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23 Ways for a Comic Artist to Survive and Thrive in any Economy

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By Jason Thibault

This was originally a to do list that I wrote for myself. I was trying to think of as many things that I could do as an artist to expand my reach and get the word out there. Some were stupid so I immediately omitted them and tried to chisel this list down to only the good stuff.

This isn’t meant to distract you from your goal of becoming an uber successful comic book artist. I understand that you need to dedicate the bulk of your time to your craft and comic pages take long enough to finish as it is. Believe me, I sometimes wish there were 100 hours to a day.

But sometimes you’ll hit roadblocks. Other times you’ll hit seemingly endless plateaus where progress seems to elude you for months. This list is meant to shake things up and get you to exercise the rest of your creative muscles.
I’ve personally already followed some of these suggestions. Others I’ve just begun to take steps on and then there’s the rest which I’m eagerly trying to clear up the time to get to.

Somewhere down the line I’ll expand some of these suggestions into full blown articles of their own. Please feel free to add more of your own ideas in the comments section. We’re all here to help each other. When you step outside of comics what creative endeavours do you get up to?

A few things to note:

1. Drawing styles are all over the map. Some draw in a simple and loose cartoony fashion while others tend to render highly realistic illustrations. Not every suggestion below will apply to every creator but there’s still a lot of room for artistic freedom.

2. In order to be successful in any field you’re going to have to hustle. Opportunities don’t often fall into your lap so you’re going to have to get out there and make things happen. You don’t need to be pushy but you’ll have to be very outgoing.

3. This is all a lot of work. There’s no easy solutions. To become a master of anthing you need to put in your ten thousand hours.

23 ways for a comic artist to hustle, survive and thrive in any economy

1. Draw big – I mean really big like 24″x24″ or 36″x36″. Try painting onto a board or canvas with acrylics. Maybe even take a painting class at a local college or art studio. Congrats, now you’re on your way to becoming a pop artist and your little comic drawing is now potentially a much more valuable piece of art. Now go improve on that and make 20 more.

If you really take to painting or creating larger works then you may be able to get in on a group show and eventually your own show. Head out once in a while to a gallery show in your town and talk to the artists and the gallery owners. There’s a lot of coffee shops, bars and restaurants that want art on their walls. Some give you the lion’s share of the commission as you’re decorating their place for free. You get extra points for making your work topical and perhaps even ironic.

Artist Glenn Barr illustrated the astounding Brooklyn Dreams for DC Comics’ Pirannah Press. Glenn later found huge success as a painter in the “low brow” art movement made popular by Juxtapoz magazine.

Artist Kent Williams came from a fine art and illustration background. He illustrated the Wolverine / Havok miniseries with John J. Muth for Marvel Comics. More recently he worked on Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain graphic novel for DC / Vertigo. His large oil paintings command tall dollars.

2. In all seriousness there’s a lot of examples of comic artists who went from comics into successful painting careers. And some who still continue to do both. Artists don’t necessarily like to be confined to a box (or panel as it were) and want to stretch their legs and work on bigger canvases. So join a night-time painting class or go for drop-in sessions at local studios and get some life drawing sessions in. Studios will often charge a day fee so that the cost of the model’s time and space is covered. You should be able to create in any medium once you show up. If you want to master pen and ink, go to the studio and draw directly in pen and ink.

These experiences will add new depth to your drawing style.

3. Test out some t-shirt designs - print 50. It’ll cost you a few hundred and at worst you’ll have 50 people running around town with your artwork on their chest. The image doesn’t have to be from your comic book either. It could simply be a fantastic design. Now you’re accessible to the other 99.5% of the population that doesn’t read comics.

Some artists have found great success in merchandising. Webcomic creators make a good portion of their income from t-shirts and there’s no reason why you couldn’t make some extra cake this way either.

4. Make screen prints of your best artwork. Not the cheaper 500-1000 offset poster runs. I’m talking about the quality hand-pulled silk-screen prints that you’d sell in limited quantities. Out of the potentially dozens of screenprint shops in your area there should be a few willing to print on larger surfaces. 18″ x 24″ is a standard size for a print but I have a collection that runs the gamut from huge to long and thin. If you provide your own paper stock to the printer you can get quite creative with ink color choices and even paper colors. You’ll need some knowledge about color seperations to do more elaborate prints or you’ll have to enlist the aid of the shop itself for an hourly fee. Be careful about those hourly fees.

You can also just have one-color black on white prints done on nice quality paper and then hand-color them with inks, watercolors or acrylic paints. That would make a series of highly unique prints. Go to GigPosters.com to see the best of the best show off their prints and posters.

And while you’re at it, run off some of those aforementioned cheaper offset posters to give away at conventions. People may even ask you to sign them. You might be able to get away with selling them for a few bucks. Especially if you tell people it’s to raise funds to print a book.


Watch Wes Winship of Burlesque design rock a ridiculously intricate Aaron Horkey screenprint.

5. Learn some software already. It’s almost 2010. Get a membership at Lynda.com. 25 bucks a month. Can’t afford it? You can’t afford 5 latte’s a month? You’ll be able to get on top of Photoshop, Indesign and Illustrator. Web design as well. If you’ve already figured out anatomy, perspective, backgrounds learning software is a snap in comparison. You’ve spent 20 years drawing. Adobe Creative Suite will only take you a couple more to master.

6. Get your own website and stop relying on MySpace and Facebook so much. What’s going to happen when all of the kids leave for the next coolest thing? You’ll still have your website, that’s what. If you think Facebook and Twitter will still be a major play in 3 years you’ll be in for a rude awakening. To save money in the beginning you can use shared hosting at a company like DreamHost or AN Hosting. I’ve used both and can recommend them.  Others’ opinions may differ.

You can get one up and running pretty quickly by using  WordPress. If you find the learning curve too steep you can hire someone to build it or have one of your more tech-savvy friends take a shot at it.

7. Get traffic to come to your website. Just having a website is not enough anymore. You need people to find it and then your fan base will need a reason to keep returning. Here’s a good resource page by Jack Humphrey for getting traffic to your site.

8. Social Networks part 1. On the other hand if you’ve still resisted joining these social networks GET ON IT!!! 200 million people are on Facebook, half as many are left on MySpace and millions join Twitter each month. It’s where all of your fans are. Don’t be dropping that, “I don’t have time” crap on me either. You don’t have time NOT TO. Join some Facebook groups in your niche, follow some peers on twitter, post some videos on YouTube or Vimeo. Wade in slowly and get a feel for it.

9. Social Networks part 2. And contribute to these networks. Don’t get on there and be all me me me. Yes you can promote but don’t be proposing marriage on the first date. Be helpful. Be useful. Read the Seven Deadly Sins of Social Media as a primer on this.

10. Is your comic online? No? Well then stop reading this right now and go get it online. There’s individual webcomics online that have the same visibility (alexa ranking) and traffic as the entire Dark Horse Comics website. The really successful ones tend to update everyday and it’s not just gag comics about videogames anymore. Any subject that you can think of has a webcomic to accompany it. And yes, it’s an amazing amount of work to keep these running like a well-oiled machine. But it can pay off big time.

You can either post your webcomic on a network like Webcomics Nation or Zuda or you can learn how to host your own webcomic.

11. Make some custom skateboard paintings. You know ink sticks to wood right? What’s a blank skateboard run, 20-30 bucks? Coat that sucker in white and then drop on some artwork. Acrylic paint works just fine. Kudos to you, you’re now the coolest artist on the block and your customized skate deck looks pretty darn sexy hanging up on a wall. Now go make 12 more.

Adam Turman is a very skilled artist who first caught my eye with his killer ink work. This is a custom skatedeck that he painted. Here’s an online store filled with decks featuring his graphics.

12. Music / art plan part 1. You’re an artist so you probably listen to a lot of music. And there’s probably some local bands in town that play on a regular basis. You might even like some of them. They need posters and flyers to advertise their shows. If you manage to drag yourself away from your studio and drawing table, truck on down to those shows and approach them in person. Give ‘em some photocopies of your recent work. Tell them you’d like to help out. Yes for free.

Artist Derek Hess used to book shows for the Euclid Tavern in Cleveland,  Ohio back in the early 1990’s. In order to pull in more people to the shows he turned to his own artistic skills and drew flyers. Within a few years he was creating and designing posters and prints for international acts along with magazine covers, album jackets and t-shirts. Axel Alonso at Marvel Comics eventually engaged him to draw the three covers for the Captain America: Dead Man Running mini-series knowing that Hess was a huge fan of Cap.

13. Music / art plan part 2. Most bands use a local poster distributor (a dude who pastes up flyers on phone poles and walls in various neighborhoods). Excellent, now your work will be seen all over town. Those posters will be gone within a week or two, so keep making new ones for promoters and bands every month. Oh yeah, keep all of the originals and a few copies of each of the flyers. When you’re famous those will make a nice collection for an artbook ten years down the road.

Comic artists as diverse as Daniel Clowes and Todd McFarlane have been hired to create CD covers and album jackets for bands of varying levels of success. The connection between the music and comic scenes has been an ongoing relationship since the 1960’s.

14. Music / art plan part 3. Keep this up and eventually you’ll be a local underground celebrity artist. Eventually people will contact you for paying work on CD covers (those still exist?) and t-shirts. And a lot of bands are starting to sell silk-screened prints at their merch tables now. I’ve picked up half a dozen prints over the past few years at shows. This harkens back to the 1960’s and the Summer of Love.

15. Music / art plan part 4. If you have mad design skills make posters in Illustrator or InDesign for bands to distribute on the interwebs.

16. Make minicomics. Do you have 12-16 pages of your comic ready to go? Good, now get them scanned in and format a minicomic booklet in Adobe Acrobat or lay it out by hand. An 8.5″ x 11″ page folded in half will do but if you want to go super small, you can do 4.25″ x 5.5″. Make 1-200 of those at Kinkos or any local copy shop. Ask to borrow their heavy duty stapler. Don’t wait until you get home, get folding and stapling right at the shop. Good, now you have a couple of hundred comics to distribute. The mini-mini-comics (4.25×5.5ers) are the coolest business cards in the world. You engage the person you’ve handed it to in an interactive reading experience. Make sure your website address is listed on the back. Some comic shops might even sell them on consignment although the financial rewards will be limited.

The Comics Reporter has a good primer on putting together a minicomic. And so does Caption.Org.

Check out this video on making a minicomic that stands out. And here’s the blog that details that process.

17. Submit your comics to the smaller publishers. Bummed that Marvel, Dark Horse and DC don’t agree that you’re the next hottest thing yet? There’s over 5 dozen other publishers that will still look at your samples and as luck would have it, I have a complete list of those comic and manga submission guidelines for you.

18. Try out  print-on-demand (POD) sites like Lulu and Ka-Blam who will print up low runs of your comic for a fraction of the cost of what a traditional printer would run you. And the quality of their books are getting better each year. This accomplishes a few things for you. You get a complete package to present to an audience without fronting thousands of dollars. And you get to see your work in printed form which will enable you to make improvements immediately based on things you’re not happy with.

19. Join some comic forums. Remember those old message boards and forums that were supposedly dead? Well they aren’t and thousands of people still post on them every day. There are still a lot of worthy communities out there to engage in conversations with. Comic writers like Warren Ellis and Brian Michael Bendis have their own forums. Message boards get a bad rap and some of the more fanatical ones deserve it but there’s a lot of great conversations to be had on Digital Webbing, CBR, Whitechapel and ConceptArt.

20. Be original. I know it’s a cliche but if you’re an artist you probably have something unique to express. I mean nobody really wants to see your take on Spiderman or Batman. We’ve been reading re-hashed storylines for the past 30 years. Odds are yours won’t be any better. Give us something new. We’re thirsting for it. Comic store owners and the comic industry are very resistant to change. But when you’re starting out, you don’t need them. Start a comic online. Blow our minds on a regular basis and we’ll keep coming back for more. We’ll subscribe to your RSS feed and we’ll tell our friends. And post it on blogs, tweet it, talk about it on forums, bookmark it. If enough of us dig it (or digg it) then you’ll print it (or a publisher will) and we’ll head to the shops and buy it or order it from Amazon.

21. Draw by hand on paper. Are you using Manga Studio, Adobe Illustrator or a wacom tablet to draw all of your comics? Maybe you should consider doing some of that art with pen, ink, pencil, paint, whatever. You’ve read my post on reasons to draw with pen and ink haven’t you? People love original art. You can sell it and possibly give some away at contests.

22. Hold Contests. Speaking of which you should hold contests on your webpage. We’ve had really positive results from running contests in the past. You can do it in a blog post, tweet it, run it in your newsletter or throw it up on Facebook. If you want to appeal solely to your fans you can have them do something in return to promote you in order for them to be eligible to win the prize. Skies the limit on this one.

23. Hit up conventions. You could experiment with smaller local ones at first. Unless local for you means San Diego, Toronto, Chicago or New York. Reserve a table at artist alley. Then you’re at ground zero. If you don’t feel comfortable renting a table just yet at least get out to a con and observe other artist’s tables and booths. Take note of which displays and companies impressed you as an attendant. Or just take pictures.

Brad Guigar, creator of Evil Inc. and Editor-In-Chief of webcomics.com was kind enough to permit me to post this pic of his table from the Wizard World Philadelphia convention. I think it’s a great example of what can be done to dress up a plain looking table into something pretty spectacular. Tables can often be had for 20% of the cost of a booth but that’s no excuse not to put some effort into your presentation.

If you do rent a table, EXCELLENT. Make sure to read 7 Tips for a Winning Tradeshow Booth. Engage in conversations with comic and art fans. Don’t be too much of a salesman. Find out what they’re into. Conventions, especially larger ones give you a feel for the health and pulse of the industry. We’ll be attending FanExpo 2009 in Toronto on August 28-30.

This is by no means a definitive list but it’s a start and I’m sure I’ll post a part 2 in the near future. We didn’t discuss doing illustrations for local papers and magazines. And we didn’t discuss Flickr or Deviantart. Let’s do that soon.


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About Jason Thibault

Jason Thibault is a writer, artist and founder of the micro digital content agency Massive Kontent. He can often be found showing other artists and creatives how to market and brand themselves. Follow Jason on Twitter.

  • Deb

    http://madefire.deviantart.com/journal/The-Motion-Book-Tool-Is-Now-Open-466812071

    Here is a free tool for comic artists to use to make motion books!

  • kmacca

    no – you should actually make comics. Some people can make money in comics. That may or may not include you. There’s no “list” you can follow to guarantee success, only minimize failure.

  • http://www.massivekontent.com/ Jason Thibault

    Nice! Five years after I wrote this people are still chiming in.

  • http://disqus.com/people/elsanto elsanto

    Ooooo… that art’s really eye-catching.

    This comment was originally posted on COMIXTALK

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