The Life and Times of the Modern Comic Book Artist

Get a look behind the curtain of the life of comic artists in this longform piece

This article first appeared on Multiversity Comics on May 28, 2014, but was written by me. It has been published here as well with their very kind permission.

When you’re a kid, everyone has aspirations to be something cool and grandiose. It’s not like people grow up hoping to be retail clerks or marketers; kids want to be astronauts or baseball players or whatever exactly Tom Hanks was in “Big.” We want our jobs to be our dream jobs, and for me, when I was a kid there wasn’t anything I wanted more than to be a comic book artist.

There were times I’d wake up after spending the entire night honing my non-existent craft, straining my eyes to learn from Wizard Magazine’s latest comic art tip column from someone like Bart Sears or Andy Kubert, filled with infinite anger over my inability to properly bring the complexity of Arsenal to life. I loved comic art, and I wanted to be like the artists whose work inspired me.

It turns out not having any discernible talent, regardless of the hours of practice I put in, was a fairly substantial roadblock.

As I grew older, and especially after I started writing for Multiversity, I came to realize that like any of those jobs we aspire to when we’re kids, being a comic artist is maybe not as glamorous as a nine year old’s brain may think. Not that long ago, I wrote about the diminishing role of artists in comics, and it was a piece a lot of people responded to. Some who read it agreed, some disagreed, but I think one thing that anyone in comics or anyone who loves comics could agree on – if they knew the truth – was that being a comic artist is a job that can be woefully underpaid, underappreciated and overworked.

But it’s one that many people cannot resist doing, because it’s a job that allows them to do what they love for a living.

Today, I’m going to explore the life of a career comic artist, and what that is like for them in today’s industry. With the help of a bevy of professional artists like Declan Shalvey, Rob Guillory and Natalie Nourigat, we’ll be digging in deep to show what an artist goes through to bring you the stories you love, what kind of living they make from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, and how one manages to keep themselves coming back to the drawing board every day, even when the times are tough. Let’s get to it.

A Day in the Life

We often take the comic book art form for granted. It’s absolutely true, and it’s something I myself have done in the past. In fact, in my piece about the diminishing role of artists in comics, I lamented the fact that there aren’t artists who do tremendously long runs anymore, and by doing so, I exposed my ignorance of what a comic book artist’s life is really like.

It’s something that really crystallized as this piece developed, as artists started giving me insight into what their day-to-day lives entailed.

Of the many artists interviewed for this, the rough average of time to finish just one page was around one day, and most artists take a month to six weeks to close a single issue. That’s not even including colors, letters, or anything else that needs to go into crafting a single comic book.

Alison Sampson's GenesisOn the long side, “Genesis” artist Alison Sampson said that it would take her two to three days just to finish one page on that project in specific, while Moritat of “All-Star Western” fame lived on the other end of the spectrum, saying he was able to wrap four to five pages in a single day. In the grand scheme, they’re both outliers, but if this exercise taught me anything, it’s that to be a comic artist is to live a rigorous and often stressful life.

One common theme in how these artists survive the experience is working within a schedule and living a rather structured life, as much as one can. Rob Guillory of “Chew”, for one, is diligent in how he operates, and it’s clear that his methods have helped maintain quality and see success in his work.

“Well, first let me say that I’m a bit of a Schedule Nazi,” Guillory said. “I’m a freak for efficiency, and I’ve worked several different workflows during my time on CHEW, always looking for ways to cut minutes and speed up the process.”

That penchant for optimization is something that greatly helps him achieve a true rarity amongst his peers – Guillory’s average day is a true 8 to 5, with Tuesdays being his only extended schedule day – and it’s something that he’s only gotten better at as his career goes along.

Guillory expanded on that schedule, walking us through what his process for wrapping an entire issue is.

“My overall monthly schedule looks like this: The first week and a half of an issue is spent laying out the issue via thumbnails, then penciling the whole thing out. The two weeks after that are spent inking the pages in groups of two. Then, the last week is spent coloring. My color assistant Taylor Wells sends me the flat colors for the issue, and from there I add texture, lighting, shadow and special effects to the page. So, in the end, it always seems to round out to about 5 weeks per issue.”

Sean Murphy, the artist of “The Wake”, also keeps things tight, and that allows him a special gift that other artists likely would envy: he takes weekends off.

Murphy shares he’s “up at 7am, breakfast, draw until noon. Lunch, then draw until 3pm. Hit the gym, and finish up the page. I always take weekends off.”

“With this schedule, I’m putting out B+ work at best. My ideal working schedule would be 3 pages a week.”

When he says that’s his ideal working schedule, he’s speaking to the amount of time that would allow him to bring his best work to the page. That’s part of the reason why – realistically – it’s just not feasible for many artists to work without occasional fill-ins or to hit monthly deadlines, or at least for prolonged spans.

Natalie Nourigat's A Boy and a Girl“I still think I would rather make better work than rushed work, as, if the work is poor, it will not sell. There is a balance there,” Sampson shared, as she elaborated on why her pages take two to three days to complete.

The schedule saves many artists from such expanded timeframes on their work, and many know that it’s not reasonable to have that kind of life and not bake in a little “me time” into the schedule.

Natalie Nourigat, the cartoonist behind everyone’s favorite movie reaction comics and “A Boy & A Girl” at Oni, shared that she needs to just get away from the drawing board at times.

“I try to take a real break once or twice a day to walk outside or go to coffee with a friend.”

She also subscribes to Murphy’s idea that sometimes you just need to get away, as she added, “I take at least one day off per week even in a deadline crunch, because it’s just not healthy to work every day, and I try to do something fun and/or social to recharge.”

With the demanding, sometimes double-shipped schedules of working for Marvel or DC, however, that sometimes isn’t an option.

Declan Shalvey, the artist of Marvel’s “Moon Knight”, keeps a pretty tight schedule, but still works long days – a page typically takes him around 17 hours – and rarely gets days off. It goes beyond the page for him, though, as he spends a good chunk of his time preparing to bring an issue to life.

“On top of that is time researching and gathering reference, and doing layouts, which takes me approximately 3 days.”

That time is hugely important for Shalvey, who uses those layouts to figure out the storytelling and compositions of each page, as well as what he’ll need reference for.

Gabriel Hardman, the writer/artist of “Kinski”, finds that time to be very important as well.

“I’d say 20 percent of my time is spent finding photo research for art. Not photos to trace though. It’s mostly research on locations and props to get the most authentic or interesting look possible. I like the comics I draw to be grounded and credible and research is a big part of that.”

Shalvey's Moon KnightActivities outside of strictly drawing can be very time consuming for artists. Guillory shared that he probably spends “an hour a day dealing with the business side of things,” and he’s not an outlier in that regard. Many of the artists I spoke to find their days broken up by answering emails, responding to interviews (sorry!), and in some special cases, being a parent.

“I have two little boys who are home most of the time (even more so now that it’s summer), so a lot of my time gets taken by them,” “Morning Glories” artist Joe Eisma shares.

Between the non-drawing activities and working on the pages themselves, artists see long, hard hours racing against the clock on deadlines. While Douglas Adams may appreciate the whooshing sound deadlines make as they go by, editors do not, and that means these creators have to be on point more often than not.

Nourigat, who I am convinced should be a comic artist consultant specifically for relaxation techniques, shared more on the important subject of surviving the time crunch and staying sane while on deadline.

A key for her is “focusing intensely while you’re at work and turning it OFF when you’re ‘away’ from work (even if you work at home – make some physical separation like moving to another room or changing into comfortable clothes). Let yourself relax after work; it’s good for you! Put work completely out of your mind until the next day. Do something else – anything else.”

“Also, set up a reward system for your deadlines. It doesn’t have to be anything beyond your means – my rewards for myself have ranged from hikes to trips to the cinema or special dessert foods.”

Many seconded her earlier idea of getting separation from work on occasion, and Eisma in specific said it’s key.

“Taking breaks — you have to step away, even if it is just briefly, to do something mindless. I write idiotic texts to friends, grab drinks at my favorite pub or watch TV shows to unwind.”

Above all, though, the most often emphasized point was this: be realistic when setting a deadline. As Murphy shared, “patience is key. Don’t think about the entire month or the entire gig, just take it day by day and be patient and realistic.”

While an artist can take as many breaks as they’d like, if the schedule constantly looms like a specter, it just might be the straw that breaks an artist’s proverbial camel’s back if they let it.

Making a Living

Given the intensity and length of a comic artist’s day, you’d think that they’d be paid in gold bricks, left on the doorstep of their gated community mansions that are only in the finest of neighborhoods.

But some artists struggle to make enough to get by, let alone afford the most majestic of palaces. Matthew Southworth, most known for his work with Greg Rucka on “Stumptown”, shared this about the hard decisions some creators have to make:

“A lot of times in comics it comes down to ‘can I afford to make $60 a day? Will I go broke doing that?’ And in that position, you have to start considering ways of working that will make it possible. If they’re paying $60 a page, you have to consider doing 3 pages a day, and then you’re in the position of doing work that doesn’t satisfy you or the other collaborators or the audience.”

Being a comic artist for a living is a job that’s filled with many hard decisions, and while many of the artists I spoke to are able to make a good living off their comic work, there are many who struggle with the very same decisions that Southworth described.

Guillory's Chew Warrior Chicken PoyoGuillory, whose Image Comics title “Chew” with John Layman has been a moderate but sustained success since launch, had this to say when asked about making a living off one book.

“Yeah, I’ve been working full time on CHEW since 2009, and that’s a rarity in this industry. Before CHEW, I’d always had a ‘real’ job to supplement my income while I pursued comics. My income from comics has been like a snowball up to this point. In the beginning, I did a lot of work for free, just to get some jobs under my belt.”

It was clear from day one that Guillory was doing everything he could to make it, and he had some help along the way in doing so.

“When I began my career, my wife and I made a deal. She had a good ‘real’ job that could potentially keep us afloat, so she agreed to be the primary breadwinner for 5 years, while I pursued comics fulltime.”

“And if, at the end of that five years, I hadn’t made any progress, I would get a real job, we’d begin our family, and I would still do comics on a more part-time basis. That way, if I wasn’t right for comics, I wouldn’t put life on hold forever while trying to break into comics. And thank God, it all worked out.”

When Guillory hooked up with Layman for “Chew”, he had something that is often uncommon for a creator-owned book: a page rate.

In case you’re uncertain as to what that is, a page rate is what an artist earns per page of work, and for creator-owned – because the onus on producing the book is on the creators – there isn’t always one, while a big advantage working on for-hire work for Marvel or DC are the significant rates they can offer you.

But Layman and Guillory made a deal from day one that said for every page Guillory made, he’d earn $100. While that isn’t an astonishing amount of money, “it was GREAT money to a young kid that was starving to make a living in comics.”

Page rates have quite the spectrum in comics today, and even though I hit a healthy cross section of creators, this still only provides a small glimpse into what people are earning today in comics.

For creator-owned books – which, again, do not always generate page rates – that amount ranged from $17 to $100 per page, while for-hire naturally was much higher. On the low end, publishers like Boom! and IDW paid between $50 and $150, with the higher end found publishers like Marvel, DC and Dark Horse paying upwards of $300 per page, topping out at nearly $500.

A big part of getting the higher rates is being willing to negotiate for more. As one artist shared about the subject, “it’s my impression that most artists don’t get raises.”

“I’m not sure why they stand for it.”

Beyond page rates, creator-owned has opened up pipelines of income that often surpasses what even Marvel or DC artists earn off their exclusive based page rates, making that side of the world increasingly appealing. Digital and collection sales have grown into incredible opportunities for creator-owned artists, and sometimes, it’s even shocking to those who work on the books.

“I remember the first check I got for digital, I thought it was a mistake!” Eisma shared. “Now that we have six, almost seven, trades and two hardcovers out of ‘Morning Glories’, the money we’re seeing is quite good.”

Guillory, who admits that his experience with “Chew” has been a uniquely successful one, had this to share about those other avenues.

“I make the vast majority of my income from residuals. We get two big checks a year that are accumulated income from trades, hardcovers, digital sales and foreign licensing. It’s very cool to see our work spider out into different formats and markets, and it’s been lucrative without requiring us to do that much extra work.”

“The work is working for us.”

Before you go thinking that creator-owned is a yellow brick road with a soundtrack of cash registers ka-chinging as you walk, Guillory emphasized, “There’s a significant risk involved, and you can lose your ass in creator-owned comics.”

Chris Mooneyham, the artist of Image’s “Five Ghosts” with writer Frank Barbiere, has seen a little of that already.

“I’d say that Volume One of ‘Five Ghosts’ was enough to live off of, for a little while, at least. Now, with the market being what it is at the moment, and the weirdness of sales for early ongoing series, maybe not so much.”

There are many ways for artists to supplement their income if their page rates and residuals don’t provide enough for a livable income, but it is worth noting that the majority of these other opportunities take away the most important thing from an artist: time. Many artists go the route of working on commissions, commercial work, selling pages and working on covers for other books and publishers to help expand their income.

Commissions, for one, are not huge moneymakers, but at cons they can provide a great way for an artist to earn back money to offset the time spent there. These range from an hour to several days of work (mostly because they have to be fit into other existing work), and artists earn anywhere from $100 to $3,000 per piece.

Some artists take commercial jobs to supplement their income, like “Knuckleheads” artist Robert Wilson IV, who works with bands (like Stars and The Mountains Goats) to create gig posters, and sees mixed – but often exciting – results from that endeavor.

“Financially, posters are a real mixed bag. I generally make more money on the back end off of personal sales than I do from being paid to actually make the posters. A good poster will make me $1,000 or more, a bad one might not even break even after costs.”

“I think doing concert posters sets me apart from other strictly comic artists, in a way. It’s kind of a cool thing to be a part of and I think that it probably attracts people to my comic work as well.”

Selling pages is another great way to bring in money for creators, as they’ve already done the work, they’re just selling the original pages. Many turn to sellers like Cadence Comic Art or Felix Comic Art to sell their work. Guillory actually has his own store – – that he sells his pages through.

One way or another, this can prove quite lucrative for artists, as Guillory admits much of his income comes from these sales and others indicated the same.

Cover work itself is another excellent avenue, and Shalvey has done a lot of work on covers, earning between $200 and $500 per piece, with one special benefit for his work: “I like doing covers as it keeps your work visible without having to draw an entire issue.”

That visibility is huge for artists, and many live in fear of extended absences making them seem unattractive to those responsible for hiring them for jobs.

Hardman's KinskiTwo artists I spoke to – Eisma and Hardman – actually have other jobs they work at on the side, and those jobs help bring in enough income for them to continue their passion project: comics.

“My primary career since the late 90’s has been as a storyboard artist for live action feature films. I got back into comics in 2009 but I’ve continued to split my time between comics and film work,” Hardman shared.

After building a good amount of experience storyboarding films, it has allowed him the ability to be more selective in both comics and in movie work.

“I spend more of the year on comics but it’s by choice,” Hardman said. “For a dozen years I only did storyboards and worked non-stop. Now I’m much more selective. I mainly do the Chris Nolan films. I usually do one 3-4 month film gig a year along with commercials and pilots to supplement.”

You’ve likely seen his work brought to life – one notable scene he storyboarded was the scene in “Superman Returns” where Superman saves the crashing plane – and it’s another unique avenue that allows him to pursue comics.

With comic art being an occasionally uneven source of income, one has to wonder whether or not the financial aspects of being a comic artist ever makes artists contemplate doing something else for a living, and for the most part, the answer was yes.

“It’s a very, very demanding business that requires an intense amount of work for relatively low pay as compared to other commercial art jobs,” Southworth answered.

“It has a level of satisfaction I don’t get from other jobs, though.”

Nourigat, who is currently on a prolonged adventure in Europe, isn’t sure what direction she wants to take her art – higher paid commercial work or continuing in sequentials – upon her return. “I’ll have to reevaluate my finances and pick a path when I get back from Europe this summer.”

Even Sean Murphy, a man who has seen great success in comics, once thought of going a different direction.

“Earlier on, YES. But lately, I’m making too much to justify leaving. I NEVER NEVER NEVER thought I’d be making such a great living. Since the crash of the 90s, a life in comics was a life in poverty. But things are changing (at least for a handful of us).”

Some never even thought about it though, regardless of how the finances were lining up.

“There are more profitable sources of income for illustration, but none of them have the autonomy that I like,” Shalvey shared.

Mooneyham elaborated on the subject, which for him was a repulsive idea.

“No. Never. As a matter of fact, it’s quite the opposite. After high school, I spent what felt like an eternity working in the real world (well, 3 years, BUT STILL), and I hated every damn minute of it. Comics were an escape for me when I was a child, and they still are. There is nothing like reading an awesome comic. I would never be happy doing/being anything else.”

“Except being filthy rich and retired.”

Almost invariably, the reason why everyone keeps coming back to comics, despite the long hours and the often low earning potential, is because it’s what they love, and it’s what they want to do, even if it can be at times a struggle for artists both big and small.

Making a Life

Looking back on the past couple sections, it’s clear that this is a time consuming job with great potential for earnings, but potential that isn’t always realized. What kind of life does that lead to? With the long hours that it takes to make this a career, does that ever impact a creator’s ability to live a balanced, fulfilled life?

The answer is yes, mostly, but there are caveats.

As Shalvey shared, “You barely see your friends. You miss movie dates. You miss gigs. You might as well forget video games. Making something that is your hobby your job is AMAZING, but it comes with some downside.”

Beyond the social elements, there are some deeply concerning aspects that many don’t think about. Murphy for one was quick to note that when everyone is doing some level of freelance work, those jobs don’t provide something many others easily expect: health insurance.

A number of artists that were polled admitted that in their time as a comic artist, they’ve never had health insurance. It’s something many take for granted, but when disaster strikes, that type of thing is hugely important. Some prioritize it though, and find the value quickly.

Moritat shared, “I ended up in the hospital a couple of times due to working too hard, thinking I was indestructible. (Insurance is) expensive but a necessity.”

Eisma and Hardman’s other jobs in game design and film work respectively have the added benefit of providing them health insurance, but others have to go a different route.

“In the beginning, my wife had a really good job working as an interior designer for a homebuilder, so I was on her insurance plan,” Guillory said. “Post-CHEW, she quit her job to be a stay-at-home mom, so I had to get my own policy that covered my whole family. It’s expensive, but it’s worth it, obviously.”

The health of the body is clearly important, but mental and emotional health is important too, and working in comics has made many creators make choices that made them sacrifice on the creative side. Sometimes, while other projects may be more creatively fulfilling, they often will have to move towards a project that pays better because, while it may be something they love, they still have to make a living.

“In the beginning, we all would want to be doing our own stuff and making a good living at it. But most times, we take what we can get, in the hopes of eventually finding an audience that will support our more personal projects,” Guillory said.

Mooneyham's Five GhostsMooneyham elaborated on the subject.

“Ultimately, this is a job. It can be a really awesome, fun and rewarding job, sure. But at the end of the day, I need to get paid for my time and work.”

While Mooneyham has become known for his work on the creator-owned “Five Ghosts”, the aforementioned financial needs have led him to take a second job working at Dark Horse on their upcoming “Predator” book with writer Josh Williamson. While it’s certainly going to be a rad book, almost universally the artists I spoke to emphasized that if they had their druthers, they’d be working on creator-owned titles.

Even within the creator-owned discussion, it seemed that there was a good amount of positivity towards Image Comics in particular, which naturally fit the cast of commenters, many of whom work at Image themselves or have upcoming work there. The ability to fully realize how they envision a story is attractive to an artist, and it’s something that is more attainable on all levels in the creator-owned realm. Additionally, it has huge financial upside.

“I think of creator-owned properties as lottery tickets, because if you own the rights to a story/character that takes off, you might find that the time you invested pays off nicely,” Nourigat said.

Again, though, that approach is not without downside.

As one artist shared with me, sometimes, not all is as it seems on a project or with a creative partner. Especially for newer artists, the allure of an attractive project can sometimes make you willing to go through more strife than you would otherwise with your collaborator, sometimes at the sacrifice of your own emotional and financial well-being. As Antony Johnston pointed out recently in a guest piece for us, creators should always make sure the person you’re working with is someone you feel you can trust and rely upon.

The creator-owned world can be a double-edged sword in that regard, and others, as Southworth shared that to succeed in creator-owned, you need to be even more disciplined than if you’re working at Marvel or DC.

In the immortal words of Seth, it’s a good life, if you don’t weaken, and much of making a life in comics stems from making careful decisions that are fulfilling to you both financially and creatively. It’s easy in theory, but not so easy in execution.

For the Love of the Game

When you get down to it, I think if you asked any comic artist – not just the ones I talked to – you would find that they work in comics not for any perceived fame, fortune or glamour (if those things exist in comics), but because it’s what they want to do and what they feel compelled to do.

Comics are a passion project first, money-making endeavor second, and many admitted that if they wanted to make more money doing commercial art work, they could.

But they are storytellers, and they have stories to tell, so they chose this life even if it often isn’t one that could be described as “enviable” by the average person.

“Personally, I think most people would be surprised how much actual work is involved. I think most folks just think I just sit around drawing cyborg chickens all day long. And that’s only PART of my day. There’s a business side to this, and a PR side to this that requires me to wear a few different hats. It’s fun, but it’s a lotta friggin’ work,” said Guillory.

Beyond the work, the simple things that people don’t realize underline that even though it seems fun in theory, much of it is very, very unsexy.

Hardman shared, “Most of the stuff you draw will be mundane. You know what? I like drawing that stuff. I like the small moments, the behavior between the characters, just as much as I enjoy drawing the big action. If you’re only interested in drawing muscle men, most of the work of drawing comics will frustrate you.”

Eisma's Morning GloriesGetting more into the craft, Eisma said that much of his time isn’t even spent drawing, but preparing to draw.

“In my experience, very little time is spent on the actual drawing — or rather, that part goes pretty fast. What takes the longest is the layout/thumbnail stage. I spend more time on that and need the most concentration on it. It’s the problem solving portion of this line of work — how to effectively set up the camera for each shot and figure out all the details.”

“I love it and hate it.”

As one artist shared, it’s often work that – to the disappointment of all of them – is not the best work that could be produced. “With deadlines, artists aren’t doing their best — they’re doing their best under deadline.”

With that comes other disappointing facts, like Nourigat sharing that it often can be slow – or even difficult – to simply get paid for a project, Sampson lamenting that many don’t recognize what an artist does and instead attributes the work to the writer, and most heartbreakingly of all, Mooneyham shared this: “It can be very lonely.”

But everyone I reached out to chose a life as a comic artist because it’s what their calling is. They love comics and they love bringing a story to life. In this piece, the last thing I want to do is leave you with the idea that comic art as a profession is one that leads to unhappiness, because above all, it does make them happy even if they do wish things were different sometimes. But who doesn’t wish that about their job?

Above all, I want you to leave you with one idea, and that’s that when you look at a comic, or when you walk by a comic artist at a con, or when you’re writing a review, or you’re commenting on a message board, these are people who deserve great respect for their craft and efforts. These are tremendously gifted people who go through a lot to bring these stories to life, and I for one hope I never stop being astounded by their gifts.

To close, Matthew Southworth, when asked what the one thing readers and artists would be surprised to learn about being a pro is, gave me an astoundingly resonant answer.

“It’s a pretty labor-intensive medium, and it looks easy. So you put in a lot more time than you’d think, often for much less money than you’d think, and the rates are so low that you’re often skirting financial disaster as a result. So the next time you read a comic — particularly a creator-owned comic — and you want to call someone lazy or complain about it, whether because it didn’t come out on schedule or it looks rushed or something like that, consider that the guy/gal who made that is probably stretched to the breaking point and is still so committed to this thing he/she loves that he/she did it to the best of his/her ability. There’s plenty of stuff that doesn’t appeal to me, but the folks doing that work are still working long, long hours with very little reward except the actual story they’ve told, and they deserve respect and admiration for that level of dedication, regardless of their level of skill.”

Those are good words to close with, and something I think we all should think long and hard about as we look at comic book art going forward.

Thanks to Alison Sampson, Chris Mooneyham, Declan Shalvey, Gabriel Hardman, Joe Eisma, Matthew Southworth, Moritat, Natalie Nourigat, Rob Guilory, Sean Murphy and several artists who wished to have their names withheld for contributions on this piece. It truly could not have been completed without them. Also, the image at the top is a shot of Bob Fingerman’s studio from an interview with Panel to Panel.