OUTSIDE VOICES: Emmet O' Neill on Stepping Out of The Niche.
Irish comics today
The Irish comics industry has never been as strong. We have a wide range of talent working on a variety of increasingly polished self published titles. We have a growing small press/publishing industry. And we can boast world class talent contributing to mainstream comics globally. We have indigenous comics websites, podcasts and even a couple of small but great conventions and events. These are good times to be an Irish comics creator. Up until relatively recently and the development of the web, the key challenge for comics in Ireland was that it remained a niche cottege industry in a country too small to support it.
In this post I want to talk a little bit about why scale and the lack of commercial opportunity in Ireland has prohibited growth in the comics industry. I also want to talk a little about alternative ways to make money by tapping into a global digital audience online.
A History of Exploitation
Other countries managed to maintain a viable comics presence through sheer scale. Comics are a niche medium, but if you have a population north of 50 million, you probably have a feasible industry. There are two parts to it, you need creative talent and you need some level of business acumen. This is a gross generalisation, but most creative people by their nature aren’t great business people. They may have the same level of aptitude for business as anyone else, but they will put the importance of artwork and writing above business oriented tasks almost any day of the week. They generally utilise help from the likes of publishers, agents, printers and distribution networks to look after a lot of this side of things. As a result of this, comics creators tend to have been exploited in every country by every generation since comics began. You can start back with Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster and their exploitation at the hands of Harry Donnenfeld and Jack Liebowitz. The creators of Superman were dreadfully exploited at the hands of gangsters and racketeers, but without the gangsters to exploit them, it’s unlikely Superman would have ever made it to print, and he certainly wouldn’t be still around today. You can watch the exploitation through the ages and follow a line via Jack Kirby, right the way up to most modern comics publishers and their abysmal page rates.
The average industrial wage in Ireland is about thirty two thousand euro per year. Even if you could sell your comic to every comics fan in Ireland and you made a euro on each sale, you’d be hard pushed to make that much. As an alternative, you might work for an established publisher for a page rate. The work, when you can get it, pays about €150 per page (obviously this varies hugely based on the comic and your experience). If you draw two hundred pages per year, you can make a living doing something you love. If you are making comics because it’s what you were put on this earth to do, then that’s what you have to do. Drawing comics is one of the hardest creative jobs in the world. You need natural born talent, thousands of hours of practice, and a deep inbuilt sense of motivation and perseverance.While many industries in Ireland have plummeted in recent years, the more creative areas in general are thriving. We have a phenomenally successful animation industry for a country of our size, we have a growing apps development scene and we have an ever expanding games industry. With such compelling employment opportunities for creatives available across these areas, a career in comics really does need to be a higher calling.
The Move towards a Digital Medium
Like most media, comics are transforming into a digital medium. Comics have existed in more or less the same format for the last hundred or so years, and while the transformation to digital will be slow, we will ultimately hit a point where the bulk of comics will be delivered online. There will be a lot of new comics readers too. Practical issues like access to a pleasant comic shop, discoverability of content or physical storage often prevent people from accessing comics. With these barriers removed the audience will grow substantially.
So while the move to digital comic distribution suddenly provides a global audience, the problem is that the Internet has a tendency to drive the price of digital content down. Movies, TV shows, apps, even the old stalwarts like porn eventually hit a cost point of close to nothing. So looking online, you need to find different ways to make money other than just the sale of your comics. One approach is to look beyond just your own work and be an aggregator and facilitator of content. This essentially just replaces or updates the role of the publisher. You invest in infrastructure, get other peoples content onto your system and make your 30% on each sale, download or advert served. It works for Apple and most likely works for Comixology too. A Netflix style online comics model, hasn’t really been cracked by anyone yet. This would basically facilitate a slightly nicer arrangement than the traditional publishing model, the creator gets the lion’s share of the money and retains ownership of their work.
1000 Fans Theory
The thing that I think is most likely to work for the average (exceptionally talented and hardworking) Irish comics creator is the 1000 fans theory. The theory goes that if an artist/writer/musician has 1000 dedicated fans, then that’s enough to make a living from your creative outputs. I’m not talking about Facebook fans and twitter followers, but people genuinely interested in what you create and how you create it. This is your audience, and although it’s difficult to build this kind of fan base, the Internet at least makes it possible. So you might give your digital comics away for free, but the 1000 fans want to go the extra mile and buy physical copies, prints or original artwork. If each fan spends thirty euro on your content throughout the year, you’re making that average wage we talked about earlier.
All traditional media (books, TV, films, music) are at varying points on this digital transformation curve at the moment. New business models will form over time, things will change. While predicting the future is a fool’s game, I suspect Ireland will arrive on the other side of this transformation in better shape. There will be more readers (albeit paying less). True fans will continue to pay more, but will have a closer connection to creators. The majority of comics will be sold digitally to a global audience. The bigger players will continue to dominate the comics world and will likely continue to exploit creators for another century, but thousands of small producers will choose to find their audience directly.
As the medium moves forward, it is important for comics creators to learn from the past mistakes of others and not perpetuate a culture of exploitation in comics. While Ireland is too small to support a native comics industry, the Internet provides Irish comics creators with a chance to tap into a global audience. And even though artists and writers may need to look at alternative ways to earn a decent wage, there is at least an equal opportunity to do so now.
Emmet O’Neill started his career as an illustrator and has spent the last 15 or so years working across creative and interactive media. He is currently creative director for HMH publishing’s interactive division, where he makes award winning apps, games and interactive content for kids. Find him on twitter @emmet
OUTSIDE VOICES IS A SERIES OF ARTICLES BY EXPERTS FROM OUTSIDE THE IRISH COMIC FIELD WHO GENEROUSLY GIVE THEIR TIME TO OFFER VALUABLE INPUT INTO HOW THE IRISH COMIC SCENE COULD IMPROVE.