I am very common.
That is to say, in the world of comics I'm coming to realize that my situation is the norm. Most comic artists — and particularly the sort of indie comic artist I aspire to be — don't make much money from their comics. Even the ones I'd call successful all have sidelines, they all do something else to supplement their income. And even then, they don't usually earn a great living.
I'll be honest: the idea of being a syndicated cartoonist has been a fantasy of mine for a while now. Recently I've even begun putting together some submission work to send to the syndicates. I know people who know syndicated cartoonists, and they seem to do alright. And the idea of working on comics as a sole means of support — with a regular, steady, and most important, stable gig — is immensely appealing to the risk averse systems administrator that rules my brain most of the time.
But I've been reading a lot about the syndicated life, and the more I read the more I start thinking it's a dream whose time has passed. Don't get me wrong, I'm still going to try, partly because I'm just having so much fun making strips and generating material. And if I get offered a syndicated gig, I'll take it. But not only is that extremely unlikely, but even if it were to happen, it's not a sure thing I'll be able to survive on the income. In fact, it's almost guaranteed I won't.
Most everything I've read and seen is proclaiming the death of printed media, the syndicates and the whole economic model that's sustained cartoonists for the past hundred years. Right now there's no real infrastructure to replace it. The days of the comic strip super stars — the Bill Wattersons and the Berkeley Breatheds — are gone. And what, if anything, will replace them is still very much the question.
I have learned some things in my research, however. Things that give me hope and direction.
For one, there's the Internet. The World Wide Web. The Web is the great destroyer of the syndicated cartoonist, but it's also the contemporary cartoonists great hope. Whatever replaces the syndication model will certainly involve the web. Using the web for distribution has certain advantages generally, and for someone like me in particular. Generally speaking, when you use the web to self-promote and distribute, you reap all the benefits of your efforts, you keep all the spoils. And for a cartoonist like me, whose particular style and brand of humor are not necessarily all that broad, you stand a better chance of reaching and profiting from a niche market that gets your particular thing. The syndication model relies on reaching tons of people through a network of sources, primarily newspapers, so syndicated strips tend to be very broad things that appeal to a wide swath of the population. But if you use the web you don't have to appeal to such a broad market, because you have a better chance of targeting the smaller market of folks that will understand your particular take on things. And since the profits go directly back to the artist, you can, in some instance, make a living and a name for yourself.
The downsides are plentiful, however. For one, using the Web as your platform and self-distributing means that you do all the work: you do all your own promotion, all your own website building, all your own manufacturing. You'll be doing a lot of work that has nothing to do with drawing or producing comics. Also, your income will not necessarily be steady or reliable and will likely come from multiple sources. Ironically, the bulk of your income will probably not be from the comics themselves at all, but rather from sales of merchandise that is supported by the comics. The model of success, currently, seems to be giving away the product — the comic — for free, and making money selling things like mugs, t-shirts and advertising.
The Internet has been extremely disruptive to a number of creative fields. The music industry is seeing a similar shakeup, and there a many musical acts coming up today who use this very same model to make money and promote themselves. They effectively give their music away for free in order to lure fans into buying t-shirts and pins. People really like t-shirts!
(It's deeply ironic that, nearly twenty-five years ago, Bill Watterson himself railed against the efforts of the syndicates to license the work of cartoonists for the creation of plush toys and other such merchandise, and yet this is now how many contemporary cartoonists survive.)
In any case, self-publishing is probably the way to go for me, and probably the way to go for a lot of cartoonists right now and for the foreseeable future. I imagine some day that the syndicates will figure out a way to survive in this new ecosystem, but it remains to be seen whether or not this will be of any advantage to the cartoonist.
That said, I will still be submitting a couple ideas to the syndicates. Why? Well, I've already put in a lot of the work, so why not? If I got a syndication deal I'd totally take it. It probably wouldn't be a lot of money, but it'd be something. And it would be validation. You never know what could happen, and I think it would be fun to have a syndicated strip. It would get my name out there as well, and could lead to all sorts of opportunities. I am not hopeful that I will get such a deal, though, nor do I hold onto the dream that I could support myself with the income from said deal. For better or for worse, those days are over.
So, will I ever be able to have a steady, reliable income as a cartoonist? Probably not. I'll probably always have to something other than cartooning to stay afloat, just like everyone else. Turns out, I'm already doing something other than cartooning: computer systems. It pays the bills and it's not so bad.
Everything else is just gravy.