Comics Creators Tell Us About the Highs and Lows of the Industry
Creators reflect on big breaks, shitty editors, bankruptcies, drawing porn, and a T-Rex on the edge of space.
Creating comic books seems like one of those dream jobs you plan to have as a kid—doing what you love and getting paid for it. Talking to actual comics creators hasn’t exactly dispelled that impression, but just like being an astronaut, movie star, or whatever else kids dream of doing, it’s still a job.
Aside from the major scandals—like a white writer pretending to be Japanese, or a legendary creator known as much for his comics as for having them stolen—the comics industry has ups and downs like any other profession.
VICE caught up with five creators to hear about what it took to break in, and about those teeth-cutting gigs that made for better stories than paychecks.
Ryan North first made his name in comics with Dinosaur Comics. Each day, North adds new text to the same six panels depicting clipart dinosaurs. Since then, he has written Adventure Time comics and Marvel’s Squirrel Girl , among other projects.
I started doing Dinosaur Comics in 2003, and it was a different internet then, which makes my experience kind of irrelevant to everyone today. There was no Facebook, no YouTube, no Twitter. Very little social media. When I started, I posted a link on a news group, like, "Hey, I've got a comic."
The first month, it was me and my mom reading the comic. And then she stopped, and it was just me.
I did the comic through grad school, which took me two and a half or three years, and by that point I sold T-shirts (I still do), with the characters and jokes from the comics. I was selling three shirts a day through a print-on-demand site.
I started running the numbers and realizing that if I was actually making shirts myself, they wouldn't be crappy shirts, they'd screen printed. If I could get this to work and still sell about three shirts a day, instead of making $3, I'd be making enough money to sustain my fabulous student lifestyle of Kraft Dinner and living in the Market in Toronto. I graduated grad school and all I had to do to become a full-time cartoonist was fail to get a job, which is really easy.
I told myself I'd give it a year. Do comics for a year, see how it went, and that was mainly just to tell my parents, because they were sitting around, their first-born son has gone through undergrad, and now graduate school, and has this degree in computational linguistics, and he's like, "Mom and dad, I'm going to do internet comics. But don't worry! I'll sell T-shirts."
Fan mail is so good! It happens less now. There's good and bad things with social media, and Twitter let's you scratch that itch of telling someone you like their work just by following them online, but when we didn't have that I would get emails from strangers saying that they loved my work, and by extension me, and that is the nicest thing to wake up to.
The editor on Adventure Time, Shannon Watters, had gone through school reading Dinosaur Comics and liking it. And then when they got the license for Adventure Time and needed a writer for it, she was like, "Why don't we get the Dinosaur Comics guy?" It's such a lousy How I Got Into Comics story, because it's just, "I got an email, and I wrote back and said yes."
I have a plush T-Rex that I sell on the website that is a giant neon green, circular T-Rex, based on the comic. This T-Rex has achieved many of my dreams that I've not achieved. A reader brought the T-Rex with him to Antarctica, where they were working at McMurdo Station as a scientist, and then sent me pictures of T-Rex at the ceremonial geographic and magnetic south poles. I've always wanted to go to Antarctica and see the south pole, and this plush T-Rex has done it before me. There's a video—you know those balloons you can make in a science club that goes up just to the edge of space? There's a video of T-Rex doing that. I want to go to the edge of space! Watching a fictional character achieve your dreams is surprisingly satisfying.
Mimi Pond is a PEN USA Award-winning cartoonist, writer, and illustrator. Her graphic novels Over Easy and The Customer is Always Wrong were published by Drawn & Quarterly. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Seventeen Magazine, and National Lampoon. She has also worked in TV and wrote the first full-length episode of The Simpsons.
I started out selling comics to this sleazy sex classifieds ads newspaper that was the sister publication of the Berkeley Barb, it was called the Spectator. And then I started accumulating clippings and sending them to magazines in New York, and Shary Flenniken at the National Lampoon started buying cartoons from me.
There was just so much more work back then in the 80s. I was working all the time. I moved to LA in 1990 with my husband, had a couple of kids, and I suddenly looked up in the mid-90s and my career was just gone, along with everyone else's. Magazines started going down the drain, and the internet happened, and nobody wanted to pay for content anymore.
I did a lot of commercial work, a lot of illustration work, and a lot of comics for magazines in the 80s—things I might not have normally undertaken, but they paid. I had editors breathing down my neck, some good and some bad.
I don't know if you're familiar with Clay Felker. He started New York magazine. He was very supportive of women writers, and of women in general in publishing, and he was doing a magazine called Manhattan Inc., and he asked me to do a cartoon about the problems women face in the workplace—sexual harassment in the workplace. This is 1986 or something. First of all, I said no. I've made it my life's work to avoid working in an office, so I don't even know what office life is like. He said "No, no, no, you do it. You have to do it."
So I talked to all my friends who worked in offices, and they would tell me these stories about being made to feel very uncomfortable in all these different ways. One of the big ones was guys telling dirty jokes just to make them uncomfortable. So I showed him this pencil rough that's got a woman surrounded by a group of men by the water cooler, and one of them has just told the punchline to a dirty joke, and all the men are laughing, and the woman says, "That reminds me of a joke my gynecologist told me the other day while he was giving me a pap smear," and they all turn white. And I showed it to Clay Felker, and he just said, "This is disgusting!" I said, “Yeah, I know.” And he made me redo it. It just felt to me like the first one was dead on.
Finally publishing Over Easy and The Customer is Always Wrong is definitely the highest point. I loved working in New York in the 80s. I loved publishing in the Village Voice. It's gratifying when people see your work and like it. It's gratifying just to be able to make a living doing it.
I'm really cynical. I feel like I've had to break into comics three of four times, because I started getting published when I was a teenager, and then hit a wall with that, and then made it into doing porn comics, and then hit a wall with that, and I hope that enough people know my stuff at this point where I don't have to do that again, but I'm always wary of it.
I've had so many experiences that are just surprisingly degrading. A lot of the things that really stand out with me weren't really jobs as much as the attempt to get certain jobs. Years ago I was trying to break into Vertigo. I went up to Vertigo with a photocopied book that I was having come out through another publisher. Really confidently went up there like, "I'll take some side work if they offer it to me," and got a meeting with an assistant editor who went through the photocopied thing that I had. It was really surreal, because she had drawings of friends of mine that I felt were peers behind her, and she was going through my photocopies, being like, "Oh, you should really work on your inking, maybe some figure drawing would be good." Super patronizing.
About six months later, the book that I had photocopied came out, and the woman who that woman was an assistant to emailed me really excitedly and was like "I don't know how I've never seen your work before. We have to work together sometime." It's a lot of stuff like that. Where you expect to be treated like a professional, and do not.
The comic industry as a whole can be kind of a bummer, but I imagine it's kind of a microcosm for any industry. But with comics, I get to work from home, and so the people that I see are really my own choice, and that was a really big epiphany to me to be like, "I don't have to talk to or interact with people who I don't like.”
[Drawing porn comics] was a really weird job. I feel like I took it, begrudgingly, out of necessity, and then it really formed who I am as an artist. I remember being 23 or 24 and just being like, “They want me to draw sex for this job, and I guess I will." And it's really strange, because now, starting my 40s, it's so tied to what I draw. I have a problem sometimes where I forget that a lot of people aren't as casual with sex comics, so I'll be like, "That reminds me of a cool technique I saw where this woman's having sex with a beetle with a human penis, just check this out.” And people are very reasonably like, "I don't want to see that at eight in the morning, what are you doing?"
Fiona Staples is a comic book artist based in Calgary. She illustrates Image Comics’ Saga with writer Brian K. Vaughan and has contributed cover art to Mark Waid’s rebranded Archie series.
I started out doing indie comics for smaller publishers. One of the hurdles I ran into was publishers going bankrupt before my series was finished. Or before I could collect a pay cheque. That happened to my first comic, Done to Death , which was a mini-series that I started while I was in college, and I think I got paid for the first two or three issues by the publisher, and then they decided that they just weren’t able to pay me a page rate anymore.
The writer, Andrew Foley, paid me out of his own pocket for the next issue, and then for the last one or two, I just wasn't paid at all. But it was my first book, and I wanted to have something on the shelves, something to add to my portfolio, my résumé, something I could point editors towards, so I decided to just finish it anyway. I think that was the right move at the time.
I think the biggest hurdle for people starting out is finding a job that will pay you fairly, or at all. Probably any job in the arts, people expect you to do it for free.
It was when I got work from Wildstorm about a year later, which was then an imprint of DC, that I quit my day job and started doing it full time.
When I finally started doing Saga, I felt like this is the job I've been waiting for. This is everything that I want to be doing. It's creator-owned. It's a long-running, ongoing series, which I didn't know that I wanted to do, but I really enjoy having the stability and the routine—as much as a freelancer can have—of doing an ongoing series.
I've had to do a lot of commissions for people, stuff that will never end up getting published, or other people's vanity projects. Sometimes film directors who are looking for funding for their indie movie will want to make a comic book out of it to try to help sell their film, and they'll pay me a nominal amount, but the thing will never see the light of day, so it kind of feels like a waste of time. It's not terrible, but it's not especially fulfilling work.
R. Sikoryak is a cartoonist and the author of Masterpiece Comics , in which he adapts literary classics through comics parody. His art has appeared in the New Yorker, the Onion, GQ, MAD Magazine, SpongeBob Comics , Nickelodeon Magazine, and The Daily Show .
I was introduced [to comics] via a teacher at Parsons where I now teach. He introduced me to Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, and I started working in the offices of Raw when they were putting out their anthology—this was in the late 80s. I learned so much from them in many ways. In terms of production and in terms of editorial and in terms of many other parts of making comics.
I think you can probably be too aggressive, but I definitely was not being too aggressive in terms of getting my stuff out. I was concentrated on making comics. I wanted to make comics, but I've never been the best at promotion. It was such a different world. Comics were on the cusp of being accepted. The kinds of comics I was interested in doing kind of made fun of the fact that people didn't like comics.
That's very different than my experience in the last couple of years where, even me, using Tumblr in a very rudimentary way has really catapulted my work to a different audiences that I couldn't have imagined was out there.
In late 2015, I had made as mini comics my iTunes Terms and Conditions graphic novel, which is a complete appropriation of the terms and conditions of iTunes, inserted into a comic. I say it's an adaptation, but it's literally just the text of that document that everyone has not read but everyone has seen. At the level I was working with, I made the comics privately, I made them into black and white mini comics to sell at conventions and sell at comics shops, essentially breaking even. I didn't sell them at a great profit.
I sent out an email to every contact I had in my almost 30 years of comics making, just in an email. And I said, "Hey, I made this thing, and I put it up [on Tumblr]," and then within 24 hours, I'd gotten an article on Boing Boing. The Guardian interviewed me, and then I had all these requests for interviews. NPR wanted to interview me for Morning Edition, which is the radio show that I listen to every morning. And I actually was freaking out. It was the best experience, and in a way it was the worst experience, because I didn't have a publisher. I was photocopying these at my local shop. I was in tears, literally, because I was like, "I don't have a publicist for this. I don't know how to handle it." This was long before Drawn & Quarterly published it. I couldn't call my publisher and say "We have to print 4,000 more copies tonight."
One of the gigs I got, which was a good gig half the time, and the other half was completely frustrating, was a friend of mine was an editor at a small financial magazine, and they wanted a gag cartoon in every issue. I could never write gag cartoons about banks, so they'd write the gags, and then I would illustrate them. And sometimes the gags were really funny, and sometimes they weren't. I remember one month really struggling to get a likeness of Alan Greenspan, the head of the Fed, and I think I ended up tracing a photo, because I was just like, "I don't know how to do this." I flipped it, and I disguised it. I was a little embarrassed. And it was like, is anyone even reading this comic?
Follow Frederick Blichert on Twitter.