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Comic Creators – The Case For Going It Alone

by philhampton on 21 October 2011

One response to the recent events at Marvel.

When I founded The Comic Academy over a year ago, my initial focus was comic creators wanting to break into the industry.  In the first market research survey I ran, which I advertised on comic-related forums, most people who responded wanted to work for the likes of Marvel and DC.  And for many that’s still the dream.

But there came the news this week that Marvel has made a number of key production and editorial staff redundant as part of a ‘cost cutting exercise’.  Named ‘Marvelcution 2011’, after the original cull of Marvel staff in 1995 shortly before the company declared bankruptcy, one wonders what’s next on the horizon for the industry’s flagship company.

It’s been said that the workload will be shared amongst the remaining staff, and also that creators rates on lower-selling books are being cut.

But I’m not here to just tell you the news. It’s being done much better on the likes of Bleeding Cool’s site, with an overview here, and a summary of the various problems at Marvel here, and at The Beat, whose great, in-depth version of events is here.  Here’s hoping that those who have been cut find a brighter light at the end of the tunnel.

A Bright Future For Comic Creators

What I’d like to do in this article is explore the various options that comic creators have in these challenging but promising (yes, promising) times.

I’ve been particularly inspired by the moving retrospective that classic Hulk and FF artist Herb Trimpe wrote about his 5-year journey after being sacked by Marvel in 1995 (link here). In it he states:

“June 10: It hits me today about this being the first weekday of no official job. It is the first time since before the Air Force 34 years ago. An interesting sensation. Like hanging over the edge of a cliff. But maybe I can fly.”

Unfortunately, back then the internet was in its infancy, so Trimpe struggled to find his niche all over again.  But had he been part of the latest Marvelcution event instead, I’d bet that he wouldn’t have had to wait so long for even greater success.

Twenty years ago, if you wanted to be a successful comic creator, you had to get hired, or rely on freelance work, whether that was with a comic publisher, a book publisher, or at a newspaper.  Self-published comics, and even comic-related magazines and fanzines, were mainly underground works created more for love of the medium than large profits.

But now the world has changed beyond recognition. All of the following have become mainstream since the 1995 Marvelcution:

The internet, broadband, wi-fi, email, Computer Aided Design, webcomics, online forums, smartphones, tablet computers, online shopping, Google Adwords, inexpensive quality-driven self-publishing (e.g. Ka-Blam), banner ads, print-on-demand merchandise (e.g. Spreadshirt), Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, You Tube, hand-held video cameras, simple movie creation software, quality home printing, affiliate programs (e.g. Clickbank), worldwide outsourcing (e.g. Elance) and mobile phone apps.

That’s a whole new infrastructure of hardware, software and services which come together to help us create great comics in multiple formats, backed up with a variety of merchandise, make them visible to a larger audience than ever before, and make it much easier for them to part with their cash.

To put it simply, the power to take valuable market share is no longer just with the publishers and distributers.  It’s with the individuals – the creators and the entrepreneurs.

Do you know what you really want?

But a large problem is that comic creators are unaware of the massive potential out there for getting their creator-owned material in front of a major audience without having to work for someone else.

When one of my mentoring clients tells me that their ultimate goal is to work for Marvel or DC, I have the responsibility to question their reasons behind that goal, to ensure that it is what they truly want.  Their strongest desire may be to make history by writing or drawing seminal characters that they loved as a kid.  I’m fine with that.  I understand why that is so important to a lot of people.

But here’s the thing – that desire needs to be weighed against the alternate future that they could build for themselves as a self-employed comic creator.  Taking full responsibility for making their own characters come to life and inspiring a legion of fans from the ground up is arguably more satisfying in the long-term than writing a few issues of Ghost Rider, and it’s a damn-sight bigger achievement.

If you thought that working for a publisher was your only road to success in comics, I hope this article has helped you consider alternate options.

But if your goal is still to work for the likes of Marvel or DC, I salute you as you’ve chosen the more difficult and uncertain path to success.

Whichever ideal future you choose, or if you’re still undecided, my Comic Creator Success Secrets product, and the other articles on my blog, should help.

Or if you’d like to ask me a question or know more about my 1:1 mentoring services, please get in touch via the Contact Me page.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this article, so please feel free to leave a comment below, or tell your friends.

To your success,

Phil Hampton

Founder – The Comic Academy

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Jordan Kotzebue October 22, 2011 at 8:08 pm

Well put. I’ve been working on my own comic, Hominids for the last year now. It is vastly more satisfying then working on someone else’s characters. Plus is helps push your storytelling and art skills the more you do.

philhampton October 22, 2011 at 8:57 pm

Thanks Jordan.

That’s good to hear. Keep up the great work on Hominids!

All the best,

Phil

Daniel Burton October 23, 2011 at 11:52 am

Great inspirational article, Phil. I hope many creators take it to heart and branch out on their own. Neither way to success is easy, but as you pointed out in your article…what a much better future you have by being in control of your own destiny, getting the lion’s share of the rewards, and having other people jealous of the success you’ve created… Seems like the start of every superhero.
Daniel Burton´s last blog post ..Why I will still gladly give Steve Jobs money.

James DeMarco October 23, 2011 at 12:49 pm

A career in the art world is no picnic! From music to acting, and all the expressions in between….. it’s like a goalie trying to make it to the NHL. ; )
Having said all that, from experience, you’ll find very few publishers who are willing to pay to put your cartoons in print. The way it on space available, and they always want a paying ad in that spot! Sometimes, though, they’ll publish your cartoon (but with no pay)…so, what I did was insist on my website address to accompany the cartoon. Drive people to my site…get them hooked on the character….and have a nice merchandise section for them to choose from. (and have a link to an ebay store as well. ) That’s where the artist can profit from his creation. Hope this helps some.
Jay
creator of small saves @ http://www.smallsaves.com

philhampton October 23, 2011 at 8:10 pm

Hi Daniel,

Thanks for building on my post with some great insights. Yes, we could do with some more self-made heroes in this business. All creators need sometimes is a boost of knowledge and inspiration to make it happen.

Kind regards,

Phil

Mark Egan October 23, 2011 at 9:36 pm

As usual, great article Phil!

I really do feel that we’re looking at a revolution in entertainment as a whole, thanks to the internet and dedicated self-publishers / producers. We might even see the end of the likes of Marvel / DC (unbelievable as that may be), replaced by many independent artists. It may be the end of an era in one hand, but on the other, we may be looking at a golden age of originality.

Ivan October 24, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Another great piece, Phil. You hit the nail on the head with this one. I do admit it’s a dream of mine to work for Marvel or DC (or maybe even both!), but I’m slowly realizing how satisfying it is to develop your own ideas and characters, and how many roads in different medias this kind of work opens up.

M Kitchen October 28, 2011 at 4:39 pm

That certainly is the dream, isn’t it…

But can you think of any artists that are able to “go it alone” and make a decent living at it? “Decent living” is subjective, to be sure, but my thinking is that the goal is; to earn enough from one’s “art” to sustain them and their family.

I look at folks like Scott Kurtz who seems to be very successful, however in the early years (if I’m not mistaken) he was earning an income AND had a second income stream via his wife.

Jeff Smith and Terry Moore are both riding their success from the 90′s. In the case of Cartoon Books, Jeff had his wife Vijaya orchestrating the business side of things. And it was the Scholastic deal that sold millions.

The only self-made success story, with children, that I can think of off hand is Doug TenNapel. And from what I can tell, the bulk of his income/success comes from network pitches and deals with Hollywood.

Dave Sim has been making it strictly with self-publishing comics, but these days even he is subsidizing his comic work with commissions.

Who are some “go it alone” comic artists that are able to make an above poverty level living here in 2011?

Do any of them have families?
Does their income provide for a spouse and children?

I sure have talked to a lot of self-published and published comic creators who have told me that their comic work just breaks even.

It would be interesting to come up with a list of folks “living the dream” and how they’re able to.

philhampton October 30, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Hi Mark,

Thanks for that. I definitely think we’re living in a golden age of business opportunity, and that may spawn a golden age of originality, especially in the way that comics are formatted and experienced (motion comics, interactive comics etc.).

With that said, I can’t see Marvel and DC going anywhere, unless they make a string of bad business decisions that forces them to sell off their major characters. It almost happened to DC pre-crisis, but their owners wouldn’t let that happen these days.

All the best,

Phil

philhampton October 30, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Hi Ivan,

There’s nothing wrong with having a dream to work for Marvel or DC. But keeping your options open may, as you say, help you develop more satisfying avenues in the industry over the long-term.

Kind regards,

Phil

philhampton October 30, 2011 at 5:27 pm

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your comments. You’re hitting the nail on the head with regards to the problems in the industry at the moment. Comic creators cannot find work, or work that pays well, via the traditional paths.

People like Scott Kurtz have helped form a new way of thinking with how it is possible to make money out of comics (albeit simple webcomic strips with back-end products and services). But many are trying to follow his model and failing.

Optioning your comic for a TV series or movie is a quick way of making great profits,

There are, however, people who are making a living by working in comics full time, and using inventive ways of making money. For example, check out the ‘Tempts Fate’ section of the ‘Goblins’ webcomic. A brilliant way of incentivising a major number of donations!

I’m currently completing a webcomic training product for release later this year, and will be featuring my thoughts on many of those sites with great ideas for making money. Unfortunately, some of those creators whom I think are making a decent living in comics are either too busy to be interviewed, or don’t want to be…

All the best,

Phil

Kev F Sutherland (@falsettosocks) December 6, 2011 at 9:25 pm

Just read this on retweet, Dec 6th. As someone who was a casualty of the first Marvelcution in 1997, and someone who’s been making his living in comics on and off since 1988 when I went full time freelance, I think I have a fair inside view of the situation.

When comics sold big numbers, you could make a good living from them. I would love to see them sell big numbers again, like they do in Japan. But for the moment they don’t seem to be.

In 2011 I have self-published 4 titles, one in particular, Tales Of Nambygate, being a 120 page trade paperback of my classic series originally published in 1989-92. I have always owned the copyright to those strips and characters and always hope they’ll get picked up on and become the next big thing. But I’ve resigned myself to the higher likelihood that, after 20 years, that’s probably not going to happen. But the books are out there now, after two decades out of print, so maybe they’ll find their audience. So far I’ve sold two copies, one online one at Comica, but hope springs eternal.

Speaking as someone who has enjoyed work-for-hire as a writer and artist, getting page rates ranging from £75 a page to £350 a page, sometimes knowing I’d be gainfully employed on a comic as far ahead, sometimes, as three or four months (though often when I’ve thought that, I’ve found my comic cancelled with less than an issue’s notice), I’m used to what the comics world describes as job security, though I’ve never known the giddy heights of “royalties worth a damn” or work on titles that win awards. However crap that might all be, it’s my favourite way of working. The work I’ve done for The Beano is the best work I’ve ever done, while being the poorest paid (by a mainstream publisher) and remains the work I’m proudest of. I like my self-published efforts this year, but to be honest they’re more samplers which serve to advertise my wares rather than a way of making money themselves.

Herb Trimpe changed careers and his journal is an agonising read, but I’m hoping he’s ended up happy (does he get any royalties from his legendary Marvel work? I hope so). If he’d moved into self-publishing I don’t know if he’d be so secure.

Kev F

Daniel Burton December 12, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Kev F.

You can sell many more than 2 books. I don’t care what they look like. Who wrote them. It’s all in the marketing and finding your audience. Keep talking with Phil. He’ll get you there.

KA Sungay December 20, 2011 at 8:58 am

I have been working my own comic creation for almost five years now. I’m developing them still. Establishing a concrete storyline and its characters. It was never on a regular basis. For I have to work for regular income and ‘sideline’ my passion for my love of the medium. I never really enjoy drawing established characters and what I really want is an almost no rule policy in creating my comic book. Almost a no censorship type of story telling and illustration. My theme lies in Dark Gothic plus comedy. The ones that audiences witnessed while watching Dreamworks and Pixar animated films, but with a more honest approach. I know I’ll never make it to any illustrious publishing companies for the theme I hope to project. For I intend to make it out in the image of a person no other than myself. My theme is my theme, that’s what I want it that’s how I hope to orchestrate my comic book.
The thing I lack is knowledge and experience if I strike on my own. My comics is ‘still lurking in the shadows’ awaiting for the time to come out. If you want to have an idea of what my comics is all about you can visit my Ka Sungay FB account. I also have some action figure comics that goes along with it as way of improving my know how on the medium I truly fell in love with.

Peter Allen January 10, 2012 at 5:57 am

I guess I’ve stumbled upon a lot of this during the past few years I’ve been working on my current project, a sci-fi webcomic called “Frontier: 2170″ (silly name, I know, but it was a working title for so long that it stuck), the first volume of which only recently went to print.

It’s nothing big yet; I’ve technically only just started (despite working on my fifth chapter as we speak), but I expect that over time, and with the perseverance and dedication that’s kept me going all these years, my work will grow from a relatively self-sustaining hobby into a full-fledged career made by my own hands.

philhampton January 18, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Hi Peter

Good on you! Yes, perseverance is a major factor to success. And if you keep concentrating on the vision of your fully-fledged career, it will help you sustain the motivation to get there.

All the best,

Phil

Ptonov January 19, 2012 at 9:54 am

hello,
it’s not happen in my country (Indonesia). base from the problem of world’s third-country. ’bout the citizen’s mind-set indeed as the potential audience for sequential arts. thus, a lot of comic artist include me, sometimes got that fragile.
Ptonov´s last blog post ..New Portraits from the Road

Ed Siemieknowicz January 20, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Phil,
I’m so glad you’re here, and I appreciate your articles. Thanks!
Several years ago I was a graphic designer who made comics at night. It was a dream for me, and even though I liked design I’d rather be making comics. I am a good writer, and a decent artist, I feel, and I could never find any satisfaction being a cog in a machine that turns out characters that aren’t mine. Not to mention characters that seem to me like dead horses endlessly beaten.

When I got serious about comics in 2002, I attended SPX (Small Press Expo) in Maryland, USA, and it changed my life. I saw people who weren’t just making zines or pamphlets, nor were they trading back issues. They were regular people making they’re own comics, and there was a lot of them. Most of them, I was happy to see, were good comics, with a really diverse selection. I knew for certain that comics didn’t have to be a just a hobby. There were realistic means beyond “if I score a deal with one of the Big Two’s red-headed step-publishers.” People could just do it themselves.

These days my comic Chrome And Dust is getting created, little by little, by me. I’m a freelance illustrator, so I can work in more time for it than before. What makes the difference is, as in every entertainment field, what separates the work that makes it and work that doesn’t is quality writing, quality art (that’s up for interpretation, as you know, but it should show a style), and most importantly promotion. I never hesitate to drop a plug, say for Chrome And Dust at http://chromeanddust.com, because if you don’t tell people you have a comic no one will know.

I’m excited about the changes in comics and publishing. It’s just the uncertainty that is scary. We’re used to the Big 2, and so are they. New Media is the new playing field, though, and people are already there waiting to play. Waiting for your comics to be first on the scene, new to them, fresh and enjoyable.

Cheers,
Ed
Ed Siemieknowicz´s last blog post ..Page 19

Tyler James January 27, 2012 at 8:04 pm

Good article.

At the same time, I really can’t recommend anyone “go at it alone.”

I don’t think anyone makes it in this industry all by themselves. Even the self-published success stories found themselves peers and partners along the way who helped them get to heights they were incapable of reaching on their own.

Part of what ComixTribe is all about is helping us all rise, improve, and get better. Because it’s damn hard to do alone.
Tyler James´s last blog post ..TPG Week 57: Don’t Be Highbrow

philhampton February 1, 2012 at 9:16 pm

Hi Ed,

Thanks very much for your comments.

You hit the nail on the head. Marvel and DC are not the comic industry, though many see them as such. And online media is opening up all sorts of opportunities for new creators.

ONe of the main challenges for creators is getting enough people to know that their online or self-printed comics exist, which is one of the ways that this website is here to help.

All the best with your future endeavours.

Kind regards,

Phil

philhampton February 1, 2012 at 9:29 pm

Hi Tyler,

Thanks very much for your feedback.

I am 100% in agreement with you, so I probably didn’t make myself clear enough. By ‘Going it alone’ I am not advocating that creators don’t seek any help, rather the opposite.

Without the backing of an established publisher, one cannot become a successful creator either online or through self-publishing, without a network of industry contacts, including helpful websites and groups such as Comix Tribe, the guys who use Twitter hastags such as #comicmarket and #NDCA, various comic podcast sites, and yours truly :)

And the great thing is that this growing online movement has formed a greater source of reliable knowledge of marketing and the creative process than the larger publishers can provide to their creators.

Keep up the great work with Comix Tribe.

All the best,

Phil

Terrence June 4, 2012 at 10:40 pm

Great one Phil. I actually Got the chance to meet Herb Trimpe at a local comicon this year. We talked for about 15 minutes and I got the chance to see his Original GI Joe and Kid Colt pencils! He actually complemented my work and told me i was good at a few things he wasn’t so good at. I was in shock! I felt like superman for a while after that.haha.

But i think its really interesting that as long as Ive dreamt of working in comic’s, I never saw myself drawing Wolverine, or Batman for Marvel or DC. Ive always drawn my own characters and wrote my own stories. It would be cool to be a part of Stan Lee’s or Bob Kane’s legacy by Drawing or writing for their incredible characters, But Ive always visioned creating a new legacy. Building a new universe to kind of keep the flame going…
Now Im going to go read this Awesome comic I just got called “Cowboy Ninja Viking.haha. Thanks Phil. Ill be sure to retweet!
Terrence´s last blog post ..The Oni!

philhampton June 5, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Hi Terrence,

Thanks for sharing your experiences. I’m jealous that you got to meet Herb Trimpe!

Phil

Tony Gullotti July 21, 2012 at 4:18 pm

Phil,

Thank your for the article. Pieces like this encourage people like me, starting from ground zero, who are taking a stab at a dream. My experience with comics was/is nonexistent. No contacts, just a pile of graphic novels I picked up here-and-there and a box of old loved comics from my youth. I started writing in Nov. 2011 during nights, and have only “been public” this past month (http://loreslinger.com).

I’ve been social networking with people I see living the dream through webcomics and commissions, contacting local comic groups (Indy IWG), and improving every day. Over the past month I’ve listed our site on numerous lists and comic sites, blogged and continued working on the tale. I am optimistic, I see a following (albeit small) starting, which I know will only grow as we introduce Lore Slinger to more people, put mirrors on sites, and begin modest banner advertising on sites we notice bringing traffic.

We have a plan. This year is online, 2013 we hit 6-8 conventions within the Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois Midwest. We’re designing promos, freebies, thinking of out of the box ways to eventually monetize the site, and doing everything we can to make this dream a reality.

I see great things in this industry. For us, it’s opening from the choke-hold the giants had on it and a new age is coming. Fathers are taking their children to see movies, then breaking out their old collections and introducing new generations.

Thank you again Phil, I hope to be in contact in the near future.

Tony

Posky December 5, 2012 at 3:49 am

This is good advice. Content creators should always be making their own unique works if they can manage to do so. I love Marvel and DC but I would hate to think a great artist/writer would miss out on their true calling because they were absorbed into something much larger than the individual or gave up because it simply “didn’t work out.”

I say the more independent artists, the better!
Posky´s last blog post ..How Headaches Have Changed My Life

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