Are Comics Detrimental to Creators?

retirement money

Tom Spurgeon posted today this thought-provoking quote:

there’s a bunch of stuff out there right now on creative teams fighting and/or dissolving. It’s not something I care to link to, but you can find it pretty easily if you look around. The thing that I wanted to note is that this kind of public griping always seems to happen when comics is in a real emotionally stressful period; I think the mini-era we’re in qualifies, for sure. I think we’re past the point where people are just starting to realize that all the exciting things happening around them may not happen to them, and into a phase where people are beginning to worry that comics may have a detrimental effect on their lives.

This struck a chord with me. As someone who chose to leave the comic field and pursue primary-job employment elsewhere, I look around at acquaintances my age who stayed in and see the things they don’t have: Health care coverage. A home (instead of a rental). A retirement account. Any kind of job security. (Not that anyone has that these days.)

retirement money

I value their work and am glad they could pursue an artistic career, but I worry what might happen to them as they reach the tail end of middle age and beyond. The U.S. is not a friendly country for those who don’t have enough. Maybe my definition of “enough” is bigger than theirs, and they’re happy with it, I don’t know.

That doesn’t even consider the various mental challenges of working in an industry that often attracts … well, there’s no polite word that comes to mind. I’m fond of saying that most people in comics are broken in some way. (And I don’t exempt myself from that.) We’re all drawn to this wacky field because it gives us something we couldn’t get elsewhere, whether escapism or validation or a feeling of community or a business where the usual rules don’t apply or room for extreme individualism or sheep to be fleeced. The flip side of that is how much comics can bring bad feelings or fallings-out or mental scars.

I’m rambling. I wish comics, like most other entertainment fields, had more collective agreements for protection, because the Hero Initiative can’t cover everyone. Like Tom, I worry what’s going to happen as profits continue to shrink.

Update: Faith Erin Hicks blogs about this issue, revealing some actual figures (and how beneficial for health care and art grants it is to live in Canada) and the trade-offs she’s made. Her lengthy piece is well worth reading, but here are just a couple of excerpts:

First of all, let me say that I feel I am poor, but not deprived. I’m not going to yammer on about how I have it rough and scrape out a living, because I made a choice to work in comics, and I feel I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to make it work financially for this long. I’m very grateful. There are things I wish I had (like a house), but I don’t feel like I’m staring into the financial abyss. I live in a decent apartment in a decent part of a small city (Halifax). I like buying things like comics and sushi. I have a car. But there are choices I make that allow me to live cheaply. I do not buy new clothes. I rarely go to the movies. As much as I like buying comics, I voraciously use the library to read everything I might want to only read once. I do not have a cellphone (shock, horror!)…. I cook at home a lot, which is much cheaper than dining out. We do not have cable. My car is 10 years old, and I bought it outright used, so I didn’t pay interest on car payments. Spending over $20 is a big deal….

I feel this art lifestyle is maybe not for everyone. It works for me because I don’t think I want some of the things other people might (I never saw myself as having a family, and while I’d like a house someday, I am content to rent), or at least I don’t want them right now. I’m still young, and I feel like this is my chance to draw comics for a living, so why not take it? If I had things like a family or a house, this lifestyle would maybe not be an option. But I’ve seen other people make that work, so it is probably possible.

The comments are interesting, too, as other artists talk about how they make it work.

2 comments

  • To those acting like I left some cushy job in the animation field to go live the life of an artist hermit, hey, I wish. Animation in Nova Scotia is just now (in 2012!!!) recovering from its decimation in 2008 (FOUR YEARS AGO!!!!). What happened was a horrific perfect storm: the Writer’s Strike (many Canadian animation jobs are doing service work on American productions) shut down many productions, and there was the reduction of an important provincial tax credit which made sending a production to Nova Scotia no longer profitable for other companies (the tax credit has now since been restored. Yay!). The industry was destroyed. As I mentioned in the Beat thread, the major studio in town, which had once employed over 100 people, shut down.

    So for nearly FOUR YEARS there was no work in animation. I didn’t go back to animation, instead opting to make my living as a freelance cartoonist, because there was no work.

    I applied everywhere to work. There were no jobs. I applied out of province, offering to move. No takers. But oh, then First Second comes along offering me a little bit of money to draw a comic. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance? It was risky, but bird in the hand, right? It turned out to be the right decision, because, as I mentioned, there was no animation work for years. Meanwhile, I’ve managed to develop a good relationship with several publishers, and they continue to give me work. I can pay my rent, yay!

    One of the most talented background painters I know sanded floors during the downtime. He’s now back working in animation, making beautiful drawings.

    It’s weird all this negativity being heaped on what I said, since, y’know, I actually meant it to be a really positive post. “Hey, cartoonists, you can make a living at comics! You might have to sacrifice a bit, but you can do it. Here’s how I did it.”

    I think the post reached the people it meant to, but wow, those Beat comments. I don’t even know. O_o

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