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.


* Followup to the 15-part Dave Sim/Bissette conversation:

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.

  • Check out Colleen‘s post from last week, “The Barry Lyga Graphic Novel That Dare Not Speak its Name: and conversation with Steve Bissette,” on Colleen‘s always excellent (and congrats on finishing that graphic novel, Colleen!).
  • Colleen writes:

    “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’ve also noted some professionals who have proclaimed “being professional” includes not discussing such matters, primary among them income and payment issues.

    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.”

  • Here’s Mark‘s website,, where he is currently serializing Stardrop as a webcomic (give it a read!).
  • To introduce you to Mark and his work before you plunge into our own exchange of letters here, I want to steer you to Mark‘s autobiographical gallery pages,
  • specifically his self-portrait of his work with Thieves & Kings, which gives you a context for what he was doing during my first meeting Mark, and the work I know him for.
  • 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.

  • (You can order Basewood, in its serialized installments in Alec‘s ongoing self-published zine Phase 07, at his website; here’s the link! Chapter Four of Basewood is in Phase 07 #008, and Alec is currently working on the final chapter for likely publication in 2012.)
  • OK, back to Mark!

    Mark’s first letter begins:

    Mark Oakley at San Diego Comicon, 2000; photo ©Xanni/Andrew Pam,
  • from “Muse and Xanni visit the 2000 San Diego Comic Con,” photo by Xanni (“with a Mustek gSmart 350 digital camera”), ©2000-2003 Andrew Pam, all rights reserved.
  • _____________

    “Hiya, Steve!

    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,

  • “Christian” conducting an interview with Mark for, “Mark Oakley—Thieves, Kings and Girls From Outer Space” (dated October 27, 2010); give it a read at this point.
  • 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.


    “Anyway, Stardrop has been a hit with my target demographic; girls aged 9-15; the ones who find their way to it, anyhow.

    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.”

    [We each must find our own levels, including levels of comfort, with these new media environments—and if that level of comfort is essentially disconnect from certain venues, so be it.

    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.]

    “Anyway. . .

    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.


    Discussion (15) ¬

    1. M Kitchen

      Thanks to Mark and Steve for keeping this conversation going!

    2. Brian John Mitchell

      On the “is telling how much I’m paid being unprofessional?” thing. I really hate this & it’s in every line of business whether you sell comics or hot dogs. People think saying they are only making this much is saying they are only this hot & most businesses that are steady are seen as dying. It’s ridiculous. I just did a series of interviews with people who run record labels (an industry which I think it is pretty common knowledge is in trouble) & some folks are willing to say their sales are down between 50%-75% & other folks willing to say that off the record because making that public sounds like saying you’re a has been.

      In the comics industry I really think their is a problem that in addition to the lower sales limiting current page rates there is also the internet having made a lot of talented folks from South America or the Pacific rim to start drawing comics (granted I think mainly for second or third tier companies) & resulted in stagnant page rates (decreasing via inflation).

    3. M Kitchen

      Waitasec… did you just say “resurrect work time on Tyrant”?
      Does that mean an issue #5 is in the future?

    4. Paul Riddell

      I feel for Ms. Doran, because I’ve witnessed her dealings with the whole “Information Wants To Be Free, So It’s Okay If I Steal It” crowd. The motivation of these characters is summed up with a typically fannish attitude: namely, they’re so cheap that they use both sides of the toilet paper. The moment you actually start rattling a tip jar or point out “Durr, gee, Ren, I haven’t had health insurance for ten years and I need a new kidney or I’ll die,” you’ve sold out. Oh, they’re really good at making noises about buying sketches or T-shirts or buttons or other ephemera, but they run like hell as soon as they’re made available. In simplest terms, they’re nothing but the Cat Piss Men who hang around in the back of the comics store, playing “Tragic: This Gathering” and reading comics all day.

      (When I lived in Portland, Oregon 15 years ago, I ran into a beautiful example of that level of entitlement. I found a new comic shop on the south side of town, stepped inside, and discovered that the store was shutting down in two weeks. Lack of business: although the store had lots of people coming in, nobody was buying. At that point, a guy walked in and started asking about being able to use the store for “Magic” tournaments. The proprietor told him “NO”: the gamers brought nothing but headaches, and every time he’d allowed it, what tiny bit of business he made from selling cards was mitigated by the costs of shoplifting. Besides, he was tired of gamers hanging around the door at 8 in the morning, waiting for him to open up so they could game all day on his dime. “Oh, that’s okay,” the gamer said, “if you want, you could give me the keys, and I could open up the place for you.”)

      If it helps, we can get past the jokes (“What’s the difference between a Creative Commons writer and a pizza? A pizza can feed a family of four.”) and look at the real situation. Comics and science fiction in general have the same problem: finding new audiences and new markets. We just can’t depend upon the existing audience any more, because the little slans feel that they’re owed their entertainment because they’re Special. Of course, that means that these new audiences might decide, say, that they have no interest in superheroes, and you’re always going to have a certain contingent of creators that would rather stick with crappy conditions and a guaranteed audience than an uncertain future. That’s fine, but they shouldn’t be dragging the rest of us back because they want to pretend it’s still 1952.

    5. srbissette

      @Mr. Mitchell: Agreed, on both points. I’ve already mentioned elsewhere that the current use of incredible talents from overseas is similar to the 1970s Phillipines cartoonists wave, which the majors (then DC and Marvel) used to drive down page rates with American cartoonists. It’s a double-edged sword—what potential Alex Nino or Alfredo Alcala will be see flower as a result of this new wave of artists?—but I won’t pursue this, as it’s nothing to do with self-publishing per se.

      @ Mr. Kitchen: There will never be a TYRANT #5 (as I sardonically noted in my TYRANT contribution to SUNDAYS #1 a couple of years ago), but I am working toward a book edition of TYRANT with new material. If that works out, doing future volumes of TYRANT would make me very, very happy.

      @Mr. Riddell: Points taken and well-stated.

      In contrast to the examples you cite, however, is the more relevant (to my world, in any case, and to this ongoing conversation) example of bright, eager, expressive young creators who are themselves addicted to free entertainment/info facing the dilemma of:

      “If you don’t want to pay for your entertainment/info, why should anyone pay you for your work?”

    6. M Kitchen

      @ Paul – Have you watched this documentary about Nina Paley (and her film Sita Sings The Blues)? Here is a living example of the free material and creative commons working.

      Also check out what Billy Corgan is doing these days with Smashing Pumpkins. He’s giving away all of his new music for free. You can listen to it here: … but you can’t buy the newest album because it’s already sold out.

      Personally I don’t understand the negativity and paranoia regarding digital content. My small audience has been extremely helpful and supportive of the work I do, and have been essential to helping the work grow. There are so many good people in this world!

      I recommend everyone check out Mark Oakley’s copyright notice in the front page of StarDrop. It is the most amazing copyright notice I’ve ever read!

      A case-in-point example: Even though Mark gave us the story for free on the internet I purchased a hard copy book from him. This business model can work.

      @ Steve – Awe… too bad there’s no Tyrant #5 on the horizon. I’m one of those people who likes traditional COMICS more than books and trades. Regardless, I look forward to seeing what you do with it! I still remember buying Tyrant #1 from you at the Spirits of Independence stop in Kitchener.

    7. Colleen

      @ M Kitchen: no one said it can’t work, but to ignore the vast majority for whom it does not work is foolish. It is not a particularly good business model for anyone who can’t engage in relentless self promotion. And for many that do, there is still no real payoff.

      Moreover, as I repeatedly state, we each have our own standard for “making a living” and frankly, the math on Paley’s project does not thrill. Most of her income is gross, not net. And that is some four years of income for three years of work. I would have a hard time getting by on that dough. By her own admission, most of her current income comes from lecture tours. Now, explain to me how every single artist and writer is going to get repeated promo blurbs on tech websites and a string of lecture gigs to support their work. That’s simply not going to happen. Not everyone is going to get to be the darling of Wired magazine. In the long run, she will probably do very well. But there is no way most artists could finance years of loss like that. We need funding up front.

      Just because you got money on something does not mean you made money on something. I made money on the A Distant Soil website this past year. That does not mean it is all profit or that I can make a full time living on that money. For the record, the website pulled in considerably more this past six months than I made in book royalties alone last year. But it took years of blogging and effort to turn that around.

      There are always success stories. But then, there were success stories in the days of print self publishing. And then, just like now. I made money print self publishing. The vast majority of people did not.

      The cold hard fact is, the majority of people, even well-known creators, do not make a living on the web.

      Things change, hairstyles change, interest rates fluctuate, and the web will change too. But the truth right now is the truth.

      My last graphic novel is also sold out, but to incorporate the assumption that a cartoonist can compare to the sold out album success of a world famous musician who gives his album away online is apples and oranges. I give my comic away online, my latest GN is sold out. I am not making a living online. I make extra money online.

      Steve Bissette is a legend of the comics industry, producing one of the most interesting and informative blogs out there, and has yet to see some serious bank.

      That too is truth.

      And the Creative Commons Corporation, funded by millions in donations, costs a heck of a lot of bank for all this free.

      I’m not keen on their licenses, and neither is this attorney.

      But if it works for you, dandy.

      You can call it negativity, and if you are happy with your small audience which, according to you, is growing, then boffo. But there is a big difference between being happy with a small audience and having the leisure time and resources to allow your work to grow, and being a working professional who makes the distinction between hobbyist and professional.

      I’m looking at your website right now, and there is no way I could make a living based on your numbers. I can’t afford, as a working professional, to play roulette with my resources. If you can, that is fantastic. I am very happy for you. But I have no intention of turning my art into the thing I do when I get off work from the Piggly Wiggly.

      I took an entire year off a few years back to go to art school to learn digital design, and one year off the market not only ate my savings, but had a severe negative impact on my ability to get work for almost two years after. That’s the way the real world is for a working pro. If we risk being invisible for a protracted period of time, we risk being invisible forever. I’m glad to be able to play with Photoshop now, but that year cost me more than a year of income.

      The takeaway is that while free works for a few, it does not work for the vast majority. Not by a long shot. On the happy day that changes, I will be the first to cheer. I got over 2 million page views last year, and that is a huge increase over the previous year.

      An improvement, yes. But no, it’s not “make a living” for me. I sincerely hope that changes next year, and when it does, I hope you’ll party with me.

    8. Colleen

      And to clarify, back in the day, aspiring artists became so delighted at the happy happy joy joy promise of self publishing that they threw themselves into the movement without thinking it through and lost everything.

      There is nothing wrong with self publishing. There is nothing wrong with self publishing on the web.

      But failing to recognize the bottom line reality of pro versus hobby is something you cannot ignore if you want to be a pro. As a hobbyist, if you have time and money to throw on the pyre, great. But the very definition of pro means you have to have a positive bottom line.

      If you can afford to not make profit on your project, then you are a privileged person. But I am a pro. I can’t afford to work for nothing. What I produce has to have a positive financial return.

      And just like in the wake of the self publishing movement, when creators like me sent out warning shot about the pitfalls, people wailed that we were being negative.

      We’re not being negative. We’re telling it like it is. I was so darned negative, I sold 700,000 comics. Poor, poor, negative me.

      When some of us chucked print self publishing to go to Image when the distribution system failed, we got publicly excoriated for “selling out”.

      Don’t let the method become more important than the art. If free webcomics works, great. If print publishing works, great. If a combination of them works, great.

      But don’t idolize your method. If anything, you should be willing to throw your method under the bus if it doesn’t pay off.

      If you really love your art, then you should be ready to sacrifice whatever it is that doesn’t allow you to keep doing it. I am not wedded to any method, except whatever method works at that moment. I’ll try anything that allows me to be a full time creator, and I am not wiling to settle for being poor or part time.

    9. srbissette

      Agreed, Colleen; and no, I say to the collective readership, we’re (Colleen and I) NOT being negative—we’re trying to get to some pragmatic sharing of hard information as well as sharing of views, perspectives, and opinions.

      Mike, I’m very familiar and respectful of Nina Paley’s accomplishment with SITA SINGS THE BLUES; but as Colleen notes, it’s a pretty exceptional process, event, and end result, not necessarily a model to be emulated. While I’m sympathetic with some aspects of the movement, I’m frankly possessive of my own copyrights and trademarks because they’re likely ALL I’ll have to leave my kids when I’m gone—and I don’t wish to fling them to the winds. More on this another time. It’s a complex issue, and worthy of more time than I can give it right now.

      As Colleen says, if these various vehicles don’t provide a sustainable model for a creative life—and preferably one in which individuals can thrive, rather than starve, while creating their work—their days are numbered, not by “our” negativity, but just by the weight of time and hard realities of making ends meet. I don’t want my kids or my students to just “get by,” sustaining their work with day jobs; I’d love to see them fly and thrive and grow, and earn hearty livings that allow them to take care of themselves and their creations and their families. I fear the mythos of “creative living” sans income is not just damaging to individuals, but is one promoted culturally to justify various methods of creative theft, corporate mistreatment, and publisher methods tilted to ensure successful publishers elevated on the backs of processions of starving creators (and justified by the few who “make it,” and hence become more bankable commodities for the publishers).

      This is not stated to discourage anyone, but rather to ENcourage any creative path taken seriously enough to be blazed and nurtured also be taken seriously enough to become A LIVING. A real, honest-to-Christ-you-can-pay-your-bills-on-it LIVING. Hence, my engaging in dialogue publicly with vets like Dave, Colleen, and Mark, who have all, one way or another, blazed their own trails, and continued creating thanks to earning some measure of self-sustaining income.

      I’ve more to say about all the above, which I’ll be getting into in the next few posts. Keep the discussion going, please!

    10. M Kitchen

      @ Colleen – I will certainly party with you once you’re “make a living” with your personal works! Whenever I see creators able to “make it” with their own projects, I feel like it’s a-win-for-the-team! Doing the “piggly wiggly” is how I see most corporate owned toil (and I’ve done more my share in animation). But we do what we can to put food on the table and raise our children (as I’ve mentioned earlier, I have 4-with-one- more-on-the-way!).

      And no matter how much of a Normandy landing scenario this comic making exercise may be, it’s what you (or should I more accurately say, “I”) have to go through as I get my feet wet self-publishing my own work (that is not corporate owned). Because, heck, it sure is better than doing nothing.

      I absolutely do agree with your pragmatic words of warning and appreciate all of your contribution in this discussion.

      The future belongs to the bold.

      @ Steve – I haven’t left the copyright camp myself, but I do watch with fascination all the artists that are making a go of this creative commons experiment. This is what fascinates me, is that there is such a wide open playing field to experiment in. The control paradigm has the game locked in this tiny little box, but outside of that box seems to be endless ideas to explore. It also fascinates me that this magic talisman called money has such a stranglehold over all our lives. I really got a crash-course in money when I wrote SPUD & HARRY.

      And thanks again Steve for keeping this discussion going here at MYRANT.

    11. Colleen

      It’s a great discussion and thanks to Steve for allowing us all to participate!

      For my part, I have not only had some very good experiences working at both Marvel and DC on corporate owned comics, but have had some excellent training. Sometimes it is great, sometimes it is not. The thing about work for hire is that they can fire you without cause, and you can fire them, too. If it doesn’t work out, Just walk away.

      When it does work out, it can be both creatively satisfying and lucrative. Working on Sandman is in that category, and page for page, it’s the most profitable work I have ever done as well. It often pays in royalties enough to meet – or come close to meet – a modest benefits package for me almost every year.

      I’ve made a good living on A Distant Soil in the past, but it is a lot more work getting going online than it was in print. Then again, it is making more money now than it did in print 3 years ago. We’ll see what happens.
      The future belongs to those who actually have something people want to buy.

      I’m not entirely certain I want it to belong to the bold. I don’t want only brash authors to prosper. I want good ones to prosper. And many of them are not bold. There is a place for the quiet and the reticent and the thoughtful. And their interests need to be protected.

      If the only authors who can prosper in future are the ones who are the loudest mouths on the internet, then I am not happy about that prospect. Not one bit.

      There’s nothing new about letting your copyright go. If anyone wants to give their work away, or put it in the public domain for good, people have always had that option.

      Money doesn’t have a stranglehold over our lives. Exchange does. Money is just a symbol for the value of that exchange. You don’t get what you need to live unless you give something in return. The thinking now is that artists are expected to give while getting nothing in return, and damn them if they attempt to enforce their constitutionally guaranteed rights.

      Artists give people entertainment and many people take but don’t return. It’s not cool. We need to raise the bar on respect for the right of fair exchange. If you take something, give something back.

      A Distant Soil has made $3,000,000 in retail sales. I gave plenty into this economy. I gave to this industry. My sales supported the full time occupations of employees at several companies for several years. I gave thousands of people entertainment while doing it. I’m pretty proud of that.

    12. srbissette

      I’ve stated my primary issue with the creative commons experiment—protecting my legacy to my now-adult children—and also wish to note, (a) along with the fortunately as-yet failed attempt to pass an “Orphan Works” act, it seems to me the creative commons is another reactionary attempt to reclaim public domain as a viable legal option in the wake of the so-called Sonny Bono Act extending copyright terms far beyond those any previous generation dealt with, and (b) I would much prefer the reaction to as brilliant a work as SITA SINGS THE BLUES was fiscal, professional, and personal success for Nina, a corporate scramble to finance and get her working on personal animated features for international theatrical distribution (instead of bankrolling what animated features we are inundated with annually), and a bright future for our seeing countless Paley features in the future.

      Instead, Nina is left entirely to her own devices, despite having made, for a tiny fraction of the cost of the latest CGI abomination, one of the ten best animated features in the history of cinema, and certainly one of the best films of the first decade of the new Millennium.

      What’s WRONG with this picture?

      It should be quite painfully obvious.

      Re: “Money doesn’t have a stranglehold over our lives. Exchange does. Money is just a symbol for the value of that exchange. You don’t get what you need to live unless you give something in return. The thinking now is that artists are expected to give while getting nothing in return, and damn them if they attempt to enforce their constitutionally guaranteed rights.”

      Ab-so-fucking-lute-ly correct, Colleen.

      Fair exchange is all we’re talking about, in the end.

    13. M Kitchen

      Hmm… not sure if you’re getting my meaning.
      My point is that ramp up costs are all front end on most endevours. It costs money to get things going, but for self-financed projects, that money comes out of pocket so one is left doing the juggling act of chasing money to fund the project AND chasing time to complete it. That juggling act causes many creators to fall victim to what Seth Godin calls “The Dip”. This is the stranglehold I speak of. Those with the bank obviously have the “home ice” advantage.

      And I’m not sure I’m getting your meaning of “Money doesn’t have a stranglehold over our lives. Exchange does. Money is just a symbol for the value of that exchange.” To me that statement is a bit of a paradox. since if money is a symbol of exchange and exchange has a stranglehold over our lives… then it may just be semantics, but I read that as saying the same thing… but side issue.

      And for the record; it is NOT my opinion that “the only authors who can prosper in future are the ones who are the loudest mouths on the internet.” and not once have I ever said that.

      When I say “The future belongs to the bold” I am mearly stating that, like in sports, when you’re playing the game, you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone. That requires bold action.

      Though if my personal mantra is unerving, then I’ll conceed to your statement with Psalm 37:11 – The meek shall inherit the earth. Can’t argue with that.

      Also for the record; I absolutely DO agree with you that “If you take something, give something back.” I like the way Mark Oakley described in in both his StarDrop copyright notice, and his tribal storyteller analogy. This is what makes for a strong society. In my opinion at any rate…

      I’m with all of you one hundred percent when we’re talking about fair exchange.

      ’nuff said.

    14. Matt Aucoin

      Like before, Steve, this is a great and extremley informative conversation going on here. I graduated from CCS last May and certainly had no idea how to make any money drawing comics. The only real advice I got as school was 1)Go to Conventions 2)sell illustrations and 3)Go to Conventions.

      So far, I’ve tried lining up some illustration gigs that have never panned out. They were they kind of thing where the people wanting my artwork couldn’t pay me money upfront but would give me royalties once they started pouring in. I told them if they couldn’t give me money up front, I couldn’t draw something for them. The deal ended right there. I figured I could get actual real money doing my mindless job at night and work on my comics during they day (2-4 hours usually) rather than draw some stupid thing for some chuckle head who isn’t going to give me money. I can not give myself money drawing my comics, so I’d rather do that.

      As far as conventions go, I’m still feeling those out as well. I did pay an arm and a leg to get table space at the MoCCA convention in 2010. I had a couple of books out on a table with many of my classmates (six others) and I sold not one book. It was upsetting and I still couldn’t figure out where I’d gone wrong. Was I not enough of a huckster? Were my small books lost in the sea of the thousands of books that were at the convention? It seemed like an expensive way to reach people, really expensive. I had to lie to my grandmother and tell her my dog needed an operation in order to cover just the cost of my 1/6th of a half of a table. I haven’t given up on them though, I’ve procured spots for three upcoming conventions in April 2011.

      After graduating, I decided to start up a webcomic. This way, I could get my stuff read without having to travel to a convention or lie to my grandmother for money. It also keeps me grounded and on schedule while trying to produce the work. I post a page a week and send out a reminder email, as well as updates on facebook. The number of people visiting my website are pretty low. Like, if everybody who read my comic donated a dollar, I’d have like, twenty dollars. A webcomic seemed like the best way to get my stuff “out there”, but now what?

      Once my first book, a 32-paged comic book, is out I’ll be bringing it to conventions, trying to get it in local stores, as well as farmer markets (I never thought of that one!). I’d also like to get an online store going eventually. What I’m doing to hopefully entice my 20 readers into picking up my comics in print form is adding in a short story that isn’t posted up for free on the internet. Hopefully, if they like the characters they won’t mind parting with a little bit of cash.

      I’m just at the beginning of this whole “make comics get money” thing, and have been enjoying these conversations and opinions of people who have been in the field. You all have no idea how great it is to be able to pull these up and learn this shit! Thank you all. The only better teacher than experience is learning from other’s experiences.

      OH yeah, one more thing that’s been popping up recently that I’m wary of is this whole business. I’m not sure exactly how it works, but it’s a website dedicated to asking people to donate money to you. Some fellow cartoonist friends of mine did a little video begging for $1000 worth of donations to put together a comic anthology that hasn’t even been drawn yet. This $1000 I think is just covering the printing cost, but I’m not sure. These cartoonist have a large web presence using twitter, facebook, and flickr (those are the ones that I know of). Anyway, they got the $1000 plus some the day they posted their video! This seems to be a new way to get nest eggs for comic projects. I’m curious if you have to claim that on your taxes or what they whole deal is. Just thought I’d throw that one out there.

    15. Randall Drew

      “I’m not entirely certain I want it to belong to the bold. I don’t want only brash authors to prosper. I want good ones to prosper. And many of them are not bold. There is a place for the quiet and the reticent and the thoughtful. And their interests need to be protected.”

      - As a very quiet person who sticks to himself and his own business, I certainly agree with this.

      “It costs money to get things going, ”

      - You gotta spend money to make money, George Steinbrenner would agree, since I’m not he only one to reference sports here!

      Matt – Having graduated with you, I am absolutely feeling a lot of the same paint you are, however I’ve managed to have some luck on the illustration gig side of things. Alec gave me this advice before the end of our time at CCS and it’s really panned out so far: it’s all about who you know and using what you got. I’ve gotten several jobs through friends, family, and aquaintances…and I’ve been watching the Employment forum at the CCS Boards like a hawk and following up on EVERY SINGLE POST that goes up there. Even if I know I’m not exactly what the person is looking for, I’m willing to try it! I’ve nailed down several small jobs this way and one BIG one that I’m going to be wrapping up this week. I’ve made some connections, met some really amazing people in all walks of life, and am getting work out there in areas I never thought about as needing my talents.

      I too plan on starting a web-comic, continuing the Citadel story I began as my CCS Thesis, and while I know I might not have the time to dedicate 100% of myself to it right now, I can at least start, and move forward the best that I can, as often as I can. For the record, I’m always down to pow-wow with you, my fellow class of 2010 and discuss successes, failures, ideas and other things. As has been said in previous posts and comments, we gotta stick together and help each other if we’re going to survive!


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