EP 11: Getting Paid As A Comic Book Illustrator

Revealed secrets of making money as a comic book artist through commissions, client work, and self-publishing. Watch Dina and Tatiana Gill comic book queen for the past 20 years, swap stories on how to make money from all the best gigs.

What is the best way to make money as a comic book illustrator?

Obviously clients. The most effective action I can take in my immediate life in getting the ball rolling is to attend networking events.

Despite the rough start, I am kind of in the midst of this snowball effect. All the contacts I’ve made over the years are leading to new opportunities and I am just gaining momentum.

Usually, you’ll catch me at local comic events, meetups, Seattle’s female cartoonist scene is budding, not to mention getting involved in group shows and female comic book anthologies.

What is a comic book anthology?

It’s a comic book made up of, generally, twenty various artists each having their comics featured on a five-page spread.

I’d definitely look into anthology submissions as a way to get your work out there, connect with other artists and, in general, the overall action of putting together a submission is good practice in seeing how you can best present your work and pitch.

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How do you get involved in comic book anthologies and where do you find these opportunities? 

I’d definitely hit up local meetups and keep an eye out on the artists you’re following in terms of what they are putting out there on social media. You just need to keep your finger on the pulse in regards to submission calls and opportunities in general. Kickstarter is a good search engine to find out about anthologies looking to take on artists too.

Maybe start pinpointing more artists in your desired niche to better your chances if you’re serious about getting involved.

Are anthologies merely for exposure, or do you get a percentage of the profits?

Some of them will pay but, primarily, it’s just an avenue for exposure. The one’s I’ve contributed to were mainly fundraisers for causes, but you can totally get paid with monthly or biannual publications that are not not-for-profit based. Just be aware that this is a medium used by a lot of artists looking to make their break and build their portfolio so it may not be a sustainable source of income.

Aside from networking, what other ways help you attract the right clients?

Pitching and content creation targeted towards my ideal client type. Cold calling/emailing is definitely something you’re going to have to become comfortable with in terms of pitching concepts and potential collaborations.

And as for your personal brand, make sure you’re creating the kind of content you’d want to be working on for a client. Just because you may not be earning an income or being paid for a specific job, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be any less choosy about who you work with and what you create. Though it may not seem like it, these elementary steps are forming the foundation to what your brand is all about.

Specifically, I publish my own books. It may not be for everyone who’s just starting out in terms of budget and how quick you’re able to scale, but I print on demand with an upfront investment of $50-100 for 20-50 comic books. It’s a tangible product that elevates my brand in the eyes of potential clients, customers and contacts in general, and will see my return on investment (ROI).

In that way, I also “dress to impress”, and it goes to show that you can really use this digital age as a way to mold your brand’s online, as well as offline, presence.

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Do trade shows and exhibits make you money?

I’ve done a few trade shows this year, and what I will say is, is to make sure you can cater towards all types of customers budget-wise. It’s easiest to break down your merch into three levels. The smaller, more affordable, souvenir-esque products that’ll stay below $10. Then you’ve got your mid and high-end products where you’ll most likely see a return on investment from fans who are familiar with your brand.

I’d also just scope out who this trade show/convention is really for. There are so many niches, fandoms and just an overall insane amount of communities within the comic book and illustration industry. You might just want to do a little market research to be sure you’re showing up with the products that’ll align with the event’s demographic.

Is this going to be an event where people are going to be going buck-tooth wild on the hardcover, full-color, artbooks, or is it a little more fluffy in terms of Puchin pins all around.

You don’t want to be a Sailor Moon in amongst abstract Risograph prints kicking yourself for a potential loss in time and resources. But then again, that could also be cool!?

It just comes down to working smart and knowing where you want to belong.

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What's better? Going out on your own creating your own content and products, or, scoring client and commercial work?

Long-term, which one do you think will see a higher turnover in income?

Clients and commercial work, for me, is definitely the money maker. I feel like the revenue streams that are in place for my personal work are smaller side projects where I can really put forth my journey in body positivity, diversification and, yes, being a feminist.

These aren’t always subjects that sit well with people, and in that sense, I am still trying to establish them. It’s hard to find your place where these things will ultimately align and resonate with the community you’re trying to build. It does take a considerable amount of time and investment, so to find that balance in making money with commercial and client work, but expressing myself in the things that are dear to me, can be tricky.

As for how I score client/commercial work, it really comes down to networking and word of mouth.

Have you ever strayed from comic book illustration?

There were periods of time where I didn’t create anything at all. When I had a normal 9-5 graphic design job, I’d only dedicate some weekends to creating. I was a big party girl and, even when I attended some conventions here and there, I’d ultimately get drunk and offend a lot of people.

I’ll admit that, for most of my life, I’ve not had my head in the game.

Only in the last ten years did I make that step in realizing, as well as admitting to myself, that this is my dream and it’s worth allowing myself to be vulnerable for. It’s hard to present oneself to the world in such a way, but we need to go out there and ask for it!

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What would you say makes a seasoned comic book artist?

Like myself, there are so many people who perhaps stopped doing what they loved, or, for whatever reasons, had to take time off work. And I think it’s comforting to know that you can always get back into the groove of things with time and dedication.

I am especially seeing young people left and right, killing it. It used to be that if you didn’t have at least a decade under your belt, then perhaps you weren’t the most experienced in the biz. These days, people are scoring clients within just a year of having started.

And I think that really speaks to what you’re capable of when you’re passionate about something and you follow through with dedication and drive.

Story time! Could you give us an example of a nightmare client gone wrong and what you learned from that experience?

I don’t necessarily have such a story, but I have realized that clients aren’t always going to be happy with the final product, even ten revisions down the line. So here I am a hundred hours into this project when I only charged for five.

I came to learn that, of course, their end vision isn’t always going to be the final product you present them with. In turn, that taught me to further specify my terms up front in the contract. For this much money you have, say, two rounds of revisions, and anything surpassing that will be charged extra.

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Do you find that clients, and people in general, expect comics to be cheaper than other illustrations?

Totally! For so long people considered comics as “lowbrow”, as in, a kid could pull this off.

And really, if we’re looking at it logically, a four-panel comic is four illustrations in a row.

I can’t tell you the number of times people have reached out wanting a quote on my work and, after having provided them with said quote, I never heard back.

The back and forth on these emails can be very time to consume, especially when you’re not seeing any sort of return on time investment. Perhaps setting up a standard questionnaire or video call to weed out the people who aren’t willing to pay you what your worth is a good go-about method to counter this.

Case studies are also a solid means of giving potential clients insight to the behind-the-scenes of their seemingly straightforward product. And we’re talking the sketches, the mockups, the rejections and the resources used. Let them see the nitty gritty!

What do you think is the biggest mistake you’ve made career-wise so far?

Letting any negative feedback I received define my sense of worth.

An immediate example of this would be back when I was in college and saw that spike of interest in my work. That gave me the initial confidence boost to go ahead and send out some of my work hoping to reel in further opportunities, but nothing came to fruition. During that same time, fellow cartoonists I’d be hanging out with would offer advice on what I could better improve on in my own work, and I just took it all to heart.

There was also an element of sexism that came into play and I took all these events as immediate negativity. It changed my style, the tools I was using and eventually I let it stop me from submitting my work completely.

Having moved on from this self-deprecating state of mind, I can look back at this period of time and see how I let these external elements twist my passion into something that I came to resent.

We should never let it get this far!

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What would your last little tidbit be for those looking to break into the comic book industry?

View anyone and everyone as a potential client or contact and stay professional. You never know who knows who and where your next gig might come from.

And also to not get too caught up in external validation. I get it, we’re products of our environment, but we can still decide whether or not to let those trolls put a damper on our day or to brush it off and carry on.

Stay true to who you are and be your own biggest fan!

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TATIANA GILL

Comic Book Illustrator

Aftri Marrisk
Editor & Lettering Artist
Pontianak, Indonesia
Website | Instagram | Facebook

Rachel Campbell 
Illustrator and Animator
Based in Amsterdam
Website | Instagram

THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN AND EDITED BY OUR AMAZING VOLUNTEERS