So funny I forgot to pay
April 8, 2011 3:43 PM   Subscribe

The Village Voice released its Comics Issue on April 6. Its editorial "If Cartoons Are So Big, Why Don't They Pay?" focused on the financial straits many influential and popular cartoonists find themselves in even in the midst of wide-spread popularity and new respect. Although interesting in itself, the editorial created a splash in comics communities for a different reason. Its decision to not pay the artists whose work was featured in that issue. The Voice had intended to offer only attribution, but no money. It has since recanted.
posted by gilrain (30 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
The thing is, we're not a company that expects people to work for free for the exposure. - Tony Ortega

Scrolling down -

https://villagevoicemedia.tms.hrdepartment.com/jobs/1368/Sales-Internship-Village-Voice-in-New-York-NY

"This position is unpaid and applicant must receive college credit for this internship."

posted by cmgonzalez at 3:50 PM on April 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


Internships for college credit is a different issue (and largely a scam, ok) that just muddies the waters. I'm more interested in the comments under the Voice apology that accuse the paper of not identifying the artists whose work was featured in the article. Can anyone with access to a paper copy confirm that? Because that would be seriously fucked if it's true.
posted by mediareport at 3:55 PM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Good on Tom Tomorrow for calling them out. I'm amazed they printed that as part of the article given that they weren't planning to pay the artists at that point.
posted by immlass at 3:56 PM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


mediareport: "I'm more interested in the comments under the Voice apology that accuse the paper of not identifying the artists whose work was featured in the article. Can anyone with access to a paper copy confirm that? Because that would be seriously fucked if it's true."

I wanted to mention that, too. However, I don't have access to the paper issue, and the works used in the editorial itself seemed to be attributed very clearly. I assume the comments make a good point, but couldn't verify it for the post.
posted by gilrain at 3:56 PM on April 8, 2011


Um, if I may be so bold, the actual article is -- easy ironies aside -- probably more interesting than whether VV's beancounters elected to be douchebags.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:57 PM on April 8, 2011


With a shoutout to our own The Whelk!
posted by Zed at 4:01 PM on April 8, 2011


It's a completely related and relevant issue.

It's good PR when people call you out on it to say that you aren't a company that makes people work for free or for exposure (the credit thing is illegal and thinly veiled way to get you to pay to work for them), but there are blatant examples of them looking for people to do just that.

Either you're a company that expects people to work for free or you aren't.
posted by cmgonzalez at 4:02 PM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


kittens for breakfast: "Um, if I may be so bold, the actual article is -- easy ironies aside -- probably more interesting than whether VV's beancounters elected to be douchebags."

I actually wanted to do an FPP on the editorial itself when it was released, but, as my first FPP ever, I was worried a single editorial link might be too thin. Then it blew up, so I figured I'd give it a go.

I do hope people will discuss the editorial apart from the controversy, though, in addition to the controversy itself. Have at it!
posted by gilrain at 4:05 PM on April 8, 2011


Agreed, kittens, but the first thing that struck me about the article was this from Gary Groth:

Jim Woodring is one of the best-regarded graphic novelists in the business, and Fantagraphics, his publisher, is probably the top indie comics press. Woodring has been with Fantagraphics since the mid-'80s, and "we've been promoting him full-bore long enough to have established a substantial and sustainable readership for his work," says Groth. By "substantial and sustainable readership," Groth means "the first printing of [a Woodring] book will sell 10,000 copies." And that's after more than 20 years of nurturing.

It's a sad reality, sure, but is it any different than other parts of the book business? Not really. A 5,000-10,000 copy print run for new literary fiction is about the norm. This blog post from a couple years ago got some attention for spelling it out simply:

what constitutes good sales for a literary novel?

[...] The opening line to this discussion is probably (of course) "It depends," but I won't insult you with that. I'll give you a number.

7,000.

If you sold 7,000 or more copies, in hardcover, of your literary novel, you're a star. (Some people sell much more, but 7,000 is a serious threshold. Who knows why.)

If you've sold between 4,000 and 7,000 copies, in hardcover, of your literary novel, you did a damned good job. You're what they call a "strong seller." You're also in a good position to place your second novel well, with your current publisher or elsewhere.

If you sold between 2,000 and 4,000 copies of your literary novel, you sold pretty strongly. You're still in a good position to have your publisher want to take on your second project, or to comfortably find a home elsewhere.

If you sold below 1,500 copies, your publisher is probably disappointed, although they will never tell you that. Instead, they will tell you that debuts are hard, and literary fiction is nearly impossible. Both these things are true.


Again, this isn't to say it's horrid that someone like Jim Woodring only sells 10,000 copies of a new work. But it is to say there's nothing unique to the comics field about that, and Woodring may actually be doing better than similar folks working in literary fiction.
posted by mediareport at 4:10 PM on April 8, 2011 [12 favorites]


A 5,000-10,000 copy print run

Oops, I meant 5,000-10,000 in sales, not print run. Don't know from print runs, actually.

posted by mediareport at 4:12 PM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Aarg. "this isn't to say it's NOT horrid..."
posted by mediareport at 4:19 PM on April 8, 2011


Comics have always been a crappy business. They're a lot of work for little pay. I had one day hoped to do comics- I managed to get published in the high school newspaper and a local anthology book as a teenager.

The more I learned, though, the less I was interested.

For comic books, in the US, the "Big Two" of Marvel & DC paid about $100/page, split between the penciler and inker (60/40, usually). It took a day to do a page, for most folks. (There was also a lot of stylistic requirements you had to meet- no one was willing to risk loose or funky art like they do these days!). This was also when comic books were still commonly found in grocery stores and newstands.

For newspapers, you had to deal with syndication, and the hard deadlines. You also were restricted to an ever shrinking space, and had to cram your stories into the classic 3-panel gag format, for the most part. The Boondocks was probably the last major kick as far as experimentation in newspaper comics at the time. (The alt newspaper boom was nice, but it didn't take long to go from 2-3 pages of comics to the barely 1-3 comics any of them carry any more.)

Between comic book stores shrinking and newspaper readership drying up, I can't imagine either of these two are doing any better these days.

Comics are just labor intensive, and don't really draw enough sales on their own to support people, nor do they pull enough eyes to get the advertising pull you get with a lot of media these days. (This also doesn't go into the issues of the comic book distributors - they played a big part in putting a lot of indie companies under through selective non-payment for books sold. No overarching conspiracy, just basic shady business practice.)

These days, a webcomic probably isn't going to pay you much more, but at least you have more control over what happens with your work and the ability to track the middle-men and how your money gets handled. No one's got a full answer, but at least artists are trying out a lot of options and trading info.

I really think that's going to be the way for things to go - not because the web is magical and fixes everything, but because the only hope for people to make a living in these things depends on keeping control in copyright and cutting out the middlemen.
posted by yeloson at 4:37 PM on April 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


Here's the "we're not paying anyone" confession:
"I'm not sure how much you'll be allowed to write about this," says Dan Perkins (Tom Tomorrow), "but of course the Village Voice Media chain is one of the major culprits in this—their decision to 'suspend' cartoons [in 15 papers in 2009] dealt a serious blow to the struggling subgenre of alt-weekly cartoons." [Tom Tomorrow returned to the pages of the Voice within a few months. Also, many of the artists in this issue aren't getting paid, but have contributed work for the exposure. Update: we're paying them.]
It's like they were saying "sure, we were bastards for cut comics was bad, but guess what? Now they're back, but we're not paying them!"
posted by filthy light thief at 4:49 PM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


One thing the indies haven't seemed to grok is that funky and unique book design is, like, all expensive and shit. I mean, a 5-colour foil stamped fold-out poster as a dust jacket over a 5-colour foil stamped hardcover? That shit ain't cheap!

If only they'd give that much attention to the stuff inside the books.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:56 PM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


"It's like they were saying "sure, we were bastards for cut comics was bad, but guess what? Now they're back, but we're not paying them!""

The company that owns the Village Voice, New Times (they're a huge conglomerate of alt-weeklies) are well-known to be chintzy cheapskate assholes who regularly fuck over staff despite the best efforts of the editors to provide as much lube as possible without losing their jobs.

Doesn't stop me from applying for jobs with the LA Weekly (which they also own), but it does keep me from having any romantic notions about their ethics or practices.
posted by klangklangston at 5:19 PM on April 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


I thought the editorial was pretty bad. It's poorly structured, a mish-mash of anecdotes with no organisation, and doesn't differentiate between the experiences of doing editorial cartoons, a comic strip that's sold via syndication, an online comic strip, a comic book where you own the characters, and a comic book where you don't own the characters (your Batmans and Supermans and the like).

It's my understanding that each one is quite different. I don't know a lot about the world of syndicated strips, for example, but I've read it's incredibly difficult to break into because the comics page is read by an ageing audience who's resistant to change. When the Deseret News dropped Ziggy, one of the laziest and least funny strips around, people wrote letters to the editor to complain. (The newspaper later added it back.) Ziggy is one of dozens of what's known as "legacy strips": strips where the original creator(s) have died and new strips are done by the syndicate, sometimes simply re-using old art, sometimes not.

Legacy strips are also known for recycling storylines. Because who's going to remember you did the same gag forty years ago? There's also beloved strips that are in perpetual re-run, like Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes. The room for a new comic to break in is tiny.

(Almost everything I know about syndicated strips, I know from reading Josh Fruhlinger's The Comics Curmudgeon. Highly recommended and very funny, too.)

Comic books are different. Indy comics tend to sell poorly, but there's been definite break-out successes over the years: Elf Quest, Bone, Strangers in Paradise, Scott Pilgrim, etc. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was originally an indy comic. I think we can assume its creators are doing just fine.

Writers and artists who work for Marvel and DC have a different problem: they sell well, but they don't get paid well, because almost all work for these companies is work for hire. Work for hire means a flat rate with no royalties, and any new ideas you create become the property of the company. You work on Batman or Superman that month, you get a cheque, the end. (Even when Joss Whedon wrote for Astonishing X-Men, it was work for hire.) Unless you're quick enough to be able to produce three or four issues a month -- and of course, unless you're good enough to be offered that much work -- it is apparently a very tough way to make a living. These companies are making major bank, and they're doing it on the backs of the writers and artists who they know they can pay very little to because there's so many hopefuls waiting in the wings.

Image Comics was founded in 1992 precisely because high-profile creator-illustrators wanted a slice of the tasty royalties pie.

And, before this gets too long, let's list some of the things the article didn't talk about: successful modern syndicted strips like Get Fuzzy. Successful web comics like xkcd, Archewood and Homestar Runner. A one-line mention of the juggernaut that is Penny Arcade. Why are some creators doing so well in the face of a declining industry? Who knows! That would require doing actual research, not just asking a bunch of people for quotes about their finances and calling it a day.

Like most publishing industries, the comics industry is in a period of transition and flux. There's undoubtedly an excellent article waiting to be written about making a living in comics in 2010, but this isn't it.
posted by Georgina at 6:08 PM on April 8, 2011 [15 favorites]


I should point out that Roy Edroso, the author of the original piece, has an excellent blog of his own, alicublog, which comments on (read: eviscerates) various members of the right-wing blogosphere on a regular basis. He also does roundups of the same for the Veev's Runnin' Scared blog. (Disclaimer: one of the pseudonyms of the regular commentariat at alicublog may seem oddly familiar to you.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:10 PM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I thought the editorial was pretty bad. It's poorly structured, a mish-mash of anecdotes with no organisation, and doesn't differentiate between the experiences of doing editorial cartoons, a comic strip that's sold via syndication, an online comic strip, a comic book where you own the characters, and a comic book where you don't own the characters (your Batmans and Supermans and the like).

Or it's a comment on how things are bad for cartoonists regardless of which corner of the medium that they inhabit. This kind of column isn't meant to be a term paper that's graded on a particularly pedantic type of organization.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:12 PM on April 8, 2011


Er, in 2011. I do know it's 2011. Promise.
posted by Georgina at 6:17 PM on April 8, 2011


Work for hire means a flat rate with no royalties, and any new ideas you create become the property of the company.

Actually, you're half wrong. Work for hire means that the creator retains no ownership rights for anything they create while doing that work under that agreement, but creators can and do get royalties based on sales of the comic books they've done work on, depending on their contract.

What they don't get is ownership of the work or ownership of the characters they create while working under a work for hire deal, and that's why the Image guys left... they wanted to own their work and own the characters.
posted by MegoSteve at 7:08 PM on April 8, 2011


It seems like popular web comics can do well enough to support people if people find them interesting.

I think what we're seeing is creative work that can support a single person, but doesn't really leave enough for middlemen, even if those people did things, like marketing, that authors didn't want to do.

But, it doesn't seem like cartooning ever paid that well in the past. These days creators have a lot more freedom in how they reach an audience, and they don't need to deal with any middle men or give up any of their IP if they don't want too.
posted by delmoi at 7:49 PM on April 8, 2011


MegoSteve, thanks for the correction.

Most of what I know about work for hire comes from the book publishing world, and there, I've always heard the term used to mean no royalties. After a lot of googling, it seems that people do sometimes receive royalties for work for hire. It also seems to be very rare. That's the only example I could find, and obviously it's about composing, not comic books.

Can you provide some indication of how often work for hire + royalties happens in the comics world? Is it just a handful of superstars, or is the practice more prevalent? Thanks!
posted by Georgina at 8:30 PM on April 8, 2011


Every time I hear comics artists complaining about how little money they make, I think, "Man, are they crazy? Comics and illustration are the only way to ever get paid as a visual artist. And they're fun! I'm never gettin' off this gravy train." And then I realize that I'm completely accustomed to living well below the poverty line, and that most people aspire to more.
posted by milk white peacock at 9:14 PM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Take a look at the "unread comics" section of The Webcomics List website. See all those webcomcs? That's why it's hard to make a living as a comic creator. It's supply and demand.

For every successful comic artist there's thousands, even tens of thousands of wanna-be artists who'd love to break into the field. Granted, the vast majority of them have no talent, or are too flaky to be professional. But that still leaves a vast oversupply, which will put an artist in a bad position for making money. Perfect storms of popularity like manga are rare.

And then there's the demand side; take Jim Woodring for example. Yes he's a talented artist and writer, but in all honesty his stuff doesn't have much mass appeal. That's the case with most comic works, including superhero comics (and the way superhero comics have deliberately limited their mass appeal is worth a thread in itself). Fortunately a lot of the comic creators I admire, such as Carla Speed McNeil (her comic "Finder" is an SF masterpiece in any format), have a drive to create in spite of limited success.

The thing is, it's not impossible to make a living as a comic artist (and by artist I mean writing and/or graphics ), but it's not easy. It takes talent, dedication, and a lot of hard work, including the ability to constantly put out good material. Given what I've seen of webcomcs, the last may be the most difficult thing to develop. But above all is needed the drive to create no matter what level of success is given, and I truly admire the creators who have that trait.
posted by happyroach at 9:22 PM on April 8, 2011


I'm more interested in the comments under the Voice apology that accuse the paper of not identifying the artists whose work was featured in the article. Can anyone with access to a paper copy confirm that?

I have a paper copy in front of me, and they seem to consistently credit the artists. So I don't know what that commenter on the Village Voice was talking about.
posted by John Cohen at 10:48 PM on April 8, 2011


Thanks, John Cohen. Btw, here's the link to the slideshow of all the comics art used for the issue. #21's the obvious wonderful fave, but it's hard to shake the idea that if the Voice had decided to pay at the start they'd have gotten better contributions; most of the submissions look like unrelated illustrations, sketchbook ideas or single panels from unrelated works. That's what you get when you offer "exposure in the Voice," I guess.

Also, btw, I totally missed Hereville when it came out last fall; according to the article, it's could be a success "with a few breaks," but since it's already sold 8,000 copies it kind of already is:

The last time Deutsch checked, Hereville had sold about 8,000 copies. With a few breaks, Deutsch could have a big seller. Or Hereville could flame out. Whatever. That's tomorrow. All Deutsch knows now is that the book is out, it looks great, and "when I make small talk at book conferences and I say 'Abrams,' they go 'Oh,' and you can see them become more interested." He's happy.
posted by mediareport at 6:20 AM on April 9, 2011


I'm working towards getting some sort of "career" in comics, nowadays. How am I able to do it?

I inherited a house in the outskirts of New Orleans that I can rent out for enough to pay my rent in a city I want to live in. And I don't have a car, or kids to support. So I really don't have to come up with much money to get by decently.

When I have a day job it's usually hacking web crap in Flash and/or PHP. Boring but it pays bills for a while. The art usually only makes money when I get my ass out to a convention, and that's usually only barely enough to cover the costs.

"Career". Right. I'm a trust-fund baby who lives somewhat simply, and can afford to put most of her time into a hobby.

* * * *

I got a friend who's cranking out a lot more comics than I am - she can manage to rein herself in and only work in one or two colors without getting super obsessive about every damn panel. She's got a lot of unsold books piled up. Right now she's got a kickstarter up to pay for publishing a group adaptation of 'Midsummer Night's Dream' that a workshop she led did. The numbers on it, you'll notice, aren't very encouraging. But she's still drawing comics because she's gotta draw comics - she's got stories to tell, and the way they come out is in words and pictures, inexoriably intertwined.

I got another friend who recently wrapped up an Eisner-winning web graphic novel. She's drifted sideways into writing children's fantasy novels with her own illos. She's got a few ideas she might do as comics now that the huge epic comic is over but I really wouldn't be surprised if she never does more than the occasional short story in that medium again.

I got another friend who recently scaled back his web comic to return to TV storyboarding, after a year's sabbatical from that.

I got another friend who just wrapped up a gorgeous graphic novel you've never heard of. He's starting to collect rejection slips on it. He's been doing some little autobiographical strips while he tries to decide what to do next. Probably another comic. He works in a chain bookstore. I can't remember which one, it might be Borders, in which case, well...

* * * *

The cliché is that a picture's worth a thousand words. How many words are on the average page of a book? Maybe 300-500? Comics put three to twelve pictures on a page. Comics are a fuckton of work. But you draw, you've got stories to tell, what're you gonna do? Leave all those awesome ideas you have just sitting there as little doodles in your sketchbook forever? Give it up and be nothing more than an art cog for someone else? Or even give up the art entirely? Fuck no.

Even when you get people doing special "comics issues" of a newspaper and using the old "for the exposure" line in lieu of actually paying for art. At least the apology was a real one, with money for the artists after all, instead of a "we're sorry you're offended" non-apology.
posted by egypturnash at 9:56 AM on April 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


Georgina: "MegoSteve, thanks for the correction.

Can you provide some indication of how often work for hire + royalties happens in the comics world? Is it just a handful of superstars, or is the practice more prevalent? Thanks
"

I can speak to comics of the 6 ⅝" x 10 ¼" (17 x 26 cm) variety; which is to say those books published by companies like DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, and any indie publisher not doing slam book size.

It's very common with big publishers to pay royalties on big name books, i.e. Spiderman, et. al. That said, you're not going to get tagged to write, pencil, ink or color any of those titles unless you've already got published chops.

Royalties are less common, but occasionally offered for 2nd tier product, and almost never offered at any level below that. Tiers are determined by both publisher and distributor and are "X" number of copies sold, where X is a random number depending on publisher, title, distribution chain, phase of the moon, and mood of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Smaller publishers almost never offer royalties unless a title has moved into trade paperback.

Indy publishers will buy you a beer and tell you how fabulous you are.
posted by dejah420 at 9:34 PM on April 9, 2011


I totally missed Hereville when it came out last fall; according to the article

Relevant to the tales of woe in this thread, last fall is when a third-party publisher put out a revised, extended version of Hereville. It originated as a web-comic in 2004, and Deutsch had been selling a self-published version for years before his big break. (It's a fun story, and I was impressed by Deutsch's layout.)
posted by Zed at 10:11 AM on April 11, 2011


Scott Kurtz interviews Rory Edroso.
posted by PenDevil at 11:30 AM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


« Older Featuring 2052 performers from 58 countries, I giv...  |  Louis Marinelli, activist for ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments