Toucan Blog Banner

Maggie’s World 022: Comics Careers

Maggie Thompson

A recent University of Wisconsin workshop focused on the business of comics, and I was able to attend, as host James Danky introduced and interviewed Milton Griepp and Denis Kitchen. They began by noting their beginnings in the field: Milton as a dealer at comics conventions and Denis making and selling his own comics. Milton focused primarily on making clear the economics of today’s world of comic-book marketing; Denis addressed the challenges of finding a career in the field of comic-book creation.

I came away from the information-packed session with one challenge topmost in my thoughts: How does anyone get work in comics these days? Attendees had seemed primarily to consist of young creators considering whether to find a career in the field, and Denis had urged them to find a way to publish their own material, tailoring it to appeal to the people they knew. He spoke of his initial approach: creating cartoons that had appealed to his friends and fellow students at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee and then selling collections of those cartoons in comic-book form.

He hadn’t been alone in taking this route. Don and I first saw Gilbert Shelton’s Wonder Wart-Hog when it ran in The University of Texas’ The Texas Ranger in the early 1960s. And such paths to professionalism continue. Dan Vebber’s Adventure ran in the early 1990s in The Onion in Madison (whence we picked it up for Comics Buyer’s Guide, bringing it to a national audience long before he wrote a couple of my favorite episodes of Buffy, even before he went on to Futurama, yadda, yadda).

So it was that Denis’ challenge resonated with me. As I had waited for the event to begin in the UW building, I’d noticed a poster for a UW poetry collection: not my thing. In fact, I confess that you’d have to pay me to read a college poetry anthology these days. On the other hand, a comics anthology? I’d grab it. So, I bet, would other Madisonians.

(Understand that I’m not knocking poetry—just indicating an aspect of the potential commercial impact of the two art forms today.)

Denis Kitchen

Denis Kitchen

Photo by Maggie Thompson

Would the attendees be interested in participating in a comics anthology? Denis urged them to consider it. If the contributions were limited to, say, six pages per participant, it’s something that could be produced during captured moments in a busy academic schedule. (One of the attendees had filled a notebook page with spirals in the course of this single event. Somewhere in my attic languishes a “Green Turtle” comic-book story I composed in a notebook during a semester’s English Comic Masters seminar in 1964. College is all about multi-tasking. Just saying. Hey, how many underground comix masters did begin their careers by doodling during one or another class?)

If these young creators were to put together such a publication, each could establish and retain his or her individual copyright. (That’s something with which the meeting did not deal, by the way—and it has occasionally caused disputes. If I write the words and provide thumbnails and rough character design, and you use those basics for your art, who owns what? It’s a question that could—and should—be established from the start.) An anthology could form a focus for those interested in the art form in a work-to-learn environment. No university credit—except, maybe, for the person putting it together—because who cares? But, if academic life is publish or perish, here’s a publication that could lead to careers.

It wouldn’t be the first time.

(Come to think of it, Don and I published the earliest issues of Comic Art while I was still attending Oberlin College. And at least the first one was published using the Oberlin mimeograph set aside for student publishing. It was the start of a career that didn’t turn a profit for the next couple of decades but that eventually paid off beyond our dreams.)

The challenge is for those who hope to enter the field of comics creation (and for those who hope to help them do it): Do you have buddies who share your interest? Or are you on your own? And where are you in the course of preparations for a career? (Not that you have to give up creative hopes, if you’re long out of secondary education. Don and I prepared for two decades for an industry job that didn’t exist till we were hired to do it. And the field is evolving even more swiftly today.)

Help out at a convention or a comics shop. Form a comics club. (We did it in the 1960s. It’d be even easier these days.) Entry-level jobs were the focus of some questions. If you want to work in the industry for an existing company, consider moving to a city in which that company has an office. Is your biggest yearning to be a creator? Are there studios that are hiring interns or assistants? Can you network with people already in the field?

Consider taking advantage of the evolution of pop culture. The combination of words and pictures can be tackled in any of a number of ways. I’m not sure how Matthew Inman would have brought him an income in earlier decades, but Wiki estimates his The Oatmeal site brought him about $500,000 (from merchandising and advertising) in 2012. By 2014, he’d added a calendar and books to his output. Allie Brosch’s art, which few might have appreciated last century, adds powerful impact to her text in her Hyperbole and a Half site (and its book spinoff). If you’re uncomfortable with a pen, brush, or stylus? These days, you could make your own fumetti, what with digital cameras and electronic typesetting, combining set-up photos with balloons and captions the way Harvey Kurtzman did in Help!

And consider your eventual goals as well as current job opportunities. Peter David began with a hobby as a fanzine writer and publisher, went to work for Marvel in its promotions department, and ended up becoming a fan-favorite pro. Paul Levitz began with a hobby as a fan reporter and publisher, went to work for DC, and … you get the idea.

How do you plan to start? What do you hope to do?

Maggie's World by Maggie Thompson appears the first Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!