“At A Grassroots Level Comics Creators Are On Their Own”: A Conversation On Compensation With Hannah Berry & Katriona Chapman

Amongst the nightmares, 2020 has provided many with time for reflection. The comics industry, or the comics ecosystem (to be inclusive of those who don’t see their work as particularly economic), is no exception. Taking stock has come in the form of problematic aspects of the ecosystem being brought to light, and also in the form of surveys that seek to provide us with a statistical overview of the comics ecosystem. These surveys have been embracing those who live off of cartooning and writing, and the many who make their work in whatever free time they have around their “proper” job.

In the USA, Nix Comics’ Ken Eppstein has been running the 2020 Comic Arts Stakeholder Survey. According to Eppstein [https://solrad.co/starting-a-dialogue-ken-eppstein-and-the-comic-arts-stakeholder-survey], this survey sought “to establish who comic artists are in terms of being community stakeholders and start a conversation about what the relationship between comic artists and NPOs [nonprofit organizations] should look like.” 

Meanwhile, artist and UK comics laureate Hannah Berry ran a survey between 18 April and 19 May 2020, which ended up receiving 623 responses. Her UK Comics Creators Research Report seeks to quantify the UK comics ecosystem: who is in it, how many of them are earning, where they’re earning, and what their concerns and their joys are.

I wanted to find out more about the survey, but also get a response to the survey’s findings from someone with experience in the administration of the comics ecosystem. To that end, I had the following conversation with Hannah along with Katriona Chapman. Katriona is an artist herself, and also the PR person for UK publisher Avery Hill.

If you’re a UK based artist interested in participating in future panels or surveys, keep an eye on http://hannahberry.co.uk/survey/.

Hannah Berry, photo by Claire McNamee

Nicholas Burman: Could you explain a little bit about your backgrounds, how you both met. And how you, Hannah, became the UK's comic laureate, what that has entailed thus far?

Hannah: I consider myself very lucky to be a part of the comics scene. I've been making comics since I was very small and had my first graphic novel (Britten & Brülightly) published after finishing art school, which was my introduction to the comicking world and the finest group of people I could ever hope to meet. Like Kat! I don't remember when we first met, exactly? But I'd been aware of her and her work for a long time and knew her as a central figure on 'the circuit' long before we first spoke.

All three of my graphic novels have been published by Jonathan Cape, quite a serious literary publisher, which has given me an air of gravitas that I absolutely do not deserve. Being the UK’s laureate has given me even more gravitas, plus a ceremonial cloak, which I feel obliged to put to good use. (The gravitas, not the cloak. Though I have worn it because, come on. Ceremonial cloak.)

I was actually asked if I wanted to be the next UK Comics Laureate a couple of months before I had my daughter, and I said yes because I had no idea how time-consuming either of those things would be. The role is funded and supported by Lancaster University and the Lakes International Comic Art Festival, and is partly about acting as an ambassador for the medium (I've been on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour a couple of times now) and partly about promoting comics as a tool for literacy. With regards to literacy, I wanted to focus specifically on people learning English as a foreign language and people in prison (the literacy rate amongst offenders is shockingly low), because I thought comics might be an especially welcoming medium to both groups. So far, my post has involved a lot of emailing - A LOT of emailing - of people in different comics, literary and arts organizations, charities, NGOs, community groups etc about various ideas and schemes, some of which are almost off the ground, but nearly everything has been put on hold now due to the pandemic. One thing I have managed to achieve, though, is this survey.

Katriona Chapman

Katriona Chapman: I found my way into comics through a pretty roundabout route... starting out as a freelance illustrator working in children's books then moving into self-publishing/zines when I became frustrated with freelancing. The frustration was mostly related to poor pay and also being encouraged to make work that was very limited... I was often steered in directions I wasn't interested in by my agent (for example, I was told to make my portfolio more girly - princesses and fairies and ballerinas.) I figured if I wasn't being paid well to do work I didn't like, I might as well move sideways into comics where I would have a bit more freedom. I still wouldn't make much money but I thought there would be opportunities to tell more interesting stories! I started selling my zines at festivals and made lots of great connections with people in the comics scene, which led to a job with Avery Hill Publishing and me being able to publish two graphic novels through them. Hannah and I were on a panel together last year at ELCAF, but I can't remember when we first met!

What's the elevator pitch for the survey, and what was your purpose with it, what encouraged you to do it?

The idea for it came about when I'd just finished my last graphic novel Livestock in 2017 and I realized I couldn't afford to do another one: the money vs the time it takes to make such lengthy comics might've been doable when I was younger, but in my mid-30's it was starting to feel like an indulgent fantasy rather than a career. I noisily announced I wouldn't be making another, and was met with a wave of responses from creators who were feeling similarly burned out in all areas of comics. Trying to work out how to make the situation better, I thought the best first step would be to get an accurate picture of the situation.

The cover to Berry's "final" graphic novel, Livestock

The survey was designed to find out who we are (demographically speaking; it's all anonymous), what we're earning and from which sources, what obstacles we're facing and what support we might need to be able to continue making comics. Plus, because the survey went live in April this year, there were questions about how the pandemic had affected our working practices, livelihoods and lives.

Were there any results or statistics that surprised you?

Hannah: I think the most surprising outcome of the survey was just how accurately it described everything we've long suspected: there's so little pay in comics that very few creators are making an actual living out of it, and people are largely putting in the hours that they can around other work commitments. The range of income did come as a bit of a shock, but I suspect those high earnings are down to adaptations and rights sales rather than good page rates! The breakdown of demographics was fascinating too (I've got Latin roots so delighted to discover there are four of us altogether), and the strength of feeling towards the medium and the community was just overwhelming - the word 'love' appeared in the literal responses 196 times! Properly heart-warming.

The survey makes a distinction between independent creators and mainstream ones, but what is the "mainstream" UK comics industry right now. In terms of sales and distribution, what titles have the most eyes on them?

Hannah: The survey itself doesn't really make that distinction, mostly because I've never really known where to draw the line myself! The mentions of mainstream in the report are taken from people's literal responses, and I think the meaning changes according to who you speak to. For many, mainstream means the Big Two; for many others it means any big publisher with a 'work for hire' model; and for others it's the distinction between being published and being self-published.

Katriona: The question about what is the mainstream, and what sells/gets most distribution...

I agree that depending on where you're positioned in the comics world, your view of what is mainstream varies a lot. Coming from a zine background and working for a publisher that's very much in the small press/small indie area, to me most big publishers seem mainstream. Though I'd say there aren't actually that many of those in the UK, and the comics output of the ones that do exist seems to have dropped off in recent years. I don't know if Hannah would agree with that?!

I asked Steve Walsh (our sales guy at Avery Hill) about this, and here's his response:

“I'd say in terms of UK comics and 'eyes on' you'd probably have to look at Private Eye which, while not a comic of course, contains loads of cartoons and strips and would have higher circulation than any 'pure' comics title so a comic creator published in PE would get seen more than any other. Viz would be up there as well with the same caveats as to the balance of content in the magazine. If you asked the general public to name a cartoonist I reckon Steve Bell would be high up in the list so I'd say if you were looking at 'mainstream' in terms of sales and exposure it's probably political cartoons and satirical stuff that's the pre-eminent thing right now. There's never been a big superhero market in the UK and the traditional adventure titles, genre stuff and fiction stuff has pretty much been supplanted by video games and Netflix. (It's no coincidence that 2000AD is owned by a company that made its money making video games.) Even in terms of print stuff it tends to be shoddy kids' mags with plastic attached that dominates the shelves in newsagents. Specifically related to UK comics the 'real mainstream' (to borrow a phrase from Stephen Holland up at Page 45) is going to be titles from publishers like [Jonathan] Cape, Self Made Hero and ourselves in terms of producing material with a broader appeal than genre stuff, but if you asked people on the street about British comics they'd still say things like 2000AD and The Beano which have resonant links to the past. You'd probably still get people saying Eagle and The Dandy even though neither of those are actually in print at the moment!”

I was surprised to see Iran so prominent in the "From which countries do you receive income directly related to your comic production?" word cloud. What's the deal with that?

Hannah: I have absolutely no idea, but as soon as I get a chance I'm going to investigate and find out how I can get on this mythical Middle Eastern gravy train.

A stray observation: what happens to comics artists when they turn 44, and seem to stop making comics - life?  

Hannah: They walk off into the cold, like that one penguin on March of the Penguins. Morgan Freeman voice-over and all. Really sad.

Actually, this is something that gives a level of urgency to this whole endeavor - a lot of people who, like me, started out comics in their teens and 20s after the mid-2000's rebirth are having children, and that definitely forces you to reassess the value of your working time. If we don't find a way to make comics pay, how can we justify spending time on them over other work that's better paid?

Another: it seems silly that a very underpaid profession finds so many of its practitioners living in the most expensive city in the UK. I am guessing a lot of comics artists aren't from London, but that's where a lot of them end up. Since Thatcher, the UK has become increasingly centralized, politically, economically, and culturally. It's sad that there is very little in the way of regional scenes.

Hannah: True. I think a lot of it might be sustained by the social side of things - I don't imagine many people have moved to London to begin a comics career, but it has a very established social scene which probably keeps a lot of creators going where otherwise they might have burnt out or lost interest. There's another big group in Leeds, and I'm sure this has a lot to do with the city having been home to Thought Bubble, one of the biggest annual comics festivals in the UK. There's also a huge community in Scotland focussed around Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh, which all boast a solid social scene and are served by some fantastic festivals and conventions. Plus Scotland has devolved arts funding (ie not directed by London) and it seems to be much more supportive of comics as a medium.

The 2019 Broken Frontier Panel at ELCAF with Comics Laureate Hannah Berry, BF’s Andy Oliver, Jayde Perkin, Katriona Chapman and Aleesha Nandhra. Image courtesy of Andy Oliver

Katriona: I always thought there were regional scenes, or at least a good number of creators based outside of London. Leeds and Bristol spring to mind. A lot of the comics creators I work with through Avery Hill or that I'm friends with online aren't based in London... though I agree the UK is frustratingly centralized. Perhaps some of this comes down to the lack of earning power too in the sense that personally I limit the festivals I attend as an exhibitor to just the ones I know I can afford to attend. Which means if it involves traveling outside my hometown and staying in a hotel, there aren't that many that are feasible in terms of covering my costs. I would certainly travel to festivals further afield if I knew I would make enough in sales to make it worthwhile.

Your findings confirm the suspicion that men are over represented in the UK comics industry. I might have missed this in the report, I'm not sure, but is there also a gender gap in relation to income from similar projects?

Katriona: In my experience of the UK comics world I don't notice much of a gender disparity, but this may be again to do with my positioning on the indie side of things. At Avery Hill we tend to publish fractionally more female than male creators, and when I've attended events such as Thought Bubble I can't say I've ever really felt that men were over-represented either on the creator or the visitor side. Perhaps there are other areas of the industry that are more slanted towards male creators, and I suppose there's a chance that those areas are also ones where creators are able to earn more..? I don't know though. Personally I'm more concerned about the under-representation of POC and working class voices, a lot of which will come down to economics again and the fact that it's much easier for those with a certain amount of privilege to consider entering a field where there's so little chance of making any kind of income out of it.

Hannah: Like Kat, I move in more indie circles and I was honestly quite surprised that women weren't better represented (I've been telling people for years that there are as many women as men, so I was sad to be proven wrong). Comics does seem to be very white, and although it's statistically similar to the rest of the country (90% white in comics, 87% white in the UK), as you pointed out the biggest hub of comics is in London which, as a city, is 60% white.

I actually asked for a further piece of analysis to be done on the top two earning categories, essentially everyone earning over £50k. It's not part of the main report as the number of respondents is so small that the data can't be considered 'robust' - the numbers in the main report needed to be solid and totally irrefutable - but it did give a really interesting look at the trend of who is actually earning above 'living wage' level. The truth is that the top earners are 82% male (compared to 60% overall) and 98% are white. Maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that white men are overrepresented in the top two earning groups, but this definitely speaks to a problem that needs addressing.

I want to take a moment to talk about the importance of public funding for the arts, specifically comics. Hannah, I know that you've received arts funding. A lot of indie press stuff in Europe has the support from public institutions; at least, I know that's the case with Tommy Musturi's Future series, as well as comics anthology magazine Stripburger. You’ve mentioned Scotland, I think France also has good funding programs, and there's a bit of cash for small publishing projects in the Netherlands. It seems like a lot of the issues that this report highlights is symptomatic of broader issues we're all dealing with in what is often dubbed neoliberalism or late capitalism, in which the idea of public funds supporting anything, especially the arts, is treated as suspect by the political class.

Hannah: Fortunately our own brand of late-stage capitalism in the UK doesn’t seem to include all-out suspicion of arts funding yet, though the populist flavor of the day does revel in a nice culture war, so who knows how bleak things will get? At the time of writing it feels as though we've driven our country into the safari park only to have the current government come screeching in, ripping off the wing mirrors, terrorizing the occupants and shitting on the windscreen.

The comics scene - and all art - needs long-term, grassroots support if it is to flourish, but this doesn't make sense in a capitalist system in which quality, reach and impact are irrelevant unless they turn a profit: a quick buck will always win over long-term investment, and secure gains will always win over speculation. Arts education in the UK has been dramatically underfunded in recent years, and though the main funding body, the Arts Council, is there to provide some support for artists and organizations, it's nothing like the arts funding available in other European countries and is extremely hard to get (I only got my first grant - on the fourth attempt - after a sympathetic employee reached out). It also requires you to already have match funding from other sources, which in most areas of comics is pretty unattainable. At a grassroots level comics creators are on their own, and this is a massive barrier to a lot of people. It's a huge problem.

The value of art is far greater than this current system can account for, and I think that value was really acknowledged during the lockdown when people relied on artistic content to get through the days. I'll be interested to see if this shared experience changes anything in the future.

I want to broaden the conversation about the economics of comics, and perhaps Katriona has something to say here. I'm wondering about how other people within the industry fair. Is anyone in this industry making much money, or is it just too niche? 

There must be people working in editing, distribution, PR, manufacturing, retail, etc., who are also not doing that well when it comes to their finances. Do you foresee some way that calls for a more equitable comics economics could also include those people, as they're very much helping work get produced, although they're not producing individual objects/books per se?

Katriona: I think the idea of comics being a niche medium is quite important... because it ties into the issue of audiences as well. I think unless we can persuade more non-comics readers to try comics, it will always be a niche medium which means a small market. The panel touched on the idea that publishers frequently have to pulp comics that haven't sold... understandably warehousing stock that isn't selling becomes untenable after a while. And as we know, printing small numbers of books is vastly less cost-effective than printing in bulk, which means that comics are a definite financial risk for publishers.

Someone also brought up during the panel discussion that perhaps as comics are such a labor-intensive medium for artists to work in, that that in itself can make it hard for artists to be paid a decent rate for their time while also ensuring that everyone else involved in the book also makes a profit. Several people shared their experiences from various sides of the comics industry saying that they had found it very hard to pay creators well and still make projects work financially for all involved. And yet as Charlot Kristensen pointed out, films are also a massively labour-intensive medium, and expensive to produce, but the audience for films is vast. I think expanding the audience is probably key to making comics more financially viable.

Hannah: I think Kat's right in that the main issue is the lack of audience. There's a lot of, I guess, light infrastructure around comics in the UK: lots of people who are enthusiasts and who help to support the whole scene by producing, promoting and selling comics without making them themselves, and I don't think anyone is making a huge income from it. There was a lot of deliberation as to whether they should be included in the survey actually; in the end I decided it would be better to just focus on creators for now, but it would definitely be beneficial to put the entire ecosystem under the microscope at some point. During one of the online discussions we were speculating about how much the entire UK comics scene actually makes, which obviously depends on where you draw the line: if you expand it to include film and TV adaptations it'd be a pretty considerable amount!

Another thing the survey highlighted was the international nature of the comics/illustration industry. Do you know the nationalities of the participants, how international the "British" scene is? Does this also point to the need to form more bonds with illustrators elsewhere, especially those in the anglophone world, as I imagine everyone in it will be competing for pretty much the same jobs.

Katriona: I think fostering bonds between people working in comics/illustration in different countries is important. Even outside of the anglophone world, I hear interesting things about issues that creators experience in these industries in different countries... and I think there could be a lot to learn if we compare notes. The specific difficulties we face in trying to expand audiences and improve opportunities for creators do vary somewhat from place to place, and that's worth exploring. I can't think of specifics off the top of my head, but I have seen some talk on twitter recently about issues that creators face in the French comic industry... and in the UK I think we can sometimes assume things are better elsewhere (especially somewhere like France where there's a long tradition of highly valuing comics as an art-form).

Hannah: We ended up having to cut a lot of questions from the survey which would have been really interesting to know the answers to but not useful enough to use, and unfortunately respondents nationalities was one of those questions. Shame - it'd be nice to know, wouldn't it? Maybe in a future survey!

I'm right there with Kat on fostering international ties! Because we're a relatively small community I think most of us are keeping an eye on what's happening elsewhere in the world with the intention to, maybe, get involved somehow. About 1/3 of respondents have exhibited at festivals internationally, which is a big deal and not the easiest thing to accomplish, especially if you aren't invited as a guest with expenses paid. It's worth it, though, as going to comics festivals and events abroad is an amazing experience and can be a huge boost professionally through reaching new readers, or networking, or in finding inspiration.

There are also wider benefits to the industry in communicating with comics people in different countries, such as making sure creators in one country are not vastly devaluing themselves and undercutting creators in another country, but also the possibility of cross-pollinating ideas and forming collaborations around the world is a really exciting one. And maybe we can avoid certain pitfalls that other countries are suffering from - I know in France the problem is that the sheer volume of graphic novels being published every year for a saturated market is driving down the value, and although we're a long, long way from that it's good to see what could happen if we pursue that particular road to its soggy end.

Funnily enough the ministry of culture in France carried out an official version of our survey a couple of years ago at the request of creators and followed up the results with recommendations to save the industry (though I think there has been some pushback from publishers). Italy has also just published the results of a similar survey this month, apparently with very similar results to ours, and there's talk of similar surveys in the works amongst other European creators. It would be great to be able to pool our data somehow and see what we can do with it. I'm also in touch with Ken Eppstein who recently carried out a stakeholder survey on comics creators in Ohio. His angle was more driven by the relationship between creators and nonprofit organizations which is an area I know basically nothing about, so I'm looking forward to picking his brains and seeing what we can apply to our own situation!

Conferences and fairs have gone online this year. How do you think the conference scene differs in the UK to the USA? Have either of you been involved in an online fair or something similar this year? There's been some chatter that this business model also needs to be critiqued, people wondering if it takes up more resources than benefits it produces…

Katriona: I haven't experienced the USA conference scene personally... I guess I've always assumed that it's way bigger than the UK one both in terms of the number of good festivals and the attendance of those festivals?! I attended TCAF (Toronto) once as an exhibitor and although the festival was incredibly busy at times, I don't think I necessarily did more business than I usually would at a UK event. Of course some of that might come down to 'exposure' in different places and how much people are aware of your work too. I haven't taken part in any online festivals yet, though I'm planning a panel for Thought Bubble Online in November. I'm sure there's probably quite a lot to address in terms of how effective/useful online festivals are. I've seen people comment that their main reason for attending a festival is to meet friends, meet creators, network etc which obviously means that for those people an online festival is not especially appealing. I think it's much harder to create the kind of buzz that a real life event generates, with people saving up and splashing out on comics because it's a fun communal event that they're taking part in. But I'm sure there's potential for online festivals to create useful content and help market people's work... it will just probably take a while to figure out ways to do that that are effective and worthwhile for all involved.