How comic artists make a living The patchwork industry

German-Japanese artist Mikiko Ponczeck
German-Japanese artist Mikiko Ponczeck | © Mikiko Ponczeck

Comics are currently receiving a great deal of positive feedback in the arts pages and are considered one of the few growing segments in the book trade. For those who write and draw comics, however, it is seldom a worthwhile business from an economic viewpoint. The work itself is complex and time-consuming, and considering sales figures are often only in the three- or four-digit range, especially when it comes to more sophisticated, longer auteur comics, the profit margin that remains for authors and artists is minimal.

“I make some money making comics but for me doing comics has never created enough income to support two kids and a mortgage on a house,” says Michel Cho. The author and illustrator lives in Toronto and his superhero comics, comic book covers and graphic novel Shoplifter have earned him an international reputation. And yet, “I’ve always had to supplement my income by doing illustration work: editorial and corporate.”

Comic artist Michael Cho Comic artist Michael Cho | © Lars von Törne Michael Cho estimates that roughly 50 percent of his work is directly related to comics. Other cartoonists he knows work as art teachers at schools, are involved in the production of animated films, do illustrating work for newspapers or earn their money as visual recorders for corporations, making sketched notes of company events.

Joe Ollmann, whose graphic novel The Abominable Mr. Seabrock was recently published by renowned publishers Drawn & Quarterly, agrees. “Almost everyone making comics in Canada has some kind of part time employment or freelance work,” says the author and illustrator from Hamilton, Ontario. For example, many artists he knows draw storyboards for movie companies. “I suspect that maybe 15 percent of Canadian cartoonists make a living strictly from making comics,” says Ollmann.

The reason Joe Ollmann has been able to focus mainly on his graphic novel for the past five years without having to rely on a permanent income from a full-time job is indirectly linked to his comics: selling film rights from one of his earlier works earned him enough money to make a living for a couple of years.

Comic artist Joe Ollmann Comic artist Joe Ollmann | © Joe Ollmann In Germany, the number of comic artists who can live completely off their income from pictorial narratives is likely to be even lower. In Canada, iconic stars like Jeff Lemire or Fiona Staples are financially well-off because they work for the profitable US comics market. There are hardly any comparable foreign business opportunities for German cartoonists. This is why, there are only a few artists – aside from internationally renowned best-selling authors such as Ralf König – who get along without other sources of income on top of writing and drawing comics.

As a result, crowdfunding platforms such as Patreon have been becoming a major additional source of income for comic artists. One example is the German-Japanese artist Mikiko Ponczeck, who won a Max-and-Moritz Prize, which is the most prestigious German comic award, for her Crash’n’Burn manga at the 2016 International Comic Salon in Erlangen. She currently has almost 150 supporters who pay her small monthly sums via Patreon, totalling 740 dollars per month. In return, supporters receive access to exclusive comic strips and tutorials with major contributors being rewarded with original drawings.

Comic artist Mikiko Ponczeck Comic artist Mikiko Ponczeck | © Mikiko Ponczeck In addition to her book publications, Mikiko Ponczeck works as a presenter and trainer for young talents to earn a living. “I've always been involved in various activities,” the cartoonist says. And she has never restricted herself solely to the German market, publishing much of her work in English on the Internet to reach international readers. She has lived in Germany since graduating from school and most of her books are published in German. However, she estimates that 80 percent of her online readers come from abroad. Mikiko Ponczeck says her Internet marketing activities have no direct influence on the content of her work. “My Patreons basically don’t care what they get from me – above all, they want to support me. It’s a kind of love letter for us cartoonists.”

Flix, a comic artist whose books and comic series have earned him several Max-and-Moritz prizes, also makes use of the Internet – less so for earning money but more to get in touch with fans. He publishes online strips about recent events in his family life and runs a web shop on his website that sells exclusive Flix items such as T-shirts, cups or breakfast boards. However, the money this earns him barely pays for the costs. He says, “It’s a nice hobby, nothing more.”

Comic artist Flix Comic artist Flix | © Hans-Jürgen Büsch The fact that Flix can nevertheless support his family by writing and drawing comics is probably owing to the fact that he diversified his business in terms of publishing forms from the start. Many of his long comic narratives and series appeared as newspaper comics in FAZ and Tagesspiegel, and in the children's magazine Dein Spiegel (associated with the news magazine Der Spiegel) before they were published in books. He also draws funny cartoons, sometimes illustrates books and occasionally produces commercial illustrations but only if he can follow his personal style, he emphasizes.

“My grandfather was a small farmer who planted many different varieties at the same time, without knowing which of them would bear fruit,” says Flix. “That’s basically the way I do it, too.” Despite his popularity among readers, his commercial success is difficult to plan: some of his books, such as the collected Heldentage strips, which first appeared on his website, sold only a few hundred copies. Other books, such as his adaptation of Don Quixote have sold more than 40,000 copies – a considerable figure for auteur comics in Germany.

Some cartoonists accept the fact that it is not always easy for them to make a living with humour. Berlin artist Olaf Schwarzbach, aka OL, captured this in a cartoon. A passerby asks a street artist whether he can live off his work. His answer: “Of course not. I've been dead for three years.”