An early pencilled page from Great Moves’ title story.
Art Copyright © by Geof Isherwood.
“Double your fees—starting tomorrow. You’ll be shocked to find that the majority of prospects will pay your new rates without blinking. Reason: 90 percent of writers charge too little—and you may be one of them.” Robert W. Bly, “Earn More, Do Less”
“Critic or reviewer—a thankless job on most occasions since it is inclined towards finding fault.” Carolle Bourne, “The Non-Role of the Critic”
Geof Isherwood was going to a comic show, and he was taking along some original art to sell. Among them were finished pages from our joint NBM effort, my third graphic novel, Great Moves. He was wondering if I wanted first dibs.
I did. But I didn’t have the money right then.
"I'm in no hurry to sell these pages, so no rush," he wrote back via email. "It's just so I know not to take them with me to the NJ convention."
His asking price per page wasn’t high—to me; that may have been because I had a rough idea of what Geof charged for such work over the years—even to friends and colleagues like myself. Plus, he’s a reasonable kind of guy: no nonsense when it comes to his business, yet not looking to jook out your eye, as Bajans would say, in sealing the deal.
Life’s hilarious. And not often without its thoughtful coincidences. While Geof was bundling his pages and emailing me, a mutual friend was WhatsApping me about an ongoing online debate he was having and seemingly losing about the pricing of comic art.
Michael “Mike” Bunn, a high school teacher, is a comic collector and aficionado of 40-plus years, and a regular convention goer for almost as long. Although he remembers the days when full-body sketches were free, and no one ever paid for an autograph in a comic, he’s not grumpy about there being a price tag on certain things these days. He has paid for art at conventions and online; he respects and values the artists’ time and talent. What’s been bothering him is the rapid and, to him, unaccountable hefty increase in prices over the last two to five years.
That’s it—in part. To Mike, there’s more to this situation than having to pay higher prices for illustrations of comics characters whose stories inspired him as a boy (and still do). He’s been worried that what he interprets as the overpricing of comic art is hurting collectors by making it difficult for the average convention goer, for instance, to acquire art. Recalling the 1990’s black-and-white comics speculation and ensuing glut, he contends there’s an even higher price to be paid here. He foresees a similar bubble bursting with comic art prices, resulting in a crash that may damage the future of comic collecting, hence comic publishing.
Neither speculator nor rich, Mike’s just a guy who gets a kick out of getting art from pencillers and inkers whose work he admires and respects, whether he has to pay for it or not. Yet many on the forum to which he often posts his views on this topic think he’s either crying down the artists’ right to make a decent living or complaining about what he wished he could afford but can’t. There seems little interest in engaging his larger concerns about how the rise he’s seen in comic art prices may be affecting the North American comic industry beyond any single convention or commission. And that’s got me a little concerned.
Whether Mike’s right or wrong (he and I differ somewhat on what may constitute fair pricing), this apparent unwillingness by a number of those who post to have a dialogue or conversation with him, no matter how courteous he is, no matter how often he says he’s not about being contentious, rather enquiring, is somewhat baffling, though maybe not so unexpected.
I welcome and appreciate healthy and open debate, especially on matters that are uncomfortable to us all. Yet there’s a growing need in our times for respectful discussion: discussion that rises above personal border skirmishes that employ bullying, hate-mongering and misinformation as common tactics. There seems to be a proportional relationship between our lack of interest in what others truly think and our ability to access their thoughts and ideas—and I mean on a range of topics.
Contrary to what some may believe, I haven’t written the comics I have because of a love of erotica. I have written the comics I have because of what erotica in this medium permits me to exchange with others about the human condition. Comics have long had their own way of influencing people’s behaviour for the better, be it their level of tolerance or acceptance, but also their curiosity and understanding of the ways of men and women and how we interact, how we honestly communicate.
Back to this whole issue of the current cost of comic art: it’s a subject I also relate to as writer and editor. A freelancer since I was 19, I still consult rate schedules set by The Writers’ Union of Canada (of which I’m a member), by Writer’s Digest’s annual Writer’s Market, by other seasoned and established colleagues in the publishing industry whatever their jurisdiction…. I’d like to learn more than I have so far from comic artists about how they calculate their own rates for commissions, particularly at conventions. I’ve never left a client wondering how I arrived at a rate I was charging. And if the client couldn’t pay what I was asking—or I couldn’t accept what the client was offering—at least we both knew why.
Even if it’s generally understood (though not always respected by those who would hire me) that I, as a freelance writer or editor, seek to make a decent wage, and that I trained (or have serious talent or skill or experience) in the service I’m offering, this can’t be the totality of my justification for my rates. What constitutes a decent wage for the kind of work I’m expected to do is the real issue. Next is what my time is worth, according to the market and my own measured estimation.
These are not issues either comic fan or comic artist should avoid discussing, client to contractor. High or low, an artist should be able to reasonably demonstrate how he or she arrived at his or her rates, even if they are non-negotiable. Non-negotiable is one’s prerogative, of course; unaccountable or arbitrary simply leads to a disgruntled and disaffected public. Not to mention a confused one.
Does the reticence or inability exhibited by some fans to question critically the pricing of some comic art produced for conventions or commissions stem from fear? If so, fear of what? Their true ignorance of rates? Of appearing to be against genuinely long-suffering and exploited comic artists, or of being blacklisted by artists they might commission? And if—if—this pricing issue is or may be in some way affecting or lessening people’s enjoyment of comics or collecting or conventions, then what’s wrong with bringing the conversation a little more into the light? Has any industry survey been conducted, of both comic artists and fans, asking them if comic art prices have been too high, too low, just right or reasonable, in their opinion? Is it possible to separate the price of a piece from the personality, the “big-name artist,” that produced it? Who or what is really driving demand in today’s comic art market? Are these forces beneficial or inimical to the industry’s survival?
I’ve collected comics for 40 years as well; I still read them, reference them, occasionally write them. I care deeply about the medium, as an art form and a business with multiple spinoffs. Whatever the answers, it’s worthwhile to consider the questions.
· Robert is the critically acclaimed author of the NBM Amerotica titles Great Moves, Attractive Forces and Stray Moonbeams. His other books include the novel And Sometimes They Fly; the story collections Fairfield: The Last Sad Stories of G. Brandon Sisnett, Intimacy 101: Rooms & Suites, The Tree of Youth, and Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall; and the memoir Sand for Snow: A Caribbean-Canadian Chronicle.
All of his graphic novels are now available as e-books from NBM.