Justice League #1 by Jim Lee and Geoff Johns was pretty much what I expected. Nice art, decent writing, and storytelling so decompressed that you’re basically paying $4 for 4 minutes of reading. Buying a Jim Lee comic though, brought me down memory lane. Sit back and read, this is gonna be a long one…
In 2002, I dropped out of SVA. More specifically, I went on Spring Break and never returned. The institution of school just wasn’t for me. “WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING HERE?! I DRAW BETTER THAN HALF MY TEACHERS! FUCK THIS PLACE!!!!” Yes, I was full of myself, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a point.
I didn’t listen to anyone, least of all my Older Brother, who was officially a failed cartoonist by then. “How are you ever going to get a job at Marvel or DC?” Didn’t know, didn’t care. I was arrogant, naive, and ready to make my mark on the comic world – and I had a master plan up my sleeve!
Jim Lee was scheduled to show up at AppleCon that year. I attended with my then-girlfriend (Sin), 2 buddies, and a portfolio of my bestest work. I was nervous. Once Jim Lee arrived, I bombarded him in the lobby and asked if he’d review my stuff. This was before he even had a chance to greet his art dealer, whose table I was lurking at for 45 minutes. This goes to show you just how enthusiastic and ill-mannered I was.
After Mr. Lee sat down, I was first at his table with my portfolio wide open. He was…mildly impressed. My work was very good for a 19 year old, but nothing that made him go, “I have to snatch this guy up before anyone else does!” (To be fair, Jim Lee was no longer in a position to hire people anyway. He had just sold WildStorm to DC to refocus on penciling.) He gave me some encouraging words and the usual advice. It boiled down to 3 options:
1.) Try to get a job at Marvel or DC via the traditional submission process.
2.) Get a comic published by Image which might lead to work at Marvel or DC.
3.) Self publish, hopefully get picked up by Image, and then get work at Marvel or DC.
Looking back, I can’t articulate what I was really expecting that afternoon. Was Jim Lee just going to spread his legs and poop out a 5 figure salary for me? After the portfolio review, I went outside and cried on the steps for 15 minutes. Drama Queen, I know. I literally thought that my comics career was over before it had even begun. I went to the convention with hopes of immediate super-stardom, and all I got was the same old advice I could get anywhere.
It wasn’t necessarily bad advice, either. It was (and probably still is) the prevailing school of thought on breaking into the comic industry. My only issue with said advice: it was a 20 year old paradigm, and even by 2002 it was starting to feel outdated. I spent most of my adolescent years watching my Older Brother receive dozens of rejection letters from comic companies, so I was NEVER going down that road.
But have no fear, Dear Reader, things turned out okay for me in the end. I started self-publishing Tails in 2005 and the rest is history. For a day job, I eventually found a niche as a comic illustrator / cartoonist for hire, which leads directly to the other segment of this blog entry…
————–FREELANCING – PART 5: EARNING A LIVABLE WAGE————–
Note: This installment elaborates on my last entry on Freelancing regarding pricing.
As mentioned above, there were usually 3 choices for aspiring comic book artists (this was before the general population realized that you could money off of webcomics). I had plans to eventually self-publish Tails, but I wanted to make an actual living with my art skills in the meantime. Unfortunately, most aspiring comic writers were looking for collaborations and couldn’t pay. I found miscellaneous art gigs in between my day job as a dog walker, but nothing inspiring enough for the foundation of a career. My usual thoughts were, “Eh, these jobs aren’t paying much, it’ll never go anywhere.”
As luck would have it, 2006 was a breakout year. I met some independent filmmakers through a friend of a friend and started doing storyboards for $100 a page – which at that point, was the most money I had ever made for my art. Filmmakers – even small ones based out of lofts in the West Village – understand that in order to get something, you need to pay. Doing storyboards for $100/page was great because they were inherently loose and rough, and didn’t require the refinement of comic book pencils (and $100 per page is roughly how much a smaller comic company would pay anyway).
I stuck with the $100/page price scale for a few years. It was a reasonable amount of money for clients to wrap their heads around. After a while, it was time for a raise. I needed to make enough to quit my day job. If you want to know how much I charge these days, take a look at my iFreelance profile.
Okay, so without getting into specifics of my annual salary, I charge about $50 per hour these days. For comic pages, I offer flat rates that cover 5 – 7 hours worth of work. If you’re wondering how I landed on $50/hour (or how I thought I could get away with charging those kind of prices), the answer is simple: I followed the business model of graphic designers.
As my fledgling career took off, I started meeting and networking with other freelancers: graphic designers, web designers, photographers, programmers, you name ‘em. I noticed one thing they all had in common: they were making more than me. More specifically, they managed their businesses better than me. Some were taking in $30 an hour. Others were taking in $60 or more. The median seemed to be around $40 to $50. I wasn’t jealous, mind you, I was inspired. And it wasn’t just the money that inspired me. These people were actual professionals – meaning they behaved professionally. They talked directly to clients, advertised their services, managed their expenses, everything a small business should be doing. That was the key – approach freelancing as if you’re an enterprise. You tell people what compensation is required, not the other way around.
I know what some of you might be thinking, because I used to think the same thing. “What if nobody hires me after I raise my prices?” Here’s what I’ll ask you. Would you rather do 100 pages for $15 each, or 50 pages for $25 each? Getting paid more for time spent not only sets a better precedent for ALL freelance artists, it vastly improves self-confidence and improves your overall well-being. You think that sounds like mumbo jumbo? Next time you run into a successful freelancer, just ask him or her. Bottom line is — so long as you’re capable, competent, and professional, there will always be work for you. I know it’s tempting to take EVERY job that falls on your lap, but running a successful business also requires successful management.
Look, before I go any further — I know $100 is still good money, I’m not delusional. But you, as an individual artist, have to decide what pay rate is right for you. If you charge $100 per page and you intend to spend a maximum of 2 hours on it, then you’ve made $50 per hour. Great. But what if this job goes overtime? Say you end up spending 3 hours on it – or 4 hours. What if that $100 was a flat rate? Then you’ve lost 2 hours pay, and time is money. What if you’re doing a kick-ass comic page for $100 and it takes the entire work day? What’s $100 divided by 8?
$50 per hour may sound like a lot at first, but think about it. Being a good cartoonist or illustrator requires a lifetime of training. You can’t just take one anatomy class and learn anatomy. You can’t even take 40 anatomy classes and learn anatomy. That’s something that usually takes (as stated above) a lifetime to hone, along with other elements like shading, composition, perspective, everything. And even if you’re a professional, you’re still learning and hopefully improving. You don’t learn to be an artist by just going to class, it’s something you devote your entire existence to. Isn’t that worth $50 an hour?
As a cartoonist, you have the right to charge good money for good services, and don’t let idiots guilt you into thinking that you’re a crook. It took a while for me to soak in that new-found confidence, but I eventually did.
So, that’s the story of how my freelance career got kick-started. A nice happy ending for a college dropout crying after a portfolio review, right? I didn’t follow the conventional path laid out for me, but I’m pretty happy with the way things turned out. True, I’m not drawing Justice League, but money-wise, I can’t really complain too much. I’m not making Jim Lee money, but I keep the bills paid. I’m my own boss and I make my own hours.
I guess what I’m saying is, don’t just choose your own path, make your own path. I’m living proof that you can be a self-made, moderately successful cartoonist. All you need is talent, professionalism, perseverance, and a little bit of luck.
A few important notes, in case you read this and want to leave a hateful comment:
- Just to clarify, when I say collaboration, I’m referring to a non-paying collaboration, one typical amongst independent comics. I am NOT against writer/artist collaborations, I just don’t think that they are beneficial for aspiring artists who need to make a living. True, there are collaborations that have become extremely profitable. However, for every Walking Dead, there are countless collaborations that ended in bitterness and destitution.
- I never regretted leaving school. It has had absolutely NO effect on my freelance career. In fact, most of my clients are impressed when they find out. I’m not encouraging any of you to drop out of college. All I’m saying is, if it’s not for you, it’s not for you.
- Jim Lee was super nice. I know I made him sound like a tool or something, but he was extremely polite and sincere. I have nothing but admiration for his work and character.
- This was probably the most money-centric post I’ve ever written. Yes, I believe money is important and essential to our lives, but not as important as finding something you love to do. $50/hour is meaningless if you hate your job. My love of cartooning still comes first… it’s just nice when you can get paid to do it as well.