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This is Part 2 of Comic Foundry’s interview with Neal Adams, the legendary comic artist that helped Batman, the X-Men and the comics industry. Part 1 is available here.
I know you’ve done a lot to help artists with their rights, help protect themselves …
What kind of advice would you give to young artists to protect themselves?
First of all, I would not advise anybody in any school anywhere to not take a business course. If you want to be an artist, you will make more money taking a business course than you will studying art. If you can take a really good business course while you do all the good artwork that you want to do, then you’re more likely to make a better living than you are if you take all the art you ever want to do and no business course.
Most artists are very bad businessmen. I’ve held myself back from bashing the brains of young artists who don’t have the common sense to stand up for themselves. They don’t represent themselves well. The typical picture of a comic book artist, certainly in the ’50s and the ’60s — things have changed a little bit today because there are people like me around nudging them — the typical picture of a comic book artist is a guy in a closet with a drawing table and a light and a radio and a telephone and paper and ink. And the closet door is locked. And they have paper and they fill the paper with drawings and then they slide the paper out from under the closet so that people will give them more paper. Not to make money, just to get more paper to draw on.
There’s a part of the artist that has to step aside at times — and you can do it in a very pleasant way, you don’t have to be nasty or mean-tempered, in fact, you don’t do good business if you’re nasty or mean-tempered. But in a very pleasant way, say the right thing at the right time. And if you do that, you can make a living. I’ll give you an example: Put this in bold type. Let’s say you’re going for a job and they have a sliding scale of money that they’re willing to pay for this kind of a job for this book cover. Let’s say the sliding scale is between $600 and $1,200 for a book cover. Let’s say you come in, you show your work, they really like it. Now they can say to you, “For starting artists, we pay $600 a cover. Is that OK with you?”
Well, you’ve just made the first mistake. You haven’t really done anything, but you’ve made a mistake. You’ve let them dictate the terms of the agreement. What you sorta have to hope for is that they’re going to ask you how much you charge. And one of the ways you can do that is that you can lay eggs throughout the conversation as you’re talking. You can say, “Yeah, I’ve done a few jobs like this,” which will raise their eyebrows. And then they’ll want to know who for, and if you haven’t got a good lie at the tip of your tongue, you’re in trouble.
So you try and convince them you have some experience — not a lot of experience, nothing that will bother them — so that they will then say to you, “How much would you like to get for this, because we do want you to do it.” Once that happens, they’re the fool, you’re in charge. What you do is, you say in your mind: “What would I like to be paid for this?” You don’t know what their rate is. You’ve heard that it’s around $600 or $800 or $1,000 or something like that. But you say to yourself, “What would I like to get? I’d like to get $1,000.” So what you say is, “Well, the last time I did a job like this, I charged $2,000, but I want to work with you, so I’m willing to work for less.”
Now, that does a number of things. First, it puts them in a defensive posture, because they don’t pay any more than $1,200. So you’ve pretty much dropped the $600. That’s one. Their highest rate is $1,200. Are they going to pay you $1,200? Well, how are they going to pay you $1,200 if you told them your normal rate is $2,000? But you have said you’ll bring your rate down for them. Will you bring it all the way down to $1,200? Maybe – just maybe, they’ll extend themselves and say, “Well, the best we can do is $1,500.” Or maybe they’ll say, “The best we can do is $1,200.” Whatever they say, you then say, “Well, I want to work with you guys, and I think it’s a great project so I’ll go for it.”
Now what have you done? First of all, you’ve done them a favor. You’ve taken your price down. That guy will go into the next office after you leave and say, “You know what, I got this guy to bring his price down.” He’ll be very proud of himself. You’ve done him a favor — even a personal favor: helped him do his job.
Another thing you’ve done is you’ve doubled the price you were going to get. You didn’t get $600 you got $1200 and maybe if you were lucky you got more. But let’s just say you got $1,200. The fact of the matter is that you can go home and you can work on that job and maybe you can work two days on it, maybe three days on it, maybe you work four days on it, but however much time you put into that job, it was worth $600. The half a minute it took you to say what I told you to say, you earned $600. Half a minute. $600 for four days, $600 for half a minute.
These are the kinds of things you have to learn if you go into business. And this is just not for a freelance artist. If you go into other kinds of business you have to know those things like sales tax. You can’t just leap into things. You, for example, you got a Web site. You start to sell things, you need to know what taxes you have to pay, how to put your money away. You have to pay attention to these things. Not very easy.
Speaking of money, what should a young artist expect, rate-wise?
All the people that you’re talking about — of those that will try to do comic books — so few will make it that it almost doesn’t matter. And if they have common sense they’ll try and do something else. They’ll try and do storyboards for advertising agencies, they’ll try and become an art director or they’ll go out to Hollywood and try to do animation or other things like that.
To become a comic book artist … very, very difficult. Generally, the rate, because there have been people stumping for better rates for a long time, are better than what they used to be.
For a comic book penciler can expect to get $200 a page. A comic book inker, $125, $150, $175, somewhere in that range. A colorist can get $100 a page because it’s mostly computer now. It’s not bad, at the end of the week if you can do a bunch of pages you’re doing all right. It’s better than it used to be. Not tremendously long ago it used to be $50 a page. So things have changed. It is nice if they’re willing to give you work.
But because it’s gotten better, it’s gotten more competitive. There’s a lot more backstabbing going on. There’s a lot more politics. It’s a good idea to have a backup plan. Because I know guys that have been out of work for three months. They say, “What’s going on? I’ve been out of work for three months?” The response will be, “Oh really, didn’t I send you a script? Let me look through what I have here …”
If you don’t have work for three months, what do you do in the meantime? You make better money doing commercial work — doing storyboards, stuff like that. It’s much smarter. And there’s lot s of advertising agencies in all the big cities in America these days. Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit … they need storyboard people, and they pay more. You can do a storyboard frame from between $50-$200 a frame. That’s just one frame. A comic book page has six. So you can make as much doing one frame as you can, in some instances, as you can doing a whole page. It don’t seem right, but thems the facts.
And if this person were lucky enough to go on catch a break, how do you recommend someone to deal with the initial fanfare?
They get attention? Is that what happens? Hmm. That’s an interesting question. Usually those people only get attention at a comic book convention. There is no other place for them to get attention. They’re not stars. It’s not like a movie star. You don’t walk down the street and people recognize you. You work at home. So maybe somebody sends you a letter. Things are changing. There’s a lot of e-mail going on so maybe somebody will recognize you and send you e-mail. But most guys stay pretty level-headed because it’s not a kind of stardom. If it is, it’s a very low-echelon stardom.
One of the things I like about comics is that I can run my business, I can be talking to people all day — nobody knows that I’m Neal Adams the comic book guy. They think I’m Neal Adams, Continuity’s storyboard guy. Unless I go to a convention where I’m recognized, then it’s a different story. And even then, if I don’t do sketches, then everybody fades. But if you sit and do sketches, people gather around. But if you don’t do sketches and you just sign stuff, you got a certain a number of people and it’s not bad. And if you’re smart you try and do business and you try and sell properties and you try and generate interest in the things that you’re doing.
Except for idiots — if they get complimented or somebody says good things about them it inflates them and builds them up into something that they’re not. And I just feel sorry for those guys.
This idea of taking yourself seriously … I’ve always told people, look, I draw comic books. People give me money to draw pictures. It’s almost a sin if you think about it. I do what I want and they give me money. Who gets to do that? So, I don’t really expect more than that. And if people want to make a fuss over it, I think that’s really great, but that’s already enough. That’s better than what most people can expect.
It’s almost like being an actor without being bumped and pushed around. So there’s a good side to it. But then there’s this thing where certain fans will push artists because their view of the artist is that the artist is great. The artist is this, that or the other thing.
And I have seen situations where a couple of artists who let their heads get filled with this adulation and some of these fans have money and they can buy their originals and give them money and finance them. And what happens is that you get an altered perception of how the world is. And what happens then is that at some point — and I’ve watched this from the outside, I’ve never participated — is that you watch this rocket take off and after a certain point it can’t sustain itself and then crash. It’s non-sustainable. There’s no place for it go. You can’t operate in a forum of adoration. You can’t do it. You have to get real.
This happened to me in high school. I found that when people were complimenting my friends because of the work that they did, they’d be falsely humble. And when they were falsely humble, people would compliment them more. And I realized I was doing the same thing. People would compliment me, I would be falsely humble, I would say, “Oh, well, it’s not that good,” and they would say “No, no it’s great! No, really, it’s fantastic!”
And then it’s one thing when it happens to you, but when you see it happen to other people, you start realize that means they’re accepting all this appreciation but it’s not helping their work because the next job that they do is pretty much the same as the last job because they got appreciated so much on the last job, so how is that benefiting them? So then what I started to do, just for the hell of it, at first I would come in with something, I would show it to people, they’d say, “That’s great” and I’d say, “I know.” And they’d say, “Go to hell.” I’d say, “Look, you don’t think I know it’s good? It’s good. What’s the big deal?” And then they’d walk away. And then I discovered that that hurt me — but it helped me. It made me realize that if I ever really wanted to get complimented — if I got complimented in the face of that — in other words, if someone would then come up to me and say, “Look, I know you’re an asshole and I know you think it’s great, but I’ll tell you, this is better than anything you’ve ever done.” And then I can afford to say thank you. But if I do it every time I get a compliment, I’m not going to see the forest through the trees.
So, I don’t let myself have that false pleasure. It’s a bad thing. So how do people do with that? I guess it’s the way good actors deal with being complimented too much and getting too many awards — they start to go back into themselves and pay attention to what’s real. Or else, poof, crash.
I was never fortunate enough to meet or talk with Will Eisner. But everything I read there’s just this overwhelming response of how much he single-handedly changed and set the landscape for the comic world. What would you want people to say about you?
He’s a prick. I don’t think of myself as old enough for people to think about that sort of thing. Everybody has their own personality. Will is well-loved. I’m liked by tougher people. I’m not liked, necessarily, by weak people, people who are too sensitive, people who are concerned about criticism. I’m not an easy guy.
But if you fall in a puddle, I’ll help you up. If you need a buck, I’ll give you a buck. I’ll do the things that need to be done for brotherhood and all the rest of it. But if you make your way through to me and shove a piece of art under my face and demand that I criticize it, I will criticize it, and that will be bad thing. If you do that to Will, if you did that to Will, he will always have some nice thing to say and probably help you along the way because he’s a genuinely nice person.
I’m nice up to the point that I can be nice. I try to be as nice as I can, but I have trouble looking someone in the eye and not saying what I believe to be the truth. I have a lot of trouble with that. So, of the people that I think are the best people in the business like Will Eisner and Joe Kubert, I’m maybe second tier down in “good guy.” I’m first tier if you need help. I’m second tier down if you really want to like me. I don’t do that. Will was. Will did. And maybe he did it too well for whatever that doctor was that operated on him that let that blood vessel go. That pissed me off. If I were down there right now I’d punch that guy right in the face. Oh well, fuck it.
—Interview by Tim Leong
For more information on Neal Adams, check out his Web site at www.nealadams.com