A few days ago, a very close friend of mine in the comics world put up a post on his blog that's getting a lot of attention. The fellow's Jim Zub, and you've probably seen him mentioned on this blog quite a bit - he writes the fantastic action fantasy series Skullkickers for Image, as well as many other great titles both online and for print. Very talented writer and great guy. If you don't know his stuff, you should. Anyway, apart from the writing side of things, Jim is also a very canny businessman. He consistently finds unique approaches to marketing and promoting his work - for example, his latest arc of Skullkickers is relaunching with a "new #1" titled "Uncanny Skullkickers" - it's funny, it's getting him press and chances are it'll move him some additional books. That's the way you have to be in indie comics (and I'm firmly considering Image to be indie - some people debate this, but while Image does take some of the burden off a creator, really the lion's share of making the book and making sure people find and care about it rests on the people making the book.) It's really not enough to be talented, although that's where it all starts. You also need to be a master huckster, smart businessman and be fairly tireless. Getting a comics career up and running is a full-time job.
The problem, of course, is that while working in comics can take as much time as any other job, it doesn't necessarily pay like one. In that recent post I mentioned up above, Jim goes through the nuts and bolts (nickels and dimes, rather) of getting an indie book out the door, and what sort of return you can actually expect. He uses a mid-range book from an Image-type publisher (so that's lumping in publishers like IDW, Boom, etc.) as his test case, selling around 5,000 copies per month. That's actually a VERY successful monthly run for an indie book these days. The biggies like Saga and Walking Dead do much more, of course, but they're the white whales of indie comics - it's not unusual for an indie book not to crack a thousand. His model comes to the conclusion that after everyone takes their slice, the creators are left with a page rate that's well under $100 - to be split between everyone - writer, artist(s), letterer, cover artist, design, etc. The article is here, and you should really go give it a read - but then come back, because there's more to be said about it!
Now that you're up to speed, let me say that I don't disagree with Jim's conclusions in the least. I've had books that have sold above the 5,000 number, and books that have sold below (sometimes WELL below), and the basic gloss of what he's saying is correct - there's not a ton of cash in comics at the indie book level, and it can be hard to make back your investment ... if money is all you're going for.
Jim's post is important and really useful, in part because it covers an area that people don't often talk about, at least not to that level of detail. But money isn't all comics is about. I think there are three reasons people want to do comics: money (not necessarily getting rich, but being able to make a living from telling stories), fame or creative freedom.
Let me handle that last one first: having worked in a number of creative mediums, I can say that creating a comic is one of the purest, least-liable-to-be-fucked-with ways of telling a story out there. The comics audience is incredibly open to new expression, and if your idea and execution are good, you'll absolutely get eyeballs. You also don't have to compromise your work for financial reasons - because there really are no financial reasons. That's the upside. It's rare that someone's going to tell you not to give your character antennae because a focus group said antennae aren't playing well in Peoria right now. Because nothing makes a ton of money, nothing HAS to make a ton of money, and that's freeing. So no matter how much money or acclaim you get, you can count on that freedom, and for many people that's enough.
Cash and fame are more problematic. You can get a certain level of notoriety just by continuing to put work out - there are people with long, storied careers in comics who never really have a "hit," just like there are plenty of awesome cult bands who never break through in a big way. But to get famous, even comics famous, you need that big book, and that's directly linked to the money question, too. Fortunately, I have an approach to recommend that I've seen succeed again and again! Check it out:
If you want the big dough and the big name out of your indie comics career, I think you need to consider it sort of like you might approach investing in the stock market. When investing in high-risk companies (basically new, unproven companies - just like your indie comics ideas no one's heard of yet!) you really don't want to put all your eggs in one basket. The reason for this is that most companies fail. So, you spread your capital around and hope that perhaps one of the ten (or the hundred) companies you invest in pays off in a big way. Same principle can work for comics. The chances are low that if you find a way to put out one book, then you'll all of the sudden be on the map. But if you put out five, and all of them are great - even if they appeal to different audiences - it accumulates into an overall greater probability that you might get that brass ring. (If you don't like the stock market analogy, swap that out for Powerball tickets - works the same way.) Look at the early careers of guys like Josh Fialkov, Sam Humphries, Nick Spencer, Brian Michael Bendis and I'm sure a bunch more that I'm forgetting. It wasn't about one book, it was about all the books.
You might be thinking, "Great. It's hard enough to get ONE book out, and now this ass is telling me to do ten?" Well, yeah, it's hard. It's INCREDIBLY HARD. It's not easy to get famous, and it's not easy to get rich. Fortunately, making comics is easy to love, and that'll get you through.
In my opinion, all you should NEED when you start to make comics is the freedom to create. Comics will give that back to you in spades. If you decide you need ducats or standing ovations, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. It's okay to want those things, and work really hard for them, just don't need them. If you can.