At the risk of sounding like a pretentious, spoiled-brat children's book illustrator, I write the following comments with great hesitation. This morning I attended STAPLE!, The Independent Media Expo for comics, mini-comics, zines, and self-published literature. I've been experimenting with cartooning, and wanted to further explore this field, so this function presented itself at an opportune time. However, I've reached a conclusion: I don't want to be an independent cartoonist. I enjoy expressing myself through cartoon, but I don't want to write, ink, color copy, cut, bind, glue, market and sell — in essence, publish my own comic books for $2 to $5-bucks a pop.
I'm a commercial artist. For me, art is a means for making a living. If it don't make money, I don't want none, honey. Ok, bad rhyming scheme, but you get the idea. This independent, self-published subculture of cartoonists weren't pursuing their craft to make a living. Because a living, they can't, in the majority of instances.
I approached each exhibitor with the same questions: Who is your publisher? Their answer: I am. At first, I thought I had struck it rich. Me, a book artist in a room full of publishers. Not exactly. My next question: How do you make money? Their answer, following a nervous chortle: We don't.
Sure, there are a few avenues for which these self-published cartoonist can earn a few bucks here and there. But for the most part, independent cartooning is a labor of love. Thing is, love won't pay my house and car notes.
After less than an hour of mingling, I left disappointed.
Later, I returned to hear cartoonist, Keith Knight's, presentation and was so glad I did. Knight makes a living cartooning and playing in a band, as well as various other creative endeavors. His comics are syndicated throughout the country in newspapers, magazines and books for the trade. His presentation started right off speaking directly to me. He offered a listing of many African American cartoonist which included Aaron McGruder, Maurie Turner, Robb Armstrong, et al. I was inspired.
Keith Knight gave us a funny and intelligent look into his world of creating cartoons. Cartooning — good cartooning — is not an endeavor for the simple minded among us, as one might think. His sharp knowledge of current events, politics, and world news was evident in his conversation. I enjoyed his quick-witted humor as he shared experiences working with newspaper editors. His walk with newspaper and magazine editors is not too different than my walk with children's book editors. Some of his stories cracked me up, particularly those where his over-the-edge humor got him into trouble with so-called "family" publications. Trouble for him means losing a newspaper or two to a joke that slipped through the cracks.
Knight discussed the idiosyncrasies of the comics biz, and how unpredictable newspapers can be when it comes to censoring cartoons. His strip, the politically liberal slanting, and sometimes edgy K-chronicles, has run consistently, without question, in conservative markets like Salt Lake City, but have been censored and/or heavily edited in more liberal markets like the San Francisco Bay area. But he takes it all in stride advising artist to freely express themselves, leaving the editing and censoring conversations with editors for a later time — usually right up to publication.
I spoke with Keith a bit before he gave his presentation. I purchased some of his books, and I showed him some of mine. His eyes practically popped out of his head when I answered his question about what I earn in advances for my children's books. Figuring an artist of his caliber probably made the big bucks (at least, bigger than mine), I was embarrassed to disclose what I make in advances. But, his advice to me: Don't pursue cartooning over children's books. "Comics will never earn what you're currently earning in children's books." he said. "You are the only person in this room to purchase one of my books with a $50-dollar bill," he said, laughing as he took my payment. We had a little mix up when exchanging money. I gave him a $50-dollar bill, plus two $1-dollar bills for a $28-dollar purchase. I'm not good with math, but I figured I had more coming back than $5-bucks. I wasn't going to say anything at first, and just walked away rationalizing that I was supporting a brotha at whatever cost. But on second thought, I wasn't paying $47 dollars for two paperback comic books unless they were antique, so we got the money part straightened out.
As much as I can, I plan to keep in touch with him.