Money!?! From Webcomix!?! (No Sunday in Comix: Part 2)

mulligan_miracle_transYes, a miracle. And it doesn’t happen often. If you want to make a lot of money, comix isn’t probably the best place to go looking for it.

Since quite a few of the subscribers to this blog don’t come from the world of webcomix, I figured it might be important to take a minute and put things in perspective. There’s some history here that might seem redundant to a few of you, but it underscores the idea that comix is not and has seldom been a high-paying industry for the people who make them.

Historically (and currently) comix are icing on the cake of other, more lucrative industries. Actually, a better example would be to say they are the edible flower and breadcrumb crust that makes you think that one day-old piece of fish is better than another. They’ve been the garnish that makes buying something common seem more attractive.

The earliest example of this is the broadsheets of newspapers, of course. Comix started (popularly) as big, brightly colored ways to outsell competing papers. Nobody thought much of it at first as art, but it had an obvious usage in the huge, king-making industry of the American journalism.

The idea that it was something separate from the newspapers happened as the American magazine industry started to grow through the discovery of genre markets at the end of the Depression and into the Second World War. During this time the lurid pulp magazines, with their direct appeal to working class Americans opened the door to what we now think of as niche-marketing; give people the kind of material they want and you’ll not only get their dime but the dimes of all their friends as well. Fandom, and how to use it, is born during this time.

This carried comix into its separation from the newspapers and its formation as a separate publishing industry. People were paying for the comix themselves now and new publishing ventures took best possible advantage this as comicbooks of all kinds hit the newstands. If you’ve not read David Hadju’s THE TEN CENT PLAGUE; THE GREAT COMIC-BOOK SCARE AND HOW IT CHANGED AMERICA,  comix during this time can seem a bit byzantine and a bit difficult to understand. But it was an industry on its own and, in the early part of the 1950’s, artists and writers were making a fairly decent wage working for publishers who only dealt in almost exclusively in comix. This changed drastically in the early and mid 1950’s in America.

Something else happened around this time that impacted on the idea of comix as a publishing industry. Television and the youth market. Formerly, comix were a cheap version of the kind of entertainment one could get at a movie theater for the kind of prices a kid or a young adult might be able to afford. Television replaced that, but the relationship was good for the people working in the industry; TV used material from the comicbooks and hired away talented creators to work in their more lucrative field. Suddenly there were jobs again. But they were jobs for making the kind of material found in comix work for television and comicbook publishers found themselves struggling to keep some connections to the TV market.

Did most of these talented creators make much money in comix back then? No. Of course not. The history of comix is riddled with horror stories of hard-luck and impoverished endings. With very, very rare exception these artists largely had a journeymen’s mindset about the work they were doing in comix and it was a job to them. It was an art job, to be sure, they took it seriously as such, but, like the public, few of them took it seriously as art. mulligan_table_coin_vig

But as the popular notion of comix has changed the idea of it as a viable artform has grown, so have the chances for comic artists to make a decent living. The idea was that a couple of guys from Ohio dreaming up SUPERMAN deserved some recognition for the success of that title starting multi-million dollar industry. It grew into more “creator-owned” material and a brief  flickering chance that comic artists could be their own publishers. But all along, the numbers of people reading comix had been dwindling and the prices of comix had increased beyond the kid market and into the realm of a more specialized group. Comix were coming out of the newstands and into specialty shops. True, it was easier for independent publishers to reach these shops, but the overall market had switched from the popular to the niche.  Not a very good market to allow a lot of diversity in publishing and genre approaches.

Manga changed that some as more young readers became open to new comix material. RAW Magazine, Vertigo Comics and the success of MAUS certainly opened us up the idea that comix had a much more varied and adult readership than most people had previously considered. But no real breakthroughs have come in idea of how to sell more books and how to get people to read more comix. The real interest of most of the industry seemed to be in how to make money not off the comix themselves, but in how to license the merchandise and sell the brand of stories and characters found in the comix to more popular industries like toys, cartoons, games and, of course, film.

Hollywood, television and the gaming market have been the real financial bloodstream of comix for some time now and there’s not a whole lot of evidence to support the idea that they’ve helped our industry grow much. More people are aware of comix as a breeding ground for blockbuster films and video games definitely, and that has given comix professionals a bit more respect. That’s nice. But that doesn’t seem to get them reading comix as a regular form of entertainment and it doesn’t create more jobs for comic artists. Instead it generates an attitude that comix material should have a big “cross-over potential”, as if the only way to succeed in this artform is by making something that can be readily sold in another.

The web and “paperless publishing” may change a lot of that. Comix, because of their visual nature and their ability to deliver long stories in short developing bursts of content, is well suited to the way people read online. The ability to search out content on the web that appeals directly to the reader also gives comix a great potential to grow outside of its usual genre traps through the online publishing. As publishers of most every kind of content have discovered, the web is a good place to re-think the structure of our product and how to reach people with it. The problem, of course, is that it’s free.

Next up will talk about the pros and cons of how some artists are trying to monetize their business and make a living out of webcomix.


5 thoughts on “Money!?! From Webcomix!?! (No Sunday in Comix: Part 2)

  1. Comics are at their heart about how to get ideas across in as cheap a form as possible at minimum cost to the supplier and consumer, as quickly as possible with as wide a distribution as possible. If a comic doesn’t do something faster, more imaginatively and more cheaply than a movie, TV show, pop video even then it is not doing its job properly and there is no reason for it to exist. Comics are playing catch up when, given the right model, they could be leading the charge.

  2. Great point.

    But some of what we as artists imagine in comix takes significantly longer to produce as it mostly comes from one (or a very few) set of hands. The reading experience is a quick one, to be sure. That for me is one of the great qualities of the artform. Its some little movie that some guy can show me in his sketchbook. It takes very little time to read and it’s images last longer for their direct connection to the words I’m reading. Much more personal and emotionally charged in that way. And, if I like it enough, I can buy that sketchbook and take it home and have that little movie all to myself again and again.

    But the little time it took me to read that is nothing to the time it took the guy who created it. If I want more of these things I’ve got to find more guys like him doing them. For that to happen, these guys need to make some money or that first guy, well, he was just a fluke.

    We’re only going to see a diversity of solid, personal expressions in this medium when enough readers (or the pathways to those readers) make it a genuine market. When people can make a living building a product one of two types of attitudes develop in the product; innovation or homogenization.

    We can’t have something new when there isn’t enough money to support both systems. in a dwindling market, homogenization is safer and you never get to see that guy with the little movie in his sketchbook.

  3. I don’t disagree. My problem with ‘comicbook artists’ is that they are too often following an unworkable model. Most of them think that comics is somehow ‘easy’ and yet they insist upon infinite time to produce the work as if they are studio painters producing finely tuned masterpieces. If “my work takes time and love and practice” fine. Go bother some other profession. Let a real comic artist get on with the job. You can’t have it both ways.

    Not just webcomix but print comix too. They both miss the critical part of the comic equation. People do read comics fast which necessitates them being made … fast. Now obviously you can’t make ’em as fast as I can read them but still it’s like the whole industry is shouting slow down when in reality they should be screaming SPEED UP!

  4. Mike’s arguement would be great if ALL the webcomic person was doing was creating webcomix….but he can’t. He needs to eat. He needs to feed his kids. And because he can’t feed himself by making comix, he can’t devote the majority of time it takes to produce the comics that Mike reads like lightning. He works a day job, and sacrifices time he could have spent with his kids to do the comic.
    …all of which is too slow to keep people’s attention, so no one reads the comic.
    So, is the speed Mike’s talking about even possible with the way people are making comix? If it isn’t, then what can the artist resort to?
    Maybe quality. As most of the “fast” comics are being churned out by schoolkids, there’s an absence of really nicely done webcomix out there. In order to stand out, you have to have quality…and with the current model, you’ve got to produce quality for at least 5 years before having a product you can generate money with.
    There’s got to be a better way, or at least a smarter way.

  5. High quality or low quality – what’s the point if you can’t make a living at it. There is surface and there is substance to consider also. Some comics have a lot of substance and no surface and vice versa – how you mix it is up to you but ‘time’ is a critical factor and it seems you are suggesting that we should make slower more delibrate comics of a very high quality. My question remains – why? You won’t make any money doing that. Unless you factor in the speed at which you need to work the model breaks down anyway.

    Comics as a language is designed to speed up the relay of information and all we can think to do is slow down its manufacture. Without considering this critical ‘production’ factor – comicbook creators are fiddling while Rome burns down around their ears. And don’t kid yourself – very few are considering it and most ignoring it.

    I say work the language – it’s not Latin! It ain’t dead yet – though one might be forgiven for thinking we were trying to kill it.

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