In These Tough Economic Times™, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about putting food on the table. I have a pretty specialized set of skills (I’m a demolitions expert and a master of the throwing knife) so when it’s time to look for a new job, that search can take quite a while. That’s the thing about filling a niche: the people who need me want me desperately, but those people are few, far between, and harder to track down than Waldo in a mall the day after Thanksgiving.
This is probably the only thing I have in common with a comic book creator. According to a recent study, I am one of only six people who reads comics but would not want to work in the industry. The indie route sounds like a merciless, pitiless slog up a jagged mountain, and the corporate route sounds like a great way to spend your sixties in court, heartbroken and begging for health insurance. I love the medium, and I start checking comiXology and Graphicly at 12:01 every Wednesday for the new releases, but I can’t imagine the passion and dedication it takes to be on the other end of that monthly grind.
Like me, though, comic book creators are in a very specific niche. They’ve actually got it much worse than I do: if you draw or write comics, how many companies are there to employ you? Realistically speaking? Are there even ten in the country? In terms of making a living wage, aren’t there about five? At best? Are they still putting out Richie Rich?
Your entire industry has two main employers. Imagine burning a bridge at one of them. Imagine turning your back on both of them. I hope you have a lot to say about Jughead.
Last week, iZombie and Fairest writer Chris Roberson announced he was ending his relationship with DC Comics for ethical reasons. Before Watchmen and the Siegel & Shuster lawsuit left a bad taste in his mouth, to say the least, and he decided he could not wear a brave face with a closed mouth any longer. One can only imagine that if he dislikes Before Watchmen, he can’t be wild about Marvel’s track record, either. (I have a candle burning for Steve Gerber in my closet, and I’m not even in the biz.)
Of course, Roberson is also a successful novelist. He’ll be just fine. Very few people are in his position. How does everyone else navigate these waters?
Three decades on the planet have left me resigned to this sort of thing, although I freely admit I may be letting myself off the hook too easily. Saying “I’m not going to involve myself with any company whose practices I disagree with” is another way of saying “I’m off to spend the rest of my life in the woods, foraging for berries to sustain me and wearing leaves.” (As one would expect, The Daily Show illustrated this much more succinctly than I ever could years ago in a segment about the futility of boycotts.) I watched plenty of NBC while they were owned by a military contractor. I’ve eaten a homophobic chicken sandwich or two. The less said about where my phone came from, the better.
That doesn’t make me feel any better about the state of things. What are we to do, though? How do you vote with your wallet in a situation like this? “I will only buy creator-owned comics, although the stories I’m interested in are in other books, thus essentially removing myself from the medium entirely”? “Sorry, I don’t read Superman comics; I only read the obvious Superman rip-offs with fetishes and drinking problems that indie creators try to pass off as original”?
At C2E2 last weekend, I was awestruck by how cheaply some of the original art was being sold. Pages from one time iFanboy Book of the Month Tale of Sand were going for $150. Skottie Young was selling Oz pages for eighty bucks a piece. Eighty bucks! Even as I marveled at those bargains, though, I thought about bringing one of those pages home and telling my wife how much they cost, only to have her look at me like I bought some magic beans. “Worth” is a fluid concept, and I certainly don’t have any answers. People can’t even agree on what “making a living” means. If someone dreams his entire life of writing Spider-Man and then gets to do it, do you dare call him a “sell-out”? Is toiling away in obscurity worth what you lose as a result? In These Tough Economic Times™, I have no idea what the solutions are. Seeing the major companies throw precedent to the wind and admit that their predecessors were guilty of some wrongdoing might be a start. I’m not holding my breath.
Jim Mroczkowski has never created anything anyone would pay money for, so what the hell does he know?