Tuesday, February 27, 2018

My So Called Comics Life

Doing some calculations, I've been making comics now for 3 years. I've dedicated over 2 of those years to doing it full-time. I released 8 printed comics in total, 5 of which all came out last year. And today I'm applying for random office jobs while the 4 comic projects I have currently in production have all stalled. My wife and I had to scramble today to find the 2 euro we were short for rent. Jack Kirby was right...

Now before I talk about why, honestly, I'm fed up with comics right now, I must put a big old disclaimer down. It seems, a person can't talk about why they dislike their comic experience without people telling them that they should only be making comics for the love of it, or how the person talking just has sour grapes, or how if they were better at what they do these problems wouldn't happen. I'm not ungrateful for anything, what I am however is frustrated. I think that's a very human feeling and forgivable. This post is not looking for sympathy or to burn all my bridges (although I'm taking a chance because it may do that) but instead to share my story so that anyone else in the same position may be able to relate to another broken heart. It's also here for me to vent. I really need to let it out right now.

I saw a person tweet this about breaking in to comics today and there is so much to unpack that it's pretty much the entire basis of my blog post: Barrier to entry is so low now that it ‘feels’ like success comes easy, but as you say it’s a fight to the top, some parts luck, but so much hard work. Depends on what people define as ‘making it.’ I’m just thankful one person has read my stuff.

I mean... good for you? But this sort of "holier than thou" attitude has driven me up the wall for some time now. It's great that you may be in a position to not care about the financial reality of trying to break in to the industry and it's lovely that you're happy with 1 person reading your comic but you know what? Some of us want better for ourselves. I want to be able to support myself. I need to be able to support myself. You may be in a comfortable place where you're not worried about bills. Maybe you live with other people who can support you. We're not all that lucky.

I didn't expect to be able to support myself in comics with my first issue. Not at all. I was fully aware it would take years before anything even possible to paying the bills with comics was likely. But I did think that maybe I would be able to feel a progression towards it by now. That, maybe, after 3 years of hard work I'd be able to pay my electricity bill with comics? Something small, you know? Possibly break even on the production costs with it. But no. After 3 years, I'm in the red. I had a lot of advice, from good professional people around me which I took on board each step of the way but it doesn't offset the great financial burden of writing comics. And this is my first bug-a-boo with the system: 

Being the writer.

To try and break in to comics as a writer there is pretty much one thing you can do. One avenue available to you. Make your own comics and hope that they showcase your talent, try to get the right people to read the comics you made, hope that they hire you off the back of that. That's pretty much it. There is a second option I'll talk about in the next section but that can't be your first step. This is your first step.

There is a lot of talk going round about how your connections can get you work and how it's who you know etc etc and this is very true but not at my level. The reality is, until you get the first published work (and I'm talking Diamond distributed level only here) no-one is likely to put their neck on the line for you. This is understandable. Everyone in comics is afraid that they're not getting another job after their current one. Unless you're Hickman or something, and if you're best friends with Hickman maybe he'll hook you up with a job but honestly I doubt even that would happen. From my experience and what I see around me, nobody wants to recommend you for a job as a writer until you've got your foot in the door somewhere already. So when you see that sort of advice online, ignore it if you're a writer.

It's a little different with artists. I don't know why but it is. I guess they find it easier to show an artist's portfolio and trust they can do the work based on that. I don't know why reading someone's scripts can't do the same but *shrug* here we are. Maybe it's because you need more training to look decent as an artist, whereas everyone knows how to type words. Honestly, maybe the balance of people looking to do either is skewed. I don't know. But I know a bunch of artists who have gotten professional work in a reasonable time frame due to recommendations from friends and I don't know a single writer who has. Go figure.

So you have your option to make comics off your own steam to break in. Here is how that works: You write a script, find an artist to draw it, find a colourist to colour it, find a letterer to letter it, try to get it printed. Some people skip some of those steps but if you want to make anything half way presentable that's what you have to do. The burden of cost to do any of the above falls entirely on the writer in this scenario. There have been two scenarios up to this point where that has been different for me but in both of those scenarios I worked for free and I still contributed my share of money to printing. 

I'm not complaining about the financial responsibility being on the writer. To be honest, it makes sense. If I want my script to see the light of day, it's on me to pay for that to happen. But here is were that's a frustrating position to be in. I'm never paid to write. No artist comes to you and says, hey write a script for me and I'll pay you per page. It literally doesn't happen (and if you're a magic unicorn who has had it happen to you in the small press scene, please give that artist my email). The only chance I have to even get my money back from making my comic is to sell as many issues of it as I can. But the reality of the small press comics scene, especially in a small market like Ireland, is that you're doing well to get back the costs of printing alone, forget about the costs of production. Unless you're independently famous which I am not. Even trying to sell the comics has a built in cost too, wether it be selling online or going to conventions. It's an ever increasing incline.

The hope is, that you don't get too far in debt making these comics before you catch a break and get a paying gig but your chances are low because obviously if everyone who wanted to make comics got hired the industry would fall apart. Realistically this method is a 1/100,000 shot. So after realising that this method isn't going to be the lottery win you're looking for you move on to the next step, the slightly more aggressive step of pitching comics directly to publishers.

Getting a Pitch together

The idea is that now that you have the experience of making comics and have built up relationships with artists, colourists, and letterers along the way, you will now be able to move up to the big leagues by putting together a professional comic pitch and getting picked up by a publisher. So remember, most publishers will not read a script. You can't go to a major publisher as a writer, show your portfolio, and hoped to be picked up like those three other creative people can. You have to go as a team. 

I'm ok with that idea, mostly, because the best comics are made with teams who are all in on a project together and have a good working relationship already in place. But I wanted to point out that again, as a writer you don't have the chance to make it alone. You're 100% dependant on the other people around you to make you look good. Your ability to write a great script is almost secondary. Because if you write a cracking script and the artist lets you down in adapting it, it's hard to recover from that. If you want to write in comics you have to remember your artist is more important than you. It's a humbling experience. The positive flip side to that is a great artist can make you look better than you are, so again, the artist is more important than you.

This lack of control once you've written the script is where the trouble can start though. Every single other person along the way can delay the end product. Even if you're the fastest writer in the world, the artist takes time, the colourist takes time, and the letterer takes time. You have to understand that and be comfortable with that. But unfortunately what can also happen is the artist gets delayed, the colourist gets delayed, the letterer gets delayed. Working with professionals who do this full time doesn't keep you safe from these problems either. Most often, you're not the only thing they're working on. 

What does this mean to you though? Well, that pitch you were hoping might break you in may not happen for a year. It may never happen. Delays can sometimes turn into abandonments. So how do you combat the waiting? You have to justify yourself as a writer, you can't get paid sitting around doing nothing. You come up with another pitch or another comic to keep you going. But that involves more money again. And you have to hope that those comics or those pitches don't end up with the same delays or problems. It can be a never ending cycle of failure and debt.

So what is the point of this?

What am I even trying to say? Basically that trying to make comics full time was a mistake, as a writer. If someone was able to make it work, please share your story, I'd love to hear about it. But as far as I can see, the way the system is set-up, unless you're independently wealthy there is no way to break in to comics and be able to support yourself unless you have a steady day job elsewhere. You can't be a full time comic writer and live when you're starting out. Which is tough. Because doing it part time considerably slows down your ability to do things. I wouldn't have 8 comics to my name by now if I was working full time. It'd be maybe half that in the same time period. And that's tough news for someone like me to be facing. 

This feels like a step backwards. From full-time to half-assing it, so to speak. Part of me is relieved, the grind of the last three years has been infuriatingly bereft of positive milestones. The act of making comics is not enough for me. I want to be getting better. I want to be able to gauge how I'm doing. The small press scene is unfortunately weak in terms of feedback. But that's a whole different rant, that I had back in October on Twitter.

Anyway, may my story be a cautionary tale for those starting out. I feel like not many people talk about the negatives of getting started and instead live with only platitudes of positive thinking. I'm not that person. I hope you're now at least a little more aware of how money is a huge factor and how your timeline expectations for any project need to be thrown out the window. I haven't even spoken at all in this post about how difficult it is just to get eyes on your comic once it's made. That's a whole other night at the keyboard to write about that fuckery and I don't have the energy.

I wouldn't have achieved as much as I have without the help, both in work and especially financially, from close friends and new friends along the way. I hate talking like I failed knowing that I wouldn't have done as well as I have without their significant support, but I have to be honest and admit that what I've achieved so far doesn't seem to be a lot, considering.

I'm not done. I'm not giving up. But like any rough patch in a relationship I need to step back, re-evaluate what I want from it, and maybe get drunk for a little while until I feel better again. Hopefully I get that day job soon and I'll be able to afford the next comic.

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