The Balance: Selling Out vs. Artistic Integrity

You’ve finally made it – your comic is successful, you have a decent following and you have been picked up by a major publisher or sold your work and have the necessary funds to finally quit your day job and do what you love and make a comfortable amount of money.

From the back of the room, you hear someone grumble – “sell out…”

How many times have you noticed this statement tossed around: “I remember when  [NAME OF ARTIST] used to produce cutting edge comics, but ever since they’ve been picked up by [INSERT PUBLISHER] they’ve lost their identity and aren’t cool anymore.”

or “When [NAME OF ARTIST] first started, their work was influential and innovative, but once they became a professional, their work is no different than anyone else’s.”


Why do people turn on you as soon as you’ve achieved a moderate amount of success? You’ve finally reached the top of the mountain, but the people behind you want to push you over the edge head first. What gives?

This my friends, is the stigma of ‘selling out.’

I’m going to explain to you WHY this is a good and bad thing, and how you can still manage to keep a balance between earning a good paycheck and maintaining some of your artistic integrity. Follow along…

The Acceptable Range

Most authors agree that there is a level of professional behaviour you can adopt, where you are earning an honest day’s pay and maintaining your principles. You put out good quality work that inspires, enchants and entertains. Almost all of the creator owned comics follow this path – some achieve moderate amounts of success, and others struggle but keep themselves afloat through other artistic means to support their comics creation. The key is, there is a constant struggle that keeps everyone on the same level. Everyone is hustlin’ and trying to make money, and nothing is easy on this path…

The Negative Perception

Then there are times when the lure of big money and promises sway up-and-coming talent towards a path of mediocrity, loss of control, vision and feeling. Where comic properties are ‘acquired’ like possessions, and glossed up in order to be more appealing on a broader scale, while losing the soul of what made them great in the first place. There have been numerous instances where authors have signed over their properties, only to have their reputation tarnished due to bad negotiation or false promises.

The common perception is the author is no longer a regular joe like you and I – he/she has an elevated status, gets a free ride due to fame, and is out-of-touch with the daily struggles that the amateur comic author has to go through. It doesn’t matter that the success story had to scrap it out like the rest of the dogs to become successful. They’ve now become part of the establishment and are getting a free ride.

This is where the everyday author begins to grumble and mutter since there’s bitter feelings involved.

  • Jealousy – we all want to get paid, recognized and do what we love for a living and have someone else worry about the details
  • Disappointment – there is a noticeable change in the essence of the comic (story, art, etc)
  • Resentment – your comic is far superior in comparison, but another similar property got picked up instead

The Reality

What many people fail to realize is, each of the authors who have sold out in the past have done so for one underlying goal – to create sustainability in their lives. Whether its paying rent long term, affording groceries, putting kids through school, paying for car repairs, health insurance, etc. This monetary gain helps to aid one of these existing problems – its EXTREMELY rare that an author is already well off by the time they are picked up by a larger suitor.

The notion that an artist who works for Marvel, DC or any other publisher is getting paid big bucks to do little work is something that has polluted the minds of comic creators for the last 30 years. You can thank Liefeld, MacFarlane, Lee and co. for this overinflated lifestyle they promoted in the 90s. Exaggerated sales figures, ridiculously overpaid artists, and watered down work hiding the real numbers – typical remnants of a decade of excess (the 80s).

The truth is, there isn’t a lot of money to be made in comics at the high level. The salaried authors don’t last long, and those who do, burn out and try to find other creative avenues to keep themselves sane.

The other thing people fail to realize – ‘success is not all that it is cracked up to be.’

You are seeing more and more authors, artists, writers jumping ship from larger companies because they want to pursue their own creator owned work, but cannot take the stifling nature of the corporations that pay them. People like Mark Waid, George Perez and countless others have opted to fly solo and enjoy the creative freedom without the shackles of corporate meddling in their work. Now, those who screamed and jeered and called them sell-outs are embracing them and welcoming their talents back to the independent grass roots realm of comics.

Is it hypocritical? Sure – but everyone loves to associate themselves with an underdog. But when the underdog makes it, all of a suddent they’ve become too big for their britches and their ego becomes massive and they lose sight of what made them popular in the first place and…

Get real – we all know that in today’s entertainment, you have to be lucky and hit the curve of a trend at the right time. Like anticipating a swell and riding the wave to the break. Problem is, we’re all out there waiting for our wave.

The Balance

Finding the balance is tough. We are in a wonderful position to be successful – authors who began with nothing, posting sillies on the internet are now media icons (Mike Krahulik & Jerry Holkins – Penny Arcade.) While others who had no asprations of becoming famous have been thrust into the spotlight and are humbled by the accolades (Kate Beaton – Hark! A Vagrant)

So how can you achieve The Balance?

The theory is quite simple – put forth your best effort each time, every time. Continually strive to get better at your craft. Meet and greet people with friendliness and passion for comics. Produce work that is influential and network with people of influence. They can help you get noticed by more eyes and reviewed by more minds. Keep slugging it out during those times when you are getting pummeled. That continual perseverance will make the rewards that much more sweeter (and people love a good story of struggle.) Most of all, stay humble, be thankful of your opportunities, and help your fellow authors get a leg up, just like the help you received when you first started.

Takeaway

As authors who call the shots when it comes to our properties, there is no better time than now to promote and share your stories with the masses. If you consistently create good work, and are honest and forthcoming in nature – you’re sure to be rewarded. So if you’re finding yourself ready to quit after seeing your table-mate getting picked up by DC for their less than stellar work, don’t worry. What goes around, eventually comes around.

That’s the great equalizer – the balance.

Andrés ‘ Drezz ‘ Rodriguez is the author of the ultra-violent modern noir Online Graphic Novel El Cuervo. He provides WA readers with periodic articles (like this one!) that serve as virtual motivational kicks in the ass, and doesn’t tolerate laziness, indecision or excuses. Feel free to connect with him on Google+ or you can follow him on Twitter at @DrezzRodriguez

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8 Comments

  1. Success in any creative arena can lead to problems and friction with your fans and peers. I’ve seen it happen in music and in the performing arts. Everyone loves you when you’re on the same level, but it can reach a point where the “lobster effect” takes place if anyone is lucky enough to rise above a certain ranking.

    I’m guilty of it too. I’ve seen some comics that premiered long after mine take off like a rocket. My initial honest reaction is, “Hey! How come it ain’t me?!”.

    Then my civility rises and I have to admit that maybe this creator had the right spark at the right time. There’s no justifiable reason for me to hate. As long as I keep doing what I’m doing and not worry about the accolades or comic “Oscars” and “Emmys”, then maybe I’ll have a product that’s ready for the next stage.

    Even though we’re all participating in a kind of lottery, we have to realize that we may not all come up rich, but SOMEBODY is gonna win occasionally. Maybe it will be one of us next time.

    • if you’re doing it because you LOVE it, and not just for success, you’ve already got your head in the right place.
      As the great Tom Racine said “Do it like you’d do it anyway.”

      • Exactly, Dawn! If you examine any of the greatest, most talented and respected entertainers around, they will tell you that even without the fame and riches they receive, they would still used their talents if there was hardly anyone around to witness it.

        That’s why they are successful. They purely enjoy the process of creativity. Everything else is just icing on the cake.

        I hope to never get burnt out because my passion is in making my comic for me first and not just millions of readers. Once I begin to hate Addanac City, then I will take that as a sign I need to stop.

  2. A good piece of advice well told. I like your choice of images, too.

    Strangely enough, I don’t have a problem with people who “get ahead” or “sell out”, though I am saddened when their creative children get bent out of shape by the media moguls. I wish each and every creator all the success they deserve for all the years they spent honing their skill. I know what a painful process it can be sometimes even if the resulting satisfaction is enormous.

    I’ve too often seen what unmotivated jealousy and the consequent bitterness can do to a creative person. When I find my self being jealous or resentful, I’m in the habit of asking myself what is it I’m jealous/resentful about? What do they have/do that I don’t. Usually I notice that it’s something I really strongly want for myself, like to be able to draw hands in any gesture/perspective, or earn more income from my art/writing/music. Once I grab hold of my passion, the resentment fades away and is replaced with gratitude. Because then I can make long and short-term achievable plans to acquire that thing for myself, and get working on it. :`D

    I love Mark Waid’s story, though I dislike the way it’s presented (too much button-clicking for me). And I admire his courage to strike out on his own path. I’m jealous of his team, if anything. At some point I would love to work with my own writer/penciller/inker/colourist/Web Developer team. And so having realised, through my jealousy that is something I would really love, I’m already shifting things in my life so that can happen.

    To my way of thinking, that’s how a creator can achieve balance between “selling out” and “artistic integrity. Look within, and start taking small achievable steps to toward the passion we find there.

    Thanks again for this article, Drezz. <3

    • Some people have difficulty achieving that state of enlightened clarity. They need that kick in the pants to get them there sometimes. 😉

      Jealousy is part of human nature – its all a matter of reining it in and re purposing that energy towards something positive and constructive.

      Great reply.

  3. In my opinion, I’m given the impression that someone has sold out when there is a dramatic change in quality (usually for the worse.)

    I don’t believe there are that many people out there that are working in comics that would rather be doing something else, however I’m fairly sure (from reading or listening to commentaries on everything from comics, movies, and games) that there are people who get put on projects that they’re not really interested in, but it’s still money so they roll with it.

    The internet is the great democratizing force where you don’t need to sell out, because you can push significant risk off onto your fan base if the fan base is large enough (see kickstarter for print runs.) Usually you can find someone in your fan base, that is genuinely interested in helping with some project, and they won’t just be in it for the fame or money.

  4. My level of thinking some is selling out is when they stop engaging and just start projecting. It is not that I feel ill will toward them or jealousy, it is just a feeling that something that I held dear beyond their comic is lost.

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