How Do You Make a Living, Comic Book Illustrator? - Pacific Standard

How Do You Make a Living, Comic Book Illustrator?

Noah Davis talks to illustrator Neil Googe about how payment works in the comic book world, why commissions aren't the answer, and how a vacation to Thailand turned into a life there.
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Neil Googe spends his days in Thailand drawing comics and making games. The illustrator, who frequently works with DC Comics, is attempting to launch a number of table top and role-playing games that he hopes will eventually find an audience. He emails with Pacific Standard about how payment works in the comic book world, why commissions aren't the answer, and how a vacation to Thailand turned into a life there.

What do you tell people your job is when they ask?

I basically say that I create comics, like Batman and Superman, occasionally designing monsters and spaceships for movies and games ... and I’m now making table top games like Dungeons and Dragons, Settlers of Catan, and Magic the Gathering. It's easier to throw one of the big names in there so people get a grip quicker of what you mean. If you say you’re a comic artist, most people think you do stand-up comedy for some reason. Tell people you make table top games, most think of Monopoly. When I used to tell people I was also a concept designer, for some reason, they always thought I made cars, or perfume bottles. It's strange how people view certain job titles.

How has the economic model for being a comic illustrator changed in the past 10 or 15 years with the rise of the Internet?

Well I don’t think it's really changed too much to be honest. Previously, you’d draw pages (I mainly draw, not write), the companies had a Fed Ex account, and a man in a van would come round, pick up the pages, and ship them back. Nowadays, you just upload everything to an FTP, so I think the biggest change has been more editorial timings. They’re able to get work last-minute now if there's a problem. Before they had to commission someone, usually by phone, from a catalogue of people they had. It meant turnarounds were much slower. Now, if one artist falls sick, they can mail a few people, have a reply by end of day, send them a script, and start getting art in within a few days.

Neil Googe. (Photo: Courtesy of Neil Googe) 

Neil Googe. (Photo: Courtesy of Neil Googe) 

There were much longer lead times on projects. Now you can find yourself really to the wire. As for the financial side of things, payments are faster. They get their art, process your invoice digitally, and with electronic payments, you’re generally paid within a week or two. To be honest, what we get paid per page has been stuck for a while sadly. Don’t get me wrong, the pay's not bad, but comics are kind of frozen in terms of what they sell with no real jump or decline, which means the page rate is stuck.

You do freelance drawing for DC Comics. How does that work? Do they come to you? Are you in their stable of writers?

I have an editor or two that I am friendly with. They usually come to me if they have something they think fits what I do, or if I have some free time, I can drop them a line and they can usually rustle me something up. I am in their collection of go-to guys, so I usually have work when I need it.

How much does something like that pay?

It depends what level you’re at, what job you’re on, which company you work for, etc. I won’t get into exact details of what I earn just in case anyone I work alongside is reading this, but if you treated this like a 9–5 job, had a regular book to work on, were an average-level guy with an average speed like myself, you should comfortably make around the $50,000 mark. If you’re quicker, you make more. If you’re more popular, you’d make more. If you're on a bigger book, you’d make more. Add royalties on top of that, get a few extra illustration or concept jobs to go along side it, and it all works out pretty well. I, on the other hand, live in Thailand and so I tend to work to my needs. I don't usually earn as much.

A lot of guys go on to concept design. The work feels a little more stable, the pay a little more regular with a monthly wage, and depending on who you work for the concept jobs can earn a lot. To date I’ve stuck with the comics more as it allows me to travel and is very flexible, which has suited my lifestyle until this point.

You’re also working on a board game. Are you trying to make money with that or is it more of a fun side project?

At the moment with the game stuff, if I am being realistic, it's just a side project. It's not easy to make money. Saying that, Kickstarter has completely changed the table top games industry and so making money from it is a real possibility. With something like this, though, I tend to aim at making money with the expectation I won’t. That way I won’t leave myself financially crippled if it doesn’t, but I’ll do everything I can to make sure it does.

I think if you approach a project with the expectation you can’t make a living from it, you find the products you create will reflect that. Equally, if you approach it [like] it's your next big career, you can find yourself in a position of financial trouble quickly if you're not careful. So I approach it with cautious optimism.

With the board games (I’m also doing a card game and an RPG), I try to make sure that whatever the idea behind the game, that idea can be more than the game in front of you. For example I wouldn’t make a game like Settlers of Catan. Don’t get me wrong, it's an amazing game and heaps of fun to play, but I just prefer to create things that could be a comic, which Settlers couldn’t really, or could be an RPG, again which Settlers would struggle to be. I like the story as much as the game when I create, and so tend to create a property first—like Welcome to the Hood, SWAMP Rats, or Steve Huge—and then build my game around that idea.

You say you only occasionally take commissions. Why? That seems like something that could potentially be quite lucrative.

It's a speed issue. I am just not quick enough and people end up waiting ridiculous amounts of time to get their drawing (sorry to everyone still waiting). That's something I am not comfortable with. Also, the time it takes me to draw a commission, due to the perfectionist nature in me, I could draw a page of a comic pretty much, and commissions don’t pay the same as a comic page. Not to be mercenary, but with so much on the plate, and so little time as it is, I also have all the art work that needs doing for the games, characters need designing for the properties, etc.

With all that combined, I just struggle to find the time to justify doing them sadly, which is a shame as I really enjoy them.

Why Thailand?

Thailand was meant to be a one-month holiday, which turned into three months, that turned into a year, and now I have been here eight, almost nine years, on and off. It's just a comfortable place to live. It's not without its issues of course, but largely a fun and relaxing place to be. It is a far more laid back lifestyle, and with all that I am trying to do, with the games, etc., I can live far cheaper here while I do that. Which frees me up from so much work, giving me time to concentrate on the games.

Plus, the change of culture is nice; it makes travel in Southeast Asia easy. I'm not sure how much longer I’ll stay, mind you, but, for now, it works well for me.

Do you have a goal of how much you try to make in a month or year?

Nope, not at all. I keep an eye on my funds. If they’re running low, I top them up. If they’re not, I don’t really worry about it. It's not really the most responsible approach to money management, I know, and makes my future a little worrying if I am honest, so I don’t recommend it. But while I am attempting to get the games off the ground at least, I am OK working on things this way. I’ll give it a few years, if it doesn’t work out, then I’ll look toward how I [can] focus on a slightly more secure future.

How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.

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