If you head over to The Comics Reporter today, you’ll see Tom Spurgeon list six problems facing the comics industry, at the moment. Not to steal his thunder or anything (it’s a good list), but except for the syndicated comics concern all of his points are cycling through my brain at least 2 or 3 times a week. The DM/Superhero Retail concerns more than the others, admittedly, but the future of the North American Manga Market and the “Loss of the Professional Class” are both high on my list of comics-related worries. Usually I treat those wories with comics-related Gin & Tonics.
Tom does a great job of summarising everything though, and I particularly wanted to talk about “The Loss of the Professional Class”. Take it away, Tom:
“I’m becoming more and more of the mind that the recent surge in business for many comics industries has for the first time in the medium’s history not had an identifiable, corresponding impact on the fortunes of comics creators. In previous decades comics rates went up when the business was booming… Now, despite the opening of new markets for new creators and the obvious relative health of the direct market when compared to five years ago, the stories about people receiving corresponding remuneration generally relate to opportunities seized outside of comics, not within it. In fact, there’s some initial evidence that a few of the new models even when they’re working full-bore may offer up rewards more of the struggling artist rather than the successful artist variety.”
– Tom Spurgeon, Comics Reporter
I just realised that’s a great tag to go after Tom’s name. Neat. As to Tom’s point… well… yes and no.
I have a number of friends who are young comics professionals, and looking at their carreers now, as opposed to what might have faced them 5, 10, or even 15 years ago, it’s pretty easy to see that there has been a significant, quantifiable increase in the dollars going into comics creator pockets. It’s still about as much as getting a real job as opposed to Todd McFarlane Wealthy, but it is possible to earn (rather than eak-out) a living in the new world of graphic novel publishing. Of course, it all depends on the deal you sign. $10,000 for a Tokyopop GN that’s effectively work-for-hire with a few sales incentives thrown in? Seeing as I’ve lived on $10,000 a year I know it’s possible, I just don’t want to do it. But there are people and they are getting better, fairer deals, and in some cases a pretty stupendous advance (we’ve all heard those names floated around, no need to go into them here).
Let’s look at Jeff Smith and his series Bone. Jeff Smith built his massive success on his and his wife Vijaya’s backs. It was a pretty brutal slog, in retrospect, with Jeff not only illustrating 140 pages of comics a year for 10 years, but also running the company that published those comics and doing 10-15 conventions per year on top of that. When the Scholastic deal came around, and let’s not forget that both Bone and Cartoon Books were successful at this point, that money was a reward for 10 years of very hard work. But could anyone, at this point, go the Bone route? My money’s on ‘no’.
But we’re also at a point where no one has to. The Mouse Guard guy is hitting a bunch of conventions, but he’s not the one lugging cases of his books (I hope), he’s got a publisher for that. Kean Soo’s Jellaby will be coming out from Hyperion Books next year, a young-readers graphic novel aimed squarely at the Bone-reading audience, and while mainstream authors are always encouraged to do promotions and press for their work (and I will be roping Keaner into a number of “personal appearances”) he’s got a team of people out there getting Jellaby in front of reviewers, into bookstores, onto book clubs, and into the hands of its intended audience. Which is gonna be hell for him, he’s so hands on. 🙂
The real reason that I’m not entirely worried about “The Loss of the Professional Class”? It’s a secret I probably shouldn’t spill on my blog, but… Alright, here goes: Judy Hansen, of Hansen Literary Agency [Edit: I had the name of the agency wrong, earlier, apologies to all involved]. Judy Hansen is Scott McCloud’s agent, and got him out of the deal with DC and into Harper Collins’s warm embrace. Scott set Judy up with Flight, and moved them from Image’s money-on-the-back-end deal to Random House, where… I don’t know how private those details are. Let’s say everyone involved is currently much happier with that situation, except possibly Image? Anyway. Judy also represents a ton of individual Flight Anthology creators, including Kazu Kibuishi (Scholastic), Hope Larson (ginee soo books/S&S), and the afformentioned Kean Soo (Hyperion). Her name most recently came up when it was announced that Svetlana Chmakova has signed with Yen Press (a division of Hachette) for her post-Tokyopop graphic novel series, negotiated by Ms. Hansen. Judy Hansen is known as an extremely tough negotiator for her comics clients (coming out of the collapse of Kitchen Sink publishing and seeing too many artists treated like commodity), and it’s a matter of public record (scroll through the archives at Publisher’s Weekly) that her clients are generally happy with the deals she secures for them.
I can’t speak, from the creative side, to the artists not represented by Judy Hansen, but despite her gruff reputation (she once told someone to stop talking to me because they had somewhere more important to be, all the while never making eye contact with me) I have quite a bit of hope for the economic feasibility of being a graphic novelist thanks to her. My fears are still there, but assuaged.
I honestly think that as graphic novels (not even as a category (although that’s nice), but individual gn’s) continue to hit with solid sales and critical acclaim, more agents, editorial staff, and publishers will become educated enough to really understand the medium, its unique creative and fiscal concerns, and things will settle in (upwards) accordingly. I wouldn’t trust a publisher, entrenched in either the direct market or out in ‘the real world’, who tells you there’s no money to be made in the publishing side, that it’s all in getting the work optioned for other-media exploitation. If the work hits (and if the publisher does the work so that it has the potential to hit) then creators should get paid for the sales of the book, it’s that simple. On that count, Tom Spurgeon is 100% correct, and the deals have got to get a hell of a lot better for creator-owned material (and creators really have to get lawyers and/or agents to look over those contracts before they sign them…!). But there are good deals out there right now, contracts to pattern yours after and a value being placed on creative work that’s equivilent to a living wage. It’s really up to the people with the power–the creative people–to seize on it.
P.S.: The future of the U.S. manga market is that either the tastes of the audience will age and the material being imported will do the same (like JAPAN), or it won’t, and we’ll be stuck with a nation of hardcore fucking nerds, lusting after MOE 12 year olds and deeply enjoying material for children (like AMERICA). Either way, you know, there’ll be an absolute avalanche of material to choose from, and so the market will remain healthy. It’d take a new Pearl Harbor for North America to turn away from Japanese culture in the fashion necessary for the market to collapse.