The Comic Industry Doesn’t Compensate Talent Well.
It’s been a running trend that the comic industry under-compensates the creative people behind your favorite comic books. It goes back to the beginning of the industry. I was talking about this with a friend on the phone the other day. It was reinforced by a link on Facebook to a blog entry made by artist Howard “Abba” Simpson in 2017. The subject is the compensation that artists (and other creative professionals) get for their work.
What do writers and artists make?
Let me share a graphic from Simpson’s blog, detailing minimum and average page rates for creators.
The real pressure for freelancers is to be able to make a living from their work. Being compensated fairly for their work is a challenge as well. Looking at Simpson’s rates in the graphic above, we can see that most professionals may have trouble making a living on what they’re paid by publishers. Sasha Barrett, A Ph.D student at Portland State University made it her duty to survey professionals in the comic book industry. This survey showed some disturbing trends within the industry.
Working conditions in the industry
Within the survey of 600 professionals within the industry, the vast majority, nearly 74%, worked as freelancers. Only 36% have stable income, which is not the same thing as equitable income. It only means that it is reliable income. While the survey did not ask about specific incomes, it did ask about health insurance and unexpected expenses. A little over 14% of respondents had no health insurance at all. Only about 18% of professionals surveyed had insurance through their employer, which was not necessarily their publisher. The most egregious statistic is that almost 35% of professionals could not handle an unexpected $500 expense.
The Comic Book Creators Guild of 1978
As I said, this is not a new phenomenon. In 1978, a group of creators that included Neal Adams, Frank Miller, Chris Claremont, Jim Shooter, Walt Simonson, Jim Starlin and others formed the Comic Book Creators Guild. They had a list of proposed pay rates. Even unadjusted for inflation, those rates aren’t met today. The Guild did not result in a union for comic book creators, and pay rates have remained low. There is a movement today to unionize comics. However, there could be a real problem with that, especially for smaller publishers. We are in an era where the highest selling comic in September 2019 not from Marvel, DC or Image sold 41,000 copies and the number two sold just shy of 35,000. Increasing payroll could severely hinder the industry.
Supporters of the movement to unionize comics will point to numerous creators that have had to resort to charity to cover medical expenses. Months before he died of cancer, Marvel colorist Justin Ponser posted a picture of himself finishing work for Marvel from two hospital beds, one in an ICU. By the way, he had to use a gofundme account for his medical expenses. The push to unionize comics isn’t just about pay. Of course, paying creators a living wage would mean more of that 14% I mentioned above could afford to buy insurance in the marketplace.
Increasing pay might also make it easier for creators to devote themselves to the quality of their work. At some point, spending time on a page means that your income drops. Spending two eight hour days drawing a page for $100 means that a penciller only makes $6.25 an hour, one dollar under the minimum wage. A colorist getting paid $50 a page can’t spend more than five hours on a page. At that point, they start making under $10 an hour. In most locations in this country, that stops being a living wage.
Of course, creators can make extra income at conventions, but how much are fans willing to pay for sketches and/or commissions? To paraphrase my friend I spoke to this week, “Lots of people want original art, but no one wants to pay for it.” Any artist can tell a story of someone asking about a sketch and after being told the price, walking away. Sometimes, they even insult the artist in the process. The next time that you’re at a convention and consider buying a sketch or commission from an artist, remember what they probably make from their published work. While you’re at it, remember that they most likely work without job security or health insurance. Maybe twenty dollars for a head sketch won’t seem too steep to you.
Apparently, we erred in not properly crediting the featured image for this article. It was created by Sasha Barrett. You can find the entire series of findings here on her Twitter feed. She also created a small zine titled Know Your Rights, which is great as well.