So today I’m going to talk a bit about how Drawing Comics is my Job, the Financial End of Things. I was going to include stuff about all the hours I work to make comics, but this post got very long, so I’ll make that post at another date.
First of all, never in a million years did I think I would be able to pay my rent by drawing comics, or even through doing the freelance art thing. Sometime I cringe inwardly when I tell people that I write and draw comics for a living, because sometimes it doesn’t feel like that; it’s more like I’ve taken a vacation from some real job to draw comics, and eventually I will return to the workforce when I run out of money.
The last time I worked in a studio at a “real job” (I trained in animation) was 2008. So as of now, the money has yet to run out. The pessimist in me suspects it will some day. That I will no longer get freelance work, that my books will not sell, and I’ll just grind through my savings before packing it all in and (if I’m even qualified to do this) return to work in animation.
Part of the reason for this pessimistic view is that currently I’m living off advances from publishers, and supplementing that money with grants and freelance work (taking illustration jobs for clients, doing the occasional workshop, drawing commissions, etc). I do not have a hit graphic novel that I recieve a steady royalty income from. Not yet, at least. I suspect I would feel more secure in my line of work if I did.
So, to explain my situation: as of now, I’ve either sold or been a part of four graphic novels bought by publishers that provide advances (Brain Camp, Friends With Boys, my current book Voted Most Likely and Bigfoot Boy). An advance is money paid out to a writer and artist (or cartoonist) by the publisher against future sales of their book. So take Friends With Boys. First Second paid me X amount of dollars to write and draw it, because they think it will make XX in sales (God willing, it will make XXX. Please pre-order!). It seems like kind of a gamble, but that’s apparently how it works in the book world. The thing about advances is that you usually (this depends on the publisher) get paid half on signing of the book contract, half on completion of the book. And then you have to go draw the comic. So I got paid half of X for Friends With Boys before I’d even drawn a page, but then I had to live on half of X for a year while I drew the comic. Then I got the rest of X. And I went SHOPPING! (Just kidding.)
I am EXTREMELY LUCKY to be working with publishers that pay advances. It is not typical. It is ESPECIALLY not typical of comic book work. I was paid no money up front for my SLG books, and instead paid royalties based on sales. Zombies Calling and Ellesmere sold about 2,000 copies each, of which I was given a percentage of the cover price, I think 7%. So I make 7% of $10 and $13. I did not make much money off those two books, which was why I had a job in animation when I drew them. ;)
My income fluxes like crazy, and has since I stopped working fulltime in animation. For example, in 2010 I had my best year ever, actually making a really good income, above $30,000! I was pretty blown away. But in 2010 I also got an $8,000 grant from the Nova Scotia government to write and draw Friends With Boys. So in reality I only made about $22,000. But that was still a ton of money! I had a lot of unexpected freelance jobs in 2010, like Girl Comics for Marvel and an illustration job for the Girl Scouts of America which paid very well. These were one time only jobs and I have not had repeat work from these clients.
In 2011 I made about half what I made in 2010.
How do I survive?
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 know, so behind the times. But I work at home, and a home phone is cheaper. I split my rent and expenses with my boyfriend, and before we moved in together, I lived with a roommate. It is sooooooo much easier to make your dollar last when you aren’t spending $800-900 on rent. 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 also live in a country that provides some health care. I feel this is probably the biggest reason I am able to work in comics for a living. Canada’s health care system is not what it once was, but it is there, and I know that if I break a leg or need surgery, I will not be financially ruined.
Sometimes the being poor thing sucks. I wore a coat I got at a Salvation Army for $9 for two winters, and it was terrible. I bought a new winter coat this year, paid for with money I made at a convention. It is very nice and warm. But again, I do not feel deprived. Well, most of the time. I try to steer clear of malls, because malls are filled with beautiful things that I very much want to buy. I stare in store windows and feel an ache in my belly when I see a beautiful pair of shoes (I’ve kind of gotten into shoes lately). But I remind myself: do I want those shoes, or do I want to work in comics?
I want to work in comics. Sometimes this is hard, but I always know it’s the right decision for me.
I get asked about transitioning into comics or freelance art, how to do it, and how to make it financially viable. Here’s how I did it: I didn’t.
In 2008 I lost my job in animation. Animation in Canada is contract based and when contracts end and there are no incoming contracts, everyone loses their job. If you’re lucky, you’ve been paying into Employment Insurance, so you can weather these hard times. In 2008, I was lucky. The studio I was working at was expecting work to come in, but it didn’t, and it didn’t and months passed as we waited. For an entire year I lived on EI, waiting for work. It didn’t come. But then First Second came along and asked me to draw Brain Camp. Since there was no animation work, I jumped at the chance. I told my old studio that I was drawing a comic, and that I wouldn’t be available for a few months, and then I’d come back to work when they had work. They still didn’t have work by the time I finished Brain Camp. And by then, Friends With Boys had sold to First Second, and I had another chunk of money to live on (the advance of half of X, if you remember). So I kept drawing comics, because the money hadn’t run out yet.
Eventually, the studio got work in, thank goodness. My boyfriend works there. But I never went back, because I kept getting comic jobs. And by then I was getting good at living cheaply (no eating out more than once a week, no new clothes, living with a roommate), and thought I could make a go of it, at least for a year or so. Drawing comics full time was kind of a dare: how long could I go? How long could I draw comics and pay my rent?
It is now four years later. I’ve been drawing comics as a job for as long as I was in animation.
There are a couple factors here, the most important being that I had EI to live on during that long dry spell. If I hadn’t had that safety net, I would’ve been forced to move away from Halifax and find animation work elsewhere. But I didn’t have to move, because I could live on what EI was paying. Also, because the studio where I used to work continued to not have work, it gave me the chance to try out drawing comics for a living, and see if I could make it work. So far, I have. And I’m very grateful and very nervous it will all be taken away from me someday.
I was watching a panel at the New York Comic Con in 2010, and the question of “how do you move into comics fulltime?” was asked. I think there were 5 people on the panel, and two said they had spouses who agreed to support them while they tried to make a go of it, one had a business that he sold to make a large chunk of cash, one was Raina Telgemeier and I completely forget what she said, and one still hadn’t transitioned into making comics fulltime.
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.
I think as long as I am able to live my poor-but-not-destitute lifestyle, with the health care safety net, I will be happy even as I grow older. I think so. I don’t know how it would be if I became genuinely poor, if I burned through all my savings and could barely cover rent and food. For me, at this point, poor is a choice because I want to draw comics for a living. I suspect if my financial situation became desperate, I would perhaps return to animation. Hopefully it would have me.
I feel this post is probably not very helpful. I can’t offer concrete tips on transitioning into comics fulltime. I do suggest looking up grants, as getting that grant in 2010 was incredible. I also suggest building a savings (maybe instead of buying shoes) so if you are laid off or choose to take a break from your day job, you can maybe spend a month or two working fulltime on your own comics, without having to worry about paying rent. I suggest learning to live frugally. I can really only speak to my own experiences with making comics for a living, so hopefully they will provide some insight.