“The Struggle is Real”: On the Current Environment and Challenges of Creating Original Stories in Comics

There’s been a lot of talk of late about the difficult times the direct market 16 has been seeing. That’s for a good reason: it’s been a challenging stretch, one rife with uncertainty and unpredictability. This is affecting everyone too, whether you’re talking publishers, distributors, or comic shops themselves. Even the biggest names have been susceptible, with a conversation growing around Marvel’s status quo in particular.

And if the vaunted members of the Big Two have a tough road, original comics — and by that, I mean non-licensed work, or more specifically, new creator-driven stories released through direct market publishers, typically labeled in broad terms as “creator-owned” 17 — are bound to face even more significant headwinds. We know that to be true if only because the semi-regular implosions at these types of publishing houses of late. But there’s been a discussion brewing amongst creators about what this means for them and the stories they want to tell.

While it’s easier to talk about comics as magical things that appear out of nowhere on a regular basis, the reality is it takes talented individuals to tell these tales. And these days, there’s been a real uneasiness amongst those creating original stories, as they come to grips with a market that’s incredibly difficult to thrive in — despite the comparative ease of getting published.

“In short: it seems tough,” writer Kieron Gillen said of the current atmosphere. “There’s the weird irony that it’s easier to tell stories than ever before, but harder to really hit.”

As writer/artist Liana Kangas told me, “We’re experiencing the cumulative impact of the past three years.” While there were high times throughout that pandemic-fueled stretch Kangas spoke to, the struggles everyone worried of early on have taken hold, and it’s generating well-earned concern amongst the people who craft these comics.

That’s an important story, and one worth telling. So today, we’ll be exploring the current environment for original comics and what creators are facing these days, with insight from a variety of folks. While this won’t represent everyone’s experience 18 it hopefully will help you better understand what these individuals are up against, and maybe even the hope they’re holding onto going forward.

Juni Ba is an incredible cartoonist. He’s also newer to this industry, someone who has largely operated in this pandemic era. It’s the world he knows, one laden with opportunity for those looking to make comics. As Ba told me, “It feels like every other day a new indie thing is announced.” It’s a fertile environment for getting published. That isn’t where the problem lies, unfortunately. It’s getting your original ideas into readers hands that can be a major challenge — and that’s true for everyone.

“There’s (a) vibe that publishing houses are struggling to stay afloat, and don’t really know how to market and reach new audiences,” Ba told me. “Every person I talk to in the business keeps saying it’s tough out there and everyone is struggling.

“Kind of scary honestly…this sense that all the ships are taking water.”

That blend of robust publishing opportunities but challenging financial prospects is at the crux of this larger subject. It seemed like every person I talked to admitted that it’s an incredible period for original ideas finding a home. But like writer Erica Schultz put it, “Whether or not the market will support it in a commercial sense is another conversation.”

Words and phrases like “uncertainty,” “tough,” and “uphill battle” were consistent refrains amongst creators. And this isn’t just an issue facing newer creators. Even someone like Kelly Thompson — a well-liked, established writer with major Big Two work to her name — is finding this moment to be a painful one.

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  1. Or the side of the comic industry comprised of comic shops.

  2. We’ll talk about that later.

  3. Especially considering it’s a big world of comics out there, one that extends well beyond the direct market.

  4. Or the side of the comic industry comprised of comic shops.

  5. We’ll talk about that later.

  6. Especially considering it’s a big world of comics out there, one that extends well beyond the direct market.

  7. She said she’s doing it anyways, though.

  8. Meaning how sales decrease from issue to issue.

  9. Kangas viewed it differently, saying they’ve “observed a significant reduction in original projects being released on shelves and fewer pitches of my peers being accepted.”

  10. Especially given that a lot of publishers have seemingly turned creators into their own social media marketing departments.

  11. Image doesn’t include separate but connected companies like Skybound.

  12. How much the publisher takes depends on what you receive in return, i.e. page rates, editorial or marketing support, etc.

  13. There are even times when something gets labeled by outsiders as “creator-owned” and it isn’t one of those aforementioned flavors at all. Sometimes ideas are publisher generated and creator executed, but are work-for-hire in reality.

  14. I’ve actually had a couple creators understandably bristle when I call a comic “creator-owned” when it’s with a publisher whose deal is more of a rights share, because it can create a mistaken belief that a publisher is something it isn’t.

  15. I’d guess James Tynion IV’s did well enough, but few others seem to have popped in print. At least so far. More to come!

  16. Or the side of the comic industry comprised of comic shops.

  17. We’ll talk about that later.

  18. Especially considering it’s a big world of comics out there, one that extends well beyond the direct market.