On Business: Success in 2016

By | Monday, November 28, 2016 Leave a Comment
Back in September, Lucy Bellwood spoke at the XOXO in Oregon. It's a very powerful piece about what she was taught about success, what success feels like (to her), what success looks like from an outside point of view... Well worth your time to listen, in part for the courage she shows by talking so frankly.

One piece that stood out for me is that she considers 2016 to be a very successful year for her. In part because her latest book, Baggywrinkles, has been selling well but as a result of that, she's been able to get off food stamps. That was her big success. Success meant being able to make a living wage as a cartoonist.

Now, I don't know how many of you have been following Bellwood's career -- I first heard of her when she joined Helioscope Studio in 2014 -- but she's been kicking all sorts of ass* from a creative perspective. She's one of the most talented and hard-working young cartoonists I've seen in recent years. Easily the most enthusiastic! And it's still taken her several years of working as a dedicated cartoonist before she could get off food stamps. Basically just enough to earn a living.

How many creators do you know under 30 who can say that today? I can point to a number of webcomic artists who earn a living off their work, but they're all well into their 30s or beyond. I think Erika Moen may have been self-supporting before she got out of her 20s, but I'm guessing a bit there. I'm sure there are others, but my point is that it's not uncommon for a cartoonist, regardless of how financially successful they might appear from an outside point of view, to still hold a job as a barista or whatever throughout their 20s.

And what kind of shit is that? That people who love comics so much they want to dedicate their lives to them, and they have to struggle just to get enough to eat. Would Bellwood have been able to pursue her comics with as much conviction if she weren't able to rely on food stamps for so many years? How many comics aren't we seeing at all because a talented cartoonist can't even do that well?

That's comics makers too! How do you suppose comics news outlets fare? (Let's just say that there's a reason there aren't many dedicated comic news sites.)

Keep in mind, too, that during the past eight years, most economic indicators (GDP, job growth, unemployment rate, etc.) have improved far past what the hole the last recession threw the country into. By most accounts (certainly all the ones economists tend to look at) the economy is the best it's been in years. And yet, for a cartoonist, "success" is not needing food stamps.

I noted a couple weeks ago how I thought we'll see a gutting of social services like the food stamp program that helped keep Bellwood afloat. This is the thin line that cartoonists deal with on a daily basis -- how to get by while still creating comics. If one of those support structures gets pulled out before a cartoonist has stabilized their income as a cartoonist, they're going to switch to extra shifts at Starbucks. This is why those social programs are important. This is how close cartoonists have to skate to the edge to make art. This is why they're thankful for the two dollars you dropped on their minicomic.

No single individual can reasonably support ALL the cartoonists out there. But the few bucks you're able to send towards a cartoonist you like can make a world of difference because, yeah, despite how the world should work, things really are that tight for them.

* Perhaps I should use the more piratical "booty" to keep with her general appreciation of nautical themes.
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