitch’s Bratpack® and the Art, Karma, and Commerce of Killing Sidekicks is one step away from final wrap; tomorrow AM, it’s done and off to the printer.
The final 412-page package sports over 40 illustrations (I had many more intended for the book, and Rick provided me with ample Bratpack art to work with, but we reached the limits of our print-on-demand format, and made due with what was possible), and I’m very pleased with the results.
It’s a book unlike any other I’ve ever had a hand in, and I daresay it’s an entirely new approach to writing about comics, graphic novels, and the lives and work of creators.
While the book acknowledgements thank everyone who contributed to the years of work on this massive undertaking, I want to add thanks here to Jean-Marc Lofficier, my long-time friend and recent publisher; to friend and colleague (now that we’re both teaching comics in academic settings, a career path Charles beat me to) Charles Hatfield, who not only took up the challenge of writing the introduction for this unwieldy book, but fully understood what my intentions were, and communicated that and more in his excellent intro; and to CCS senior Carl Mefferd for seeing through the final illustration scans for the project in the eleventh hour.
Having put this sick puppy to bed, it looks like Teen Angels will be available in March—just a couple of months left to wait!—and we may have to up the cover price a tad to accommodate the additional pages. Final pricing, availability, and some sample tidbits will grace Myrant in February, closer to publication date.
As I noted, among the ongoing conversations not open to Myrant or online readerships is an ongoing, oh, 25-year conversation with Colleen Doran. Of late, portions of that conversation has spilled into public venues, via Myrant and Colleen‘s excellent blog.
“The takeaway is that free thing isn’t working out for almost everyone who tries it, no matter how much you ‘engage.’
I wonder how much of this is about first mover advantage? Is the blogosphere so glutted with new material that being seen is almost impossible without massive support?
I sent Steve screen shots of the traffic of webcomics and blogs that got big boosts from tech websites touting the “Everything Should be Free Caring is Sharing” model, and without exception, after an initial blip, the traffic plummets. Some drop so far traffic cannot be measured by independent sources. Now, any external traffic graph is going to be dicey, but if Alexa tells me your site ranks 1 million or lower two months after your boost from Boing Boing, you have a problem. Your readers didn’t stick around. And if you have lots more free content than I do, you really, really have a problem.
The entire series of posts between Steve and Mr. Sim should be read by everyone who pursues comics as vocation….”
Colleen‘s hard-won pragmatism over what constitutes “making a living” as a creator bears close study and assessment by anyone and everyone working toward that goal as a cartoonist (or on any path of creator self-employment). Read her entire post, which touches upon the following:
“A recent discussion with another creator over whether or not most webcomics artists make a living had us trying to pin down the definition of ‘make a living.’ A recent survey claimed a number of webcomics artists ‘make a living,’ but never quantified that. Since we have different standards for what that means, based on what creators have freely posted on their sites, most don’t make a living: they get by.
After business expenses and taxes, what does $15,000 get you?”
Colleen shares her income numbers from the 1980s; the fact is, I was earning almost exactly $15,000 per year as a freelancer for DC Comics in the mid-1980s, penciling Saga of the Swamp Thing (at the company’s lowest page rates), and my first wife Nancy (now Marlene) O’Connor was also working a full-time job, and we were living below the poverty line in 1983-87 numbers.
Colleen also notes, continuing:
“Adjusted for inflation, the webcomics artist who makes $15,000-$20,000 a year now—before deductions and taxes—makes less than I did in the latter part of the 1980′s.
What cost $9000 in 1988 would cost $16112.50 in 2009.
Also, if you were to buy exactly the same products in 2009 and 1988,
they would cost you $9000 and $4809.84 respectively.
$15,000-$20,000 per year now, before business expenses and taxes, is poorer than I was in 1988 when I had less than $10,000 in taxable income….
Getting by is not good enough. You don’t get what you want out of life by lowering your standards. The standard should be to thrive, not to get by.”
Food for thought—food for the table.
Colleen has also posted comments to some installments of my conversation with Dave Sim, also well worth reading; as I’ve noted before, the comments threads are as worthwhile (perhaps more so!) as the conversation here. Check ‘em out.
(And yes, Bob, it’s safe to come back to Myrant now. Read on!)
I beg to differ.
If we are going to help the next generation of creators, to ensure they have a better and clearer path than our generation did, we should be open with some aspects of our professional lives. We serve no one but the corporations and publishers by remaining mum about such matters. Many of the same creators who made those claims likely use the (previously-cited) Graphic Artists Guild Handbook of Pricing & Ethical Guidelines (now in its newly-published 13th edition, and an essential text for anyone who draws for part or all of their living).
That book, and those guidelines, exist only because freelancers and creators shared their information amongst themselves, and with the Guild.
United, we can earn livings; divided, we will starve.
That said, there are many confidences I must keep. There is much I discuss and share with my son and daughter I won’t share elsewhere; there are many things I share in the CCS classroom I would never post to a public arena. Discretion is always necessary, but sharing information and hard experience is something we should not avoid when appropriate.
Hence, these Myrant posts since December. We’ve one more multi-part conversation to go, as follows…
* I wanted to wind up this January marathon discussion of making a living as a creator, the current market, self-publishing, and similar issues by concluding with a conversation with a younger creator who has been almost ceaselessly active and self-publishing since 1994.
Mark Oakley is the self-publisher of Thieves & Kings, the webcomic Stardrop and (knock on wood) Jenny Mysterious, all of which Mark will get into amid our chat.
I met Mark in 1995, shortly after he’d launched Thieves & Kings, and Mark (and his work) made quite an impression on me as one of the most focused and dedicated of the young turks—which was saying something at a time when dynamos like Jeff Smith, Paul Pope, Dave Lapham, and others were among those “young turks.”
Mark writes, “The first issue shipped to stores in September of 1994 to the praise of comic book readers everywhere, and the series has been running ever since.
In the years since then, Thieves & Kings has grown! It now fills five Graphic Novels, with another two in production. The series is aimed to wrap up in 6 books in total clocking in at over 1200 pages! Thieves & Kings will then be, I hope, an enduring tale of friendship, swashbuckling adventure, magic and coming of age. –All achieved with warmth and humanity; the kind of book you can put down and feel happy and bubbly inside for having read.
My name is Mark Oakley, and I am both the writer and the artist for the book….”
I think Mark has also been on my mind of late because of my ongoing friendship and working relationship with Alec Longstreth via the Center for Cartoon Studies, where Alec and I co-teach. First CCS Fellow and fellow faculty member Robyn Chapman first introduced me to Alec back in the summer of 2005, and I have been blown away by Alec‘s enthusiasm, talent, skill, work ethic, and comics ever since.
Alec is in the home stretch of his own fantasy graphic novel, Basewood, which I’ve since read through three times. This prompted me to revisit my back issues of Thieves & Kings—well, I don’t want to do either Alec or Mark a disservice by making too much of the tentative associative links I find in their work (in many ways, their work is very different), but it’s an inspiration that both Mark and Alec are presently hard at work completing their respective fantasy comics masterworks. Both Alec and Mark share a passionate dedication to their comics (and all comics), and their fantasy worlds and comics share a similar energy and vibe, and both are grounded in an earnest human warmth, depth, and resonance I find rare and heartening.
OK, back to Mark!
Mark’s first letter begins:
Mark Oakley at San Diego Comicon, 2000; photo ©Xanni/Andrew Pam,
Do you feel that? That coming-around-again thing? I do. There’s a lot of stuff going on today, and the old guard is beginning to buzz creatively again. I know a number of people who life pulled away into other patterns for a few years who are popping up again with renewed ideas. But man, oh man, it’s sure different these days!
I felt like I was asleep in terms of comics for a few years between 2007 and 2009, and I was seriously beginning to burn out from about 2003. It was hard to keep up a head of focused steam until this past year. I think that’s probably a natural occurrence for creators; the initial startup-buzz of “I’m 20 and I’ve got gobs of energy to burn!” and then after a decade you’re thinking, “Good lord, what have I done with my life? I’ve been sitting behind a drafting board for ten straight years. What have I learned about how to be a decent person? How have I treated my friends and family? Why am I still drawing characters I’ve outgrown?”
I did an interview a few months back where I described in detail that whole process, in the middle of which (life, not the interview), was an honest to god nervous breakdown, just like real writers from last century sometimes went through as part of their basic function as creative humans. Felt like I’d joined a club or something.”
At this point, Mark shared this link with me,
Mark offers a very different perspective on “burn-out” than Dave Sim did, and one arguably relevant to many creators. Continuing with Mark‘s letter:
“Side note: burn-out is actually pretty great if you make the space to do it right. I took up smoking between 2007 and 2009. That helped a lot. Tobacco is actually pretty interesting stuff, and it’s not nearly as addictive as people say. My hands stopped shaking and I stopped having panic attacks. Comics make certain types of people completely crazy.”
At age 55, Mark, with a bit of hindsight in place about my own fertile and fallow cycles, I no longer see this as “burn-out” as much as the need to recharge batteries. This manifests in different ways for each individual: some go through real personal implosions and breakdowns, some withdraw, some step away, some simply find fresh paths with minimal visible upsets.
For those of us nailed to chairs, drawing boards, keyboards, and relentlessly work schedules to keep creative work going, it eventually becomes essential for most of us to reconnect with reality apart from one’s invented worlds.
Finding methods for juggling ongoing creative work with such periods of “burn-out” is the trick. For me, writing provided the means: simply shifting gears from the drawing board to writing kept me productive, and I found personally that while writing, I suffered none of the demons and baggage I often plague myself with at the drawing board. Simply put, my writings flow fairly effortlessly; my drawing always requires some measure to armor-wearing and erecting essential barriers (of time, and closed doors and unplugged phones/computers) to really get to work.
But when that “burn-out” hits, it hits some folks hard; and, if you’re self-employed, income, survival, and self-worth can really suffer. Sharing strategies for dealing with these implosions and derailments can be useful, though I don’t necessarily recommend smoking (or, for that matter, managing a video super-store) as a means of coping.
To each, their own: that’s just my experience! Back to yours:
“Anyway, even during that whole period, I was unable to stay away from the creative process; it just pulled out of a tight beam focus and got fun again. I wrote a LOT of new things, tried a bunch of different experiments and learned a lot of new techniques. My little side-project, Stardrop, was sort of a pilot light to keep my hands in the actual comics game, and that little story has actually grown very close to my heart. The first book has sold about 1200 copies since it came out this past Summer. Not spectacular figures for a $10 book, but considering how low my profile has been in this industry over the last decade, I’m actually quite pleased with its performance. Everybody who reads it comes away happy. (Stardrop was my attempt to blow a hole in those gawdawful Archies. Young girls read that garbage and think that the correct way to behave is to compete with other girls in a really nasty way, dipping deep into old brain structure behaviors rather than embracing the gifts our wonderful neo-cortexes offer. Actually, the whole of society needs a shot in the arm, a reminder that we can choose against our baser selves. What a concept! The way our society has been plundered by sociopaths should not have been any surprise given the horrid media we have on tap.)”
[Mark: Agreed. See Teen Angels & New Mutants, once it's in print, which is in part my own dissection of our pop culture's relationship with youth, and some of the sociopathology of that dynamic; I think you'll find we've some common ground in that department.
I'll also note—and congratulate you on—your numbers with the first Stardrop book. They are indeed modest sales, especially compared to where many of us were at in the mid-1990s, when the market wasn't what it is today, but your 1200 figure outstrips the numbers on many an established talent's book sales in the current market, and I hope the sales just continue to grow.
Stardrop, it should be noted, is a webcomic. –And one where I break every rule you’re never, ever supposed to break.
You know that rule where they say, “You have to publish 3 times a week?” Broken. I publish Stardrop twice monthly. –Every second Thursday I post a 12 panel strip.
You know that rule where they say, “Don’t do long story lines? People prefer two or three gag panels frequently rather than long strips infrequently?
Broken. I’m all about long story lines. (Though, Stardrop is a gag strip at heart. I call describe it as, “Anne of Green Gables from Space. With a joke every 12 panels.”)
You know that rule which says, “COLOR IT, DAMN IT!!!”
Yeah, well, I don’t.
I also don’t do Facebook particularly well. (CIA fronted social networking adding still more billions of bits of information to the empire’s collection of un-mined data which will never be read anyway? Whatever. I don’t care how many trees are in that forest, I still don’t like being manipulated. I check Facebook once a month and sometimes when I’m feeling peppy, will write a sentence about life and such. I don’t twitter either. Not much of any value has been communicated in 140 characters or less.)”
[I do Facebook, daily, and while it keeps me plugged in to CCS life and friends I never get to see otherwise, it also pumps and now drives my Myrant sketch sales. Thanks to Facebook, I sold three sketches—one of which I didn't even have time to post—in two days this weekend.
I've experimented with and without FB, and it's clear to me the extra effort on FB essentially bankrolls Myrant and projects like Teen Angels & New Mutants; it makes my work accessible to cell phone and other digital media, and that's huge. My plans for 2011 involve using the synergy of Facebook and Myrant to resurrect work time on Tyrant for winter 2011-2012 (I have a major project to work through and complete before then, which provides the ramp-up time for my plans).
But I understand why you don't FB, and I don't and won't Twitter myself, so there it is.
“And guess what?
All of that stuff adds up to a miserable page read rate. I get something like 50 hits a day on my website. FIFTY. That’s really, really bad by any comparative model. And that’s entirely because I’m bad at the web. I have an instinctive intolerance for that aspect of the internet. Though, I use it every day for research. I’m a news junkie! And, the technology itself I find fascinating. (I just did a big editorial piece on digital artwork using stylus-on-screen technology. I researched that story for a whole year before writing it. I built a whole computer from the ground up, actually.)
But when it comes to social networking and e-marketing. . ? Forget it. I hate that stuff. It’s like trying to embrace my inner Walmart. It makes me feel sick. The results are in: I am *not* a pod-person.
Still. . , I do make a couple hundred dollars every month in web sales. Sometimes less, sometimes more. –Which, is actually pretty good considering how infrequently I update my site. Every now and again, I think, “Yeah, I’ll be a blogger! I’ve got tons of things to share!” But then I realize that actually, I’ve got very little I CAN share. “Ooop. Can’t say that. That would upset so-and-so. Oip! Can’t say that, at least not with my *real* name. Wouldn’t want any burning crosses on my lawn. How about. . . Nope! I promised that contact I’d never write about that stuff directly. Well. . , sheesh! What the heck CAN I say? Nothing? Bah. I’ll just shut up and draw some more comics.”
I mean, let's face it, Mark: you're the one actually doing webcomics, and a comic that generates 1200 copies sold of the first book edition! I'm posting daily, but barely can move 20 copies of my print-on-demand books. You're way ahead of me!
Being a shameless huckster, and loving to write and the freedom to "publish" these online venues provide, I've adapted to and adopted some of the new internet environments. It's a boon and a curse, but it is what it is. Thanks for spelling out your own dynamic with it, Mark.
“I’m actually working on a series called Jenny Mysterious which is creeping into being, but it’s slow work because I’m also trying to finish off T&K, which while I’ve got a really sharp script going, with lots of neat things going on, and which ten years ago, I WISH I could have had to draw. . , but otherwise, I’d really rather be drawing Jenny. I’ve run into that thing which hits old rock stars who nobody wants to hear any new material from. It slows me right down, but that’s breaking down now. 2011 is shaping up to be a good year creatively.”
[Good luck with Jenny, and I look forward to reading it! Still, the same goes for your finale on T&K—keep your enthusiasm and focus up, and good luck seeing it through.]
I wanted to address one of the questions raised in your correspondence with Dave.
How the heck does one make a living as an independent cartoonist these days???
Well, I’ve got a bunch of varied answers to that question, (been paying my rent with comics one way or another without formal employment for 16 years now, though it’s gotten much more interesting since around 2003 when I stopped publishing the 24-page issues regularly).
One of my solutions has been to get heavily involved in my immediate community. I sell comics at a local farmer’s market, and that has been a big source of sales for a long time now. Official national book distribution is basically insane for a variety of reasons, –though the comic shop market is still a shining example of sanity in the larger publishing world, though even that is limited in numerous ways. What I have found is that direct to market sales, and I mean DIRECT, as in I hand a reader a copy and they hand me money, is very powerful and leads to some interesting deals for large book orders. You can sell comics to tourists and regular market shoppers and then every few weeks, you’ll meet a head librarian or an English professor or find yourself invited to speak somewhere. It’s not something I’ve heard anybody talk about, but local marketing has been my saving grace.
But I’ll save that for another email, because I know you’re a busy man and I’ve been rambling.
I’ll open the next installment with my own local market experiences—including my experiments with selling Tyrant at New England fairs, and a bit more about my self-distribution of Green Mountain Cinema 1 back in 2004—to follow up on your account here, Mark. See you here, shortly!
Next: More with Mark Oakley and Steve, Banging Their Respective Gongs, Part 2!
A Distant Soil is © and TM Colleen Doran, all rights reserved. Thieves & Kings, Stardrop © and TM Mark Oakley, all rights reserved.