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Comics and Culture

How to make a Comic Book when you’re broke AF

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Hot off the back of completing the follow up issue to his Milky series. Indie comic creator, Joshua Saxon, gives us his “Do It Yourself” Guide for Cash Poor Comic Creators.


So you’ve got a killer idea for a comic book and you’re ready to fulfill your lifelong dream of seeing it in print.

But while you might be expecting Image Comics to blast you in the face with a leafblower loaded with cash after reading the first page of your script, a great idea is only a small percentage of comic book success.

You’re going to need to execute, which typically involves the rather pesky hurdle of getting enough money together to make it a reality.

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Fortunately, there are a few lifelines for the broke AF among us who can’t raid the savings account or bat our eyelids at a wealthy parent for comic making money.

This post will explain how to find the money to make a comic book without selling kidneys, sex or your soul.

But first thing’s first…   

How much does it cost to make a comic book?

Let’s be clear: making a comic book isn’t cheap. Even if you’re a multitalented creator and can avoid hiring a team in favour of writing and drawing it yourself, time is still a valuable asset to be pouring into a project you’ve got no idea will even go anywhere.

You’ll likely need to manage a full-time job as you toil over your comic book into the early hours, which is going to take its toll on your health and other aspects of your life. 

So before you go down this path, ask yourself if you’re ready to commit the time, cash, blood, sweat and tears necessary to take the ideas from your head and turn them into something like this…

Here’s a breakdown of the costs involved (in US dollars, because that seems to be the standard. Also, this is just a rough guide. Rates vary wildly):

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Shameless plug for my own comic book: check!

Writer

To be honest, I’m assuming you are the writer.

In my experience, it’s typically the writer that serves as the “producer” of the book and invests a lot of their own time and money into making it happen – including running the crowdfunding campaign if that’s the route you take – and will likely find themselves out of pocket when it’s all over.

But if you’re looking to pay a writer to craft your dreams into something legible, you can expect to pay something in the region of $25-$50 per page for an indie comic book.

Also consider an editor or a proofreader if you’re not confident you’ll spot every typo, grammatical error and story inconsistency. They’ll typically charge a flat-rate per book.

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Pencils and inks (linework)

As most comic books nowadays are made digitally and tend to involve more of a “work in progress” stage before the final “inked” version, you could save some cash here by hiring the same artist to do both.

A decent artist for an indie comic book will cost you anywhere between $50 and $100 per page. You can of course go much higher than this for artists with professional credits or even lower for artists looking to build their portfolio.

And bear in mind, this is really your co-creator. You’ll probably want to offer them a cut of any profits. If you’re paying them a decent rate, it won’t necessarily be 50/50 – just make sure you get everything down in the contract.

You may also be able to use the same pencil and inker for the cover work, but many creators opt for a separate cover artist. It’s more affordable to hire an amazing (more expensive) artist for the cover – seeing as that’s usually what draws a reader’s attention – and a cheaper artist for the interior. Good artists tend to have more of a following too, so it could pay off in the long run.

Colouring

As with any discipline, there’s only so much one person can be an expert in, so it could pay to hire a separate colour artist. You can expect to pay in the region of $30-$75 per page for a comic book colourist and a bit more for them to do the cover.

You could of course save yourself some money and skip the colourist altogether and just go black and white (many quality books like The Walking Dead and Sin City don’t have colour pages). You’ll still want a colour cover though.

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Lettering

A comic book letterer costs between $5 and $20 per page.

Controversial opinion: you could learn how to do this yourself for your first book. Until you’re so rushed off your feet with knocking out new scripts that you can’t make time for it, being in control of the lettering allows you to quickly and easily make changes without having to rely on a freelancer, who will only have so much patience for constant iterations…

LinkedIn Learning offers a comprehensive comic book lettering course for anyone who’s already fairly handy with Adobe Illustrator. You can even do a free one-month trial so it won’t cost you a thing!

But bear in mind, you’re also going to need a logo. Your letterer may be able to take care of it for you, but you might require an additional graphic designer.

Printing

If you want to hold your comic book in your hands and stick it on your shelf next to your Batmans, you’re going to need to get some printing quotes (you could always skip this step and publish digitally, whether on your own website or a platform like Comixology or Webtoon). 

First you’ve got to work out how many you want to print. Are you simply fulfilling a Kickstarter campaign, or do you want a supply so you can take online orders or cart a stack of them to a comic con?

The more you print, the cheaper it’ll be per issue. Price breaks tend to start at around 1,000 copies. Mixam, the UK/US company that prints Milky have a handy calculator where you can work out exactly what it’ll cost. But as a rough estimate, 1,000 colour copies of a 22-page comic book with a glossy cover will set you back $1,438 ($1.44 per issue).

How to fund a comic book

So that’s the costs out of the way. And I didn’t even mention things like Kickstarter fees, payment processing fees, merchandise, envelopes, shipping (that’s a whole spreadsheet in itself), backing boards… 

If you just add the basics up, it’s not exactly the sort of sum you’ll find down the back of the sofa. 

Still here? Good for you! You have the nerves of steel necessary to see this thing through.

Here’s a few ideas for how to get round some of these costs and raise the funds to cover the rest…

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Do it all yourself

If you’re blessed with both writing and art skills, you can put it all together as a one-man band such as the likes of comic book legends Frank Miller (Sin City, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) and Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth, The Underwater Welder).

It’s obviously going to take a lot longer to do it this way, especially if you’ll need to invest some time in brushing up on your art skills (pun intended).

And if you’ve got access to a photocopier (or know someone that’d let you use the one in their office when everyone else has gone home), the only person stopping you from bootstrapping your comic book is yourself.

So if this is a road you think you can take, just start!

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Backend only deals

I’ll get this one out of the way because quite honestly, I don’t recommend it.

You’ve got to consider that artists don’t live in some magical dimension where mortgages don’t exist and baby diapers grow on trees.

The likelihood is that anyone who agrees to work on your passion project for no upfront payment won’t be unable to commit long-term. As soon as a paid gig turns up, no matter how low the fee, it’ll instantly take priority and your comic book will be left on the backburner.

However, some kind of low upfront payment in addition to a generous profit split down the line based on a sound plan of attracting fans (perhaps you already have a mailing list built up or previous success with Kickstarter) might be a reasonable option if it’s attractive enough for them. 

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Crowdfunding

Nowadays, you don’t need anyone’s permission to make a comic book, just an audience willing to chip in and a bit of motivation.

The two big crowdfunding platforms are Kickstarter (the biggest) and Indiegogo. Depending on what you need the cash for, both platforms offer different benefits.

Kickstarter, for example, runs on an all-or-nothing basis whereby creators get nothing if the campaign doesn’t hit its goal. Indiegogo penalises creators for not hitting the goal, but lets them use whatever money they did raise. 

However, if you’re not doing everything yourself, you’re going to need at least a bit of cash to pay for enough artwork to make your campaign page look appealing and show people what they’re pledging their hard-earned cash towards.

When crowdfunding for Milky on Kickstarter, I chose to invest the money in putting the complete comic book together before launching, positioning the campaign as a fundraiser for the print run and hoping to make back the money for the production by overshooting the funding goal. 

Patreon

A similar option to crowdfunding is Patreon, a platform that allows fans to pledge a small amount of cash every month in exchange for regular creative output from a creator.

Patreon is a good option when you’re able to churn out content and frequently offer exclusive access to your work. If you can build up a large following, this can even fund your lifestyle and allow you to focus on creating comic books full-time.

Joseph Oliveira’s Patreon page for his series of horror comics (Afterlight Comics) publishes Patreon-exclusive articles and has even combined it with Kickstarter by offering fans early access to campaigns. 

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Extreme budgeting

Comic books are expensive to produce, but if you’re really passionate about it, you can simply work out how much money you’re going to need per page and set it aside every month. 

I appreciate that’s easier said than done, especially for those living month to month.

But could you give up Netflix for a bit? Forego a few nights of drinking a month? Get a cheaper brand of coffee? There’s always going to be sacrifice involved in making comics and it’s up to you if you’re prepared to make it.

Even if you’re only able to produce one page a month, in two years you’ll have one complete issue. Not bad at all when you’re broke AF!

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Pitch publishers

So the thing with making comic books is that most publishers won’t pay you much attention unless you’ve got a portfolio of previously published work (or you’re J.J. Abrams’ son).

Typically, a comic book publisher requires a team in place and around five completed pages for them to consider your pitch. And even if they’re interested, you’ll still need to finance the rest of the book yourself and wait for the royalties to eventually roll in (assuming it’s even a success).

But who knows, maybe the spirit of the great Stan Lee himself courses through your veins and a simple pitch will make a publisher want to fund the whole thing for you.

Worth a shot!

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Regardless of which avenue you take to fund your comic book, the important thing to remember is perseverance. My first attempt at comic book crowdfunding for Milky failed hard, the second funded, and the latest hit the goal in five hours!

Just keep at it!