For as long as I’ve been following the comics industry I’ve heard creators say things along the lines of, “I’m not in it for the money,” and, “I’d be doing this even if I wasn’t getting paid.” Those are statements of passion that drive deep into the heart of a conversation that’s receiving more and more attention lately, and not just in comics. The question that’s been raised is: Should creators have to make comics for free just because they would? And if so, for how long?
When an unknown writer or artist is trying to make a name for herself in the comics industry, one way of doing that is to create work for free. Give away a webcomic. Contribute to an anthology that won’t make any money but may get seen by the right people (especially if you put it into their hands). Work for a small publisher who only pays if the project makes a profit. These are all accepted practices. What’s going on lately, however, is that people are starting to question how accepted they should be.
In response to that line of questioning, defenders of the current system argue from tradition. Alexis C. Madrigal, senior editor of The Atlantic, wrote a long piece on the realities of digital journalism and why it’s often tough to pay journalists anything, much less a fair wage. His basic argument is that funds are limited, even for a digital magazine that’s doing pretty well. “The economics of our business are terrible in some ways,” he writes. “And like everything else, the worst of it falls on the workers, the people making the widgets, doing the journalism, making the beds. The money gets sucked upwards and the work gets pushed down.” He continues, “[E]ven when you have a generous owner who is not trying to make a gazillion dollars and skim the cream, this game is still really, really hard. You still have limited funds. You still can't pay freelancers a living wage.”
I know there are comics publishers in the same position, because I’ve talked with them. It’s not that they’re greedily rubbing their hands over a crooked contract, slobbering all over their desk as unwitting artists sign their names. I guess that might be the case some of the time, but the people I’ve talked to are all folks just trying to make cool comics in a marketplace that doesn’t always support a comic just because it’s cool. If the publisher has no money, then there’s nothing to pay the creators with. I get that. When it’s time to draw the line between Art and Commerce, we like to draw it with the creators on the Art side and the publishers on the Commerce side, but it’s not always that simple. Especially with super small publishers, the “I’d still do this for free” mentality is just as strong as it is with the creators. ‘Cause sometimes, the publisher is doing it for free. Or at a loss.
On the other hand, the publisher is the business. There’s no getting around that at the end of the day. And if the publisher is making any amount of money, then some of that needs to get passed on to the people making the comics. Understanding that not every publisher can pay a fair page rate (not that that’s standard from creator to creator in the first place), every publisher should be able to pay something for any project it made money on.
Having said that, creators should understand two things. First, that this is a tiered system. It should be obvious that everyone can’t pay what Marvel pays, but back in the journalism world, Wonkette drew some criticism (or at least some raised eyebrows) for calling out The Atlantic when Wonkette doesn’t pay a bunch of money either. As I see it, the difference is that Wonkette pays something where – at least in the case they were calling out – The Atlantic paid nothing. It’s silly to suggest that Wonkette should pay Atlantic rates, nor should it pay more than it can actually afford. Whether in journalism or comics, the trick in a tiered system is for the creator to figure out how to climb those tiers: using this gig to get that one, etc.
Of course, what a company can afford is always going to be a difficult amount to know for sure. Companies like to be seen as doing well enough to be considered successful, but not so well that their employees should expect more than they’re getting. That brings us to the second thing that creators need to understand, which is that the responsibility for getting the best deal is on them. As artists, storytellers have to be able to assess how much they’ve put into a project and what those resources are worth. Maybe it’s strictly cash; bills have to be paid. If I’m new and trying to build my brand, though, maybe I’ll take some exposure as part of my compensation (understanding that market exposure is just as much a tiered system as financial payment). The point is that what creators are willing to take hinges on a variety of factors from the artist’s marketability to how much financial support he’s able to pull from other sources.
But yes, yes, a thousand times yes: Creators need to get paid for their work. “How much?” is a complicated question with as many different answers as there are artists in the system, but that that doesn’t mean that the default should be working for free until you earn your chops. The default should be a fair wage based on what the publisher can afford to pay, and transparency about what that amount is.