There is only one sure fire way to become a millionaire by making comics, but it's very, very simple. All you do is start with two million and work from there.
It's an old joke, but that doesn't make it any less true.
Some people make a lot of money of course, at least for a given value of "a lot of money" and a fair few more make a reasonable living. But most of the people who devote their time and energy to making comics don't end up with anything to show for their labours than, well, some comics. And making comics isn't a quick endeavour either – as anyone whose waited for some of Grant Morrison's books can surely testify.*
So, why do so many people give up their free time to make comics that, realistically, hardly anyone will read? I have limited experience here, but the experience I do have makes me wonder. Let me tell you a little story…
A long time ago** a disparate group of people*** came together at a small college of a University in the north of England to create a monthly anthology comic called Random. There was an eclectic mix of Joe Matt style autobiography, swashbuckling adventure, SciFi/Horror, and editorial articles. We thought it was brilliant*****, but we didn't half spend a lot of time on it. In the end the venture folded after its second issue, mostly, if I'm honest because nobody bought it. But even if they had, we couldn't have gone on much longer because of the simply insane amount of time it took.
As "Publisher" I had a lot of production work to do, and articles to write, and three stories to write and (if you can believe this) draw. It took me about two days to draw a page. Three stories at four or five pages each, that's twelve to fifteen pages a month. Potentially thirty days worth of work, just to draw my bit, let alone do all the other things I needed to do for the comic and do all the other things I had to do like study for my degree, go to work and eat.
Now, anyone who has ever seen my art will understand that I'm actually not, in any way, an artist. My artistic ability is pretty low, and so drawing anything even vaguely recognisable takes me a wee while longer than it does those with genuine talent. Even so. How anyone draws a twenty two page comic in its entirety without dying of old age first is quite beyond me. Writing and drawing, as so many self publishers do is simply unthinkable.
Anyway. Random. There was another reason why we couldn't have gone beyond two issues. We couldn't afford it. We were all students with pretty limited incomes. We got a little bit of start up funding for Random from the "Student Enterprise" project run by the Student's Union, but the truth is that the comic was expensive to produce and even if we'd sold every single copy, we'd have made a loss. Our business acumen left a lot to be desired, and if we'd kept the thing going it would have cost us a fortune!
So, my admittedly limited experience of self publishing is that it's time consuming, expensive, and may lead to the soul destroying realisation that you're just never going to make it in the industry you love. In short, massive effort for little or no reward – which brings me back to the original question: Why would anybody put themselves through it, and keep putting themselves through it?
Well, since I don't actually know the answer, I'm going to do what teachers always do when faced with a question they don't know the answer to. I'm going to speculate based on the small amount of knowledge I have.
I suppose that, if I'm speculating, it would be wrong of me to overlook the role that vanity has to play in all of this. I confess that one of my motivations for getting involved in the Random project was the fact that I liked the idea of being able to open a comic and see "Regie Rigby" in the credits box. I liked the idea that people I didn't know would read the words I'd written*******. But that can't be all there is to it – if a person wants their ego massaged there are a lot of significantly easier ways to do it. Besides, as the less-than-positive feedback Random got from that comic shop******** demonstrates that putting your ideas out there can in fact be pretty damaging to the ego.
You might do it as a way in of course. That was another reason why we got Random started – we had a dream that our stuff would be so popular that it would give us a foundation we could use to build a career on. Maybe, we thought, our work would become so popular we could grow our fledgling comics enterprise into the next 2000AD, or even the next Marvel Comics. Either that, or somebody would see our work and come and hire us to work for one of the big publishers.
When I look back to that now I don't know which I'm more embarrassed about – the naiveté or the arrogance of it. Except, after a decade and a bit of writing this column, I can tell you that if you're good, rather than merely deluded as I was, you can build an actual career on a comic you put together in your bedroom. Rather famously the brothers behind the UK humour phenomenon that is Viz Comic – at one time the best selling UK comic by some considerable margin and essential reading for potty mouthed students everywhere (I was a massive fan) started out drawing their cartoons for their mates. The ever wonderful Etherington Brothers also broke into professional careers by creating, writing, drawing and publishing the now legendary Malcolm Magic (still one of the very finest comics I have ever read) so with hard work and perseverance it really can be done.
But there are a lot of comics creators who aren't looking for that big break. People who would be the comics equivalent of Sunday League football players. Totally serious about what they do, totally in love with what they do, but no serious desire to turn pro and do it for a living – but who aren't content to watch from the sidelines either.
I think that these people might be the most important people working in the medium. They are at the heart of everything that I think is good about comics, and we should hear from them a great deal more than we do. So, I'm off to talk to some. Back in a bit…
*And yes, before you say it, my own comics writing opus has been "in production" for several years, so I'm not one to talk.
**seriously, it was 1992. There wasn't an internet – well, OK, there was, but there wasn't much of a World Wide Web…
***To my shame, I can only remember the name of one of them. Well, two if you count me…
****What was then the University College of Ripon and York St. John, which at that time was a college of the University of Leeds. These days the "Ripon" part of the college has closed down, and "St. John's University, York" has full University status in its own right. Not interesting, but true…
*****We were wrong, for the most part, although I still harbour a fondness for the Vampire detective character I created for it. I might still do something with that, some day. I'll finish Sunset first though, I promise.
******Actually, we sent some promotional material out to a bunch of comics shops, and somebody definitely read it because they sent us some pretty detailed feedback telling us how bad it was. We really should have paid more attention…
*******And yes, if you're wondering, that's one of the motivations that's kept me writing here for the last dozen years – although not the primary one.
********For the record, it was the very lovely Page 45 in Nottingham – a store that cares enough about comics to get back to an aspiring collection of producers and tell them that they're getting it wro
ng. They even sent me – for free – an example of what a good self published comic looked like. They could have just binned it, but they chose to make an effort. I've loved them ever since.
Marie Colvin and John Carpenter
In the last few days the world has lost two powerful, but very different writers. Marie Colvin died covering the brutal repression in Syria. She died as she lived, risking everything to get a story that the world needed to hear out of a warzone. She was everything I believe a journalist should be. we are diminished by her loss.
John Carpenter was a very different kind of writer. Possibly the best writer ever to work in British TV he created, amongst other things, the TV series Dick Turpin and Robin of Sherwood. As such, when I was a kid he ruled my Saturday nights. His influence on the way I think about stories and storytelling is incalculable. A little part of my youth has ended, and we will not see his like again.