Let’s Talk About Checks: Everything You Wanted to Know About Being a Professional Comics Creator, But Were Afraid to Ask

So I assume by this point, you all know I want to write comics, and if I’m out on a limb, I’d guess that more than half of you readers would also like to be comics creators. This panel was a cold water shock for some business matter, but also a healthy dose of how-to. The panel itself was up against the “#BlackComicsMonth: Diversity in Comics” panel next to it, but I can’t be mad at that panel for being loud and excited. Alex de Campi moderated this panel, with panelists Ulises Fariñas (Judge Dredd: MegaCity Two), Vera Greentea (self-publisher, one of the best in the biz at KickStarting), Joseph P. Illidge (writer and editor, formerly of Milestone and DC circa Batman: No Man’s Land), Fernando Ruiz (Archie vs. Predator), and Chris Sotomayor (freelance colorist, recently on Cyclops). In their intros, they were asked how they got their first paid gigs in comics, which ranged from Fariñas finding a cached version of IDW’s submission guidelines and using an old email to submit to Illidge interning at Milestone and rising through the ranks to Greentea sharing a booth at NYCC with de Campi and funding 8 successful KickStarters herself.

At this point, I noticed a man sitting in the very front row (right in front of me), who was using this time to go through all the comics in his bag. He loudly asked me for a pen, which I never got back, and proceeded to be pretty loud before leaving about halfway through the panel.

A large part of the panel was devoted to the idea that, while there are many ways to break in to the industry, the statistics favor getting in by knowing someone (who knows someone, who knows someone, etc). You can submit and be a part of the slush pile, but you have to find a way to make yourself stand out, and usually that comes from knowing someone who can help you up. That’s a double-edged sword, since that requires you to present the best of yourself that you can when you’re recommended; if “someone recommends you, you have an obligation to make them look good,” Illidge reminds the audience. As well as de Campi’s follow-up, “if someone opens the door, it’s your job to walk through it.”

The creators told the audience not to rip apart comics in public (i.e. Twitter, Facebook pages, etc). If you insult a potential future employer, they have long memories, probably longer than you. The part of me who wants to be a comics creator wonders if being a professional reviewer crosses that line.

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The biggest point of the panel was make sure you get paid for your work. De Campi presented her version of Maslow’s Heirarchy for comics creators, which leads to the point that you should not do work just for the love of the work, unless it’s really for yourself. She reminds everyone that the one who came up with the Romantic idea of just having to produce poetry because they couldn’t stop themselves was Lord Byron who probably didn’t need the money. A lot of the panel revolved around the Three R’s of Contracts: Rights, Royalties and Reversions. Everyone on the panel went around and discussed the worst contracts they’d ever signed, and then dove into contract tips:

  • Rights:
    • Always keep the secondary and foreign rights. If you sign a contract allowing DC to publish your book in English, make sure you retain the rights to negotiate who publishes it in German, etc.
    • If someone wants to option your work, don’t let it go for less than $25,000. Shoot for more like $100,000.
  • Royalties:
    • These are what will keep you alive when no rain falls. Some years, no one will want you or your work, and the smallish checks coming in from old work will help you make rent.
    • ALWAYS GET THEM. Try not to take contracts that don’t pay royalties at all.
  • Reversions:
    • AKA The Alan Moore Clause: His contract with DC in re Watchmen said the rights reverted to him when the book went out of print. As we all know, Watchmen is one of the few comics that has always been in print.
      • With digital printing and publishing, it’s hard to say anything is officially out of print. You can’t find Jack Kirby’s Eternals stuff in a new hard copy, but you can read them on the Marvel Unlimited App.
    • A better clause would be “If sales drop below x amount of dollars per year, rights revert to the creator after one calendar year.”
  • For more about these issues, de Campi points the audience towards calawyersforthearts.org. If you’re dealing with entertainment industry professionals who are acting like fuckboys, “fuckboys are likely to be in California.” Other states have volunteer lawyer programs for the arts, and it’s on you to find them if you need them. Assume ignorance on the employers’ part before malice (if they haven’t paid an invoice yet, assume it fell through the cracks and politely point it out; don’t be insane. If you have to litigate, though, use lawyers).

Eventually, the conversation turned from contract specifics to professional behavior. Things to remember included:

  • Whoever your editor is, they have nothing to do with the contract you signed. If you take out your rage about a contract on your editor, keep in mind that 1) you signed the damn thing already, 2) the editor didn’t make it, and 3) you’re acting like an insane person.
    • Part of being hired is assuring people that you are socially able to function in a civilized, professional setting.
  • Per Joseph Illidge:
    • Contract terms exist to the contract generator’s favor, always.
    • No one respects you if you never say no. If it’s a bad deal, don’t take it unless you have to.
    • Don’t get paid on the back end, in case there never is a back end.
    • Companies have needs, not loyalties.

For those of us looking to break in, the creators bring up Harlan Ellison and his admonishment to “Pay the Writer.” If you’re working for free, you’re pissing in the pool for everybody else and making their work worth less. If it’s going to be for free anyway, why don’t you make your own stuff?

Essentially, this all boils down to “Do nothing for ‘Exposure.’” and make sure your work justifies the rate that you charge. The panelists warned the audience away from anthologies because they generally don’t pay, or don’t pay well, but insisted that we start writing short stories to build up our chops and make them easier to publish. Budget your income for taxes: the government’s gonna want 30% of whatever it is you made.

When they opened up to questions, the first guy, a man with a fully spread naked lady tattoo on his leg, asked a six-part question in regards to novel-to-comics rights scenarios. I am honestly speechless at the cajones on this guy. Many of the people who ask questions essentially want a college advising session about should they or shouldn’t they for comics work, and don’t seem to understand the time sensitivity and universality required for panel questions. The major takeaways from the questions were: pay your artists in advance so they can eat; everyone is a co-creator and if you’re not ready for that, write prose; if you want someone to do work for hire art for you and you get to keep all of it, you’re an asshole; make sure if the person you want to work with has great art and no work, it’s not because they’re a crazy person.

With that, the panel wraps up, the hall fuller than it was at the beginning (there’s a Batman panel next) and my fellow reporter and I venture back to the floor so he can start a blood feud with the nicest woman in comics.