Making Comics

Comic Career Paths: Creator Owned Vs. Work for Hire? What is Right for You?

Covers of Faith Erin Hicks publications

I did a pretty extensive interview with David Harper of the comics site SKTCHD, which has done some pretty great writing about the comics industry lately. The article I was interviewed for is this one: The American Dream: How Telling Your Own Stories Became the Endgame for Creators. It’s a good article with quotes from great creators like Kurt Busiek, Cliff Chiang, Marcos Martin, Emma Rios, Jake Wyatt and Skottie Young. The article only used about 10% of the interview I did with Harper, so with his permission I’m posting the rest of it here. Click below the link to read me rambling on about creator owned vs. work for hire, and the upside and downside to both. As always, my comments are based on my own experiences as someone who has made both creator owned and work for hire comics, and may not apply to your specific situation. 🙂

>>Before you started your career in comics – back when you were in pure aspirational mode – did you have an end goal of what you wanted to do or a vision as to what success looked like to you? If so, how has that shifted over your career?

All I wanted was to make a living wage doing some kind of creative work. That’s it, really. And I had no idea what that looked like. I didn’t even know what being a cartoonist was. When I was a teenager through college I didn’t think comics was ever something I could get paid to do, so I wanted to work in animation instead. Working in animation seemed like a realistic career to me; there were books written about animators and you could go to school for animation. Comics seemed like a weird pie in the sky career, something very few people got to do for a living. I don’t think I really started learning about what cartoonists do and how they make their living until I started getting published! It was weird. But really, all I wanted was to make enough money to live, pay my rent, own a car, that kind of thing. Very vague goals.

I don’t think much has changed in terms of my goals. I still want the same thing, to make a living wage off my writing and drawing, but I guess my goals have become more specific. I want the books I write and draw to sell well, I want them to be critically acclaimed, I want my art heroes to notice my work, I want to work on specific projects. I’d also like to make more money, but I hope that will come, as long as I continue to do good work. I’ve been really lucky: I’ve achieved a lot of my goals, even crazy ones like winning an Eisner.

>>Besides a few things that were for-hire gigs or pitches, you’ve spent your whole career telling your own stories. As a cartoonist who has been at this for a bit, what are the plusses and minuses of going that route?

To be honest, it wasn’t really a route I planned to take, I just ended up taking it because that was the work that was offered to me. If I had been offered work for hire gigs back when I first started getting published (2007), I definitely would have taken them. Work for hire pays well, and I was very poor back then. But my artwork and writing wasn’t polished enough to attract the attention of those publishers. However, now that I have a number of books published, I’ve gotten some wonderful, tempting offers from publishers like Dark Horse, DC, IDW, Marvel and Boom. Due to my drawing schedule and commitment to my current project (a middle grade graphic novel trilogy I’m doing with First Second Books called The Nameless City), I’ve had to turn most of them down, which is terrifying. I hope the work will still be there if I need it in the future. I have the freelancer’s fear of turning down work.

In 2013 I co-wrote and drew a video game prequel comic, The Last of Us: American Dreams. It paid more money than I’d ever been paid before, and allowed me to become a lot more financially secure. So that’s the big plus of doing work for hire: it really pays well!

However, for me, especially now that I’m more financially stable, I really want to work on my own stories. I’m in the middle of drawing the second Nameless City book, and it’s incredibly satisfying to me. I love creating my own worlds and characters and getting very involved with them. It’s so much fun. It’s a little scary to turn down well paying work on licensed comics to work on your own projects, especially when you don’t know how readers will respond to your original work, but I just have to trust that it will be worth it down the road. I don’t know, I just have an itch to make my own stories. Some people don’t have that itch. Working on other people’s stories is satisfying to them, and that’s great. But it’s different for me. There are very few properties that I love more than I love working on my own stories.

The question that I get asked a lot is “if you could work on anything, any comic book property, what would it be?” And honestly, at this point in time, I think I’d rather make my own stories. As long as I’m making a living wage, that is. 😉 I’m fortunate that publishers have paid me for my original work. I know it’s not always like that.

>>Once upon a time, releasing your own work via smaller publishers or even self-publishing seemed like a greater focus for newer creators with established creators dominating at Marvel and DC. These days, established creators seem to be shifting their focus to creator-owned and creating their own graphic novels. Why do you think that is?

I can only guess based on my own experiences. For me, when I make a creator owned comic, something that I created from the ground up, all of it is me. I’m not working with someone else’s characters or beholden to someone else’s canon, I’m the god of my own world. And every hour I put into that comic is my hour. I’m investing in my creativity. That sounds super bombastic, but that’s how I feel sometimes. It’s like, this comic is all mine, for good or ill. If it’s great and people love it, that’s for me. If it’s terrible, that’s on me.

Also, we seem to finally be in a place where it can be profitable to make your own comics, outside of the Big Two. My career has flourished through publishing with the graphic novel imprint of a book publisher. Other writers and artists find their niche at Image. And we can actually make a living writing and drawing our books. So that’s important.

>>Back when I was growing up, there wasn’t anything I wanted more than to draw the X-Men. Sadly, I had no talent. However, other creators I’ve spoken to had the same dreams, and they ended up either doing that or touching that world in their own way. These days though, it seems like younger readers are growing up on things like Raina Telgemeier and The Adventures of Superhero Girl and teens are reading things like Saga and Lumberjanes rather than superhero books. Do you think the next generation of comic creators growing up on different types of comics will lead to a shift in future creator sensibilities and priorities, and a greater focus on telling your own stories rather than someone else’s?

Maybe. I guess it depends on the kid reading the comic, doesn’t it? And the kind of comics the kid is reading. I meet a lot more kids who read Raina’s comics than I do kids who read Spider-man. I think Marvel and DC have done themselves a real disservice by deciding not to cater to kid readers. Every kid knows who Spider-man is, but do they read Spider-man comics? No, they read Raina’s comics, because her comics are made for them, and easily accessible through libraries, schools and bookstores.

>>It seems to me that the options for budding cartoonists or writers or artists to get comics in front of readers are more diverse and expansive than ever. What do you think having such a variety of options means for the future of comics, and for those aspiring to make them?

I think it’s pretty great, to be honest. I remember being desperate to read comics when I was a teenager and there was nothing for me. Like, just nothing. Now there are dozens of comics that I would’ve loved to read when I was 15, and more importantly, they’re pretty easy to find. Comics are carried in bookstores now, they’re in libraries, they’re in schools. Comics will always have an access problem, I think, but it’s gotten a lot better. Kids will be able to find the kind of comics they want to read, and maybe they’ll keep reading and fall in love with the art form and want to make their own comics. I’m really excited to see what comics will become in the next twenty years. I hope that we’ll continue to see a blossoming of diversity of voices in comics. I think we will. I don’t know what will happen to the world of corporate comics, but I think there will still be a place for them. I don’t think the Wednesday crowd will go away. The future of comics seems really bright at this moment in time. Selfishly, I hope it will include a spot for me. 🙂